Making Art in a Post-9/11 World

Pedro Lasch on the challenges artists faced following the 9/11 attacks

Part of the 15 Years After 9/11 Series

A week after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Pedro Lasch emerged from a Manhattan subway station, looked skyward, spied the familiar World Trade Center towers and continued on his way.

It wasn’t until later that day that Lasch realized he’d seen something that wasn’t actually there. Rather, he had a moment familiar to many New Yorkers in the days and weeks after the attacks. He was so accustomed to seeing the twin towers accenting the city skyline that, from his familiar vantage point at the top of those subway station steps, they appeared in his mind’s eye even after they’d been destroyed.

In that moment, Lasch knew he’d use the terror attacks as inspiration for a new art project. He would spend much of the subsequent decade on nine paintings depicting those World Trade Center towers plopped into anachronistic, historic settings -- ranging from Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Lasch was far from alone in finding his muse amid tragedy.  Among the creative class in New York City and far beyond, the attacks set off broad introspection, ethical debates and a good bit of censorship as Americans came around only slowly to seeing the attacks depicted through works of art. Artists realized they wanted to create beauty from tragedy, but it took a while.

“In the first five years many artists did work, but it was incredibly hard to get shown if it wasn’t very simplistic, sentimental and nationalistic,” says Lasch, a Duke professor of art, art history and visual studies. “Cultural institutions were afraid of it. There was a lot of self-censorship.”

That reluctance to display 9/11-related art eased over time, Lasch says, to a point where museums embraced provocative imagery. Lasch’s nine-painting collection, called “Phantom Limbs,” placed the World Trade Center towers in Kabul, Afghanistan, outside Hussein’s palace in Baghdad and inside the notorious prison maintained in Guantanamo by the U.S. military.

A pilgrim raises his hands in prayer
( Pedro Lasch explains one of the paintings from his "Phantom Limbs" series. Photo by Julie Schoonmaker )

As the 15th anniversary approaches, Lasch believes the art world -- and the broader American culture -- is able to think differently about the attacks.

“The more distance we have from historical events, the more we can take it as an opportunity to feel more complex feelings,” he says. “Pain and suffering and tragedy are complex emotions and some of the deepest emotions we have as humans. But they don’t leave a lot of room for subtlety and debate. Fifteen years later we can do both. We can still feel the pain, and have more substantial conversations.”

The 2001 attacks had one other impact on the art world, Lasch believes. It destroyed the faulty notion that the United States was somehow protected or apart from the world’s atrocities. This more global view rippled over into the world of culture, forcing American artists to look beyond national borders.

“Before 9/11 you could still pretend the art world was still centered in New York,” Lasch says. “Nobody would argue that anymore. Diversification, redistribution of art institutions and how art markets flow, the role of museums and international art events, it’s all part of a globalizing picture that isn’t just about economics; it’s about politics and culture, and art-making is a part of that.”