Monday, January 16, 2017


When I was a kid, Richard Scarry’s books drew me in and kept me, hours on end. His scenes of life were endlessly absorbing, cornucopias of detail and interesting tidbits; when an entire picture is marginalia, you can spend an eternity finding new stories, new characters, new points of interest.

My attention span may not be what it once was – either longer or shorter, and I’m not sure my position on the spectrum is fixed day to day or moment to moment – but my interest in finding stories, characters, points of interest is intact.

So the painting at the heart of this story (and I do hope you will click to it; I don’t want to keep stealing images and justifying it as fair use) naturally arrested my gaze. More than once.

Controversial art
If we refuse to allow people their own perceptions of the things they see – and if we refuse to see how the world appears to anyone but ourselves – we cheat everyone of the opportunity to understand one another. Not just US (white people with privilege) understanding THEM, but  individual people of disparate experience understanding one another.  I am no more “us” than anyone else, and the idea that anyone is is a fundamental problem, perhaps THE fundamental problem – of the moment, and of humanity itself.

I am struck by this painting’s style, because it is strongly similar to the Richard Scarry-esque jam packed street scene of a painting I have (it is not “mine” but my mother’s, but has been at my home for years now) by Fritz Camille, a Haitian artist whose works are brilliant and bright, often contain crowds and buses or trucks – and social terror. Here is a work typical of what I have seen of Camille’s paintings. Here is the one my mom has given into my care.

The point of David Pulphus’s painting, at the NPR link above, is hardly that law enforcement officers are animals; it is that too many people are treated as such; it is that Pulphus wants to hold a mirror to those he perceives as treating himself and people like him as subhuman. The figure in the foreground, on the same plane as a weapon-wielding officer, has a head as inhuman as the officer’s.

Interestingly, like medieval art, the Christ-figure is outsized, proportionately larger than all the others. Nothing in this painting can be seen realistically, and yet this scene is the hardest form of reality. Foreshortening and perspective are distorted in the most distinctive ways; and THAT is the point. We can’t see this scene in a naturalistic way; everyone in it is an “us” or a “them”, inevitably, tragically. “Justice” is the least clear word in the entirety of this picture; actually obscured and broken in half by a figure carrying the word HISTORY, which is stark and clear even as it is also distorted; even bleeding. The musculature and skeleton of every last figure in this painting is painstakingly depicted; the physical strain on each striving or bent or straddling body is palpable. Even the shadow and highlight on a black bird in flight illustrates its body’s work in the act of a plummeting dive, and though the white bird’s body is all but robed like an angel, its wings are reaching. Even the jeans and the clothes, highlighted and creasing with teeming movement throughout, are like modeled sinew and flesh. The energy is incredible.

Look at the PICTURE, look at the scene and its denizens, and take it all in without imputing your implications to it first. Considering the art can put you “there” … and there, the us and them can take a turn, depending on where you stood before you stopped to see.

There is so much more to confrontational art than the confrontation – the point at which all the wrong people will stop, just to be offended. They miss the *invitation* … and the opportunity for more than just more anger.

I created this post as a draft several days ago, and now the news is that the painting will be removed from the Capitol. I have not added the image of the painting I own, but cannot delay this post given the news. (I take note that the piece is described as being "hanged" there. Do with that what you will.)

What do you think of censorship in the arts? In politics?

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