Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

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When the System Fails

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite pastimes in his movies was to get his protagonist into as much trouble as possible, then watch with sadistic glee as he tries to explain himself to the authorities.

In Strangers on a Train, for instance, you had Farley Granger becoming complicit in the killing of his wife, thanks to a murder-swapping plot that he never quite agreed to in the first place.

In I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a priest who comes upon evidence of extreme wrongdoing but can’t cooperate with police because he obtained his information in the sanctity of the confessional.

Most spectacularly, of course, was North by Northwest, with Cary Grant as an ad executive who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is compelled to flee 2,000 miles across the United States, proclaiming his innocence for a murder that he appeared to commit in broad daylight, in plain view of dozens of eyewitnesses.

For those who watched North by Northwest and thought, “This is great, but I wish there were even more obstacles preventing Cary Grant from clearing his name,” boy do I have a TV show for you.

It’s a limited-run miniseries called The Night Of, airing Sundays at 9pm on HBO.  Critics who have seen the whole thing have characterized it as a minutely detailed, David Simon-esque examination of America’s criminal justice system, with all its flaws and prejudices on full display.

As a mere mortal with access only to last Sunday’s series premiere, I would characterize The Night Of as the sort of project Alfred Hitchcock might’ve burst out of his grave to direct—a suspense thriller that, in certain ways, manages to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.  While Hitch never involved himself in anything quite this weighty or ambitious while he was alive—he considered himself an entertainer more than a social commentator—the sly, brooding style of this new series would make The Master very envious, indeed.

(Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead.)

To describe the plot of the first episode of The Night Of is to observe how deliciously the show’s creators have stacked the deck against their hero.  When we first meet Naz (Riz Ahmed)—a mild-mannered Pakistani-American college student from Queens—he is “borrowing” his Dad’s taxi to a party across the river that he never quite crashes.  Instead, he picks up a female passenger, Andrea, who is at once impossibly alluring and dangerously unhinged.  They go uptown to her place, indulge in every Schedule 1 narcotic at their disposal, make torrential love to each other and eventually pass out.

Cut to the next morning, when Naz wakes up mysteriously in the kitchen, ascends the stairs to retrieve his possessions, and finds his mysterious femme fatale lying in a river of her own blood, stab wounds stretching from one end of her body to the other.

And that, as they say, is where things start to get out of control.

Strictly speaking, we don’t yet know what the hell happened that night and the degree to which Naz is complicit in Andrea’s death.  However, we, the audience, are clearly meant to view Naz with sympathy—as a good-natured kid whose curiosity allowed him to unwittingly blunder his way into a cataclysm—and, indeed, the tenderness of Riz Ahmed’s performance makes it almost impossible not to take him at face value.

As such, we are presented with the quintessentially Hitchcockian motif of an innocent man falsely accused of a capital crime—a dynamic made even more unbearable by the guilt this man feels for having committed other, lesser offenses—leading to an inevitable clash with a legal system that might not be able to differentiate one transgression from another and will have no compunction about locking him up and throwing away the key.

Herein lies the series’ central tragedy:  That a mountain of circumstantial evidence—damning in every respect—could lead an utterly reasonable jury to find an innocent man guilty of murder.

The genius of The Night Of in these early sequences is to show—purely through action—the ways in which Naz is neither fully innocent nor fully guilty.  By following his every step, we are able to intuit—even empathize with—exactly what he’s thinking at all times, while also realizing—nay, dreading—how damaging each new decision will look in the impartial universe of a courtroom.

For a solid hour or two after discovering Andrea’s body, Naz manages to do absolutely everything wrong—making a run for it, not calling the cops, lying to them when they finally show up—and although behaving suspiciously is not proof of one’s guilt, behaving suspiciously with your DNA all over a dead girl and the murder weapon sitting in your pocket—well, that’s pretty darned close to a confession.

