Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bailey on Gopnik on Barclay

Just back from an exhausting (but successful weekend art fair), and just in time to catch another great episode of Deadwood. Have a few hundred emails and a ten days of the WaPo and others to catch up on.

And leave it to Bailey to help me out with my lack of recent posting and give us some good reading and excellent discussion points as he responds to Blake Gopnik's piece on Christian Marclay's video work (filed all the way from London).

"How About an Art Exhibit Inspired by an Art Critic Who’s Dragged Behind a Pickup Truck in Texas?"
By J.W. Bailey

One of the emblems of postmodern art is its insulated obsession with distilling unimaginable human tragedy down to a clever relativist art trick that is appropriate for display in the sanitized environment of the white cube space – and the larger the scale of the tragedy, the more the art trick seems to revolve around the distorted use of multi-media to convey the horrors of the deaths of the usually nameless and faceless victims that are symbolized through the art.

In his review of Christian Marclay’s seminal postmodern work, "Guitar Drag," Blake Gopnik takes the trouble to inform us that the video of the guitar being dragged behind a pickup truck for 14 minutes along a rural road echoes the death of James Byrd, Jr., at the hands of vicious racists in Texas (mind you that Gopnik doesn’t actually mention the vicious racists part, though).

Gopnik, a refined genteel member of the Washington, D.C., art elite, and a person we can safely assume has never spent more than three seconds riding in the back bed of a pickup truck in Texas with a perverted gang of drunken good ole’ boy racist rednecks looking for trouble, let alone ever being dragged behind that pickup as an African-American victim of their sick and monstrous joyride, tells us that watching Marclay’s stirring musical piece made him feel the pain of James Byrd, Jr.

Of course, the only important thing about Mr. Byrd’s actual life and death that Gopnik can muster to say in his review is that Mr. Byrd was "a black man dragged along a Texas road until his body fell apart."

Hopefully, postmodern art critics will never be licensed as forensic examiners – but I do have my doubts about that as they seem to be self-qualified to speak as experts on just about every other subject.

For the forensic art record, here’s just part of what happened to Mr. James Byrd, Jr.:

An African-American man, James Bryd, Jr., was brutally murdered by being kidnapped, beaten unconscious, spray-painted in the face with black paint, tied to the back of a pick-up truck, pants dropped down to his ankles, dragged 2.5 miles over pavement through a rural black community in Jasper County called Huff Creek, leaving his skin, blood, arms, head, genitalia, and other parts of his body strewn along the highway. His remains were dumped in front of a black cemetery.

Mr. Byrd was also member of a large family and had three sons. Following Mr. Byrd’s death, the Byrd family emerged as one of the nation's most powerful voices fighting for all people, including gay and lesbian Americans, against hate and intolerance. Mr.Byrd's sister, Louvon Harris, and his nephew, Darrell Verrett, who also serves as the executive director of the James Byrd Jr. Foundation, have been key advocates for both state and federal hate crime legislation. The family has spoken in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act at press conferences with HRC and appeared at Equality Rocks to promote their message of ending hate violence in America.

Marclay wants to present us with a trivial and stupid work of postmodern art that capitalizes on the death of another human being – that should come as no surprise as the world of high art loves touting this culture of death stuff. Gopnik wants to tell us about how painful that experience Byrd went through must have been after watching Marclay’s guitar fall apart – there’s no surprise there either as most art critics, no matter what their postmodern philosophical shortcomings, must at least appear to be somewhat human to their readers by giving lip service to a human disaster that is the supposed inspiration for a positively reviewed work of art.

Perhaps one day Christian Marclay will arrange for a private screening of "Guitar Drag" for all the friends and family members of Mr. James Byrd, Jr. – maybe Marclay will also invite Blake Gopnik to come back to the gallery and review that audience’s reactions to his masterpiece. And if Gopnik can sit still for long enough and actually listen to what they think and have to say about this piece of "art," there might not be enough column space in a lifetime’s supply of the Washington Post to review those reactions.

But that’s a big question – I think we would be lucky to have Gopnik sit for more than 14 minutes in the safety of the air-conditioned white cube space screening room surrounded by the traumatized emotions of people who knew and loved Mr. Byrd, Jr. (and who saw what his body really looked like after being dragged along that Texas back road) before he would get bored and have to move on to the next great piece of postmodern art to review.

A quick exit from the insensitive and manipulative "Guitar Drag" would certainly be understandable from those who personally knew Mr. Bryd, Jr. and could not stomach watching and listening to the excesses of its wretched and exploitative symbolism.

If only the world of high art could so easily exit itself from its self-created excesses by shallow artists that are propped up by an army of gullible critics that the rest of us can’t stomach from time to time, who refuse to break with the party line of postmodernism in their reviews no matter how outrageous the exploitation of the death of another human being through the art they are philosophically required to celebrate.


James W. Bailey