Welcome to the gallery of real life.
Direct your attention, please, to this horizontal canvas, about the size of a large Renoir but executed more in the style of Hopper- impassive, maybe a little bitter. At the center is the figure of a man. in profile. He is middle-aged, well-to-do, smartly suited, evidently in his prime, probably a pillar of the community, someone we’d recognize. We’ll call him Prominent Citizen. He stands in a shadowy, leafy glade. It’s an out-of-the-way spot in a public park. We know this because in the distance, where sunlight shines beyond the foreground’s green-black shadows, we can see other figures apparently at stereotypical play-a couple of joyous yellow-brown dogs, a red kite overhead with a gaily fluttering, whipping tail. Facing Prominent Citizen, under the coolling arch of the dim grove’s branches, is another man, a bit younger, attractive, dressed more casually than Prominent Citizen. We wouldn’t know him as we would Prominent Citizen. We’ll call him Unknown Companion.
Prominent Citizen appears to be gesturing to Unknown Companion. While looking back over his shoulder as if to be sure he’s not observed by other park-goers, his right hand seems frozen in the moment, in mid-reach toward Unknown Companion at about bell height, maybe below it. Unknown Companion does not appear dismayed by. or resistant to, Prominent Citizen’s gesture.
Now, refer if you will to our life gallery’s catalog write-up on this work, the police charges in the October 19 arrest of then Dallas Museum of Art director Richard Brettell. “Police said Tuesday.” went The Dallas Morning News report, “that Dr. Brettell followed the | undercover] officer into some bushes and stood face to face with him before rubbing the officer’s genitals through his pants.”
Obviously, this fateful painting’s major thematic conflict is pictured at imminent resolution, however unhappily. When Prominent Citizen transgresses the law, Unknown Companion turns out to be just the person to enforce that law.
But what more subtle societal conflicts still niggle away in this work?
Conflict is what makes art happen.
A good painting sets up multiple antagonisms, perhaps of line or color or subject matter. In the most provocative work, many conflicts are left for the observer to resolve. They needle our curiosity. They poke at our prejudices.
And what a richly disturbing piece director Brettell has hung here for our perusal. To be sure, when he was arrested on misdemeanor public lewdness chargea, one inherent conflict was initially resolved almost as soon as the episode was reported. After pleading no contest to the charges, agreeing to a year’s probation (after which the charges may be dismissed), and arranging a “temporary, indefinite leave,” Brettell attempted to continue his curatorial work while Clay Johnson served as acting director. But in pressing for Brettell’s December 10 resignation, the museum finally proved itself unable to sustain the compassion, patience and courage befitting the humane treasure of creativity it shelters.
As in the best work on its walls and pedestals, however, there is more residual tension here. It continues to jangle inside the superb frame of solidarity the trustees died to put around the incident. And we cheat ourselves if we duck the opportunity to confront these tensions.
For one, surely none of us would advocate the violence that can be perpetrated on gays who gather in public places where they’re vulnerable to physical or verbal attacks. In that regard, the city’s stepped-up police presence in certain parks seems warranted. as protection. And when great numbers of people, any people, cruise a given area it might, of course, become an annoyance for neighbors. An effort in crowd control seems, at least at first glance, appropriate and not oppressive.
But a charge of “lewdness?” Look again at our painting. What if Unknown Companion isn’t a man but a woman? And what if Prominent Citizen’s gesture is a cupped hand moving toward the female Unknown Companion’s upper body, not toward the male Unknown Companion’s lower body. Behold-a fellow and his girl. Lovers trysting. Something somehow connected to the sunlight, not hidden from it. Is it lewdness now?
There are those who would say that two men walking through that park holding hands constitutes lewdness, But a man and woman doing the same thing is just fine. Heterosexual couples, by romantic tradition, may engage in serious kissing and even substantial petting in park settings. But homosexual couples?-lewdness. What if, in fact, the entire crowd cruising the park in question was straight, not gay. Would the neighbors be so put out? Ah, sweet love. Ah. double standard.
