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What is the role of Art in the face of Terror and War?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 11 September 2001 - 11:26 PM

All day I've been thinking of something Xena said in her first post yesterday, that she didn't feel like dancing. I almost posted, keep dancing, don't let them stop you.

What is the role of art, and artists, in the wake of September 11th? Stop dancing and mourn? Rage against terror and the inhumane through art? Depict the events, offer a catharsis? Comfort those who have suffered, or who are afraid? Glorify the goodness in man, make art about the soul, provide a model of goodness? All of the above, or something else?

#2 Helena

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 04:23 AM

This is an interesting question, and forgive me if I am somewhat incoherent,

Britten's War Requiem is prefaced with the words of the WW1 poet Wilfrd Owen - "All a poet can do today is warn". The tragedy, of course, is that the perpetrators of war do not listen to the warnings...

The arts can warn, they can interpret, they can certainly provide a catharsis. The arts are universal and do not (except in rare cases which are probably not great art) take sides.

I watched TV all yesterday, but I am not going to watch any more. I am very frightened for my younger son who works in London's financial centre and has many connections with America and the WTC - he could easily have been there, though he was not, but other people's sons were.

Tonight I had already planned to go to a performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony - that is, if the conductor, Gerald Schwarz from Seattle - has arrived. I can't think of many things I would rather hear (only the War Requiem). It contains the words, if I translate from the German, "Mankind lies in greatest need, mankind lies in greatest pain". Well, that's true.

I have often looked round at both artists and audience in concerts and ballets and thought "This is the ultimate good" - this gathering of people dedicated to making or experiencing beauty.

It is in the arts that we see humanity's greatness; otherwise, when "the world turns on its dark side" (a quotation from Michael Tippett's Child of our Time) we might despair.

[ 09-12-2001: Message edited by: Helena ]

#3 vagansmom

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 07:51 AM

This comment, I believe, isn't so tangential that it doesn't belong here. I was struck last night by the sight of the members of Congress singing a bit from "God Bless America". It was the fact that they chose SINGING as their way of expressing their deep emotion that moved me.

#4 Jaana Heino

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 08:03 AM

I would say, as an answer to the first question, all of the above and in addition the most important: to go on with their art, expressing what is in their hearts and trying to create beauty to the world for those to whom it might seem that there is none left.
It is, I feel, important to show that art and beauty and goodness are so important that we will *not* let terror and grief and acts of hatred stop it, and I think the artists shoul bear an even greater responsibility in this.

True, dancing happy dances and singing joyful songs might be difficult, but there is beauty and goodness and, well, mental healing also in the sad ones, and also if a joyous part is made more somber by the dancer's sorrow it only makes it better, I think.

I don't know if you see what I mean... I cannot very well express it in English, I'm afraid.

#5 ~A.C~

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 09:12 AM

We face oblivion, and destruction, and art must always be there.

It is all we can say. Just go back to your classes, your job, your play, and keep creating art. It is in time of war that many great works have been completed. Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture comes to mind. I think that the pen over the sword argument should remain in our heads.

#6 mbjerk

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 02:04 PM

I await the next performance of "The Green Table". Or better, the next choreographer's equally compelling antiwar or antiviolence statement.

Dance for me, as religion for some, allows us to reach beyond the day-to-day. It lets me join a community bonded by beauty, thought and spirit while exploring both sides of the human equation.

#7 ScottieGDE13

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 03:59 PM

Speaking as a student in the typical US high school-

All we (being students far away from the terrorism but still affected by it) have been hearing lately from teachers and directors is about the purpose of terrorism. I even heard Colin Powell say it today. The ultimate purpose of terrorism is to strike fear in people and keep them from going about with their lives. They have told us that if we let ourselves get caught up in it, begin to fear being in public, flying in airplanes, visiting tourist attractions, even going to work... we are letting them win. Therefore we should go on as we always have. So, while there is nothing wrong with taking a day off to mourn, if you dance, continue and don't let them accomplish their goal.

