Whose Art is It?

Jane Kramer
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994
132 pp.

Scott W. Dorsey

Ranking high among the topics sure to elicit lively debate on college campuses today is the issue of political correctness. That issue--and the corollary politicization of public art--is very much at the heart of Jane Kramer's diminutive book, Whose Art Is It?. This work was originally published in the December 21, 1992 issue of The New Yorker as an extended Op-Ed piece. Kramer's work details the plight of sculptor John Ahearn, whose life-like casts of local youths installed in a New York City neighborhood caused a racial brouhaha in the Autumn of 1991. In reporting this episode, Kramer tacitly raises questions on such issues as racial 'representation,' art in public places, and the true ownership of art.

John Ahearn was commissioned in 1989 to erect three bronze sculptures in the Watson Avenue neighborhood of the South Bronx; a brutal landscape of abandoned buildings, junkies, and rampant crime. Following three years of painstaking negotiations, a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-departmental panel within the New York city offices approved the work, which featured life-size casts of three local youths. Artist Ahearn--a white resident of the neighborhood--chose to cast three fellow members of the Watson Avenue community; all of whom were black (a junkie, a hustler, and a street-kid.) The controversy erupted almost immediately after the sculptures were erected, when two mid-level city bureaucrats (who had nothing to do with the commissioning) noisily objected to a primarily black and Hispanic community being "represented" by a white artist. According to the opponents, Ahearn could not possibly understand the black experience of Watson Avenue, despite his having lived there for many years amid the corruption, crack, and crime (94). The resulting public outcry convinced Ahearn to remove the sculptures at his own expense, after they had been on display a scant three days.

The title notwithstanding, Kramer's book is not about art. It is about the politics of race, the abuse of position, racial sensitivity (and perhaps even hyper-sensitivity), and the length to which one white male went to avoid being labeled a racist. Art, in this instance, is simply along for the ride. In Kramer's words,

No one knows how to settle, or even define, the argument over public art and political correctness. The art world says it's about censorship. The activists say it's about "controlling the images." The critics (depending on their politics) either quote Gilles Deleuze and say it's about "the indignity of speaking for others," or they quote Hilton Kramer and say it's about saving Western Civilization. The politicians like to call it "the multicultural dialogue." But the truth is that at this particularly angry moment in New York City, the multicultural dialogue is really a lot of strange and disheartening monologues (44).

Kramer's book is relatively engaging, thanks to its relaxed tone and human-interest slant. Kramer demonstrates a noble attempt to present the John Ahearn/Watson Avenue story with a degree of neutrality. She is at her most magnanimous in her treatment of the people John Ahearn immortalized in bronze, Raymond, Corey, and Daleesha. We understand through Kramer's eyes the tragedy of their lives, lives that are a by-product of the current-day plight of the inner city. But Kramer's presentation is so overly charitable as to be sappy. For example, Kramer seemed particularly taken with the character of Raymond. Despite his life as a violent career criminal, she presented him as someone colorful and amusing with whom to enjoy a long weekend brunch.

"[Raymond] is intelligent and sensitive, and he knows he might have made something of his life. Cleaning schools was the closest to having a future that he ever came. 'It was my mom or my job,' he says, because his mother was sick then. There was no one else to collect his brother Edwin at school, so Raymond 'took ten minutes' and that was the end of his career"(82).

Even when she discusses Raymond's brutal pastime of putting his pet pit-bull terrier in clandestine dog fights, Kramer softens her focus with an extended account of how Raymond carefully stitched-up the poor beast's wounds after each fight (81), as if that somehow diminishes the heinousness of the man's behavior. Kramer is so obviously desperate to see in Raymond (and in Corey and Daleesha) some shred of the heroic that she grasps at even the slightest thread of human decency.

In the same way that Kramer refuses to call Raymond to task for his brutal behavior, she similarly denies John Ahearn's gullibility--and ultimately, his culpability--in the Watson Avenue debacle.

John says it was "the art world against the community," and when he does he sounds as if he weren't part of the argument at all -- just someone caught in the crossfire of other people's priorities, someone choosing sides, a victim of his own art (102).

She does, however, describe the Watson Avenue neighborhood in clear detail. And it is this detail that gives the reader an indication of the situation into which Ahearn stumbled:

This is John's neighborhood: it is part of the poorest congressional district in the country; it has the fourth-highest rate of homicide in the city; a hundred and twenty thousand people live there, and a hundred and eighteen thousand are black or Hispanic; every second person is on some sort of public assistance; one out of every three adults is unemployed; one out of every four women tests H.I.V. positive when she goes to the hospital to have a baby, and no one knows how many men would test positive if there were a way to get them to the hospital, any more than anyone knows how many men would test positive for crack or heroin (47).

Here, then, we have Ahearn--a wealthy, white ivy-leaguer--living in what can only be called a ghetto, struggling to assimilate into an African-American/Hispanic community. However admirable his intentions, Ahearn should have been able to see the pending disaster, and if not he, the repeated muggings and robberies he suffered in the Watson Avenue neighborhood should have given him some clue that he was not making his art in some trendy SoHo enclave, but in someplace more akin to a war zone. To be blunt, John Ahearn demonstrated a naivete that verged on stupidity; Kramer never manages to bring herself to face that issue. The pathos of Kramer's "polyanna" approach to all the people involved erodes the objectivity of her writing.

In 'understanding' everyone, Kramer seems to have squandered an opportunity to advance the arts. Rather than decry the censorship at work in this scenario, Kramer chose to equivocate, and by simply "reporting" the event she implies support of the mob's mentality that led to the removal of Ahearn's art works. Surely, she could have learned the inherent dangers of PC censorship from muralist Richard Haas, whom she quotes as saying, "political correctness [is] a kind of censorship, and every bit as evil to me as the censorship of Pat Buchanan or Jesse Helms"(50).

It might be possible to take Kramer's book at face value, were it not for the book's introduction by Catherine R. Stimpson. In her 35-page introduction, Stimpson reviews the main points of political correctness, affirmative action, and multi-culturalism from a decidedly liberal position. In the process, she refers to those who are not "PCer's" as being "obnoxious" conservative louts prone to "fatheadedness" (7-9). While some of Stimpson's points do ring true, her argument is marginalized by its shrill dogmatic tone. Worse, she inadvertently pulls Kramer to the left in her wake. Based on Stimpson's fiercely pro-PC introduction, the present writer was expecting Kramer's work (which, the reader will recall, is attempting a degree of neutrality) to be equally left-leaning. Thus tainted, that is exactly what the present writer read in his initial reading of Kramer's book. It is Kramer's attempt at neutrality combined with Stimpson's leftist introduction that gives the book in toto, a decidedly liberal bent. Put another way, Kramer's work might have read as actually being conservative had the introduction been penned by, say, Sen. Jesse Helms. Kramer would have done well to have found a more moderate writer for the introduction.

The book, while not necessarily scholarly, does at least imply several important questions: 1) Can someone from one racial group properly 'represent' someone from a different racial group?", 2) Can the art world make decisions about which art-works are installed in public places?", 3) Is a community an exclusively racial phenomenon?, and 4) Who really owns art: the artist, the subject, the art world, the public, or (most disturbingly) the racial 'community' depicted? While Kramer does not answer these questions in any straightforward manner, this reader believes Kramer inferred her support for the side of the issue favoring the racial community's right to express itself in its own manner, though she at no time made her position clear.

To Kramer's credit, her apparent reluctance to take a concise stand on this thorny situation is, in fact, representative of good objective journalism. Given the volatility of the political correctness issue, and the often shrillness of most PC debate, Kramer's decision to remain impartial was doubtless the better part of valor.

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