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Why we need to admit Hometown Hero is sentimental pandering, not art

We are talking about art, not the validity of the sacrificed lives of our servicemen and women, or the heartache of their family members. And as intelligent, thoughtful people, we should be capable of separating the two.
Viewers are invited to write their own heroes on the painting, with a pen attached to an American flag

Viewers are invited to write their own heroes on the painting, with a pen attached to an American flag /Eric Bouwens

Underwriting support from:
The artist in front of her work

The artist in front of her work /Eric Bouwens

/Eric Bouwens

ArtPrize goers, creators and critics: we need to talk about the elephant in the room.

Earlier this week, I watched three well established, well respected art curators trip over themselves to avoid saying what they really thought about one public voted ArtPrize finalist. They sailed past the entry evoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” quote with quips like, “WTF, WTF!?” and “it looks like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie prop,” and they critiqued the juried finalist “Native Kids Ride Bikes” for its lack of kinesthetic movement and evidence of collaboration with urban Native youth.

Critiquing art about diversity- and Martin Luther King Jr.- and Native Americans losing their culture is okay, evidently.

But when it came to Hometown Hero by Pamela Alderman, the giant painting of an American flag and a fallen American soldier covered in audiences’ scrawlings of their own personal heroes, they fumbled to cage their critiques.

“We all really liked how participatory this work is,” said Edward Winkleman, respected curator and owner of Winkleman Gallery in NYC.

That was where the positive observations of the panelists to “Critical Discouse: Why These Finalists Part 2” stopped, but when it came to what didn’t work about the piece, even the co-founder of Burning Man, Crimson Rose, squirmed in her seat.

Meanwhile, unofficial grumblings about the piece have rolled across the internet, but none in any official capacity. Media publishers have posted personal Facebook status updates stating how disappointed they were in the work’s popularity, and that they couldn’t state more on the subject for fear of public backlash. 

Even Mlive’s “Art Curmudgeon,” who irreverently blunders through the majority of ArtPrize’s 20 finalists with comments like “Are those shrimp? Is that a caboose?” could only respond to the question of whether or not “Hometown Hero” is art with “Please don’t ask me that. Please. No no no no no. Please. No. Please. Please.”

Why? Why is the art community so terrified to say anything negative about this piece which is clearly a blatant appeal to public sentimentality?

Because it features a fallen American soldier. And God forbid we say anything that might be construed as a lack of appreciation for that sacrifice - even if it’s directed at the art itself. When it comes to the matter of patriotism, we can’t seem to separate the subject from the execution.

As ArtPrize Exhibitions Director Kevin Buist qualified the “WTF Part 2” discussion, “We’re not critiquing the story, or the sacrifices made.”

Even here, I can’t not echo that qualifier, lest I be misunderstood as a soldier-hater, someone who cares nothing for the sacrifices of our military men and women.

There are three folded flags in the entryway of my mother’s house.

My father was a veteran, and a personal hero of mine. Patriotic to the core, he enrolled in the army before he had a chance to be drafted into the Vietnam War - while he could still choose his place of deployment. As a result, he spent the Vietnam War as an MP in Alaska, his honorable way of dodging the draft. Because, in his words, “I wasn’t about to be flown halfway across the world to get my ass shot at and killed in some nasty swamp. And I sure as hell wasn’t moving to Canada.”

We’re pragmatic idealists, we Steeles.

My father’s father served in the army, in World War II. My father’s maternal grandfather also served; he enlisted himself in the Navy at the age of 15 and served on the USS Oklahoma throughout World War I and the three years following. My dad cried for hours when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC.

Point: I appreciate our veterans. I appreciate their service, and I understand very well the utility of that service to our country.

But that’s not where the conversation about “Hometown Hero” should stop. We are talking about art, not the validity of the sacrificed lives of our servicemen and women, or the heartache of their family members. As intelligent, thoughtful people, we should be capable of separating the two.

“Hometown Hero” is categorized as a time-based entry, which means that the work evolves and works in real time as the audience views it. Time-based entries often require the participation of audiences, which this work does. But the execution is woefully flawed.

First, let’s look at the backdrop of the work: the painting itself.

