Empty Theater by the Forward

The extremely problematic and incredibly harsh impact of Coronavirus on art

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Most art is unfinished — quietly, unglamorously, pointlessly. Two and a half chapters of a novel yellowing in a bottom drawer; sets for a play nobody bothers to produce; a pilot never aired; a melody never resolved; a canvas never covered. That’s just the physical evidence — for every half-finished work, there are thousands that never make it out of the mind, because they’re too embarrassing, or because they’ve been forgotten, or because they’re godawful. To go all the way from idea to artwork is a little like winning the lottery: not necessarily an impressive achievement, but an improbable one.

For some reason (maybe variety’s sake), contemporary highbrow culture has a white-hot fetish for the unfinished. I don’t have any data handy, just a plethora of anecdotes: for starters, the bright black bricks of Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura” laid in bookstores in late 2009 (and wrapped in plastic, so buyers wouldn’t realize that the Knopf edition was twice as long as it needed to be until after they’d paid $35.00 plus tax). In college, most of the art history majors I knew preferred the non finito of Michelangelo’s “Slaves” to the proud polish of the David, and when the Met Breuer finally settled in its new home on the Upper East Side, its first exhibition was a survey of unfinished artworks. The unfinished is said to be more authentic; it bares its artifice even as it gestures toward a mystical completeness that can only exist in the realm of ideas. Ben Lerner, possibly the most extravagantly praised Anglophone writer of the last decade, has suggested that all major poetry is unfinished in this way. “My poems,” he makes the narrator of “Leaving the Atocha Station” say, “in their randomness and disorder were in some important sense unformed, less poems than a pile of materials out of which poems could be built; they were pure potentiality, awaiting articulation.” Lerner may have been joking, and he may not have been — it’s hard to tell with him. But in any case, it was much, much easier to romanticize the unfinished when it seemed like the exception, not the rule.

Over the past few months, the unimaginable has happened: things have gotten even shittier for the American artist than they already were. Festivals have been canceled. Premieres have been delayed indefinitely. Hardbacks have been demoted to paperbacks, paperbacks have been demoted to eBooks, and eBooks have been scrapped altogether. The sphere of live performances, workshops, readings, signings, and Q&As, which artists of every kind clung to like the last piece of wreckage bobbing in an Amazonian flood, has vanished. With it goes one of their primary sources of income, and with that goes an incalculable amount of art.

As with its human victims, the coronavirus threatens art in all stages of development but especially the later ones. A dance performance scheduled for a mid-March premiere may never be seen by anyone — too much choreography and rigorous training squandered to quarantine. But a play still in outline form could be written and performed someday, assuming there are any theaters left to put it on. Screenwriters are frantically revising scripts to accommodate the hulking mass of the tragedy. Many will be rejected because the context has changed too much, but a few will go on to be made into episodes and features. Some of these screenwriters held similar jobs after the collapse of the World Trade Center, the last disaster that required so much scrambling, last-minute effort from the American entertainment sector. But the World Trade Center was a single place, and the revisions the attack called for were widespread yet narrow: shots of the Manhattan skyline could be edited or digitally changed; tasteless gags could be crossed out. What kinds of revisions for a faceless enemy that kills thousands across the country every day? And how to think about the art — good and bad, half-finished, almost finished, and never begun—that we’ve already lost as a result?


There is no good system for writing about the art that catastrophe leaves unfinished. To borrow from a widely mocked (but actually perfectly coherent) speech on the subject of catastrophe, the unknown unknowns outnumber the known unknowns. A few artworks cut short by tragedy are touted as masterpieces. Still, I doubt that these works, taken together, say anything much about the current tragedy. Masterpieces are exceptions to the rules to begin with, and unfinished works that find an audience are exceptionally exceptional. A book with no ending that people read anyway is, at its core, a success, and therefore a misleading sample — most unfinished books are total, invisible failures.

But if we can’t talk directly about interrupted art, we can at least talk around it and get something like a negative sense of its size and shape. Instead of writing about art that was cut short by crisis, then, I’ve chosen artworks that were grazed, so the speak, by crisis, yet survived in a completed form. Not all of these works are particularly good — actually, most of them are terrible — and none of them I outright love (though every couple of years I rewatch “A.I.” and try to convince myself it’s a masterpiece). They are not the most interesting or the most famous or the most memorable. They are, all the same, a fair sample of the art that survives national emergency, and a first step toward understanding all the other art that is ruined by national emergency.

