On walking the fine line between revisionist history and cultural sensitivity.

Two stories have come to light this week that examine America’s relationship with art, it’s depiction of slavery and our sociological  and cultural response to those depictions of history.

The first story, out of Georgia, centers on a series of murals painted by George Beattie depicting an idealized version of Georgia’s agricultural development.

The series starts with corn grown by prehistoric Native Americans, and proceeds to a 20th-century veterinary lab. The history in between the ancient and the modern eras includes slavery.

The incoming Republican agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, doesn’t like the work and feels it is no longer appropriate for the modern agricultural systems in Georgia. (Perhaps a golden idol to Monsanto would be more to his liking.)

Mr. Beattie is no longer alive to defend the work, but had obviously dealt with the issues raised prior to this incident.

Beattie’s 1995 defense of his work:

“As a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be, but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period.”

In the second incident Publisher’s Weekly examines a Twain scholar’s efforts to “update”  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a modern audience.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”

Believe it or not, I find the first incident slightly more defensible than the second for this reason:

Twain was portraying the mores of his time. As a former newspaper man, he understood the importance of capturing the particular realities of a story, even if they were dressed in fiction.

In creating his painting series, Beattie was not portraying the essence of his era. He  chose to create a view of history that removed the suffering of the kidnapped victims of slavery. Neither did he depict the genocide visited upon the Native Americans who were driven off their tribal lands. He chose to create work that pleased his patron; work depicting idyllic moments; free of want or hardship. He edited out the uncomfortable moments in a foreshadowing of what Gary Black is currently attempting to do by removing the work wholesale.

Black claims he is not comfortable with the depictions because they whitewash the realities of Georgia using slaves to build it’s wealth and power. But by the same token, it seems he is attempting to push that uncomfortable skeleton into a literal and metaphoric closet.

In denying our history, we belittle the suffering of those already made small, nameless and faceless. How can we pretend the abuse did not happen? How can we bear to make the abhorrent more palatable by a self-imposed blindness, by euphemism or by proxy? What do these incidents say about our willingness to confront our past so that we remain aware of our potential, as humans, to dehumanize others?

As an artist, this chills me; this marginalization of painful truths for the sake of ease. It does not bode well for our maturity as citizens or as a society.

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