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?

Light and ‘Dark,’ Part 2

In a recent column, I spent so much time excoriating Zero Dark Thirty—in particular, the disingenuousness of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal—that I failed to mention how very much I enjoyed it.

As much as Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker demanded a thorough rebuke, so also does it deserve a resounding defense.

I began last time with a plea from Gustave Flaubert to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Is it necessary to utter one’s ideas about slavery?  Show it, that’s enough.”  My recommendation was, and is, that Zero Dark Thirty ought to be considered in this “show, don’t tell” context with respect to its depictions of torture.

As an extension of this thought, I offer the following quotation from Andrew Sullivan:  “The case against torture is simply that it is torture, that capturing human beings and ‘breaking’ them physically, mentally, spiritually is a form of absolute evil that negates the core principle of human freedom and autonomy on which the West is founded.  It is more fatal to our way of life and civilization than terrorism.”

If Sullivan is correct, then Flaubert is correct.  If torture is axiomatically, viscerally and morally repugnant, then Bigelow’s film need not make any comment on it other than simply showing it being done.  Those who are repulsed by torture will conclude the movie is against its use, while those who are not might think differently.

It is suggestive of the film’s greatness, not failure, that its politics can be subject to utterly contradictory interpretations by its viewers.  The very existence of a debate over the film’s intentions is the most persuasive argument yet for Bigelow’s and Boal’s contention that Zero Dark Thirty is a movie without an agenda.

I am reminded of the brief, but passionate, brouhaha that erupted in early 2005 regarding Clint Eastwood’s film Million Dollar Baby, in which (spoiler alert!) the character played by Eastwood is compelled to assist in ending the life of a stricken dear friend.  Critics argued that because Eastwood’s character was clearly intended to be sympathetic—the “hero,” as it were—the film was effectively in favor of assisted suicide.

To this, Roger Ebert countered that a freethinking person could just as easily see the film and conclude that Eastwood was a good man who made a bad decision, and that such a phenomenon does not diminish the movie one whit.

I would optimistically wager that a similar sentiment might be made about Zero Dark Thirty, although in this case it’s a bit more complicated—first because Bigelow’s film is based on real events, and second because its implications reach far beyond the conscience of a single person.

My own view, having seen the thing once, is that Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify or justify torture, although one can be forgiven for concluding to the contrary.

The film shows the employment of waterboarding, stress positions and so forth as part of the amassing of intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it does not suggest that the intelligence that actually cracked the case was a direct result of said “techniques.”

What we see, rather, is a prisoner providing valuable information to two CIA agents as they offer him hummus and fruit across a picnic table in the warm sunshine—that is, as they treat him with basic human dignity.

The complication is that this follows a sequence in which this man is indeed tortured, and his present tip-off might well spring from fear of being tortured again.  Would he not have cooperated had he been treated humanely the whole time?  Or, perhaps, might a lack of torture made his information even better?

It is a complex and nasty business.  Good on Bigelow for dealing with complexity and nastiness.  Few American filmmakers go to such trouble.  I wish more of them did.

Of course, we are hardly done with the hard questions about the long journey from September 11, 2001 to May 1, 2011.  Was torture necessary to gather the intelligence we required to conduct the so-called war on terror?  If so, does that axiomatically make it justified?  Or is Andrew Sullivan correct that some things—certain fundamental American values—are simply more important?

On the practicality question, I refer you to Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs, who cautioned a pair of cop-torturers, “If you beat this guy long enough, he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire—now that don’t necessarily make it so!”

On the moral question, I leave it up to you.

Light and ‘Dark’

“Is it necessary to utter one’s ideas about slavery?  Show it, that’s enough.”

So scribbled the French writer Gustave Flaubert, offering a pointed critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel and abolitionist rallying cry that Flaubert judged to be unnecessarily over-the-top in its anti-slavery views.

Today we are faced with Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has stirred its own pot of controversy with its depictions of torture.

The substance of Flaubert’s above comment should be clear enough in its original context and, in my view, is the right and proper way to handle the nasty business of Bigelow’s film.

The situation:  Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have been accused of depicting the torture of certain alleged terrorists by the United States in a manner to suggest said treatment yielded accurate and useful intelligence in the search for Osama bin Laden and was, therefore, both necessary and ethically permissible.

Accusers reject this perceived conclusion as wrong—both factually and morally—and the depictions themselves as effectively an endorsement of the practice.  The term “torture apologist” has appeared more than once.

Having now seen the movie myself—I refused to broach the subject until I did—I will begin with Bigelow’s own characterization.  “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” she said, adding, “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.”

For the term “journalistic,” Bigelow might well have substituted “objective.”  As every newspaper person knows (or should), the central distinction between reporting and op-ed writing is that the former aspires not to have a point of view—to not “have a dog in the fight,” as former New York Times op-ed editor and current columnist Gail Collins phrased it.

As Bigelow would have it, Zero Dark Thirty presumes merely to report what happened amidst the manhunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, leaving it to the viewer to decide upon its moral dimensions.  Admiring critics say likewise.

The problem here is Bigelow’s conflation of being objective with being non-judgmental.  In point of fact, the two are not necessarily equivalent—not when being objective means acknowledging certain behavior that, by its very nature, invites negative judgment upon it.

Torture was, and is, an out-and-out violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory; to acknowledge its application and then fail to note this unfortunate truth—as the film indeed fails to do—does not quite qualify as “journalistic.”  It is, by way of omission, a form of bias.  (Perhaps this explains Bigelow’s qualifier, “almost.”)

Then there is the other rather weighty problem:  The question of veracity.  As much as the film’s defenders might protest to the contrary, Zero Dark Thirty makes it plain that torture was indeed an integral part of successfully tracking down bin Laden—a claim that myriad experts have made equally plain is simply not the case.

Bigelow and Boal are entitled to twist the facts of history to suit their cinematic purposes—as Ben Affleck does in Argo, for instance—but they must then acknowledge that that is what they are doing.  Either Zero Dark Thirty is a journalistically accurate depiction of real events or a deft blend of fact and fiction.  Both cannot be true simultaneously.

(The end credits include a disclaimer that parts of the movie are fiction.  However, Bigelow’s and Boal’s comments remain.)

Having said all of this, I nonetheless understand what Bigelow thinks she means in explaining her modus operandi.

My point about Flaubert, as applied here, is the notion that torture, like slavery, is such an inherently and viscerally repugnant practice that its mere depiction is a sufficient means of illustrating its evil; the viewer would require no further assistance in reaching a conclusion.  Were all the known and relevant facts in place, this would be—counterintuitively, perhaps—a form of objectivism.

But then my point about my point comes in the form of a question:  Does this film—or any film—have an obligation to take a moral stand in the first place?  Is it either possible or desirable for a work that deals so directly in matters of ethics to be non-judgmental?

New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein arrestingly writes that Zero Dark Thirty “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible,” only to then proclaim it the best film of 2012.

Are those two statements reconcilable?  Can a reprehensible movie also be a great one?  (It is the view of this scribbler that Bigelow’s is not the former and quite possibly the latter.)  We have asked the question ever since D.W. Griffith lionized the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation in 1915.  May the day never come when we arrive at an answer.