As different as 9/11 is from the current pandemic (and as different as the early 2000s are from the early 2020s), it’s the only halfway decent approximation for what is happening to artists now. So I’ll be dealing with artworks from the early 2000s — popular, mainstream works, in the sense that they were marketed to millions of people and had big money and major corporate interests behind them. Then as now in America, mainstream art is one of the few kinds that can survive the costly setbacks (rewrites, delayed release dates, rebranding) that trail a crisis. And whenever this happens to popular, corporate-backed art, you can expect plenty of cynical opportunism, some genuine inspiration, and some art that embodies a bit of both.

First, the cynical. Hollywood excels at telling the same story again and again with the occasional twinkling gimmick thrown in — glamorous setting, time travel, whatever — and for untold roomfuls of writers, 9/11 was a once-in-a-generation gimmick. Thus, Americans in the decade following the attacks were treated to a rom-com with a 9/11-themed prologue (“Love Actually”), a romp through Manhattan in the shadow of the tragedy (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” first the book and then the movie), and much, much more. In 1999, New Line Cinema bought a screenplay by Jackie Chan called “Nosebleed.” It was supposed to star Chan as a window washer who overhears terrorists plotting to blow up the World Trade Center. At one point, Steven Spielberg was attached. After 9/11, the film was canceled — who could fail to see that greenlighting an action comedy about bombing the Twin Towers was now in poor taste? But a few years later, another Hollywood studio greenlit a romantic drama that ended, just a tad abruptly, with Robert Pattinson getting blown up in the Twin Towers. That film’s title, “Remember Me,” sounds like the moral of every movie that uses the occasion of a deadly terrorist attack as a fast-track to artistic importance: Remember me! Respect me! Take me seriously! 9/11 isn’t funny. An incompetent filmmaker throwing 9/11 into his film at the last minute like a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary is very funny indeed.

How could all this be possible? How could the same system that declared “Nosebleed” self-evidently unfilmable give “Remember Me,” a self-evident piece of garbage, a green light, a movie star, and a $16 million budget? Looking back at the decade of 9/11 movies that followed the day itself, the one rule I can make out is that it’s unacceptable for a Hollywood film to evoke 9/11 accidentally but acceptable for it to do so intentionally, even in the tackiest, most baldly manipulative way imaginable. As long as it’s intentional, bad taste can be rationalized into good taste; revulsion in the face of something like the “Love Actually” prologue can be written off as moralism, elitism, or anti-Americanism. Or, to quote “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” author Jonathan Safran Foer: “Why do people wonder what’s ‘OK’ to make art about, as if creating art out of tragedy weren’t an inherently good thing? […] Too many people hate art.” Four years after 9/11, Foer ended his novel with a flip-book that showed a body floating up, back into the World Trade Center from which it had fallen — naturally, anyone who dared suggest such a thing was insensitive, or exploitative, or just colossally stupid must hate art. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” earned Foer north of a million dollars. He has published four more books.

I can’t decide whether Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” which was filmed in New York toward the end of 2001 and released in 2002, is one of the few good 9/11 films or one of the worst. Looking back at what I’ve written about Foer et al., I can’t find a single thing I’ve criticized them for doing that Lee doesn’t do, too, albeit more deftly. At the last minute, he squeezed 9/11 into a movie about something completely different (a forgettable story about a drug dealer, played by Edward Norton with his usual game unconvincingness), adding a handful of lines and shots. But Lee is nothing if not a New York filmmaker — a Spike Lee Joint is the rare work for which “the real star is New York City” is something more than a meaningless movie critic cliché — and “25th Hour” distinguishes itself as a study of Manhattan in the grips of collective grief. I doubt I’ll ever make myself believe that Norton’s mirror rant isn’t a “Do the Right Thing” rip-off; that his costars’ subplots aren’t so much flavorless stuffing; or that his flash-forward old man makeup doesn’t take the wind out of what’s supposed to be a transcendent finale. But there are times when I watch Lee’s pillow shot of the inverted flags by Ground Zero and find it justification enough.

