Although our primary focus in this class is the literature of 9/11, one of the particularly interesting and complex issues that arose in the wake of the tragedy was the public’s response to visual art, particularly “public art.” Such works — those that are situated in a public place where the work might be encountered by accident rather than intention — are often regarded in quite a different way than works in an art museum or gallery.
“In the aftermath of 9/11,” Robin Cembalist wrote last year in ARTNews, “it quickly became clear that art about or at Ground Zero was perceived by many as subject to a vetting process by constituencies connected to the attacks—and that stated priorities of patriotism, as well as the moral rights of victims and their families, trumped freedom of expression.” Above is an example of a work that received such scrutiny: Eric Fischl‘s Tumbling Woman, which was displayed in September of 2002 in the lower concourse of Rockefeller Center but was met with criticism for its depiction, as the Associated Press reported, of “a naked woman with her arms and legs flailing above her head, as if in a backward somersault.” The sculpture was, the AP report continued, “abruptly draped in cloth and surrounded by a curtain wall” and then removed. A spokeswoman for Rockefeller Center apologized, saying that she was sorry “if anyone was upset or offended by the display of this sculpture,” and Eric Fischl issued a statement as well. “The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody,” the statement said. “It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition. Both specifically towards the victims of Sept. 11 and towards humanity in general.”
The controversy had erupted after New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser wrote a story with the headline “Shameful Art Attack” that began:
Is this art? Or assault?
As grieving New Yorkers marked the anniversary of the World Trade Center’s destruction, the folks at Rockefeller Center got in your face to commemorate the terror attacks.
A violently disturbing sculpture popped up last week in the middle of Rock Center’s busy underground concourse – right in front of the ice-skating rink. It depicts a naked woman, limbs flailing, face contorted, at the exact moment her head smacks pavement following her leap from the flaming World Trade Center.
The worst part about the piece is that you can’t miss it. Even if you try.
Later, in an interview with David Rakoff, Fischl responded in this way to the question of what he might have done differently if he’d known there would be a public outcry: “I wouldn’t have made the sculpture differently at all. I even regret caving in to Rockefeller Center so fast and saying: ‘Yeah, take it away. I don’t want to hurt anybody.’ I’m sorry I didn’t raise a stink over it. I hate this idea that there are some poeple who have a right to express their suffering and others who don’t, that there are those in this hierarchy of pain who own it more than you do. It’s not necessarily about witnessing firsthand that makes the experience. Picasso wasn’t at Guernica when it happened; Goya wasn’t there on the firing line. This is what a culture looks to art for, to put image, or voice, or context to a way of rethinking, reseeing, re-experiencing.”
In another interview, Fischl was asked if he thought that the problem was the sculpture being displayed “too soon” after 9/11. “No, it’s more complicated than that,” he answered. “America has a hard time with the human body and the issues surrounding the body and certainly, mortality is one of those problems. The thing around 9/11 is that it was this horrific event killed 3,000 people but there were no bodies. If you remember all the passion was centered on architecture to replace the Towers. To secure the footprints of the Towers. It had nothing to do with human tragedy because it was too painful. So I think that the Tumbling Woman reminded people that it was a human tragedy.”
Fischl then said that he had not been in New York during the attacks. “I saw it on television, like everyone else,” he said. “You know in the rest of the world people were not spared the gory images, they saw the bodies. In America we very briefly saw the leapers, jumpers, fallers. So it became harder and harder to imagine the human tragedy, and therefore Tumbling Woman in this urban environment totally threw people with its vulnerability. All of us now saw that the images of the people who leapt or fell represented the ultimate statement of how horrible it was. To choose one death over another. People saw this as not just an American tragedy.”