Apr. 23rd, 2017

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Met up with Summer and Chris in NYC because Chris was the only person I could think of who might enjoy the Floating Farm as much as I would.

Chris, you see, was brought up in rural China. The only child of doting agrarian parents who gave him everything – China’s One Child Rule! – naturally his only goal in life was to put as much distance as possible between himself, his doting parents, their horrifyingly arduous life on the collective farm, and the strange hierarchical culture that had endowed him with so much privilege. So he came to the U.S.!

The Floating Farm, though, was not where it was supposed to be.

I’d arrived early after an invigorating tromp around Urban Blight in the Bronx only to find Pier 25 deserted. A cold day. Scattered joggers braved the foggy causeway; a few mothers herded shivering children through the luxe playground.

This is gonna be a bust! I texted Summer.

But yes, Summer texted back. We can walk a little bit and maybe go to 9/11 memorial center and even go to the charging bull to check the fearless girl out? How do you think?

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When I was a teenager, Battery Park – believe it or not – was an actual beach, a dune with scrub grass and sand, cordoned off from the forbidding, tenantless Twin Towers (gone, baby, gone) and the empty factories of what’s now known as Tribeca by an elevated thoroughfare called the West Side Highway. (There is still something called “The West Side Highway,” but it’s not the same one.)

To access that beach, you literally had to run across the West Side Highway, which was always teeming with cars and trucks. Drivers were intensely irritated by the Highway’s narrow width and S-shaped exits where an 18-wheeler could get stuck for days. They expressed that irritation by leaning on their horns the whole drive down from 129th to Canal Street.

[Insert five-page policy wonk rant on the evils of poorly designed urban thoroughfares.]

The elevated West Side Highway was dismantled in the early 1970s when cars and trucks began falling through its big gaping holes. Today, that area is a charming park that winds along the Hudson River, and this is the itinerary Summer, Chris, and I followed as we made our pilgrimage to the Fearless Girl.

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“OmiGawd!” I said.

I’d just spied the most adorable thing in the world.

It was a turtle except that it was really a spindley-nosed humanoid male creature crammed inside a turtle shell with a smaller female humanoid riding its neck. It crawled along a pathway made of oversized pennies.

I looked around. The things were everywhere! But subtly placed. Nothing that screamed at you: I am a work of art, commissioned by a benevolent city commission to nurture an appreciation of the visual arts among the plebes!

Obviously a unified vision. The creations of a single artist.

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Whimsical? Yes. But clearly attached to some complex narrative in the artist’s mind.

A strange world populated by stylized animals and bonsai humanoids. Not abstract except in the way that cartoons are abstract. Some of the humanoids wear recognizable clothing – top hats, long gowns, hard hats, overalls. Sartorial clues to the story the artist was telling.

But no hint of the artist’s name.

Not the smallest plaque.

Clearly that story was a series of interconnected allegories that had something to do with capitalism, hence the oversized pennies. Really, I would have been content to wander in that park all afternoon so I could decode the story he or she was telling.

But we had Fearless Girls to see and 9/11 victims to mourn.

Dahlman identified the artist for me the following day. (Dahlman is kind of a dick, but you can always count on him for encyclopedic knowledge.) “Tom Otterness! He’s all over New York City. He’s pop culture and haute arte! A laxative and a furniture polish!” (Dahlman thinks he's funny, but unfortunately most of his jokes revolve around punchlines in commercials that haven't aired in 40 years.)

Tom Otterness turns out to have his own complex narrative.

He shot a dog!

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The funniest magazine ever published, The National Lampoon, couldn’t possibly be published today. It specialized in a kind of profoundly amusing black humor that would require too many trigger warnings for dear little Millennials to enjoy.

Its January 1973 issue was entirely devoted to death and featured a harlequin-faced mutt with a gun pointing at his head posing next to a headline: If You Don’t Buy this Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.

I guess that’s how shooting dogs first entered into the popular imagination as an ironic statement.

(Three years later, an unknown assailant actually tracked poor Cheeseface – that was the puppy’s name, Cheeseface – to the farm where he lived and shot him, thereby making him the first celebrity animal assassination in recorded history.)

