Americans are living through a period of constant disgruntlement - political, social and historical. No matter what your ethnicity, there’s a statue or a painting of someone in your city or at your school that has to come down, perhaps because of slave-owning, or ancient harm to indigenous people, or womanizing or having too much money. Some people object to the plaque of David Koch on the side of the new fountain he installed in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - never mind that he paid for everything, helping to keep that site the most visited by tourists to our city. Some want Columbus toppled from his perch atop the circle named for him - five centuries is apparently insufficient to forgive his misdeeds to the Indians And nobody wants the name Trump on their building for a million reasons that you surely know by now.
So how interesting it is that the Whitney Museum, in its current exhibition of Andy Warhol, has placed his oversized portrait of Mao in a position of maximum prominence (see NYT 11/9/18). Since we are so sensitive to tyrants past and present, here’s an excerpt from “Mao’s Great Famine” by Frank Dikotter:
“….Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958-1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool - punishment for digging up a potato.”
I don’t suppose the above appears as a wall text next to Warhol’s oeuvre. Where is the insistence that this mass murderer should not be given pride of place in an art museum where few people will have the slightest knowledge of his extreme cruelty. If Columbus is too dastardly to be held up for admiration, what can we say about Mao? Put differently, the problem is that Mao is not sufficiently recognized as the face of evil, but is trivialized as a benign subject of a pop-artist who also painted soup cans. The only thing worse than having him hang at the Whitney is that this man who was responsible for the death by starvation of tens of millions of people once had this Warhol portrait of him hanging in the MOMA restaurant. What twisted curator thought this was wink-worthy?
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