Artists of the Year

The revelation came by e-mail. On September 14, a friend dispatched a message to my Outlook inbox--a passage he'd copied out of Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II.

 

'For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game.'

'Interesting. How so?'

'What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.'

'And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.'

'I think the relationship is intimate and precise insofar as such things can be measured.'

'Very nice indeed.'

'You think so?'

'Completely marvelous.'

'Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.'

'And it's difficult when they kill and maim because you see them, honestly now, as the only possible heroes for our time.'

'No,' Bill said. 'The way they live in the shadows, live willingly with death. The way they hate many of the things you hate. Their discipline and cunning. The coherence of their lives. The way they excite, theyexcite admiration. In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There's too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. The way they determine how we see them. The way they dominate the rush of endless streaming images....'

 

DeLillo's dialogue was eerie in its elucidation of the covert and the occult. Call it the literary equivalent of the floodlights illuminating the smoke-blurred husk of the World Trade Center--a stark insight into the locus of fear and mystery and dread. In fact, DeLillo's conversation almost seemed to devour itself in a logical loop: How could fiction this meaningful argue against the meaning of fiction?

The more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art. The electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said much the same thing in a press-conference gaffe that seems fated to become a benchmark in the annals of bad public relations. Fans of string quartets written for four airborne helicopters can debate whether the grandiose German musician really meant to call the attack on the WTC "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos." But the comment that followed seems even more provocative. "You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5,000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment. I couldn't do that. In comparison with that, we're nothing as composers."

There's a hint of yearning and envy in this quote that is deeply unsettling. But, like DeLillo's, it taps into the deepest currents of what art is and what it signifies. That question, as always, is at the heart of City Pages' tenth annual Artists of the Year issue. And though Stockhausen may have picked Osama bin Laden for his cosmic influence, the contributors to our survey have chosen to define art as a thing that doesn't exact a body count. As in past years, we've started off this issue by praising a choreographer, a poet, a cabaret band, an installation artist, a film director, and a theater producer whose influence can be felt in our own little corner of the cosmos.

When it comes to art and culture, there are two prevailing opinions about 9/11. The first is that it changed everything. The second is that it changed nothing. Both seem filled with danger and possibility. --Michael Tortorello

 

Mark Nowak
By Jon Spayde

 

A few years ago I was browsing an anthology of "innovative poetry" in search of somebody who avoided the pitfalls of postmodern poetry (flat diction, glum impersonality, and so many content shifts so fast that the poem's reason for being is lost in the swirl) while maintaining its virtues (surprise, formal risk taking, intellectual/political vigor). Not only did I find such a poet in those pages, but he was a local boy.

Mark Nowak has been teaching and writing in the Twins since 1992, and he, along with critic Maria Damon, the Rain Taxi crew, and a few others, have been doing yeoman work keeping our towns connected to the wider world of postmodern poetry through readings and publication projects. (One of those projects is Nowak's journal, XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, to which--full disclosure time--I contributed a book review a few years ago.)

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