Back in 2007, Harper’s magazine ran an article called “On the Rights of the Molotov Man” that I’ve always remembered. It’s about image culture, and specifically the fraught tale of a particular photograph, recounted through two separate essays: The first by artist Joy Garnett, the second by photographer Susan Meiselas.
Garnett explains how, in 2003, she was trying to find a way to critique the Bush administration’s militarism, and began searching the Internet for images of politically inspired violence, where, among others, she found one of a Molotov cocktail-throwing Sandanista. Later, she used this photograph as the basis of a painting, which was shown in a gallery in 2004. Predictably in this age of copyright conflict, the Magnum photography agency sent her something approaching a cease-and-desist, but which ultimately came down to two points: (1) that the original photographer should be credited, and (2) that permission would have to be sought for future uses. The latter piqued Garnett, who saw it as a sort of backdoor veto-power that would censor her, and she reached out to like-minded artists on Rhizome, ultimately (and accidentally) producing a wide-spread Internet-based protest movement in which the image was time and again re-appropriated by the protesting artistic community.
Her story, then, seems of a stereotypical kind with which we’re familiar these days: An artist working in mixed and new media adopts a found image to use as part of socially conscious protest artwork, and the intellectual property lawyers clamp down for unauthorized use. We live in a “re-mix” culture; Garnett is an artist of the “Poor Image” for whom the products of late-capitalist media culture serve as the raw material for artistic production; the entire idea of control of this image is a tragically ironic, defanging the very content it pretends to protect. And the political dimensions of this were not lost on the protesting artists. Here was an image of political protest, appropriated for another protest action, which in turn was being suppressed in the name of “intellectual property,” as though the photographer was the sole author of content, rather than the photo-journalistic subject and his political gesture.
As Garnett pointedly recounts a blogger asking of the “Molotov man”: “Who owns the rights to this man’s struggle?”
The answer to that question, as Susan Meiselas then explains in her following essay, is probably a guy named Pablo Arauz, who, at the time she snapped the photo of him on July 16, 1979, was going by the nom de guerre “Bareta.”
It turns out that Garnett was far from the first person to appropriate the Molotov Man image. In the decades since Meiselas took the photo–as the Sandanistas were overtaking the last strong-hold of the brutal Somoza dictatorship in the years before the US-backed contras turned Nicaragua into a series of killing fields–the picture had been adopted throughout the pro- (and even occasionally anti-) Sandanista movements. It was used to commemorate, to tar, and to inspire. It appeared on matchbooks, on posters, on commemorative publications, and–most affectingly, to my mind–on street graffiti during the era of the contras‘ rise, poignantly paired with the old battle-cry of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, “¡No pasarán!,” in splashed red paint that drips like blood down a white-washed fence.
As Meiselas explains at the beginning of her essay, her point in challenging Garnett’s appropriation of the image was less that it was used, but rather how. “Joy’s practice of decontextualizing an image as a painter,” she explained, ” is precisely the opposite of my own hope as a photographer to contextualize it.” Throughout her piece, Meiselas acts as a historian, recounting the long, complex history of the photograph (of which, by her own account, Garnett was unaware), up to and including Meiselas’s staging of an exhibition of her photos in 2004, where the images were blown up to life-size and installed in the locations she’d originally snapped them, including the one of the Molotov Man.
What’s interesting about the pairing of essays isn’t so much that each party makes a very compelling argument–and they do–but rather that they seem to talking about completely different things, yet both apply to the exact same image. Practically speaking I completely sympathize with Garnett. The image as recontextualized by her worked for her purposes, and it’s hard to make the case that her appropriation could harm our understanding of the image itself; in fact, given its decades of re-appropriation in Nicaraugua (all of which, one assumes, was not approved by Meiselas, as she requested of Garnett), Garnett’s artwork in the early 2000s would surely count as little more than a tangential footnote in a proper record of the photo’s history. As for Meiselas, she nevertheless presents more than a little naivete on Garnett’s part for the latter artist’s ignorance of the image’s history. Images are never truly without context; just because Garnett was unaware of its history doesn’t mean others are. In fact, Meiselas seems to sneak a sort of dig, in an otherwise friendly pairing of essays, by pointing out that the Molotov Man’s later history (including the resistance graffiti I mentioned above) occurred when the CIA was backing the brutal contras against the leftist Sandanista government, overseen in part by then assistant director Robert Gates, who, in 2004, was prosecuting the war in Iraq as Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. In fact, Meiselas seems to suggest, Garnett’s willingness to view the loaded image of the Molotov Man as devoid of context prevented her from making a salient connection that would have served her own protest action.
