Last Tuesday, Roberta Smith, art critic for the NYTimes, presented an even-handed discussion questioning whether art that angers should remain on view (NYT 3/28/17) It was an odd way of framing a different question entirely, for nobody gets angry at the display of Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Black paintings or any number of other historical paintings of war, massacre or political brutality. This article was stimulated by the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial of a painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, showing the body of Emmett Till, a black teenager wrongfully accused of raping a white woman and killed and disfigured by white men. The aspect of this that provoked anger was the now popular concept of “cultural appropriation,” a concept that applies equally to the frivolous (cornrow braids and sombreros) as well as the sober issues of racism and historical events. Some black people have decided that whites cannot possibly empathize with the grief attendant to a racial lynching and therefore have no right to deal with that subject artistically.
Though Ms. Smith does her best to offer many examples of other condemnations of art, she includes some inappropriate choices - namely Chris Ofili’s painting of the Madonna and Child embellished with pornographic cutouts and elephant dung. Here the issue was not cultural appropriation but religious desecration, something familiar to the NY Times which never reproduced the newsworthy cartoons of Mohammed out of fear of Muslim retaliation. The media does its best to re-enforce the notion of religious tolerance when it comes to hijabs, refugees and peace-loving Islam - not so much when it concerns Judaeo-Christian sensibilities.
And not so much when it comes to patriotic Americans who aren’t specifically black. Two days after Roberta Smith’s article appeared, dance critic Alastair Macaulay whole-heartedly praised the performance of Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A With Flags” - choreographed for three nude dancers, each wearing an extended American flag hanging from their necks. “As the dancers move, you see all of those naked bodies, but the aura of nakednesss keeps changing, the way the flag falls from the neck keeps altering the whole shape of the body and the lines of the dance.” There was no reference in Macaulay’s review to the somber use of the flag as the sign of respectful national mourning - whether flying half-mast or covering a coffin of a serviceman who died for our country. While this isn’t a question of legality, it is a subject deserving at least as much pause as whether white artists should have their paintings of blacks displayed or possibly destroyed. And if we must be respectful of Islamic culture and p.c. notions of cultural appropriation, why shouldn’t we be at least as mindful of the flag we use as the highest symbol of respect for our heroes and statesmen? Would we be comfortable seeing a Black Lives Matter banner swinging off someone’s genitals? How about an Islamic flag? Would either one of those get a rise out of the Times’ dance critic? I am confident that this would not have been his final comment: “Both flags and movement make strong theatrics.”
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