Art is not safe.
Art exposes and stirs. Art reveals. This piece above, for example, The Falling Man, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, with the asymmetrical lines, the man moving toward the ground with intent, purpose, and speed. A Superman without the cape, en route toward death…
The photograph was shot at 9:41:15 a.m. September 11, 2001, New York City. The background building is the World Trade Center’s North Tower. The image appeared in newspapers across the globe. The New York Times published the photograph on page seven. The Times ran the image only once and faced anger and hate for that decision. Shame, even.
As the weeks etched forward after 9/11, images and discussion of all jumpers were quietly self-censored from the media. No one dared look, and on 9/11’s one year anniversary, the bronze statue “Tumbling Woman” was erected in Rockefeller Center, and abruptly shrouded, then removed. The fact we do not know who the man is in “Falling Man,” the fact that Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman” is faceless, that both pieces are without identity makes the photograph, the statue, all that more eerie. Our collective reaction is cast in abstract horror.
But art is never safe. Art sheds light in the darkness, exposes our reality as harsh fiction. Art explains who we are, who we could be. Many of us, of course, hang art in our living rooms and kitchens, a “Brooklyn Evening,” “Tres Joli,” or “Rain in the City” all so blasé-ly purchased from Walmart.
Once, just like “Tumbling Woman” was draped and hidden, people did not so casually hang art, but covered their treasures with “cloaks or cloth […] It was thought that a […] art object was not something that you looked upon daily, because the act of seeing, of vision, was bidirectional. So, that when you looked at something, it looked back at you, and changed you.” And in uncivilized cultures not as well-tampered as our own, “art is not a harmless diversion or commodity, but something real and volatile, a potential threat to be violently suppressed,” writes Tim Kreider for the New York Times. And the reason why ISIS destroyed ancient Palmyra treasures, smashing statues, chipping away faces, why vandals scratched ocher handprints at the Nirmeda Nala rock shelter, why Nazis absconded and hid away artwork within the Dadaist, Impressionist, Cubist, Expressionist, and Surrealist traditions, threats to their New World Order, their Orwellian vision of cultural renaissance, why Trump was unwilling to wait the two weeks to remove the Bonwit Teller building’s art deco friezes to make room for a tower like Babel. “They jackhammered the friezes, dislodged them with crowbars, and pushed the remains inside the building, where they fell to the floor and shattered in a million pieces” wrote Harry Hurt. But Trump had the friezes appraised, discovered and announced under a pseudonym that the friezes were “without artistic merit.”
“These [artistic] attacks are, in a way, a savage, atavistic show of respect,” writes Kreider, for we do not want to delve into the id and the pathos of who we are. We wish to suppress. To not look. To be content with Walmart kitsch.
But the 9/11 jumpers, they could be any one of us.
Here begins a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world…
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
To be sure, I am not comparing Trump to Hitler, ISIS, or even cowardly vandals. To do thus would simply be a logical fallacy, a slippery slope.
Nevermind Mike Pence leans toward the okayness of conversion therapy, nevermind Trump adviser Kris Koback and RNC chair-to-be Reince Priebus aren’t “ruling out” a Muslim-only registry hearkening back to Japanese-American internment camps, nevermind the alt-right tendencies of Steve Bannon, and at the very least, nevermind Bannon’s enthusiasm for Satan…
Trump is not like Hitler, but the populist movement gaining momentum is not unlike young lions running after Death, its dark pelt blotched with pale crosses as it escapes down the vast violet living and throbbing sky… not unlike the 1922 Youth League that demanded membership, that blamed all on a single scapegoat, who looked toward the past in a kind of nostalgic, a place that could not be returned to, could not be reproduced with folk songs sung around campfires, but instead had to be replaced with museum burnings, the destruction of intellectualism and academia, to be replaced with paramilitary training and hate.
I understand the fear. The way America used to be: the miracle of Tupperware, two car garages, suburbia, the glistening city complete with yacht regattas, Hotel Pontchartrain trolley cars and parks, opera houses, capital squares…
When Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor showcased glitz and glamour, when wallets were full, when American manufacturing was proud, homes were Leave It To Beaver aesthetic and dishwasher equipped. The past was an era of fast cars, washing machines, toasters, televisions and vacuum cleaners. 20 million refrigerators, 21.4 million cars, and 5.5 million stoves were built and bought all right here in the good old U.S.A.
That America is gone.
We are abandoned, failed by our government, and look backwards fondly, unsure of our nation in the midst of globalization that allows containers to ship across oceans for almost free and technological innovation that allows two workers to produce as much as twelve. We are confronted by a glut of retail jobs, low paying warehouse work, the need for stability in a more connected and yet disconnected world, having built our wealth upon a failing, antiquated racial and class caste system.
Homes are all but boarded up and we get all our stuff from China: our shirts and shoes, living room sofas and plastic cars. Lament our gas prices and our rent is unfathomable, our mortgages upside down; we ridicule welfare recipients: suggest drug testing, shame them for eating steak when bacon is just as expensive. We search for our scapegoat, our Judas. We view from our homes and apartments our very own neighbors, watch what they eat, how they pray, what they say. When one walks by cowled in a hoodie, we whisper to each other we’re not like them. Or shoot point blank into a car window.
And we grasp at treacherous solutions: push STEM agendas, praise high stakes testing, call for the tearing down of libraries, toss money toward coliseums to encourage the Romans, imprison more people, in effect reinstituting the caste, reinstituting slavery.
We hide our art that exposes soul.
Trump is not the cause, not the sickness, but the symptom. The invisible gases nigh, Trump is the caged canary. For too long I have stood complacent along the sidelines, watching the madness unravel, moving with the crowd deeper into the tunnels, trying to be small, to eke out a cowering shadow for my family, my children—and I now fear I am too late to speak, to create.
When Trump tweeted about the theater, he had it half right. The theater is indeed a special place, but art is not safe. Art is pervasive. Threatening. Revolutionary. My poetry, my art, is my violence.