Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.
Yesterday Boston was 90 degrees and the air was thick with humidity. This crowd-hating introvert was deeply sleep-deprived and had a long list of chores to accomplish. I dreaded the idea of rallying and marching in that heat with a bunch of strangers for hours. But none of that mattered as much as the fact that my federal government is kidnapping children and torturing families, and I had a chance to register outrage and encourage others to notice and react to the evil being done in our names.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are waging war on vulnerable families who have lost everything. These families have dragged themselves to our doors begging for asylum, the most urgent and elemental assistance that a noncitizen can ask for. The U.S. is using terrorist tactics against children to destroy families who have marched through Hell, and is doing it as a political ploy. This is so shocking, so evil, so much like the Hitlerian tactics of World War II that I am left dumbstruck and sick to know that monsters are terrorizing babies in my name.
The people who come to our borders asking for asylum have lost friends and family members to gangs or war at home. They’ve given up their whole lives and made their dangerous, difficult ways across hundreds, even thousands of miles to pull themselves to our border crossings. All they ask is to keep themselves and their children from being murdered in their home countries. They seek refuge from violence and terror, and a chance to live and work and contribute to a society that doesn’t treat them like insects to be maligned, crushed and destroyed. Their children have already seen and experienced terrors I cannot even imagine; they are fragile, vulnerable, sick and exhausted.
And now Trump and Sessions are quite literally ripping nursing babies from mothers’ breasts, telling parents their babies are being taken away to be bathed (which is just what Nazis told Jews as they were about to be lethally gassed in concentration camps) and then sending the most vulnerable people in the world far away to live with strangers—all while failing to keep track of the locations of the parents or their children.
My government is caging children like animals, giving some of them sheets of Mylar instead of soft blankets and instructing them to lie on floors instead of beds, the cries of other children ringing in their ears as they try to sleep in their cages surrounded by strangers.
Those guarding the children are told not to hug them. At least one recording was made and played on MSNBC of a woman warning children in Spanish not to talk to those who visit the camps (including reporters) about what happened to them, implying that they might not be reunited if the children speak the truth to reporters or doctors.
Children have been seen changing babies’ diapers at detention centers. Reports say that some children are being drugged. Central and South American refugees and migrants are raped at very high rates, so chances are great that some of these children were assaulted or knew of (or witnessed) their mothers’ assaults during their escape from their home countries. Stories circulate of children being abused and assaulted at detention centers. Imagine the horror of being stripped naked, washed and examined by strangers after being taken from your family. Think of the terror of knowing that your parents cannot protect you after you’ve seen what happens to vulnerable people. And think of how many kids are being denied necessary medical care because their medical histories are unknown.
Those who don’t care about the lives of these children and their families should turn their selfish, contemptuous, compassion-free hearts to this thought: Trump and Sessions are breeding hatred against the U.S. in the hearts of millions around the world. They are stoking a desire for vengeance against the U.S. in the minds of many who have been ripped apart from their families, and millions more who are watching this debacle from other countries.
This state-sponsored terrorism will have dangerous reverberations against America for decades to come. It will leave permanent wounds in the hearts and minds of thousands of family members personally affected by these actions, and will turn millions more witnesses to these atrocities against us. Our leaders are sowing the seeds of future terrorist acts against the U.S. by these actions. Terrorism breeds terrorism.
So yes, I managed to get up off the sofa and take half a day away from my privileged life to send lawmakers a message of support for basic human decency when children’s lives are at stake. I left my comfortable apartment to walk with friendly strangers who believe in what America officially stood for not long ago: appreciation for the strength, work ethic and inventiveness of immigrants; a better life for the descendants of enslaved and oppressed people; appreciation and sorrow for the losses Native North and South American people suffered at the hands of white conquerors; revulsion at the thought of racism, terrorism and xenophobia; and compassion for children of all colors and origins.
