“Could I but find the words”–– Art vs. the Barbarians

The dictator and his holocaust in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”

If a nation’s sins go unconfessed, can it ever be free of them? Or will they continue to flare up, resistant to every cure? If measles can make a comeback, why not fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, or even Nazism? Radu Jude, a Romanian director, explores the persistence of evil in his demanding new film, “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (2018). The title is from a 1941 speech by the Romanian dictator, Ion Antonescu, calling for the eliminationof the Jewish population of Odessa. After the Ukrainian city was taken by Romanian forces in alliance with the Nazis, Antonescu’s soldiers murdered some 30,000 Jews. Before Romania switched sides to the Allies in 1944, Antonescu would preside over the slaughter of 400,000 Jews and other minorities.

The dictator was executed for war crimes in 1946, but most Romanians repressed their guilty memory. The Romanian government would not make an official admission of complicity with the Nazis until 2000––54 years later!––in order to gain admission to the European Union. But the subject remains largely taboo in that country. Who can break the contagion of silence? And who will listen?

Jude’s film proposes art as a remedy. When an idealistic director, Mariana Marin (the riveting Ioana Iacob), is hired by a municipal government to stage a sanitized account of the Odessa occupation as a public spectacle, she decides to tell the truth of the massacre instead. To rip away the mask of denial might be the beginning of repentance and healing.

Mariana’s ambitious production is hampered from the start. Many of her non-professional reenactors resent its critical stance on Romanian history. Some are uncomfortable playing the part of the hated Russians, while others seem a little too willing to put on the uniforms––and the swagger––of the Nazis. Others refuse to play Roma gypsies, the untouchables of eastern Europe. Old bigotries remain alive and well in the twenty-first century.

And Mariana’s production staff, for all their shared idealism, are not exempt from anxiety and discomfort. They too are Romanians, shaped by a culture of denial. When they gather to view historical footage and photographs of naked brutality, their conversation is laced with crude jokes and trivial asides, as though only laughter and silliness can lighten the oppressive weight of horror.

But Mariana’s greatest challenge is Movilă (Alexander Dabija), a city official who pressures her to tone down the truth-telling, so the public will not be offended. His extended debates with Marin, unlike conventional movie dialogue, are fraught with critical theory and intellectual fireworks. Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Elie Wiesel are all invoked. The didactic talkiness, showing the influence of Brecht and Godard, subverts the insulating escapism of commercial cinema.

Movilă is witty and charming, and the chemistry between him and Mariana generates a palpable charge. But his “whataboutism,” downplaying the significance of any particular atrocity by citing examples of even greater evils, is insidious. Sure, Odessa was bad, but not as bad as some other massacres. Why single it out? Do you want have a competitive massacre Olympics, or award an Oscar for the worst atrocity? It’s a human problem, not a Romanian problem. And what good does it do to beat ourselves up for something that is past and gone? Negativity can’t bring a people together.

Mariana agrees to make changes in order to maintain her funding, but it’s a promise she doesn’t intend to keep. On the night of the public performance in the city square, what the crowd sees is a horrifying representation of the massacre. The actors playing Romanian soldiers round up the actors playing Odessa Jews, locking them inside a wooden barracks. The building is set on fire, making a great holocaust in the middle of the square (the actors having slipped out through a hidden exit).

Mariana had hoped that this alarming spectacle of national evil would shock the audience into an awakened conscience, producing a collective cry of “never again!” Instead, the spectators seemed to enjoy the whole thing. It was not only hugely entertaining, it mirrored their own prejudices and resentments. Instead of being an indictment, it was celebrated as a festival of tribalism. The people’s eyes glowed as they gazed upon the flames. Many nodded and smiled. Some even cheered.

