Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 13, 2007

The Bad Judgment of Paris

It would be too much to expect that Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and recently (re)incarcerated drunk driver, would inspire a great work of art. And Daniel Edwards’s Paris Hilton Autopsy, recently on display at Capla Kesting Fine Art, is certainly not great. But even a bad work of art can have something interesting to say. A life-size bronze, the Autopsy depicts Hilton in the wake of a fatal car crash, her body exposed for forensic examination. While the subject matter is grisly, the execution is lighthearted: Hilton is shown in beatific slumber while her pet chihuahua, wearing a party hat, capers friskily around her head. Moreover, the position of Hilton’s legs, spread wide for the purposes of medical examination, suggests an entirely different kind of readiness.

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It would be too much to expect that Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and recently (re)incarcerated drunk driver, would inspire a great work of art. And Daniel Edwards’s Paris Hilton Autopsy, recently on display at Capla Kesting Fine Art, is certainly not great. But even a bad work of art can have something interesting to say. A life-size bronze, the Autopsy depicts Hilton in the wake of a fatal car crash, her body exposed for forensic examination. While the subject matter is grisly, the execution is lighthearted: Hilton is shown in beatific slumber while her pet chihuahua, wearing a party hat, capers friskily around her head. Moreover, the position of Hilton’s legs, spread wide for the purposes of medical examination, suggests an entirely different kind of readiness.

This essay in pornographic bathos, however, is accompanied by a moralizing program of fascinating primness. Edwards suggests that the sculpture “could provide an invaluable service to students preparing for prom this season.” According to his straight-faced promotional material, the bronze is intended to remind

potential prom queens no one is impervious to the pitfalls of drinking. Recalling Miss USA’s recent battle to keep her crown through alcohol rehab and Princess Diana’s untimely death due to drunk driving, a skewed hotel heiress’s tiara adorns the lifeless Paris Hilton head. . . . With Paris’s legs splayed in stirrups for postmortem pelvic examination, the “Hilton Autopsy” tragically reveals drunk driving’s heartbreaking collateral damage—a “double abortion” of fetal twins discovered in her uterus.

What is fascinating about the Autopsy is the convergence of two strands of American art not normally found together. On the one hand, it shows the same fascination with celebrity culture that distinguished Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe or, more recently, Jeff Koons’s sculptures of Michael Jackson with his pet chimp.

On the other hand, is shows an impulse which is as old as American art itself, the idea of justifying art by the moral lesson it provides. In this respect, there is little difference between the religious moralizing of 19th-century landscape art and the consciousness-raising political art of recent years: each seeks to justify itself through the lesson it imparts rather than, for example, the pleasure it gives. Much as prudish Americans once tolerated the nudity of Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave (1846) because it offered a didactic lesson about Christian forbearance under affliction, Edwards asks us to accept the vulgarity of the Autopsy because it offers a warning about drunk driving.

The difference, of course, is that Powers was in earnest while Edwards is merely ironic. (Last year he designed a “deathbed portrait” of Fidel Castro for Central Park, a work celebrating Castro’s “humanitarianism.”) That the Autopsy should receive so much attention in the past two months shows that Americans are habitually respectful of art that pretends to impart a moral message, even if that message is patently, laughably insincere.

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Lieberman’s Vision

It seems to be about 40 years too late for Joseph Lieberman to run for President as a Democrat, the 1960’s being the last time that hawks were dominant within the party’s ranks. But there is time yet for him to become Vice President or Secretary of State under a Republican President. (One or the other would seem a sure thing if his good friend John McCain wins the White House.) He certainly deserves nothing less for his consistent willingness to say and do the right thing on national security matters, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

He has, most notably, remained a stalwart supporter of the war effort in Iraq in the face of its increasing unpopularity among the public at large and among almost all of his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. (Joshua Muravchik has already reported on the great speech Lieberman gave in Prague laying out the stakes in Iraq and the broader Middle East.) Not only does Lieberman want to take the war to the jihadists in Iraq, but he is also breaking the great taboo in Washington by proposing to take the war to their sponsors in Iran.

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It seems to be about 40 years too late for Joseph Lieberman to run for President as a Democrat, the 1960’s being the last time that hawks were dominant within the party’s ranks. But there is time yet for him to become Vice President or Secretary of State under a Republican President. (One or the other would seem a sure thing if his good friend John McCain wins the White House.) He certainly deserves nothing less for his consistent willingness to say and do the right thing on national security matters, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

He has, most notably, remained a stalwart supporter of the war effort in Iraq in the face of its increasing unpopularity among the public at large and among almost all of his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. (Joshua Muravchik has already reported on the great speech Lieberman gave in Prague laying out the stakes in Iraq and the broader Middle East.) Not only does Lieberman want to take the war to the jihadists in Iraq, but he is also breaking the great taboo in Washington by proposing to take the war to their sponsors in Iran.

The consensus view in the capital seems to be that while Iran makes war by proxy on the U.S., we are supposed to make nice with Iran. That was the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group. But Iran continues to flaunt the can’t-we-all-get-along approach through shipping potent mines and rockets to anti-American fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, refusing to end its nuclear-weapons program, and its recent seizure of innocent Iranian-Americans as purported spies, among other offenses. The Bush administration reacts largely with rhetorical bluster, backed up by some sanctions and the movement of aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf.

Lieberman quite rightly points out that our pressure has been insufficient to make Iran change its behavior and that stronger medicine may be in order. On CBS’s Face the Nation this past Sunday, he declared:

I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq. And to me that would include a strike into—over the border into Iran where I—we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers. . . . They can’t believe that they have immunity for training and equipping people to come in and kill Americans. It’s just—we cannot let them get away with it. If we do, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness on our part, and we will pay for it in Iraq and throughout the region, and ultimately right here at home.

