GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
Dark comic of yore, Bobcat Goldthwait came to Bloomington, Indiana, last week, to do stand-up at the Comedy Attic, plus lectures around screenings of two recently directed filmsâ€”the blistering cultural satire God Bless America, and Â Willow Creek, a Bigfoot found footage horror flick. About God Bless America, Goldthwait said to a small Halloween evening crowd at the Indiana University Cinema: â€œI wanted to indict rather than parody.
In God Bless America, a society teetering on the edge of cultural decay is declared in faux-reality series like Dumb Nutz, and a mock-up of American Idol called American Superstars, where the grotesque imagery of â€œrealityâ€ bombards sensitive, exasperated main character Frankâ€™s tiny living room. Frankâ€”played by Joel Murrayâ€”is a character, Goldthwait admitted, â€œmost of my friends say is me.â€ Frankâ€™s world is a right-wing mash-up of â€œ9-11-2001 – Never Forgetâ€ license plates, American flags, radio heads screaming in military troupesâ€™ defense, Obama in a Nazi uniform, and, most importantly for Goldthwaitâ€™s agenda, Sound Bites: meaningless perpetrators of a shallow society, where â€œNo one talks about the personal or important,â€ but only about what was on TV the night before, regurgitating. Such is the timbre of Frankâ€™s non-specific office drone environment, where he is assaulted with water cooler chat so disgorged he at last declares: â€œA shocking comment has more wit than the truth,â€ before unfolding his stapler, aiming it like a gun at his docile co-workers, and asking, â€œWhy have a civilization anymore if weâ€™re no longer interested in being civilized?â€
Frankâ€™s day only gets worse. Corporate higher-ups, citing a â€œNo Toleranceâ€ policy, after eleven years of employ, fire him for sending flowers to the receptionist. His next visit is to the doctor who, while informing Frank he has an inoperable brain tumor, takes a cell phone call, unleashing a painfully privileged litany, something about a newly souped-up car. Frank proceeds home. Against the endless wails of an infant next door, he sits couch-ridden, sipping beer, sobbing, yet again before the enormous boob tube, where teenage â€œreality goddessâ€ Chloe rails at her father for buying her the â€œwrongâ€ brand-new car, dropping the gem of a line, â€œYouâ€™re not listening to me. Youâ€™re talking to the cameras!â€ At this moment, Frankâ€™s own phone rings, his estranged eight-year-old mirroring Chloe in her lament of the horror of her own mom having bought her a Blackberry instead of an iPhone. Frank hangs up, retrieves a pistol from a shoe box, steals his sobbing baby-wielding neighborsâ€™ yellow Mustang, and drives to â€œreality goddessâ€ Chloeâ€™s high school. Unabashedly, in broad daylight, he shoots her.
Witness to the killing is sixteen-year-old Roxy, disgusted schoolmate of Chloe, played by Tara Lynne Barr, who couldnâ€™t be happier with Frankâ€™s murderous deed. The misanthropes team up, donning throwback garb Ã la Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on a nationwide killing spree aimed at obliterating the thoughtless and digitally absorbedâ€”from people who take up two parking spaces, to boobs who take calls in the movie theater, Frank and Roxy unabashedly eliminate the American unkind.
The barefaced fact of Frank, a middle-aged man, running around the country alongside sexy, sixteen-year-old Roxy comes to the fore as the duo shops for bandit garb in a thrift store. â€œFrank,â€ asks Roxy, â€œDo you think Iâ€™m pretty?â€
Frankâ€™s response: â€œI refuse to objectify a child. Fuck R. Kelly! Fuck Vladimir Nabokov! Fuck Woody Allen! No one cares if they hurt other people.â€ Roxyâ€™s response is deflated, sulking, as she attests to the absurdity of the duo carrying on as â€œplatonic spree killers.â€
I was reminded of this particular exchange during the Q&A session following the film, when Goldthwait, in response to a question as to his rationale behind casting Barr as Roxy, said, â€œWhen she came in to read, she didnâ€™t play it too vampy. Other actresses were sexy, coquettish, doing the Lolita thing. Tara was wearing overalls.â€
This all made me think of a discussion in a class Iâ€™m in, where we read â€œresearchedâ€ fiction and poetry. Recently we discussed Nabokovâ€™s Lolita as a historical work. Nabokov, in his essay, â€œOn a Book Entitled Lolita,â€ attests the novelâ€™s inspiration as a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, â€œafter months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creatureâ€™s cage.â€
This statement, coupled with the bookâ€™s stunning linguistic mastery, has always made me see Lolita as being about far more than pedophiliaâ€”far too complicated to be reduced to a dangerous text condoning child rape, or in some cryptic manner portraying Humbert Humbert as enviable. My sense has always been that Lolita, in pointing so blatantly and grotesquely to pedophilia, deflates its taboo. I have also secretly believed Nabokovâ€™s choice to set the novel in America as a bit of a nod to the States’ sexual repression. He knew American readers (and publishers) would sexualize Lolita, characterize her, to quote Goldthwait, as â€œvampy,â€ in control of her own pre-adolescent, seductive powers, a self-aware temptress in her own right:
My classâ€™s discussion digressed: a fellow student called Lolita â€œthe â€œrape-iestâ€ book heâ€™d ever read, likely responsible for subsequent generations of rape culture. Questions swarmed: what should the academy include in its required reading lists? Should a progressive, Queer revaluation of texts chuck away Lolita for good?
