The New York Times Book Review for July 31, 2011 carried two letters in response to a July 17th review by Laura Kipnis of the book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson. Ms. Kipnis approves of Nelson's examination of cruelty in high culture and the post-modern blurring of lines between art and life when it comes to matters of cruelty.
In her review, Kipnis mentions Nelson's distaste for Francis Bacon's "collages of Algerian body parts" in contrast to the Death and Disaster series produced by Andy Warhol as Nelson views Warhol's work as, "clean and clear -- without pretension, without existential apparatus."
This opinion provokes a response from Josephine G. Hendin, professor of English at New York University. Dr. Hendin believes the difference between cruelty in life and cruelty in life is the meaning behind the act. Francis Bacon's motivations were presumably very different from the motivations of Ted Bundy. Dr. Hendin also references Andy Warhol's Death and Disaster series, stating that Warhol's images, "includes one of a man impaled on a utility pole after being thrown from a car in front of a suburban home where a housewife, glancing at it all, calmly continues to carry her groceries inside. It's less of an indictment than a cartoon of indifference."
Dr. Hendin is mistaken in her memory of the piece, Green Car Crash. The image is taken from a photograph taken by John Whitehead that appeared alongside a story about race in America that appeared in the June 3rd edition of Newsweek Magazine. The image, which shows the gruesome aftereffects of a car crash involving commercial fisherman, Richard J. Hubbard, 24, who had been thrown from his car and impaled alive on a utility pole, only to die a short time later at a local hospital. In the background of this horror-show we can see a man walking past in the background, hands in pockets, not glancing at all, but looking straight ahead. Critics opine that Warhol manages to capture the banality and horror of “everyday life" with his use of this image.
To me, Warhol has been like wallpaper in my life; always there but you really never notice it. To think of Warhol is to be reminded of Sonny and Cher in monkey fur vests and of Soup Cans and the Factory when it was new and radical before it slipped into the formulaic depravity of Studio 54 and their own banal horrors of everyday life, but Professor Hendin made me think, what would be the appropriate reaction if one happened to stumble past such a scene? Would Dr. Hendin have us stand at gawk? Point at the tragic figure impaled on a pole? Perhaps let loose like Nelson Muntz with a "Ha-Ha"? Or would it be better and more humane to keep walking and stare straight ahead. To shield one's psyche from the horror before our eyes and not interfere in any way with the police and rescue teams at the scene? Is it, as Dr. Hendin asserts, "a cartoon of indifference," or a combination of self-preservation and good manners at work?
The second letter, written by Dana Gordon of New York, dismisses Andy Warhol as an "anti-art" anti-hero and claims the avante guard artists to be the likes of, "van Gogh, Cézanne, Pissarro, Matisse, Picasso, Arshile, Gorky, Rothko, Pollock, Hemingway, Joyce, Beckett, Albee," and so on and so forth. Gordon takes exception to Kipnis's use of the phrase,"Épater la bourgeoisie," or "To shock the middle classes." Gordon contends that, "Bourgeois minds may have difficulty penetrating" the work of Gordon's favored artists. No mention is made of us Proles.
If money equates speech, as recent Supreme Court rulings have held, then it should be noted that Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash (aka Green Burning Car 1) sold in 2007 for a record shattering $71.7 million to billionaire shipping heir, Phillipe Niarchos which certainly speaks loudly about something or another.