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The painting recalls my encounter with famous "beard" Kitty Carlisle Hart, hers with Judy Garland, explores changing mainstream values, the intersection of cultural appropriation and our common humanity. It's all about some heavy things in the guise of something much more light and fun. I’ll admit it, using a privileged, overdressed society matron, talk show panelist and patron of the arts seems an unconventional choice as a muse for a protest piece advocating for the right to speak up against racism and intolerance. It is a plea for understanding and thoughtful consideration of historical context when looking back at an artist’s body of work, and everyone's right to own our collective human experience.
The inspiration started with a touch, Kitty Carlisle touched my knee as she navigated past me at a 1983 reception in Aspen honoring her and the exciting release of the restored 1954 A Star Is Born with long lost footage. Later at a second venue, I was a plant, tasked to ask her about Garland’s wildly fluctuating weight in the picture. Kitty responded with an anecdote about finding Garland hiding in the wings between filming takes backstage at the Pantages Theater. She was enjoying a Mars candybar, and Kitty admonished her explaining, “My mother always told me NEVER to get fat eating cheap chocolate.” To which Garland replied, “It’s the only kind I like!” Both women were “beards,” married to gay men. So in the painting one of the 6 Carlisles sports a goatee, as do the 2 rainbow stars on the proscenium representing Garland and a few of her lavender spouses. Garland’s Mars bar is on To Tell the Truth host Gary Moore’s desk, and he is receiving the touch Kitty gave me. The set is a collage of elements from the game show’s many looks created by legend Theodore Cooper. The stars not only refer to Garland, but echo the motif of Aspen’s then recently revamped Wheeler Opera House, my biggest and most formative cultural touchstone growing up.
In the painting, Carlisle appears in repetition, recreating her famous sweeping entrances on the set. Host Gary Moore appears twice. His final quip upon greeting Carlisle on his last appearance due to a fatal cancer, are written above him, “Kitty, underdressed for the occasion as usual...”
Times have changed drastically since the heyday of To Tell The Truth, when Gary Moore could sport a Native American War Bonnet or Headdress to introduce guest’s thematically related story. Nowadays, the culture has come to know that doing so is hurtful to Native Americans because of what the bonnet symbolizes. That wasn’t so then, so let’s not judge Moore with today’s values.
A frightening pattern has emerged with culture and identity police attacking artists both living and dead with unreasonable charges of cultural appropriation and racism. “Not your story,” has become the toxic charge levied repeatedly against well intentioned artists whose work calls attention social injustices committed against people from different and less privileged walks of life. The premiss of To Tell The Truth, is the perfect metaphorical backdrop to stage my protest. In each game, 2 of the 3 contestants deliberately tell a story that is not their own to stump the panel. Painted text behind Kitty and Gary is Terence’s quote “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum.” (I am a man, nothing human is alien to me.) We see both the light and dark within and as humans we share our greatest achievements and worse failings. You don’t have to be Jewish to relate to the holocaust, or black to sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, or sexually assaulted to support MeToo. Artists speak up about what issues compel them, no matter what their gender, race, sexuality, culture or societal privilege is. Anne Frank’s words were about universal truths and her legacy is for everyone. Willam Shakespeare wrote about kings, but was talking about our collective nature.
Text in the background refers to artists whose exhibitions were closed and books criticized for telling stories that were not there own. If Dana Shultz is moved by Emmett Till’s murder, if Jeanine Cummins is moved by Mexican migrants’ struggles and pens American Dirt, if Laura Moriarty wants to create a Muslim character for American Heart, if Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” refers to injustice to Native Americans and, if I want to include Skittles in my painting to remind people of Travon Martin or paint the letters BLM to show support for Black Lives Matter I believe we are human, these stories do belong to us all, we should be free to speak about them. Dan White's infamous Twinkies and the Stars of David in the painting are reminders of crimes against the gay and Jewish communities, that are all ours to mourn.
