The empty heart of political correctness

Sunday, June 12, 2011
Wishes in the Wind by David Lenz
The above painting is Wishes in the Wind by David Lenz. Until earlier in the year it hung in the Wisconsin Governor's mansion. Governor Walker replaced it and, Wisconsin being Wisconsin, this touched off a controversy. There were charges bandied about that he was being racist for taking the painting down. You can read about it in the Journal Sentinel article Artwork shuffle at governor's mansion raises eyebrows if you're in the mood for some tedium. 

I'm not so much interested in the politics of artwork displays in Wisconsin, but I would like to talk about the painting.

It is done in the style of hyperrealism. It is obviously technically very proficient. When I first read the Journal Sentinel article it took me some time to realize that it was a painting and not a photograph. When I did finally realize it was a painting I spent time marveling over just how well he captured the look of snow and dirty slush. 

Therein lies the problem with the painting -- if one spends more time admiring the technique of painting slush in a gutter than in contemplating the three kids at its core, then perhaps the core of the painting lacks heft?  

The children at the core are simply a PC cliche. The careful gender and ethnic mix and the child-like purity in their wonderment over soap bubbles is exactly the sort of image that dominates advertising in these PC obsessed days. Look through any collection of stock photography and you'll see the same mix of diversity and smiles. The picture evokes nothing. It is, technical considerations aside, banal.

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Contrast that painting with Norman Rockwell's illustration of childhood and race. On moving day the two groups of siblings approach each other tentatively. Their shared commonality -- the boy's baseball gloves, the girl's pets, and the shyness of them all -- implies that left to their own devices they will become fast friends.

However, an adult viewer of the illustration will know just how much resentment there will be towards the black family in the suburban neighborhood. Balanced against the children's ability to ignore race at their young age, is the fact that adults will likely poison the well with their prejudices. 

It is the power of Rockwell's illustration -- the simple question to the viewer, will you come between these children or will you do the right thing?

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 If you think Rockwell was too maudlin ever to mean to send such a message, consider his illustration above. It drips with adult menace and racial passion. The four marshals guarding the little girl on the way to school, the splatter from the thrown tomato, the word "nigger" scrawled on the wall. It paints racism as an unmistakably ugly, irrational and violent force. It is a powerful statement made in the days before the bindings of political correctness, by an illustrator many consider a sentimental old fraud.    

I suspect Lenz's Wishes in the Wind was selected by a committee. I suspect that at least once in their meetings the following was said, "we need something to represent the diversity of our State." That's what they got -- a bit of diversified fluff with nicely rendered slush. Paint on canvas can do so much more if you're willing to look at the world instead of slogans.
 

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

So …it should have been three white kids, just so you could not accuse the artist of political correctness?

Rockwell was the king of saccharin sweet, trite, over the top, designed not to offend, art. A few of Rockwell’s painting are harder hitting, maybe to be fair, you should also take a look at David Lenz's other work...

It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition. The top three racial groups in Wisconsin are White, Black and Latino. How absurd that painting purporting to represent Wisconsin, should accurately reflect the state’s diversity. Is your argument?

People from coast to coast have seen a tragic irony in the removal of this painting. Walker is crushing the kids of Milwaukee with higher taxes, larger teacher to student ratios, fewer bus routes, the list goes on and on.

Just having a painting of those children, no matter how sweet and designed not to offend, would have been a victory for all kids. For all your analysis, you missed the tragic symbolism of Walker’s actions.

ambisinistral said...

"So …it should have been three white kids, just so you could not accuse the artist of political correctness?"

Actually, I think three white kids running around blowing bubbles would be just as vapid. If I were to suggest any changes, I would suggest the artist have the three kids interacting with each other.

You might be surprised to discover I agree with your characterization of Rockwell. He is far from my favorite artist. The point I was making is that those two pictures work because he was painting from reality, even if he was idealizing it. Integrating suburban communities was, and still is for that matter, an issue. The girl being escorted to her first day of school amidst virulent hatred happened.

Now, I don't expect every painting to raise to that level of social criticism. That would be unreasonable. I chose them because they so clearly contrasted with the sort coming of Wishes in the Wind by Lenz (and yes, I've looked at his other works on his website I linked to).

You said, "The top three racial groups in Wisconsin are White, Black and Latino. How absurd that painting purporting to represent Wisconsin, should accurately reflect the state’s diversity." That's exactly what I was criticizing in my final paragraph when I said:

I suspect Lenz's Wishes in the Wind was selected by a committee. I suspect that at least once in their meetings the following was said, "we need something to represent the diversity of our State." That's what they got -- a bit of diversified fluff with nicely rendered slush. Paint on canvas can do so much more if you're willing to look at the world instead of slogans.

Your taste may say otherwise, but to me the painting is fluffy and uninteresting. Is there something besides the correct ethnic mix that you like about the painting?

