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« Some Documentaries | Main | Rhetoric Watch »

September 11, 2004

In Memoriam b/w Let's Go Get 'em

Fenster Moop writes

Dear Blowhards:

On this third anniversary of the (choose descriptor):


what is the proper response as a (choose frame of reference):

human being

The above lists, hardly exhaustive, suggest something of the choices we have as a culture in framing a response to an event as monumental as September 11. Some will demand one interpretation; others will recognize the need for discourse and complexity.

I tend toward the latter view. I like the debate and, to a degree, the contentiousness. That does not mean, however, that I do not have my own views, and that I do not try to interpret something general about the mix of the particulars.

So, my question: what gives, in your opinions, relative to the way artists are dealing with the 9/11 anniversary?

In my town, it seems the art view, as evidenced in the day's scheduled events, is all about things like "healing" and not at all about, for want of a better term, killing the enemy.

In one event, volunteers will hand out carnations, one for each of the persons brutally murdered (oops, my bias showing), each flower bearing a message asking the recipient to commit an act of kindness in memory of the person who . . . er . . . tragically passed away.

Elsewhere, an artist/academic deals with computer viruses and imagery, speculating that "rolling back the tide of imperial politics will require more than simply piquing moral sensibilities".

In a basic sense, of course, art is as art does. But that kind of argument reifies art and, ironically, elevates it to a kind of extra-human matter. And as such, this kind of approach is a conversation-stopper: don't ask why I am doing this art--I am an artist!

Well, go ahead and take that view, if you want. But I am less an artist than an observer of human behavior, and I can't help notice that "art" seems to be taking a particular side. Why is that? Is it more because of some intrinsic quality of art, or the artistic process? Or is it because artists in this country at this particular point in time have their heads up their asses?



posted by Fenster at September 11, 2004


It was one of the real heartbreaks of my life, to discover that the current arty and media worlds aren't the freewheeling, adventurous things that I hoped they'd be. There's fun to be had here, and I've generally thought it's worth my time, despite the thoughtcontrol side of things, to hang out in this part of the world. (Not that I haven't wondered about the wisdom of this choice from time to time.)

But the expectation that you'll share the designated arty-or-media opinion-set is hyper-intense. I'm trying not to use the word "intolerant," but I guess I can't resist. I find the small-town Republicans I grew up with infinitely more open-minded and respectful of a range of opinions than I find the arty-media lefties I currently live among, who are notoriously "tolerant of everyone, except those who disagree with them."

It's too bad for me that life in this part of the world is that way, but I also think it's too bad for the culture generally. I suspect a lot of brainy and talented people don't wind up in the arts or make a life of it here because they find the dogmatism of people in the arts so rigid and dismaying. I could be speaking out of line, and hope to be corrected. But a for instance might be FvBlowhard: brainy and talented, god knows. But I think he found it almost impossible to be himself in the art world such as it currently exists. I sympathize; I find I can get by in the arty and media worlds only so long as I fly under the radar. Maybe I should be ballsier and more forthright. I've got one young friend who's making a point of talking about Bush and Nascar and being flagrantly rightie in the face of the respectable-lefty people he's generally among. Seems to be a wise and shrewd move, socially speaking. He's so out there that he's become a character, and they can accept him as a character. But then, why should he have to transform himself into a character in order to get by in this world?

So our art worlds are very short on lots of points of view, and what the art worlds express (in the work that gets produced) represents a highly-selective, narrow slice of temperament and p-o-v. Sad to say.

Me, I think the art worlds should feel lucky anyone pays them any attention at all. I don't mind that a field should have some character, certainly. But it bugs me when it becomes a rigid and intolerant one.

How do you find it in academia? A heavily pre-selected and self-reinforcing mindset?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 11, 2004 10:48 AM

I agree with your whole post but the first paragraph in particular I could have penned myself, from the point of view of higher education instead of the arts. That makes us birds of a feather in a certain respect.

Let's agree, then, to forbid any dissension on the part of visitors!!!

Posted by: Fenster on September 11, 2004 10:55 AM

And let's make sure everyone understands that we're doing it in the name of tolerance and diversity!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 11, 2004 11:13 AM

Great eg of what you're talking about is the New York Oratorio Society's group-think. Several members opted not to wear the AIDS ribbon, as they felt that by so doing they were endorsing the practice of homosexuality.
Naturally, they were ostracized and almost ejected from the choir on the spot by all of the artsy lefties.
Then there's the NY Choral Society, which opted not to perform at the Repub Convention, because thereby they'd be endorsing Bush and his politics!!! Same thing in reverse.
I find all of the endless, lugubrious responses to Sept. 11 as distasteful as I once found the AIDS quilt, or the "day without art." All to show how compassionate and sensitive everyone is. Enough, already.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 11, 2004 11:26 AM

Hi all. Artist and academic here, so I've got the liberal p-o-v whopping me on both sides. I'm a moderate with a slight liberal bent, so I tend to ignore the rhetoric and make decisions according to my own views and generally try to keep my political ideas on the down-low. I learned that after being burned a few times for fence-sitting.

But the liberal bias in those worlds is no different from the neocon/Christian expectation of right-wing solidarity. I'm from the lone star state, still have loads of family there, and in Texas, particularly in the Bible Belt, it's Bush country and beware all dissenters. I get equally as much flack from the Texas family as I do from the art world or academia. Sometimes more, and I'm moderate. If I were a true liberal, I might not be able to survive Thanksgivings.

I do get awfully tired of the stereotypes of artists when it comes to politics. True, most artists lean left, and probably for many practical reasons, but there's a big difference in the artist who is interested in the social/political/activist type of art and the artist who is interested in the professional side of art.

