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2001: Culture after the massacre


The 21st century is taking shape on the pages of Kojo Griffin's sketchpad. In a work-in-progress by the Atlanta artist, a man sits with a compass at a kitchen table, measuring distances on a map.

"I don't want to tell people what to think about it," Griffin says. "Some people are going to just see somebody sitting at a kitchen table, and that's fine."

But Griffin has a more mischievous game in mind: He's feeling out how people will view once-ordinary scenes in a post-Sept. 11 world. Should we go about our business while this guy plots some undefined course from the kitchen table? Or should we stop the nefarious deed being hatched beneath our noses? Should we wonder whether our worry is excessive? Or should we worry that we're not anxious enough about it?

Fifteen weeks after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, Griffin's compass measures how far the meaning of even the most ordinary things has changed. What was comforting has become scary. What seemed important is now obscure. What was simple has become a tangle.

Things were so much easier before Sept 11. Yes, we had a new president. Yes, the economy was winding down. But that wasn't enough to get us off our collective butts and start paying attention to the rest of the world. After all, we had Gary Condit and Chandra Levy to worry about. And there were sharks in the water.

Who had time to pay attention to the threats of Islamic fundamentalists when it looked as if J.Lo finally was about to break free of her P. Diddy trance? Why should we study our rising addiction to imported oil while we're fretting that Glitter's dismal showing might send Mariah into another breakdown? And how in the world could the situation in Colombia -- where $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid is being funneled into a civil war created largely by our own cocaine habit -- compete with really big questions -- like whether Michael Jackson's new album would be his big comeback?

The truth is that the world was sending hints for some time that it should be taken more seriously. We just weren't paying attention. Now the question is, can one traumatic event help us really understand the world we inhabit?

Our initial response to the crisis certainly has been attentive. The national media stopped obsessing about Gary Condit. The military kicked butt in Afghanistan. Even Congress -- for a couple of weeks -- made nice with each other in the House of Representatives cafeteria. "Republicans are coming over and sitting with Democrats, and Democrats are going over and sitting with Republicans," says U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta.

But congressmen and news anchors aren't really the folks at the leading edge of change in American society. Real change tends to creep slowly and quietly onto the scene, first explored in small conversations, then expressed in public places.

So it's too early to truly measure how deeply the attacks will resonate in the world of arts and culture. For now, theater audiences in Atlanta and elsewhere seem more interested in escape than brooding about war and terror. And during these tough economic times, directors are in no mood to risk alienating those audiences.

Even lighthearted attempts at broaching the subject are uncomfortable for the time being. During a comedy improv production at Dad's Garage in Atlanta, for instance, each player was asked to name a type of cheese. Sean Daniels, the theater's artistic director, blurted out "al-Qaeda" and was booed. "Maybe, it's a bit to soon to even compare them to cheese," Daniels reflects. "I think audiences are ready to start talking about it, but maybe even more willing to, for once, not talk about it."

On the surface, at least, the popular media has already begun to deal with the war. On Dec. 11, Miramax Films announced it had purchased rights to The Color of Hope, a documentary on Afghan refugee children filmed in November by revered Iranian director Majid Majidi. And while most reality TV took on a sudden tinny irrelevance in the wake of the attacks, a CBS reality series set to air after the holidays is sure to benefit from good timing. Indeed, camera crews were sent to the Middle East to shoot additional footage for American Fighter Pilot (co-produced by Ridley Scott) because some of the series' featured pilots happened to participate in the bombing of Afghanistan.

A lot has been said about Sept. 11 marking the true beginning of the decade in the way that the fall of the Berlin Wall touched off the '90s and Kennedy's assassination kicked off the '60s. But in its potential long-range impact on how we see ourselves in the world, the closer parallel may be with the 1950s. That decade began not so much with a dramatic event but, rather, ramped up, with Hiroshima, the dropping of the Iron Curtain, the rise of Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the Korean War.

The '50s heralded the Cold War, an intractable and ambiguous struggle during which the United States entered into alliances with dubious partners. In the supposed interest of a greater cause, Joe McCarthy distorted patriotism into the very un-American insistence that fellow citizens march in lockstep with the prevailing point of view. Conformity was obsessively pursued, reinforced by the new medium of TV and a new brand of cookie-cutter suburban subdivision. Meanwhile, Ozzie, Harriett and John Wayne brainwashed us with a mythic, straight and narrow version of American history that never really existed.

But the decade also served up a tangle of social movements and counter-trends that seeded the revolutionary changes of the '60s. The Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Martin Luther King Jr. jumped into national consciousness as the steady voice of 20th-century America's greatest moral reformation. Elvis introduced white kids to the revolutionary influence of black music -- a process that was beginning to jell into rock 'n' roll. Jack Kerouac chronicled a Beat Generation alienated by the threat of the Bomb. Even such disparate trends as film noir and abstract expressionism delivered an uneasy sense that something was amiss within the uniformity mass culture seemed to be demanding.

The fundamental social changes that flowered more fully in the next decade followed on the heels of a societal critique offered up by artists in the 1950s.

The 2010s may lay a similar groundwork for making this country a better place. We are now, understandably, marching in unified response to a vicious attack and a terrible threat. But the uniformity is a bit scary, too. Congress quickly passes legislation that cuts into civil liberties -- and an extremist attorney general relishes the chance. In the end, our anger still could blind us to the most constructive means of dealing with the threat. It's political suicide to suggest that our country's own actions may have helped create this mess. And worst of all, we're being forced to listen to Lee Greenwood.

Yet we are finally paying attention to the world. And there is the hope that a subtle introspection -- even dissent -- will make us stronger in the long run.

Some cultural changes may amount to subtle adjustments at the way we look at things. After a year in which fantasy and the fanciful, from The Lord of the Rings to The Royal Tenenbaums to more artful internal references to Hollywood, it's conceivable that movies will be infused with a hard-edged realism. Perhaps the massacre, and the struggle we face in dealing with its aftereffects, will encourage the movie industry to hold up a mirror to its audience and stow the enchanted looking glass.

Some artists are grappling more directly with the issues the war brings up. But there are plenty of strings to untangle in the mess that was exposed Sept. 11. In a letter of thanks to the members of Atlanta theater community who helped organize a fall festival showcasing her work, playwright Naomi Wallace couldn't help but wander into her distress over the war.

"I believe there is a connection between our most intimate lives and the big sky we glance up at when we head out into a new day each morning, and between the big sky thousands of miles to the Caspian Sea. It is the same sky where the dark underbellies of the B-52 bombers fly, releasing their cargoes of death," she wrote.

The massacre and the events that followed have allowed us to consider something more substantial than what we had when we were pretending the world was A-OK. And our boldest artists -- people like Kojo Griffin -- are starting to explore that more challenging, complex and scary world.

If there is a silver lining in the gray dust that occasionally rises from that sad graveyard in lower Manhattan, it's that we are somehow bigger than we were when the year began. There is a whole world out there, we've been reminded. And it's time to deal with it.

Felicia Feaster, Curt Holman and Roni Sarig contributed to this piece.

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