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Terrorism:  "Good" vs. "Evil"

Another response to Terrorism:  "Good" vs. "Evil". From the LA Times, 10/21/01:

The Blinders Have Fallen

Can the arts help us make sense of the newly revised map of our national psyche? Eight Los Angeles Times critics reevaluate the power of images, songs, words, movements—and silence.


Do Americans live in a different world today than we did on Sept. 10, the day before terrorists transformed commercial airplanes into guided missiles and slaughtered thousands of civilians on the Eastern Seaboard? Many seem to think so. If they are correct, and everything has changed, we should fully expect artists to now begin grappling with representations of the new, uncharted reality we are suddenly experiencing.

But are they correct? Has everything really changed? The answer is more equivocal. Certainly, Sept. 11 feels like a before-and-after date, a pivotal demarcation line. But did our world really experience a paradigm shift that awful day, or did just one critical facet of our perception of it change?

I'd say the latter. Here's why. For more than a decade, abortion providers in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Idaho and elsewhere have been the targets of shadowy bombers and shooters who maim and murder innocent civilians in the name of fundamentalist religion. Those physicians, nurses and clinic workers know exactly what terrorism is about, and they know it in their bones. In January 1995, after two women were killed and five other people were wounded in a pair of nearly identical clinic attacks, Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League made a pertinent observation. She told a Times reporter, "If there were an international threat to our domestic peace and freedom from a fundamentalist group abroad, do you think there wouldn't be brought to bear the full force of our governmental power—law enforcement and otherwise?"

That's what's happening now, in the wake of Sept. 11; but it didn't happen then. Recognition that abortion clinic bombings and the murder of doctors are acts of domestic terrorism did not take firm hold in the American consciousness. Instead, terrorism seemed an alien business for most people. It included only isolated acts of dramatic international aggression, such as the truck bomb that killed six and injured thousands in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

Three months after Michelman's remark, though, terrorism did become something with an all-American face—the face of a decorated Army veteran named Timothy McVeigh. The murder of 168 people inside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on an otherwise ordinary spring morning brought the unspeakable horror of terrorism home to the place we sentimentally call the heartland. Yet, to a large segment of the public, even this gruesome act of political extremism remained almost willfully unfathomable. Many Americans reflexively held Oklahoma City at arm's length, casting the slaughter as an inexplicable aberration—the inscrutable deed of a demented loner, rather than a rancid eruption of an already violent society.

Sept. 11 is a before-and-after date because terrorism on American soil previously was not part of the empirical vocabulary in our collective consciousness; now, it is. The enormity of the physical assault, human carnage and material destruction created an immense shock wave that pulsed through every corner of the United States. It still reverberates. Together the shock wave and its lengthy, still-unfolding aftermath run exactly counter to the obsession for instant gratification that characterizes contemporary American culture. Neither the grieving nor the unsettling fear will be over any time soon.

We all know that now we live with the steady, low-grade hum of gnawing anxiety that is among terrorism's most powerfully corrosive agents, and we will live with it for the foreseeable future. This is no small shift for American society—despite an often-bloody national history that includes the crimes of home-grown terrorist cells such as the Ku Klux Klan, in operation since 1865. What used to be felt only by less-powerful subsets within American society is suddenly felt by all. E pluribus unum.

Our hitherto intransigent state of denial about terrorism was one facet of the United States' entrenched provincialism as a culture. Those blinders have fallen. The inverse of provincial narrowness is the expansive worldliness of cosmopolitanism, with its more global scope and bearing. Anything that makes society more cosmopolitan enhances maturity. Incrementally, it also creates more fertile ground for reception of the sophisticated expressions of art.

So the short of it is that we don't live in a wholly different world today from the one before Sept. 11. Just one small (if crucial) piece of it has changed. The apocalyptic presumption that "everything has changed" or "the world will never be the same" is itself symptomatic of an acutely provincial worldview. For in reality, everything here has become similar to how it already is elsewhere in the world. Globalization is not a one-way street.

Existing art is always altered by the changing frame of reference through which we view it, and the reality of terrorism that now permeates our society has certainly altered that frame. A blunt example: In 1978, Robert Moskowitz painted his first "Skyscraper" canvas as part of a resurgence in handmade iconic figurative imagery that came to be called New Image painting. We will henceforth look at its matched pair of tall, silhouetted rectangles in ways we simply couldn't have before the World Trade Center tragedy. And it now seems uncanny that a version showing the towers dark and the sky ablaze in red and gold was painted in the equally iconic year, 1984.

New art, by contrast, should simply be expected to continue in the manifold, pluralist directions it has been taking for several decades. The more cosmopolitan we become, the less provincial we will be. The wild card is hidden in what lies ahead—in the "new kind of war" President Bush has promised to invent to deal with the terrorist threat. Conventional war changes art. World War I, which mechanized combat into unspeakable brutality, fostered everything from the irrational experiments of Dada and Surrealism to a modern (if reactionary) brand of Neoclassicism. From the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and Nagasaki rose the existential dread that fueled abstract painting of the 1940s and 1950s, and then the neo-Dada that helped usher in the 1960s. The insanity of Vietnam helped fuel the countervailing, clear-eyed transparency of Minimal and Conceptual art.

Today, it's essential that we find a fierce and just response to last month's mass murder, crimes against humanity and frightening roar of another fascist ideology. But if this new, still-ambiguous kind of war turns out to be a lot like the wearily familiar old kind of war, marked by an indiscriminate piling up of civilian bodies over a lengthy period of time, expect artists to respond with everything from agitprop to melancholic poetry. That is what they've done since Goya, the first Enlightenment chronicler of the disasters of war, physical and psychic; and it's what they'll do now. For art resides at the passionate center of a civilized life, and war dismantles civilization. Artists have no choice but to respond.

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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