This last point is so basic to people of all cultures that I can’t believe it even has to be expressed. A just, good nation does not rip children away from loving, caring parents in order to torture families into giving up their only hope of staying alive after fleeing danger at home. Compassionate lovers of liberty do not defy their own established asylum laws to suddenly turn on the people we have for so many years encouraged to come to us for help.
Good people do not choose to harm children.
If you can attend a Families Belong Together march, rally or other event and be counted among those who oppose the use of federal forces to kidnap and torture children and their parents, I encourage you to do so. If that’s too difficult, phone calls or emails to your members of Congress are very important and can be accomplished in under three minutes. Donations to organizations like RAICES, the ACLU and MoveOn who are working to reunite kidnapped children with their parents are wonderful, too—even $5 helps.
Speak to your family members and friends. Let your voice be heard. You have more power than you realize to do good and make a change—so please use it to help vulnerable children avoid a lifetime of pain, fear and resentment toward an America that let this happen and has not done enough to try to limit the damage.
Friends, please stand with me against U.S. government-sponsored terrorism of children and refugee families.
Bless you. May your family be safe, intact, well and free.
In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.
Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.
News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.
Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.
It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.
[In honor of the Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 50-year-old play The Boys in the Band starring Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, I’m reposting this piece I wrote in 2009.]
Some years ago, while watching TV in the wee hours of the morning, I happened upon a film that I’d never before heard of. I was instantly hooked. It turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.
Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of.
Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.
It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.
The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the needling, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.
The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.
However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in their depictions of homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out stereotypically gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions. At other times, it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. Playwright Crowley has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.
These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.
The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense. This echoes the action in plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.
It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, locked out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay people fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry. It gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for homosexuals coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were gay people with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.
Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.
When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay man on the streets of New York by both straight and gay people, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.
The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director. The enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.
In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie, affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”
Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”
“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.
[Originally published in June 2009.]
Inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto being rounded up for deportation by German soldiers, May 16, 1943.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest single revolt by imprisoned Jews against the Nazis during World War II.
Bigots often justify and minimize the domination and suppression of the rights of others by saying “If it was so bad, why didn’t they resist? Why didn’t they fight back?” Many historical revisionists say that enslaved, attacked and subjugated people didn’t really mind being dominated, corralled and abused. But oppressed people often DO fight back, frequently with horrible results. They may give hope and encouragement to others and go down in history as heroes, but they often pay the ultimate price. That is what happened in Warsaw, and ended on this day in 1943.
Vulnerable people can rarely dominate stronger, better armed people who wield political power over them and use it against them ruthlessly. So, naturally, it makes perfect sense to avoid fighting against one’s oppressor when torture, death and retaliation against one’s loved ones are the likeliest responses to resistance. It is reasonable to want to avoid trouble in order to stay alive and hope for a better chance at escape the next day.
However, there have been countless examples of subjugated people fighting with all their might against their oppressors throughout history. Many enslaved and oppressed people have fought (and continue to fight) against those who captured, tortured and enslaved them. Many Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis were among those who fought back despite terrible odds and brutal punishment.
During the Holocaust years, many Jews fought back, resisted, risked their lives and used their might and wiles in their fight against the Nazi powers who rounded them up, assaulted them, tortured them, imprisoned them and murdered them. From October 1940 to May 1943, over 400,000 Jews were confined to the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland. From there they were deported to Nazi camps and mass-killing centers. During the summer of 1942 alone, over a quarter million residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. By that autumn, it was clear that those deported to Treblinka were being sent to their deaths. The Jews who remained decided to resist further deportations. Some found ways to smuggle in weapons and ammunition.
On April 19, 1943, the Jews of the Ghetto rose up to oppose Nazi Germany’s final effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka. The uprising began when inhabitants refused to surrender to the police commander. He ordered the burning of the Ghetto, block by block, ending on May 16, when the Great Synagogue of Warsaw was destroyed. Over 56,000 people were killed on the spot or deported to concentration and death camps. About half of those who were killed in the Ghetto that day were burned alive or suffocated.
