Arts help explain unexplainable

· Sep 23, 2001 Tweet

Yesterday President Bush requested the American flag flying over Camp David be raised from half-staff, officially ending the country’s week of mourning.

As a symbol of the country’s unity in grief, the American flag speaks to us as individuals, reminding us that we are not alone in our anger and sadness. Those who died Sept. 11 will not be forgotten.

Just as the flag serves as a symbol that communicates universal human emotions, art, in all of its forms, provides a key outlet for the expression of hope and despair, fear and anger.

When we are unable to make sense of human suffering, art finds ways to convey the unspeakable while managing to offer the meaning that eludes us.
In the past weeks, we have been bombarded with horrific images that have traumatized our collective psyche. We have been trapped in a vacuum of negativity and hopelessness.

We watched as the planes collided into the World Trade Center, witnessing the tragedy unfold but helpless to stop it. We viewed people running from the scene — panic-stricken, and blood-covered — engulfed by dust and debris.

In the aftermath of such a tragedy, art offers us an outlet for all that we feel, and art has served this symbolic function throughout the ages.

Because art communicates universal truths while speaking to the individual person, it seems fitting that we turn to it as a medium to express the complexity of these recent events.

For example, where the newscasts of late may fail to fully relate the human dimension of the attacks, art celebrates grief in all of its horror and glory.

From the pathetic cries of King Lear in Shakespeare’s work of that name to the agonizing faces of victims of the Spanish Civil War in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), art embodies the unmitigated anguish of the human experience. Even though art may capture a single event or moment, it reaches across time. As humans we all experience loss, and thus we can relate to the powerful emotions evoked by such images.

Artists, whether playwrights, poets, composers, painters or photographers, make concrete and tangible the abstract concept of life.

For those of us who have never directly experienced violence or war, we nevertheless feel physically assaulted when we witness such works as Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” a drama set in a wartime Leeds that reflects with violence and energy the pain and suffering that Bosnia endured in the 1990s.

Whether art provides a social commentary or exists as a memorial, its message carries potent power.

When we experience the stoic beauty and simplicity of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, we cannot help but realize the individual lives lost in that conflict are only a greater part of the whole.

Even the commercially entrenched medium of pop music speaks to us at a time like this, as exemplified by Friday’s multi-network program and telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” While Mariah Carey’s rendition of “Hero” may not have captured the quiet and pained beauty that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” does, it nonetheless held the nation’s attention with its simplicity and hope — after all, 60 million people in the United States tuned in to the program.

Rather than manufacturing sentiments through mindless entertainment, the program featured cathartic songs that inspire and unite. Although the program focused on aiding the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, it did not dwell upon the carnage and terror of the events. Its art provided an escape from the trauma while giving meaning to it. This was not a time for talk of politics, war or the economy, but a time to celebrate life.

So as our nation moves forward and as we try to recover our sense of security, we will continue to turn to art to express both our unconscious and conscious fears and hopes. Undoubtedly, memorials will be built to honor the victims and heroes of Tuesday morning, but in the meantime we must turn to the art of the past to deal with the horrors of the present.


Sarah Machi ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and English.

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This article was published Sep 23, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 23, 2001 at 12:00 am

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