A Response to:
Huck & Jim’s Dubious Moral Authority
Column by DeWitt Cheng
On closer reading, if Saltz is correct, that Charles Ray’s sculpture (“Huck and Jim,” 2014, fiberglass, 9′ tall) is a possible denunciation of American racism, having no pain relief or alleviation of the underlying cause, that it is just the facts: A sculpted symbol of the complexities of reality, set in eternal present and is nonfiction, it could have served as the museum’s public symbol, wherein one passing would assume a racial subtext to all of MOMA’s works, if they made it that far past the provocation, I might disagree with Cheng, who says he does not accept that the sculpture is great and that the Museum’s decision is wrong.
Cheng argues that “Art improving moral lessons is a discredited theory.” He also argues that “Art’s improvement is back but refracted through a cultural critique, not clenched fists of Social Realism.” He gives examples: Powers’ “The Greek Slave,” where the figure is calm and sensual, having a “Straight nose and broad brow creating a single plane.” The “Wealthy…were not interested in stoicism and perseverance in the face of adversity…” So, art, for Cheng, in this case is a classical profile, radiance and sensuality. It has no moral or political weight.
Cheng also provides two other examples. He says Segal’s “The Holocaust,” at Legion of Honor, says the work fails because it is located overlooking one of the most scenic views, surrounded by pedestrians leaving it unharrowed or emotional. Cheng also condemns DiSuvero’s ‘toppled tripod’ because they refused to place Richard Serra’s work where it resides and argues that Serra is from San Francisco!
So, art, according to Cheng follows the DuChamp model. Once in a museum, it becomes a work of art or that it follows classical lines. From what I can see Ray’s work does this, and isn’t being outside of a museum close enough? How far was Segal’s from the Legion of Honor?
I made this mistake with Segal in ’92. I said, “The decision to spend half a million dollars has left Hawaii with George Segal’s “Chance Meeting,” a cast bronze sculpture of people stopped on a New York sidewalk wearing trench coats” in front of the William S. Richardson School of Law, which is in Honolulu at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The argument then was that “Segal’s representation of urban life in a large metropolis like New York City is appropriate because of the ‘Frequent Manoa mist…and signs indicating ‘Koko Head’ and ‘Mauka,’ make the piece specific to the university.” I saw the sculpture as misplaced and that it indicated Western dominance, and so on. But, as I followed my argument, I also realized that this was what made the sculpture brilliant. It was a ‘Chance Meeting’ that embodied the debate between Haole and Hawaiian: “How else could we explain the white patriarch’s untimely yet ongoing sermonizing of indigenous people…?”
You have to be careful with context. “Piled bodies in the ground overlooking one of the most scenic views, surrounded by pedestrians, bicyclists,” etc. cannot not be harrowing or emotional. The fact of the matter is that they probably wanted the sculpture close to the museum since they owned the land, it was a part of the collection and in line with the DuChamp school, perhaps it was granted glory being there. I just think some rich patron wanted it to be associated with the Museum, in a safe place, so they didn’t have to wander too far from the hallowed halls and that the scenic view assured its oft passersby a reminder. In this case, I might agree with Cheng about the moral lesson as a discredited theory when it comes to art, because art is never so pushy unless pushiness is its point.
Beyond this, since Cheng argues art’s bland classical profile, sensuality, and location as definitive characteristics of art and dismisses morality and politics, I beg to differ.
For me, art is Heidegger’s definition of truth, which is the “correctness of propositions” and the “unhiddeness of beings.” I would be inclined to believe that Ray’s Greco-Roman white painted fiberglass oversized figures of a black man and white boy say a lot about American art. It is not necessarily a denunciation of American racism, it does not relieve the problem nor deal with the underlying cause. It simply states the complexities of an eternally present reality and is nonfiction, which to me is art. There is a racial subtext to American art. Until we deal with racism and solve it as a problem, we will just be making radiantly sensual pieces that reflect the true preoccupations of privileged white males. After all, isn’t this what remains hidden? – Mario Savioni, Wednesday, November 18, 2015