We shouldn't cancel art or artists for belonging to their own times and different standards. For centuries, male actors portrayed women or people other than themselves. In the early 20th Century playing other races was commonplace and accepted. Theatrical make-up for skin darkening had a different look and intent than than minstrel performers donning blackface. Minstrel blackface was a caricature, and often a racist stereotype, even when performed by black performers. Because of that hurtful imagery, in our time, any kind theatrical darkening the skin to appear to belong to another race, recalls those awful images and is offensive. Today blackface, brownface, and yellowface of any kind is offensive to North American audiences and outdated. In earlier times and in other countries, wearing darker make-up and crossing races was part of an actor’s job portraying different characters and didn’t always conjure up minstrel like imagery or references. It was mainstream and part of the entertainment norm. Previous generations of performers came of age in a time when that was still part of the norm, they did not have the perspective of modern views who really cringe at some of their performances. To us, this is no longer acceptable to done make up and portray another race due to so many bad racist precursors, but we cannot judge every instance of portraying another race as racist by standards of our era’s values which are a different sensibility to earlier decades. It’s hard to watch today Gene Wilder’s blackface with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak. It’s a comedic choice the actor would not have made now. Context and intent are everything. Not everyone transitioned to enlightenment at the same moment, slowly the culture changed. They wouldn’t do it now and it is a jolt to our sensibilities. But then it was no different than performing with a different accent like Streep in the Sophie’s Choice. It was acceptable to the mainstream and commonplace. Using exotic costumes and settings, accents, mannerisms, etc were then all acceptable tricks of the trade, not meant to be disrespectful.
Today actors are publicly vilified for daring to play trans-characters. Yet just a few years ago, Jared Leto was given the Academy Award for doing so, and Jeffery Tambour the Emmy. It is what actors do by definition, play characters who are different than themselves! There is a long tradition of wonderful actors sensitively portraying trans people. I am all for casting trans actors when possible. It is often not financially viable to launch a several million dollar production without a star attached. Unknowns and lessor talents do not get the leads. Including transactors where possible is fantastic. But it should not preclude capable others from also playing those some of those roles. Back to Terrence and this painting: I am a man, nothing human is alien to me.
Language changes with our values. We can’t hold other generations accountable for not using our language choices, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was recently banned from a college as being transphobic for language that was accepted at the time. In fact the song is famously just the opposite. Recently “tranny” became an offensive term, and older uses of it suddenly became seen as racist in hindsight. Ours has become a “cancel culture” where people and judged and deleted for any infraction or transgression. The Philadelphia Flyers removed a statue of “God Bless America” singer Kate Smith from their stadium because of language in songs she was told to sing on the radio, songs that were not offensive to mainstream audiences at the time. Refusing would have labelled her trouble and barred her from future work. Her situation was one performers faced for decades. Similar to Smith’s experienced, actress Pamelyn Ferdin recently recalled how in the 1970’s star Paul Lynde loathed the character and scripts he was compelled by contract to portray on his own show. It is not fair to judge an artist for different values decades ahead of their time and for circumstances out of their control. But I do understand how seeing Smith’s statue became a painful symbol for many, similar to Confederate sculptures. Hard to know where to draw the line and I do not have the answers, just questions and concerns. I see context being removed from our looks back at artists, the meaning and intent of their work and their legacies and that is terrifying to witness. So this painting about telling other people’s stories is a protest of that trend.
What if I paint a person of color? Am I committing cultural appropriation? If I don’t include people of color in my paintings, can I be called a racist for not including them? Am I taking a risk if I make one of the all white To Tell the Truth caricatures black? If I quote Kate Smith’s “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” am I a racist for not “canceling” her entirely? It’s becoming a scary, lose/lose situation for some figurative artists like myself, for writers, actors, musicians, etc. My painting career is now over 30 years old. Already there are some choices I made early on that I would not make today. Never were they made with ill intent or disrespect. In fact, quite the opposite. Time change fast. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed brought swift social change. Artists of all colors made work in tribute to him and the Black Lives Matters movement and the usual backlash and loud criticism of cultural apporpriation never came. Pethaps we've turned the corner. away from censorship.
And in the end I decline to judge all the Mickey Rooneys, Lucille Balls, Dr Suesses, Gene Wilders, and others who went overboard portraying race made some very poor choices. I applaude Jimmy Fallon and Justin Trudeau, and others who have applogized for youthful coustumes they'd never don today. Who among us hasn’t made a bad joke or said something poor taste that they later regretted? Artists take risks, and some of them don’t work out. We learn and grow from our failures and the failures of others. Making a racist image doesn’t prove its creator was a racist. That may not have been the intent, just a poor artistic choice or ignorance perhaps? My beginning art studen ts often create images that read offensive or ignorant that they didn’t intend or think through carefully. Maya Angelou was spot on when she said, "do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."
A fantastic quality of being human is the capacity to forgive, and given context, I choose to forgive mistakes of ignorance and poor taste. I’ll give the benefit of doubt for outdated, public, ill-advised artistic choices, rather than to label someone a racist when obvert racism wasn’t their intent. Racism does not have to be obvert to be racism, it can manifest itself in small subtle ways. I know this. I know many feel differently than I do especially about privilege. Arguments to the contrary are reasonable. But rather than judge based solely on imagery, I give the benefit of the doubt where possible and try to forgive. We are all human.