Let us remember them today. Let us never forget.
Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.
Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.
Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.
Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.
Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.
I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.
There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.
Several of my dearest friends have lost loved ones recently; other friends have faced difficult anniversaries of loss. This has been an especially challenging time for many of my favorite people. I want to send special love and thoughts of support and hope to all of you who have suffered great losses recently, or who lost loved ones or relationships some time ago but still feel the sting of those losses every day.
Even after estrangements or difficulties, or when death is expected, such losses can be extremely difficult and sometimes surprisingly destabilizing to our mental and physical health. Even if a friend or family member was challenging, or if we were no longer close, facing their deaths usually makes our own lives feel more fragile. We can also feel as if we’ve lost a part of our own histories when they leave this world. When we lose another person (or an animal friend) who has witnessed important times in our lives, we may feel as if we’ve lost those times forever, and given up a part of ourselves, too.
But we still carry those people, companions and experiences in our hearts, and our relationships with them don’t die when their bodies stop breathing. Our relationships can even grow over time as we gain new insights into their behaviors or their pains or fears. We may grow to forgive, or even to get angrier for them for the way they behaved—and that’s okay. It takes time to process and understand relationships and feelings. We may even think we’ve finished grieving for them and find that a wave of great sadness and loss overcomes us at strange times, scaring us with the strength of our emotions. That is normal, too.
If you have suffered a great loss and the weight of it is still heavy or the pain feels very fresh, I am so sorry. Though time does ease it, getting to a point at which memories feel more pleasurable than painful can take much longer than we expect, and working through grief is exhausting. For now, I hope you will ask less of yourself for the time being, while your suffering is fresh. The stress of grief is one of the greatest stresses a body can bear, so allow yourself time to rest and recover from the shock of loss. Treat yourself as you would treat any dear friend who was in pain—with extra sleep, nurturing food, enough quiet time, and, when necessary, comforting distractions. Emotional breaks are important, and finding moments of lightness or laughter during times of grief does not make you disloyal to those whom you have lost. There is no timetable that you must follow in order to be “normal” or “right”—take your time, get your rest, and don’t feel guilty if you need extra time away from others, or if you can’t respond to others’ kindnesses as quickly as you’d like.
Remember that you are loved, and that those whom you love don’t disappear from your life as long as you carry them with you in your heart. Sharing what you love most about them with others can be healing, and it can pass their goodness along to others; I still speak of my grandmother’s love and grace frequently, and it comforts me and makes my daughter feel close to Grandma Emma, even though they never met.
You are not any less valuable or lovable just because those who have loved you deeply are no longer near you. You will always matter, and so will they.
Photo by Mike Labrum, Unsplash
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
“Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley. The pose and the title are based on a 17th century portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. Photo from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
[Originally published on February 24, 2016]
As you enter “A New Republic,” the exhibition of paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and triptychs by Kehinde Wiley currently at the Seattle Art Museum, you are met by the direct and confident gaze of an African American man astride a rearing horse. The man wears a camouflage jacket and trousers, Timberland boots and a bandanna tied around his head; a heavy gold velvet cloak encircles his shoulders and billows dramatically in the air. Though he and his horse stand on a rocky crag, their backdrop is not of nature but of a red and gold wallpaper design such as one might find in a Victorian drawing room. Draw closer to the monumental portrait and you’ll see hundreds of seemingly randomly placed undulating sperm cells delicately filling the interstices between the golden arabesques of the backdrop. More swirling sperm fill the egg-shaped corner medallions on the huge and ornate gold frame in which the painting hangs, obviously and humorously reminding us that this painting is all about manliness and the power of the male gaze.
Here is a celebration of the masculine life force. Those who know something of the history of Western art will smile, since the pose, the horse, even the words engraved on the rock upon which the rearing horse stands all come directly from one of the most famous equestrian portraits ever painted: this is a direct homage to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon at the height of his power.
