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9/11 at the Constitution Center
The most powerful image in “9/11: A Nation Remembers”— aesthetically, emotionally, and conceptually—- is not among the 100 photographs by Jonathan Hyman that are featured in this exhibition at the National Constitution Center. It is a “recovered World Trade Center flag” that is fully recognizable, even though it’s in tatters and no more than two-thirds of its original form. This “flag” is owned by one William D. Markert Jr. who found it while raking through Ground Zero debris deposited for processing at the Fresh Kill Landfill on Staten Island. Markert had the “flag” lovingly conserved, matted and framed, and it hangs at the exhibit’s entrance.
This object is the only piece on display that comes close to fulfilling the exhibition's stated purposes: to aid viewers to “understand better how what happened that day affected friends, families, fellow citizens and our nation”; to “shape our national debate about terrorism, liberty and security”; and to invite viewers to “join the ongoing conversation” about these issues.
This tattered flag (worth the price of admission on its own) embodies, more powerfully than any of the exhibited photographs, the collective pain felt on that day and raises more poignantly the questions: What is most worth remembering about the day, and why? Was it something done to us by others on 9/11, or was it something we did to ourselves in responding to 9/11? And finally it forces us to think (in a center dedicated to the study of the U.S. Constitution) about the aftermath of an event that has led to the most serious Constitutional crisis since the Civil War: a "unitary executive's" challenge to our system of checks and balances in government.
Photojournalism, not art
Over a five-year period, Hyman visited and photographed some 15,000 examples of ordinary folks’ use of vacant walls, trees, fire hydrants, playgrounds and playing fields, houses, barns, vehicles and motorcycles, as well as their own bodies to express anger, pride in country and a sense of loss. Although the exhibit includes a few photographs of missing-person flyers and victims' tombstones, most feature the work of tattoo artists, graffiti artists, muralists and a variety of amateurs who paint/decorate objects ranging from trees (“Wrapped Tree”) to doll shoes (“Flag Shoes”) to houses (“God Forgives ---- But We Don’t”) to the human body (“T.C.’s Back”).
Hyman, currently a visiting artist in Rutgers University’s Department of American Studies, is certainly more than a competent photographer. But what’s most notable about his pictures are not their aesthetic virtues but his historical documentation of a small slice of Americana at a moment in time. As one of the interpretative wall panels proclaims, the exhibit focuses on “democratizing memorial making” by featuring ordinary people mourning, protesting against the facelessness of mass murder, and calling for revenge, peace, hope, and justice.
The sole exception is “Farm Flag,” a photo of a very large barn in Delhi, N.Y., on which is painted a gigantic American flag. The bucolic setting, defined by barn and fields (in contrast to urban destruction), combines with Hyman’s sensitivity to color, texture, gradations from light to dark, symmetry and dynamic equilibrium, to provide an uncharacteristically strong artistic statement.
Predictable patriotic symbols
The exhibit is dominated by a repetitive use of predictable patriotic symbols: the American flag, the eagle, fire fighters, the Twin Towers and the Statue of Liberty. On the other hand, I came across only one mural that depicted the falling body of a jumper from a World Trade Center tower (“This Means War”); only one that linked Iraq to 9/11 (“Whack Iraq”); only one to feature the faces of actual victims (“Memory of Your Smile”); only one to make use of religious symbols (“Queens Carpet Store”); and only two that offered a positive message (“Hope” and “Hope on a Handball Court”).
The exhibit suffers aesthetically as well, from the emotional descriptors that predominate: maudlin (“Big Bird with Broken Heart”); sentimental (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”); kitschy (“Flag Shoes”); tawdry (“Bleeding Statue of Liberty”); vulgar (“We the People” with its message of “Fuck the terrorists”); and crassly commercial (“Roast Beef Dinner” in which a 9/11 reference is used to promote a church social).
Needed: A real debate
If this exhibition is truly intended as an occasion for the viewing audience “to eavesdrop on a public conversation that shapes our national debate about terrorism, liberty, and security,” I can only conclude that the “conversation” among the photographed folk artists is too limited and shallow to launch such a debate. That debate, of course, would focus on the very real and very pressing Constitutional crisis spawned by our collective national response to what happened on 9/11.
The Center has made a start of sorts in its special programming for September and October, especially the debate scheduled for October 10 between Federal Judge Richard Posner and Professor Geoffrey Stone “The Other Battle: Wartime Civil Liberties,” and a talk on November 14th by former Presidential advisor John Yoo on “An Inside Look at the White House Response to 9/11.” Given what’s at stake, more needs to be done.
Gresham Riley ([email protected]) is president emeritus of Colorado College (Colorado Springs, Col.), former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a professor of philosophy who is currently engaged in an extended research project on the topic of evil. He lives in Old City, Philadelphia.
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