Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"to love love, and hate hate" (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Politically it's okay to hate hate. Loving love is not quite so unquestioned, however.

We have just had a censorship controversy at Atlanta's City Hall East that left me profoundly depressed about the state of visual literacy in America (nothing new there) and the ongoing universal disease of permanent hidden prejudice (by which I do not mean racial prejudice, but rather unconsciousness as to our habits and roles).

Alvaro Alvillar produced a piece called FfOoRrMhUaLtAe that consists of 33 paintings of American flags, each with the word "Peace" stenciled across the bottom and what looks like a two-letter chemical symbol on the stripes (e.g., "Pi" followed by "Os"). But the initial capital letters spell out "POLITICALLYITSOKTOHATETHEWHITEMAN" and the lower case letters read "isitoktohateifivebeenavictim".

A table of the elements of hatred, in other words, focusing on a loaded sentence: "Politically it's ok to hate the white man." Really? Is Al saying in his own voice that whites are the only group regarding which one gets a free pass if one expresses hatred for them? or instead, that the opinion that this is the way things are, put this baldly, is itself an expression of hatred? And regardless of the meaning of that sentence, is it acceptable to express hatred towards any group by which one has been victimized?

Whatever it means, Al is not expressing his own opinion. He is quoting words that have appeared elsewhere, in contexts with quite opposite spins on the meaning.

Interesting visual metaphor, to say the least, and the logical extension of Al's American flag series, in which concealed pairs of opposites appear just below the surface of thickly wax-encrusted flag paintings.

But a few policemen declared the work a piece of "hate art" that constituted a hostile environment in which to work, City Hall East being a public building and the hallway City Gallery East being a space through which anyone using the building must walk. Their union demanded that the piece be taken down.

So the city held a lunchtime symposium at which the union representative made his declaration that public employees had the right not to be threatened by art situated in their workplace, and various members of the art community opined that once a work had been deemed not to be offensive, it should not be removed because someone found it offensive, because conceivably someone will find the most innocuous pieces offensive. Next it will be the formalist nude figure studies around the corner, then the expressionist horses, then the lusciously realist paintings of apples.

To which the detective's answer was consistently, "We are not advocating censorship of art in a private space. We are insisting on our right not to be offended by working conditions in a public workplace."

I am reluctant to summarize what took place in terms of discussion, because although the points raised from the audience were sufficiently valid to be worthy of discussion, they had nothing to do with the issue at hand. They ended up reinforcing stereotypical opinions of what this or that category of person might be: the community activist, the aggrieved taxpayer, the old-line radical. I was reminded of André Gregory's remark in My Dinner With Andre that people have lost interest in the theatre because they are doing such a good job of playing their expected roles in their own lives that they don't need more theatre than the daily plotline in which they perform as character actors.

Most of the roles played on the panel were similar: and if I do not summarize them, it is because we know the roles played so well in the artworld already. I am now playing the role of the kibitzing art critic, and as André Gregory would have commented, I look just like an art critic.

So because I am playing the role of the art critic, I have to say that I agreed with the thoughtful, blunt educator (all right, it was Larry Walker, whose famous daughter has had her own censorship troubles) that nobody seemed to see the painting that was on the wall behind the discussants. Nobody had raised the issue of what the repeated word "Peace" meant; nobody had raised the issue of why the American flags. Nobody had done more than put their own interpretations on the two sentences once the code was deciphered. I would add that even then, the readings were poor excuses for interpretation; nobody got the systematic ambiguity of the offending sentence, nobody, including the artist, pointed out that this was clearly a quotation of somebody else's opinion, not the artist's own opinion, and that one topic for discussion should be whose opinion this was, and why we believed that this was the opinion held by so-and-so, rather than one held by some opposing camp.

The discussion was instead derailed onto the civil-liberties grounds that everyone has the right to express an opinion, no matter how stupid or inflammatory. And of course it was noted that the discussion illustrated the necessity of letting everyone have their say, regardless of the direction from which the problem was being approached. Dishonorable motives were imputed all round during the discussion. There was much pietistic talk of the value of dialogue even when the dialogue grows heated. (And blah blah blah, to quote Simon and Garfunkel circa forty years ago.)

But there was very little attempt to explain why the painting was systematically ambiguous, and why it might be good to look at the painting and get it all wrong, so long as you were willing to consider why your view didn't account for this or that aspect of the artwork hanging on the wall. Maybe eventually everyone could even talk about whether people get the painting wrong because it's doing four things at once, and people can't pick up on more than two things at a time. But no such thing happened.

I believe that there is a medical education program in some other major city in which physicians in training are taken to the art museum and made to look, really look, at narrative art, Renaissance through Victorian, and talk about what they see. In such paintings, we see societal symptoms in situation. The physicians-to-be have to make educated guesses about what is going on the painting and why. This helps with their diagnostic and listening skills later on.

The same could be done, as someone almost but not quite said during the panel discussion, for the training of detectives and officers on the street. "Okay, look at this painting. What do you think of that belt buckle? pretty strange, isn't it, just to be a belt buckle, right there where you can't miss that royal coat of arms on it. Why do you suppose that buckle is there? To hold the guy's pants up? Well, who put that buckle in the middle of the painting? That's right, the guy didn't do that, the artist did. Do you think he just walked into the room and said 'Don't move, that's cool, I gotta paint that.' No, guys, he wanted to make you see something, and maybe he wanted you not to see something, too. You see that? you see how maybe if you're going 'wow' about the belt buckle, you won't be thinking about just why the guy is sitting where he is and whether he really ought to be there? You notice anything else funny going on? anything you might be able to take maybe two or three ways? Now go back to what I just said---you really think the artist was trying to fool us, or does he (yes, guys, it's a he) totally believe that the guy with the belt buckle is sitting there because that is where God wants him to be? Can we tell? Does it make any difference?" (This approach does not get us even close to contemporary conceptualism, but you have to start where people are, which is mired in the culture of one-dimensional literalism.)

If a training program in visual literacy happened like that, we might not have the confusion between an expression of hatred and a work of art that asks whether in fact it is never okay to hate anyone for any reason whatsoever. We might not have museum members expressing exactly the same confusion and incapacity to see what is in front of their faces.

1 comment:

Anne Cox said...

Excellent. In the New American Art Utopia (currently delayed) we're going to dedicate one of our august buildings to you, the one where our student seminars will include 'Visual Literacy: Concentration in Cop Talk'