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St. Petersburg Times
The Year in Arts: Works of heart
December 23, 2001
Sunday Arts & Floridian, Section F, Pg 1, 3
Author: Charlotte Sutton
 
 

The world changed on Sept. 11, and art in all its forms -- TV, radio, film, music, visual art -- has responded with grief, solace and inspiration.

Note to readers

This report includes information from St. Petersburg Times staff writers Eric Deggans, John Fleming, Mary Ann Marger, Steve Persall and Gina Vivinetto, correspondent Brandy Stark and the Miami Herald. It was written by arts and entertainment editor Charlotte Sutton.

* * *

David Greg Harth, an avant-garde artist who lives in New York, spent the first week after the terrorist attacks at the site of the World Trade Center, trying to help.

The city had plenty of volunteers, so he conceived of his own way to counter the fear resonating through the city.

"My own reaction was totally opposite, that I would not be terrorized," Harth said. "I knew I had to get that message out to others."

He began stamping U.S. currency by the hundreds with one of two phrases, "I am not afraid" or "I am not terrorized," and put the bills back into circulation.

After the project was featured on CNN and in the New York Times, volunteers from across the nation came forward to help with the stamping. Harth, whose goal is to stamp at least 100,000 bills, will show samples in St. Petersburg on New Year's Eve at a show devoted to artists' reactions to Sept. 11.

After the attacks, artists around the world turned to their creativity to express their own grief and anger and to help people seeking solace, inspiration and courage.

Pop stars from Bob Dylan to Celine Dion pulled together a megatelethon remarkable not only for the millions of dollars it raised, but also for its low-ego, high-emotion approach. Big names such as Paul McCartney and Neil Young released quickly crafted songs of support. Classical musicians, including the Florida Orchestra, performed live and on TV and radio, helping audiences find comfort and inspiration in music.

Television, radio and the film industry took extraordinary care to withhold images, words and music that could be painful to the public or just inappropriate (though who ever thought John Denver's Leaving on a Jet Plane would be banned from the airwaves?). TV series, especially those set in New York City, moved to include the attacks' impact in their story lines. Movies that included terrorism in their plots were yanked from the schedule. Concert dates and theater performances were canceled, first out of respect for the survivors and later because of travel problems. In the days after the attacks, TV news outlets aired no commercials and provided constant news coverage, a combination that still has them reeling financially.

Whether on their own or because of corporate pressure, politically minded artists, particularly rock musicians, altered songs and cover art, and some even considered new names to avoid causing offense.

The arts and entertainment landscape has changed in predictable fashion from a business perspective, with sluggish ticket sales, canceled projects and budget cutbacks, all reflecting the nation's somber mood and the economic recession that became official after the terrorist attacks.

But what of the work itself? What sort of music, theater, television, visual art and film is likely to come out of the cataclysmic events of 2001? How will artists and the industries that surround their work respond?

Familiar comforts

Artistic expression can be instantaneous, or it can take years to evolve. But for the near term, many think artists will respond as millions of people have: by searching out the familiar.

"I think we will try to transcend the immediate sorrow and look for comfort by reverting to the past," says Anton Coppola, a lifelong New Yorker who, at 84, has conducted nearly every regional opera company in the United States. He premiered his opera Sacco & Vanzetti in Tampa this year.

"You're going to hear the old classics. You'll hear Traviata, Rigoletto, Boheme and Carmen over and over again."

At 27, Tampa actor David Jenkins is several generations younger than Coppola, and his Jobsite Theater company likes to push the envelope with cutting edge plays. But in programming the 2002-03 season, he is being cautious.

"There have obviously been plays we have passed on in light of everything that has happened," Jenkins says. "The last thing we want to do is distance anybody in what feels to us like such a patriotic time."

For example, Jobsite decided not to try to capitalize on its success this year with the spoofy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by following it with another irreverent work in the same series, The Complete History of the United States (Abridged).

