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Art’s Response To Tragedy And Terror

Damian Lewis in "Homeland" on Showtime.  (AP Photo/Showtime, Kent Smith)

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As the pictures of panicked runners and spectators flooded the local stations Monday I experienced the same feeling of helplessness that everyone else did. But for me there was a secondary sense of dread, beyond the terror that was spreading through Copley Square and the nation.

I was working at home editing stories for The ARTery, WBUR’s new arts website, and I had the momentary, sinking feeling that art had ceased to matter. These were all perfectly good stories I was editing, pieces that I was proud to post on the ARTery, but there was still that sense that art had no answers to anything that I was seeing on the TV screen.

I watched the local TV anchors fumble for words themselves, outrage mixed with confusion. Who could blame them? Eventually, as it always does, the soul-sucking nature of the 24-hour news cycle started to take over. I don’t mean to disparage the efforts of some very talented journalists and, of course, they need to update people who are tuning in during the day. But I couldn’t take watching the body count getting higher, the video of people in agony on a seemingly endless loop, the bluster-meter going off the charts, the speculation mounting.

And this, I thought, is where art comes in, not to provide answers but to ask questions, questions that most of us don’t even think to ask, or want to ask, in the heat of battle.

Claire Danes in "Homeland."  (AP/Showtime, Ronen Akerman)

Claire Danes in “Homeland.” (AP/Showtime, Ronen Akerman)

Issue-oriented art

The most obvious example of art dealing with the world we live in is that which directly takes on the issues of the day. To me, one of the most amazing cultural phenomenons is the Showtime series, “Homeland.”

Here, in the context of a sexy, action-filled pay-cable show we have a leading man who’s a terrorist. The producers never side with him, of course, but they do provide graphic insight into what makes him tick. The point isn’t that we sympathize with him, any more than we should sympathize with the Marathon monster(s), but that a certain world view is explored that’s taboo almost everywhere else in the culture. The triumphalism of movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” are understandable and even laudable as far as they go, but the greater complexity and larger perspective of “Homeland” is far more artful.

I haven’t read it yet, but the Pulitzer Committee obviously felt similarly about the winner in this year’s fiction category, Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” of which Publishers Weekly said, “Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native.”

And, of course, artists often respond to the issues of the day with a fervor, usually from the left, that isn’t seen elsewhere in the media as Steve Almond in Cognoscenti, and others, reminded us recently by looking back at the protest songs against Margaret Thatcher. Conservatives rail against the world of art for just that reason, though turn around and applaud it when artists take on the status quo in countries they don’t like.

Still, art seems even more powerful when it channels something in the zeitgeist. Tony Kushner’s play, “Homebody / Kabul,” was written before 9/11 in 2001, but Kushner had a line about the Taliban, “Well, don’t worry. They are coming to New York!” Kushner was hardly rejoicing in the prediction, just pointing out the shifting sands of America’s relationship to the Middle East.

Sixto Rodriguez. (AP)

Sixto Rodriguez. (AP)

The Human Spirit

We’re all moved by the stories of professionalism, sacrifice and courage we’ve seen on the part of EMTs, runners, and spectators on Monday. But art goes deeper into the human soul than we see on most newscasts and not always for the better. Just take Neil LaBute’s play, “The Mercy Seat,” in which a man sees the 9/11 tragedy as a way of shedding his identity. Don DeLillo went somewhat in the opposite direction in his novel, “The Falling Man,” but in either case, “Disconnectedness is the new currency” as Frank Rich said in in his Times review of DeLillo.

Not that every work of art has to be about the dark side of the soul, but there’s a difference between a Hallmark movie of the week and one that tells a deeper story about the complexity of the species. What makes it art? It’s not always easy to say, but anyone who’s seen the documentary, “Searching for Sugarman,” about the unearthing of folk-rock superstar Rodriguez knows it when he sees it.

Beyond Words

But to get back to our most recent tragedy, I finally couldn’t take the repetitive chatter on the local TV stations anymore so I turned the sound off and put on Pierre Boulez’s excellent new recording of Mahler’s “Das Klagende Lied,” a cantata about, of all things, fratricide.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the BSO in 1974. (AP)

Leonard Bernstein conducting the BSO in 1974. (AP)

Hardly soothing subject matter, but art has the ability to transcend words and arrive at something timeless and profound, which is why I found it such an antidote to what was happening — not as a means of escape, but as a way to endure. There is something soothing to me about all of Mahler’s music, both in its looking back and looking forward, as he journeys through the vicissitudes of life — and God knows, he had more than his share — toward an almost Buddhist-like acceptance of pain and suffering.

And so finally, perhaps, there is an answer, the one that Leonard Bernstein used to end his Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1973: “[Charles] Ives’s ‘Unanswered Question’ has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is yes.”

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