I found myself thinking about this six- or seven-year-old article this week when reading about the controversial reception of the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans in LA, where it played in early March at REDCAT. In New York, where it played in January, I didn’t see any critics in the press talking about its use of “redface” with an all-white cast, or its appropriation of Native American imagery as part of the production. That said, I did see more than one person comment on Facebook, asking how it is that “the Wooster Group gets away with this.” In Los Angeles, at least, they didn’t.
More than one critic made note of the issue–which including at least one relatively sanguine protest interruption of a performance. I found the article in LAObserved the most informative, though. In part, it seems like the more vociferous response in LA was due to the fact that a pointed political play called Stand-Off at HWY #37 from Native Voices–which develops and produces “new works for the stage by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights”–opened around the same time as the Wooster Group’s appearance, throwing their choices in relief.
Don Shirley, writing in LAObserved, after describing the play (which originally, when the show was a collaboration with Royal Shakespeare in London, recast the Trojan War as between British colonizers and natives; in the US, Wooster has redeveloped the piece as an inter-tribal conflict), goes on to make a number of predictable liberal points: the show doesn’t feature Native American actors. Native American artists had nothing to do with its production. And even goes on to recount how the lack of “conceptual clarity” about the piece prevented the artistic director of Native Voices (who protested a performance) from even grasping whether the appropriation of Native American identities was to provoke or not–in other words, whether it even counted as an ironic comment on racist caricature.
To be clear–I didn’t see Cry, Trojans. I had a ticket in mid-January but honestly I was exhausted and–as often happens when I buy my own tickets rather than accepting comps–I chose to spend a night in. All of which is to say that this isn’t a “review” or direct comment on the Wooster Group’s show. Still, I know their work–and the work of like-minded practitioners–and I think it bears considering the case that’s arisen.
What’s interesting to me, and the reason I paired this with the Molotov Man story, is that so much of the response seems to miss a crucial point. The liberal perspective tends to be that if we can identify with the intent of the appropriation, then we can accept it–its offensiveness is a function of what it does, what it says, not the act itself. At first blush, this seems sensible enough. Leaving aside the issue of “appropriation” altogether, we should surely be more concerned with what a cultural product “says,” right? It’s offensive if it says something offensive; if it appropriates material–particularly that of a different, historically oppressed, culture–we should ask whether it does something noble or justifiable with it, or whether it’s tawdry or stereotyping, right?
The answer is actually much more complicated. Consider the recent case of Felicia Day, the actress and member of Joss Whedon’s circle. Day recently courted a social media controversy by criticizing the decision to cast white actor Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily–the “Indian girl” with a thing for Peter Pan–in a planned new Peter Pan film. Day operates in the geek-culture world, and this seemingly anodyne and justified critique (based on what may or may not be a rumor, but that’s beside the point) unleashed a huge amount of trollery on her, with fans taking to Twitter to point out that Marvel has increasingly cast non-white actors to play characters from its mythology originally presented as white, back when that was the only race you were likely to see in comics. The backlash led Day to write a commendable Tumblr post pointing out issues of racial diversity in film, called “‘Tiger Lily Does Not Equal Human Torch’ Plus a Very Long Rant.”
Day’s points are all, of course, valid, but it does seem to miss a very salient point: Tiger Lily, the character, is a racist cliche. Yes, of course we expect contemporary film producers to moderate the more anachronistic (read: no longer acceptable forms of racism) inherent in a beloved children’s story, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tiger Lily is a racial phantasm. She’s a (British) child’s imaginary vision of an “Indian,” who lives not in North America, but rather in a dream-realm called Never-Never Land, where (British) children escape to never grow up.
