toni mcnaron's garden

Art and Politics

An old friend of mine generously provides me with clippings from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic because she knows I don’t subscribe to them but will want to have read parts of them.  She also sends me links to articles from The New York Times for the same reason.  I’m currently working my way through a thick sheaf of tangible clippings and, as choice would have it, just read two fascinating pieces about male painters.  One article is about Balthasar Klossowski de Rosa (AKA Balthus) while the other speaks about  the work of Henry Taylor.  Balthus lived from 1908 until 2001 while Taylor is still painting at age 60.  Balthus is white European while Taylor is American black.  Because I found both long treatments of their paintings powerfully engaging, I want to talk about the cosmic differences in their art, differences stemming from their politics broadly defined.

Balthus was a confirmed aesthete, one of whose obsessions was with prepubescent female girls, one of whom is the subject of some of his most famous paintings.  One canvas is simply entitled “Therese” and the other, even more famous, is called “Terese Dreaming.”  (You may want to pause here and Google these titles so you can see what I’ll be speaking about.).  Controversy has flourished around him and these paintings for years.  Some call him  a voyeur who sexualizes his subjects in the vein of Lewis Carroll and Sally Mann.  Defenders argue that artists transcend their fixations even as they ask us viewers to move out of comfort zones to consider the complexities of our own psycho-sexual feelings.  

What I always think about when I encounter someone, usually male, who is comfortable being seen as an aesthete is a story I first learned about many years ago in graduate school when I was reading works and looking at paintings by late Victorian/early 20th century writers who called themselves aesthetes.  Walter Pater, a spokesperson for the group, recounts a story  about how one such man bought a turtle into whose shell he carved out hollows.  Into each he placed a different gemstone.  He and his fellow artists would gather mid-afternoon at his dwelling and watch the clearly pained turtle move slowly across the man’s elaborate carpet.  The aesthetic experience involved the play of sunlight on the turtle’s mutilated back and was much relished by the male artists in attendance.  Though I no longer can bring up the artist’s name, I can feel again how sickened I felt upon first reading about this story.  My teacher used it to impress upon us the theory of “art for art’s sake.”  Clearly I was not supposed to grant the turtle any feelings at all; s/he was simply a platform upon which the “artist” installed something to give him and his pals sensory pleasure.  Balthus’ defenders surely want me to do the same when I look at paintings of Terese.  Like the turtle, she has been turned into an object upon whom Balthus has imposed his own strange and, for some of us, unhealthy, “take” on young girls on the cusp of womanhood but still entirely girls unless viewed through a lens that robs them of that fading childhood.

Henry Taylor is an entirely different story.   He paints furiously and refuses genre classifications.  His “canvases” are wonderfully varied–cereal boxes, suitcases, cigarette packs, furniture, traditional canvas.  His subjects are as catholic as his media–celebrities, homeless people, friends, historical figures, himself, sports stars, politicians, and people he likes who appear in other people’s photographs.  Many of his paintings feature black people and one in particular is a striking work showing Cecily Tyson and her lover Miles Davis in the foreground and the Obama White House in the background.  In this painting, Taylor is working off a black-and-white papparazzi photograph of the couple at a society gala.  By transporting them onto the White House lawn during the tenure of the country’s first black president and First Lady, however, Taylor changes the valence significantly.  Suddenly something relatively frivolous (though the original photograph was taken at the 1968 premiere of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in which Tyson had a supporting role) becomes fiercely political because of context.  

If you were to ask Balthus what his politics were, he’d most likely disavow any connection to politics.  Searching for the next moment that can give him aesthetic pleasure would be his stated preference.  But I believe such a position is political because it assumes that such events are magically neutral in terms of realities like race, class, gender and other intersectional identities.  If you were to ask Henry Taylor what his politics were, he’d just as likely spill out energetic words about how art can record, validate, question and alter those very realities.  He’d also insist that art exists within a broader world in which it matters both to its creator and its audiences.

In the article about Henry Taylor’s life and work that I just read (July 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker), the author Zadie Smith says “Other people look; Taylor sees.”  Surely Balthus “looked” at young girls on the cusp of womanhood; just as surely Taylor “sees” his myriad subjects as individuals with agency and personhood.  Since the personal is so often political, these two artists, put in my path on the same day, help me see what kinds of “art” I may acknowledge along formalistic lines but which I cannot  embrace.

