The Art of War
September 11 is about firemen. And policemen, rescue workers, heroic bystanders and the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. Gulf War II is about soldiers. And protesters, politicians, liberated Iraqis and Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who resisted capture and was rescued in what was initially described as a "daring raid" on an Iraqi hospital.
These two national crises frame the first 20 months of our "War on Terror." Yet if you look to the arts to find meaning beyond the information presented by the news media, you'll find mostly superficial responses -- if any. Shell-shocked by Sept. 11 and left in the dust by the rush of subsequent events, artists and entertainers have offered few answers and barely even raised questions to help us understand our changing relationship with the world.
Consider that the first post-9/11 TV movie, "Rudy: The Rudolph Giuliani Story," debuted last March on the USA Network, and not a more serious broadcaster like HBO or the major networks. The film lionizes New York's former mayor (played by James Woods) as a crusading civil servant whose crowning achievement was the leadership he provided following the World Trade Center attacks. It may be too much to expect the USA Network to offer a more accurate, and more interesting, portrait of Giuliani as a flawed leader ennobled by Sept. 11. Mass entertainment, with its commercial interests, tends to err on the side of playing it safe and chooses schmaltz instead of scrutiny.
But what about artists? Can playwrights and painters and poets look deeper and lay the groundwork for television, movies and the rest of mass entertainment? Under the shadow of war without end and a nation gripped in terror, can artists measure up to the sweep of history? Can they challenge the popular preconceptions that frame the war at home and abroad? And can they tap into universal emotional truths without letting sentiment or political dogma dictate their messages?
Public touchiness about artistic takes on the new era we're living in were brought to the fore when, back in March, artist Marek Ranis installed 11 paintings and two vinyl floor coverings in the lobby of Charlotte's Carillon building. Marek had to remove the art a few days later, however, after a request from Carillon owners Shorenstein Realty Services. Shorenstein made the decision following complaints from some of the building's tenants about the paintings, which imitated television coverage of the war and the low-quality digital images transmitted from cameras attached to bomber planes. The vinyl floor coverings were bird's eye views of Afghanistan, in an apparent attempt to show that we all pretty much look alike from above. One self-designated critic complained that "we have enough to worry about these days," although, ironically, not nearly as much to worry about as the people in Afghanistan itself. Further irony was produced in this case by the fact that the Carillon Building houses the headquarters of the Arts & Science Council. After the Carillon fiasco, Marek's exhibit was briefly housed in the College of Architecture Gallery in the Storrs Building at UNC-Charlotte.
Overall, early artistic responses to the post-9/11 era have proven as kneejerk and superficial as the most heart-tugging, radio-friendly tribute ballad. New York theater's first effort was Anne Nelson's "The Guys," which began production in December 2001. The painfully sincere 90-minute drama depicts a New York journalist who helps a fire captain eulogize his men. "The Guys" means to honor the firemen's memory by humanizing them, casting them as ordinary "guys" and not the idealized martyrs of news media tributes.
The play, however, is guilty of the very thing it criticizes. The journalist takes the captain's plain descriptions of the meat-and-potatoes "shmoes" under his command and presents them as plaster saints. "The Guys" holds up New York City police and firemen as working-class archetypes, akin to the heroes in Carl Sandburg poems and the statue of the Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.
Contrast "Rudy" and "The Guys" with Spike Lee's attempt to dig deeper into the post-9/11 psyche. His film "The 25th Hour," released in December 2002, features Edward Norton as a convicted drug dealer on his last day of freedom. It uses footage of the Ground Zero site and the 9/11 Memorial Lights as iconic images that cast the drug dealer's impending imprisonment as a disaster akin to his own personal Sept. 11.
Those images provide "The 25th Hour" with its most moving moments, but in the end they prove too big to be shoehorned into such narrow symbolic confines. With no literal connection to the drug dealer's story, 9/11 only makes "The 25th Hour"'s primary plot look trivial by comparison.
Two novels published in early 2003 examine how the disaster changed the lives of survivors. Novelist Joyce Maynard's "The Usual Rules" depicts a 13-year-old girl who grieves for her mother, who died in the World Trade Center, as a means of exploring universal motifs of grief and healing. In "Pattern Recognition," science fiction writer William Gibson examines today's geopolitics and includes a subplot in which his heroine's father vanished in New York on Sept. 11.
Both books personalize the event by focusing on a daughter's loss of a parent, symbolizing a nation mourning not just the loss of lives but a blow to its self-image. After Sept. 11, all Americans are in the position of grieving daughters, having lost the protective, parental feeling of American invulnerability.
Filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute comes closer to conveying the transformative experience of 9/11 with his play "The Mercy Seat," which was produced off-Broadway last winter. The play depicted a white-collar World Trade Center survivor who would rather start a new life with his mistress than inform his family that he's alive. But he's paralyzed with ambivalence by his own survivor's guilt and divided loyalties. It's as though the disaster brought him to the threshold of change, but he's unable to make a decisive step in any direction. "The Mercy Seat" gives the first sign that an artist is finally grappling with the unique dilemmas exposed by the World Trade Center catastrophe.
Remember When Irony Was Dead?
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter first declared "the end of the age of irony," and pundits and entertainers across the nation nodded in agreement that certain subjects -- the Sept. 11 attacks, America's political leadership -- were off-limits for humor or criticism during the national emergency.
Then, on December 22, in a flight from Paris to Miami, Richard Reid failed to ignite his shoe. The gangly, goofy and ineffectual "shoe bomber" broke the tension, freeing us to poke fun not just at bumbling terrorists, but also the absurdities the crisis had brought upon us.
Since then, satire has both fed the post-9/11 era's hunger for humor and provided a way to diagnose America's state of mind. Like the 21st-century equivalent of the truth-telling court jester, outlets like "Saturday Night Live," the humor website/newspaper "The Onion" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" convey the complexities of our current geopolitics by finding fault -- and funny material -- in the war at home.
After the "my-country-right-or-wrong" atmosphere that prevailed immediately after 9/11, satirical comedy brought renewed skepticism to how we look at government. After the Iraq war began, "The Onion" offered pointed commentary in the caption "New Bomb Capable Of Creating 1,500 New Terrorists In Single Blast" placed beneath a photo of a US missile.
"The Daily Show" stands left of center and frequently mocks the policies of the US government, but it owes its primary allegiance to the laugh. Host Jon Stewart eagerly mocks both the French government and the Bush administration, warmonger Donald Rumsfeld and peacenik Susan Sarandon. When Jon Stewart utters a line like, "Unless the UN authorizes the use of force against Iraq for disregarding its guidelines, the US will unilaterally attack Iraq, thus disregarding the UN's guidelines," his quip contains a clear critique. Because of its "can't you take a joke?" attitude, the show is insulated from partisan attacks. But the dramatic arts can't use comedy as a shield when they hold the same kind of political targets up for moral evaluation.
Television drama has so far only offered veiled explorations of the post-9/11 era. The Fox network's "24" uses the format of a gimmicky suspense series to insulate some of the most politically charged material on television. A recent story was dominated by a race to find a nuclear bomb that Islamic extremists plan to detonate in Los Angeles.
"24" has higher ratings this season than last, which contradicts conventional wisdom that audiences aren't interested in the political dimensions of terrorism. The political critiques in "24"'s cloak-and-dagger exploits and "The Daily Show'"s comedy can be easily shrugged off. Their lasting importance lies in suggesting what's fair game for artistic examination and what audiences are ready to accept.
Fit for a Bumpersticker
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, America spoke with a uniformity of voice. American flags were in full bloom on streets across the nation. But by early 2003, symbols of unity were often replaced by yard signs that either proclaimed, "War is not the answer" or "Another American for freedom."
Shades of gray in political opinion became one of the first casualties of the war. Anyone who voiced an opinion was labeled either a patriot/war monger or a traitor/peace activist. Among the artists who've responded to the conflict, the sentiment has been overwhelmingly opposed to war.
Charlotte artist Jacqueline Heer, no stranger to provocative art, has had her hand in a couple of events with a decidedly political feel. Heer has started something called Project Never Again, which she calls "A post-antiwar campaign of images and words ... designed to apply and maintain pressure on our elected representatives and build awareness that their constituents are organizing for regime change." Included in this are 20 "postcards," which one may purchase as a set and then mail to a provided list of government leaders. The images are currently being displayed in Germany as 22" by 30" digital prints.
Heer also helped organize the recent "Homeland Insecurity" event at Off Track Productions (the old red building on 8th Street in uptown). In addition to works from local artists like William Wyler and Little Shiva, the event also featured spoken word performances and performance art, including the mock interrogation of patrons by actors clad as FBI agents.
Artists have rallied overwhelmingly against the war, but judging from their responses, they've reacted more often with their guts than their heads. Last March, more than 1,000 staged readings of Aristophanes' anti-war comedy "Lysistrata" were held in 59 countries. In the ancient play, the women of Athens withhold sexual favors until their men resolve to stop waging war: "No peace, no piece," indicates the low-aiming level of the play's puns. Works like The Lysistrata Project are more about a shared desire to say "War is bad" than to contribute to anything resembling a real-world debate.
Not all artists and entertainers are anti-war, though. Country music primarily supports the patriotic line, as the Dixie Chicks learned to their regret. And comedian Dennis Miller offered an explicit call to arms on his HBO concert "The Raw Feed," first broadcast in April: "Sand and heat make glass, and when we're done with Iraq, it should look like Superman's dad's apartment on Krypton."