Tiger Lily was never supposed to be “real” in any way, shape, or form. She was a product of a culture in which Europeans consumed stories of the “American West” in which cowboys in white hats fought bandits in black hats and partnered with “noble savages.” Consider the case of Karl May, an iconic German novelist who produced dozens of books set in the “American West,” and whose books were a favorite of Adolf Hitler, among others. This was the tradition that birthed Tiger Lily, an inhabitant not of a real place but children’s imaginations. My point isn’t to suggest that it’s not racist to have Tiger Lily played by a white actor–far from it. My point is that casting an actual Native American actor as the character doesn’t exactly do a lot to address the centuries of brutality European settlers have wreaked on Native Americans that’s inherent in the character. It would, in fact, be an act of minstrelsy, in which an actual living person is forced to conform to an imagined, racist vision of herself. There’s no credible way to rectify the representation of a cultural other when you are consciously framing that cultural other as imaginary. The problem with Tiger Lily is that we’re going to continue producing her representation at all.
The issue doesn’t actually lie with representation when you appropriate another’s cultural identity. Tiger Lily is an appropriation and decontextualization of identity that was produced more than a century ago, but is exactly the same as what the Wooster Group have done. The Wooster Group operate in a realm of borrowed imagery and narratives, which collide in a produced, staged pastiche of references. That’s just what the Wooster Group does. Perhaps the only truly commendable thing Lecompte did in response to criticism of Cry, Trojans was to imply she wouldn’t stoop to tokenism by actually involving Native American artists. I wholeheartedly agree: To do so would be to hide behind the veil of multiculturalism, to put out a person in front of you to justify your actions, as though inclusive staffing could solve the problem of racist presentation.
Mind you, I’m not trying to defend what the Wooster Group did. I suspect I’d find their presentation problematic, but again, I didn’t see it. For me, the problem lies in methodology, not in what went onstage or whether more liberal-minded choices would have alleviated the issue. Just as Garnett did, the Wooster Group appropriated imagery without regard for its weighted past. They operate under the assumption that it can be decontextualized, and made to say something else. For the Wooster Group, the Native American experience is essentially nonexistent–rather, “Indians” exist as a part of the white imagination of America, and can be applied to telling a certain sort of story about that.
And the Wooster Group isn’t wrong, exactly. “Indians” are a thing that inhabit the white imagination. Let’s face it–it’s true. We (I use “we” because my family has lived in North America since the Mayflower, and is implicated in all of this, though I suppose I’m speaking on behalf of all white people) killed them through war and disease, took their lands, forced the remnants onto reservations, often through extra-legal means (in a climate, mind you, in which the law was already slated to be on our side), and then developed a mythology about them in their absence, in which they were by turns our erstwhile friendly neighbors or the demonic embodiment of nightmares that we had to valiantly wrest our Manifest Destiny from.
I suspect that this is the material the Wooster Group sought to grapple with–the mythology of America itself. The problem is, of course, that the imagery they appropriated was actively contested by others, actual living people whose identity was being re-appropriately as though it were nothing more substantial than the blank images the artists sought to address. The Wooster artists wanted to use it one way–evoking and challenging the phantasms of the shared white experience (likely without being fully aware they were referring to a “white perspective” to the exclusion of others)–but have been confronted with the fact that those phantasms have real world counterparts whose voices have been historically suppressed. Like Joy Garnett, their best intentions have run smack into a reality they neglected and ignored, and their willingness to appropriate and transform for their own artistic purposes comes to seem naive at best, privileged and arrogant at worst.
A Note: It’s come to my attention that perhaps one of the reasons there was no pointed response to the Wooster Group’s Cry Trojans in New York was that, as with Vieux Carre, it never “opened” here, and was thus unavailable for review, something I occasionally lose track of. Just a note to LA critics who have taken the occasion to criticize NYC for its tone-deafness.