Saturday, June 29, 2019

Here We Go Again...

Another chapter in the let's remove art for the public good saga is taking shape, this time in San Francisco. This op-ed article by Bari Weiss in the New York Times describes a plan to not only remove a work by an important 20th Century artist, but to destroy it.

The work in question is a thirteen panel mural inside George Washington High School by the Russian-American artist, Victor Arnautoff, depicting the school's namesake in rather unconventional ways. In the panel illustrated in the op-ed piece, Washington is standing at a desk with other "Founding Fathers", his right hand pointing to a map resting on a table while his left points off into the distance where a group of American settlers impassively walk past the body of a dead Native American man. Other panels in the work depict African American slaves toiling away on Washington's plantation.

A detail of Victor Arnautoff's mural "City Life"
in the lobby of Coit Tower, San Francisco.
The conspicuous absence of the conservative
San Francisco Chronicle
on the newsstand is a clear indication of the artist's
political convictions, 
In her piece, Weiss quotes Arnautoff stating his no-holds-barred philosophy of art:
Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me... The artist is a critic of society.
Arnautoff, an avowed Communist who assisted the like-minded Diego Rivera in Mexico, was according to Weiss, one of the Bay Area's most prominent Depression era artists.

Clearly the panels in the school, as is the case for all his work as well as that of his mentor Rivera are radical, provocative and subversive. From this piece I wrote back in 2013, you can read about the controversey sparked by Rivera's "Detroit Industry" which right wing groups demanded be removed during the anti-communist McCarthy era of the fifties, and the response from the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the institution that houses the murals.

An Arnautoff work I am intimately familiar with, "City Life", painted in the Social Realist style popular in the day, graces the interior of Coit Tower which stands on the top of Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. Created during a time of upheaval in the labor movement of the city, "City Life" and other murals inside the tower were themselves considered subversive and protests against them forced the delay of the opening of the Tower, a monument to local firefighters, for several months.

Given today's highly charged political climate, you might assume that the controverey around Arnautoff's high school piece was triggered by conservative groups who are offended by the less than flattering portrayal of the "Father of our Country." But in fact, the move to remove and destroy the artwork comes from the San Francisco School Board. Schools they feel, need to be safe spaces for students and believe that the depiction of dead Indians and black slaves in the school halls, no matter the context, historical accuracy and significance of the art, is a clear violation of what it means to be a safe space.

Weiss in her piece claims that the Board has been swayed by a group called "Reflection and Action Working Group", in her words, "a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district." According to the group, Arnautoff 's work:
glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, (and) oppression... The art does not reflect social justice... (and it) is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.

Clearly the point of Arnautoff 's work is completely lost on this group. The only ratioinale I can see in this statement is summed up by that last phrase which implies that the "legacy" of the artist, (who happens to be a dead white guy), and in fact, history itself, is not as valid as the "experience"of the students, who presumably are racially and ethnically diverse. Never mind that the vast majority of the school's students are themselves opposed to the removal of the artwork.

What's even more disturbing is the insistence of the board that the work be painted over and effectively destroyed rather than being merely covered up, lest someone in the future decide to uncover them, in defiance of the infinite wisdom of the Board's decree which, if I'm reading it correctly, should be law for the ages, so shall it be written, so shall it be done.

Even beyond that nonsense is the fact that the people objecting to the destruction of these murals, are being labeled as racists by the would-be whitewashers of art and history.

This stuff of course is not new. Thirty years ago a WPA mural was removed from a school that neighbored my elementary school in Oak Park, Illinois. In the lobby of that school was a mural depicting a map of the world containing images of people who inhabited each of the continents. The people depicted in much of the painting were wearing contemporary (for the time) clothing, while in the Africa portion, the people were depicted wearing loin cloths and other accessories many felt enforced stereotypes of the "savage native". Then just this year, two more WPA paintings were removed from schools in the same community because detractors felt they did not reflect the current diversity of the schools.

While I'm not in agreement with the all-out removal of these works, I do get it. However I believe that dated as they are, these works of art, when put into their the proper context, (just like the Confederate monuments that have been in the news recently), serve as useful windows to the past. Simply taking down and mothballing them to obfuscate the less admirable features of our history in order to avoid offending people, serves no worthwhile purpose at all, in my opinion.

But the Arnautoff work is different. That artist clearly had a "progressive" agenda and the idea that his work glorified slavery, genocide, colonization, and everything else that is bad in the world, simply could not be more wrong. A school's job is first and foremost to educate its students. It is important that students know, not only history and the evils of the past, but that even during a bygone era such as the1930s, there were many people including artists, who went against the grain and did not buy into slavery, genocide, colonialism and other evils that were very much alive in their day and continue into our own.

