Given all the concern in the art community about confronting urgent sociopolitical problems, from the status of women to the fate of the environment, it was distinctly chary about responding to the terrorist attacks of that day. Surely it was not for lack of visual material; September 11 was rife with enough imagery to prompt a dozen Goyas to make new -Disasters of War. But this was not to be. The tremulous rage that performance artists had routinely aimed at Jesse Helms or Reagan was nowhere to be found. Nor was there any noteworthy attempt to humanize the victims, perhaps out of fear that it might dehumanize their killers.
Only one artist hazarded a monumental work on the attacks: Eric Fischl, whose bronze sculpture Tumbling Woman was installed in Rockefeller Center a year later. Its subject was the most heartrending sight of 9/11, the multitude of victims driven by the flames to leap from the World Trade Center towers, their private agony played out on the world’s most public stage. And yet Fischl worked assiduously to remove any sense of poignancy or dignity from the figure, showing her landing ridiculously on her head, with all the bathos of an unsightly spill in the tub. Thus the one significant monumental artistic response to 9/11 ended in dehumanizing the victims. (Following an explosion of outrage in a city still raw from the event, the statue was whisked away within days.)
Most other post-9/11 art suffered from the same moral incoherence. Typical was Ron English, the artist famous for his illegal billboards that parodied corporate advertisements. In 2002 he managed to sneak a billboard into New York City, with the message “Jihad Is Over! (If you want it),” a play on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s celebrated “War Is Over” ad in the New York Times. The billboard was baffling to New Yorkers, who presumably felt the sign would be more properly placed in Kabul or Tehran than on East 14th Street.
This is not to say that 9/11 did not call forth a volcano of moral rage among artists—only that this rage found no outlet until 2003, when it came to be directed at George W. Bush. Among all the scatological, puerile, and corrosive caricatures of Bush that began to be shown at that time, one looks in vain for even one corresponding image of Osama bin Laden or Mohamed Atta. For example, In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman’s intensely personal graphic memoir of the 9/11 attacks, contains not a single depiction of bin Laden, while we are treated to scurrilous images of President Bush toppling the Statue of Liberty and a gleeful Dick Cheney slitting the throat of the American eagle on whose back he is riding.
Does one have to wonder about the sentiments of an artistic community that did this, or is it obvious how they really feel? Is it part of the The Mask in that they held back from making art about that event for fear they would reveal too much of their actual views, caught between what they wanted to do and what even they knew would be beyond the tolerance of the American Street?