Continue through the exhibition and you’re met by other grand equestrian portraits. One painted shortly after the death of Michael Jackson features the late King of Pop wearing armor and portrayed as if he were King Philip II of Spain in a nod to a 17th century Baroque painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, most of the portraits here depict not recognizable faces but everyday people found by the painter during one of his “street-casting” sessions. Wiley approaches strangers in public and asks them whether they’re willing to be photographed, usually in their own clothing, so that they might later be painted in the pose of an old master portrait of their choosing. While their likenesses may hang in major museums around the world and garner huge prices from avid collectors of Wiley’s work, the models usually remain anonymous, since Wiley prefers to title his portraits not after the sitters but after the people depicted in the portraits to which he pays homage.
Evoking well-known Western masterworks of the past with modern-day young men who display all the signifiers of 21st century African American masculine style is fresh and arresting, as is this fact: although they borrow the poses of major dead white European males, Wiley’s versions of the portraits usually depict black men between the ages of 18 and 35.
Wiley, himself a black, gay, American man, says that he chooses men in part for their sexual attractiveness to him, though he does not ask their sexual orientations. But in gazing upon them, he is knowingly sexually objectifying them, which has traditionally been seen as a way to take power away from the person who is being objectified. However, Wiley does this with the sitters’ assent and participation, so his sitters have the ultimate power over whether they are depicted in new works of art by a prominent internationally known artist, and in what pose they will be remembered. Wiley’s subjects exude power and self-awareness, but are left unnamed and undescribed. He chooses them not for their personalities, influence or station in life. It is enough that they are black, beautiful and capable of presenting themselves in a composed, dignified and quietly confident manner.
Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times
Wiley’s creations in all their varied media serve to focus his gaze on attractive, confident young men who wield evident power with total comfort. Their poses are usually not so much arrogant as entitled: they address viewers directly without fear or anger. They often display the sartorial signs of success, including name-brand shoes and clothes. Even when they find themselves in dandified poses, Wiley catches them looking unsurprised to be presenting themselves as worthy of their evident power.
Over time Wiley has added more women to his work, and some of his most recent portraits feature elegant women in formal designer gowns instead of in their street clothes. Their hair is elaborately coiffed and they look like fashion models, but again, there is a sense of self-awareness and power in their expressions. These proud black men and women command attention without effort; they are vivid and dynamic symbols of black strength and power who assert the importance of their place in history and in the modern world.
In an interview with National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, Wiley said of his decision to incorporate obvious product placement in his works, “Branding says a lot about luxury, and about exclusion, and about the choices that manufacturers make, but I think that what society does with it after it’s produced is something else. And the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them toward their own ends. This code-switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not Sixth Avenue.”
Most of Wiley’s portraits on canvas are based on photographs that he takes and then adjusts with computer applications to heighten their contrast and make their colors more vivid. But though he takes great care with the paintings of his subjects, he assembles groups of assistants in his studios around in the U.S., China and elsewhere to undertake the background painting in his portraits, much as the great 15th to 17th century painters of the Renaissance and Baroque period had their assistants fill in the areas behind the human subjects.
The backgrounds in his large portraits on canvas are not usually naturalistic landscape or elegant rooms—they are flat, decorative, repeating floral motifs such as one might find on wallpaper by Victorian designer William Morris or by 18th century designer William Kilburn. These floral backdrops hang behind the subjects of Wiley’s paintings, but sometimes elements of them—tendrils or branches or floral sprays—curve around in front of the subjects, surrounding the carefully rendered, three-dimensional human beings with flat fantasy gardens come to life. These delicate, elegant backgrounds contrast with the often dramatically manly subjects of the paintings, heightening the objectification of the body and pointing out the physical beauty in African Americans who have often been made to feel “other,” less than, ugly and unwanted by white Western arbiters of taste, style or value.