Mariana had failed to make a difference with her art. But what about the filmmaker? What were his expectations? Can his story about the failure of art to change us become itself an example of art that does transform? I don’t know how Romanians have responded to this film, but when I saw it recently at this year’s Seattle Film Festival, I came away wondering about the transformative role of art in my own country.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899)

On a recent visit to New York City, I saw several works which strive to make our darkness visible and bring the repressed or forgotten to light. In the Metropolitan Museum, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1899) shows a black man adrift without mast or rudder in a stormy sea. The high horizon accentuates the enclosing mass of water. A sea spout looms dangerously near. Sharks prowl hungrily, while patches of red paint suggest blood already spilled. Homer never explained the painting. Some have interpreted the man’s calm in the face of peril as an image of hope. Others, finding suggestions of a tomb in the cabin’s dark opening, see a man resigned to death.

The docent giving a talk when I entered the gallery acknowledged the generalizing views of the painting as a metaphor for the universal human condition, but she also suggested that Homer may have had a more specific subject in mind. Whatever rights and freedoms had come for ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War, they were soon eroded by legalized segregation, which became firmly established in the South over the last 15 years of the nineteenth century.

Could this 1899 painting have been for Homer an image of African-Americans in a racist country, not just set adrift without the power to control their fate, but actively threatened by hostile forces? When some of his contemporaries complained about the apparent hopelessness of the picture, Homer added a distant schooner on the horizon. But as a type of vessel more common to the slave trade era than the new century, perhaps it signified not the hope of rescue but the lingering ghost of slavery, refusing to vanish.

At the New York Historical Society (where I had gone to hear Cole Porter tunes played live on his 1907 Steinway), I discovered an exhibition of works by Betye Saar, best known for her washboard assemblages––adapting a common tool of laundresses and maids to address “enslavement, segregation, and servitude.” In Liberation, for example, Saar recycles a demeaning stereotype into an image of defiant strength.

Betye Saar, Liberation (2014)

Among Saar’s washboards was posted a poem by Langston Hughes, “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman” (1925):

Oh, wash-woman
Arms elbow-deep in white suds,
Soul washed clean,
Clothes washed clean,––
I have many songs to sing you
Could I but find the words. . .

And for you,
O singing wash-woman
For you, singing little brown woman,
Singing strong black woman,
Singing tall yellow woman,
Arms deep in white suds,
Soul clean,
Clothes clean,––
For you I have many songs to make
Could I but find the words.

Betye Saar, (I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998)

I was particularly taken by Saar’s installation piece, I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998). The ironing board is printed with a famous icon of human evil: the cruelly impersonal graphic of black bodies crammed into the British slave ship Brookes. The original 18th-century engraving was widely disseminated by the abolitionist movement, making it “perhaps the most politically influential picture ever made.”[i]

Over one end of this diagram is superimposed a photographic image of a female house slave, bent over as she irons. An actual iron, signifying both female labor and the branding of slaves, is attached to the board with a chain, another symbol of bondage. The neatly ironed sheet hung on the wall bears the initials “KKK.” Saar has commented on the weird paradox of this image:

“In order for a klansman to go out, he had to have a clean sheet, and a black woman—an Aunt Jemima type—had to wash that sheet. It was about keeping something clean to do a dirty deed. It’s just an ironing board and a wash line, but the political implications are strong.”[ii]

Nichola Galanin, White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018)

The recurring Biennial at the Whitney Museum is dedicated to what’s going on now in American art, and this year’s exhibition, where half the artists are women, half are people of color, and 75 percent are under 40, features many subjects and perspectives intended to open our eyes to what may be hidden, unnoticed, or even uncomfortable for many.

One of my favorite works was White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018) by Nicholas Galanin, an Alaskan of Tlingit/Unangax descent. Made of wool and cotton, it suggests a television screen filled with electronic noise or “snow”––the flickering dots of static picked up by an antenna in the absence of a transmission signal. But “white noise” is a specifically acoustic term, referring to a mix of all the sound frequencies audible to the human ear, suppressing unwanted sounds so we might more easily fall into sleep.

White Noise vibrates with a rich play of differences: soft fabric representing the hardness of glass, the freezing of restless static into a static image, the correlations and disparities between visual and acoustic “noise.” But the sharpest contrast is between the devotional context of a prayer rug and the idolatrous worship offered to our screens. Prayer is the practice of deepest attention, but the all-knowing, all-seeing screen which devours our time is a poor substitute for true divinity.

