Bringing Thinking Back

Looking forward from 9/11 requires the same conscientiousness as looking back. All the arts should be part of this process, which is why CityArts, “New York’s Review of Culture,” is expanding its scope to mix popular with classical arts. Painting, meet photography. Symphony, meet jazz. Sculpture, meet games. Theater, meet television. Opera, meet cinema—which is, we should remember, the evolved, ultimate form of all the arts.

Living for 10 years with a consciousness of terror hastens the transformation of civilized art appreciation from a casual interest into one of the ways New Yorkers survive. Our arts culture becomes part of how we preserve humane values—nothing less. And so, to support that endeavor, CityArts brings thinking back to arts media.

Each fall season stokes expectation for what artists will reveal; after the need created by 9/11, it’s a robust, cultivated reflex. But while anticipating something new, audiences need to think critically, using an arsenal of imagination and helpful values informed by active awareness of our artistic heritage. For that reason, it is necessary that arts journalism bring thinking back.

Sure, we’re accustomed to the profit-making corruption of life. Even before 9/11 it had perverted arts journalism’s criteria from aesthetic principles to box office obsession and celebrity worship. We’ve seen the commercialism that always entangles the popular arts ensnare and decimate New York’s classical art institutions. But this dreadful, market-driven reality should not compromise our standards or responses. Only arts journalism can maintain and explain art’s glorified pursuit of truth and remind culture consumers they should challenge what’s familiar.

Will anything in the upcoming fall cultural season be as thrilling as the late summer one-two punch of Attack the Block and Rise of the Planet of the Apes? As awesome as the Picasso L’amour fou show at Gagosian? As game-changing as Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Or as scintillating as Zoe Saldana in Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana? The way these events roused feelings of liberation and guilt, empathy and vengeance should have complemented post-9/11 perceptions and informed discussion of recent social crises taking place in London and Philadelphia. But the media’s tendency to treat art simply as fodder or product denied proper appreciation of those films. Arts coverage has obviously lost its ethical purpose.

Alarmingly, the idea of escapism has taken hold in the popular arts as a convention or necessity, and too many journalists promote the canard. But in the post-9/11 era, escapism is synonymous with cowardice—aesthetic cowardice. It’s a fear of facing ourselves, refusing to own up to the social and spiritual benefits that art—and artists—must provide. It’s those low standards of quality that cause Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, Watch the Throne and Colombiana to so suddenly recede from prominence and threatens appreciation of the upcoming season.

Arts journalism shouldn’t simply promote product but clarify how good, new ideas struggle against complacent success and the mediocre status quo. This requires what the word journalism implies: regular cultural vigilance. For 10 years we frequently endured the unhelpful post-9/11 phrase, “It’s too soon,” used in a cowardly way by power elite pundits against adventurous works (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis”) that attempted to come to terms with the national, global, spiritual crisis. Now the coward’s question must be replaced with a defiant, “Is it too late?” Not if we can bring thinking back.

About the cover: “I’ve got an idea!” Every work of art begins with that creative spark. Ideas are also fundamental to good appreciation of the arts in spite of our collective obsession with money and status, so CityArts uses Robert Fisher’s famous satire of Gen X’s indoctrination—the baby swimming toward money—and converts that icon to reintroduce the grasp toward ideas. Reimagining Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover (see Ben Kessler’s article page 14) symbolizes what CityArts is after as it brings thinking back.