If Only It Were All Just Art
Michael Shurkin

In the aftermath of September 11, Damien Hirst gave an interview with the BBC in which he discussed what it would mean to view the WTC attack as a work of art. As much as I bristle at the idea of turning to Damien Hirst for political commentary, his ideas are of particular interest to me, as a resident of Washington, DC, where the landscape increasingly resembles a surrealist art installation. Here are some of his almost aphoristic statements, taken from the BBC transcript:

I think there's something pretty surreal about taking a mode of transport like an aeroplane and crashing into a building and turning it into a weapon is something which is kind of out there - on the level of an artwork.

The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. David Hockney said that it was the "most wicked piece of artwork" - a lot of people have compared it to a work of art.

Of course, it's visually stunning and you've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobody would have ever have thought possible - especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.

I think the idea of looking at the 11 September attacks as an artwork is a very difficult thing to do. But I don't think artists look at it in a different way.

There's a visual language that exists that changes all the time - if you put a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber is somebody's trolley in a supermarket then they're going to deny it's theirs at the checkpoint because those items have got sexual references.

I think our visual language has been changed by what happen on 11 September - an aeroplane becomes a weapon after 11 September and if they fly close to buildings people start panicking. Our visual language is constantly changing in this way and I think as an artist you're constantly on the lookout for things like that.

Hirst's point that 9/11 changed our visual language is particularly true for most of us on the planet, who were neither injured in the attack nor knew any of the victims, and whose relationship to the event was consequently mediated by television. For us, the visual elements of the attack are in some ways the most familiar to us. And Hirst is right: who does not "see" skyscrapers, airplanes, or the New York skyline differently? All of these things have stood as icons of the modern West, icons which Bin Laden successfully subverted with one masterful stroke. Moreover, like a great deal of contemporary art, the attack would have been nothing if it were not for the gaze of the spectator - us - a gaze that provided the art with its meaning by reading into the icons the cultural and personal meanings that they hold for us. And yet I can't help but wonder if Hirst's aestheticization of 9/11 isn't a dodge - a way to live with the unbearable. I wonder this because I do it myself.

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Image of camera atop the WW2 memorial construction site: savethemall.org

January 2003

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