When Artists go Mute

We like to believe that nothing is taboo in Art. Artists can tackle the profane, violate social norms, and make us uncomfortable. That’s their job, and they play an important role in our free society. Art memorializes events and people, often in raw or shocking ways, and viewing such work can force us to face emotions and events that we may not wish to accept. Students learn about the Holocaust, but it may not be until reading Number the Stars or watching Schindlers List that they really understand the magnitude of the atrocity.

It’s been ten years since the attacks of 9/11, and yet there is a distinct absence of art on the subject. When artists do tackle the subject, it is largely through indirect means. This LA Times article brilliantly articulates this observation, and points out that the only major film that actually takes the subject head on (United 93) is rather one dimensional.

“Although admirably accurate and even-handed in its documentary-like marshaling of facts, “United 93″ fails to elevate its subject beyond the level of a historical reenactment. It monumentalizes the heroic passengers and depicts the hijackers without judgment — but also without illuminating them as people.”

What’s going on here? Such timidity and self-censorship is not only unusual for the art community, but it seems to contradict the very principles that artists uphold. One obvious explanation for artists’ avoidance of the subject is that it is simply too soon; the wound is still too raw. 9/11 was ten years ago, but it might as well have been yesterday. I do not know one person who died on that day and I still have absolutely zero interest in watching United 93. I still get chills when I watch actual video footage of that day. I can imagine that for people who actually lost loved ones, the last thing they want to see is a piece of art publicizing their personal tragedy. Artists who do dare to undertake this difficult subject have encountered such resistance. In 2009, a commemorative statue by artist Eric Fischl was covered and finally removed after a number of complaints from the public.

Tumbling Woman by Eric Fischl

As you can see, the statue is powerful, but in no way offensive or graphic. The fact that it rejected by the public, and ultimately censored, speaks to the sensitivity of the subject, even 8 years after the attacks.

Another aspect of this phenomenon is the availability of real footage of the attacks, as well as the spectacular nature of the tragedy. This didn’t happen in a remote village, under the cover of night. This happened on a beautiful and clear September morning, in one of the most populated cities in the world. What American doesn’t have that nauseating image–of the second plane smashing into the south tower–seared into their brain? What American doesn’t have crystal clear memories of nightmarish footage of people leaping from the burning inferno? Do we really need Hollywood to take a crack at it?

But as the LA Times article points out, the point of art is not to reenact history. Movies such as Hotel Rwanda and the Pianist prove that artists can effectively communicate the horrors of genocide without the gratuitous violence which marked each actual event. There is clearly something else at play, something nastier than an inability to talk about the tragedy.

For people who lost loved ones on that day, I imagine that 9/11 is remembered purely as a day of unspeakable tragedy. For the rest of us, and we should count ourselves lucky, the memory of 9/11 is wrapped up in a whopping knot of complications. War on Terror, PATRIOT Act, erosion of civil liberties, American imperialism, Iraq, Afghanistan, Oil–it’s like the knot of Christmas lights from hell. Americans haven’t agreed on the legacy of 9/11, so it’s hard for American artists to tackle the subject with the same gusto that they might the Holocaust. And as we have seen, those artists who do dare to bring up the subject often face an unwilling audience. When will we be ready to watch a play that tells the story of Mohamed Atta? I wonder when we will be willing to face all of the angles of this tragedy, even the ones that we’d rather not see.

For more reading, see this excellent article on the “September 11” exhibit on display at the MOMA, in which “out of the 70 images made by 41 artists, not one shows a plane flying into the towers, or the towers smoking like torches, or people falling from the burning windows and landing in the plazas and streets below.”

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