Erasing a work of art because we don't agree with the message it conveys is bad enough, but erasing a work of art because we don't bother to understand the message is beyond explanation. It is misguided, stupid and above all an affront to education, knowledge, and understanding.

I just wrote about the importance of learning from history and the trouble that arises when we are ignorant of it. It seems at least in this case, the San Francisco School Board is fast becoming the champion of ignorance.

This one simply boggles the mind.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Cultures Collide

There was a fascinating story that aired on NPR's This American Life Series last week. The piece was about an incident that took place in 1994, when a group of high school students were removed from a movie theater for behaving badly during a screening of the film Schindler's List. The incident made national news. Here is a report from the time in the New York Times.

Schindler's List in case you don't know, is a Steven Spielberg film revolving around the true story of a German industrialist who managed in a small way to circumvent Hitler's "Final Solution" by saving the lives of roughly 1,500 persons whom he claimed were under his employ in a company deemed essential to the German war effort.

Apparently the straw that broke the camel's back at the screening came during a scene in which a young woman engineer wearing a yellow arm band with a Star of David, is shot for the offense of warning the Nazis building a concentration camp that their construction techniques were faulty. The scene induced a mixture of commentary and laughter from many of the students. This led a group of movie-goers to walk out of the theater to demand the students be removed, which they were.

It's not difficult to imagine the reaction of the audience to laughing and cracking jokes during a film about the Holocaust. If we didn't know otherwise, we would assume the offenders must have been virulent racists with ties to the American Nazi Party, or any number of related hate groups.

But this was not the case, the students in question came from Castlemont High School, located in a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in one of the poorest communities of Oakland, California.

Public reaction to the incident was swift and relentless.

The NPR piece is told from one side, that of the students. Twenty five years later, the former students now in their early to mid forties, make no attempt to deny or obfuscate their actions, every one of them understands what they did that day was inappropriate, hurtful and disprespectful to the rest of the audience and to the greater Jewish community. There is no Roshomon effect here, the students don't paint a different picture than the "official" account. But their account is nuanced and after hearing it, to be honest, it's not difficult to understand what took place that afternoon.

For starters, they were kids. If you've ever spent time with a bunch of high school students on a field trip as I have recently, you know what I mean.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, a school outing on an official holiday, Martin Luther King Day. The field trip combined a movie which would be followed by a trip to the ice skating rink. On top of that, the movie would teach the students a valuable history lesson, one which the students admitted years later they had little if any knowledge of at the time.

According to one of the former students in the NPR piece, the problem began from the first frame of the film. For starters, it was in black and white. As someone with children of his own, I am sadly aware of the aversion the younger generation has to films shot in glorious black and white. What can I say, at least for my kids, black and white reminds them of all the dusty old cinematic classics their parents forced them to watch when they were younger. For kids who never had that experience, a film shot in black and white must seem as foreign and inaccessible as a tablet written in Hittite..

On top of that, the film opens with a Jewish prayer sung in Hebrew, a language most of the students had never heard of, let alone understood. Would the whole movie, all three hours of it, be in a strange language with no subtitles AND in black and white? Many of the kids grew antsy and some of them snuck out of the screening into theaters showing less taxing movies such as Grumpy Old Men and House Party III.

I saw Schindler's List when it came out and have no memory of the nude scenes at the beginning of the film, but they certainly made an impression on the former students, many of them at the time (at least claim) to had never before seen sex depicted on the silver screen.

It's not difficult to imagine that totally unprepared for the film they were about to experience, many in the group of students who remained in the room showing Schindler's List, became rowdy and obnoxious. Naturally the four hundred or so other patrons in the auditorium that day were not pleased. Their attempts to sush the kids were answered with volleys of popcorn thrown at them.

Then came the infamous summary execution scene about twenty minutes into the movie. If there is a scene in film that more chillingly depicts the banailty of evil, I'm not aware of it. The sociopathic commandant in charge of building a concentration camp, played by Ralph Fiennes, becomes perturbed when a young Jewish woman prisoner supervising the construction, clearly with more education than he, demands that the barracks being built be torn down and rebuilt as its foundation is insufficient. He listens to the woman, then tells his second-in-command to shoot her. The woman protests that she is just doing her job to which he replies, "so am I." The second in command gladly carries out the order despite another German pointing out that she is the foreman of construction . As the Fiennes character walks away from the scene he finishes his cup of coffee, then commands the barracks be torn down and rebuilt just as the woman suggested.