Ultimately- all art is about having pleasure in giving pleasure. Many people find art as a source of comfort and something to lift them out of their sorrows... not only do all artists have the responsibility of going on for themselves, but also for their audience.

#8 dirac

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Posted 12 September 2001 - 04:13 PM

My own feeling is that in actual wartime it's important for the arts to carry on, if at all possible. I can recall hearing on the radio once a brief excerpt from a rather awful performance of "Tosca" from Berlin. The poor performance might be excused by the fact that the show was going on very late in WW II, as the bombs were falling and the city was coming down around its inhabitants' ears. But the singers were singing, the orchestra was playing, and an audience was there to hear it. Obviously my sympathies were on the other side in that particular conflict, but I thought the performance was a gallant gesture.


A real danger in actual wartime, especially in periods of total war, is that a general feeling often arises that all things artistic must be subordinated to the Cause. This generally results in bad patriotic poetry, bad propaganda films, bad novels, and muscular concertos with titles like Triumph in the Air. People who refuse to follow this pattern sometimes get berated for their indifference and lack of patriotism, but the preservation of culture is a cause in itself, I think.

[ 09-12-2001: Message edited by: dirac ]

#9 Estelle

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Posted 13 September 2001 - 05:04 AM

Dance might also be a way for some people to express their sorrow, when they're lacking words. If I remember correctly, in her autobiogaphy, Martha Graham wrote that once a woman came at the end of a dance piece to thank her, because she had lost her son several months ago, and when she saw Graham's work, it was the first time she was able to cry and express her deep suffering.

#10 liebs

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Posted 13 September 2001 - 05:29 AM

There is a beautiful piece on this very subject in the New York Times today. All the arts critics participated and Kisselgoff wrote about Graham's Lamentation, Tudor's Dark Elegies and the dark angel in Serenade. Whenever I think of Serenade, I see Calegari's arabesque in that moment - a symbol of life in death.

#11 Ed Waffle

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Posted 13 September 2001 - 06:00 AM

I was wondering about Dark Elegies--although even listening to Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" could be difficult under the circumsances.

There are great works that were written specifically for this type of situation. Haydn's "Mass in Time of War" is one of them. Some of the Bach motets written for funerals would be perfect--grand but filled with emotion and not lugubrious. "Spem in Alium" by Tallis (which I am listening to as I type this) is an all purpose and sublime choral piece.

Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" would fit this occasion--and almost all others--since it emphasises the indominatability of the human spirit. It was used to open many Central European opera houses after the Second World War, but would also work wonderfully in such a terrible circumstance as this.

Regarding ballet, I would rather see something upbeat and happy. Indeed I would love to be at a performance of "Rodeo" right now.

#12 Andrei

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Posted 13 September 2001 - 08:19 PM

I'm backing dirac and afraid that now we will have a lot of this-minute-patriotic-shef-d'ouevres. Besides I think that the music of Tchaikovsky's 1812 ouverture is very, very mediocre.
From another hand, it's not occasionaly in the time of tragedy, war or catastrophy radio stations start to put the classical music on. People needs to lift their spirit up and the music does it. Of course, in my mind I have an example of starving musicians in Leningrad, performing the premier of Shostakovitch 7th symphony, when the city was under the siege of German army. May be some of German officers were late on the performance of "Toska" in Berlin, who knows. "The art belongs to people", this Lenin's words ironically explain this strange situation.

#13 Helena

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Posted 13 September 2001 - 11:05 PM

I suddenly remembered about Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten going to the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp in 1945 to play duets. Neither man was ever quite the same again, but you can be sure that it helped the people in Belsen.

The very young Sadlers Wells ballet - now the Royal - was important to a lot of people during World War 2 in Britain. It provided beauty, escape,inspiration, and in ballets like Ashton's Dante Sonata, a powerful depiction of the struggle between good and evil, a moving comment on the times.

