Artistic Expressions of Reactions to 9/11

14 Sep

When it comes to art, sometimes less is more.  This is especially true when the piece is expressing powerful emotions or reflecting on a tragedy like the September 11 terrorist attacks.  If the viewer needs to take a long time to sort through details of a piece, the art loses its impact.  Such is the case in Art Spiegelman’s September 24, 2001 cover of The New Yorker and Tony Fitzpatrick’s “Monument to a Standing New Yorker.”  Spiegelman’s simple black on black image of the World Trade Center gives a gloomy and haunting impression of New York after 9/11.  Fitzpatrick’s sketch, though interesting and full of detail, is confusing and doesn’t clearly express emotion.

Tony Fitzpatrick is a Chicago-based artist and poet.  He has published several books of his art and poetry, and he has created album artwork for musicians such as Lou Reed and Steve Earle.  His art is typically cartoonish collages or etchings that buzz with detail and symbolism.  In the case of “Monument to a Standing New Yorker,” though, the detail is overwhelming and the symbolism is too complex without context.

Monument to a Standing New Yorker © Copyright 2001 Tony Fitzpatrick

“Monument to a Standing New Yorker” is a black and white etching Fitzpatrick created in 2001, the same year as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  While the twin towers appear in the picture, they are cast off to the left side and are not the main focus.  Prominent in the center stands a concrete figure of a man riddled with cracks and holes. He stands in the middle of the city holding a fire hose, despite having both arms and one of his legs broken in half, representing the monument described in the title of the piece.

The image of the concrete man symbolizes how New Yorkers have survived despite all their hardships, which are depicted in the figures around the “monument man.”  A melting snowman head in the bottom left corner represents global warming and a woman in the bottom right corner is being mugged.  Three black balloons near the twin towers possibly represent drug addiction (referencing the Goo Goo Dolls’ 1998 song?) and the black crow in the upper right corner shows there are bad things still to come.   Yet in spite of all the suffering, the “monument man” is trying to clean up the city with the fire hose, just as the citizens of New York continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, such an interpretation of the piece does not come easily.  The etching is so cluttered with details that it becomes difficult to find meaning in the art.  When such a work should conjure thoughts of struggle and persistence, the overwhelming feeling a viewer gets is more like confusion.  What is with the fedora-wearing ghost?  Or the mounds of dirt?  Are the hands under the right arm of the “monument” praying or clapping?  The ambiguousness and density of these details are too frustrating for a viewer to handle.   Instead of communicating a clear emotional message, the etching ends up looking like something a high school kid doodled during his English class, scribbling until he ran out of room on the page.

Like Fitzpatrick, Art Spiegelman creates artwork that is typically cartoonish and dark.   Spiegelman is known for being part of the underground comics movement and his work tends to reflect on the psychological effects of trauma.  In 1968, Spiegelman had a nervous breakdown and soon after that his mother, who had been struggling with depression for years, committed suicide.   These events are reflected in Spiegelman’s work, giving him his critical and emotional perspective.

© Copyright 2001 The New Yorker

Manhattan-based Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker from 1992-2002.  For the September 24, 2001 issue’s cover, he created a black on black image that addresses the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s “Black Painting,” the image appears at first glance to be completely black (except for the white publication title).  The careless observer would cast off the picture as being something a kindergartener could have created.  Upon closer examination, though, a ghostly silhouette of the World Trade center emerges from the darkness, like a lost memory returning to one’s consciousness.

Once the cleverness of the piece is realized, the seemingly simple image becomes powerfully emotional.  Spiegelman, who is all too familiar with depression, knows how to show the despair and emptiness felt by the people of New York City after the tragedy of 9/11.   The overwhelming blackness of the picture sucks the viewer into feelings of misery and hopelessness, while the silhouette shows the shock and inability to cope with a sudden loss.  As New Yorkers looked at their beloved skyline after 9/11, the absence of two such prominent landmarks, not to mention all the lives lost that day, must have had the same chilling effect as the silhouettes in Spiegelman’s picture.

In both Spiegelman’s cover for The New Yorker and Fitzpatrick’s “Monument to a Standing New Yorker,” the lack of colors makes the viewer focus on the detail of the piece (or lack thereof in the Spiegelman).  Although it depicts the aftermath of a tragic event, Spiegelman’s work is hauntingly beautiful.  It portrays a clear message of emptiness and despair, while Fitzpatrick’s piece merely confuses and frustrates the senses.  It’s like economist E.F. Schumacher once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

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