"It's a script we were very interested in doing until the attacks," Jenkins says. "It's very tongue-in-cheek and has a lot of biting humor. In the cynical pre-attacks society, I think everyone would have found those jokes about the American way of life kind of funny, but when we re-examined it, we thought maybe people wouldn't find it as funny as they would have a couple of months ago."

The pop music community has newfound solidarity, focus and drive. But some worry that this "focus" may squash artistic and political expression.

Immediately after the attacks, hard-core hip-hop act the Coup scrapped the cover art for its album Party Music. Designed long before Sept. 11, the cover depicted the Twin Towers exploding. "The original intent of the cover was to use the World Trade Center to symbolize capitalism and was not supposed to be realistic in its depiction, although there is an uncanny similarity," explained Boots Riley of the Coup in a statement released to announce that the cover would be changed.

New York rock act the Strokes quickly dropped from its debut disc the song New York City Cops, a critical jab at New York's finest. Several acts reconsidered their names, none more publicly than metal band Anthrax, whose name was selected 20 years ago. (The group kept the name but has been doing benefit concerts and discussing the controversy over its name on its Web site.) The band I Am the World Trade Center, however, is now going by the name I Am the World.

In the 1960s, musicians at home helped lead the opposition to the war. Now, as the United States is involved in its biggest military operation since Vietnam, some artists worry that the current public mood could squelch expression.

"That's one of the dangers of times like this," Tom Morello of the political rock act Rage Against the Machine told the Miami Herald. "This horrible tragedy is being used as a pretext to silence dissident voices." His band was singled out by the Clear Channel radio chain as an act not to be played during this crisis.

In the visual arts, "comfort" shows have had increased attendance. A recent exhibit of Grandma Moses' nostalgic paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art was expected to draw a walk-in crowd of 6,000; more than 9,000 came. A Norman Rockwell show at the Guggenheim in New York opened a week early to take advantage of current sentiment.

In Hollywood, irony is passe. Patriotism is all the rage.

Suddenly, Columbia Pictures is pushing Black Hawk Down, about U.S. special forces in Somalia, as an Academy Awards contender. The Last Castle and Behind Enemy Lines recently opened with solid box office results and audience approval. Touchstone Pictures' Pearl Harbor was a popular and critical dud last summer in theaters but sold more than 3-million VHS and DVD copies in its first week of release this month. Don't be surprised if Pearl Harbor rides that patriotism wave to several Academy Awards nominations this spring.

Preview trailers are already being shown for 2002 releases We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as a Vietnam War helicopter pilot, and Windtalkers, a World War II drama based on fact and starring Nicolas Cage.

Time will tell if Hollywood becomes as involved with the war effort as in the 1940s and 1950s, when studios produced propaganda films and allowed government agencies to influence film content. We already know that the military sought out Hollywood screenwriters to imagine possible terrorist scenarios.

Such cooperation seems like a truce after years of contention between filmmakers pushing the envelope of sexual and violent content and politicians attempting to impose new regulations.

The events of Sept. 11 clearly interrupted the so-called age of irony, when nothing was sacred, especially human life in the cross-fire of blockbusters.

Filmmakers such as Dean Devlin, who blew up New York and Washington in Independence Day, expect a new direction for cinema.

"The type of joke you may write or how you may perceive a heroic character (will change)," Devlin told an American Movie Classics interviewer. "We're seeing such interesting heroism out of everyday people that it's expanding our ideas of what heroes are. I'm sure that will be reflected in our films."

Changed channels

Perhaps nowhere will Americans so frequently see Sept. 11's ongoing implications for entertainment than in television, where the advertising losses and costs of covering the war add up to a crunch we'll see on our screens for a while.

With fewer resources to develop new shows, networks are showing more patience with ratings-challenged shows that have creative promise, such as Fox's 24 and The Tick. We also can expect more low-cost programs cobbled together from archival footage and concerts, such as CBS's popular I Love Lucy, Michael Jackson and Carol Burnett specials.

Don't be surprised to see more thinly veiled infomercials, such as Katie Couric's hourlong "special" previewing the Harry Potter movie, ABC's Victoria's Secret special and ABC's Mick Jagger documentary, which just happened to document the making of his new solo record.

