The anxiety as to the relevance of art in an irretrievably changed world provoked by the 9/11 attacks was soon immediately followed by an insistence on art's healing function. Assaulted by the traumatic scene of the collapsing World Trade Center towers we all found solace in classical harmonies. Our existence thrown out of joint by the gaping wound in our sense of security, we sought asylum in beauty. It was a time to grieve, to integrate the traumatic moment of disruption, to make sense of what stubbornly remained senseless. Art – both art in the galleries and popular expression in public spaces- took upon itself the task to express our grief and give us a sense of community in this time of crisis.
Concerned that the sensitivity—very often ridiculously overzealous—displayed in the wake of a traumatic event could quite easily slip into a permanent freeze on non-conformist expression, NCAC began an archive of post-9/11 political art. For the archive we actively sought art that was critical and possibly even disturbing, rather than solely consoling. ART NOW exists today as an archive of artistic responses to September 11 and its immediate aftermath.
That was a time when the White House press secretary warned that "people should watch what they say" and the "need for unity" was extolled everywhere. As always in times of crisis, the old formula of "you are either with us or against us" stood ready to label dissent as a sign of anti-Americanism. As the ART NOW archive shows, art can offer a space where different perspectives are explored, at a time when such perspectives are scarce in the media.
Now that many years have passed, it is telling to remember the atmosphere of censorship that dominated after 9/11: Displayed on the first anniversary of the attacks, Sharon Paz's exhibit, "Falling," was immediately removed from the Jamaica Center for the Arts in Queens, NY, because of its possible traumatic associations. The piece consisted of cutouts of human silhouettes falling through mid-air and spoke of human fragility, of the pull of our material bodies versus the soaring of the spirit, of tragedy and daily life. It reminded me of Bruegel's painting, The Fall of Icarus, where the tiny little figure of Icarus falls against an intensely blue sky, while peasants are going about their daily chores.Displayed on the anniversary of the WTC attacks, "Falling" also reminds of the stunning and heartrending sight of people jumping of the towers: a sight that is forever engraved in our collective memory. The association with that unforgettable moment in time, however, made some people insist that the work should be taken down. Why? Because they felt the right not to be reminded? But could one ever forget?
Erasing a tragic moment from artistic representation would not make it go away. In fact, some of the most memorable artwork was built out of tragedy and was a way of confronting it. Reducing art in public spaces to what is just decorative and affects nobody would not make tragedy easier on the spirit. On the contrary, it will further alienate public life from individual experience.
The paradox is that a lot of censorship in art derives from attempts to avoid hurting people, but ends up just helping them deny their feelings.