I am fascinated with the conflicting views America projects upon â€œLolitaâ€â€”vampy actresses too young and seductive for their own good, adolescent temptresses in need of righting by an ethically firm, middle-aged Frank. Despite this brand of righteousness, sexual tension percolates every hotel room of God Bless America, Frank stubbornly refusing to share a bed, Roxy urging him on (as in Lolita, Frank and Roxy roam amongst cheap motels of the Eastern U.S.). An uncomfortably paternalistic extended scene features Frank teaching Roxy to shoot teddy-bear laden trees, prepping for banditry:
This is not to discount that God Bless America, assaulting and unforgettable in its depiction of a screen-sutured society obsessed with reality TV (scathing, not quite like anything Iâ€™ve seen before), renders Frank and Roxyâ€™s joke that theyâ€™ll â€œmove to France and start a goat farm,â€ wildly appealing. Goldthwaitâ€™s wit is wise, his declarations pristine, his intent earnest. And thereâ€™s nothing more cringingly American than Frankâ€™s final words to Roxy, before detonating her, himself, and the entire studio audience and performers of competitive singing show, American Superstars:Â â€œI do think youâ€™re pretty.”
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.
Last week was, by many accounts, a humiliating one for Chicago, ending as it did with the announcement that the Second City had been knocked out of contention for the much-coveted 2016 Olympics–in the first round, no less. Given that Chicago had already beaten out numerous other international contenders to reach the final four in the first place I don’t exactly see why it’s considered such a crushing embarrassment to have come in fourth but, whatever…I have no dog in that fight. It’s probably just one of the many “Chicago things” that I’ll never fully understand. As an art person, however, I’m far more interested in looking at the blows to civic pride that were delivered earlier last week in the wake of the Tribune’s story on the positive public reaction to J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s outdoor sculpture “God Bless America.” Yeah, you know the one. This one:
Written by Trib reporter Steve Johnson, the article was framed by this headline: “What does popularity of God Bless America sculpture say about public art in Chicago?” This, I think, was precisely the wrong boldfaced header to attach to an article about a sculpture that has been borrowed from the Sculpture Foundation and is not, in fact, meant to be a permanent part of the city’s landscape of public art. Although the Trib’s article does make passing reference to this fact, the headline seems to imply that “God Bless America” somehow holds similar status as the Picasso, Calder or Kapoor pieces do in the city’s world-class lineup of public art.
For better or worse, Steve Johnson’s story gained a degree of national attention, not as much from Chicago’s art crowd as from arts writers elsewhere in the country. On September 30th the L.A. Times’ chief art critic Christopher Knight linked to the Trib article on his Twitter feed with the comment: “Is J. Seward Johnson trying to be America’s Worst Artist?” A few days later Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City wrote a post titled “Bad Public Art Finds Audience in Chicago” containing a point-by-point takedown of Steve Johnson’s main arguments, which he set up as follows:
“Critics can wag fingers at it — and some do — but God Bless America meets some of the fundamental tests of public art. It is noticed, it is appreciated, and, in many cases, it provokes reflection on what makes an art work original.”
I drove by “God Bless America” last week. Parking is monstrous downtown so I couldn’t stop to get out and walk around it, which is too bad, since public art–like all art–needs to be experienced in situ in order to be fully understood and appreciated. Nevertheless, I can’t offer any viable counter-arguments to Knight and Paddy Johnson’s assertions that the sculpture makes for some pretty bad art. Sure, I could attempt some sort of cultural studies-style analysis of how people actually relate and respond to the sculpture in real life (a more populist form of which Steve Johnson was basically attempting in his Trib article) but my heart wouldn’t be in it. Knight’s snarky question was a valid one, and Art Fag City’s post was in keeping with its editor’s ongoing deconstructions of the more egregious myths about contemporary art and its reception–the Trib’s article, sadly, providing a prime example of just the sort of superficial arguments that so often inform those myths.
As far as I know the Trib’s Steve Johnson isn’t an art critic or an arts journalist. He’s a thoughtful and smart culture reporter who was interested in the popular reaction to a popular work of public art in his city. My beef certainly isn’t with Mr. Johnson or with the quality of the article he wrote. It’s with the fact that Johnson’s was one of the rare “news” stories about art in Chicago that the Trib has published over the past few months. And I straight-up disagree with that particular choice of story.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even though I’m not saying anything everyone who lives here doesn’t already know: it’s a damn shame that a city of the size and cultural prominence of Chicago does not have a national voice for its art scene, a newspaper art critic of the stature of Christopher Knight who could have written about Seward’s sculpture from a critically informed art historical viewpoint as well as the more straightforwardly populist one put forth by the Trib (or, better yet, would have chosen not to make this into a story at all, given that there’s nothing particularly timely or newsworthy about it).
This is not a city of people who know nothing about art and architecture, nor do Chicagoans evince a “fear” of the rigorous discourse that often accompanies discussion about those subjects. So why does the Trib cover art as if it its readership needs hand-holding and spoon-feeding via articles that essentially give us permission to look no further than a work of public art’s most spectacular effects?
Chicago needs at least one real art journalist with a national platform to represent this city to the rest of the country, if not the world (and by “art” here I mean fine art, not theater, dance, music, etc. if that’s not already obvious). Clearly, other arts writers across the country are still paying attention to the Trib’s art coverage and looking specifically (and exclusively) to that paper for news and insight into Chicago’s art scene and its art public. The problem is that the Trib is relying on reporters who have no in-depth art backgrounds to cover art news in this city–no dog in the fight, as it were–and frankly I find the effects of this to be somewhat humiliating.
Chicago needs a high-profile newspaper writer who is both a critic of and an advocate for the city’s art; not a booster but a person who will draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context. Chicago’s art bloggers simply aren’t able to bear that responsibility, not because of a lack of talent but from a serious lack of time, money and resources. My advice to the Trib: get freelancer Lori Waxman on staff and make her a reporter or something–I don’t fucking care, but Chicago needs to cultivate its own Christopher Knight some way or another. Until we do, we risk letting writers from other cities steer the discourse on Chicago art. We owe it to ourselves not to let that continue.