A year or so after that, Tom Otterness – a 25-year-old punk art aficionado, recently relocated from Wichita, looking for ways to make a splash in a New York scene that was then equally divided between Warhol’s jaded commodifications and the compulsion to make extreme social statements – adopted a dog from the local humane society, took the dog home, fed it, presumably petted it a couple of times, bought some film for his video camera, and shot the dog. While his video camera was rolling.

He called the resulting video Shot Dog Film.

People knew about the movie, but it didn't derail Otterness's career. It was mentioned throughout the early 80s as a kind of afterthought in the various press releases touting the underground art collectives with which Otterness was associated. Always with a kind of grudging admiration. Like, Wow: This guy’s extreme.

The zeitgeist changed. And as it changed, so did Otterness’s art. He left the underground and went commercial. Perfected that cartoonish style of sculpture that had captivated me so: Mickey Mouse, yes? But at the same time... not Mickey Mouse! Duality! Corpus and ka!

And as it turned out this allusive style made him very popular with people making decisions about public art commissions.

Only now the dog-shooting story was a problem. Now, when the dog-shooting story resurfaced, angry pet-loving taxpayers began writing letters.

In 2007, after a number of remunerative contracts for public artworks were yanked, Otterness offered a public apology: Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.

I have no doubt that Otterness’s apology was sincere.

And yet I cannot find it in my own heart to forgive him.

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Art is produced by contemptible human beings all the time, of course.

William Burroughs murdered his wife.

Norman Mailer almost murdered his – he had several – and beat up all the rest.

Anne Sexton and Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually molested their daughters.

Byron had an incestuous affair with his sister.

Gustave “Madam Bovary, c’est moi” Flaubert paid for sex with underage boys.

Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason, quoth the adored children’s book author Roald Dahl (He was speaking about Jews but probably not to children.) Richard Wagner, Edgar Degas, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H. P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton – compiling an accurate list of literary, musical, and artistic anti-Semites would take 50 pages and a tiny font.

"Goodness” and “badness” are moral judgments that have nothing to do with aesthetic merit. To equate human worth with artistic value is the sign of a rigid mind. While very often the effect great art has on its audiences is ennobling, a clarion call to all that’s highest in the human spirit, the proximal cause of that effect is almost always a species of monstrous self-absorption, a license to neglect and abuse.

In 1952, Gregory Hemingway wrote his famous father, When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?

Oh, puleeze, Greg, I want to snort.

Ya gotta ask?

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Not that Tom Otterness’s work qualifies as great art, I hasten to add. It enchanted me because it’s an elevated kind of kitsch, and I love kitsch. But it’s hard to see how it could ever be commodified – which seems to be the definition of haute art in the 20th and 21st centuries: Its setting in public parks, college campuses, and subway stations makes it too self-deprecating.

Also, Tom Otterness didn’t shoot a person. He shot a dog. For all we know, he was and is unfailingly polite, kind, and compassionate to all human beings. He holds doors open for old people with walkers; he gives up his subway seat to pregnant ladies. Every year, he donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian war orphans.

Shooting a dog, though. Light years worse than shooting a human.

Why?

Because there’s a kind of contract human beings have with the animals who've agreed to be domesticated as pets. We are willingly giving up our freedom, their eyes tell us. To be your friend.

Shooting a cow, shooting a pig. Not as black a sin.

Shooting a dog is the second worst thing a human being can do 1.

Even if you’re shooting them because they contracted rabies while guarding the homestead against marauding wolves, and got all foamy and weird, and tried to attack Arliss – as was the case with the titular canine in Old Yeller, a movie I saw when I was just five years old, that I haven’t seen since, but that made such an indelible impression on me that even now, remembering, my eyes are filling with tears.

Plus let’s face it: Who isn’t an asshole at age 25? A cocky, blustering, self-absorbed twit who knows everything there is to know and who will do anything to prove it?

I know I was.

Still. Forgiveness?

I don’t think so.

Understanding, maybe.

And a kind of determination not to judge. But that last is a test of the steel of my own Buddha nature. Not a response to Tom Otterness's remorse.

You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it, said Atticus Finch.

Come to think of it, Atticus shot a dog, too.

1 Really? You have to ask? Shooting a cat.

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