Tragedy is comedy plus time
In Woody Allen’s film Crime and Misdemeanors Alan Alda plays a blowhard film director that Allen’s character must shadow in order to make a documentary about him. His moments are the best in the film and his character’s statements such as “comedy is tragedy plus time” and ” if it bends its funny, if it breaks, its not funny” stunningly nails exactly how our media reacts to world events. Twitter has given us another advantage of not even letting things “bend” yet or allowing for no “plus time” to happen. Reflection now a completely lost art in our culture.
This month I read the very best writing I have ever encountered regarding the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In fact the writer Robert Storr insists on using that entire date throughout his book so as to take the “branded moment” away from the actual historic moment. Thank you. Robert Storr is one of the eminent art writers working today and his eulogy/rumination/analysis of 11/11/2001 is a book entitled September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter. In this marvelous book Storr captures his own experiences from the day as a Brooklyn father trying to get his kids to school when the world suddenly changed. But his in depth look at Richter’s single painting of the tragedy is an astonishing account of an artist vying to convey a world event through a visual medium in one bold, singular act.
The painting was done in 2005 which for me seems even too close to the date however, Richter is an art titan and a master whose career may possibly be the most influential of the latter half of the 20th century. Andy Warhol may have innovated how artists can work, Richter innovated ways to work. You trust him.
I mention this book because it encapsulates for me exactly how to react creatively to a world event. The painting is wonderful, I only have the reproduction but putting it in context with this book gives it a weight beyond its visual language. Not that I think all paintings about world events should have a book but wouldn’t it be great if they did?
The book covers other works by Richter and his approaches of how he was able to pull the various nuclei together that surround world events like the Dresden (where he was born) bombing during WWII and the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group of 70s Germany. He would make them into art without sentiment, vulgarity, bias and judgment. Most of the artists working post WWII pulled this unwieldy time into focus in order to make sense out of the senseless. I find it sad that many artists today are dismissive of this era and would rather focus on the contributions of the conceptual renegades in the sixties than people who watched their cities and their lives burned into the ground.
This may be a key as to why certain artists are able to convey the events of a tragedy with greatness while others are resigned to making mere topical fascination: actual experience. Richter grew up in Nazi Germany and like his predecessor, the genius Joseph Beuys, he was conflicted. German artists of this era feel the need to express their disinclination toward their heritage as much as their inclination. This complexity makes their work very, very good.
I agree with Richter who said that much great art depicts suffering in some way; our work is to enlighten ourselves through this understanding of suffering. I like to think an artist spends time considering a tragedy, separates the drama from the facts and then puts love back into the equation. Love seems to get ripped from us during a moment of tragedy and I think we seek to put it back as we begin to understand what has happened.
Richter wasn’t sure he even liked New York until that fateful day when he was enroute to a retrospective there and had to land in Halifax – once again putting him into the midst of history. Luckily he and Storr, who was the curator, decided to put this all into artistic context and create a manual for the rest of us.
Pic from The Atlantic
State of the Arts will return April 11, 2013