Monday, September 11, 2006

Memory and Allegory

Among the works of art which have been made to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, I suspect that none will be the subject of more serious discussion than the large painting by Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001, in the New Britain (Connecticut) Museum of Art. (For images with more detail, scroll down this page).

Parrish is an artist with prodigious classical technique -- French Academic technique to be precise -- and however classical his realist figures and landscapes may be, his subjects are contemporary (the work which established Parrish's reputation, Remorse, Despondence, and Acceptance of an Early Death concerned AIDS).

Parrish's treatment of his subject is allegorical: the images stand for concrete ideas, and the composed ensemble carries both literal and allegorical messages. Parrish's classical technique is exactly what is required to pull off an allegory. However, I am far from certain that the moment for an allegorical treatment of such recent history, one in which the real images are still vivid while the message remains unclear, has yet come. Because of this, Parrish's moves -- again, classical, with the male twins in the middle, for example -- come off as staged and forced.

That said, the work is one of an enormously brave artist, and I can hardly imagine making a public musical work to compare. Composers have an advantage over realist visual artists when it comes to memorials -- it's in the nature of our medium that we needn't make any committment to sounds as literal images or to compositions of those sounds as allegories* -- and choosing particular sounds exposes a composer in a very different way from that in which a viewer associates particular images intimately with the artist. Successful musical commemorizations of historical events are rare (Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw and String Trio, certainly; Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, perhaps), with the temptation to go "over the top" ever-present (Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, for example).

* Some argue for a parallel status for visual realism and tonal music, an argument that just doesn't fly with me, Wilbur. See my last post on surface.


Anonymous said...

What a strange picture.

Daniel Wolf said...

A day later and a day wiser, I realise that leaving off the Berg Violin Concerto (in memory of "an angel", Manon Gropius), Ashley's "She Was A Visitor", and Josquin's Deploration on the Death of Ockeghem were real mistakes.

And yes, anonymous, it is a strange painting. The question is whether it is a good painting and a goood memorial.

Anonymous said...

It is not a good painting or memorial, because it denies fundamental truths about 9/11. While Parrish's painting is expertly painted and pays total fidelity to the classical tradition, the painting's message of "the endless cycle of human frailty" and people's inherent blindness to tragic events (his own words) is utterly false. 9/11 of course was not an act of god, but an act of politics; its arrival and realization were pretty well predicted and not acted upon by our government. Whatever blindness the public had to such an event was the result of our own government's actions over the course of several decades. Parrish sanitizes his painting of any culpability of the US government, making the painting not only staged and contrived but a lie as well.

Daniel Wolf said...

Anonymous -

The public does have significant culpability in that they have been blind both to our government policy and to the effects of that policy; in the end, "the government" is elected or rejected by the public, and decades of failed policy are a democratic failure.

The painting is also missing meaningful representation of the failures of Islamic culture. As culpable as we are, the vaccum in which we have been able to operate for so long in much of the world was created by a absence of local solutions to the problems of modernity. Representing the terrorists by cherubs with toy planes is clearly an inadequate response to this.