What started out boldly and somewhat amusingly as the Summer of Scam has devolved into something more sinister, as evidenced by what’s percolating in both the news headlines, and pop culture. It’s a summer where I sit down to write a guide for the best pitaya bowls and gingham tops and rooftop bars in Brooklyn, and instead end up with a mostly political piece.
The government of the United States of America is separating mothers from babies, imposing unimaginable, lasting emotional abuse, and quite possibly, much worse. Soon after being lambasted for quoting biblical scripture to defend said Trump administration’s immigration policy, Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice is creating a “religious liberty task force”, unleashing a Noah-esque flood of Handmaid’s Tale memes. What’s illuminating about America today though is that seemingly more people were up-in-arms in sundry online comments sections regarding a “privileged” intern’s $1,000/month allowance, than the potential revocation of civil liberties and/or the decampment of innocent children to ICE detention centers.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that at home, I can’t stop watching the true-crime Netflix series “The Staircase”, as well as the HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s acerbic and tightly wound “Sharp Objects”. Both non-fiction and fictional pieces feature protagonists who we can’t really trust, who hover somewhere in the grey, striving to survive in quasi-surreal justice systems.
It’s similar to the conflicted sentiment I felt when Kanye West released his new album, ye, in early summer. It’s hard not to be moved by West’s triumphant whooping revelation that being bipolar is his “super power”, yet his creativity is partially obfuscated by his semi-allegiance to Trump and troubling slavery statement. Beyoncé in the September 2018 issue of Vogue is a woke warrior goddess, and her candor and strength spontaneously brought tears to my eyes at the dentist yesterday. But, her team’s response to the Ivy Park sweatshop scandal illustrates the imperfect nature of even our most idealistic superheroines. In an age of social media, where any benign comment or action can be subject to making one #canceled, can we even have superheroes?
There’s a certain cadre of liberal New Yorker who makes it their identity to make everyone else problematic. In my experience, they can be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s asymmetrical clothing, far more dangerous than a random suburban teen wearing a #MAGA hat on vacation with the sole intent to be trendily oppositional (Milania Guidice, I saw you, hun!) I certainly prefer the 99.9% perfection of Beyoncé or West’s increasingly problematic (but authentic) Kanye Kandor over the caricature white male Bushwick virtue signaler perpetually pontificating on #metoo or how much they hate gentrification, while still wielding their privilege in areas where its convenient or advantageous to them.
Art and artists need to be able to make mistakes and to have a voice, even and especially if every word isn’t scrubbed through the PR machine. Art in all of its manifestations is frequently a murky ethical area, one which prompts us to challenge our personal conventions, while taking into account (but not necessarily excusing) the societal norms surrounding the object of interest. While I loved re-visiting Ginevra de’Benci and Botticelli at the National Gallery this summer, my mind has been haunted by decidedly more American subjects.
“UnSeen: Our Past In A New Light” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. was an unexpected yet powerful find. The exhibition catalogue details how, “[Titus] Kaphar defaces, cuts, and peels back his paintings to show how portraits of American historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, have traditionally coded racial difference, hid systemic prejudices, and omitted the presence of African Americans.” It’s the Roxxxy Andrews double-wig sight gag, albeit with more sobering insight. Though, there’s also something glorifying about the acknowledgement (and visual possession) of the subject matter as a whole, particularly seen in the aptly named “Behind the Myth of Benevolence“.
[“Behind the Myth of Benevolence”, Titus Kaphar, 2014).
[“Colombus Day Painting”, Titus Kaphar, 2014).
I also found myself thinking weeks later about Kaphar’s “Colombus Day Portrait”, where European colonizers/mass murderers were hidden behind shroud-like canvases, drawing the viewer’s eye back to the original inhabitants of the Americas. It’s interesting to contrast his revisionist painting with hate speech by our sitting President demanding a “wall”, willfully/gleefully inciting xenophobia. When you stop to think about it, especially in the shadow of a canvas like “Colombus Day”, who isn’t an immigrant or descendant of one, in the United States of America?
Perhaps the answer can be found at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, located inside of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, in the heart of the Financial District. The building itself is a Beaux-Arts stunner which wouldn’t be out of place in Paris, yet it houses thousands of objects which chronicle the tragic impact of European colonization. The internment, torture, and murder of Native people is an essentially part of the history of the America’s, yet one which is difficult to examine without feeling shame and sadness.
[“Father, Son, Holy Ghost“, Kevin McKenzie, 2015).
One of the most harrowing, beautiful, and timely pieces for me was Kevin McKenzie’s “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” (2015). Neon-lit buffalo skulls invite the viewer to contemplate the negative impacts of forced Catholic conversion, and assimilation as a whole. The stark animal bones reanimated with a faux-glow suggested to me the false promise of everlasting life vis-a-vis scripture teaching, while also illuminating the bleak, permanent reality of death.
On that note, it is a summer of grey’s. Even the spelling of the word itself is ambiguous, with the writer vacillating between the more elegant, European “e” or colloquial, American “a”. It feels like a summer of ill-defined answers, and unscrupulous characters, imagined and otherwise. A summer of revisiting the horrors of the past, but still not entirely discounting the possibility of finding beauty in the future.