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Honor

Post #1867 • June 24, 2020, 4:56 PM • 5 Comments

The same weekend during which I posted my misgivings about AICA-USA’s Black Lives Matter statement, I emailed the member liaison to our board asking whether and when it was planning to denounce the defacement and destruction of various art objects around the country in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to hear back.

In the meantime I’ve followed related stories. Interesting takes in recent days include an economist’s analysis of the issue, as well as that of a Paris-based Uzbek critic who witnessed the Leninopad. He observes:

Monuments are the products of the mores and ideological fixations of their time. They glorify and immortalize the figures who shaped the world in which they lived through either their brute force of will, their creativity, or their capacity to wage war. If the very idea of putting up statues to kings and war leaders and renowned writers now seems antiquarian to some, well, logically so should the carnal pagan act of tearing them down to dispel their aura.

Alas, even as progressive iconoclasm has escalated to the point that Shaun King has called for the demolition of images portraying Jesus Christ as a white man, critics of record at the nation’s newspapers remain steadfastly reluctant to say that the politically motivated destruction of art is maybe not a good thing. Cue the Ballad of Brave Sir Robin:

Brave Sir Robin ran away
Bravely ran away away
When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out
Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin!

If you know of exceptions, kindly send them my way. But in the process of looking for one, I ran across this commentary, “Confederate monuments institutionalize racism. Take them all down. Now,” by Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight. Heedful of Rahm Emanuel’s advice never to let a crisis go waste, he wrote a couple of weeks ago from a comfortable position on the opposite coast about the recently removed Appomattox by Caspar Buberl, which he neither named nor credited:

A statue like Alexandria’s marshals a symbolic eternity, signaled by enduring bronze. It is lifted onto an immovable soapbox, chiseled from stone or cast in concrete. It commands a public space, pressing a metaphorical knee into the back of any citizen who might dare to object.

Hundreds of those sculptural knees remain in place today on streets, in parks and even on college campuses across the United States.

Later, with a moral certainty that God Himself would envy if He thought that there was anything to it, Knight opined,

Art is not supposed to be cruel, never mind a sickness. Confederate monuments are both. The only legitimate moral response to the growing iconoclasm toward them is: Good riddance.

You may recall from the previous post that AICA-USA’s bylaws enshrine the “acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.” Yes, Knight is also a member.

Finally, on repeated, as-yet unsuccessful efforts to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville,

The heritage-versus-hate discussion is phony when the heritage is itself hate.

This isn’t wrong. If secular progressivism had a Sunday School, this is the kind of thing you would hear in its Third Grade-level classes. And I recognize that art can change meaning over time, necessitating the removal of work like Appomattox to another context, or even storage for a while. I say that having seen, last year in Vienna, art objects created by Jews that were removed on account of changed meaning and stored in conditions of malignant neglect. I don’t know offhand how you say “good riddance” in German, but the National Socialists were thinking something like it when they were canceling art for the sake of racial dignity.

However, Knight’s political prejudices are just as undifferentiated, uninformed, deficient in nuance and generosity, and mean-spirited as the racial prejudices of any racist. When the country’s conservatives talk about how the coastal media elites hate them, they’re not moonshine-swilling hayseeds cooking up yarns, but people who know how to use the Internet and have plenty of material like Knight’s for citation.

Anybody can look back at people walking the earth a hundred-plus years ago and evaluate them from their position in the present. You get that kind of moral judgment for free. The part that takes some work, and what reveals the extent of the difficulties involved, is imagining yourself at the mercy of those conditions from a hundred-plus years ago, and maintaining enough humility to recognize that you probably wouldn’t have done any better than they did.

Lee, in particular, was complicated. The old South was an honor culture. Men didn’t insult each other on Twitter, they fought duels. His relatively high birth put him into, not exactly wealth, but a great pile of perishable capital. Marriage to an heiress compounded it. Bound by his father’s last will to free his slaves upon his death, the younger Lee delayed doing so in order to avoid his own economic ruin. He knew that slavery was a great evil and opposed his state’s secession, but honor bound him to serve his family and serve the South. Lee was a fearsome tactician (Lincoln had tried to get him to fight for the Union) but he finally surrendered to Ulysses Grant, whose statue was just torn down in San Francisco without the slightest remark from Christopher Knight.