You won't see me or any of my working, professional artist friends out there making blatant tributes or insincere attempts at art-as-healing, despite who we might be voting for in November.

What you do see (my bias showing here) is a lot of would-be artists, amateurs, and hacks, using their quasi-artistic abilities to make simplistic, one-note points that are more rhetoric than poetry.

Good, professional working artists mostly know better, but unfortunately, are tainted by affiliation. Why is it that the amateurish efforts of American cooks do not reflect on the vocation of professional chefs? Why is it that just because some loud-mouthed person anoints himself with the mantle of artist that everyone else just takes his word for it and then assumes that all artists must have their heads up their asses?

Posted by: Megan on September 11, 2004 01:30 PM

The answer to your question about artists taking sides is that people just happen to have the beliefs they have.

The hard question is what are the reasons people have the beliefs they have?

Because they have their head up their asses?

Oh, come on, that's waaaay too simple.

Posted by: Trash on September 11, 2004 02:02 PM

May be because silence is a sign of compliance?

When 15 loud mouths scream bloody murder (or tree-love, or imperialistic swines, or healing candel power - choose one or more) and 100 keep quiet, they are, as you said, are tainted by affiliation. Audience assumes those 15 represent the 100.
And more often than not - they do.
Example- somebody presenting himself neutral (moderate, indifferent, of-humanistic-p-o-v - choose one or more) says - "I went to see M. Moore film and found mother scene very moving" - the general message is "I approve of the movie", not "This shameless piece of...propaganda uses sacred human emotions for political manipulation"

Posted by: Tatyana on September 11, 2004 02:12 PM

That should've been addressed to Megan, sorry

Posted by: Tatyana on September 11, 2004 02:14 PM


Moderate politically, not moderate artistically. I'm no realitivist when it comes to art. F 9/11 was a piece of crap as a movie, held together by a loose connection of self-serving ideas that defeated its few good points by affiliating them with many bad ones. And the editing drove me crazy with its lack of rhythm.

Michael Moore is not an artist, and if he ever aspired to be one (which I don't think he does; he's much more interested in documentaries as yellow journalism), then I'd tell him to work on subtlety and the slow process of building metaphors that release like time-bombs in his audiences' minds when they're thinking about something completely unrelated. I'd tell him to work on art that lets people come to their own conclusions. But, like I said, I'd guess that he's more interested in the persuasive mode than the literary one.

I've never gotten in trouble for not making up my mind about a political issue; I've gotten in trouble for refusing to set up my tent on one side of the fence and join the crowd in its assault on the other side. That, in the mind of a non-moderate liberal or conservative, is the ultimate sin.

As an artist, I don't think it's my role to make work that argues a side or a position. I think that good art is never explicitly political, although it can be, and often is, implicitly political. I think good art is subtle and can see both sides. I think good artists are empathic and are able to put themselves in other people's shoes and understand their motivations and passions and what makes them tick. I think good artists are often fence-sitters. Think of the portrayals of the complex characters in Andre Dubus III's "The House of Sand and Fog" or in Melville's "Moby Dick" or in Fellini's "8 1/2" or in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" or the democratic minimalism of Agnes Martin's paintings.

Political art often falls flat when the issue it speaks of is no longer timely (remember the NEA Four? revisit the work of that era in art if you want a good example of how quickly issue-based art dates itself), unless it is also rooted in other elements of good art.

When I said that good artists were tainted by affiliation with the political ones, when I meant is that good, professional working artists are continuing on with their profession regardless of the issue du jour, and it's frustrating to be lumped in with a bunch of people who are only interested in making art to make a point.

I'm interested in what you think the function of art should be, as you seem to be arguing that art needs to take sides.

Posted by: Megan on September 11, 2004 04:06 PM

Sorry, relativist, not realitivist, (whatever that means).

Posted by: Megan on September 11, 2004 05:59 PM


I didn't mean you personally (I thought I said "HIMself"), I referred to a person I know as an example of how trying to keep "Above the battle" in theory means taking sides in practice.

Now to your question.
Every artist is taking sides, unless (s)he is a God[dess] and can exclude his/her life lessons, pain, emotions, errors of judgement and procede sub-humanly to love (or hate) everybody and everything around him/her equally, friend or foe.

To produce art, ever so subtle, to string metaphores, layer planes of text or paint artist has first to have some idea of what he/she is going to say. Underneath it all.
Serious artists don't meddle with politics, say you. Politics meddle with artist, says I. Ivory towers are myth.
I'm not advocating tired politicizing aka Nekrasov "You can cease being a poet but must always be a citizen". God knows nothing is uglier (and more short-lived) than political art made-to-order.
But because I respect artists as professionals and I admire their thought process in their art I expect them to be capable of producing logical opinion in pressing political citcumstances. True, sometimes it's better for artist not to open her mouth so we can continue to deceive ourselves about her capacities of rational thinking and simply decent human being (like Susan Sarandon, f.ex.)
It's a test of times, if you will.

I always thought sitting on a fence is rather an uncomfortable position...

Posted by: Tatyana on September 11, 2004 06:24 PM

The proper response to the attack, as an American, is to attack back and keep on attacking till those who attacked America can't attack anymore. It's called winning a war.

Most artists are too stupid to understand this. It's not sensitive, don't ya know. If it would only go away. If those cruel men who are waging the war to protect their sensitive backsides would only go away. Then we could all have peace....until the next attack.

Posted by: ricpic on September 12, 2004 09:56 AM

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