Monthly Archives: March 2017

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

 

 

 

The 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan features a painting by the American artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Protests have arisen over the work.

The following are my thoughts on the controversy, which are based upon the following article:

“White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests.” By Randy Kennedy. The New York Times, March 21, 2017

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/painting-of-emmett-till-at-whitney-biennial-draws-protests.html

My comments are in boldface.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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“[P]rotests … have arisen online and at the newly opened Whitney Biennial over the decision of a white artist, Dana Schutz, to make a painting based on the photographs.”

Decision?

An artist, Dana Schutz, created a painting. Based upon photographs of an actual event. The Times writer chose the verb to make, which seems a bit awkward. But, anyway, an ARTIST CREATED a work of art. (She happens to be white. God forbid!)

Since when has creating a work of art been construed as a “decision”? One would think we were talking about a politician or a general deciding to go to war. Board members of corporations make decisions. Judges issue them. Artists create ART, arising from a creative urge, spontaneous impulse, or whatever one wishes to call it.

“An African-American artist, Parker Bright, has conducted peaceful protests in front of the painting since Friday [March 17], positioning himself, sometimes with a few other protesters, in front of the work to partly block its view.”

What gives him the right to obstruct the view of museum visitors of the painting? If he were a white protestor, he would have been forcibly removed from the exhibit in short order by security personnel.

“Another protester, Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, has written a letter to the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, urging that the painting be not only removed from the show but also destroyed.”

We are outraged when the Taliban or ISIS take sledgehammers to religious structures and imagery in the Middle East. But here, in the name of political correctness, the DESTRUCTION of works of art considered ideologically suspect can be countenanced. Why, in God’s name, are not such actions — proposals for the same — denounced outright? Next, ideologues will be attempting to find and destroy all existing holographs and printed copies of Huckleberry Finn (to pick just one example), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Shakespeare’s Othello, and God knows what other works.

“ ‘The subject matter is not Schutz’s,’ Ms. Black wrote in a Facebook message that has been signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite.”

What does this mean? Ms. Schutz created the painting. She chose the subject. I am not stupid. I get it. What is meant is that the subject matter should not be hers to create art from. Because she’s white. (These racial categories are suspect, in my mind.) So, white people cannot have feelings and/or an opinion about an atrocity such as the murder of Emmett Till? Says who? Why not?

To take one example among a million, I have always felt that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an outrage. My father, like many Word War II veterans, felt that President Truman’s decision to order the bombing of the cities was justified, given that it probably saved American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. I always strongly disagreed. I could see no justification for dropping the atomic bomb twice. And so on.

Should it be claimed that I have no right express such an opinion or have such feelings because I am not Japanese and was not among the victims, or related to or descended from them?

Pure nonsense.

“ ‘White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’ She added [Ms. Black] that ‘contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.’ ”

This is nonsense masquerading as profundity and wisdom. Its premises are racist. It is pernicious, shallow, distorted — inane — thinking. It is close, if not equivalent to, what left wing ideologues would call “hate speech.” Whatever happened to the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine of inalienable rights of all persons?

“The protest has found traction on Twitter, where some commenters have called for destruction of the painting and others have focused on what they view as an ill-conceived attempt by Ms. Schutz to aestheticize an atrocity.”

Aestheticize? This is pseudoliterate purple prose. Yes, it’s art. About an atrocity.

John Hersey — not Japanese — wrote a compelling book about the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing. He tried to convey it experientially. You and I weren’t there. Is not someone who wasn’t himself or herself there and didn’t suffer entitled nevertheless to write about it?

I was eight years old when Emmett Till was murdered. I have no recollection of the event, was never told about it. I am grateful for anyone who brings it to notice and attempts to convey its horror.

“Dana Schutz should have read Saidiya Hartman before she turned Emmett Till into a bad Francis Bacon painting.” #WhitneyBiennial — cathy park hong (@cathyparkhong) March 17, 2017 (A tweet.)

Maybe it’s a bad painting. That’s not the point. Dana Schutz is an admired artist. She should be allowed to work and express herself.

“@whitneymuseum I think it’s mighty disrespectful for you all to display Dana Schutz’ photo of Emmet Till. You should really remove this” — Mahdi ? (@My_D_) March 17, 2017 (A tweet.)