Knight is very much a product of the 21st-century Los Angeles art world, and he would have been very much a product of Confederate Virginia. His writings indicate to me a lesser ability to think outside of his own time than Lee possessed. In Lee’s position, I’m not sure that I would have made better choices than Lee. I’m near certain that Knight would have been out in the fields himself, whipping his slaves until their bones gleamed in the southern sun. Mores come and go, but simpleminded righteousness is the default human condition, and this Pulitzer Prize and Rabkin Foundation Lifetime Award winner has an astounding surfeit of it.

I’m glad that I don’t live in an honor culture, but it would be heartening to see our culture exhibit some honor.

Comment

1.

John Link

June 25, 2020, 12:46 AM

The stuff they’re pulling down isn’t exactly great art. Obviously they have gone too far, but it is hard to feel sad about it. I do feel sad about the way some police treat minorities and incensed when their unions rush to defend gross offenders. That, however, is the difference between art and life.

2.

Franklin

June 25, 2020, 8:08 AM

It’s possible to feel sad about both of those things and quite a lot else besides. Believe me, I’m doing it now. Thinking about my aspirations in art, academia, and criticism when I started out in the mid-'90s and looking at what those fields have turned into since then have given me a lot to be sad about for personal reasons, even apart from the current events that all of us are sad about.

So, AICA-USA doesn’t just purport to defend the good stuff. As far as the moral defense of art is concerned, quality is beside the point. I’ve come to the moral but not aesthetic defense of art, notably here.

The problems of life have to be solved through life. Tell your representatives to support the Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, and the End Qualified Immunity Act. Push the brilliant idea of requiring officers to carry liability insurance so that bad actors get priced out of their jobs. Vote for people who want fewer things to be criminal offenses.

The incentives around the police unions are wrong for the same reason that they’re wrong around all the public unions, but with acts of violence attached, so reconsider their legality in total. There’s no valid analysis of the systemic injustice that produced Derek Chauvin that ignores the decades-old system of unipartisan Democratic leadership in Minneapolis. Question all the premises, not just the convenient ones.

For that matter, it’s time to revive the long-observed wisdom that the state by definition is a monopoly on violence. Defund the police? Sure, along with everything else. The whole system is ultimately carceral.

Or, pull down more statues because feelings.

Donald J. Boudreaux just made an important distinction between addressing motives versus addressing incentives that I regard as required reading.

3.

Franklin

June 25, 2020, 8:08 AM

I alluded above to seeing art in Vienna last year made by Jews that had been canceled by National Socialists. I finally shook loose from my brain a specific reference. It was sculptures by Teresa Feoderovna Ries, on display in “Stadt der Frauen” (City of Women) at the Belvedere. Installation shots are here and here. She wasn’t the only victim in that show by a long shot. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis died at Birkenau. A lot of them were, like Ries, chased out of Austria.

Anyone reading the above and thinking to himself, “I support the protests and want all this art gone but I would never make the same mistakes the Nazis did,” should read “Who Goes Nazi?” by Dorothy Thompson from Harper’s, August 1941.

4.

Sara Stites

June 25, 2020, 10:36 AM

Why not let artists apply to add to them or change them? This would create an uplifting spectacle, employ artists, and add to the story rather than try to erase it. Corporate sponsorship would be lining up to contribute.

5.

Franklin

June 25, 2020, 10:39 AM

I think that’s an excellent idea. Unfortunately I think we’re looking at an assault on history itself that views any trace of the old image as an abomination.

On a related note, the Wikipedia article on the Bamiyan Buddhas:

Then Taliban ambassador-at-large Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi said that the destruction of the statues was carried out by the Head Council of Scholars after a Swedish monuments expert proposed to restore the statues’ heads. Hashimi is reported as saying: "When the Afghan head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, ’No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children’. Herein, they made the decision to destroy the statues"; however, he did not comment on the claim that a foreign museum offered to "buy the Buddhist statues, the money from which could have been used to feed children". Rahmatullah Hashemi added "If we had wanted to destroy those statues, we could have done it three years ago," referring to the start of U.S. sanctions. "In our religion, if anything is harmless, we just leave it. If money is going to statues while children are dying of malnutrition next door, then that makes it harmful, and we destroy it."

In other words, no property is worth a life, as we’ve been hearing lately by way of justification for destroyed property. I reckon that the demolition of the buddhas did not make the children feel any less hungry.

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