Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bearing Witness

by Susan Weinberg

I can tell the wheels are spinning in the lab based on the many articles that members have submitted to share with the group.  Several of the articles relate to similar themes so I thought it might be worth sharing some of the issues that they raise for you to consider.  Often I find that multiple perspectives help me to find my truth. I encourage you to follow the links to the original articles.

At our last lab an article was shared  that ran in the New York Times titled Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed? by Roberta Smith. My initial response to that title is that there would be much less artwork through time if that were the case.  A lot of art is supposed to stir things up, to make people think by providing new pathways into a subject.  If it is making us uncomfortable, some would argue that it is doing what it should. This subject rears its head periodically, usually around perceived irreverence towards religion as in Piss Christ by Serrano, or Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a black Madonna surrounded by  pornographic cut outs and balanced on feet of elephant dung, Other paintings that we accept as important works of art once aroused that same ire, in this case sexuality was the concerning element; Manet's Olympia, Picasso's Les Demoiselle's d'Avignon and Sargent's Madame X were all once considered disturbing and for some infuriating.  When you read the article you will see that the real question underlying this fury is about who gets to tell the story.  Can a Caucasian person tell the story of a black person who was murdered because of his blackness?

In this case a white artist, Dana Schutz, painted a response to Emmett Till's battered body in his coffin. Some African-Americans felt that this was not her image to appropriate.  Read the article by Smith and then take a look at a counterpoint by Christopher Benson titled The Image of Emmett Till also in the New York Times.  He considers what the response would be of Emmett Till's mother who insisted that her son's battered body be shown in an open casket, taking control of the image and forcing a national discussion. Benson is in a good position to conjecture having co-authored a book with Mrs. Till-Mobley titled “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.” He argues that she would have viewed this as an American story and thus artistic responses from different perspectives are part of the national discussion.  If it generates discussion through protest, all the better.  The point of artwork is to create dialogue and remind us that we are all part of this discussion, one that touches each of us regardless of race.

A third article was shared on a different subject, but one that had echoes of this as it questioned what was acceptable as art in a museum by yet another yardstick. The exhibit it addressed is at the MFA in Boston and is pictures of the Lodz Ghetto taken by Henryk Ross, a Jewish photographer who served in that role for the Nazis during his sojourn in Lodz.  His responsibilities included taking photos for identification cards and recording the productivity of the Jews.  He was able to secure excess film by doing his ID photos in groups and cutting them into individual images.  The excess film was used to surreptitiously record the truth of life in the ghetto.  When he expected to lose his life, he buried his photographs, living to dig them up after the war. The title of the article Is Evidence from a War-Crimes Tribunal Art? by Matthew Fishbane.

I was recently in Boston for the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums and they allowed us access to the exhibition before it officially opened. Ross was a talented photographer and he used his skills for an important purpose. Many of his photographs deteriorated and some of those shown were even more visually powerful because of that, echoing the loss reflected in the imagery.  Having read Fishbane's article several times, I am a bit puzzled as to whether he is opposed to photo documentation in museums or whether he thinks it unseemly to view Ross as a talented artist lest that minimize the horror of what we are viewing.

Perhaps the MFA anticipated these questions as they artfully addressed them by sharing the artistic tradition of bearing witness. In the room following the exhibit was a related show titled I Must Tell You What I Saw: Objects of Witness and Resistance.   Within it is Turner's painting Slave Ship and artifacts from the Armenian genocide. An Assyrian relief shows the deportation of Babylonian women.

The juxtaposition with this work was meaningful and kept the focus on the many ways we resist and bear witness, photography being no less a tool than paint or stone carving.

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