The most powerful moments of “25th Hour,” in other words, have nothing to do with the characters. They’re in the background — but in a movie filmed in Manhattan in the early 2000s, background overshadows everything else. For Lee, the tragedy of the city can’t be condensed into mere plot. He respects it too much to try. Instead, he renders it atmospheric: always in the room (or, in one scene, just outside the window), even when nobody speaks its name. For some, myself included, this negative acknowledgment — like a pair of hollow cubes echoing the skyscrapers that rose above them — makes almost every other studio film about the attack seem crass. ”

A similar negative power can be felt in popular art that accidentally foreshadows 9/11. A few nights before the attacks, George Carlin was in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, taping a comedy special called “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.” The special, the title bit of which is pretty much what it sounds like, was canceled indefinitely (it was released in 2016, after Carlin’s death). A few months later, Carlin came out with a revised version, sans mass death rant. As standup, it’s ok — hilarious in places but nothing to rival his 70s stuff. It interests me mostly for what it leaves out. Like the majority of big-name American comedians (Joan Rivers was a glorious exception), Carlin dialed it back after 9/11. This dialing back, it seems to me, is at least as poignant as all the formal speeches, songs, and flags at half-mast — and it is, like those other things, a ritual for feeling the impact of tragedy. Carlin’s (lack of) vulgarity becomes a way of measuring the immeasurable, a sudden absence that suggests the full force of the attack (i.e., What is 9/11? It’s the thing that got Carlin — Carlin! — to hold his tongue).

Other popular art seems to foreshadow 9/11 in a different, almost opposite, way. Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” which wrapped in early 2001 and premiered in June, has several lengthy shots of lower Manhattan, Twin Towers and all, half-drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. What was meant to be a symbol of decay now seems almost optimistic, as if it comes from an alternate reality in which the ice caps melted but the hijackers spared the skyline. The original cover of Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” (1997) features an André Kertész photograph of the Towers, taken in 1972. On the right there’s a little dark bird whose resemblance to a plane seconds away from striking the buildings I doubt I’m alone in failing to un-see. The “accident” of this photograph is eerie in a suitably DeLillo-esque way, but it’s also perversely reassuring. It rewards us for recognizing, in the grainy black-and-white, the glimmer of an attack neither Kertész in 1972 nor DeLillo in 1997 could have foreseen — for “predicting,” with the benefit of hindsight, one of the least predictable events in American history. It tames catastrophe with dramatic irony, and thus does, purely by accident, what hundreds of books and movies have tried and failed to do: turn 9/11 into an effective, non-exploitative work of art.


What does this sample of art made (or reinterpreted) in the aftermath of 9/11 tell us about art in the aftermath of COVID-19?

It tells us, to begin with, that we can expect three kinds of art from America’s creative-industrial complex. First, a large number of books, films, TV shows, paintings, dances, and songs that are self-consciously, exhaustingly, excruciatingly “about” COVID and, as a result, trash. Second, a small number of works that successfully, or semi-successfully, convey something of the tragedy of the pandemic and whose success is likely to be, in some important sense, accidental — a novel already half-written before the spring, maybe, or a film shot on location, so that it’s about the pandemic even when it’s not trying to be. Third, a number of works (fewer than the first group but more than the second) that, thanks to history’s naughty prank, suddenly seem “prophetic” or “relevant” or “necessary.” One purpose of these three groups (a prerequisite for success, really) is to make us forget about the fourth and largest group: the artworks that have been abandoned or quietly canceled or otherwise lost to the pandemic, because their makers have died, or switched fields for want of money, or given up on making art and gone back to school.

It may sound odd to suggest that all popular art has a higher purpose of any kind — partly, I suspect, because we’re used to thinking of it in strictly transactional terms, as entertainment, or money-making, or a Trojan Horse stuffed with Marx. But art — no matter what it is, and whether or not the artist is aware — serves a further purpose merely by existing. The argument goes back to Aristotle: art creates a sense of continuity, smoothing out history’s roughness through repetition, coating disaster after disaster in a gloss of inevitability. Art preserves, through mimesis, what no longer exists, offers a permanent record of impermanent reality — in this way, it can be not only a comfort but a remedy for grief. But the remedy only works if you forget, at least temporarily, how close the work of art itself came to not existing. Permanence is art’s most important illusion, and in crisis, the illusion becomes imperative. When everything else struggles to go on, the show must.

