According to press reports, New York will observe the second anniversary of 9-11 with a reprise of the Towers of Light—those twin beacons that in Spring, 2002, rose from lower Manhattan to memorialize the lives lost on that day. As welcome as Towers’ return is for New York, it is particularly meaningful for the city’s art scene. Two of the memorial’s four designers, Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Mydoa, are New York-based sculptors--which means that local artists helped make the most powerful artwork yet created that deals with the terrorist attack. Unfortunately, it is one of the only artworks to deal with the attack. Its very success begs the question—why aren’t there more Towers of Light? Where is the art about 9-11?
You’d think the disaster would fire artists’ imaginations. After all, the Towers were destroyed with sight of Chelsea, the nexus of the international art world, by forces that would, given a chance, eliminate that world and subject many of its participants to the full restrictions of fundamentalist theology. And yet, outside of Towers of Light, few contemporary artists show any interest in the event.
I once asked painter Chuck Close why this should be and he suggested that “art that tries to deal with historical events too directly usually isn’t good art.” Fair enough: art is not journalism. Still, Goya executed a series of prints regarding the horrors of Napoleon’s Spanish campaign. Manet depicted the 1864 battle off the French coast between the Union warship Kearsarge and the Confederate raider Alabama (works currently on display in a popular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum). Picasso painted Guernica, decrying the Fascist destruction of a town during the Spanish Civil War. And in 1998 Jenny Holzer created Lustmord, an installation that dealt with the rape of Bosnian women by Serb militias. When it wants to, art can address war and atrocity. The attacks of 9-11 were the worst attack in U.S. history. Shouldn’t it merit some aesthetic consideration?
Not these days, it seems. These days, we get the Chapman Brothers’ Rape of Creativity, in which the artists deface Goya’s Disasters of War prints. Or Maurizio Cattelan’s 2002 sculpture Frank and Jamie, which consists of two full-sized mannequins dressed in NYPD uniforms standing on their heads; explanatory literature described the piece as “a new icon of subversion; a disarmed figure of loss; a call to truce in a moment of crisis.” Whatever. The point is, what’s the purpose of these, and other, “transgressive” artworks in a world full of religious zealots plotting real transgressions with real devastating effects?
Actually, the problem lies less with contemporary art than with the contemporary art world. Many people in this industry aren’t sure what to think of 9-11. Conditioned by multiculturalism and fear of looking too “establishment,” they publicly adopt a bland attitude toward the attack—as if the murder of nearly 3,000 people were the result of a particularly “tragic” earthquake or tornado. Others, of course, blame the U.S. for the event, exhibiting a political narcissism that places America—and by extension, themselves—at the heart of every world situation. Most disturbing was the well-known painter who told me: “No one really cares about 9-11. Despite all the talk about it, it hasn’t really changed anything.”
In one way, she’s right. After over 150 years of traducing bourgeois values, the art world has no idea how to treat an enemy who traduces its values. Defining itself by what it rebels against, many artists, critics and curators have trouble defining what they stand for. They rail against benign agencies like the National Endowment of the Arts for cutting off artists’ funding, yet fall silent before malevolent agents who would cut off artists’ heads for violating religious prohibitions. Having spent decades “transgressing” boundaries and “breaking” taboos, this privileged milieu no longer has the will to defend its own values, or the culture that nurtures them.
There are some exceptions. Noted New York sculptor Rachel Feinstein, for example, recently exhibited Crucifixion, a life-sized recreation of a Northern Renaissance-style Calvary scene. When I asked about the piece, she said it was, in part, a reaction to 9-11, her way of supplicating God for protection in frightening times. This is far removed from the antics of the Chapmans, Cattelan and other “transgressive” artists. After 9-11, and the threats it revealed to our civilization, we need more art like Crucifixion: art that draws boundaries, instead of breaks them; that raises totems instead of shattering taboos. That inspires instead of demoralizes. But until the art world moderates its “transgressive” ways, we’ll have to make do with Towers of Light.