With seven episodes still to come, no doubt the deeper implications of Naz’s incriminating conduct will reveal themselves in due course—as will all the institutional biases that have enabled the American ideal of racial and economic justice to remain elusive for those who are not rich and/or not white.  (Naz is neither.)

However, even setting all of those inequalities aside, The Night Of has already unsettled us with an equally disturbing prospect:  What happens when a miscarriage of justice occurs that can’t simply be blamed on institutional racism?  What happens when the system works exactly as it’s supposed to work and still produces the wrong result?  What happens when a jury infers guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when, in fact, the defendant is not guilty at all?  What happens—as may happen here—when the evidence is more persuasive than the truth?

That’s the essence of great drama:  When nothing can be easily resolved or explained.  When decent people behave rationally but are swept up by forces beyond their control, which then lead them to behave foolishly, ironically, tragically.  When innocence turns into guilt and our heroes find themselves digging graves that were never meant for them in the first place.

Hitchcock understood the tremendous dramatic potential in placing his leading men and ladies into impossible situations—particularly when it involved the cops, of whom Hitchcock nursed a lifelong fear.  In our own time—when trust in our authority figures and the system they work within is at record lows and justice itself is seen as a highly selective phenomenon—The Night Of presents itself as the perfect show at the perfect moment:  Compelling as social commentary, magnificent as drama.

The Reckoning, Part 2

 In general, life is complicated.  So is politics.  And so, especially, is politics as it relates to race and class.

However, every so often a big public controversy erupts that would lead any honest person to wonder, “Is there anything here that cannot be explained by good old-fashioned racism?”

That question popped into my head multiple times during the new HBO drama Show Me a Hero, whose final two-hour segment aired this past Sunday.

This spellbinding series—the latest from David Simon, creator of The Wire—recounts the racial powder keg that exploded in the city of Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s—a socioeconomic showdown over desegregation and public housing that might well have stayed buried in the past were it not for its obvious parallels to events in the present.

Certainly, the circumstances that led the good people of Yonkers to very nearly lose their minds spawned from legitimate and complex concerns about the well-being of their neighborhoods.  But they were also—on the basis of this show, at least—borne of the fact that a bunch of rich white people really, really didn’t want to live on the same block as a bunch of poor black people.

They insisted it wasn’t about race.  Of course it was about race.

Here’s the deal.  In 1985, a federal judge ordered Yonkers—a city of 190,000 immediately north of the Bronx—to build 200 units of low-income housing in and around its most affluent neighborhoods.  This was essentially a means of desegregating a community in which most of the white folks lived in the nice part of town while most of the black and Hispanic folks lived in slums.

If the city council failed to approve such a plan, the judge continued, then the city would be held in contempt and fined exorbitant sums of money until either a) the council came to its senses, or b) the city went bankrupt.

You’ll never guess what happened.

That’s right (spoiler alert!):  Egged on by their raucous, angry constituents, the Yonkers City Council voted to defy the court’s order to build public housing, thereby incurring daily penalties that soon totaled in the millions, resulting in the suspension of basic city services and the closing of several public institutions.  While the ensuing outrage ultimately forced the council’s holdouts to change their minds, the damage was done and the point was made.

In short:  The white residents of Yonkers were prepared to destroy their own city rather than have a handful of black people living nearby.

It’s almost not enough to call this racism.  It’s a psychosis that exists in a realm beyond racism—a pathology that has convinced itself that segregation is the natural order of the universe and must be defended at all costs.  And all based on the notion that one group of human beings is superior to all the others.

To be sure, there were other forces at work in this struggle.  The fourth-largest city in New York did not almost bring about its own demise solely because of abnormally high levels of white supremacy inside City Hall.  Allocating public housing in a big city is a messy and contentious business under any circumstances.  Not everyone is going to be treated fairly.

Indeed, the “official” argument against desegregation in Yonkers was economic:  If you move a bunch of lower-class families into an upper and middle-class neighborhood, the overall desirability of that neighborhood will decline, and property values will slide right along with it.  If you’re a homeowner who plans to sell one day, of course you want to prevent a precipitous decline in your home’s value in whatever way you can.

