It’s September 2001. The twin towers lay ruined and smoldering in New York City. At the Pentagon there are nightly vigils and there are flowers for the dead. In the small towns of eastern Pennsylvania the only topic of discussion is the plane that fell from the sky. The nation is reeling, enraged. At the center of that rage are Muslims in foreign countries, in Afghanistan and in Iraq and Iran.
Some Muslims in America—U.S. citizens—are putting up red, white, and blue flags on their doors, in their shop windows, proclaiming their patriotism, trying to distinguish themselves from the hijackers. Others hunker down, not quite as confident in their fellow Americans, not quite sure the rage won’t spill over onto them.
And in that month ArtNews, the leading art magazine in the United States, publishes this cover:
You are seeing that correctly. It’s the bottom of a woman’s feet, written all over in Arabic script, with the barrel of a Remington rifle poking out between. It matters not that the headline is “The New Look of Feminism” nor that the image is probably directing its threats of violence at the Muslim fundamentalist patriarchy.
The cover is exciting for the art world, a way to be relevant, a way to be political—though “political” in the art world has only two possible connotations: one, a warmed-over vague sort of Marxism (going incognito nowadays as a warmed-over vague sort of anti-capitalism) and the other a mishmash of ideas about racial, gender, sexual identity.
If the art world had a religion, this would be it.
Yet, in the world of politics—I’m talking the real world of politics—art is a political poseur, ignored by all the real players, unless the museum has been rented out for cocktails.
And thank god for that. Can you imagine the disaster of running this cover on a publication that mattered in world affairs? On the cover of the New York Times Magazine? On the cover of Time Magazine (then a thing, back in 2001)? Can you imagine the outcry if, say, National Geographic ran with this?
Luckily it was just an art magazine and it sank without much of a trace.
Two months later—magazine publishing lags by a few months—the cover of ArtNews depicted the Twin Towers and the we-are-relevant headline “How can you think of making art at a time like this? How can you not?” and devoted ten pages of its 192-page issue to the 9-11 attacks.
The executive editor at the time, Robin Cembalest, gamely used one of those ten pages to highlight the bewildering changes roiling the art world
The context for making and looking at art has shifted constantly since the attacks. First, we read that irony was dead, and we wondered what that meant for the market for bad-bay art stars like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Then we learned that humor was back—sanctioned by Mayor Giulliani himself during the season opener of Saturday Night Live.
and the temporary retreat of the art world from exhibits that might be interpreted as supportive of the terrorists.
Her stage-setting complete, and with wonderfully understated abashment, she comes to the key question: “It was hardly surprising then, that we wondered just what the public would make of our September cover.”
She has an answer, said with the straightest of straight faces:
I think our audience, whatever else they took away from it, understood that the work is hardly incendiary—and is implicitly antifundamentalist.
A word of advice—never play poker with Robin Cembalest.
A long time ago, a few months ago when we mostly thought about the virus rather than the political convulsions wracking our body politic, I received a magazine in the mail from The Photo Review, a publication that has been around for as long as I can remember, and one that has kept its soul over all those years, a publication about photography as photography, a little anachronistic but solidly rooted. The cover is a bright, clean white, a grid of highly saturated images.
Inside, each page has a large image and a quote or short text beneath, the image a famous person from history depicted by Bill Armstrong, faces unfocused and washed with spectral colors, the quotes sharing a moment from each of the subject’s own quarantine.
The colors of the images are pretty to look at but weren’t chosen only for their beauty. For example, the image of Isaac Newton is as intensely colored as the rest but the colors here are the prismatic series banded bottom to top, red to violet. The page featuring a quote from The History of the Peloponnesian War (uncredited on the page to Thucydides but obviously that must be him in the photo) is all purple, the same color as the sores from the disease that was the real conqueror of Athens. The Gandhi image is deep orange on the left, electric green on the right, versions of the same colors as the Indian national flag, designed personally by Gandhi, the color orange representing the Hindus, the green the Muslims, united.
Though the magazine—its high-quality printing by Brilliant Graphics in Exton, Pennsylvania suggests it aspires to be more than a magazine—claims to be something of a compendium of the thoughts of “Artists and Writers On Isolation” (personally experienced isolation) Quarantine offers more than just an emotional fellowship intended to both mark this time in our history and to help us find the strength to stay creatively strong. It also, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, reminds us in these days after the storming of the Capitol Building that others have worried about such things in the past, others have faced the same and much worse, and yet here we are.
The attack on our government has brought people more into focus. They know more who they are, what they believe. Before we had the indistinct boundaries of the virus to contend with, the fragmenting drift of our national beliefs, the confusing technological changes breaking and remaking our connections to each other. Now we, at last, see something ahead, something new coming up fast, and we all see it at the same time, united in that much at least.