Expect creative changes, too -- albeit cautious ones.

Soon after Sept. 11, NBC's Third Watch and The West Wing offered ambitious yet flawed story lines touching on the tragedy in the weeks immediately following. More recently, ABC's The Practice featured an Arab man who obtained U.S. citizenship years ago but was detained by the FBI anyway. Producer David E. Kelley explored the government's tactics: the man is held without knowing the charge, has no contact with his attorney or family and can't speak to his wife without making her a suspect. But Kelley made the man a willing detainee, considerably softening the message.

Perhaps events are still too fresh for skittish TV programmers to risk viewer ire. Expect such experiments to continue throughout next year, as producers get a firmer handle on what fans will and won't accept.

Art's fine line

Visitors to the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in October were startled to see an exhibit apparently related to Sept. 11: a display of body bags and biohazard suits.

How could the show come together so fast?

Museums plan their shows many months, even years, in advance, and this one, by artist Lucy Orta, was no exception. Orta creates life-size sleeping bags and living environments for marginalized people. Her art is designed to raise awareness of social issues. But viewers, reacting to recent events, were adding their own interpretations.

"Everything's changed in a sense," says Margaret Miller, director of the museum. "We're reading art in a different way."

Miller expects the attacks to affect her choices for future exhibits. "Art is still a powerful voice as a way to understand and read our culture," she says.

A couple of examples: Sarasota artist Frank Hopper is selling reproductions of a pieta depicting the Virgin Mary mourning, not over Christ, but over a firefighter. Treasure Island artist Vesna Anderson created a clay and fused glass model of ground zero, available through Studio Encanto. Proceeds from both works go to charity.

Any artist who seeks to create a work in direct response to Sept. 11 will need to be deft.

"It's been on my mind on a daily basis, but I haven't yet sorted out how I want to respond to it," says Tampa composer Ray Shattenkirk, whose American Icons for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists was premiered this year by the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony.

"To write something specifically in response is very difficult because art works best from a metaphorical perspective. As soon as you start invoking the particulars of a tragedy of that scale, you risk seeming commercial or you appear to be manipulative or to be trying to capitalize on it. To hit the right tone when the events are so fresh is very difficult."

Composer Coppola looks to the career of Verdi as a model for how to respond to current events.

"Verdi was writing during troubled times," he says. "Some of his operas were written almost intentionally to help unify Italy. Nabucco, even though it dealt with biblical times, has the famous Va pensiero chorus, which served as a rallying cry for the unification of Italy.

"Who knows that there isn't someone in his atelier right now busily scribbling away on something that is either directly connected with Sept. 11 or that symbolically reflects it."

Legendary punk singer Patti Smith said in an interview with the Miami Herald that in the wake of such enormous tragedy, creating art is a struggle.

"As an artist, I admit that I have to motivate myself and hold on to the belief that art is significant in times of tragedy. But when I re-examine the role of art and music and literature throughout history, as a respite, as a rallying force, and as a source of inspiration and healing, I am forced to marshal my energies and get back to work."

Who knows? Out of tragedy could come art that no one can now predict. At the start of World War II, Paris was the center of the art world. As the conflict escalated in Europe, hordes of leading artists escaped to the United States, changing the nature of art in America and moving the capital of the visual arts to New York, where it has remained ever since.

Artists like folk punk singer Ani DiFranco see opportunity for creative people in such turbulent times.

"Crisis fuels my will to work," DiFranco says. "I'm out here yelling my head off anyway. I'm looking forward to tapping into what this country is feeling. I had been feeling very isolated."

See the bill-stamping project at First Night

Samples of David Greg Harth's bill-stamping project will be on display at "Life and Liberty: To Honor the Victims of September 11th," a venue of First Night St. Petersburg, in the lobby of the Bank of America building, 200 Central Ave. Advance tickets for all First Night events are $8 adults, $5 children; all tickets are $10 on New Year's Eve. Show hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Dec. 31. Call (727) 823-8906 for ticket venues and information on First Night St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2001