Not having any money compels a person do all kinds of things they might not if making rent weren’t so connected with having a place to sleep at night. For example, when I concluded that I was one of the city’s “essential workers” two days after the towers fell and would therefore have to go into work, fiscal circumstance probably informed that decision far more than the believe that dirty display cases would issue a blow too great for the average New Yorker to survive. As a result, while most of the city watched looping footage of the buildings fall from their homes, I spent my day cleaning fingerprints off the vetrines at the New York Public Library and somewhat unexpectedly speaking to a journalist looking for symbols of strength within the city.
I suppose it was my Windex and Kimwipe prop ensemble that gave me enough air of authority to inspire a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel to ask which work in The Public’s Treasures exhibition best represented New York hardiness. I’m not convinced I ever gave the man a direct answer, but I showed him a series of photographs of the Statue of Liberty before it had been assembled, explaining that documentation like this feels just as surreal as the towers falling because while everyone has either had or can imagine a physical relationship with these famous structures, we don’t have any more than a superficial understanding of how they were built. In other words, the towers were built with the cumulative knowledge of thousands, so just as the expertise required to construct the building exceeds the capabilities of one person, it follows that its removal would similarly be incomprehensible to the individual. I then went on to make the obvious point that the collective expertise required to create the structures in and of itself represented the strength of New Yorkers, and the bonds we share with foreign nations.
Six years later, my participation in When Art (or in What Regard) leads me to consider just how far this philosophy extends. For example, does a mass reaction to the loss or damage of a structure or artwork concretely identify the sublime (a vast magnitude beyond measurement), or are they simply misplaced characterizations of objects that have related political agendas or larger philosophical ideas attached to them? Is the sublime malleable? Will the absence and subsequent socio-political history of those fallen buildings change the functionality of their aesthetics? The idea I floated by the reporter provided no window into my own aesthetic judgments on the statue or buildings, and for good reason since it really wasn’t the time to go into why I thought the towers were more of a feat in engineering than they were an architectural marvel, what with their purposelessly aggressive and showy structure. As I suggest above however, since that time I’ve come to see the buildings much more positively.
Frustratingly however writing this piece brings me no closer to being able to conclude whether sublimity can exist or be created within absence and memory. Unlike the simple motivations behind traveling into the city to clean a few vetrines, locating aesthetic grace and magnitude within a field of political and social relationships is murky business. So, I still don’t know if collective memory and grief is powerful enough to change the functionality of aesthetics but I suspect it might be. It evidently is enough to garner the support of a nation for a senseless war.