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?

The Battle of New York

Back in January, Ted Cruz floated a novel, but pointed, line of attack against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump:  The latter shouldn’t be his party’s standard bearer, Cruz argued, on the grounds that he represents “New York values.”

Now that it appears Trump will, in fact, be the GOP nominee and will likely square off against fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton in the fall, we might as well take a moment to glance at Cruz’s diagnosis and say, “Well, so much for that.”

If things continue on their current trajectory—an admittedly dubious assumption—the 2016 election will not merely be a showcase for so-called New York values:  It will be an outright endorsement of and/or surrender to the same.

That may seem like an unlikely and counterintuitive conclusion to draw at this particular moment in history, but there you have it.  Donald Trump was born in Queens in 1946 and has never identified with any other metropolis, while Hillary Clinton moved her family to nearby Chappaqua in the fall of 1999 and has held court in and around there ever since.

For all intents and purposes—for better and for worse—a Trump-Clinton race would be a Subway Series for the soul of America, during which the very notion of “New York values” would be fairly up for grabs, demonstrating yet again that the five boroughs do not comprise the Greatest City in the World by accident and that if you want to truly understand America, you can’t do much better than waking up in the city that never sleeps.

There’s certainly no great mystery as to why New York, of all places, has produced such a disproportionate stock of serious presidential contenders through the years.  (Since 1904, New Yorkers have run against each other in three different presidential elections.)  The city, forever and always, is such a crowded, competitive, high-stakes environment for anyone with high ambitions—be they political, financial or cultural—that it’s only natural for someone who finds any measure of success there to think he or she has the mettle to conquer the rest of the universe as well.

In this respect, Ted Cruz is absolutely right about Donald Trump embodying the city from whence he came.  After all, what could be more of a singularly New York sensibility than buying up zillions of dollars of precious Manhattan real estate, slapping your name on every last inch of it, and then sitting in a room thinking, “You know, it’s about time that I really made something of my life”?

By all means, not every inhabitant of this town harbors such an absurd, colossal level of self-regard—such a hunger to expand their brand and rule the world in every way they know how.  And even among those who do, few have such a comically-inflated ego or speak in such horrifyingly crude, prejudicial tones.  For every arrogant blowhard like Trump or Michael Bloomberg, the city also produces such luminous national treasures as Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose seismic new musical Hamilton reflects the city at its most noble:  A beacon of opportunity, welcoming to immigrants, artists, thinkers and revolutionaries.

Indeed, New York City is nothing if not a million different things at once, attracting a million different types of people, each finding his or her own way in the world.  That’s the beauty and the madness of the place and the primary reason that folks from all over the world have been flocking there since the Dutch Republic first landed in 1624.

If Trump represents one strand of what New York symbolizes, Hillary Clinton represents another strand entirely—a strand, oddly enough, that comes pretty close to the definition offered by Ted Cruz.

Said Cruz during a Republican debate, “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage [and] focus around money and the media.”

Cruz was attacking Trump, not Clinton, but when it comes to the latter, I’d say Cruz was pretty much on the money.

While Hillary Clinton took a bit longer to defend the rights and dignity of gay people than many in her party would have liked, she is now in perfect harmony with the supermajority of New Yorkers on that issue.  Meanwhile, her support for abortion rights has been unerring and unquestioned, as have her views on most other socially liberal causes.

As for the presence of “money and the media”:  You bet your sweet bippy.

Since her national debut as First Lady-in-waiting in 1992, Hillary has been as much of a media character as any other political figure.  Throughout the myriad phases of her public life, newspapers, TV shows and the interwebs have built her up every bit as much as they have torn her down.  As with Trump now, Clinton’s relationship with the press has always been mutually beneficial:  She gives them endless material; in return, they give her endless coverage and the occasional benefit of the doubt.

Then there’s the money, which is arguably the most essential component to Hillary’s candidacy and career.  At this moment, if there is anything that could feasibly lose her the nomination to Bernie Sanders, it’s her unnervingly close relationship to Wall Street and other financial giants in a year that most Democratic voters are prepared to burn the leaders of those institutions in effigy.  Clinton herself assures us that she is equally concerned about the outsize power of Big Money in American life and will make every effort to rectify this imbalance once in office.

The problem—as everyone now knows—is that Clinton has collected nearly $2 million in contributions from various big banks over the last several years.  Officially, these were mere “speaking fees.”  In the minds of millions of Democratic primary voters, they were a down payment.

Here is where the business culture of New York comes into play.  If you are the sort of well-connected, highly-respected insider that both Clintons have become since moving to the Empire State, you would regard giving prime time speeches to major companies as an obvious and uncontroversial part of your job (not to mention an easy and painless way to make a buck).

However, for someone outside of that uber-capitalist milieu, it looks awfully shady for a supposed big bank antagonist to accept millions of dollars from big banks and then claim that the money will have no effect on how she treats those corporations as commander-in-chief.

I am reminded—unavoidably—of the moment in 2013 when John Oliver, pinch-hitting for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, confronted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about her own six-figure income from companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.  “What I deeply want to know,” said Oliver, “is what do you have to do for that?  What is required of you for that money?”  That Gillibrand didn’t even attempt to answer Oliver’s query is, in a way, more damning than any explanation she might have given.

Need I mention which state Senator Gillibrand represents?

That Hillary Clinton apparently doesn’t understand how anyone could find fault with her particular financial arrangement is, itself, her biggest problem of all.  She has become so insulated in the universe of pay-for-play that she either a) doesn’t recognize open bribery when she sees it, or b) doesn’t think the voters are clever enough to recognize it themselves.  They say no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people; I guess soon enough we’ll find out for sure.

In any case, this year it looks like it’s really gonna happen:  New York vs. New York, and the rest of the country will just have to deal with it.  No doubt those who share Ted Cruz’s worldview will find this situation intolerable.  As someone who lived in the New York metro area for 10 years and still visits from time to time, I consider this geographic quirk among the saving graces of this ridiculous campaign.

Donald Trump, if nominated, would be far and away the most inappropriate presidential candidate in my lifetime, for reasons I have outlined over and over again.  If elected, the damage he would inflict upon the United States is almost too horrific to contemplate.  However, taking all of that as a given and knowing that I would never abandon my country for such paltry reasons as those, I’d much prefer a pigheaded Republican president from New York to, say, someone like Ted Cruz.

There’s that old adage, “He’s an idiot, but he’s our idiot,” and that is my feeling about Trump.  If the GOP insists upon nominating a maniac for the highest office in the land, at least the maniac in question will have spent virtually his whole life marinating in one of the most vital, cosmopolitan, enlightened cities on planet Earth—and is damned proud of having done so.  I don’t see eye to eye with Trump about much, but the conviction that New York is the true capital of the United States—the city that most fully captures America in all of its glory, beauty and absurdity—well, that’s one value about which we are in total agreement, and that is slightly better than nothing.