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September 11 has had a multitude of effects on many communities in New York, but few reactions have been as defensive as that of its artists. Most of what was needed in the period following the initial tragedy required practical expertise, manpower, paperwork—things that artists have a well-deserved reputation for botching up. Nowadays, even most large-scale sculptors need the help of construction crews to create and install their pieces.
Artists began to ask: How can I help? Isn’t art useless? A curious anxiety arose: the need to describe the arts in terms of their utility. It seemed that if artists couldn’t prove their work could haul hunks of twisted steel out to Fresh Kills, they ran the risk of becoming irrelevant, or worse yet, losing their funding. Phrases like “art’s power to heal” kept cropping up in various media. Finding therapeutic value in art—its ability to uplift the soul, contextualize events, divert attention from the horror—is the cheap answer, because it usually produces not works of art, but works of therapy. The tougher answer is that creative ideas refocus our minds so that we’ll change the status quo. Tougher because artists live in their imaginations, outside ideologies, which makes them potential enemies of the state. In an atmosphere where the flag is freedom, and not just its symbol, some artists must feel guilty that they share with terrorists a zealous desire to change the world.
In her 1995 piece Stories From the Nerve Bible, venerable performance and recording artist Laurie Anderson quoted Don DeLillo, wondering if terrorists weren’t “the only true avant-garde artists left, because they are the only ones still capable of surprising people.” It might be vice versa: Artists are the only true avant-garde terrorists left. For the big difference between art and terrorism is that terrorism is pathetic at meeting its long-term goals, at a far greater cost. Has Northern Ireland emerged from 400 years of British control? Has Israel fled the West Bank with its tail between its legs? Did the FALN liberate Puerto Rico? By the same token, books, plays, and films have always helped advance political and social causes, turning our preconceived notions on their heads. We now believe that an ordinary mass-produced shovel can be art. Yet few, if any, have been killed for disagreeing. Maybe artists think the slow but efficient acceptance of their ideas is a fair swap for the element of surprise.
In Happiness, Anderson’s newest piece, the Tribeca resident has responded to the tragedy with the requisite artistic guilt and self-doubt, perhaps remembering her collusion with DeLillo. As in therapy, simplicity and earnestness have become the order of the day. That now goes for this ironic everywoman who once suggested carrying a bomb on a plane as a way to combat terrorism with statistics—the likelihood of there being two bombs on a plane, she reasoned, would be astronomical. Happiness is so small and intimate—almost timid—that she could perform it in the corner of a studio apartment. Lincoln Center practically swallows it. She’s pared her once elaborate act down to herself, a few gadgets, several synthesizers, and some unpleasant lighting effects.
Between her trademark semi-fictional anecdotes about getting a job at McDonald’s and living among the Amish lie a few more-personal stories about her life and background, almost drifting into Spalding Gray territory. As always, her observations about our national character bristle with keen observations. “Americans are completely comfortable in imaginary spaces,” she says, using the example of how “Nixon cut the gold standard and money became an abstraction.” But Happiness brings few surprises, least of all its ambient score. With one exception: The show’s centerpiece, a comment on a revelation Anderson had about the way she told the story of breaking her back at age 12, omitting the suffering of other kids in the hospital ward. Even our own stories deceive us, she suggests, leaving us to imagine what else has been left out or lied about. Anderson’s strength has always been her ability to describe the familiar with fresh eyes. But 9-11 has made Laurie Andersons of us all, living in fear “that buildings and people can turn to dust before our eyes.”
Richard Foreman’s menacing pageant Maria del Bosco responded brilliantly to 9-11, eschewing explanations in favor of images and exorcising the zeitgeist before our eyes. “Resist the present!” (and perhaps the president, too) its finale urged. Foreman’s influence has cast a long shadow over the “Blueprint Series” for 10 years, yet the urgency and chaos at the heart of Maria del Bosco has had no effect on this year’s gaggle of his disciples. Director Jonathan Valuckas appropriates the most Foremanisms, setting Alma Mater in a university where the achievement of three minutes of ritualized ecstasy is a requirement for graduation, and paying homage to the Ontological One’s props and dance numbers. It’s derivative, but forgivably so, like a copy of a master painting. Tracy Bersley’s visually lovely The Awful Rowing Toward God sets Anne Sexton’s poems capably yet preciously, with Mary Zimmerman’s influence more than Foreman’s, especially in her uninspired handling of actors. That goes double for Matthew Earnest and deep ellum ensemble’s kooky adaptation of the 13th-century Chinese play Ch’ien-nü Leaves Her Body and Joshua Briggs’s twee The Magic Show. Evidently it takes more than 10 months of crisis and paranoia for some young artists to start pushing against the status quo.