21 March 2007

Joel Peter Witkin Imagines Bush's "Ship of Fools"

I came across this post by David Schonauer over at State of the Art and find it, like much of what the group there writes, pretty perplexing. It seems that they are terribly concerned that any photographic work might offend someone. The post was prompted by this image made by Joel Peter Witkin.

"The Raft of George W. Bush" © Joel Peter Witkin, 2007

Schonauer seems worried about the propriety of Witkin's view of the Bush administration. Here (in part) is what he writes:

"Witkin’s image is one-sided and ruthless in its sarcasm. ... It’s also informed by art history, so perhaps it’s not as much of a departure for Witkin as one might think.

The Witkin image has been shown at the Galerie Baudoin Lebon in Paris, a city not known for its fondness toward the U.S. president. Parisians do love art history, though, and Wikin’s image is based on one of the touchstones of French art: the 1819 painting “Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault. The painting itself was a political condemnation following the infamous shipwreck of the French frigate La Meduse, in which more than a hundred people died on a makeshift raft after being abandoned by lifeboats. To make his painting as real as possible, Gericault made sketches of bodies in a morgue. Is it any wonder Witkin was moved by the painting?

In Witkin’s version, the raft becomes, as the artist says, “a contemporary ‘Ship of Fools.’” Bush, portrayed by a look-alike model, is shown sitting “lost in his own ideas, shown as small electric lights.” At his feet lay his secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice. Above Bush is his mother, Barbara, “basking in the light, the myth of Republicanism.” At her feet is former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “crushed by the defeat of Iraq.” Former secretary of state Colin Powell taps Bush on the shoulder to make him aware of their rescue. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife express joyful rapture in their deliverance.

Is it fair for an artist to take on such subjects in such a way?"

I simply do not understand what the problem might be. Are we supposed to be concerned that Witkin seemingly disrespects Bush, his family and his political cronies? Are we supposed to
believe that "real" or "true" artists don't have political views (or, that they at least carefully segregate any such views they might embrace the from their "art")? Are we worried that the Witkins of the world might somehow have greater resources for political-aesthetic representation than do political elites (and here I hardly restrict my focus solely to the current administration)?

In a (now 20 year old essay) David Levi Strauss writes of Witkin: "A dedicated student of those twin instructors, excess and extremity, he is drawn to and draws his literal subjects from the lost and the despised." It seems to me that this latest work is wholly in keeping with that characterization.

[You can find Witkin's own brief comments on this work here. If you click on the image you'll link to a page containing more of Witkin's photography.]

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Anonymous Roland Lebrun said...

I don't really understand why you think David Schonauer is being perplex about witkin's picture.

First, you forgot to quote this: "But, ..., we think it is brilliant political allegory."

And then, maybe what Schonauer meant is that Witkin is not really subtle in that composition.

Sure, it's based on a great piece of art, so maybe it gives him some kind of credibility, but he's just screaming "I don't like bush" in that photograph. Any 14 years old can do that.

But building a complex work about how bush is harmful to the US is much more difficult, and maybe it could be smarter than this, inviting people to think, not just receive the artist's view on Bush...

21 March, 2007 11:21  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment. If DS thinks it is brilliant political allegory, why is worried not just about this work (which he thinks is brilliant, after all) but about the propriety of artists engaging in such political statements generally? That is the nature of his question. He seems to think it somehow illicit for artists to undertake such projects.

It may be that the work could be improved, or that some alternative medium or more subtle content would be more effective politically. But that is not DS's concern. He is (on my reading) concerned about whether artists should engage in politics at all.

21 March, 2007 12:46  
Blogger rostana said...

I think artists should express their point of views through their own work. It would be no different than filmmakers creating movies based on their beliefs, or just someone who lets the world know what they believe in. He definitely is speaking his mind and obviously he has a negative outlook on the Bush Administration, but it's his right to express it.

11 August, 2010 15:46  

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