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Short memories, perhaps

There’s been some discussion of a certain controversial painting of late. Interesting topic. James Lileks claims that a hypothetical “Self-Portrait of a Racial Cleanser” wouldn’t get the same treatment on campus. “The painting would be draped in a day.”

How quickly we forget. In 1998, Stephen Hunter trashed Tony Kaye’s American History X in the Washington Post. He called it “rank, repelling hypocrisy.” He accused it of allowing “its fantasy versions of American Nazis to spew their blackest, cruelest vomitus of hatred” while taking “energy and vitality (and ticket-selling notoriety) from the electricity of that hatred.”

These are the same objections Lileks levels at “Self Portrait of a Martyr.” He is simply wrong when he claims that his hypothetical skinhead painting would receive different treatment. We’ve seen that painting, and it drew the same sorts of objection. There’s no double standard here.


  1. kit kit

    Wow. Wow, I think that’s an utterly magnificent painting. I wonder — I don’t think I’d have necessarily assigned any relevance to the subject’s ethnicity; martyrdom isn’t exactly something one ethnic background has a copyright on. I wonder if the fact that the painting — the subject, the light, the painting — is in fact /beautiful/ is part of what’s upsetting people. Martyrdom oughtn’t be beautiful, eh?

    And that painting isn’t just beautiful. It’s sexy. And boy oh boy, death and martyrdom shouldn’t be sexy, especially in this terror-filled day and age.

    Then again, I thought American History X was a brilliant film. I’m not sure I want to see it a second time, but I thought it was excellent. It could be I’m in a different world than these reviewers.

  2. Bryant Bryant

    It’s a pretty interesting painting, and yeah, it’s beautiful. Powerful, too.

    It’s hard sometimes to separate our feelings about a piece of art from the politics surrounding that art. If the artist intended to glorify the subject — I can’t possibly support that. But it’s still beautiful.

    C.f. Triumph of the Will.

  3. kit kit

    Iii’m not sure I think he intended to glorify the topic. Draw attention to it, yes. Make it beautiful and therefore more difficult to ignore? Sure. But — my expectation as a viewer (unless I have evidence to the contrary) is that an artist’s purpose is to draw a reaction, to force people to think and respond, not to espouse a way of life (or death) as right.

  4. Bryant Bryant

    I honestly don’t know. There’s enough art out there that is intended to glorify so that I’d feel uncomfortable reaching a conclusion based on available evidence. I’ll do another post if I find out, tho!

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