Disrespectful? What an odd term to describe the inclusion of a work of art — one apparently created with sincerity and feeling — in an exhibit of contemporary art.

“The biennial is an unusually diverse exhibition of work by 63 artists and collectives; nearly half the artists are female and half are nonwhite” (quoth the Times).

The implication here is that — don’t worry yourself over it — the exhibition is safely diverse.

“[N]early half of the artists are female.” This implies that we should be grateful to the curators for representing the female “minority.” I have news for you. Nearly half the world’s population is female.

“[N]early … half are nonwhite.” What does this mean? Black? Asian? Who knows? The main thing is, thank God that the Whitney’s curators have not “erred” by including too many white artists in the exhibition.

“Calling the painting ‘a mockery’ and ‘an injustice to the black community,’ Mr. Bright adds that he believes the work perpetuates ‘the same kind of violence that was enacted’ on Till ‘just to make a painting move.’ ”

Violence? By creating such a work of art, the artist has committed, vicariously, a violent act? This is pure nonsense.

“ ‘I feel like she doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole or for Emmett Till’s family,’ Mr. Bright says in the video.”

Did the artist claim to be doing this? No.

“The curators said that they wanted to include the painting because many of the exhibition’s artists focus on violence — racial, economic, cultural — and they felt that the work raised important questions, especially now, in a political climate in which race, power and privilege have become ever more urgent issues.”

The Times writer weighs in with his own zany take on what is acceptable and politically correct in the art world today. Actually, the curators do. But, the Times writer obviously approves. The curators “felt that the work raised important questions, especially now, in a political climate in which race, power and privilege have become ever more urgent issues.” This is nonsensical purple prose — code words used to convey meanings which, when analyzed, are absurd. Art may have a political content, but it isn’t fundamentally ideological. It goes a lot deeper than that. Art and polemics are two different things.

A curator, Ms. Locks said: “Right now I think there are a lot of sensitivities not just to race but to questions of identities in general. We welcome these responses. We invited these conversations intentionally in the way that we thought about the show.”

More gobbledygook.

I, for one, do not welcome such discussions.

There is a word for what’s going on here. It’s RACISM.

Racism pure and simple. The critics of this painting object to it on racial grounds. Using racist thinking and racist hate mongering. That’s what’s actually going on. But one can’t say it. Least of all the exhibit’s curators, or that liberal organ of enlightened opinion and respectable middle class thinking, The New York Times.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     March 2017

 

 

 

 

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See also:

 

“In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” op ed by Kenan Malik, The New York Times, June 14, 2017

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/in-defense-of-cultural-appropriation.html

 

 

 

 

 

… in which I walk Paul Goodman’s dog (plus the New York Friends Group and Steve Post)

 

 

 

An excellent article in today’s New York Times, “Norman Podhoretz Still Picks Fights and Drops Names” by John Leland — about the neoconservative pundit and former Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz — notes that Podhoretz, after becoming Editor-in-Chief of Commentary in 1960, enlivened the magazine and hired writers on the left such as James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, and Norman O. Brown.

This brought to mind the name of Goodman.

Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was an American novelist, playwright, poet, literary critic, and psychotherapist who is best remembered as a social critic and anarchist philosopher. His most famous work was Growing Up Absurd (1960), which was originally serialized in Commentary and which was finally published (after being rejected by publishers numerous times) with the assistance of Podhoretz.

Growing Up Absurd was a best seller and an enormously influential book in certain circles when I was in high school. It seemed that all of my liberal, intellectually advanced peers — and liberal, progressive adults who were sympathetic to their ideas — were reading it. The book saw the disaffection of my generation — youths coming of age in the early 1960’s — as rooted in the evils inherent in what he called “the disgrace of the Organised System”: semi-monopolies, government, advertising, etc.

 

 

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I moved to New York City in the spring of 1969, shortly after graduating from college. My first job in Manhattan was working for the New York Friends Group at 218 East 18th Street.