Galanin describes his work as a protest against such idolatry. “The American Prayer rug is hung on a wall in place of flat screen televisions, as the image accompanying droning sound we use to distract us from our own suffering, from love, from land, from water, from connection; there is no space for prayer, only noise.”

But the spirituality of White Noise is firmly intertwined with timely political critique:

“The work points to whiteness as a construct used throughout the world to obliterate voices and rights of cultures regardless of complexion. Calling attention to white noise as a source of increasing intolerance and hate in the United States as politicians, media, and citizens attempt to mask and obliterate the reality of America’s genocidal past and racist present.”[iii]

It should be noted that the old-fashioned analog television screen is a relic of the past. Can we say the same about white supremacy?

I Do Not Care, The Gulf StreamI’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, and White Noise all bring what is hidden or repressed into public visibility. God only knows what difference any work of art (or liturgy or sermon) makes in either individual or social consciousness, but let us be grateful for the prophets and visionaries among us. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

And for those who don’t frequent traditional art venues, many artists are taking their work into the streets, where their prophetic message is impossible to ignore. Just the other day (June 12), twenty-four guerilla installations appeared overnight at public sites around New York City. At tourist sites like museums and Rockefeller Center, and outside media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News, a small cage was set up. Inside was the sculpted image of a child under a foil blanket. Continuous audio of crying children played for everyone to hear. A sign on each cage read: #NoKidsInCages.

attribution: Matthew Earle Scott/Twitter

As I have written in previous posts on art activism, Beautiful Trouble and Insurrectionary Imagination, “making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it.” The placing of those cages, like Mariana’s reenactment of the Odessa massacre, made the public look evil in the face. Of course, the authorities soon covered the cages with blankets and disabled the audio, restoring the invisibility of this shameful American sin.

The Republicans who are abusing those children
do not care if they go down in history as barbarians.

What about the rest of us?

 

 

Related posts:

Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Temporary Resurrection Zones

 

[i] https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break

[ii] New York Historical Society: “Women, Work, Washboards: Betye Saar in her own words” (https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break)

[iii] Nicholas Galanin: https://www.flickr.com/photos/galanin/31102635898

The Gathering Storm

Jerome B. Thompson, The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (1858), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The painter gazes with speechless, loving wonder, and I whisper to myself: This is the pathway home to an immortality of bliss and beauty.

–– The Rev. Louis L. Noble (1859)

Do you observe how [God] intended that there should be moral meaning in the face of Nature, and that we should derive instruction therefrom? . . . And as I sat and looked today at the meadows and the trees, I thought within myself, “What message have they for me of my God, and from my God?”

–– The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1860)

 

Nature has always exerted a powerful influence upon the American imagination, whether it was seen as a howling wilderness to be tamed, a vast resource to be exploited, or a sacred gift to be treasured. Before much of this country was settled and cultivated, its unspoiled landscape was deemed a new Eden. But by the mid-nineteenth century, primeval landscapes were already in retreat, and many feared America was becoming Paradise Lost.

Landscape painting offered a powerful response to this anxiety, fostering and preserving a sense of Nature as a divine Scripture, “opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[1] Even as rapacious expansionists were subduing the continent “with the plough and the railroad,”[2] artists were giving a kind of prayerful attention to what Nature, undefiled by human interference, was showing and saying to the receptive mind and heart. As one art historian noted in 1849, “numerous modern painters are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impression.”[3] And the impression registered by painters like Albert Bierstadt or the Hudson River School was a sense of Creation as a shower of blessings suffused with divine presence, requiring of humanity both reverence and care.

