Sunday, September 14, 2008

Buffalo Bill Cody

Started the day out at the beach ... Ocean Beach. Actually started it by waking up bolt upright at 4 in the morning, thinking about work, but that is par for the course these days. And then I walked the dog down through Hayes Valley. But all this was in aid of getting my sorry rear end to Ocean Beach as early as possible while the sun was low in the east and before the masses arrived.

And why would that be ... well it would be a fabulous art event put on by San Francisco native artist Thom Ross Ross recreated the 1902 visit of Buffalo Bill Cody and his traveling show of Indians by creating and erecting over a hundred representations of the participants on plywood. The Chronicle had a truly underwhelming little piece on it ... why were they trying to hide it? I'll come back to that.

The images are quite unreal, and the collection of them on the beach is mind-blowing. It is gone now ... it was there for only two weeks. Not sure if this was underwritten by anyone, but it had the feel of a guerrilla art, albeit on a large scale. My friend June says that there was a demonstration against it at some point, again not reported if it in fact happened. Perhaps a bunch of the excessively racially aware came down to grouse, perhaps they had placards. I don't know.

I do know that recreating something that did in fact happen forces everyone to think about it. This should have been a huge event that sparked conversations about the relationship between representing and thinking, about the nexus of being and seeing, about the modern fallacy of identity and the premodern fascination with posited otherness. You see, we like otherness when it is domesticated, while the premodern enjoyed otherness when it was presented as untamed but not dangerous. Both revel in otherness, but the earlier one seems more genuine, less self-righteous.

I have argued both here in my little blog and in my dissertation (which I really do need to rescue from its dark repository on my own bookshelf) that there is a flip between authority and authenticity as we move from the premodern to the modern. The premodern look for authority and attribute authenticity to it. The modern do not trust authority, so they look for authenticity and posit authority in it. In the case Buffalo Bill and Thom Ross ... Buffalo Bill presented himself as an authority on the real Indian, and his show was authentic by relation to his authoritative stance. In the case of Thom Ross, we peer at his creations and wonder is they are authentic ... did Indians really have stars on their saddles. If they did, then he is authoritative; if not, he is a charlatan, a usurper. This is the nervousness that leads the Chronicle to a mere paragraph about an event that should shake this city that is too broad to be shaken any more at this point.

We have to blow this contradiction to shreds. The modern aficionado is so terrified of being snowed that he cannot look at anything unjaundiced. This is the slender advantage of the brainless conservatives who again are threatening the Republic with their madness. Apparently precious few of them have considered the obvious disadvantage of having a cheerleader-sportscaster in charge of their drive for war with Russia ... has that imbecile truly not understood what a war with Russia would actually mean? The conservatives do not worry about the contradiction between authority and authenticity since they are one and the same, and only a pointy-headed liberal equivocator would think otherwise. Read Frank Rich today, and be very afraid ... I am sure you are already very afraid.

But back to art.

I think this display precisely challenges the thoughtful to articulate where and how they stand in relationship to the contradiction between what is real and who says that is it real.

I tired to approach the artist who, much to my admiration, was all dooded up as Buffalo Bill. I just wanted to say thank you. But he was surrounded by the slightly more than middle-aged art ladies who love these things much as I do. So I never said it to him ... but now I say it ... Thank You, Thom. Mind-blowing.

Photos by Arod today, except the historic one from 1902. My collection of photos on Flickr is here.

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