From their name, it seemed that they were a Quaker group devoted to world peace, which appealed to me. They were such an organization, but what they and their staff members actually did was never quite clear to me. It was perplexing. You would think I would have known since I worked there! But, it remained a mystery; I could never quite figure it out. Pompous individuals — somewhat otherworldly seeming; somewhat gunshy and timid seeming but at the same time haughty and condescending in manner; making, I would presume, salaries probably in the neighborhood of seven to nine thousand a year; no doubt pleased to have a job title that seemed respectable if not impressive and at not having to be begrimed by working for a profit making firm — sat primly at their desks all day reading journals and occasionally writing something or other. For publication? Who knew? They never talked about what they did or were engaged in or studying or writing about. I sometimes felt that it was because they were actually doing or accomplishing very little.

On a Swarthmore College site, the agency, now defunct, is named and is described as follows: “A funding agency supported by members of the Religious Society of Friends, which granted financial aid to U.S. peace and antinuclear groups. The NYFG was primarily organized and run by activist Doris Shamleffer. Peace activist and Quaker Robert Gilmore served as NYFG president.” Both Miss Shamleffer (whom everyone called Shammy) and Mr. Gilmore were there at the time. (The person actually running the place by that time was the executive director, Charlie Bloomstein, a colorful, hard nosed character.)

My job title was Workroom Supervisor. I was responsible for sorting and delivering the morning mail; for making periodic rounds of the five or so floors during the day delivering interoffice memos to the appropriate inboxes; for running the mimeograph machine; and for running sundry errands, such as shopping at the local grocery for items in the office pantry and making deliveries of documents to Mr. Gilmore’s brownstone in Greenwich Village.

My salary was eighty dollars a week minus taxes. Needless to say, I found it very difficult to live in New York City on that salary, and yes, I had my own apartment. I found a clean L-shaped studio in Queens for $105 a month.

One day, one of the nicer employees in the office, a woman whose name I do not recall, asked me if I would be interested in after hours employment of sorts that would enable me to live in Manhattan for a few days. The assignment was to house sit for the writer Paul Goodman at his apartment in Chelsea. I said I would be interested.

A day or two later, I went to Mr. Goodman’s apartment for an “interview.”

My main — really, sole — responsibility was to walk the Goodmans’ dog.

I enjoyed the assignment. It was a nice, spacious apartment (probably rent controlled) from which I could walk to work in 15 minutes or so — your typical New York intellectual’s pad. I have always liked dogs; I seem to recall it was a terrier. The apartment was located right around the corner from the Elgin Theater, a well known art film house of its day, and I went there once or twice. It was a pleasant and relaxing experience.

Goodman’s wife Sally conducted the interview. She was a middle aged, self effacing, very pleasant woman — a bit dowdy; not glamorous. Goodman emerged from his study as I was about to leave to say hello. He looked just like in his photos. Rumpled, bespectacled. A typical homegrown intellectual.

I had a brief conversation with Goodman. He was friendly, and I seemed to make a good impression. He was bisexual. He made a gesture such as rubbing my cheek or the back of my head for a moment as I was leaving.

Mrs. Goodman returned to the apartment after a few days. Their trip was over. I did not see Goodman.

I was not paid for house sitting; my pay was being able to live in their apartment for a few days. She said, “I’ve got to give you something.” She looked around and pulled a book off a shelf. “How about one my husband’s books?” she said. She gave me an autographed copy of a book of poetry by Goodman, “North Percy.” It was dedicated to Goodman’s son Matthew who had died tragically in 1967 in a mountain climbing accident.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     March 17, 2017

 

 

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Addendum:

 

 

A footnote of sorts.

One of my predecessors in the position of Workroom Supervisor at the New York Friends Group on East 18th Street was Steve Post.

Steve Post (1944-2014) was an American freeform radio artist and the author of a memoir: Playing in the FM Band: A Personal Account of Free Radio (1974).

Post was a distinctive radio personality, known for his quirky newscasts (in which he would read from the newswire, continually interpolating his own comments); his love of classical music (about which he did not claim to have specialized expertise), especially Schubert’s Quintet in C, opus 163, which he could not play enough times; and his willingness to flaunt conventional expectations of a radio announcer and be his own, contrarian self. He was very well known to New Yorkers of my generation, as was his station, WBAI-FM.

Post was, by his own admission, an indifferent student who barely managed to graduate from high school. But, his on air monologues were always fun and often interesting. No subject was considered beneath him.

I recall one monologue of his about The Lone Ranger. Being that it was freeform radio, he went on at length, extemporizing. Post and I were nearly contemporaries; we had both experienced The Lone Ranger during the 1950’s. The main point of his disquisition was that The Lone Ranger was all about justice, meaning fairness and doing the right thing; and that he never shot to kill, just to disarm and temporarily disable bad guys.