In ArtPrize, one always encounters works that are a blatant appeal to the masses, and there’s no better example of blatant crowd-pleasing than a literal giant American flag, superimposed by a fallen soldier. Off the bat, the work is two dimensional, and not just in a literal sense. It relies explicitly on a trope which is common to virtually all American psyches: a gut-driven sense of patriotism. The purpose of art is to help us dig below our commonly held perceptions and beliefs, to create layers which help us find deeper meaning in something that was common, or something we had never considered. There’s nothing about a giant American flag and image of a fallen soldier that causes us to question anything, or find deeper meaning. Quite the opposite: it taps into our preconceived ideas of patriotism, and reinforces them with a heavy hammer of sentimentality.

The work reinforces these common sentiments:

America = good. Military service = sacrifice. Servicemen and women = heroes. Period.

Even if you dearly hold these to be true - and most people do - the work’s execution fails, because it does nothing but reinforce these entirely common beliefs. That’s not what art is supposed to do.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: the painting itself is amateur. It’s really not good. I feel like I should apologize for that, at some level, but I'm not going to.

Which honestly wouldn’t be a big deal if the execution of the time-based element and the presentation of the story weren’t so trite.

So let’s talk about the biggest problem with “Hometown Hero:” the failure of its participatory element.

Audiences are supposed to engage with the work by doodling the name of their personal hero on the work. That could be anyone. A fallen soldier in your family, your grandmother, your boss. Many people wrote "GOD" in big bold letters as their hero.

“It's about ordinary people who have gone above and beyond and really touched the hearts of others,” says John Burri, the father of Army Specialist Eric Burri, the soldier who is depicted in the painting. Eric Burri was killed in Iraq by an IED in June 2005.

After his death, Eric Burri’s parents recalled the concern their son expressed for how so many of the Iraqi children he encountered had no shoes. So they organized a shoe drive to send shoes to those children.

Now that is a beautiful story. But where is it in the work itself? Where is the connection between Eric Burri’s status as a fallen soldier and his concern for the poverty of Iraqi children? And the beauty of his parents extending that legacy behind their son’s grave?

It’s nowhere except in the written and video explanations of the work. It’s not a story that is contained within the work itself, which means that this work has failed to successfully communicate the most core element of its story.

Audiences writing the names of their own personal heroes continues on the thread of heroism, but that’s where the relevancy to the work’s subject ends. According to his parents, Eric Burri joined the military because he wanted to help people. That’s why he sacrificed his life.

So where in the audience’s participation is the importance of helping others around the world reflected?

It’s not. Instead, the work’s participatory call to action does the opposite: it turns the lens directly back on the individual, and their own small local sphere. It causes us to focus on ourselves, rather than turning it in the direction Eric Burri was focused: helping others. Rather than honoring his sacrifice by continuing his legacy of turning outwards to help others - as his parents did - it steeps the audience in their own self-indulgent, locally-focused interpretations of heroism. 

Yes, not all heroes wear capes. But exactly what is the nature of true heroism? And how can we as individuals become a part of that?

These are not questions “Hometown Hero” explores.

Is exploring the nature of heroism and sacrifice a valid subject for a work of art? Absolutely! Is that what this work accomplishes? No, it’s not. 

What it does instead is hook audiences in with obtuse sentimentality, then sinks the hook in by prompting the audiences to make the story about themselves. The message of Eric Burri’s heart for helping others around the world is lost in the noise of our own self-centered interpretations of small scale heroism.

So let’s get real, West Michigan. I’m tired of seeing art critics and media be terrified to criticize entries with patriotic subject matter, for fear of upsetting the masses.

I solicited feedback on my personal Facebook page before writing this, and got a number of interesting responses. But the most apt response sums up my argument quite tidily, so I’ll just leave this here, anonymously, for obvious reasons:

“Real talk: when you make self-expression a democratic process, you're going to find the lowest common denominator. A lot of people feel gratitude toward veterans and don't know how to express it. Even veterans themselves often don't want to talk about their experiences, especially to people who have never served in the military. Nonetheless it's important for society to express to them that they are accepted unconditionally into unstructured civilian life even though we're not willing to die for them like they were for each other. It's hard to fit all of that in a painting. So you get a Hallmark card that people are happy to pull off the shelf. I think that if some intrepid artist helped people express those complexities, they'd choose that art over hollow sentimentality.”

So come on, intrepid artists. Give us a patriotic work that genuinely explores the complexity of military sacrifice. Let’s take this conversation beyond hollow sentimentality. I think our service men and women deserve more.

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Thank you for being brave enough to say it.