Monday, December 7, 2015

Wexner Center Shooting: Property Damage, or a Hole in the Heart?

How many nuances of sorrow are there to explore in the November 29 tragedy at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus? 

Did you miss it? No surprise if you did. Compared to the mass killings in Paris and San Bernardino; the pursuits of terrorists around the globe; and the confusion between refugees, terrorists, and worshippers, apparently it takes a lot of spilt blood to register beyond the local news any more.

What happened in The Ohio State University's contemporary art center went beyond the grand realms of religion, guns, and politics into the profoundly personal. A man, a former University security officer, who had once been a guard at the Center, shot himself in the galleries after vandalizing unspecified works of art in the show Art After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists. There has been little public follow up but to say that the show has been closed and packed up. It is suggested that the damage to some of the artworks was caused by gunshots. 

Apparently the deceased had a contentious relationship with the University, where he had worked in several departments. Wexner was the last of these, so perhaps that's why he chose it as the death place. Or did it give him the greater scope for his anger by providing victims—"fish in the barrel"—in the form of art to deface and neutralize? Had he shot other people, we'd have called it a terrorist shooting. Yet by shooting up artworks, surely he caused more than property damage. This too was terrorism perpetrated on the living.

Khaled Hourani, Picasso in Palestine, 2011. Installation view, (IAAP) Ramallah.
Courtesy Khaled Hourani; Photo Khaled Jarar.
From the show at the Wexner Center, "
After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists"
The shooting has direct repercussions of all sorts of people. I can hardly imagine how unnerving this incident has to have been for the committed guards and staff who work in the building; for the administrators who are charged with guaranteeing the safety of millions of dollars worth of art loaned by collectors around the world; who have to balance access and security and insure that Wexner retains its reputation as a trustworthy place to loan: the Center has no permanent collection of its own.  And then there are the collectors whose works have been damaged: It's difficult to imagine the return of horror for their generosity in lending for the public's enjoyment.

These individual griefs and challenges are still not what I think form the heart of this episode. I mean that attacks on artworks are thinly-veiled attacks on all of us. In defacing visual art; burning books; or censoring the airwaves, a perpetrator attempts to weaken us all, to dilute our central community of human values and conversation. 

Any artwork—even a rosy-cheeked Renoir dancer—is a challenge to a person wracked with anger, doubt, or dogma. Artworks don't lower their eyes or try to avoid issues. The consequence of observation and detail is commitment that doesn't do an about-face when confronted by hostility  The implicit courage and conviction of art has to frighten the dogmatic, weak, or hostile. Maybe you can terrify the spirit, poise, and straightforward gaze of the artist's eye if you shoot the art, but art is notably durable.

Khaled Hourani's photographs in "After Picasso," seem all the more powerful now that the show has had its untimely close. In the image, a lent Picasso is heavily guarded, the presence of the loaned painting a remarkable event in the unstable Territory. No harm would be allowed to come to the precious painting—precious not only for its insurance value, to be sure, but for the effects it would have on a people hungry for its powers—aesthetic, spiritual, intellectual, political.

We are used to lightly guarded shows; we assume  we can see the world's treasures without inconvenience beyond entry fees. Hourani's photo and the Wexner incident both make me think that maybe we who go to see art or who go to concerts are the ones who are guarded. We keep ourselves within limits no institution need bother to set, for we do it ourselves. We stroll by; we sit in the rows nodding off. Why guard us who come as tourists, taking snapshots and moving on, neither seeking, wondering, nor committed to engagement beyond the surface—thumbs up or thumbs down.

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