There has been much debate in the twenty five years since the screning of SL in Oakland, about the students' reaction to that scene. What is not in dispute is that it created a particular ruckus from the group. Defenders of the kids have claimed that many of them witnessed brutal violence in their lives and became desensitised to it, exemplified by their not giving the film the silent reverence it deserved. One of the students who laughed during the execution scene claimed she was responding not to the situation but to the histrionics of the actor who portrayed the woman, as she fell to the ground in what the student felt was an unrealistic manner. On the other hand. accounts of what was actually said by many of the students, seem to contradict the theory of indifference. There was a build up of chatter after the command to shoot the woman was heard. Comments such as "he's not really goonna shoot her is he?" indicated that the students were as shocked and incredulous as anybody in the house by the scene that afternoon. After the woman was shot, one student could be heard saying: "man that was cold." which produced more chuckles, and other seemingly inappropriate reactions.

Here, while it may rankle some readers, I think it's worth menntioning that at least some of the conflict between the students and the other people watching Schindler's List that afternoon stems from cutural differences, namely the differences between the way African and European American audiences react at movies. In this article from the Houston Press, its author Jessica Goldman reacts favorably to a sassy article on proper theater etiquitte on all points except one, that audiences "shut the fuck up."

STFU in the theater and the movies has been the ideal, if not always followed, for white folks for at least as long as I've been around and probably a lot longer, but not so much for black folks. Goldman draws a parallel between theater etiquitte and the way we worship at church. Here she quotes Eileen J. Morris, Artistic Director of the Ensemble Theatre of Houston:
In the African American tradition, we come from a call and respond community. That’s why church is such an important part of what we do in our community. The preacher preaches and stirs emotions that we, the people of African descent, go Amen, and want to respond.
According to Morris, it's the same with the theater and presumably by extension, the movies:
When people come to Ensemble and see that people are doing a “mmm-huh” underneath their breath or “Girl, I don’t know why you’re doing that”, or talking back or saying “Stop”, I can only say that it’s because human beings have been touched in such a way by what is happening on stage that they can’t help but emote and react. And from our culture, we react by not holding it in, we let it go.
To the white folks in the house that day most of whom are likely accustomed to maintaining silence in their houses of worship and theaters, the running commentary, especially during a serious film such as Schindler's List, must have seemed the height of disrespect. To them the comment "man that's cold" must have seemed like a cynical use of extreme understatement to belittle the tragedy of the event depicted. But to the student who uttered those words, he was simply stating the obvious.

After the brouhaha of press coverage after the incident. some Castlemont students took it upon themselves to apologize for their and their classmates' behavior. But that didn't seem to calm the storm.

Eventually the students became fed up and bitter with the way they had been publicly treated. Despite that before the incident, few of the kids made any distinction between Jewish people and other white people, the kids were now accused of being anti-semetic. Out of frustration with that accusation, some of them bought into the false theory espoused by Louis Farakkan and later picked up by David Duke of KKK fame, that Jews owned all the ships that brought slaves to this country and were as a group disproportionately involved with and profited from in the slave trade. In other words, Jews were particular enemies of black people.

A few months after the incident, Steven Spielberg made a well publicised trip to the school. His visit was greeted with protestors from the Nation of Islam who chanted "How can a Zionist Jew..." (Spielberg) "teach us about racism?"

Undaunted, Spielberg quickly gained the students' trust when he refused to blame them for their actions. Labelling it "the privelege of youth" he admitted to having been kicked out of a theater himself during a screening of Ben Hur for talking too much. But he did himself one better, returning to Castlemont, this time without the press or a cadre of school officials and politicians, to have an  informal one on one chat with the kids to talk about the Holocaust, injustice and a slew of other issues. One of the kids asked him if he ever made a film about the slave trade. He said no, but he should. Turns out a few years later he did just that. In an interview after his film Amastad was released, Spielberg told the interviewer that his inspiration for making that film came from that student's question.

So what can we learn from all of this? Well I'd say that lesson number one is that we, parents and teachers alike, need to do a better job of teaching our children history. To me its scandalous that kids no matter what neighborhood they live in can get into high school without knowing what the Holocaust was. But knowing history is not enough, we need to understand that hatred, intolerance and injustice directed at any group, is an assault upon all of humanity. Some of the students reported that people in the audience applauded when they were escorted out of the theater and were taunted by chants of "go back to Africa." by some in the crowd.

It does go both ways.

Lastly and most important, we all need to embrace the fact that we come from different perspectives and need to learn how to view the world from a perspective that is not our own. Are we any better doing that today than we were twenty five years ago?

Hardly. We've got a long way to go.