Examining Falling

Natalie Robin • Off the Shelf • January 1, 2016

The cover of Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11, by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko

The cover of Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11, by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko

Charting the influence 9/11 had on the art world is a herculean task

According to its promo copy, Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11, by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, uses a reading of Richard Drew’s photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11 to investigate “the changing relationship between world events and their subsequent documentation.” After a nuanced reading of Drew’s photograph, Schotzko enters into a serious academic project investigating the controversial twists and turns of art in a post-9/11 world, evaluating a series of artworks ranging from image to performance to television as she sorts through the meaning of making work in the new world.

But Schotzko gets somewhat lost trying to connect her works of interest, spending much of her second chapter on the 1990s culture wars (which clearly predate 9/11) in a way to set up a vague critique of the economics of art as exemplified by Marina Abromovic-as-performance-studies. Schotzko then connects the case of Aliza Shvart’s censored senior project to the 2012 Steubenville rape case, Episode “5/1” of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and its appropriation of real news footage into a fictional TV world, and even the advertising campaigns for Mad Men.

Ultimately, I found Schotzko’s study hard to read. It is deeply steeped in the academic language of performance theory, making the text much less accessible to the casual reader. For much of Schotzko’s critiques, I was lost in the endless quotations and litany of references and critics, including the highly unnecessary personalization of her relationships with scholars like José Esteban Munoz (whose death she learns about via Facebook, a story she shares for proof of personal connection but which has no critical value).

The work also evokes a complicated and painful time, thus dropping the reader (for those of us who were there) back in the New York City of 2001. Reading description after description of the falling man took me out of the historical context of the analysis and made me uncomfortable in the implied role of voyeur, as Schotzko herself says: “Witnessing became part of the event, even after the fact of its occurrence, and because these images – Drew’s included – existed between the realms of documentation, voyeurism, and aestheticization, the public’s desire to see, that is, our desire to bear witness, overwhelmed the authorities’ desire to censor.”

But I am not sure, really, how this is a critique of art after 9/11, except that the works were created after 9/11. But situating an event in time is not the same as creating an argument for causality. Of course, maybe I just don’t understand her arguments.

Schotzko sets out on a perilous emotional journey and handles it with a certain amount of grace, but the analyses are somewhat stunted by the obtuse language and obscure critical references. This work may hold value in the halls of academia, but it has little to offer for the casual, curious intellectual.

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