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9/11 art: The good, the bad, the truly disgusting

“The Blistering Plume” by Donna Levinstone

On 9/11 fear and anger and grief temporarily galvanized Americans into one united front. Flags, anthems and prayers ascended with the smoke, and differences dissolved in the face of imminent threat. But one result for soul-searching Americans was an even stronger resolve to stand our ground – be it left right or center – and our divisions have never been more apparent than in the arts.

Now a decade later, artists massively observe this anniversary with personal renderings, patriotic memorials and the obligatory scathing attacks on American policy. Yet it is heartening to see most gallery exhibits and public works honoring the victims and removing their boxing gloves as a token of respect, at least temporarily.

Of course the most renown public art related to 9/11 is the site at Ground Zero itself, now somewhat open for business. A beautiful, tree-lined square, memorial wall and deep reflecting pools have attracted great crowds and stirred emotions, but much more is planned for the future.

Projected plans for the September 11 Memorial Museum include buildings, gardens and an extension specifically for art. The museum’s “Artists Registry,” is a virtual art gallery and 9/11 art database that hosts many artworks at its website and is looking for more. Professional and amateur artists of all types are welcome to enter work at the web site, which aims to reflect the breadth of artistic response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

At the Artist’s Registry, you can find Donna Levinstone’s paintings of the toxic cloud which enveloped the city, which she originally began doing in 2002. She managed to find visual beauty in the scene at the same time, creating a type of redemptive work. Levinstone is one of a small number of artists who were so profoundly affected by the events of that day that she continues to create 9/11 themed work. Her art is displayed at the Library of Congress and will be part of the 9/11 Museum collection when it opens.


An example of regional art is the “Button Project, a 9/11 Memorial” purchased and displayed by the City Hall of York, Maine. Weaver Sarah Haskell accepted donations of 3,116 white buttons representing each victim. With the help of volunteers she sewed them in patterns on hand-woven black rayon and linen fabric.

The piece is suspended vertically and at a distance has the look of a stone memorial or peaked mausoleum with the same large dimensions at 4′ by 10′ feet.

Across the country, San Francisco artist Michele Pred illustrates how 9/11 altered our lifestyle in “Confiscated” at the Jack Fischer Gallery. Working as a limo driver in 9/11, Pred shared conversations with jittery passengers and became curious about the tons of confiscated contraband from flights. She eventually gained access to some of the items and has created works incorporating them into symbols of safety and comfort, such as hearts, crosses and the U.S. flag. Pred notes how benign and unthreatening most of them seem, such as plastic sewing scissors.

In “Fear Culture”, she uses 234 confiscated objects cast in resin inside petri dishes, to loosely resemble a large American flag.

Her intent is obviously irony but also a challenge to us.

Pred queries the viewers, “Just as security regulations that were initially resisted become the new standard, what else is being tolerated or accepted in the name of safety?”

“Fear Culture” by Michele Pred

If you want to sound off about personal vexations in airports, Pred invites you to visit her companion Facebook page “(Re)collections: Share Your Airport Confiscation Stories.”

Eye witness artist Todd Stone has both written and painted his version of events after photographing them from his home a few blocks from the ex-towers. His watercolors are “an elegy to the lives lost and altered that day” and have been shown at venues around the world.

“City of Ruins” by Todd Stone

Uniquely, Stone remains in his home near Ground Zero, where he continues to observe the changing landscape and surrounding humanity. He is still haunted by the “ghosts of people screaming and leaping 90 stories” and those memories continue to inform his work.

Currently his “Witness II: Downtown Rising” (series) is being hosted at the reconstructed 7 World Trade Center.

Foreign cities host a fair share of 9/11 exhibits also. In London, Francesc Torres offers images of 9/11 debris that he photographed in a huge New York hanger after the fact. The results are arresting and artful in the same way that an autopsy may still unearth new revelations on its subject.

A few pieces of actual wreckage are also included with the exhibit, “Memory Remains”, which is appropriately housed at the Imperial War Museum where it will remain until February.

On the other side of the great ideological divide, artist Hugh Mendes offers his thoughts on 9/11, although many would rather not hear them. Rather than remembering American victims or even sending a few good thoughts out to the survivors, Mendes is more inspired by Abu Ghraib and purported U.S. atrocities.

Bradley Manning

All good liberals require victims, and Bradley Manning of Wiki-leaker fame is the designated victim-model for some of Mendes’ works. Manning is currently jailed for something like sabotage or criminal stupidity and apparently worthy of pity for this artist.

Mendes takes actual newspaper or magazine photos and painstakingly recreates them, in oils, to make his political points. His intent is to cause viewers to reconsider the news they receive daily by viewing them as works of art in a new context.

Allegedly Mendes had painted a somewhat prophetic painting of Osama Bin Laden training a gun on George Bush even before 9/11. He neither explains his motives nor seems particularly contrite concerning the attacks in 2001. Apparently his “prophetic” piece seems to have entirely missed the many innocent civilians.

Even more puzzling is Mendes’ painterly homage to the London Tube suicide bomber, Shehzad Tanweer. Why waste the time and canvas, when 52 innocent victims lost their lives and many more worthy were injured? I’ll answer my own question: Hughes apparently needs media attention at all costs and probably sells more art through vacuous offense than thoughtful work would ever get him. And this is an indictment on the Western art scene and society as much as on him.

There are artists in the same vein who marinate in their venom toward the free nations where they currently reside and work in luxury. It isn’t possible that they would be even tolerated anywhere else, but they can’t seem to catch the irony. With irrational hatred they add salt to the wounds of the 9/11 families and question the decency of the troops forced to deal with aggressors. Many of these artists also have a great deal of talent, which I find very sad – it’s like wiping your backside with mink. What a waste.

The good news is that in multiple platforms many artists are thoughtfully addressing the issues, the wounds and the state of the soul of America. While we are not above reproach and have serious problems, neither arrogant, blanket condemnations nor blind patriotism at all cost is very helpful.

The nature of the trauma to our psyche on 9/11 makes it difficult to make powerful art without offending someone, somewhere. Yet when artists focus on universal themes of humanity and step down from soap boxes and petty crusades, powerful art is bound to happen.