Walt Dropo

In Birmingham, Alabama, in my childhood years (the 1940s), there were two professional baseball teams–the Birmingham Barons (all white) and the Black Barons (all black).   These two teams alternated performing at Rickwood Field and I went to games fairly regularly.  Years after that, I’d learn that the Black Barons were one of the best teams in the Negro League, playing active baseball from 1920 until 1960 when the Major League integrated.   I begged to be taken to see the White Barons, as I called them without realizing what I was saying, because I played “pitch” with Kenny from across the street.  I also played with myself for extended periods of time, throwing the hard ball against a wall of our house and catching it on the rebound.  As a “lefty,” I felt an increasingly familiar sense of not belonging as I watched the grown-up guys throwing and catching right-handedly.  One season, however, this experience changed dramatically because the Barons signed on a tall, beefy fellow named Walter “Moose” Dropo.  Rather than his being called his listed nickname of Moose, however, he referred to himself as “Walt.”  So that’s what I called him as I gradually turned him into my first hero.

Dropo’s parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia (later called Bosnia-Herzegovina) who wound up in Moosup, CT, where Walter was born and reared.  He and his two brothers played sand-lot baseball until he went to the University of Connecticut where he starred in baseball, football and basketball (he was 6’5″).  Eventually he focused on baseball and wound up playing for many years for the Boston Red Sox.  But his career began and developed in Alabama with the Barons.  All this is important data, surely, but not what made him so central to my thinking.  What stood out for me was the simple but key fact that Walt Dropo was left-handed.  His position was as first baseman and anyone who follows the game knows that that gives a player a huge advantage over right-handed first basemen. You can pivot your foot to the base while you way lean out to catch fly balls that come down the right side of the field.  Many’s the game in which the Barons won because Dropo’s long, extended left arm allowed him to snag those line-drive foul balls and help retire the opposition for that particular inning.  Sports writers of the time often commented on this unique advantage caused by Walt’s not being the “norm” in handedness as being central to his elevation to the majors when the Red Sox called him up from the minors.   His most spectacular year with that team was in 1950 when he tied his teammate Vern Stephens for an RBI score of 144–phenomenal in any year or for any team.  That year, Walt also won the crown for total bases (326) while achieving a noteworthy batting average of .322.  He also managed to hit 34 home runs.  As I followed these stats as they accumulated, I also missed not being able to watch him play at Legion Field on a hot Saturday afternoon as I cracked open my shelled and salted peanuts and drank too many Coca-colas.

At Christmas in 1951, my parents made me supremely happy by giving me a first baseman’s mitt signed by Walt Dropo.  I hung on to that mitt long after I’d stopped playing pitch with Kenny or myself, even as I lamented and resented the fact that girls were forbidden to play active sports once we hit puberty.  Superstition had it that such activity would somehow endanger our chances to be successful mothers, so we had to be content with dodge ball, surely a stupid substitute.  During my teenage years, I’d take the mitt out and oil it–just in case–as I realized with an increasing resignation that the older I got as a female person in the South, the more confined became my “field” of activity.  But, to this day, I thank Walt Dropo for a major gift he gave without ever knowing it: his being a superb player in spite of being left-handed let me feel for the very first time in my life PROUD of one of my defining characteristics deemed “weird” by many around me.

“Coming to America”

Often I am very late in coming to know about people or events popular around me.  So it is with Eddie Murphy, though I am happy to learn that we share April 3rd as our birthday.  Of course, I know his name as a comedian of major significance, but comedy is not my go-to genre for movies or TV shows, so it is only now that I’ve actually seen him act.  But a friend recently recommended that I get his movie, “Coming to America” from Netflix; last evening I watched it with Patches, my faithful companion kitty, and was quite taken by his versatility and by his gift for establishing a character far different from himself and then letting that character expand to become a particular grand of “Everyman.”  Having been impressed by him and enjoyed the movie, I have spent some time learning about Murphy and his career.  I’m staggered by the very long list of awards for which he’s been nominated, and the list of awards he has won is impressive. In 2015, for instance, he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, surely a prime accolade for any comedian to garner.  I’ve also learned that he has played multiple roles in more movies that this one I’ve just watched, most notably in the Nutty Professor series where he has been not only the title character but that person’s father, brother, mother, and grandmother.  He says he likes doing this as a way to pay tribute to the remarkable Peter Sellers, an idol.

“Coming to America” (1988) is a satire about all sorts of things:  monarchs of African countries who themselves are inflated satires of colonial powers, the ever-popular American film “Singing in the Rain,” the fairy tale of rich boy’s looking for a girl who will love him just for himself by pretending to be poor, black barber shop wisdom, Macdonald’s fast food chain, and I could keep going.  Murphy’s standing among the world of stand-up comedians and more serious actors means he is joined by two major figures from those worlds–Arsenio Hall who plays his royal attendant and no less than James Earl Jones who plays the inflated buffoonish king of the immensely rich African country.  Because I was ignorant about this film, I had no idea that Murphy and Hall were several people until I watched as the cast of characters rolled by on my flat screen.  Learning this prompts me to watch the film again so as to give them my informed attention to their special abilities.  I don’t need a second viewing, however, to register how versatile Jones is and how sure of himself as a large man since in “Coming to America” his costumes exaggerate his stature so that he seems like a modern-day Colossus as he struts around the scenes, making all of them appear too cramped to contain his energy or his even his person.

