Here, more than anywhere else that I know or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of . . . miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school Superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.
Mencken was right, of course. I encountered those words last night while reading a chapter called “Ragging and Slanging” in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s wherein author Ann Douglas describes the context of the first blackface shows as a culture that was obsessed with parody: Blacks were parodying high white culture; whites were parodying low black culture, or, in some cases, parodying blacks parodying whites. Pretty soon, everybody got confused. When Paul Whiteman’s popular white orchestra burlesqued the early jazz tune “Livery Stable Blues”—packing it “full of comic instrumental effects in order to illustrate the superiority of Whiteman’s usual smoother sound”—the audience loved it. Sincerely. A serious popular culture is born.
Anyway, I was interested in blackface because this week I came upon this:
Yep. An all-girl Korean pop group that performs in blackface. Wow. Koreans are sometimes a little tone deaf about the meaning & effect of certain appropriations. In Daejeon, where Kate & I lived, there was a Hitler Bar. (Here’s a similar version in Seoul.) When the Sisters (who are not actually sisters let alone sisters) debuted in 2003, they were greeted with comments on their website of which this one is typical: “The Bubble Sisters are ignorant, racist bitches, hands down.” Nanda, Bluesy, Spicy, and Sleepy, meanwhile, apparently didn’t mean to stir anything up. According to the Korea Herald, “Lead singer Nanda says all the extra attention was an unintentional by-product of the ‘blackface’ gimmick.” Like I said, tone deaf. Still . . . “‘We really love black music,’ she explained, drawing a distinction between who the band is parodying and who it respects. ‘We want to undermine the typical Korean band, who are pretty but don’t have any talent, and open the doors to musically talented people who, if they don’t fit into this compartment, are usually forced underground.’”
For what it’s worth, an admirable goal.
That was then, though. The Bubble Sisters disappeared for a while, but now they seem to be back. Sans makeup. Who will they parody now? Or have they become what they once made fun of? How confusing.
In the meantime, via About Last Night, I came across this Warner Brothers cartoon, one of the “Censored 11,” that is another confusing mixture of brilliant art, wicked parody, and racist stereotypes. It’s called “Coal Black” and parodies “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (by the way, don’t Nanda, Bluesy, Spicy, and Sleepy sound like they could be the Four Dwarfs?). Writes the proprietor of Something Old, Something New:
The important thing about “Coal Black” is that it’s one of the best and most imaginative cartoons ever made, with a crazy gimmick or wild experiment in almost every shot, and all kinds of visual ideas that no one had ever tried before (though Clampett’s trick of changing the colour of the background to signal a change in mood was probably inspired by Chuck Jones’s “The Case of the Missing Hare” from the previous year). Ideas like the words “Blackout So White!” appearing in print above the Queen as she speaks those words (and then bites off the phone she’s speaking into); keeping the dwarfs offscreen in one shot and animating their shadows instead; starting a dance sequence with Disney-style rotoscoping and suddenly shifting to a cartoonily-animated jazz dance; having the dwarfs pop up one by one to the rhythm of “Blues in the Night”: there’s something spectacular or hilarious every second. And Rod Scribner’s animation of Prince Chawmin’ unsuccessfully trying to revive So White may be the best piece of animation Scribner—or maybe anyone—ever did.
Although Walker may want us to believe that she’s telling it like it is, the exhibition is easy on the eyes and easy on the mind. Is there anybody visiting the Metropolitan who doesn’t regard the government’s response to Katrina as a catastrophic failure? And aren’t most people who visit the show going to agree with Kara Walker that poor, African American residents of New Orleans bore an inordinately large share of the tragedy? The images that Walker has selected do form a kind of backdrop for these perfectly sensible thoughts. Homer’s Gulf Stream, with a black man alone on a tiny boat, has always been a powerful painting and is no less so in this context. The show has its interesting moments, no question about it. But this isn’t the same thing as advancing an argument, which is what Walker claims to be doing in a statement that she’s prepared. “In this show’s analogy,” she explains, “murky, toxic waters become the amniotic fluid of a potentially new and difficult birth, flushing out of a coherent and stubborn body long-held fears and suspicions.” In a weird way, this is a feel-good show. Walker is offering museumgoers an opportunity to massage their emotions—and give some relatively simple emotions a highfalutin package. Kara Walker may believe that a stroll through “After the Deluge” will make the world a better place, but what she’s probably really feeling is that she’s become a better known artist. That makes the world a better place for her, which is another thing entirely.
IMAGE: Untitled, 1994/1995 by Kara Walker (Collection Deutsche Bank)