An Appropriate Response

The BBC website is simultaneously reporting on two artistic responses to the September 11th attacks: one textual, one visual.

The former is Frederic Beigbeder’s novel Windows on the World (Frank Wynne, trans.), which was awarded Arts Council England’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Windows narrates the “last moments of a father and his children on top of the World Trade Center during the US terror attacks”; contest judge Boyd Tonkin praises Beigbeder’s novel because it “pulls off the impossible” by creating “fiction about the tragedy of 11 September and our responses to it.”

The latter is American photographer Kerry Skarbakka, who has spent several years capturing images of himself in varying degrees of free-fall. His exhibit, “The Struggle to Right Oneself,” shows him falling amidst a wide variety of domestic and outdoor backdrops. But it’s images from a recent photoshoot, wherein Skarbakka (secured by a harness) threw himself from the top of the Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, that has ruffled the feathers of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Apparently, Bloomberg has decided these particular images are a re-creation and sensationalization of the horrific deaths of those who chose to jump from the World Trade Center on that awful September morning in NYC, leading him to call Skarbakka’s work “nauseatingly offensive.” The BBC reinforced the mayor’s position by pilfering a quote out of the New York Daily News from Rosemarie Giallombardo, the mother of a futures broker killed on 9/11. Giallombardo lashed out at Skarbakka as a “sick individual,” who should “go jump off the Empire State Building” to “see how it feels.” The BBC write-up ends with a final quote from Giallombardo: “He’s an artist? Go paint a bowl of fruit or something.”

I’m struck not only by the synchronicity of these two reports, but at the marked difference in treatment. Where Beigbeder’s novel is roundly praised, Skarbakka’s photos are figuratively spat upon.

There are a few extra twists worth exploring. Of these two artists, Beigbeder–a French novelist whose words must be first translated before an English-reading/speaking audience will even begin to understand–is the one who more deliberately exploits the tragedy of 9/11. He reimagines a rooftop scene that few U.S. citizens want to explore. The fact that he chooses to render this in prose demands we soak it in, imagine ourselves in it, and come to a fuller understanding of not only the event but–more importantly–our relationship to it. For doing this, Beigbeder is awarded a prize by the British literati, and a gracious write-up by the BBC.

A quick glance at’s reader reviews, however, shows a markedly different response. A few readers enjoyed it, but the simple majority of them clearly did not. “What were the American publishers thinking?” chides reviewer Jenny Jenkins. “If they had any sense or taste, they’d withdraw the book from distribution. It’s not a question of censorship, but of taste and discrimination — which some publishers do try to practice. It’s as though Britney Spears wrote a fictionalized tone-poem of the Holocaust after having watched a miniseries on TV.” If these reader responses are any indication, Biegbeder’s book is in for a bumpy ride here in the United States. Again, note the BBC has no mention of this reaction to the book, or even the possibility of such a reaction.

Skarbakka, on the other hand, receives much harsher treatment from The Beeb. And this is peculiar because (despite Bloomberg’s assumptions to the contrary) Skarbakka’s project does not seek to dramatize the 9/11 suicides. In a statement posted on his website, Skarbakka insists that “my most recent photo shoot was never intended to mimic the tragic events of September 11th.” These words do not appear in the BBC story.

The BBC *does*, however, quote Skarbakka wistfully defending his work through abstractions–“Mentally, physically and emotionally, from day to day, we fall. Even walking is falling. You take a step, fall and catch yourself” is the entire “response” he is afforded. However, Skarbakka’s statement insists that “the images shown in the news coverage are not my images and the quotes attributed to me are not my words. I feel terrible that these misrepresentations have upset so many and I believe my work can speak honestly for itself.” If we believe Skarbakka (and there’s no apparent reason not to), we have to conclude that the BBC is stacking the deck against him.

Furthermore: that the BBC’s story ends with the angry mother flippantly inferring that an artist is only an artist when s/he reproduces “a bowl of fruit or something” is particularly leading, as if those of us skimming the story would nod in agreement and click on to the next story. Or worse, that we would feel compelled to collectively roll our eyes at the goofy artist, who simply has nothing better to do than throw himself off buildings and call it “art.”

I guess what I’m wondering is essentially this: where is the line between the textual and the visual, especially considering that we live in a highly visual culture? Clearly, one is privileged over the other, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the immediacy of Skarbakka’s images–juxtaposed with their frightening kairos–that elicits such a strong and negative response here in the United States. Or perhaps it’s that less than 10% of Americans read books daily, and of that paltry 10%, a razor-thin percentage are novels and short stories. Does The Beeb’s coverage merely demonstrate the fact that we’re much more likely to be outraged by an image taken largely out of context, and much less likely to give a rip about a book written by yet another French guy? And, finally, what does all of this say about the current state of art and its ability to respond to the most human of human events?


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