09
Sep
11

On the Need for Good 9/11 Art

The planes flew into the World Trade Center a few days before my sixteenth birthday.  I am about to turn twenty-six, and Americans are still hashing out our disbelief over what happened that morning.  What did it mean?  The bearers of political rhetoric have crystalized our collective grief against us in different ways— to justify war, or doubt, or fear.  But that isn’t the kind of meaning I mean.

Some people turn to religion for answers.  Me though, I am putting my faith in art—despite the fact that most of the art that has so far explicitly dealt with this subject is terrible.  You’ve seen the propaganda images.  They are often printed on souvenir T-shirts— paintings of semi-transparent eagles and flags in the sky over the smoking towers. 

An event so emotionally volatile and politically loaded blocks creativity.  No one wants to exploit others’ suffering, or reshape something so much larger that oneself into one’s own narrow aesthetics.  Perhaps tacky art on the subject is so widespread because it is hard to make meaningful art about a fresh wound.

(Side note:  The Independent ran a story on just this subject two days ago.  It came up when I Googled “9/11 art.”  I am not the only one thinking about this, it turns out.)

Ten years on, we have begun to transcend that first stunned moment.  Every time I happen across an unflinching, honest artifact from someone’s inner world in the aftermath of that event, I breathe a sigh of relief.  It is often painful to behold, but this is what we need.  If we cannot articulate our experiences, and bring all of our senses to understanding others’ experiences, we are powerless and alone in our sealed up worlds.

This Huffington Post article from Scott Cairns, a former poetry professor of mine, strikes a chord.   As a preamble to sharing the poem he wrote that morning, he says,

“I offer it now as something of a continuing meditation on the perplexity that lay before us then, that extends before us now, here in the meantime, the exceedingly mean time, the time being.”

That is an apt description of the gift that art can give us in difficult times.  Whether we are talking about poems or paintings, successful art gives us common ground to experience the irreducible.  It is the externalization of the internal processes that we would otherwise have to bear alone. 

Certainly, great art will be made about this influential event.  If the World Wars, such generators of inhumanity, could give us moving depictions of profound humanity, 9/11 will not forever be an untouchable subject. 

 I am waiting with both eyes open to learn, again and again, what it means.

-Shea

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1 Response to “On the Need for Good 9/11 Art”


  1. September 13, 2011 at 2:44 am

    This post made me think of a rather famous piece made several years after 9/11 and the ensuing engagements. Made by the also rather famous Shepherd Fairey:


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