View of “September 11,” 2011. Foreground: Christo, Red Package, 1968. Background, from left: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1991; Willem de Rooij, Index: Riots, Protest, Mourning and Commemoration (as represented in newspapers, January 2000–July 2002), 2003. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

View of “September 11,” 2011. Foreground: Christo, Red Package, 1968. Background, from left: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1991; Willem de Rooij, Index: Riots, Protest, Mourning and Commemoration (as represented in newspapers, January 2000–July 2002), 2003. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

“September 11”

View of “September 11,” 2011. Foreground: Christo, Red Package, 1968. Background, from left: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1991; Willem de Rooij, Index: Riots, Protest, Mourning and Commemoration (as represented in newspapers, January 2000–July 2002), 2003. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

THE GAMBIT OF THIS EXHIBITION about 9/11, which includes sixty-nine works by forty-two artists, is deceptively simple: to eschew any images of the attacks and any made in response to them. (As if to prove the rule, there is one exception, a 2003 proposal by Ellsworth Kelly to reconfigure Ground Zero as a giant trapezoidal park of bright green grass.) Instead, MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey writes in his brochure, “this exhibition considers the ways in which 9/11 has altered how we see and experience the world in its wake.” This is a strong thesis—one that asks to be taken seriously. As for the ban on images of 9/11, Eleey regards the attacks as an intervention in spectacle that was a spectacle in its own right: 9/11 “was made to be used,” he argues, with the Bush administration no less than Al Qaeda in mind. “Why would I want to repeat such transgression?” His catalogue essay begins with an epigraph from Wittgenstein—“A picture held us captive”—and his purported aim is to release us from this captivity, to despectacularize 9/11, a little.

To this end, Eleey exhibited only work, created independently of the attacks, that, as stated in the brochure, “transcend[s] the specificities of its epoch, form, or content to uncannily address the present.” That art can resonate across time and place is a familiar notion, but often it concerns the retroactive effect of present practices on past ones, as in accounts of literary revision offered by T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) and Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Here the question is pitched differently: Might historical works foreshadow contemporary events and be changed by this unexpected connection? Thus, Eleey suggests that, after 9/11, a 1956 photo by Diane Arbus of a newspaper flitting across an empty Manhattan intersection might be seen in a different light, one even darker than the dim illumination in the desolate original; or that a smashed-car sculpture by John Chamberlain (King King Minor, 1982) is viewed through the cracked lens of the crushed rescue vehicles at the Word Trade Center; or that a wrap piece by Christo, such as Red Package, 1968, a long slab bound in red tarp by rope, is altered in its effect—that where there was once enigma there is now implied threat (the package as bomb) or stark loss (the package as bodily remains). (Alarm is the effect, too, of Lost & Found, 2006, an old black leather suitcase selected by Lara Favaretto, perhaps from an unclaimed-baggage auction; the only thing she added to this readymade, the contents of which remain unknown, was a lock.)

Possibly the strongest claim of this retroactive charging of artworks is made in relation to Unidentified Woman, Hotel Corona de Aragon, Madrid, 1980, by Sarah Charlesworth, a murky print of a news photo of a woman falling from a building to her death, her dress fluttering up to reveal her bare legs and backside. This representation, which evokes similar ones by Warhol, “no longer belong[s] to itself,” Eleey asserts in the catalogue, as we now read the work through our images of the desperate jumpers from the Twin Towers; “[it] has . . . been subsumed into 9/11.” And yet even if we grant that traumatic events might color artworks after the fact, it remains a tricky proposition. For example, do we confuse the hooded victim at Abu Ghraib with one of the hooded Klansmen in Birth of a Nation? One hopes not. But Eleey’s deployment of the Charlesworth is especially troubling because the very meaning of the work is thought to lie in its pointed ambiguity: The artist has purposely denuded the image of context, leaving us to wonder what the isolated picture means and what it had meant when it appeared in the newspaper from which she appropriated it. How, then, can we be asked to read this image in the context of the Trade Center attacks? Another problematic example of this curatorial repurposing involves “Untitled” (The End), 1990, a Felix Gonzalez-Torres stack of papers with black frame and blank image. To claim that we now see it through the filter of 9/11 is not to enrich the piece with added resonance but to rob it of its actual significance, which is bound up with the AIDS crisis. This isn’t a matter of interpretation; the connection to 9/11 is simply false.