This has earned Lieberman yet more rebukes, such as this bombastic article in the New York Observer, entitled “Lieberman’s Iranian War Fantasy.” In prose that almost parodies State Department thinking, the author, Niall Stanage, concludes: “Dialogue and diplomacy do not make for especially magnetic rallying calls. But they are a much more sensible idea than the dangerous chimera of a short sharp shock to Iran proposed by Mr. Lieberman.”

Stanage is right that the idea of using force against Iran—given its potentially serious repercussions—needs more careful study. But it is his own call for “dialogue and diplomacy” with mullahs who plainly reject both that is the “fantasy” here. Lieberman is willing to face up to the unpleasant reality of the Middle East today, while most of Washington prefers to look the other way as Iran makes war on us.

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A Lesbian Visits the New York Times

I couldn’t attend—because I wasn’t invited—but this past Monday the New York Times held another session in its “Diversity Awareness Series,” which is a forum for its “employees and leaders to learn about the many facets of”—you guessed it—”diversity.”

This particular session featured Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council, “the first woman to hold this post,” reads the invitation, “and the first lesbian in conversation with Sewell Chan, the bureau chief of the Metro desk’s City Room.”

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I couldn’t attend—because I wasn’t invited—but this past Monday the New York Times held another session in its “Diversity Awareness Series,” which is a forum for its “employees and leaders to learn about the many facets of”—you guessed it—”diversity.”

This particular session featured Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council, “the first woman to hold this post,” reads the invitation, “and the first lesbian in conversation with Sewell Chan, the bureau chief of the Metro desk’s City Room.”

It would be utterly routine for the news staff of the Times to invite in a politician for a discussion of the issues he or she is confronting. But what is happening here is something else. The publisher of the family-owned newspaper, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., has unleashed a team of what he calls “Internal Consultants” to impose a politically correct regime of diversity on the paper—editorial and news side alike. As a woman and a lesbian, Quinn has been enlisted in that effort. Yet she happens to be an influential figure in city government whom the news staff will be continuing to cover.

This causes one to wonder: will the reporters and editors who have had their thinking about diversity reprogrammed in these sessions be fair and balanced in their coverage of this politician? Or, under the watchful eyes of the Internal Consultants, will they henceforth, first and foremost, celebrate Quinn as a lesbian pioneer?

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The Totalitarian Olympics

Since the awarding of the Olympics to China in July 2001, no major world city has changed more than Beijing, with its massive new construction of roads, bridges, terminals, hotels, and other facilities promised for the Games. According to official estimates, the Chinese government will spend $37 billion to get ready for next August. That is almost four times what Athens disbursed for its summer Olympics, which was by far the most expensive ever staged. Yet the 2008 Games may end up costing China over $100 billion, after taking into account the relentless building and “beautification” campaigns currently demolishing “illegal urban villages.”

Last week, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions issued a report claiming that 1.25 million Chinese citizens have been displaced from their homes in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Another quarter million or so will be forcibly moved between now and the opening ceremony. All told, an estimated 512,100 households and 1,483,300 people in Beijing will be affected. Some have received no notice of eviction and others no compensation.

China has denied the accusations. “The report is sheer groundless [sic],” said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. According to her, every relocated person received compensation and no one was forced to leave Beijing. The government maintains that only 6,037 households have been resettled since 2002.

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Since the awarding of the Olympics to China in July 2001, no major world city has changed more than Beijing, with its massive new construction of roads, bridges, terminals, hotels, and other facilities promised for the Games. According to official estimates, the Chinese government will spend $37 billion to get ready for next August. That is almost four times what Athens disbursed for its summer Olympics, which was by far the most expensive ever staged. Yet the 2008 Games may end up costing China over $100 billion, after taking into account the relentless building and “beautification” campaigns currently demolishing “illegal urban villages.”

Last week, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions issued a report claiming that 1.25 million Chinese citizens have been displaced from their homes in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Another quarter million or so will be forcibly moved between now and the opening ceremony. All told, an estimated 512,100 households and 1,483,300 people in Beijing will be affected. Some have received no notice of eviction and others no compensation.

China has denied the accusations. “The report is sheer groundless [sic],” said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. According to her, every relocated person received compensation and no one was forced to leave Beijing. The government maintains that only 6,037 households have been resettled since 2002.

But the forced relocation of residents is just one small part of the story. The most disturbing aspect of China’s preparation for the Games is its employment of mass-mobilization techniques and strict social controls—the essential tools of totalitarian governance. Some of the government’s efforts resemble Singapore-style silliness—forcing school children to cheer for other nations’ teams, prohibiting cab drivers from dyeing their hair red or wearing big earrings, and banning sarcasm in shops. The capital’s municipal government has even divided the city into five areas and decreed that each section be repainted in a uniform hue.

Other measures are less trivial. Beggars will be evicted ahead of Olympiad XXIX. About a million cars will be forced off the road during the Games to clean the air, and heavy industry will be shut down for months beforehand for the same purpose. Worst of all, during this politically sensitive period, the Communist party has launched a severe crackdown. Over the past four years, there has been a marked deterioration of human rights and a virtual halt to political liberalization.

The awarding of the Olympics to China was supposed to speed up the liberalization of Chinese society. Perhaps one day we will see that it did. But so far, the government has only become more repressive. Just ask the million-and-a-half Chinese being forced from their homes.

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