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Image Controversy in Salem: Pro-KKK or No-KKK and the Need to Read the Image

At Salem State University, a campus gallery has been shut down over the display of the following image.
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The painting appeared in a post-election exhibition called “State of the Union,” in which students were encouraged to make art expressing their thoughts and feelings in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Students were outraged by the painting’s portrayal of KKK members.

Students also report that their outrage has been met with the response that this is “just a picture.” They have taken action, leading to the gallery’s temporary shut-down.

Certainly, given such a strong reaction, the painting  is not “just a picture.”

The image has power.

And there can be no doubt that its display, accompanied with no information whatsoever, is a colossal botch job on the part of the University.

However, also abundantly clear is that those on both sides of the controversy are talking past the image, with no attention to its details.  It is understandable that an image of Klansmen would repel many viewers. The sight of the Klan’s white sheets alone triggers upset, and justifiably show. However, the presence of Klan robes in an image does not automatically make it a Pro-KKK image. And those willing to stand before the image and analyze it will, I think, come away from it thinking it is anything but an image in favor of the Klan.

The image taps into a long tradition of group portraiture dating back to the sixteenth century Netherlands. Indeed, it shows Klansmen in a power stance, from an angle of view above the viewer’s own vantage point, similar to the confrontational poses rap acts strike in their group photos. The setting is rural America, associated with the American south and racism, away from the urban environments where races are likeliest to commingle.

Perhaps the richest detail, which has thus far escaped analysis, is that the image shows the men in white robes with no bodies. While arms do emerge from their robes, the artist has gone to some lengths to make clear that the robes are not inhabited by fully bodied men. The robe of the figure at front right opens to reveal a tear and the horizon line of the back drop. Likewise, This comprises severe as if they have no idea what it is like to feel physical pain. Or perhaps the suggestion is that they are soulless. Or perhaps the artist means to suggest that if nobody inhabits the white sheets, then the white sheets are powerless. It could also mean that these people will not show themselves in plain sight. The setting is appropriate; they are out in the middle of nowhere, which is where Klan rallies often take place. The perpetrators of this brand of organized racism are rarely in plain sight. The image portrays them as invisible, which seems appropriate given their cowardice. Given the recent emergence of Spencer in the public eye, I think the image is provocative (as we can see from the flood of comments) and timely. I would urge people to re-think their outrage at the image. It’s not a pro-KKK image. It’s a prompt for discussion on the topic. Their outrage should be directed at the white sheets depicted, not at the artist who is showing them the white sheets. And if the image is provoking the outrage, then the image is doing its job.

I would add that given the bodiless status of the figures in the painting, any racist trying to claim it as an enthusiastic visualization that is sympathetic to their racist views would have to argue uphill.

And if the painting were to provoke this reaction, it would *also* be doing its job; it would “out” its racist viewers for what they are, thus making fools of them.

The image also invokes a mirroring; it dares people to stand before it and proclaim themselves racists. But it is likelier that when they do make such proclamations, they would not be present before the painting as displayed in a semi-public environment. They would be invisible like the people’s bodies in the painting.

The image also plays into the “trigger warning” controversy that has raged on college campuses increasingly in the 2010s. There’s no question that a work of art like this should cause discussion, critical thought, and consternation. However, in light of the way the controversy has unfolded it is also clear that we need art history more than ever; art history teaches people how to read images in detail.

Moreover, the way the controversy has unfolded thus far also suggests that students need to stop and look and explore rather than turning tail and running at the first sign of a white sheet. Rather than being triggered, stand before the image and analyze it. Doing so doesn’t normalize racism. It sheds light on it and provides an opportunity to discuss its inhumanity in detail.

Apparently, the university has posted information about the painting. At this time, that information has not yet come to light. Stay tuned for updates.

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About Art DiFuria

Art Historian, Musician

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