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?

Cowboys and Indians

Suppose you have just built a brand-new college—private and nondenominational—and are tasked to come up with a name for its various sports clubs.

Would you call them the Chinks?  How about the Spics?  The Kikes?  The Krauts?  The Coons?  The Crackers?

Of course you wouldn’t.  Those are all racial or ethnic slurs of one kind or another.  Some are aggressively hateful while others are merely disrespectful or old-fashioned, but all cause understandable offense to many people and, as monikers for a sports team, would be wholly inappropriate.  (This did not stop an Illinois high school from calling themselves “The Chinks” until 1980.)

Why, then, would anyone call themselves the Redskins?

After all, “redskin” is widely recognized as a crude, derogatory term for Native Americans.  While the word has a complex history and is not as universally radioactive as, say, “nigger” or “gook,” it is unquestionably provocative and politically incorrect and causes real unease within a chunk of the Native American population.

Here in 2013, a professional or collegiate athletic organization would probably not adopt “Redskins” as its official nickname.  It just wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

But of course the wide world of sports did not begin in 2013, and there are many, many Redskins across these United States, including the big-league football club in the nation’s capital city.

The controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins is longstanding—and part of a wider conversation about insensitivity toward Native Americans by other teams in other sports—but it was reinvigorated over the weekend when President Barack Obama chimed in, saying that shelving the name and changing it to something less controversial might be a good idea.

In considering the Redskins question, as well as the broader issue of sports nicknames that are potentially (if not blatantly) insensitive, I would suggest that temporal context is a good place to start.

To wit:  If the name of a sports club is offensive today, how much does it matter whether it was offensive when the team was originally christened?  To what degree can such a name be grandfathered into today’s culture before we are obligated to give it a second look?  Should we evaluate strictly on a case-by-case basis, or ought there to be some overarching principles involved?

The NFL’s Redskins have been so called since 1933, before they even played in Washington.  Should the franchise’s longevity itself count as an argument for keeping the name?

For defenders, this is really all a matter of identity.  Those who decry name-changing are not defending the name itself, but rather the legacy attached to it.  To erase the former is to erase the latter, either of which can be taken as a profound insult.  As with many other things, the power of precedent is a very strong force, indeed.

The trouble is that sometimes “we’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough excuse (do we even need to list examples?), and anyway, what good is a legacy if it’s mired in shame and ignorance?

But this is all merely dealing with the past.  What of our naming practices from this point forward?

At the risk of flippancy, might I hypothesize that the problem of people being offended by team names would go away if we stopped giving teams names that are offensive?

This should not be a terribly laborious job, but apparently it is.  Why is that?

More than anything else, it is because of America’s obsession with toughness and masculinity, and our irritating tendency to conflate the two—a tradition that harks back to the romanticized frontier days of actual cowboys and actual Indians.

It would be very easy to avoid controversies of this sort if we were not so preoccupied with being intimidating and macho, and labeling ourselves accordingly.

What we might do instead is adopt a “Boy Named Sue” attitude toward professional sports.

“A Boy Named Sue” is the poem by Shel Silverstein—later turned into a hit song by Johnny Cash—in which a kid accrues toughness and self-confidence as a direct consequence of having a decidedly un-masculine first name:  He is forced to prove himself because no one gives him the benefit of the doubt.

In relaxing our penchant for tough-sounding names—particularly those that double as ethnic or cultural bugaboos—we would hardly be running a risk of self-emasculation.

In my hometown of Boston, for example, our pro baseball club is named after knitted footwear.  However, the name “Red Sox” does not terribly bother us, for we are far too distracted by how well the team plays baseball.

Nothing clears up a messy squabble quite like winning.

Code Pink

My favorite color is black.  But then, I am not a very masculine guy.

As everyone knows, the manliest color of all is pink.  It is a fact so obvious there is hardly any need to discuss it.

We didn’t always think this, of course.  There was a brief time in which masculinity was associated with darker, bolder hues on the color spectrum—your blues, your reds, your greens.  Black and brown and silver went without saying.

Pink never seemed to make the cut.  When Steve Buscemi is assigned the alias “Mr. Pink” in Reservoir Dogs, his howls of protest bring the proceedings to a screeching halt.

No more.  The zeitgeist has shifted.  The tide has turned.

On my recent trip to Israel, during which our gang discussed the most profound and vexing questions on matters of faith, war and peace, by far the most contentious debate was over what color the group t-shirts should be.

In the final round of voting, the choice was between pink and turquoise.  Following an argument that lasted the entire bus ride from Afiq to Tzfat, pink emerged victorious by a score of 21-20.  The men on Team Turquoise did a fair amount of griping after that, but when the t-shirts arrived, all anyone could talk about was how good everyone looked in them—the guys in particular.

At this point, since masculinity is our present concern, we should probably expound on what we mean by “masculine” in the first place.

It is not at all an enviable or straightforward task.  Merriam-Webster defines it simply as “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man,” leaving the reader to divine what these “qualities” might be.

For now, let us keep things simple and use the National Football League as a case study.

If any one American organization can be said to embody what we think we mean by “masculinity,” the NFL is possibly it.  It is, after all, an all-male collective that engages in an activity involving pushing, tackling, taunting, concussing and so forth—all nominally male-dominated pastimes.

In short:  If the NFL does it, it is axiomatically masculine.

Well, then.  Every year during the month of October, NFL players don pink helmets, pink gloves, pink spikes and the like, in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for which the NFL has established a campaign called “A Crucial Catch.”  While I greatly doubt NFL players had any say in the matter, they comply nonetheless.

The reason I bring this up?  Smash cut to a typical American high school in the previous decade where, were an average student to turn up to class in some pink article of clothing, he could expect—or at least not be terribly surprised—to be called “faggot” or “pussy” or simply be sniggered at by certain classmates.  To wear more neutral colors wasn’t a matter of fashion—it was a matter of safety.

Upon seeing their ’roided-up heroes decked out in the dreaded spring-like tone right there on the gridiron, might such bullies have a second thought?  If a schoolboy is dumb enough to believe pink signifies a worthy target for torment, is he not also dumb enough to have his outlook reversed by a football team’s uniforms?

Manliness ultimately only means whatever our culture says it means, which is to say that such definitions are malleable and subject to change.

Allow me to run the risk of suggesting that “being a man” ought more commonly to be associated with the kind of courage and confidence that leads one to wear pink precisely because it will generate scorn by one’s less-evolved peers.

Masculinity is to not concern oneself with what others think.  To be not afraid.  To set the trends rather than dutifully adhering to them.  To dare to wear pink.