[ 09-14-2001: Message edited by: Helena ]

#14 Richard Jones

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Posted 14 September 2001 - 06:09 PM

The arts certainly helped many people during World War II. In the UK, The Council for the Encouragement of the Arts (CEMA) sponsored performances throughout the country; it later became the Arts Council. Ballet performances were part of this programme.
Tours also took performers to other countries. Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later to become the RB) was in Holland in 1940 when that country was invaded; the dancers escaped but had to leave some of their scenery behind. Inevitably conditions were not always ideal for performers, and I like the story of a concert given in the Middle East, involving one of the BBC’s top accompanists. The piano was in terrible shape because of the heat. During the rehearsal, an American serviceman wandered in and commented on the state of the piano, saying that he might be able to do something about it if he could borrow a wrench. The pianist thought nothing more about it, but came to the concert and found the piano perfectly in tune. Realising who had tuned the piano, he found the American to thank him, and asked how he had come to know about pianos. “You’ve probably heard of my family name”, said the serviceman; “it’s Steinway”!

Apart from raising morale, the expression of grief or other emotions through the arts is obviously so important. Tchaikovsky did not have much affection for the 1812 Overture; he wrote it at the insistence of Rubinstein as a ceremonial overture (Tsar’s silver jubilee, I’ve read). He said that it was ‘very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm, and it therefore has no great artistic value’. The Serenade, on the other hand, one of his favourite works (and from the same year - 1880), was written (as he said) from ‘an inward pulse’.

Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ absolutely caught the mood of the times, written as it was during the cold war. I was also brought up in that part of Eastern England (and, aged 13, was in the chorus for the first production of his children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde). Some might not know that Britten wanted the soloists at the first performance to reflect three of the major nations of Europe involved in the War. The two male soloists were Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The USSR wouldn’t allow the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to participate, obviously a blow to Britten as Vishnevskaya and her husband the cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch were great personal friends. She did later record the work.

In 1980, Kenneth MacMillan was also inspired to create a work reflecting the tragedy of the 1st World War ('Gloria', for the RB - to Poulenc's score of the same title; he had already produced 'Requiem' for Stuttgart Ballet in 1976 to Fauré's music).

American readers of this may know of our annual musical happening at London’s Royal Albert Hall at this time of the year, the Last Night of the Proms. This musical party-time grand finale to the two month long series of Promenade concerts traditionally includes much flag-waving and over-the-top Rule Britannia, etc. Because of the events of the past week, the programme (for performance on 15/9) has been changed, and will be much more reflective and appropriate. It will include the Spirituals from Tippett’s ‘A Child of our Time’, first performed in 1944. I think it is also planned to include Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, and Beethoven’s setting of Schiller (Choral Symphony), which will give us all hope for the future. The conductor, in charge for the first time at the Last Night of the Proms, happens to be an American; Leonard Slatkin. It is bound to be an emotionally-charged occasion.

I visited the USA for the first time last Easter, when I was musical director for a schools’ choir tour of Georgia and the Carolinas. This kind of memory brings the events of last week much closer, even though I was many miles away from the area which was attacked. Here are two quotes which I think seem to catch the moment:

“Nought is there under heav’ns wide hollowness,
That moves more compassion of mind,
Than beauty brought to unworthy wretchedness”.

(Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queen)


“Love lives beyond the tomb,
And earth, which fades like dew!
I love the fond
The faithful and the true”.

(John Clare: Love lives beyond the Tomb)

#15 Helena

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Posted 14 September 2001 - 11:49 PM

How amazing to have been in the first performance of Noye's Fludde. I remember that somebody famous - don't remember who - said he had spent hours going to church in Orford waiting for the voice of God. In Noye's Fludde he found it.

People might think that this comment is not relevant to this thread, but I think it is - the Arts can bring about such profound spiritual (not necessarily religious) experience. I am glad you brought up the changes to the last night of the Proms. I am proud that the patriotic songs have been dropped, and that the organisers have said flag-waving is inappropriate.Nationalism is always dangerous, no matter which country it comes from. I would be very happy if the patriotic songs were never restored to this event. Schiller's "All people shall become brothers" at the close of Beethoven 9 is a far more noble sentiment. I only wish it were likely to happen.


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