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Ask not!

What becomes of art when questions are taboo?

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Jesters can be our saviors in times like these. 2004 was the year that "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" did a better job of questioning our leaders than the "real" news did. Though ostensibly a "fake" news show, as host Stewart took pains to remind us, the program nonetheless served as gadfly not just to politicians, but to reporters who had abdicated their responsibility to ask the tough questions and report the hard truth.

We really needed Stewart this year, in which we saw the continuing strangulation of open discourse that began post-9/11. For too long, all but the fuzziest of slow-pitch softball questions have been verboten.

Question the billions going to Halliburton? You're hurting the troops. Question the Patriot Act (and its sequel)? You're helping terrorists.

This made it a particularly chilling time for art. As with science, politics and practically every other human endeavor, the arts flourish best when the people who make it are free to ask the most audacious, threatening, even world-altering questions.

For too long after 9/11, the Dixie Chicks and a few other brave souls were shouted down and, courtesy of big media conglomerates, nearly silenced. But in 2004, Green Day rejected this subliminal mind fuck, singing in the hit "American Idiot": "We're not the ones who're meant to follow." A whole movement of impertinent artists began to publicly ponder what's goin' on.

Nas rapped in "American Way," "I'm American too, but I ain't with the president's crew." And R&B's Jill Scott crooned in "My Petition," "You say that I'm wrong for/ Stating my opinion to you... But I know my rights babe/ There'll be no law abridging/ The freedom of my speech." And in the incendiary (both in song and music video) "Mosh," Eminem demanded "No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal."

Michael Moore, never one to wilt under the censure of authority, released Fahrenheit 9/11, his most devastating and heartfelt (if characteristically intemperate) documentary to date. Moore's assault on the Bush administration's electoral legitimacy and the war in Iraq became the top-grossing documentary of all time.

In Atlanta, Several Dancers Core collaborated with Berlin's Tanzcompagnie Rubato in America! Question, a multimedia dance performance. At the heart of the show was a series of video interviews, projected on a screen, in which Georgians were asked questions such as "Are you proud to be an American?" "Do you feel free in America?" and "What is beauty?" In between (and sometimes during) these video segments, dancers symbolically traced the state of the somnolent nation with TV static flashing in their eyes.

Some artists dared more dangerous inquiries. Novelist Nicholson Baker, in his slim novel Checkpoint, gave serious consideration to one of the most disloyal questions of all: Is there a moral imperative to assassinate the president in order to stop him from killing more innocents?

Decatur's PushPush Theater staged two dramatic readings of the book, which is written as a transcript between two men. The audience was sparse but engaged, and almost everyone stayed for hours afterwards, talking late into the night, struggling earnestly to understand what had gone wrong in America and what could be done about it.

However, as we look back on the year, we have to ask, "What was accomplished in all of this?" Unless there's some January surprise yet to come from Ohio, all this artistic activism failed to change or even loosen the grip of the guard. Cultural conservatives fret over Hollywood's influence, but the majority of American voters didn't care who Ben Affleck or Leonardo DiCaprio endorsed.

Even though these artful protests failed to have a quantifiable effect, at least the independent American spirit is reawakening. There's a renewed understanding that demanding answers from our leaders is among the highest of patriotic endeavors, and at last, we're finding the courage to question again.

thomas.bell@creativeloafing.com

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