In 2006, Wiley found a crumpled police mug shot on the ground near his studio in Harlem. He used this symbol of a young man’s having been stripped of his freedom and power to inspire a beautiful portrait. The anonymous young man is portrayed with great dignity and honesty. Of the painting, NPR’s Audie Cornish said “It’s also the antithesis of the work people may recognize. … If anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men.” Wiley replied that his usual choice to portray black men in positions of power is indeed “a rebuke of the mug shot, it’s an ability to say ‘I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.’ All of the models are going through our history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits of the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.”
The mug shot portrait is unusual for Wiley in that, while it shows an evidently self-possessed man displaying dignity and internal strength, it was created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This back-story makes the viewer consider the question of the subject’s power or powerlessness, and whether Wiley has bestowed an aura of power on the man in the mug shot portrait while denying him the power to determine how and whether to present his face to the world in general. The questions of who has power, where it comes from and whether it is deserved hang over every piece in this exhibition, just as these questions unfortunately hang over the heads of all African Americans who feel that their presence and worth are constantly scrutinized and challenged as they go about their daily lives.
While many of Wiley’s works celebrate temporal authority, this new exhibition also places young black men in the context of spiritual and religious iconography, often posing as if they were martys and saints. One room is filled with elegant gilded triptychs, portraits painted on upright wooden panels with hinged closable doors on either side of the portrait, similar to the way that saints were depicted in shrines in Catholic chapels during the Middle Ages. These paintings don’t have vibrant stylized floral backdrops like the huge portraits on canvas do, but are intimate works of art with either Renaissance-style landscapes or Medieval-style gilding shimmering behind the beautifully, naturalistically painted portraits of black men in modern-day dress and hair styles. The T-shirts and tattoos and dreadlocks make it clear that the men featured in the triptychs are very much modern-day men in timeless settings.
In the stained glass room, tall and vibrant windows as boldly colored and intricately decorated as original 19th century Gothic Revival windows feature men in Converse shoes or Timberland boots, quilted vests and hoodies, African cloth shorts or cuffed jeans standing on plinths like statues, their halos shining above their heads. In these religiously inspired pieces, the subjects still exude great power, but their symbolic association with those who were too good for this world, who were martyred for their purity and courage, shows another aspect of greatness; the power that these men display takes a different, quieter form than his other work.
After the dramatic room-filling portraits on canvas, the intimate triptychs and the solemn, saintly stained glass windows, his oversize bronze busts of black men and women are impressive in that they show further diversity and skill, but they don’t mesmerize the way his other more colorful two-dimensional works do. However, the sculptures do show a charmingly cheeky side to his wit. In one exhibit, three nearly identical black female heads are arranged in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman artworks depicting the mythological Three Graces. The three are joined together by enormously long and undulating locks of braided hair. In another, a solemn, dignified man wearing a dashiki, his chin up and head back, looks for all the world like a noble statesman posing for an official portrait from the front, but a bronze hairpick sticks surprisingly out of his natural afro in the back. The importance of black hair as a cultural signifier and symbol of connectedness and continuity within the black experience is underscored by the use of hair as an important decorative and unifying element in a number of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures.
“Shantavia Beale II,” a painting by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum
Art critics are divided on whether to celebrate or deride Wiley for his techniques, his subject matter and his style. Some find the quality of the background painting that he hands off to assistants to be subpar; my experience of his paintings is that they appear to be composed and finished with care, and that they give an impression of greater precision than most large artworks do upon close examination. Other critics deride his reuse of tried-and-true, immediately recognizable poses from masterworks, finding it derivative.
I see Wiley’s reworking of clichéd art-historical tropes into fresh new hip-hop-infused celebrations of modern style as a bracing twist on tired themes. While some writers praise his prolific, vivid output across different media, others complain that he outsources the painting of the backgrounds to other artists (just as was the custom of the great European artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras) and doesn’t give enough credit to the artists who inspired him. Some detractors find his choice to reuse classical poses unoriginal; they neglect to mention that the history of art has always involved the borrowing, reworking and downright copying of old masters by the new, and that it is this very obvious borrowing from the white Western artworks of the past that helps us to set these works in context and face the racially charged questions they evoke.
