Dorothea Lange and the power of bearing witness

Dear Rebecca:

I’m guessing you’ve seen this photo before. It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, and has come to represent much about that era:



I saw this picture over the weekend at the Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City, Mo. (It’s a terrific institution, by the way.) It was part of a broader exhibit highlighting the Depression-era work of Lange and other photographers, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.

It was stunning. It was, in fact, difficult emotional work. One of these photos is a powerful document. Dozens of them tell a story, immerse you, make it difficult to leave these lives in the past.

A couple of quick observations.

• Here’s another Lange photo from the era. My only thought: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”


Oh, how we hate poor people in this country.

• These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

• This may be a weird response, but these photographs made me angrier yet about McCarthyism.

Let me explain.

If you were a person surviving the 1930s, bearing witness to what was going on around you — but not privy, at this point, to the destruction of Russian life under Stalin — it seems really easy me to see why a black person or a poor person in that era might’ve embraced, for a time, Communism. It makes all the sense in the world! To be judged for such conclusions by Cold Warriors — to lose or risk losing one’s livelihood in the 1950s because one got tired of all the poverty and oppression in the 1930s — is just … ugly.

• Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of bearing witness. To see what’s going on around you is difficult, sometimes. To document it — honestly and unflinchingly — is to increase the potential for a healthy response. God bless the people who do such work.

The “Dignity and Despair” exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Anybody in the Kansas City area between now and then would do well to see it for themselves.

Yours, Joel

Yes, They’re “Killing” “Donald Trump” in Central Park. Let’s Stop Insulting the Rubes, Eh?


Dear Rebecca:

Here is the controversy du jour:

New York’s Public Theater lost support from two high-profile corporate donors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, on Sunday amid intense criticism of its production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” which depicts the assassination of a Trump-like Roman ruler.

“No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the company said in a statement on Sunday night.

“Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” the company said. “We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.”

Smart folks are snickering at this decision. “Julius Caesar” is clearly an anti-assassination play, they say, as anybody who’s read the play or seen it performed fully will know.


To paraphrase Shakespeare: The pundits do protest too much.

Yes, Julius Caesar is a play that ultimately delivers an anti-assassination message. Guess what? “Reefer Madness” is a movie that delivers an anti-pot message, but it’s enduring popularity … well, let’s just say its most enthusiastic viewers may not be taking “Reefer’s” prohibitionist message to heart.

There are a million examples in the history of art of wrapping spectacle in an “eat your Wheaties message” for the sheer sake of delivering spectacle. This way of telling a story reached real heights during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Hays Code required that movies ultimately have uplifting moral messages. As long as Jimmy Cagney converts in the last five minutes, he can slaughter as many gangsters as he wants during the preceding 90. Hypocrisy, they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Put it on stage, though, and it can be beautiful, even stirring.

Which is to say: If you think the Shakespeare in the Park folks might be trying to intentionally provoke and provide a little bit of anti-Trump spectacle by figuratively murdering him every night for a few nights before thousands of onlookers — well, let’s says you might have a deeper understanding of how art sometimes works than what you’re being credited with by the Chris Hayses of the world.

One can understand the play and still think those involved thought it might be a thrill to depict Donald Trump being shredded by knives. *

*Or Gregg Henry, who plays Caesar. He always plays a great villain. Would love to see him in this. 

Understand, I’m not getting into the ethics of “fake Nazi punching” or whatever we want to call this. I’m getting into the ethics of “insulting the public’s intelligence.” Liberals are acting smug because they understand  literature better, they think, conservatives are mad — rightly — to be treated like rubes, and, well, round and round we go.

If we’re going to have the catharsis of watching Trump torn apart every night, let’s be honest. Let’s own it. But let’s not tell people they’re dumb when they can see pretty well what’s probably going on here.

See you at the theater!

On the appropriateness of appropriation


So far we’ve spent our time on this blog talking about three things: Christianity, race, and feminism. Which is kind of funny — and kind of not — because, well, I’m white, male, and agnostic-ish.*

* It’s complicated.

I’m aware that I bring my white guyness to these topics, but I’ve tried not to be white guyish about it. Which is to say: I’m aware there are big gaps in my experience and outlook when I address these topics. Sometimes I even choose to remain silent on them.

But not always, clearly.

I do think my white guyness requires me to approach these issues with a degree of humility, a willingness to drop my defensiveness, and — above all — knowing when it is time to shut up and listen. I am probably not always successful at that. But I still think about these things, and writing in a public forum is one of the ways I do my thinking.

To put it another way: I’m aware these conversations have been going on a long time, that there’s been a tendency among white guys to grab the advantage by diminishing the personhood of non-white guys at the table. That’s wrong. So punch me in the face if you catch me doing that.

All of this might be a prelude to that face-punching. I’ve been troubled by the reception to a piece of art, made by a white woman, depicting Emmett Till in his coffin. Here’s NYMag on the controversy:

At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, protesters blocked the painting from view, and over two dozen black artists signed an open letter requesting the painting be removed and destroyed because it co-opted black pain with a white gaze.

The artist, Dana Schutz, has pushed back, albeit gently. She said:  “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”

So here’s where I have to tread cautiously.

There’s part of me that’s sympathetic to the protesters. (Not to their demand the painting be destroyed; that’s a quasi-fascist impulse that I’ll object to every time.) Over America’s lifetime, white people have made a practice of taking and breaking black bodies, taking and breaking black dignity, taking and breaking black culture. (We even have a new example this week thanks to Pepsi Cola.)

And yet…

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” It is indeed a sermon, and I fear that it mostly preaches to the converted — those whites who are willing to accept that America’s poisonous racial dynamic is carried out on their behalf, is at least partly their responsibility.

Dyson counsels his readers:

“Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk—vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.”

It seems to me that if we white people are to get over ourselves, we have to do a lot of this empathetic shovel-work. For an artist like Schutz, wrestling with the most horrible images of America’s history is the way she does that work.

Is it “appropriating” an experience to engage it and wrestle with it the way Schutz has done? If it is, how is culture — which often thrives on remixing two different things into a brand new thing — supposed to work? Is our responsibility to avoid or engage? And who gets to decide it?

To me, the Pepsi ad looks very different from Schutz’s painting — probably because the Pepsi ad is trying to sell me something, and worse, is trying to sell me something that’s pretty useless. But I think, from what I read, see, and hear, there are some people who see both things as equivalent.

At The Atlantic, Jonathan Blanks offers this advice:

Slavery is America’s Original Sin, and the racism that evolved to perpetuate it is an inextricable part of our social fabric. Whenever any artist tries to confront that, they inherently invite expressions of the often chaotic, almost inarticulable pain that exists as a part of black experience in America. I think the artist must deal with the resulting legitimate criticism and dismiss the illegitimate criticism as they come. The key is knowing enough about your subject in the first place to distinguish between the two.

That … sounds right? It means that people like Schutz and people like me have a lot of work to do — a lot. A lot of shutting up, a lot of listening and reading and listening some more — and then, just when we think we’ve got our shit together, go back and do all of that some more.

We don’t get to casually engage. We don’t get to blithely believe in our own good intentions. We don’t get to not listen. And we really don’t get to take somebody else’s experience and present it as our own. Having done due diligence, having been cautious, there’s still a chance we’ll get it wrong.

My own solution to this? Keep walking — but walk humbly. There will still, inevitably, be stumbles along the way.

What do you think?

— Joel