A Calamity of Heart

A Calamity of Heart

An essay for “America: Now and Here.”


This essay, commissioned by “America: Now and Here” curator Eric Fischl, will serve as the introduction to the portfolio of work by the artists participating in the project.

Artists in America don’t usually band together. They are independent entrepreneurs of their imaginations. They create universes of which they are the sole occupants. They may influence one another, they may be bundled by critics as members of an aesthetic movement, but they work alone and think alone, and if they gather on social occasions, like the members of any trade, it is for warmth, for they all know how few of them there are and how unseen by most of the population.

But there are critical moments in our national life when artists do come together as a constituency. In the 1930s, with the country mired in poverty and with the ominous rise of European totalitarian states, artists were necessarily joined by their recognition of political and economic crisis. They disagreed on how to respond—some looked toward the antebellum past, others aligned their spirits with the available varieties of Marxian socialism—but whether doing fervently idealistic murals, machine art, art as political commentary or the art of American loneliness, all of them manifested an enlarged public presence in our national life. What they delivered was a kind of groundsong of a diverse, still vibrantly alive society, proposing by the outpouring of their creative work an underlying freedom, a constitutional identity that was, for all the difficulties of that moment, firm and enduring.

So here now today, in a new century, is this assemblage of artists, poets, musicians and playwrights, and we must ask what is the crisis today that impels them, in all their brilliant individuality, to present themselves as a group show?

The fact is that some terrible deep damage to the nation was done in the aftermath of 9/11. The government that swung into action misdirected its response and, with devious arguments to the American people, took us to war. In short time it had adopted the policies of an authoritarian state. Americans found themselves the sponsors of torture, and of the endless imprisonment without trial or counsel of presumed terrorists; they learned well after the fact that they themselves were subject to secret illegal surveillance by their government, and they saw their Constitution disdained with the unilateral abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Convention, though such treaties are constitutionally “the supreme Law of the Land.” All these measures were claimed as wartime expedients and promoted with a propaganda of fear. At the same time, the scientific evidence of global warming was ignored, religious literalism was put in the way of medical advance, regulatory agencies were given over to the very industries they were to regulate and, rife with wartime corruption, this government left to wallow an American population severely alienated by gross economic inequalities, the forces of wealth thriving at the expense of the middle class and the shrill demagogues of right-wing radio and television shouting down all principled disagreement with what was happening. The resulting trauma to the American people’s sense of themselves and their country is still being felt. We have not wanted to believe that a sitting president and his advisers could have so given themselves to an agenda of social, economic and environmental deconstruction, and with such relentless violations of constitutional law as to render themselves, definably, as subversives.

The artists, poets, musicians are gathered here in the presumption that a politics of self-correction may not be enough to heal us, to recover us from our spiritual disarray. There is a lingering miasma of otherworldly weirdness hanging over this country, the aftereffect of both the foreign terrorist attack on our land and the domestic political attack on our constitutional identity. A significant percentage of our population is given to hysteria of one sort or another. A meanspirited despair, a concoction of populism, nativism and racism, still disrupts and denigrates the political discourse. At the same time, our politicians are unable or unwilling to budge the seemingly unmovable structures of corporate wealth that hold in check our national priorities. The top-down flow of ideas and information still configures our debate, still organizes the issues for our edification, and the habitual weekend retreats of media and telecommunications moguls attest to their righteous intent to own the screens of cyberspace as they do the airways, the TV channels and the telephone frequencies. All of this together would seem to define a national identity crisis, a terribly weakened sense of ourselves as a proud citizenry in charge of our lives—a calamity of heart as bad as what America suffered in the Great Depression.

Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate. Wildly different and individualistic in their political persuasions as well as their art, the artists, writers and performers here collected offer us the aroused witness, the manifold reportage, the expressive freedom, the groundsong for our time of a diverse, still vibrantly alive society, that for all the difficulties of this moment would restore us to ourselves, awaken our stunned senses to the public interest that is our interest, and vindicate the genius of the humanist sacred constitutional text that embraces us all.

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