Though, as many fine satires I know, this movie is utterly predictable in terms of plot, plot is not the point.  The plot is just a container or platform–the real point is comic talent, so when Murphy’s one of the slap-stick quartet in the black barbershop, what I am invited to do is understand that the original representations of adult black men acting like clowns as they argue sports greats and fold in half as they literally slap their knees were early ways for blacks to fulfill white audiences’ stereotypes.  The real satire, however, is about those white racist stereotypes, blatantly evident to anyone watching who has even a rudimentary understanding of the genre.  Similarly, by having the overstated rich black king be bested not only by his son but his wife who is supposed to hang on his every syllable, Murphy’s movie mocks gender role expectations even as it pokes holes in the cultural balloon about colonized rulers who adopt the very worst aspects of their original masters.  

Along the way, Murphy’s character engages in moments where the audience is asked to adjust its own stereotypes.  One of these comes late in the movie when the Prince is trying to hang on to his ruse as a poor floor mopper at the fast food joint that itself mocks the MacDonalds phenomenon.  Walking late at night on a New York street with the girl of his dreams who will become his “queen,” he needs to ditch an envelope full of big bills.  They pass a homeless old man into whose filthy hands Murphy stuffs the envelope.  He and his date move on while the camera shows us the amazed expression on the homeless man’s face who then prods another homeless old man to whom he shows the magic envelope.  In a flash, we comprehend that they are a gay couple who once fared much better (one says to the other “We’re BACK!”) and then, a little later when Murphy and his girl friend are sitting in a restaurant window, the old gay men appear in that window to thank him for their ticket out of the streets and back into whatever more cushiony life they once inhabited.

So I’m very glad I followed my friend’s urgings and got the DVD disc.  It’s just one more example of what can happen for me when I am willing to step out of my comfortable parameters and let myself take in a fresh world.  I find wonderful examples of talent and wisdom about us human beings that I’d miss if I just stayed on familiar ground.  And I sometimes discover delightful connections with unlikely sources as I have by learning that Eddie Murphy and I were both born on the 3rd of April.  Next year, I’ll think of him on my birthday after I remember that my old lesbian-feminist friend Connie and no less a person than Jane Goodall also were born on that day of that month.

A Hungry Heart

Like millions of other Americans, I watched a lot of the two memorial services held recently to celebrate the life of Senator John McCain.  As I was witnessing the beautiful service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., I asked myself why I was doing this.  After all, Senator McCain was a Republican and I’m a confirmed Democrat who didn’t always agree with or like his stance on national policy.  But just the day before I’d heard Larry Fitzgerald outline how it came to be that he and McCain could possibly have developed the friendship they had and his list of “differences” was long and powerful.  I needed to go deeper into my own self to find an explanation for how sad I kept feeling, for how the phrase “what a loss” kept rising to my consciousness as one speaker after the next reminded me of McCain’s history and style.

I think a lot of us have hungry political hearts.  If we are old enough to remember when Senators and Representatives at the national and state levels actually worked together to pass legislation, then we yearn for those days.  If we are young enough only to have seen gridlock and self-interest motivate a rapidly growing partisanship that supersedes all other considerations, then we hunger for a dream that our elders keep telling us once prevailed in this country.  I’m in the former category, so I understand what made such political behavior possible–it was a recognition that compromise must lie at the center of functional political policy-making.  And compromise, contrary to how it is currently being pitched by too many of our political leaders, means no one gets all of what s/he wants.  Compromise does not mean the party holding a numerical majority gets to force the minority to keep giving way in order to get crumbs of what it started out wanting.  That’s political strong-arming.  And compromise does not mean a tacit lowering of expectations on the part of an electorate that feels increasingly impotent to work genuine change.  So what I want most right now is for all us millions who watched and wept at the memorial in Arizona and then the formal religious service in D.C. and then the cortege delivering Mr. McCain’s body to its resting place at the Naval Academy Cemetery to act in November.  The highest honor any of us can pay this man who stood on principle and who seemed to value in tangible ways a country that embraced diversity and plurality is to vote for candidates who mirror his ethic.  It’s not enough to sit passively and feel nostalgia over what is being lost; what is required is active energy in the service of moving us toward people and programs that affirm allegiance to the common good and reject a mentality of “us vs. them.”  That persistent and insistent stance is how to honor Senator John McCain in a resonant way that would, I believe, bring that signature impish grin to his face.



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