Monday, July 12, 2004

Controversy! At last!
I’m a small fish here in the blogosphere. I occasionally post a commentary on the issues that excite our tiny little ghetto, but I’ve never been a significant participant in a controversy. I’m still not. However, someone has taken the time to rebut me and I think I owe them a response. Heck, I’m deliriously thrilled that someone noticed I’m alive and I want to reward that behavior.

Jerome du Bois at The Tears of Things is commenting on something that I’ve barely touched on. Since he is responding to a statement that I never completely made, I feel I owe him and you a full statement on this issue. Let me explain.*

I suppose it starts with Goya.

I’m not a person who is well educated in art. I studied history. I worked my way up beyond a Master’s Degree, but even as I did so, I never liked those chapters in national histories that interrupted the political narrative to tell me about culture. They seemed to me to be an intrusive list of symphonies I’d never heard and paintings I’d never seen.

Goya was different. As an undergraduate I had a Western Civ text that featured some paintings by Goya. To my untutored eye the paintings looked cartoonish, but Goya’s backstory had an element that made me remember his paintings. Many historians believe he suffered from glaucoma, a disease that runs rampant in my family. To me, Goya’s paintings were perhaps a prediction of how I might see the world in the future. What’s important tot his story, is that although I do not have a good education in the arts, I recognize Goya when I see him.

Jump a few decades forward. I’ve become lefty blogger. I’ve run into my old friend Goya twice in the last year. Each time it was in the case of a literary allusion to the painting “Saturn Devouring One of His Sons” and each time it was because of a crude misunderstanding of the allusion.

The original.

Last year a cartoonist, Dave Brown, created a stink by putting Ariel Sharon in role of Saturn. Sharon, the bloated monster, consumes a child in front of a burning building. As helicopters circle overhead calling, " Sharon...," the monster casually asks, "What’s the matter. You never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

Brown’s version.

Many viewers, who did not get the classical allusion, saw in Brown’s parody an anti-Semitic reflection of the horrific blood libel. Even some who did get the allusion were drawn to that conclusion. The blood libel is the inflammatory and unbased rumor that Jews murder non-Jewish children because they need blood for their religious rituals. To me, this interpretation made no sense in the context of the mythological image Goya intended. The Titan Saturn was murdering his own children so that they would not challenge him. In a literary context, the most reasonable interpretation of Brown is that Sharon’s policies are dooming the next generation of Israeli youth for the sake of his current political career. Brown denies anti-Semitic intent and I’m inclined to take him at his word.

The sculptor Richard Serra contributed the "Stop Bush" illustration that appears on the website In his parody Bush appears as Saturn. The same image also appears on the back cover of The Nation magazine as a paid advertisement, cover date July 19 - July 26, 2004—their summer double issue. Many conservative/right wing commentators objected to this image as an example of over the top leftist Bush hating. The image is striking and grotesque (and, in my opinion, not particularly well done). If you do not understand the artistic allusion, the grotesquerie is indeed over the top.

Serra’s version.

I never got around to saying anything about it on my own site. Where I found other people editorializing on it, I added my observations to their comment strings, but the best I was able to do at my own place was to quote a transcript of Paul Begala slapping Novak down as he faked outrage on the July 2 episode of “Crossfire” (my links seem to be on the fritz; scroll down to the July 4 post for the post in question). Tyler Green’s Arts Journal linked to me as a commenter on the Serra controversy (and gained me some much appreciated traffic). Really all I contributed was to favorably quote someone else (Begala) on the controversy.

This brings me back to Jerome du Bois at The Tears of Things. He links to everyone that Green links to. Mr. du Bois sees Brown’s cartoon as clearly anti-Semitic, and Serra’s parody as a clear reference to Brown’s cartoon, not to Goya’s painting. Why would an artist make a reference to another (more famous) artist when he could make reference to an editorial cartoonist? I know nothing of Serra, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Mr. du Bois’ conclusion is, of course, "it's just more of the moral bankruptcy and cowardice of the far left, hiding behind the fact that they're in bed with the Jew-haters." That doesn’t even make sense. Open anti-Semitism is a totally unacceptable attitude in American culture. Wouldn’t we want to hide that fact, if it was true, not hold it up and hide behind it? What benefit does he suppose we get from a public display of our imagined anti-Semitism?

I assume, by extension, I’m part of the Jew-hating left or I’m in bed with them. I have no intention of wasting my time by dragging out proof of my anti-anti-Semitic (not a word, I know) bona fides. They exist. Does Mr. du Bois even get the irony of hauling out claims of anti-Semitism to protest our presumed loss of perspective and over-the-top discourse? "You’re a bunch of rude name callers. You fascists!"

I had really hoped for more in my first controversy. Sigh.

* "Let me explain" is one of my all time favorite hooks. It is the end of the first paragraph of Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, one of my favorite books, and I’ve always wanted to use it. I feel like Alan Woodward at the end of "Play It Again Sam."

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