I tuned into the early Republican debate last week, and couldn’t get the sound to work on my computer. Silently, I watched them all talking, until the camera finally hit George Pataki. I hadn’t thought of him in years, and I didn’t even realize he was running. I wanted to roll my eyes and puke at the same time, but instead I tweeted:
Ah, yeah. So here’s that story.
It was in the late spring of 2005 when the story first started making the rounds. A friend called me at my day job at a gallery to go pick up a copy of the Daily News because, as he said, “You’re in it.” That started off a whirlwind of months of me trying to personally battle right-leaning news outlets over an image of a drawing I made. In the end, my work was reprinted dozens of times all over the world — an extreme detail of the work, out of context, and without my permission — as part of an ongoing effort by the Republican party to own the issues of 9/11, national security, and to position themselves as “anti-elites.”
But let’s start at the beginning. I showed a 14-foot-long drawing — one of the biggest I’ve ever made — at a fall group show at the Drawing Center in 2004. It was a nice show, and it got written about in a few outlets, and then closed. Life moved on; I went on to show at other galleries. The Drawing Center, being a non-profit, didn’t represent me, nor did I have an ongoing relationship with the museum after that show. It was a one-shot deal, and as such, I was happy with it.
Months later, it was announced that the Drawing Center was going to be moving to the site of the former World Trade Center, along with the Joyce Theater and other cultural institutions. The staff at the Daily News smelled a story. The paper sent a reporter to the museum to go find some controversial work, but he probably couldn’t find anything on view at the wall drawing and Zoe Kermea exhibits that was the least bit political. The story should have stopped there — the Drawing Center doesn’t have a rep for showing outrageously shocking works — but it didn’t. The reporter must have then started going through old catalogues of previous shows, some dating back many years, until he found a handful of images he could reproduce to get the desired effect. One of those images was a detail of my work.
Now, bear in mind, that detail was about 1” x 1” of a huge drawing. There were dozens of figures, and thousands of words written on the piece. In the context of the drawing, the hooded and tortured Abu Ghraib figure was only a tiny part of a whole. But in the media, the detail was reproduced in such a way that people were led to believe it was a central, almost propagandistic image.
The Daily News ran with it, under the blaring cover headline of “DRAW THE LINE NOW.” Its angle was: do you want un-American filth like this shown on such hallowed ground? Immediately, local TV news channels started flashing pictures of that detail of my work, usually juxtaposed next to an image of a sobbing 9/11 widow talking about her husband dying and how disrespectful I/my work/the entire art world/all us elite artists were. Fox News jumped in and within a few hours, the “crying widow/evil artist” theme was being repeated over and over. By that evening, George Pataki had been shown that detail, and he made a statement to the television press about how he would never allow such filth that “denigrates America” to be shown. I sat dumbfounded, on my couch, watching the governor of New York tell everyone how disgraceful and horrible my work was. The next day, the Daily News followed up with “NUTTY 9/11 ART NIXED!”
I spent the first 24 hours of the scandal just being blindsided. By day two, I rallied. I called and emailed dozens of news outlets that were using my image to point out that: A) they didn’t have my permission to use that image (I own the copyright) and B) they were horribly misconstruing my work, and that if they wanted to show the whole work, I would provide them with a suitable image. No one ever responded. At first, I was surprised, but then I started to realize that no one gave a shit; the image, as printed, fit a narrative of ‘evil elite artist’ against ‘wailing 9/11 widow.’
It’s this tactic — of taking a complex idea and boiling it down into the easiest to understand and most shocking image — that right-wing media does so well. I could try to start a conversation about how a federally funded non-profit donates tissue for scientific study, or I could just scream “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts!” and just let the rest come together by itself. There’s really not much to do after you come up with something catchy — albeit misleading and wrong — like that. People explode into hysterics; those doing the manipulating get to sit back and watch it do the work for them.
So, I — and my work — got trapped in this system that was so much bigger than I was. I was completely helpless as my work got picked up by numerous news outlets and conservative talking heads — including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WPIX, and the Drudge Report — all decried how terrible it was that I wanted to show such un-American stuff at such a sacred place, which is of course not what I ever wanted to do. Many of my art friends fell into the “hey, all press is good for your career!” mindset, which I guess sort of makes sense, but not really in my case. Press that paints you as a shocking artist is possibly good for you if you are in fact a shocking artist — like the Viennese Actionists or Karen Finley, or anything in between (or beyond). Those artists use catharsis, horror, and disgust as materials in which to rattle their audience and get a desired response. But that’s not the kind of artist I am.
I make intricate watercolors (and more recently, fiber-based works) filled with text. Sometimes, I use harsh imagery, but the idea of “shocking my audience” isn’t a central theme of my work. My work will never punch you in the throat. Collectors who read about the work and expected to see a scandalous piece they could hang on their walls like some sort of left-wing trophy were disappointed. The piece never sold, and still resides in a drawer in my home studio.
In addition, there’s the irony that, at the time, the text I was using in my work was a mash-up of left-wing and right-wing news writing, mostly lifted verbatim with no editing. The idea was not to play “gotcha” and pull out the juiciest quotes that would make the writer look bad, but rather to try and ease myself and the viewer into reading both points of view. It started as a practice of trying to expose myself to opinions different from mine, slowly and carefully, in an effort to understand them and not just react emotionally and in a way that was uninformed. About a year after I made this piece, I would abandon the practice, having declared this experiment largely a failure.
The story dragged on for months. Finally, in the fall of 2005, it was announced that no cultural spaces would be relocating to the WTC, and the political right declared victory. Although, it would’ve won no matter what, because it got to prove that it still owned the narrative to 9/11. Right-wing media and politicians continue to be such masters of this — of distilling complex issues down into the most visceral one-liners — that I really wonder how we’re ever going to have an actual conversation about issues important to us as a country without resorting to screaming, name-calling, and misstating facts. Because really, that’s what these media outlets and the politicians behind them want us to do, and we fall for it every time.