But overall, pro- and anti-war art, like 9/11 memorials, proves similarly simplistic. Each expresses sentiments that can fit just as comfortably on a bumper sticker as a piece of propaganda.
With the Iraq war over, artists are challenged to shift from propagandistic statements to the human causes and consequences of the recent conflicts. But the wounds may still be too fresh to try and comprehend the perspective of our enemies.
In the post-9/11 era, artists risk condemnation by acknowledging that our adversaries even have opinions -- let alone sympathetic ones. Country rocker Steve Earle was all but accused of treason for his song "John Walker's Blues," which takes the point of view of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, a young man raised on MTV who finds meaning in Allah: "Sometimes a man has to fight for what he believes," Earle writes with deliberate -- and misunderstood -- ambiguity.
Perhaps Earle suffered because he named Lindh explicitly. No one criticized Bruce Springsteen's song "Paradise," written in the voice of an anonymous suicide bomber ("I hold my breath and close my eyes / And I wait for paradise").
One of the sharpest remarks about the United States' relationship with the rest of the world appeared in the unlikely venue of "South Park." In a November 2001 episode, the show's four young anti-heroes are confronted by a quartet of impoverished Afghan boys, one of whom snarls, "Don't you know that half the world hates you?"
When one of the Americans asks why, he's told, "Because you don't know that half the world hates you!"
The "South Park" script borrowed that line from L.A. Weekly columnist John Powers, and its attitude continues to echo in our mass entertainment. Artists can exert influence by capturing the lives of people in other cultures and showing, for instance, how America looks to someone peering through a burkha. The most effective works emphasize common humanity and realize that "My country, right or wrong" and "My country, always wrong" both put restrictions on the truth.
Yet the medium with the most resources and the most power for showing other perspectives has been absent, like a draft dodger in the cultural conflict. Hollywood has all but ignored the post-9/11 era, with "The 25th Hour" and the film adaptation of "The Guys" being exceptions.
Big-budget movie producers have avoided contemporary, culture-crossing themes in favor of more comic book and period-piece screen stories. After all, who would want to invest $100 million in a movie that risks a box-office backlash on the scale of the angry response to Michael Moore's Oscar speech, or the Dixie Chicks boycott? (Although the Chicks' fans apparently either agree with them or just don't care about the group's politics, since they've been playing to sold-out houses during their current tour. Hollywood, take note.)
An exception to Hollywood's timidity is "Tears of the Sun," which plays it commercially safe by making an implicit case for US interventionism. Bruce Willis and his troops are sent to rescue a handful of Americans during a Nigerian civil war. He's ordered to leave victimized natives to fend for themselves, but Willis disobeys in order to save Nigerian innocents from bloodthirsty rebels. "Tears of the Sun" has an uncomfortable subtext, though, supporting an "us vs. them" worldview. It's admirable -- but hardly risky -- that the film opposes ethnic cleansing. But "Tears of the Sun" includes a scene in which two white nuns and a white priest are slain by black soldiers the film implies are Muslim. The film doesn't mention the Persian Gulf or the Middle East, but its hint that Muslims are "bad" won't help defuse current tensions anytime soon.
Because there's less pressure to attract mass audiences and less fiscal risk, live theater can more closely regard "The Other." No play -- or any other piece of recent art -- crosses as many frontiers as Tony Kushner's "Homebody / Kabul," which has garnered raves and rants since its debut. The play takes place primarily in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, not long after America bombed the country in 1998. It even mentions Osama bin Laden, but it was written before Sept. 11 and premiered in New York after the Taliban was already out of power.
Kushner's play depicts multiple collisions between the West, represented by a British housewife and her family, and the Mideast. It alludes to tribal conflicts older than the United States itself and considers different types of religious experience, from the brutal orthodoxy of the Taliban to a transcendent moment at the grave of Cain.
In his afterward to the play's 2002 published edition, Kushner dismisses claims of his "eerie prescience": "The information required to see, long before 9/11, at least the broad outline of serious trouble ahead was so abundant and easy of access that even a playwright could avail himself of it."
Though written before Sept. 11, "Homebody / Kabul" puts subsequent art to shame. Kushner's willingness to address politically explosive material and challenge mainstream assumptions provides clarity at a time of cultural confusion.
Since 9/11, the Office of Homeland Security has urged American citizens to maintain a state of "heightened awareness," to be vigilant for potential threats hiding beneath the status quo. In the post-9/11 era, the true artists will maintain their heightened awareness all the time.
Curt Holman is Film and Theater Editor for Creative Loafing in Atlanta. Timothy C. Davis contributed to this article.