Last year, when we were cleaning out and downsizing my mom’s life, we sold a piece of art that my father had purchased long ago…a paper mâché head of a creepy-looking guy. One half of the head was plastered with money plastered, and the other half looked a little like Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies. Well, that weird, why-on-earth-did-Dad-buy-it bust sold at our auction for a shockingly large amount of money, given what we thought of the piece…and this past weekend, it was featured in an article in The New York Times Style Magazine entitled “Resurrecting the Forgotten Art of the AIDs Era” by Nick Haramis.
My mom, siblings and I clearly are lacking in some art-appreciation gene.
Or are we? That’s the thing about art—and life. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Dad actually collected quite a bit of very powerful art that creeped me out and that I would never want hanging on my own walls. His collection included a series of beautiful landscape photos, all of which were places where heinous crimes had been committed, such the Central Park Jogger attack and the assassination of President Lincoln. There was an unhappy naked woman suckling a newborn… a seemingly endless number of dystopian images of the destruction of society… and many, many more items that were a far cry from Monet’s Water Lilies or Degas’s Dancers paintings.
I prefer to be surrounded by paintings of nature in all her glory, often of places where I have been. These images are beautiful and powerful, and they bring back special memories every time I look at them. I like living surrounded by pictures that fuel me with feel-good vibes and give me respite from the craziness of the world out there.
But it’s not all about feel-good. Art’s job is to evoke all sorts of emotions and send all sorts of powerful messages. I’ll admit I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to surround themselves with images of anger or danger or fear… but what makes me feel bad motivates others or allows them to make a statement.
The New York Times article, which featured a photo of the bust, actually opened my eyes to some of the “whys.” In this case, the focus was on bringing the life and lifestyle of the gay community into the open. It celebrates that lifestyle but also highlights the darkness and pain. David Wojnarowicz was just one of many artists mentioned in the article — he was gay and died far too young of AIDS. The collectors in the article all have extensive displays of some very provocative and sometimes painful pieces. As it said in the Times article, for them, collecting “isn’t just about decorating a room or accumulating capital. By living with a piece, they keep the memory of the AIDS era and its people alive.”
My dad didn’t buy the Wojnarowicz bust because of the artist’s sexual orientation. I’m sure he bought it because of what he thought to be the vulgarity of the money plastered on half of it—he was greatly troubled by the excesses of the 1980s and 1990s. For him, art was motivation for change. He wanted to make order out of chaos, and he surrounded himself with images of society’s chaotic breakdown…things that simply didn’t make sense and were potentially destructive to a strong and successful America. Every time he looked at one of his pieces of art, he was inspired to make the world a better place.
Right now, life is a grand contradiction. It is probably the most challenging and stressful we have experienced since the 1960s or 1970s with social divides, high inflation and a sputtering economy. The pandemic created tremendous pain and problems — children who lost years of social and educational development and adults who are emotionally and physically scarred by what they had to contend with at work and home. It requires strength and resilience to overcome these challenges… as it did in World War II, the Great Depression and other dark times in our history.
However, our population is increasingly unable to face life’s challenges. I have said this a number of times in the past, but it bears repeating. Young people have been brought up in a world of participation awards and where their parents fight their battles for them rather than allowing them to speak up for themselves. Young adults need emotional support days when their low bars of “overwhelm” get tipped. And people of all ages are increasingly dependent upon medications of some kind or another to help them deal with stress, anxiety and fears. We cannot continue in this way and survive as a society.
We also talk about tolerance and acceptance, but for far too many, it is only tolerance and acceptance of those who have similar viewpoints and lifestyles. Sadly, a recent NBC poll found that over half of college students in the survey would not room with someone who voted for a different presidential candidate than they did in 2020.
This can’t go on. There are lessons to learn from the art world… that of diversity.
In the way that not all art is similarly attractive to everyone, not all ideas are appealing to everyone—but that doesn’t make those ideas unacceptable or wrong. It just makes them ideas—whether they are displayed in a book or on a wall or discussed across the dinner table, being tolerant of diverse thought is vital to the richness of life. We will never be unified and single-minded in thought and perspective, thank goodness for that. We need challenges to keep us on our toes and create better solutions. And sometimes we need to be shocked by what is said or presented to shake us out of our preconceived assumptions.
I still wouldn’t want “Voldemort”—or many pieces of art—on my dining room buffet or the walls of my house, but I am glad that they exist to open my eyes, mind and heart to the many perspectives and experiences of life. Thanks to the creators for seeing the details that so many of us miss and opening our eyes to them.