Sunday marks a day in U.S. history that will forever be part of the American fabric — a pivotal day in our social conscious that has impacted us for 3,650 days, and continues to challenge us as a society. Putting aside the severe emotional strain and economic hardships inflicted with 9/11, it is notable that this defining moment in time has not been deeply explored and examined by artists, even 10 years later.
It’s not easy to say whether this should count as a failure of nerve or a triumph of decorum, but there’s probably a bit of both in the mix. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks there was a widespread feeling that it was a time for sober documentation, if not ruthless patriotism. Imagination wasn’t accredited to pass behind the emergency tape. The nation and the free world united to grieve, and anyone that did not band together in brotherhood was banished. And while it was easy to make bad art in the days following the attacks – art that waved a flag or simply restated comforting truisms – it remained hard to do anything of greater subtlety for a very long time. Creative works could plaster the wound but not probe it. Such an act was considered treason, then and now. Witness the recent stir about Steve Reich’s classical music recording commemorating 9/11, and his use of Twin Towers art on the cover. The backlash was so great, the cover image was changed just days before the record’s release.
But in reality, “art” became a part of 9/11 from the very first hours, when makeshift shrines and spontaneous walls of “Missing” posters mushroomed all over New York City.
By the first anniversary of September 11th, creative voices if not necessarily those of fine artists responded: there were dozens of songs and theater pieces, hundreds of museum exhibitions, and countless memorials, many of them identified as temporary, but some of them permanent. Art casts things in light of metaphor, and becomes a source of understanding. But we have to open our eyes to examine it. Of the art that has been generated in response to 9/11, it has been almost completely unsatisfying, much of it overbearing, sentimental and smacking of nationalism. Almost without fail, we have yet to see art tackle the uglier questions about this tragedy: who we are, why did this happen, should we have expected it, will it happen again? All probing questions that are still left unaddressed. This is precisely where art can, and should, play a pivotal role in leading the examination. Instead, artists have — as have the rest of us — tried to take this terrible beast and tame it. Or totally denied it’s authenticity. But in doing so, have we prolonged the healing process? Twisted metal and distressed surfaces have already been incorporated into the language of art, but just as another indication of war being sanitized for our viewing pleasure.
Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” some 60 years after the cataclysmic events it depicted and, while we won’t necessarily have to wait as long for 9/11’s masterworks, we’ve only just acquired sufficient distance from the event to be able to take risks with the subject and reshape it into different forms. The dust is at last beginning to settle – and the normal noise of a culture will return to fill that space. While we must never forget that horrific September day, we must not let the opportunity for artists to explore and dissect 9/11 fade way, either. Quoting the great Russian writer: “Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter.”