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Art and the Processing of Grief

A READER has called to question whether it was relevant to a particular dance review we ran a couple of weeks ago to note that the performer had recently lost a partner to AIDS.

Like most reader calls and letters, this one provided food for thought.

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The question of relevance of some points to another in a story comes up continually in journalism: Is the race of a criminal suspect important to this story? Is cause of death relevant to the lifetime achievements of the subject of an obituary? How does a person's private life relate to his or her role on the public stage?

But the larger point this reader's call left us with - perhaps unintentionally on her part - was about another kind of relevance: the realization of the value of the arts in helping us work through our griefs, our controversies, and our social dislocations. In this case, it was clear from the review that the personal experience of loss, and the performer's own sense of time running out, were informing the dance, and that the dance was a way of dealing with his feelings.

To cite an example safely removed now a generation back in time, let's consider the television show, ``All in the Family,'' which though hugely popular was also controversial for its willingness to talk, at some level at least, about issues of race and ethnicity, which hadn't appeared at all in the situation comedies of the 1960s. Just as one would have no clue from Jane Austen's novels that she wrote in the period of the Napoleonic wars, so one would have no idea of the urban riots of the mid-1960s from watching the Donna Reed show. But in the early 1970s, ``All in the Family'' was willing to consider some of the questions that had come up just a few years before, and was willing to turn off the laugh track if the answers turned somber. Here was television that bore some connection to real life, and it was a big hit.

One advantage of the literary arts (fiction and dramaturgy in all its forms, including screenplays) is that they present often fully realized human characters whom we get to know as well as we know just about anyone, except for a handful of our most intimate friends. And so we understand the challenges that those literary creations face in their fictional worlds more fully than we would have a chance to understand the dramas of real people. We see the trials of King Lear and his daughters on stage, for example, more up-close and personal than we would see a similar family drama in real life, unless we were the father or the daughters.

And if we are Lear or one of his daughters, we see the real-life drama from that particular standpoint. An artistic presentation can let us drop our usual point of view to see things from a different perspective.

The movie ``Philadelphia,'' about a young lawyer dying of AIDS, has probably helped a lot of mainstream audiences begin to understand what many families have gone through in experiencing such a loss. The commercial success and industry acclaim that the film has received probably signal that the public was ready to hear such a story.

This is not to say that every film or book or musical work that gives offense does so because of a profound message. There is such a thing as bad art, and in fact, there's a lot of it out there. But we need to consider, before we dismiss a performance or a literary work: Is it offensive because it is off-base? Or because it is right on target?

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We always want to see people moving through their sufferings to healing, not just ``processing'' their ills, or merely coming to terms with them. But we should not underestimate the value of an honest presentation, through whatever medium, of those sufferings as a first step to healing.

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