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The Art of War

Meaningful responses to post-9/11 era elude US artists


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.

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