- Narrating 9/11
It has now been a decade since a group of nineteen men affiliated with al-Qaeda—fifteen from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirate, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt—hijacked four US airliners and flew two of them into the World Trade Center towers, another into the Pentagon, while the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania when the passengers attempted to retake the cockpit. Despite Paul Greengrass’s film United 93 (2006) that depicts the heroics of these same passengers, out of all these coordinated events, the attacks on New York alone have become iconic in the American imagination. That is, in part, because the twin towers themselves were iconic, an immediately recognizable element of the New York City skyline, familiar from countless films, television shows, and even video games. When the terrorist attacks occurred in New York, one of the US media centers, eyes all over the world watched, through the immediate mediation of television, the at-the-time incomprehensible inferno and subsequent collapse of the twin towers, which killed nearly 2700 people.
Whether one believes that 9/11 changed everything or changed nothing, in the aftermath of the attacks the Bush Administration unquestionably generated an Orwellian litany of naming—“coalition of the willing,” “extraordinary rendition,” “War on Terror,” “enhanced interrogation,” “regime change,” “preemptive war,” “homeland security”—that has reshaped America’s political discussion during the 2000s and widened the divide between Red and Blue states, not to mention the divide between the US and other nations.
While the realm of politics was quick to seize the imaginary of 9/11 to construct a new form of PC (Patriotic Correctness) in order to [End Page 381] help justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the last ten years have not been kind to artists’ attempts to represent 9/11. Everyone seems to find something wrong with 9/11 art—both the visual and the literary. At the one-year anniversary of the attacks, the works of two contemporary artists received such hostile public responses that they were effectively censored. Eric Fischl, a prominent New York artist, created Tumbling Woman, a bronze sculpture of a nude woman in free fall. Fischl did so explicitly to commemorate those who leapt to their deaths from the towers. In September of 2002, the Rockefeller Center contracted to display Fischl’s statue for a two-week period, but a public outcry, fueled by a New York Post columnist, led to the almost immediate suppression of Fischl’s statue: Rockefeller Center officials first covered it in cloth and placed a screen around the statue so that no one could see it and then removed the statue on September 18.1 At the same time, the artist Sharon Paz exhibited a work called Falling; it consisted of numerous cutout silhouettes, all in different attitudes of free fall, that were placed in the windows of the Jamaica Center for the Arts. As Paz has noted, she “found the images of people falling the most disturbing and wanted to deal with them” in the hope that her art might “bring out the reality within the memory that this event burns into our mind.” The piece was supposed to be on view from September 11, 2002 until October 5, but, as was the fate of Fischl’s statue, negative media attention caused Jamaica Center officials to remove Paz’s exhibit two weeks early (Swartz 87–89). Apparently, the one-year anniversary of 9/11 was too soon for artistic representations.
But even the passing of time has not warmed the critical response. In 2006, Graydon Parrish debuted his massive oil painting, “The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001” (a detail of which appears on our cover) at the New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA). Clearly inspired by classical realism, Parrish attempts to tell an allegorical story of 9/11. As the NBMAA website explains:
The painting should be “read” from left to right but as the title of the work suggests a cycle, the right side and the left are connected so the painting itself becomes a cycle of life. There are children...