Well, the subject’s come up a few times today, and now unless I say something, it’s gonna gnaw at me.

Tribute art.

I am conflicted.

On the one hand, the parts of me that are good and moral and upstanding and tolerant realize that people grieve in all kinds of ways and people have a right to their pain and people want to make some kind of statement and if it helps them, that’s great, and anyway, this is America and people can say or draw whatever the hell they want and we should respect that. And presumably there are people out there who derive some kind of benefit from seeing drawings of space shuttles with angel wings or superimposed on Nirvana lyrics and anyway it doesn’t matter because I have no right to judge anyone else’s art or anyone else’s grief.

The rest of me, which is altogether more practical and cold and is the one I’d want to be stranded on a desert island with, says that poorly drawn foxes in space suits saluting whatever are a crime against good taste and the dignity of grief, at best mawkishly sentimental and at worst a thinly veiled effort to translate tragedy into popularity.

Being thusly conflicted makes me twitchy. I have seen several tribute paintings/drawings today–all of them have been predictably dreadful. But you cannot say this about such works, or else it is taken as an insult to the tragedy itself, or a insult to the artist’s obvious suffering–after all, they drew something!–and thus I am left, glum and conflicted, wondering if I am merely being a judgemental cad, and ought to be ashamed, or if I’m the only one who finds this stuff to be in simply apalling bad taste.

Shortly after September 11th, I had a vague urge to do something–anything–in response. I think we all did. Being an artist, art seemed like a natural. After due consideration, I squelched it. I was not there, I cannot conceive of what it was like, and the world does not need me attempting to garner a slice of the pity by saying “Look how upset I am!” The catalyst for this was a friend suggesting I do something–I barely remember what, an eagle hugging the towers or something–and the thought provoked an immediate aesthetic and emotional nausea, a sort’ve “What kind of sick, trite bastard do you think I AM?” knee-jerk response, and I gave up the notion entirely. One or two of the art projects that came out of that tragedy were valuable–the large group ones, for example, that brought people together. A lot of them weren’t. If I wanted to do something, better to give blood or money or time, which are at least useful.

I think the other reason I don’t do tribute art is that I am not capable of picking meaning out of something seperate from the carrier. I saw far too much art in college that was Deeply Meaningful at the price of being any good whatsoever, and am thus automatically hostile to it. To me, if I did a painting in response to a tragedy–any tragedy–and it was poorly rendered, then it would cheapen the emotion involved, by shackling it to something shoddy. My painting would be too much part of it. To do something like that well, the art has to be transparent, for lack of a better term, unobtrusive, so that the technical details go unnoticed by the eye while the emotion is delivered to the brain. There can be nothing wrong enough to jar the mind out of contemplation of the idea. And I cannot paint well enough to simply go unnoticed, and so I don’t do it at all, out of respect for the tragedy, that it not get lumped in with my hackery. If that makes any sense. I’ve seen very good poetry written about tragedies, and it always had that quality of transparency to it. Maybe it’s just because I understand art rather better than I do poetry, and so it is much harder for me to find a transparent painting. Maybe not.

Regardless hen it comes to grief, I am fairly reserved. I feel, very strongly, that while we all share the tragedy, we do not share it in equal measure–the families and friends of the lost deserve our great sympathy, and the rest of us should simply lump it with as much dignity and reserve as we can manage. And for me, at least, the standard tribute art seems like a mawkish self-indulgence in other people’s pain. And yet–and yet–says my brain–people need to grieve in whatever way they do it best. And I’ve got no right to judge.

And so the two ideas go around in my brain like a pair of vultures circling something particularly rotten, and I twitch. Like a lot of things, there’s probably not a right answer, but it’s a sufficiently gnawing conflict–and tied up in art, which is the one thing I think about pretty much constantly–that I spent a chunk of time today thinking about it. Feel free to weigh in and tell me I’m an appalling wretch of a human. I’m mostly okay with that.


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