Unfinished art — quietly, unglamorously, pointlessly unfinished art — tears back the curtain and shows us the nothingness hiding behind it. It shows that there is nothing inevitable about art’s continuation, and if art isn’t inevitable, nothing else is. Notice that this lesson cannot be found in the substance of the artwork itself; unfinishedness is not, in other words, an intrinsic quality of the work in the sense that Ben Lerner or the Met Breuer curators might like it to be. Unfinishedness is thrust upon art as meaninglessly as COVID has been thrust upon Homo sapiens. And much as thousands of years’ worth of people once interpreted plagues as signs from God, people today tend to rationalize or romanticize the unfinished in art, dressing it in a new, invented completeness. Thus, Kafka’s unfinished novel is interpreted as an omen of trouble in Europe; Keats’s fragments enact their author’s point about unheard melodies; a Greek statue missing its arms, nose, and brightly painted skin becomes complete in our eyes in ways the sculptor couldn’t have imagined.

Up to a point, we’re programmed to think this way. Our minds play the trick on us whether we like it or not, forcing us to invent gestalt (in the case of the ruined Greek statue, the trick is so powerful that the sight of the original work, paint and all, might be a little repulsive). But none of this prevents us from pondering the art that we know has been lost to COVID: the artists who’ll never create anything again, the fairs canceled at the last minute, the performances delayed indefinitely. We can’t analyze the art that doesn’t exist, but by reading the obituaries and the lists and the endless apologetic press releases we can at least get some sense for it. At the very least, we can regard it as the horrific loss that it is. It is possible to do this without sacrificing the illusion of permanence on which so much successful art depends — it’s possible, i.e., to tear back the curtain and admire it at the same time. And as long as it’s possible, it seems crucial to me that we all try.

Most artists have been devastated by the pandemic. Other creative professionals see it as pennies from heaven. It’s relatively easy for Disney+, to name one conspicuous example, to weather a crisis like this, since its entire business model depends on people staying home and watching its “content,” much of which is “original programming” based on well-known “intellectual property” (i.e., immune to the vagaries of actors and directors). The emergence of a global pandemic a few short months after the streaming service launched must seem, to certain ambitious executives, like a happy ending worthy of Walt himself. A sizeable chunk of their punier rivals, theaters, will go bankrupt, and record numbers of people have signed up for Disney+ already — all in all, what was supposed to take years is happening in weeks. These executives aren’t heartless, of course; they just have responsibilities to their shareholders (and, it bears mentioning, are too busy to go to the movies themselves). Right now, I have to think, some version of this is probably happening in every creative field where there is money to be made. Learning about unfinished COVID art helps you remember what the creative-industrial complex is spending billions of dollars to make you forget: art, real art, comes from sources that have nothing to do with companies’ business strategies or their mediocre output.

When you try to wrap your mind around horrific loss, you’re less likely to accept more. You’re reminded that art is precious, that its survival, let alone its flourishing, is far from a sure thing, and that you have some small power to help it survive. You’re reminded that it’s important to pay musicians for their music. You’re reminded that it’s important (not to mention more fun) to watch movies in theaters than to half-watch them on your telephone. You’re reminded to support local bookstores and local artists and local cuisine as much as you can. You’re reminded that art, like healthcare and education, isn’t a problem for the free market to solve, and that, as William S. Smith recently pointed out, the last time the American economy got this bad, the government spent the equivalent of billions of dollars to keep creative people creating.

Billions of dollars, with a B — that’s what it takes to shepherd America culture through an emergency. To ponder the art interrupted by the pandemic is to realize this, realize how far American art is from where it should be, and be frightened. Or, you could place your trust in corporations like Disney, which even now is hard at work on “Hawkeye,” “Loki,” “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Untitled The Mighty Ducks” series, and “Untitled Turner & Hooch” series. And if that’s your definition of art, I’m sorry to say, you deserve it.

Jackson Arn is a Forward contributing art critic.

What 9/11 tells us about Coronavirus art

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