As for the politics surrounding Walker. I find it a bit hard to believe that he was so offended by the sight of a Black and a Latino in a painting that he took it down. Maybe, like me, he just found it to be a lame painting. Regardless, it strikes me that politicizing an interior decorating decision is making a mountain out of a molehill.

ambisinistral said...

Ooops, my 4th paragraph is a bit mangled. Iy should read...

Now, I don't expect every painting to raise to that level of social criticism. That would be unreasonable. I chose them because they so clearly contrasted with the shortcomings of Wishes in the Wind by Lenz (and yes, I've looked at his other works on his website I linked to).

Anonymous said...

I’ve followed this story quite a bit, and here is an observation: Conservatives and Walker supporters think the painting is artistically terrible, ugly. Liberals think it is beautiful and uplifting. The quality of the art is in the eye of the politics of the beholder.

Your critique is therefore rather predicable. And if this is such a non-story why did you post this at all? Why waste the time and effort?

ambisinistral said...

Politically I think it is a tempest in a teapot. I comment frequently on art. Why shouldn't I?

Also, I think you're being simplistic in your political divide over the picture. I suspect many conservatives may admire the craftsmanship of the painting, while an equal number of liberals roll their eyes over its triteness.

It is the taking down of the picture, and the attempt to tar Walker as a racist for doing it, where the bulk of the political dimension resides.

BTW, if you -- as you have done -- admit liking the picture or not is a matter of taste, why even drag racism into the mix?

Anonymous said...

Actually if you go back and read my comments, I never suggested racism was involved with its removal. I only said removing the painting was symbolic because Walker is balancing his budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. Even the conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who endorsed Walker, said in its main editorial Sunday that the Walker budget is too hard on the poor and vulnerable.

Dan Quayle did not do very well during the debates, he didn’t come across as super bright, and then he misspelled potato. Misspelling that word was a huge story, not because it had anything to do with his qualifications to be vice president, but because it was symbolic for the narrative around the politician.

ambisinistral said...

You sure do want to talk politics, don't you?

Walker is balancing his budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

Oh my! That sounds serious, we better man the barricades comrade!

Kidding aside, boilerplate like that doesn't really clarify the issue, nor is it convincing. You did mention an editorial in the *cough* conservative Journal Sentinel. You didn't leave a link, which would have been helpful, but I dug around and think I found it: Steps in the right direction but quite a few missteps, too.

Just to satisfy your need for politics, I'll discuss it point by point. From the editorial:

Milwaukee Public Schools will be working with $182 million less than last year, most of that from an expected loss of $82 million in state revenue and $95.5 million in grant funding.

So the State is cutting funding by 92 million while Milwaukee is also losing 95.5 million in soft grant money, probably most of it stimulus money. Wisconsin is in a two year budgeting cycle, Why didn't the Doyle, the last Governor, prepare for the shortfall he knew was coming? Could it be because he was using the stimulus money, along with raided transportation funds, to paper over budget problems? Might that be part of the reason why he and his fellow Democrats got tossed out of office in the last election?

The district also has many students with special needs. These children cost more to educate. The state should realize that and give more consideration to such districts.

I dug around a little bit and discovered Wisconsin doesn't use foundational budgeting for schools like most other states. Foundational budgeting is where you assign an average student a cost unit 1.0 and weigh special needs and economically challenged students heavier -- 1.2, 1.5 and so forth. This allows States to assign more money to districts with students that are more expensive to educate.

Instead Wisconsin appears to have some sort of formula where they balance out property taxes per student cost. It looks to me like that is where the inequity comes from (and I agree that it is there). However, structurally that inequity was always there... it just didn't matter when you had money to toss around. I would suggest you agitate for foundational budgeting to solve that structural problem.

The Milwaukee County Transit System would be among the systems that could be devastated by the cuts.

Exactly what do they mean by devastated? Will routes be dropped or is the devastation a 45 minute wait between buses rather than a half an hour? That's what I suspect they mean, and I doubt the rest of the State wants to see their money cut back to save on wait time between Milwaukee buses. I do wonder what effect the cutbacks have on para-transit? Cutting that service to the bone is a legitimate concern.

And the budget cuts aid for local road maintenance, another bad idea that will undermine the administration's economic development efforts.

Yea, to bad the State doesn't have the transportation funds Doyle raided to paper over the deficit. That would have made the reduction in highway fees less severe. As it is, if there's no money there's no money.

I have no opinion on the UW situation -- I know nothing about it. The few social issues: Planned Parenthood is a dodgy enough outfit that I don't mind seeing their funding cut-off; the drug-testing business is just Nanny-Statism from the right and I'm opposed to it; and they should find the funds to keep a juvenile detention facility within easy access to their family.

There. A brief response to your craving for a political discussion, but not so brief that is is just an agitprop slogan. ;-)