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?

When the Truth Is Inconvenient

Note:  The following contains major plot details about HBO’s The Night Of.

“We have more on the kid.”

Those were the words spoken by District Attorney Helen Weiss late into the final episode of The Night Of on HBO.  If that sentence isn’t the single most tragic and infuriating reflection of American injustice in this whole series, it’s certainly the most succinct.

In its proper context, the line isn’t a statement of fact so much as a desperate act of defiance.  Having spent months preparing an airtight case against Nasir Khan for the horrific murder of Andrea Cornish, Weiss is confronted—at the last possible moment—with brand new, compelling and altogether persuasive evidence identifying The Real Killer, thereby exonerating Naz.  (It’s typical of the series that this information comes from Detective Dennis Box, the man who all but single-handedly pinned the murder on Naz in the first place.)

For Weiss—having presented everything to the jury except her closing statement—this revelation is her moment of truth and a test of character, and she knows it.  Discovering, at long last, that she’s probably got the wrong man and her entire case is built on a lie, she has exactly one morally correct option:  Abandon the case and set Naz free.

Indeed, had The Night Of been directed by Frank Capra and taken place in a universe whose moral arc always bends toward justice—think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where a corrupt senator finally (and dramatically) sees the error of his ways—that’s exactly what would have happened, thereby bringing the series to a swift and happy conclusion.

However, since The Night Of is, instead, the creation of Richard Price and Steven Zaillian—co-writers of The Wire and Schindler’s List, respectively—Weiss reacts precisely as the most cynical among us would expect:  By disregarding inconvenient truths for the sake of winning her case and preserving her sterling reputation.  By saying, in effect, “I don’t care about the facts; I only care about what I can make a jury believe.”

In short, she fails the test, proving herself capable of willfully denying justice to an innocent defendant—the very thing her vocation (and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution) abhors above all else and, in theory, makes every effort to prevent.

Saying, “We have more on the kid”—i.e., it would be much easier to convince 12 jurors that Naz is the killer than to start this whole thing over again from scratch—she manages to more or less sum up the ethos of her entire profession, thereby exposing a massive, horrifying ethical blind spot that, deep down, all of us pretty much already knew about.  In the end—as a certain presidential candidate is fond of saying—nothing matters more than winning.

The natural counterargument to this lamentation is that, when you get right down to it, there’s really no other way this process could function.  Since every civil and criminal court case in history has involved a dispute over the truth of a situation, we simply accept that at least one side is either lying or mistaken, and that the entire job of a judge or jury is to figure out which side (if any) is telling the truth.  If a prosecutor can present a set of facts that makes the defendant appear guilty—and if the defense team cannot rebut those charges sufficiently—then the prosecutor has done his or her job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s why The Night Of is a tragedy instead of a farce:  The characters themselves might not be corrupt, but they are working within a corrupt system—a system that condones dishonesty so long as you can get away with it and has no fidelity to objective truth except when it happens to help the state’s case.

The tragedy, then, is that the problem of prosecutorial zeal can never be completely solved, just as a problem like runaway capitalism can never be completely solved:  For most people in America, there isn’t anything problematic about it.  It’s simply how the world works, and why bother fixing something that isn’t broken in the first place?

The strength of this series has been to take fundamentally decent people and situate them in a milieu that brings out their worst instincts.

Yes, Naz becomes a gangster and a drug smuggler while in prison.  But how would you behave in his shoes?  If self-preservation is an instinct you possess (to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction), wouldn’t you tailor your actions to whatever might save your life, regardless of what ordinary morality would dictate under normal circumstances?

Similarly, if you happen to be an attorney with a reputation to maintain in a high-profile case, of course you would do everything you could to prevail, because anything less would be humiliating.  District attorney is a job like any other:  You are rewarded for doing well, but not necessarily for doing good.

In the end, The Night Of allows Helen Weiss to have her cake and eat it, too—namely, by dismissing Detective Box’s 11th hour discoveries when there is no use for them, only to reconsider when circumstances provide her with a trap door through which she can save face and save her soul at the same time.

And so the show ended as maddeningly as it began:  By exposing all the unfairness, racism and hypocrisy of the American criminal justice system, while offering only a faint, distant glimmer of hope.  If the final moments of The Night Of were frustrating—having things both ways, lacking any real sense of closure—we can lay the blame squarely on the real-life frustrations this series was critiquing.  To end this show cleanly would’ve been a betrayal and a cop-out—a cheap way of telling us that everything’s gonna be alright when the whole purpose of this project was to remind us that, most of the time, it’s not.

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.