Let’s move to a second residual conflict in our painting.
Consider the role of Unknown Companion, a male again as when we started. His police superiors say his work is not entrapment, not bailing. Unknown Companion is presumably trained to perform any number of dangerous, worthy tasks of law enforcement. That capacity is being deployed as a decoy to an incident of “lewdness,” an incident no more extensive than the petting some straight couple is no doubt doing in a park somewhere in the world right now. Ail happens between two adults, no minors involved. Unknown Companion, remember, does not discourage Prominent Citizen’s approach. Seemingly, there is mutual consent. There’s no victim here. Officer Unknown Companion’s life is not on the line in this action. The privacy of his person is. And he has put it on the line voluntarily. He is actually awaiting Prominent Citizen’s invasion of that privacy. The postures our artist has given the two men seem oddly to have adjusted slightly as we muse on these factors, don’t (hey? Unknown Companion now seems to be a lure, a magnet, not so disengaged as before.
Before we leave this unsettling gallery, note one more resonant aspect of the work.
Beyond the shady bower in which Unknown Companion and Prominent Citizen meet, beyond the sunlit grassy knoll on which others cavort, we can make out buildings, skyscrapers, towers of technology, corridors of commerce. If Unknown Companion and Prominent Citizen are discovered-or when Unknown Companion does his work and arrests Prominent Citizen-the museum in which we stand. nestled among those buildings, is shaken to its foundations. Even here, in a place where human experience is expressed and human frailty is an inspiration, a generous part of that expression, the discovery of Prominent Citizen in a moment of secluded but public sensuality is traumatic. Look once more at Prominent Citizen’s face as he glances over his shoulder. Maybe he fears he can be seen by people in the office windows that surround him. so far away and high above that they’re mere specks in the painting’s perspective. Forced perspective. Of course he fears.
The point here is not cavalierly to rehash the revelations that rocked the DMA but to use the picture as we use that organization’s acclaimed collection-to learn. From this work, I learn that I’m unsure our police department’s approach to the problem of cruising in city parks is right. It does seem entrapment, because it seeks to trigger a certain response in a place where people exhibit precisely that response. And it’s waiting to punish that response. It puts our faithful officers, who already are dealing with enough wrenching issues of interpersonal relations within their own department, into an almost absurd situation. Does management line them up to pick out the “cutest” for such duty? How much can the department’s honchos engage in selecting and dressing and preparing these officers for such action before they’re pretty deep into some “lewdness” themselves?
I’m not for lewdness. But J mistrust our legal definitions of what is lewd. I think we’re talking about an institutionalization of anti-homosexual bigotry, in this case. 1 don’t want men and women to stop revealing their affections in public. I do want men and men. and women and women, to be able to share their fondnesses the same way.
Lastly. I have to agree with many good thinkers in the city who are as devoted to Brettell’s excellence as 1 am but who feel that the guy made a mistake, probably a stupid one.
Yet, just sit there and feel the shiver hitting your psyche on that one. Have I never made a stupid mistake? Have you never? Who hasn’t, maybe, pushed a little too hard at an office party in one of those skyscrapers when someone made it clear he or she wasn’t interested, but we sure were? Who hasn’t, maybe, worried the next day that last night’s Unknown Companion looked awfully young to be “24”-were we supposed to card ’em?
Look around. You’re still in the gallery where we’ve shared this work of human art. The gallery has no walls. It’s your life. Check out those around you. Do you recognize them? Maybe a. Prominent Citizen or two among them. But aren’t most of them potential Unknown Companions? When might your offer of friendship, your smile of appreciation for a beautiful face and, yes. your outright come-on be suddenly painted as “lewd” and exhibited in page 1-A exposure?
How sorry I am that Brettell couldn’t stay permanently with the DMA. How sad I am to find so little resolution in such an artful complex of conflicts,
The best stuff is meaner than water lilies.
Welcome to the gallery of real life.