 

 

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For articles about Mr. Post, see
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Post

 

and obituaries at

 

 

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/new-york-radio-show-host-steve-post-dies-age-70-article-1.1890789

footnotes

 

 

 

I have been a reader all my life and take great pleasure in it.

I am not an academic, yet I like to challenge myself by reading books on all sorts of topics. As well as trying to read the classics, I don’t shy away from reading scholarly tomes.

For example, being a lover of Walt Whitman, and always intending to read more of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have begun reading a book by a well known English professor which discusses the influence the two had on one another.

I desire to read books in their traditional printed form, not on line. I love having the book in my hands and turning the pages. I appreciate the physical appearance of books and enjoy owing them. I tend to prefer hardbacks over paperbacks. This is especially true of hefty volumes. I find the pages easier to turn.

I have a pet peeve. It involves footnotes. Sometimes, they are boring and not essential from the reader’s point of view. But, often – usually — they are worth at least checking, and quite often, indeed, they contain valuable information. In the case of the work of some scholars, the footnotes can often be as informative as the main body of the text itself. This is true, for example, of the works of the Samuel Johnson scholar Thomas M. Curley, whose works should be better known (but never will be).

So, I ask, why are footnotes buried at the back of the book? Why do publishing practices require or mandate this?

I write scholarly essays for a separate web site of mine which is devoted to the writer Theodore Dreiser. I compose the essays using Microsoft Word. I try to document my findings using footnotes, to make what I have discovered through research verifiable and to give my articles credibility among scholars. Microsoft Word permits one to insert a footnote in a document wherever one desires. The footnote is inserted at the bottom of the page automatically, and the layout is adjusted automatically to allow space at the bottom of the page for the footnotes. One also has the option of creating an endnote, if so desired, in which case the citations appear sequentially at the end of the main body of the document.

I recall writing term papers as a college student in the 1960’s. I used a manual portable typewriter, a Royal typewriter with a Harvard College sticker on it that my older brother had bequeathed to me. Being a procrastinator, it seemed that I was always pulling “all nighters” to write the paper the night before it was due. I would have books spread out before me from which I would be cadging information for footnotes. (I almost always — by the way — composed my papers at the typewriter in a single draft, with no revisions.)

Allowing for footnotes in those days was a slight problem. One had to anticipate how many footnotes there would be at the bottom of the page, then make a pencil mark about a half an inch from the bottom of the page to allow space for each footnote. When one got to the pencil mark, one stopped typing the main text and typed in the footnote.

Can someone explain to me, if the technology is available to any student writing a term paper on his or her computer using standard word processing software — the technology to insert footnotes at the BOTTOM of EACH page, with the word processing program automatically making adjustments to allow enough space — why can’t publishing firms place footnotes at the bottom of each page instead of at the end of the book? It would save so much vexing flipping back and forth to find and read the citation. In the old days, footnotes were always at the bottom of each page in printed books. Why, in heaven’s name, do publishers insist on the supposedly “modern” way of doing it?

A friend of mine from the past who was a homegrown philosopher used to say to me, “Science marches backwards.” So do many other areas of modern life, big and small.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      March 2017

 

 

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Addendum: I had a discussion the other day about the subject of this post — namely, footnotes — with someone whose opinions I respect. He suggested to me that the reason that footnotes get buried in, relegated to, the back of the book is because publishers and authors fear that most people don’t care to read them and that, if they were placed at the bottom of the page to which they refer, many readers would find them to be a distraction.

This is undoubtedly true. True as an observation about publishing practices, that is. But, I would say, flat out wrong.

A similar point was made to me once by an eminent scholar whom I became acquainted with when I was employed at Columbia University. His books were a pleasure to read on account both of the clarity of expression and the prodigious original research that underlay them. The footnotes were copious and lengthy and demonstrated considerable industry and erudition.

In discussing a recently published book of his with the author, whom I told that I admired it, his footnotes came up. He told me he had placed them at the end because, that way, people who didn’t want to read them could ignore them.

In retrospect, I thoroughly disagree with my acquaintance’s position on this. If the reader isn’t interested, he or she can go on to the next page and ignore the footnotes.