I’d just finished my freshman year of college in Texas when I heard about the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Mr. Byrd was dragged by his ankles behind a pickup truck for almost three miles. What was left of his body was dumped in front of an African-American cemetery. I tear up remembering the event and the details of the murder even now. The legislation which arose from the crime, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was signed by President Obama in October of 2009, eleven years after that horrible June night in 1998.
At the time in Texas, what made the crime so horrible for me was not that it was surprising or unbelievable but the opposite—I found the crime quite believable. We were all party to it, had responsibility for it whether we were there or not. Many times, at late night bars or in parking lots, I’d seen the tongues of people loosen, letting racial and homophobic slurs fly. I’d seen alcohol and groupthink turn people violent, though nothing much happened and most of the violent tremor was just posturing and people being pulled off skittish fights. Thankfully, at no time for me has the exact wrong circumstances been present that would send a minor situation into a full-blown hate crime. However, it chills me to not know whether or not I would have the courage to rise up and resist in such a situation. I’d like to think I would. I also feel the potential for explosive situations around me, even in Los Angeles.
I’ve decided not to see Five Car Stud, 1969-1972, at LACMA by Edward Kienholz. I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the decision. I’m not calling for censorship. I’m not saying that the show should have never happened or that the piece is not important or even that Kienholz is a bad artist (though I don’t like most of his work). I’m just saying that I am not going to see it. For me the decision is neither reactionary nor flippant, more a sense, a warning in my heart that there is a difference between seeking to address a horror, thinking it through, and being drawn towards the encounter of it in a brutish way, told to look, and then taking on the weight of universal shame without the recourse to grapple with it, quite hit over the head and in a daze to either balk and flee or look deeply and coarsen. There’s more to it, of course. What is it that makes me shy here, what says for me to step no further?
In saying that I’m not going to see Five Car Stud, I immediately come up against a series of expected objections. There is of course, “How can you judge something that you haven’t seen?” There is an extension of that in “How can you have any firm knowledge of the piece that would compel you to not see it?” Coupled with these initial thoughts, one might go to places like “Are you too cowardly to face the truth of racism and the tough aspects of history?” or “Do you prefer the complacency of safe art, is this why when something truly radical comes along, you run and hide? How can you have a proper view of the march of art history and be content to miss a spot, to not live it and experience it yourself?”
All of these complaints are, of course, made up by me as a sort of thought experiment to test my decision to not see the piece by Kienholz. All the complaints are just and all have a point, even if that point should be the start of a discussion and not taken as self-evident. However, all I have in my defense and in response to these questions are a clumsy set of notions about the power of art, the historical documentation of the piece, and genuine belief that art’s only purpose is to provide something for and against which I can form a self—myself—the self with which I hope to live a fulfilling and successful life.
That last sentiment comes from Lionel Trilling, and I admit the great critic is on my mind when I think of Five Car Stud. He exudes a great influence on my writing, especially as I am currently reading, inhaling, and reviewing another one of my favorite critics Adam Kirsch’s new book, titled simply Why Trilling Matters? Why Trilling matters, according to Kirsch, can be distilled down to one essential, powerful thought. Kirsch writes, “I hope to emphasize that part of his achievement that has meant the most to me; his demonstration of what it means to create one’s self through and against the books one reads.”
I admire Kirsch and I admire that the creation of a self can be so boldly put forth by a major critic as a purpose and end of art. This is, of course, a remnant of the Humanism that dominated art discourse for centuries before it was (apparently) discounted and proved invalid. I don’t want to belabor this part of the discussion because it is my decision about Five Car Stud and not criticism that is on the line here, but the chief beef that people usually have with the idea of art as purposed by the construction of a self is that it is difficult to know what a self is, whether a self even exists. The idea of a self proposes a set of problems about knowledge, about how we know things, the nature of reality. In the end, in the face of the Holocaust, massive dehumanizations through war, corporate mentalities, and the machinations of power in all shapes and sizes, how can a self exist when split into so many pieces? If the self exists, how can it be personal, how can an individual exist when circumstances dictate their lives, only giving them the illusion that it is the will that matters, that decision making is central?
Kirsch and Trilling are mindful of all of these battlefields of the self yet manage to believe in the self anyway and make it central to their criticism and central to art. In fact, their fealty to the self makes me intent in bringing such discussions to visual art. Their belief in the self and progress of the self is a way to get a handle on reality, a position in politics, and even, most astonishing to me, as a way to get a handle on artistic style, for style is the interface between art and the self, style is art’s way of communicating with people, it’s personality, it’s attitude.
Now what this has to do with Five Car Stud is that here is a work of art that just screams out and demands that you take a position in your life. It’s got attitude, a brazen “Cut to the chase, Don’t waste time. Get to the real thing,” attitude, as critic David Shields once described realism. From the rush of press releases and historical catalogues heralding its importance, the images in Walter Hopps' exhaustive Kienholz catalogue from 1996, one can easily glean that Five Car Stud not only demands that you take a position in your life, but it gives you one. A crime is going on, a horrible racially motivated castration complete with frightful masks and helpless spectators. You observe this moment, frozen in time. The ground is covered in dirt. You will leave the installation with dirt on your shoes. By most accounts and through documentation photography, the viewer stands in a position of helplessness. The dirt on your shoes is exactly what Kienholz wants and is his belief about what makes strong, moral art.