Albert Bierstadt, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the 1850s, darker elements began to disturb the blissful images of America’s Eden. A beautiful landscape might include the forlorn stumps of a logged forest; the distant smoke of a steam engine would register the intrusion of human technology. But westward expansion wasn’t the only trouble in Paradise. In his study of Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Franklin Kelly writes that “no other period in the nineteenth century was so indelibly marked by complex national issues, mounting turmoil, and increasing doubt about the destiny of the American nation.”[4] The turmoil and the doubt began to find expression in the representations and intuitions of both literature and painting. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):

“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No More. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” [5]

In a similar vein, the newly invented pigment of cadmium red, so dramatically applied by Frederic Church in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), did more than document a sunset’s color with greater accuracy. To a country on the eve of war, it also conveyed a warning: There will be blood. Damned in the midst of Paradise indeed.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), Cleveland Museum of Art.

Church’s crepuscular scene has been called “a stained glass window burning with the intense power of divine light.”[6] But when the very future of the country was most in doubt, this silent moment just after sunset became an icon of a nation in crisis: in a time of passing away and growing darkness, could we still hope for a bright new morning? Louis Noble, Church’s Episcopal rector and close friend, saw in Twilight “that narrow, lonesome, neutral ground, where gloom and splendor interlock and struggle.” Darkness and light, like Jacob and the angel, “now meet and wrestle for mastery.”[7]

In the previous year, another Episcopalian, Martin Johnson Heade, painted an even more foreboding image of imminent calamity in Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Over the next decade of Civil War and its aftermath, stormy weather would be a common theme not only in American landscape painting, but in political and religious rhetoric as well.

In 1863, the aptly named Noah Hunt Schenck, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, lamented that the “thousand miseries of our fraternal strife . . . so charge the air with gloom and roll their black clouds overhead, as to leave us bowed with sorrow and groping in the dark.”[8] As the original owner of Heade’s painting, Schenk must have looked upon it the day he wrote those words.

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I recently visited Heade’s painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and spent a long time peering into the ominous blackness of clouds and water. The warm tonality of the foreground shore and the jutting pair of grassy spits, glowing with an eerie intensity at odds with the surrounding gloom, only increased the unsettling sense of unreality. The extreme contrasts of dark and light, hot and cool, suggest tension and instability verging on the apocalyptic. And yet the human presences––the rower on the water, the watcher on the shore––seem strangely calm. Do they not see what the painter sees––an imminent doom?

Although the preeminent role of landscape painting in the production of national identity and spiritual meaning has long since declined amid vast changes in art, culture and religiosity, Approaching Thunder Storm seemed to me as relevant to our current situation as any of the edgy political works I had seen at the Whitney Biennial a few days earlier. In fact, as the climate crisis deepens, the symbolic trope of catastrophic weather is being strangely literalized. Climate is no longer just a vivid metaphor for the threats on our horizon. It is itself becoming as grave a danger as any other.

The crisis of these times may prove to be as devastating in its way as the events of the 1860s. But whether our storm clouds be the madness of presidents, the rise of fascism, or nature gone off the rails, the American body politic continues to sit passively on that broken plank––whether by ignorance, complicity, or despair, it matters little––inexplicably unable to rise, with whatever courage and hope we possess, to shout our protest to the gathering darkness:

“No more! Be still.”[9]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1869, rev. 1911). Long after American landscape painters had abandoned the confident spirituality of the mid-nineteenth century, Muir translated the vision of an Edenic wilderness into political action, becoming a major voice in the movement for national parks.

[2] James Russell Lowell (1849), q. in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 55.

[3] Henry T. Tuckerman, Sketches of Eminent American Painters (1849), q. in Kelly, 22.

[4] Kelly, 116.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Louis L. Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Newfoundland (1861), q. in Kelly, 119. 108.

[8] Noah Hunt Schenck, in “Songs in the Night,” a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, q. in Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), 44. Schenck’s Baltimore parishioners were divided in their political sympathies. When prayers were said for President Lincoln, supporters of the Confederacy refused to kneel. After the war, he was glad to take a parish in New York.

[9] Cf. Mark 4:39, where Jesus rebukes the storm, and the wild sea grows calm. Weathering our own gathering storm may indeed require divine aid.