Innocence as a Political Tool

Political mythology is a more significant player than art itself in shaping a culture’s mentality. Commemorating 9/ll by means of children’s artwork sentimentalizes the event and allows us to avoid calling the events of that day acts of war. 9/11: Through Young Eyes severs its subject from the only thing by which it can be measured and understood: historical context.

On show is a collaborative series of 31 collages by then-eighth graders at the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side. During the autumn of 2001, the youngsters attended an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s narrative collages at the Whitney. The exhibition came packaged with a battery of lesson plans, timelines and web resources designed for the classroom. Kids set to work tapping their inner Lawrence by illustrating the story of 9/11 as they—and their classroom mentors— experienced it. The result is an oddly truncated exercise in sanitized storytelling that sacrifices historical understanding to a bien pensant avoidance of the obvious. Call it a pious commitment to denial.

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"American flags appeared everywhere" (2001)


A full quarter of the panels—8 out of 31—preen themselves on the sly implication that America is just one more rogue state. There is no mention of Al Queda or enemy assault. Instead, cartoon marines head to Afghanistan. Bombs drop on Afghanistan. A soldier lectures on “bad” Arabs while his off-stage audience claps. People start “using the flag as a symbol of war.” One panel growls: “War was glorified and commercialized.” Such wording hardly came unprompted from the mouths of babes who seem never to have heard the word jihad. The caption is as vague and reductive as the image that carries it. In context, the censure applies not to fanatics who shout “Allahu Akbar” in bloody ecstasy but to America.

That and similarly weighted captions do nothing to increase understanding of 9/11. Viewers are simply expected to applaud the program for its enlightened refusal to see evil anywhere but at home where “mosques were burned” and “Muslims were dehumanized.” And “some Arab-Americans were even murdered.” (That one is especially grotesque, given that—then, as now—Jews are the preferred target of bias crimes.) In a perverse inversion of sympathy, the tragic splendor of victimhood accrues to Muslims, not to annihilated New Yorkers.

Art is not discursive; it cannot be argued with. Children’s art is particularly insulated from criticism. Adolescent distortions of fact—or raw execution— earn a pass on the ground of expression. No one can to bring to bear Lawrence’s achievement on childish simulations. The exhibition’s patchwork of Individual panels adopt bright color, simplistic shapes, occasional cartoony touches—visual tropes lazily associated with frankness. Each unit in this untrained ensemble offers the artless vivacity that mothers admire on refrigerator doors across the fruited plain. That is very nice for Mom. But it has scant relation to the products of a cultivated hand: Lawrence’s compositional complexity and graphic subtlety. More significantly, the project is sorely impoverished as acknowledgment of the massacre of innocents.

Right-thinking, not art, is the point here. Collage provides a pretext for commentary emblematic of the distance between political posture and observable reality. But we cannot blame the eighth graders. Their recorded experience was filtered through the sanctimony of their elders and edited to the point of mendacity.

Viewed through the unripe eyes of Calhoun’s thirteen year olds, the collapse of the Twin Towers might have been a natural disaster. Captions tell us that the “The loss was sudden and great;” “Smoke and dust were everywhere”  and “The streets were empty.” For all the project’s pretense to chronicle, nothing indicates why. “People donated blood”. So? Blood drives are commonplace. What distinguished this one from others? “The people were afraid.” But of what?

Yes, “people still miss the Twin Towers.” But why are they gone? Did they just fall down of their own accord? Might their destruction have had something to do with the lethal ideology of Islamist jihadists? Or with Islam’s theological imperative toward war with the infidel and the religiously sanctioned violence of classic Islamic jurisprudence? The display keeps mum on the critical matter of responsibility.

Yes, “smoke and dust were everywhere” but what caused it? No hint appears that it came from burning skyscrapers in which 3,000 civilians were slaughtered. What was the instrument of mass murder? The Calhoun class noticed military fighter jets flying over the city but missed the two commercial jets hijacked by the Koran-inspired assassins. No one seems to know a shred of Islam’s long history, dating from the 7th century, of lust for conquest.

The Calhoun community—as DC Moore refers to it—believes in original sin. But only America carries the stain.

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© Maureen Mullarkey

Note: This review appeared first in CityArts, September 14, 2011, under the title “Children of the Towers.”

Next Note: Choire Sicha, writing in The Awl, called this a “really mean” review about the art of eighth graders. Does Mr. Sicha know how to read?

3 Comments


  1. Someone would have to want to miss the point to see this as a jibe at the eighth graders. It is clearly aimed at the adult supervisors. But of course, this is the Upper West Side, right? Insinuating negativity toward the U.S. in a 9/11 memorial is about what you’d expect from that zip code.


  2. From most of the comments on the Awl site it looks like none of the commenters came back here to read the full post or even to determine Maureen’s gender. And from a number of comments it appears that all they read was the headline of Sichas post, not even bothering to read the excerpt he provided.


  3. Oh, Tim. That is disheartening. The issue at stake in the post had nothing at all to do with gender. Nothing to do with any aspect of identity politics. It is worrisome that attention to larger issues gets lost in balkanized interests. If we cannot cohere as one people—a people with a sense of history—we are headed for suicide.

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