The paradox is this:
It is all but impossible to think about the bomb, let alone to present it in art. If you never saw it, you can't imagine it, not really, not the full horror, the human shadows burned into the sidewalk. "There is no substance to our terror," as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton puts it.
Yet, as Lifton says, "if an artist doesn't take it into his imagination, or hers, then they are not immersing themselves in our world, not drawing on the deepest forces, which a good artist wants to do."
Lifton has written extensively about the Hiroshima survivors, as well as about survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, brainwashing and Vietnam.
He was one of the first to write about the universal psychic numbing that the bomb has caused. On a brief visit here, he talked about art as a means of breaking through the numbness.
"It takes time for something as vast as this to seep in to the levels that an artist can work with," he observes. For the people of Hiroshima and the rest of Japan, the problem always was to get distanced from the literal event, but for the rest of us, "it's still a bit amorphous, a threat rather than something really happening. To create art you need a prior image of something that can resemble it or at least takes you from your head to that thing."
He believes the nuclear threat, along with the breakdown in traditional symbols and the media revolution, leads us to jump restlessly from one interest or fashion to another. Just in the last decade or so, he said, painting has moved from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, Op Art, kinetic art, destructive art, conceptual art and beyond.
"That shifting in art, as in the psychological self of individuals, is at least influenced by this threat of total destruction. Some of the movements, like German Neo-Expressionism and others, are extremely intense, using the most violent imagery."
Even today's nonrepresentational art can be very much related to the bomb without actually depicting it, he adds.
"With the possibility of sudden total destruction, our already tenuous relation of life and death is profoundly threatened, and we'll get all kinds of things, some sensible, some exploitative, some crazy, about death and the way we picture it. It's like the issue of violence in the media: there is exploitation, but still, there's got to be some violence, otherwise you're not speaking to our culture."
He is delighted with the attention being showered on this 40th anniversary of Hiroshima.
"To me," he says, "this reflects a greater willingness to think about it." And when you start thinking about it, the central issue becomes what to do about it.
"The consciousness affects the artists, who do things that affect the general consciousness, which in turn affects the leaders, who then have impact on the artists and the rest. The consciousness has very much affected our leaders, compared to two, three or five years ago. It can and will, still more."
He sees a shift in tone among the leaders, and though "this administration has shown us little evidence of change in policies, it conveys a sense that it wants to . . . The people are ahead of the leaders on this issue, very clearly. Artists are beginning to contribute to that: a few novels, plays like Arthur Kopit's 'End of the World' . . ."
Some of this art is violent, like "The Day After" and Leon Golub's ferocious paintings at the Corcoran of mercenaries and torturers (for "disappearing" people can be a cottage industry too); some is understated, like the film "Threads" and the Ribbon project to surround the Pentagon today with pictures of the things we cannot bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war.
"They're grappling with the issue in very imaginative terms, connecting it with everyday life. This is very important, that one can't just surrender the imagination to the threat but must combine a sense of that threat with everything else that one is imagining. That's the way we deal with it.
"It's that combination of this extraordinary and awesome dimension of potential destruction with the nitty-gritty pain and struggle of everyday life that artists have to achieve, I would say."