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A man walks past a window display of photos in Times Square of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, September 10, 2002. (GARY HERSHORN/GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)
A man walks past a window display of photos in Times Square of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, September 10, 2002. (GARY HERSHORN/GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)

Russell Smith: On Culture

In horrific circumstances, art can still imitate life Add to ...

In February, 2002, a few months after the terrorist attacks on the United States, Evan Solomon interviewed the musician Steven Page, presumably as a representative Canadian artist, about how he felt about his music immediately after the crisis. Page said: “We were thinking, ‘Is there a place for rock and roll any more?’ I think everyone in the entertainment industry thought, ‘We’re over, there’s no reason for [us to]be here, what am I doing making my stupid music when there are real issues?’ ”

Previous columns by Russell Smith

That was a common thought at the time. It’s hard now to remember, 10 years on, all the wild things that were said about the possibility of making art in the aftermath of 9/11. There were declarations – mostly from pop stars, for some reason, but also from cultural pundits – that irony, the defining trope of American communication in the 1990s, would have to be eliminated, that silliness and light entertainment would no longer be tolerated. I remember panel and pub discussions in which upset directors made emotional promises about abandoning their works in progress and doing benefits for Afghanistan, or a year of yoga, or whatever they felt was more pure than the office-relationship story they had on the go. There were also declarations that since the world would never be the same (“the world” being of course the U.S. media’s term for the United States), art could never be the same again either.

I caught the virus for a time. I remember the self-doubt of the first year: I seriously considered abandoning the novel I was working on. Everyone was saying the publishing industry was going to reconsider every project, was going to be extra-cautious about the frivolous, and maybe there was going to be such a financial crisis that publishing wouldn’t even exist any more, maybe the end of times were near. I actually thought that every novel would have to acknowledge the attacks in some way, or at least be about war, from then on.

I had forgotten how long it takes to publish a novel: By the time that book came out, it was 2004 and artists had gone back to stacking galleries full of pennies or dolls or bricks, producers had gone back to stamping out romantic comedies, rappers were back in their hot tubs and Canadian literature had turned to the Holocaust as its primary theme. The world – that, is, the United States – might have changed, but art hadn’t. Nobody noticed that there were no references to 9/11 in my novel.

What happened to the idea that the terrorist attacks themselves were not to be used as inspiration for storytelling? You remember all that “It’s disrespectful to the victims” nonsense? There were victims groups, at first, accusing anyone who tried to dramatize this international event of “profiting from tragedy,” as if art has not always been a way for us to interpret carnage. A couple of years later, even a patriot like Oliver Stone was in on the action. There have been at least 10 U.S.-made feature films about that day, with more to come this year, as well as more than a dozen major television documentaries. September 11 has been the backdrop for a slew of American novels, featuring as a plot point in the works of such celebrated writers as John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Jay McInerneyand Jennifer Egan. But there are a lot of books about dating and decor, too.

You may recall similar protests in Canada about any representations that mentioned the murderers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. They were equally silly. After all, what other image do schoolchildren have of General James Wolfe than the famous painting of his violent end on the Plains of Abraham? We didn’t hear any censoring voices when it came to the dramatization of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre – indeed, some of those dramas have come to be proudly known as among the country’s most powerful movies. Imagine the years of Norwegian novels that will come out of this summer’s mass murder at Utoya .

Interestingly, immediately after that slaughter, a large Norwegian chain store pulled from its shelves all first-person-shooter computer games such as Call of Duty. In a year or so, quietly, they’ll bring them back.

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