After 9/11 in the arts: More reality, but also more fantasy

[12 September 2011]

By John Timpane

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

PHILADELPHIA — Looking back at the arts over any 10 years is a forbidding task — all the more so if the topic is the arts since 9/11. But if any decade deserves such an effort, this one does.

What if the undeniable horrors of 9/11 drove the arts more toward reality? And yet at the same time pushed them more toward fantasy? What if we were simultaneously running away from the world and into their arms?

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock says there was a turn toward reality, in what artists created and in what audiences wanted: “9/11 certainly fed a hunger among people to know more.” About everything. Jolted awake, we saw we were part of the world, part of history, and we hungered to know both better.

Poet and scholar Nathalie F. Anderson of Swarthmore, Pa., sees it differently, as “an era of fantasy, of magical realism, of emphatic refusals of the reality-based world.” She’s speaking of poetry and literature, but also of popular culture. This was the decade, she notes, of “Harry Potter,” “Avatar,” the record-shattering “Twilight” books and movies and “True Blood.”

Real or imagined? Truth or dream? Terrorist or werewolf? Ten years of both.

—Reality’s decade. What if the explosion of reality TV stoked our desire, post-9/11, “to know more” — to immerse ourselves in the real?

“Reality TV, especially when it first came out, fed a new interest in regular people,” says Spurlock, the documentary celebrity who directed “Super Size Me” (2004) as well as this year’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” “It said, ‘Normal people can be interesting, have interesting stories, just as compelling as scripted drama.’” He thinks this “new interest” was, in part, spurred by 9/11.

U.S. reality TV had been around since 1992, with MTV’s “The Real World” (still around). But with CBS’ “Survivor” (debut: May 31, 2000), a floodgate of “reality-based” shows was loosened, until the genre dominated the major networks and cable channels.

It was also the decade for a more straightforward kind of nonfiction — the documentary film. Maybe it was that newly whetted hunger for the truth, whatever it was. Documentaries enjoyed newfound popularity, as did auteurs such as Spurlock and Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”).

Many documentaries, like Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” addressed 9/11 and its corollary history, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they also took on a world of topics, as with the Oscar-winning “Born Into Brothels” or Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.”

Why documentaries? “People wanted to find honesty not driven by corporate or advertiser influence,” Spurlock says. “And it’s been incredible to watch the increasing audience documentaries have been able to gain.” He hosted Current TV’s recent series “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” in which 31 of the films post-dated 9/11.

—Fantasy and fiction. We swing from reality to fantasy. If “Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings” weren’t enough, this was also the decade that brought you “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” What if too much truth made us yearn for escape? For, say, hobbits?

Author Erik Larson says movie and TV fantasy often took an apocalyptic turn in the 2000s: “One post-9/11 cultural reverb might be this bizarre focus on apocalyptic alien films and TV: ‘Falling Skies,’ ‘Battle of Los Angeles,’ ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ ... kind of like the science-fiction and horror films of yore that all seemed to tie in or somehow be triggered by our fear of atomic weapons — ‘The Blob,’ ‘Red Planet Mars,’ ‘The Thing,’ ‘The Giant Behemoth.’”

Perhaps the reality of 9/11 was too much for literary fiction. Writers often turned to 9/11 itself, but results were mixed, says Kevin Grauke, associate professor of English at La Salle University.

“As far as the novels that have grappled with 9/11 itself,” Grauke says by email, “very few can be considered successes (with either critics or readers). We’re still waiting for the ‘definitive’ 9/11 novel to be written. Who knows if it ever will be? Many people expected Don DeLillo’s ‘Falling Man’ might be that novel, but it wasn’t.”

—Eyes wide open. But the 2000s were a time of nonfiction that put fiction to shame. Books such as Larson’s own “Devil in the White City” used the tools of creative writing to tell true stories. To be sure, many books were written about terrorism, Iraq, and Afghanistan, notably Thomas E. Ricks’ “Fiasco” and George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate.” At a time when many asked, “How did we get here?” writers hazarded answers.

Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 drove writers and readers to reexamine great lives and events, to reevaluate the truth. That may be why this was a decade of revisionist biography, offering mind-changing bios of everyone from Cleopatra to Mickey Mantle to William Shakespeare (as in Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”). In much the same truth-at-any-price fashion, it was an era of memorable memoirs, such as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” or the rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of Patti Smith and Keith Richards.

Some said 9/11 brought on a clash of civilizations, of cultures, of religions. In the shadow of 9/11, the “God wars” arose, a debate over the oldest question of all, with books arguing vigorously against belief (Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”), or for it (Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”).

In moving among essential truths, poetry is often nonfiction. Though poetry took no single direction, Anderson acknowledges a decade of verse that tells true stories, including the work of Jake Adam Yorke, who, in “A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown,” explores the lives of Americans who worked for civil rights. And two of the best-regarded epic-length poems of the decade address events from history, with frank looks at the struggle for full rights, and the violence at the heart of this nation: David Mason’s “Ludlow” (about the 1914 Colorado mining massacre) and Russell Goings’ “The Children of the Children Keep Coming” (about the Underground Railroad).

—Ground Zero everywhere. Sculpture and painting, as always, went in many directions. Sculptor Steven Siegel — whose work has explored geology, biology, and environmental issues — says, “Political art found a new subject and grabbed it, but art in general remains so pluralistic it is hard to see any shift in direction 10 years later.”

Much painting and sculpture paralleled the escapism of books, films, and TV. But the call of the real was strong. Many works gestured toward 9/11 (as with Ellsworth Kelly’s Ground Zero collage) or offered memorials to the victims. Some works caused controversy; Eric Fischl’s sculpture “Tumbling Woman,” depicting a woman in free-fall, was withdrawn from display more than once, including at Rockefeller Center.

Some artists pushed the reality basis as far as they could, making artworks from ground zero debris itself. Controversy often greeted them when they were shown, as with Noah Savett and John Van Alstine’s “Tempered By Memory,” scheduled to be installed outside the City Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but now homeless. City council says it’s just too big, but some ask: Is it just too real?

In New York, Makoto Fujimura and other members of the International Arts Movement set up galleries immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Fujimura sees art as always reality-based, in what it depicts and what it does. For him, after 9/11 art became a powerful way to repudiate the evil of that day — and evil and suffering throughout the world.

“As I consider the effect of 9/11 on my life and my art,” Fujimura says, “I must say that almost all the works and efforts had been to articulate a type of lament toward culture, not just of the ground zero I have lived in, but of the expanding ‘ground zero’ conditions in the world.”

We turned toward the real. Then turned away. Sometimes one, then the other. So often, the last 10 years faced us with truths we couldn’t turn from; so much truth made us wish we could. Both turns, toward and away, after all, are reality-based: We faced the truth to know it, turned away because we knew. All along, the arts stood by to transform and witness, in the service of memory, protest and healing.

Fujimura sees those functions as the enduring gifts of post-9/11 art: “The legacy of 9/11,” he has written, “does not have to end in death and wars, but in the sacred process of a life of creativity being passed on from generation to generation.”

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