In making the decision about whether or not to see Five Car Stud, I experience a number of torturous questions. First of all, is it just for Kienholz to place viewers in a position of blanket indictment? Is that not a blunt, unsophisticated handling of the history of racism? Is it not through humanization that we understand the dark shadows and nuances of history, what good is there in turning people into types, into shells, stand-ins for blanket, line-in-the-sand delineations of good and evil? It is true that Kienholz represents pure evil, that pure evil exists? Though with situations of “pure evil,” it is difficult to see yourself in them for life is more about ordinary, unspectacular seductions of small evils that lead to big ones. It feels strange to arrive instantly to pure evil all at once because life just simply does not work that way. Second, is the decision of whether or not to allow oneself to see the piece, taking in the angles, searching one’s own heart to find one’s place inside of the moral universe, not enough of an animation to contemplation of horrors? If one finds oneself properly engaged with the subject matter, is the gut punch of seeing the piece in person not just gratuitous? What use is the dropping of the stomach, the pallor on the cheek, the torpor of helplessness? Finally, is not the decision to see the work a personal thing? When you are in reality, what good is there in seeing more and more of it, especially since Kienholz himself, despite all of his apparently heroic truth bombs, is only one commentator of many?
That's where one comes to the issue of style and how style relates to the self. It is my sense, and I would posit for Trilling and Kirsch too, reality presented as a blunt, ham-fisted fact might not be a helpful way of reckoning with self-hood. Actually, Kirsch, through Trilling, writes that literature (which I am expanding to include visual art) “justifying itself by paying homage to reality, conceived as a brute sociological fact, is a trap.” The reason a blunt instrument of reality is a trap is because it fails to account for the mind’s interaction with reality, the place of the imagination in positioning and flavoring reality. Blunt reality in art (artless straight ahead realism) can do very little to activate the imagination’s role in reality other than just scream. Sometimes, the scream is necessary, as it may have been in 1969, when Kienholz started to work on it. (Again, I am not condemning the piece, or doubting its historical efficacy at the time it was made.) But having the scream repeat over and over till the end of the time, without the further ability to hear the history or humanity of the voices, is not necessary for the awareness of horror.
To give some examples, I think of a scene in Werner Herzog’s movie Grizzly Man where the viewer does not hear the audio tape of Timothy Treadwell’s death, but instead witnesses Herzog listening briefly, then placing the head phones down. The activation of the imagination here is reverential to Treadwell (not playing to the spectacle of his death) through an activation of the imagination through removed details. To cite another instance, critics have praised Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece of Holocaust documentary Shoah, 1985, for its ability to linger inside of your heart, not out of bluntness but out of style, out of allowing testimony rather than the horrors of images to relate the trauma. Both Herzog and Lanzmann activate the moral imagination rather than deaden it through blunt force. There is a reason why I continue to cling to another of Trilling’s thoughts that the direct contemplation of cruelty cannot help but make us cruel ourselves—because I suspect it to be right.
The anniversary of James Byrd’s death in Jasper has haunted me lately. This is probably the chief reason the Kienholz frightens me, and the very personal reason why I won’t see it. I’ve never seen a representation of the Jasper murder nor seen crime scene photos. I’ve read articles, but mostly it was the hearsay and the word of mouth that made it chilling. I wondered and still wonder who amongst my friends in Texas, at the time rendered quiet or reflective about the crime, might be capable of playing a role in such an event? Could I have played a role in such an event had I not left my small town in Texas? These moral unknowns activate the moral imagination as long as I just focus my attention, the imagination that is bound in reality, the imagination that has a role in constructing a self. I can’t turn away because the reality has quietly taken root in me through its shy whispers and its commemorative markers. There is no need to put me in a position of helplessness in order to test helplessness. There is only the need to plant the seeds of a story that can contribute to the self rising above helplessness without it being desensitized.
The last thing I need is Five Car Stud. With panoply of wonderful, well studied and lovingly wrought artworks speaking about hate and race (I immediately think of the novels of Toni Morrison or Taylor Branch’s epic and incredible historical trilogy Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge), I question the value, in terms of building a self and in terms of the moral imagination, of me personally seeing Kienholz’s large installation.
A truism of art is that it is subjective, yet most often the terms of writing and criticism focus on formal details and historical timelines. If art is subjective, then it is the subject that matters and it is beneficial to take the interaction between the work and the subject seriously. For me, trying my best to take Five Car Stud as seriously as I can with as much range as I can, the result is that the piece is better left in its room for someone else to see. It is a work that for me is perhaps too powerful, too blunt, too aggressive, too artless. The last thing I want, with a subject as large as racism or as individual as James Byrd in Jasper, is to, in Trilling’s words, have an instance of “the museum knowingness about art . . . our consumer’s pride in buying only the very best spiritual commodities.” To each their own, as they say, as long as the ownership is a deep rich engagement.
Image (top): Edward Kienholz, Five Card Stud, 2011. Courtesy of LACMA
Image: Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud, 1969–72. Copyright Kienholz. Collection of Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Japan. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and The Pace Gallery, New York.