In the 16th century Michelangelo copied the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome; in the 19th century Manet copied the pose of 16th century painter Titian; in the 1960s, Warhol made slavish copies of Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes and ushered in a whole new art movement. Pop art is today among the most valued and collected genres of art despite being derived from the most banal, repetitive and disposable elements in modern culture. If Warhol is a genius for having his (often unpaid) underlings endlessly reprint silkscreened images of popular entertainment icons based on photos that he didn’t take, color them unevenly in unnatural colors and then turn them over to him to sign, how can Wiley, whose works have layers of meaning and historical signifiers that Warhol’s works often lacked, be dismissed for following in the footsteps of earlier masters?
It is certainly possible for someone to find Wiley’s work lacking for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. However, it does seem that critics are often in a hurry to try to take him down a peg and to speak ill of him more directly and dismissively than they do other less-talented artists who also take inspiration from historical sources, like John Currin, or from artists who elevate pop culture (and even kitsch) to new heights (like Jeff Koons), but who happen to be white. It seems to me that Wiley’s composure and the confident ease with which he expresses himself in interviews might strike some as signs of unearned or unwelcome entitlement. The sense of pride and power with which he imbues his portraits can be found in his demeanor, but I see it not as arrogance or as a threat but as a strong sense of self. I wonder how much the discomfort some feel about his works stems from an unease over the idea of an African American having the power to make artistic choices and elevate those who look like him.
Criticism of Wiley, his work style and his aesthetic reminds me of white criticism of Beyoncé’s latest songs and videos; they’re unapologetically created from a black perspective with a black audience in mind. If we white folk appreciate it and want to buy it too, great, but it’s not specifically for us, and it isn’t the job of black artists to comfort or pander to whites.
Critics seem often to be looking for reasons to denigrate Wiley—his backgrounds are too thinly drawn, they say, or his use of decorative motifs undercuts the seriousness of his work. He cares too much about making things pretty and not enough about making them real, some cry. These complaints feel manufactured to me, and they deny the visceral power, the thrill, the vibrant, vibrating beauty that leaps off his canvases and suffuses the galleries in which his works hang or stand with a glowing, thrumming life force. Trying to reduce works of such emotion and energy to dry theoretical constructs strikes me as ridiculous, like trying to freeze-dry sunshine or to express color using only grey-scale photographs.
Like Warhol and Koons and Rubens before him, Kehinde Wiley is a successful businessman with many people working under him in order to allow him to manufacture expensive luxury goods at a fast clip. But Wiley’s works have a unique power to them, and they are fresh and unusual individual creative works; they are African American cultural signifiers like no others in the art world today. Wiley is clearly obsessed with creation and beauty, and regardless of whether he has assistants to help him, he is personally constantly visualizing and manifesting new visual magic all the time. While the subjects of his portraits look at ease with themselves, Wiley himself is happy to go to uncomfortable places with his art, and to challenge himself by traveling the world, learning about and painting brown-skinned people in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as here in the U.S.
In his NPR interview, Wiley told Audie Cornish, “My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art — you asked me about that moment that I first looked at the stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist. So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that’s imperfect. Tries to say yes to the parts that he loves, and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies — like my own — in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but I don’t think that it’s something that I’m shying away from at all. In fact, I think what we’re arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you’re seeing all over this museum are my life’s work.”
Kehinde Wiley says yes to history, yes to his desires and yes to his vision of the world. His affirmative energy and his willingness to sit with and address uncomfortable questions of gender, orientation and power makes for an electrifying exhibition that invites us to enter into Wiley’s vision and live in A New Republic of his creation.