But in watching Show Me a Hero, you cannot help but suspect that racism is always, finally, at the root of the problem.  That if people viewed each other as equal human beings, rather than as members of alien tribes, then most of the other conflicts would either cease to exist or become infinitely easier to resolve.

The most compelling evidence for this is the character of Mary Dorman, played with great subtlety by Catherine Keener.  As one such homeowner, Dorman begins as a vehement opponent of the low-income housing plan, publicly carping about property values, et al, while privately confiding to her husband, “These people, they don’t live the way we do.  They don’t want what we want.”

But then something unexpected happens:  She starts spending time with “these people” as a member of the transition committee—a group that essentially handpicks which families will get to move into the new townhouses—and she discovers that, lo and behold, poor black people do want what “we” want and do live the way “we” do, to the extent that their circumstances allow it.

Now, about those circumstances.

We take it as a statistical truth that poor neighborhoods in big cities are disproportionately non-white and contain disproportionately high levels of crime.  That’s to say nothing of how this affects incarceration rates and the chances of success in higher education and employment many years down the trail.

The $64,000 question is:  Why might this be?  How did it happen that folks with darker skin are—by a huge margin—more likely to find themselves impoverished, unemployed or in jail?  Are black and Hispanic people inherently lazier and more violent than white people, or is there something more institutional at work?

Following many decades of study and a little bit of common sense, we find the answer staring us directly in the face.  While there are multiple layers, it can essentially be explained in two words:  housing discrimination.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates definitively showed in his devastating Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” white people and the U.S. government spent a great deal of the 20th century actively preventing black people from ever owning a home—and, consequently, from accumulating real wealth.

Through the process of “redlining,” black house hunters were shut out of entire neighborhoods in most major U.S. cities, and in the places they were allowed to live, they could not obtain regular mortgages and had to depend on loans that were neither guaranteed nor honestly granted.  In an interview, Coates described this system as having combined “all the problems of renting with all the problems of buying and none of the rewards of either.”

In other words, housing segregation occurred by design, not by accident.  It had nothing to do with the personal behavior of the black folks who were being victimized, and everything to do with an effectively white supremacist government that made it very nearly impossible for African-Americans to achieve the American dream.

After nearly a century of this madness, to turn around and blame it all on black people who wear their pants too low is to portray a spectacular historical ignorance that, in our culture, is more or less par for the course.

Indeed, here is a classic example of where basic knowledge of the past can yield intelligent decisions in the present and future.

Most critically, to know that housing segregation was a plot intended to keep black people out of polite society is to understand that desegregation is a national moral imperative—one small step in our collective reconciliation with America’s broken soul.

Once you grasp that our country’s appalling wealth gap is a direct consequence of that racist system and that narrowing the gap will improve the quality of life for everyone, then it becomes perfectly sensible to expand affluent neighborhoods to include residents who, in an equal society, would have gotten there anyway.

In the process, both groups will get to know each other on a one-to-one basis, which is the surest means, in any society, of reducing prejudice and fear.  It was no coincidence that support for same-sex marriage skyrocketed at the same time that gay people made themselves visible to straight people in record numbers, thereby implanting this crazy idea that we are all equally human.

Prejudice is a function of ignorance, which in turn is a function of physical separation among different groups of people.  Really, it’s all just a variation on fear of the unknown, and the way to eradicate that is to make the unknown known.

This doesn’t mean we’re not still going to hate each other from time to time.  It just makes it far more likely that we’ll hate each other for the right reasons—namely, for the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin.

The people of Yonkers learned this the hard way, but they learned it nonetheless.  While housing desegregation might not have solved all of that city’s problems, it nonetheless fostered a more open and integrated community in which a greater number of people had a fair shot at making a better life for themselves.

Call me naïve, but I consider that progress.