Photographer Carla Shapiro hand copied nearly 2,500 obituaries from the "New York Times" in honor of those who died in 9/11, a labor-intensive process which took five months to complete. The resulting photographs, "Obituaries to Prayer Flags," will be on view in four locations in New York this month. (Photo © Carla Shapiro)
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there is no shortage of news stories, official ceremonies, and tributes. But this weekend I’ve been contemplating how the arts community fits into all of this speechifying and memorializing. What is the artistic legacy of 9/11 now that it is a decade behind us?
September 11th is tricky creative territory. How can any artist convey the horror of that day without over-simplifying it or reducing it to some narcissistic, naval-gazing exercise?
It’s true that time has passed, but perhaps not enough time. Reactions to 9/11-themed fiction, art, music, and memorials remain passionate, emotional, and highly personal. We cannot help but view such works through the lens of our own experience, cannot help but compare art to memory. Art that dares to address the events of September 11th is often found lacking by comparison, but just as often it cuts too close to our recollections of that day, threatening to unearth some forgotten pain or fear. We cannot tolerate 9/11 art that feels shallow or untrue, but we are equally leery of art that is too faithful to reality. At one end of the spectrum lies criticisms of “self-indulgence” and “sentimentality,” and at the other, “crassness” and “insensitivity.”
We cannot tolerate 9/11 art that feels shallow or untrue, but we are equally leery of art that is too faithful to reality. (Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman" before it was removed from Rockefeller Center)
The fervent response to Eric Fischl’s bronze nude called “Tumbling Woman” — a piece in the tradition of Rodin’s “Martyr” and Aristide Maillol’s “The River” — is an excellent case in point. Fischl’s larger-than-life sculpture, which was dedicated to 9/11 victims, was barely installed at Rockefeller Center in 2009 when the complaints began pouring in. Rockefeller Center responded by putting curtains around the statue, and then removed the sculpture altogether. The lifespan of Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman” was a mere week.
As the Star-Ledger observes, images of the attacks of the World Trade Center are noticeably absent in the September 11th-themed gallery and museum shows opening this month, such as the upcoming exhibit “September 11″ at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS 1 annex in Queens. Out of the 70 images made by 41 artists, not one shows the burning towers burning or a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Curators remain convinced that these images are too raw and disturbing for most viewers.
Mary Lucier's video installation of a sunrise over north Brooklyn in 1975 is one of the works in the MoMA PS1 show "September 11." Most of the art in the show was made before 9/11. (Image courtesy Mary Lucier and The San Francisco Museum of Art)
In the months following September 11th, writers like Don DeLillo and Taylor Branch predicted that the event would change our actions for years to come and would finally put an end to our culture’s pervasive cynicism. But as Michiko Kakutani argues
in her recent New York Times
article, “the New Normal…[is] very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment.” Here are Kakutani’s thoughts on post-9/11 culture:
Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture — like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts — such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations, and with unrelated forces like technology,…which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.
Economic worries — sparked by 9/11 and amplified by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown — accelerated trends already in place, including the Internet’s undermining of old business models in music and publishing. Warier than ever of taking risks, Hollywood looked even harder for special-effects extravaganzas that could readily find a global audience, and Broadway doubled down on shows starring big-name celebrities that could guarantee advance box office.
In response to 9/11, the artistic community quickly mobilized. Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff and Robert De Niro put together the Tribeca Film Festival (which had its 10th anniversary this spring) to help revitalize a ravaged Lower Manhattan. And musicians including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, the Who and Jay-Z did a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.
There was also an outpouring of art, like Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Anne Nelson’s earnest play “The Guys.” Such works served useful purposes — cathartic commemoration, therapeutic expression, public rallying — but in retrospect, many of them now feel sentimental or heavy-handed…
Some eloquent or daring works of art about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually did emerge — most notably, Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing film The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq; Gregory Burke’s haunting play “Black Watch,” based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq with a Scottish regiment; Amy Waldman’s novel The Submission, which explored the fallout of 9/11 on American attitudes toward Muslims; Donald Margulies’s play “Time Stands Still,” about the Iraq war’s effects on two journalists and their relationship; and Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” a bronze sculpture commemorating those who fell or jumped to their deaths from the twin towers…
Compelling as such works are, however, none were really game-changing. None possess the vaulting ambition of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s Underworld, which captured the entire cold war era. Instead, these 9/11 works feel like blips on the cultural landscape — they neither represent a new paradigm nor suggest that the attacks were a cultural watershed. Perhaps this is because 9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country. Perhaps it’s because our A.D.D. nation — after the assassinations of J.F.K., R.F.K. and M.L.K. in the ’60s, and decades of violence on 24-hour news — has become increasingly inured to shock.
We are a culture of contradictions. We have no trouble watching the character Jack Bauer torture terrorists on the television show 24, but we cannot bear the brutal punch of images and art work that remind of us that real terrorism exists. Even Eric Fischl’s bronze sculpture of a falling woman proved too visceral for many viewers.
There is a reason that escapist books and films like Harry Potter, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings have flourished over the past decade. They exorcise our impulse for revenge and our desire to see “good” triumphing over “evil.” The plots of these stories are familiar, but the fantasy settings allow us to avoid the discomfort of reality.
"Tribute in Light" is arguably the most powerful artwork to emerge from 9/11 (Photo by Francisco Diez)
So how is an artist to navigate this hypersensitive, contradictory climate?
Here are several examples of talented artists who are responding to the anniversary of 9/11 in their own unique way.