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Nude in Black and White
Posted on Oct 14, 2011
By Mr. Fish
There was a pissed-off Santa Claus in a putrid red velvet suit at the north end of the square, speaking in solidarity with the protesters yet addressing them with disdain, as if they were rabbits in his garden. “America is a fascist/corporatist state!” he spat, his big spooky old-man hands going every which way. “There hasn’t been any truth in this goddamn country ever since November the twenty-second, nineteen-hundred and sixty-three!” Then he started singing “God Bless America,” insisting that everybody join in.
There were Photoshopped posters of Barack Obama wearing a Hitler mustache, Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a Hitler mustache, Hillary Clinton wearing a Hitler mustache, Sarah Palin wearing a Hitler mustache, Bill O’Reilly wearing a Hitler mustache and, for those trapped in a nostalgia for simpler times, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush wearing Hitler mustaches, the little black square having become the progressives’ most destructive boomeranging metaphor—a rallying cry, really, for those who prefer the big bang of moronomy over the subtle pop of irony.
There were tourists from West Palm Beach and Buffalo and St. Paul cutting through the plaza with pinched faces and raging telepathy that said, “How dare you filthy beatniks ruin our vacations by corrupting our concept of what Washington, D.C., is supposed to signify by exercising the First Amendment rights deemed sacred by every single statue and monument in town!”
There was no nuance as far as the eye could see.
“Did you ever wonder why there aren’t any songs about peace on the radio?” I heard someone say over the rally’s PA system as I made my way across the street, having spotted a Starbucks whose Wi-Fi signal I was hoping to cop for free through the glass. “It’s because all the radios are owned by corporations!” said the voice, inciting the crowd to go apeshit with booing, many of them wearing T-shirts adorned with peace signs from Walmart and Old Navy and Urban Outfitters. Locking eyes on the wide lip of an enormous concrete planter where I noticed an empty space in between two Wall Street protesters typing on laptops, I quickened my pace, motivated by a sudden impulse to re-examine a photograph taken 67 years ago near Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific during the Second World War. “Corporations hate peace and that’s why you don’t hear Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary on the radio anymore!” The lone yelp of approval told me that half the audience was too young to know who Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary were and the other half seemed reluctant to throw their vocal support behind a movement that was demanding to see the safe return of “Guantanamera” and “Stewball” to commercial radio.
There’s a famous black and white picture taken in 1944 by Time/Life photographer Horace Bristol of a naked PBY blister gunner during a rescue operation in Rabaul Bay. The young Navy gunner is unnamed and photographed from the back, his slim build much more gazelle-like than bull, the inhibition expressed in his body language reminiscent of the boy bathers in Thomas Eakins’ 1885 masterpiece, “The Swimming Hole.” Tiny droplets of either sweat or seawater cling to the sailor’s shoulders, back and in a sublime patch of sunlight gathering in a graceful swoop at the top of his ass crack. His hair is mussed and he is wearing headphones, the wartime sky seen through the giant blister that he occupies alive with the lethal bumblebees of Japanese antiaircraft fire.
Most remarkable to me about the photograph is how well it depicts the bewitching vulnerability of a human body. Here is this naked kid, no doubt thousands of miles away from his home, caged inside the ghoulish skeleton of a giant metal machine designed to both stave off and initiate the most brutal sort of mass cruelty devised by modern man, yet his political affiliations and religious convictions and cultural prejudices are rendered completely inconsequential by the tenderness of his age and the beauty of his skin and the fragility of his predicament. His existence, like the stark honesty of his physique, is elemental and harrowing and tenuous without requiring either corroboration from the intellect or rationale from some bureaucratic narrative to make sense, forcing the viewer’s own human vulnerabilities to be likewise exposed and made precious and beautiful by association.
This, to me, was poetry and a much more convincing call to universal amity than Bob Gruen’s photograph of John Lennon flashing the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or Alberto Korda’s iconic picture of Che Guevara scanning the horizon for the red dawn. For me, there has always been a huge difference between seeking inspiration on how to experience life through poetry versus searching for clear instruction on how to live life through religion or politics or economics.
“All right, losers! Either buy something or get out of here!” said a Starbucks thug waving us off the concrete planter like we were pigeons. “Go use the Internet at McDonald’s!” he said, looking just as tattooed and pierced and disenfranchised as the protesters he was shooing away. I slid my computer back into my bag and returned to Freedom Plaza, remembering something Noam Chomsky said in 1967 when asked about Bob Dylan’s perceived abandonment of the protest movements of the day. “If the capitalist PR machine wanted to invent someone for their purposes, they couldn’t have made a better choice [than Bob Dylan].” What Dylan’s detractors failed to recognize then, and maybe they still do, is how hard it is to find a rhyme for antiestablishmentarianism when you’re trying to create art that warms the heart and feeds the soul and gives a person more than just an expert opinion upon which to rely when facing down self-righteousness.
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