I do not mean to question the possible resonance of art across time and place, of course, only to caution against its calculated forcing. At its best such resonance is a subtle effect that gifted artists elicit from the image repertoire of an artistic tradition. Thus, for example, did Manet draw on the iconic power of the dead Christ for his fallen toreador, as did Gerhard Richter for his fallen terrorist. This is the gist of the famous definition of art proposed by Baudelaire in his “Salon of 1846”: “Art is the mnemo­techny of the beautiful.” But as “September 11” might indicate, our inclination today is closer to that of Aby Warburg, for whom art was the mnemotechny of the traumatic. (For the German art historian, ancient art “lived on” through Pathosformeln, formulas of emotional turmoil that are inscribed in all of us to the extent that we inherit the classical tradition.) Key here, however, is that both Baudelaire and Warburg understood such mnemo­techny as internal to art, whereas “September 11” suggests that this resonance is more worldly, more likely to operate in relation to mediated catastrophes, from, say, the JFK assassination (as treated in REPORT [1963–67], an extraordinary essay-film by Bruce Conner included in the show) to the WTC attacks.

Of course, anachronism is usually regarded as a vice in art history. “September 11” attempts to make it a virtue, and in this respect it seems to be in step with recent provocations such as Anachronic Renaissance (2010) by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, who resist the default demand that we understand the significance of art strictly in terms of its historicity, the particular time and place of its making. Again, Eleey is concerned with work that “transcend[s] the specificities of its epoch, form, or content to uncannily address the present.” Yet how exactly are we to understand this anachronic address? It is not quite transcendental; some of the formal “specificities” of the art prepare the retroactive charging that is precisely at issue. Thus, for example, not just any Christo will do; to be effective in this context, it must be a wrap piece. Nor is this anachronic address truly uncanny; strictly speaking, the uncanny involves the return of a familiar image, person, or event made strange by repression, and this is not the case here either. For instance, Eleey includes a 1975 video sequence by Mary Lucier that records a series of sunrises over Brooklyn and Queens in such a way that two roughly parallel black streaks were burned on the Videocon tube inside the camera; these shapes may look ominous, but there is no psychological charge whatsoever. More than anything else, the works in “September 11” are made to appear portentous in this way; they are so many floating signifiers turned into puncta by accidental association with 9/11. At times, Eleey draws these connections too broadly: Among the “threads in the art of the last decade that may be related to 9/11,” he cites concerns with everything from the archaic and the primitive and the supernatural and the magical, to the reenactment of performance and the fragility of contemporary installation. At other times, he is too direct: In this setting, a 2008 scatter piece of dust from a pulverized jet engine by Roger Hiorns is tackily literal.

Ultimately, the subject of “September 11” might be curatorial subjectivity; “what we read into images,” Eleey acknowledges, is “itself a thematic undercurrent of the exhibition at large.” The show sets up a screen for associations, almost in an updating of the “paranoid-critical” method of Dalí, an art-historical version of “If you see something, say something.” Eleey is no doubt alert to the “ethical difficulty” here, the problem of “trapping” the art in such projections, and his curatorial voluntarism is sometimes bracing. (“I simply decided to designate it part of the show,” he says of Meeting, a sky aperture by James Turrell at PS1 since 1986.) Yet awareness alone of this difficulty does not resolve it, and “September 11” can be regarded as an extreme version of the now-familiar practice of the curator-as-artist.

My own concern about this subjective approach is somewhat different; it has to do with the neat fit of “September 11” with trauma discourse, and of this discourse with a prevalent mode of art viewing today. If Kant asked, “Is the work beautiful?” and Duchamp, “Is it art?” we tend to wonder, “How does it affect me?” Where we once spoke of “quality,” as judged by comparison with great work of the past, and then about “interest” and “criticality,” which are more socially synchronic than artistically diachronic in emphasis, we now often look for pathos, which cannot really be tested objectively or, when experienced as trauma, communicated with others much at all. One person’s punctum is another’s yawn.

Eleey seems conflicted in this regard. On the one hand, he aims to assist the “sublimation into the grief of national tragedy,” to assimilate 9/11 symbolically; on the other, he wants to stage a “cultural test” regarding the persistence of 9/11 “in the mind,” to hold it open traumatically. Under the influence of Afflicted Powers (2005), a dissection by the Bay Area collective Retort of “capital and spectacle in a new age of war,” Eleey believes that the “terrorists had spectacularly politicized our visual sphere.” Clearly this is so, yet is the best response to traumatically aestheticize this same sphere? In the end, “September 11” amplifies 9/11 as a traumatic matrix of images, and we come away more captive to its “picture,” not less.

“September 11” remains on view through Jan. 9.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University.