Art Arises out of the Ashes of History. (the Last Word)

Article excerpt

Art that's controversial gets attention. That's not necessarily bad. It makes us look at or read something we might otherwise have ignored, often provoking debate that is as interesting -- and sometimes more interesting -- than the work itself. This particularly is true about art that grows out of a contemporary crisis or tragedy, when those personally affected by the tragedy are offended by an artistic treatment of it.

The terrorism of the suicide bombers who flew into the World Trade Center inspires all kinds of images in art and sculpture. But photography, particularly, moves uncomfortably close to families of survivors. Interpretive and abstract images often are more acceptable. Hence, the beams of light gracing the lower Manhattan skyline, evoking ghostly images of the twin towers, are perceived as a poetic memorial. But a video piece by an Italian artist actually showing film footage of one of the planes plowing into the World Trade Center was removed from a show in New York City because it was too graphic, scratching on raw nerves.

Jamie Wyeth's painterly photo of three firemen raising the flag at ground zero inspires audiences because it depicts a heroic gesture similar to the famous sculpture (also based on a photograph) of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. When Pablo Picasso painted Guernica to win a Communist Party prize in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, allegedly showing how Francisco Franco's forces destroyed a Basque village in Spain, the painting was gruesome. But it frequently was reproduced in this country for propaganda purposes to inspire disgust for Franco and arouse sympathy for those fighting against him.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a subversive in the Soviet Union, was rendered a hero here during the Cold War when his beautifully written narrative depictions of the gulag exposed the brutality of what Ronald Reagan aptly had called "the Evil Empire."

A revival of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, now is on Broadway. It was written in 1953 at the height of America's search for communists in government. The playwright used the 17th-century Salem witch trials to suggest the hysteria of naming names in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This year, however, the current event on which it was based generally is lost on younger audiences (a half-century is a long time) and the art must stand on the power of its narrative and universal insights. …