25 April 2009

Still Faking After All These Years

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Holland Cotter, the New York Times art critic who recently won a Pulitzer Prize, pulled out another terrific review last week, for an exhibition titled “I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery” at New York's Apexart gallery. It's a measure of Cotter's qualifications for journalism's highest honor that a review of an exhibition so potentially off-putting can be, instead, so intellectually intriguing.


I have to admit: reading that exhibition review, the first thing I thought of was something I wrote a few years ago. (Don’t worry, I'm not comparing myself to Cotter.) In my piece titled "Smooth, Firm, But Not Subtle," I explored a question that was nagging at me: how does our society treat authenticity—and fakery? As I wrote then:

Two of the most obvious and hifalutin subjects in which authenticity factors significantly are religion and art. ... Likewise in the arts, the 'real' is prized (whether in painting, sculpture, or other fine handicrafts) and an entire network of 'temples' has been constructed around the world to house art objects. Much like religion, art also relies on a broad pool of people who respond with devotion—a devotion bordering on the religious, and epitomized in the form of gifts, much as a religious establishment might receive—to those objects which the clergy comprised of museum directors, curators, and collectors has deemed to be authentic.

I then continued on to suggest that our cultural affection for authenticity is often fairly weak, and used breast enhancement surgery as an example of the point. Broadly speaking, if some 300,000 women per year (according to USA Today, although those are pre-recession numbers) are having their breasts "enhanced"—many presumably without a separate medical need for breast reconstruction—that says something about our collective need for the authentic.

That is not an expression of judgment; it is an observation. Certainly we all, at times, find some form of happiness in fakes of one kind or another, just as we can also find a kind of pleasure in the authentic. Extending the analysis into a very present-day context—the Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes—one might even say that we seek out people and situations we likely know cannot possibly be authentic and yet desperately hope that they are.


Still, an exhibition that explores, artistically, this very subject has got to have some real mettle attached to it. It does not sound like this is “Nip/Tuck,” a show that glorifies the whole premise of our physical artificiality (or, our artificial edifice). Nor does it sound like the photographic version of “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People,” which categorically mixed up and confused so many of the issues that relate to our collective body image (if we can be said to have one, and I think we can).

Cotter’s review makes the exhibition sound much smarter than that, and more compelling. At the same time, the question of authenticity that nagged me then remains, and I feel I am no closer to an answer.

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10 April 2009

Shotgun Wedding

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the terrible problem of gun violence in the United States (“Where’s My Gun”), and the failure of our country and our culture to address the subject rationally—never mind actually come to any practical conclusions. In the days since, two other very public shooting “rampages” have occurred, one in Binghamton, New York and the other in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In both cases, there is evidence to suggest that shooters Jiverly Wong and Richard Poplawski acquired guns under questionable circumstances. Those are presumably the circumstances to which the National Rifle Association (NRA) refers when it says our government should be enforcing the gun laws that already exist, even as it continues to foment fear of “liberals” taking away the guns of good Americans.

Meanwhile, last week the Iowa state Supreme Court ruled that “gay” marriage is legal, under an equal protection clause that prohibits discrimination without a meaningful government interest in a specific outcome. Days later, the Vermont state legislature overrode Governor Jim Douglas’ veto of a bill that legalized gay marriage, making Vermont the first state to pursue this course of action through its legislature.

These subjects are connected, because they reflect important underlying, unresolved tensions in our society, around a set of problems and failures by people on every side of both issues. Even if married homosexual couples have no express or explicit interest in firearms—or gun owners have no homosexual attractions, let alone the desire for marriage—both groups should be united around a common set of legal principles that would permit them to act responsibly around their own interests. There are two Constitutional principles at stake here, and neither involve the Second Amendment. At issue are the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which read, respectively:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Constitution says nothing at all about gay marriage. One can imagine this is because such marriages were not even a consideration at the time the document was authored, which might very well be true. But a careful reading of the Constitution will remind any reader that many things go unmentioned; indeed, it says nothing about marriage of any kind. The purpose of the Ninth Amendment was in part to ensure that the exclusion of a particular point from the text of the Constitution should not be taken to imply a prohibition on that issue. Accepting the NRA’s particular interpretation of the Second Amendment might be seen to offer gun owners an official leg-up—but the mention of bearing arms does not implicitly receive greater legal resilience just because it is explicitly stated. The power of the Ninth Amendment should be respected, as should the subsequently enumerated right for the states to make decisions about issues not mentioned in the Constitution.

Theoretically, a rejectionist response to gay marriage could point not to the Constitution, but to the Bible—except that as presently constructed in the United States, this is not a religious issue but a legal one. While religion may have informed the creation of the Constitution of these United States, religion is also explicitly not the framework under which legal decisions are made. The Constitution respects the right of the people to practice their religion, and also distinguishes between religious practice and state-held legal authority. (Never mind that the Bible does not say anything about a range of issues mentioned in the Constitution, including a specific right to own guns, as well as those of copyrighting and patent-holding.)

Supporting the fullest and widest interpretation of both Constitutional amendments should unify these seemingly-disparate groups, and remind us that we do not have to like or approve of every decision made by our neighbors or fellow citizens—but we do need to respect them. If supporters of gun rights also argued for the preservation of other fundamental, Constitutional rights, and if (conversely) gay rights advocates supported the right to bear arms as part of a similar interpretation of the Constitution, we might have more than just a new political coalition. We might have a more vibrant Constitutional democracy.


Asides of one kind or another:
  • Mark Guarino, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, had a thoughtful article from 6 April about how Iowans are reacting to their state Supreme Court’s decision regarding gay marriage.
  • National Public Radio’s Michele Norris had an amazing interview with gun store owner Johnny Dury a few days ago; NPR’s web site has an abbreviated text version of the story posted, but the full audio version (linked from that page) is worth a listen, no matter where you are in the United States or what you believe about this situation.
  • Back in 2004, I wrote a piece about gay marriage (“Union vs. Confederacy?”) arguing that “marriage” should be left to religious institutions, while the state should be responsible for civil unions. This would ease the tension over “gay marriage” by allowing for appropriate discrimination based on religious beliefs, while reinforcing equal protection under the law. In an opinion piece from The New York Times, “A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage,” by David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, published 22 February 2009, a similar approach is articulated.

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