French Prime Minister Clemenceau famously said the United States was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization. It is a frequent complaint of societies that consider themselves superior but less powerful than ours to take solace in the supposed degradation of American life.
The caricature is, of course, hugely unfair. The compositions of Duke Ellington, what poet laureate Robert Pinsky calls “the secularized devotional quatrains” of Emily Dickinson, revolutionary architecture of Frank Gehry, and paintings of Wayne Thibaud speak eloquently to the highest standards of classicism in art.
Our national grief at the attacks of September 11th has reverberated through American arts and letters, just as it has reverberated through other aspects of our culture. Gehry has poignantly described his difficulty continuing to design buildings that look crumpled because after 9/11 they remind him of destruction.
In an essay reflecting on the attacks (titled In the Ruins of the Future), novelist Don Delillio described how “the writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.” His 2007 novel Falling Man is my favorite of the works that explore our experience of the attacks. Set in New York during and after September 11th, it follows survivors of the Towers as they take refuge in different kinds of connections to try and reconstitute a sense of safety.
The most touching element of the book concerns children. Parents puzzle what their young children are doing looking out apartment windows with binoculars, slow to understand their explanation of watching for Bill Lawton is their way of trying to stay safe by not being surprised at the next apocalyptic appearance of bin Laden.
We are culturally a much richer society than our critics -- especially the nihilist critics of al Qaeda -- give us credit for. Just because America excels at the widely accessible entertainment of music, movies, reality tv and sitcoms has not prevented the flourishing of high art by American artists. Shark Week does not preclude John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark or Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.
In fact, the great propellant of American culture has been its breadth and attempt at synthesis. We are a country in which people maintain multiple identities -- Irish and American, Islamic and American, proudly regional and also national. The fusion of so much is what makes our society and our art so vibrant. As we commemorate the solemn anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it merits celebrating that our art, like our society, has so much to say, and so many different things to say, about the meaning of those events.
(photo credit: Fimb)