Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The glamorous art of life and death

At his studio in Gettysburg, the commercial artist Mort Künstler produces Civil War art in the mode of nineteenth-century French history paintings: minutely detailed, with the detail lovingly authenticated in pages of notes, and composed and lighted like tableaux vivants. One reason the South lost the war, we learn from Künstler's oeuvre, is that every time General Lee rode past a church with windows aglow, he stopped to strike a pose. http://americanspiritpublishing.org/gallery/merchant.ihtml

And the ratio of heroic Confederate poses to heroic Union poses seems to be about 5 to 1, probably for the same reason that Loyalist rioters against Romanian immigrants in Belfast model their rhetoric on Hitler rather than Churchill. Glamor loves losers.

The emotion that suddenly filled the radio announcer Herb Morrison's voice on May 6, 1937, as the zeppelin Hindenburg entered history in a hydrogen pyre, wasn't glamor. Glamor lives to surprise, but part of its fun is our reassuring knowledge that the surprise was prepared in advance and is fully under artistic control. Glamor would have edited Morrison's sobbing cry, "Oh, the humanity and all the passengers." It would have sneered, "Anticlimax" or "Bathos," and then it would have paced off the smoking ground where people had died and rearranged the corpses for better effect.

"Herb Morrison is a kind of artist," glamor would explain, "but my boy is Mort Künstler. Look how Elke Sommer comes blossoming out of her top like a motherly flower."

So how are we managing to see the cellphone videos from Iran's women's revolution today, and how will we remember them a year from now? I have no idea how to answer those questions, of course. But if today's moments ever are converted into Künstler images, that may be a sign that freedom will have to be deferred a while longer, because art will still be occupying the playground.