"One man's death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic."
Though this quote has been consistently attributed to Stalin, that is not the case. But let me get more to the point: I want to talk about a videotaped interview where my favorite visual artist used this quote. To be fair, she used enough of these quotes that I wasn't sure if she was trying to be ironic for the entire interview or if she had reached such levels of success that her reality was morphed and she had simply gone mad.
In this interview, she launched into a diatribe about how big data and the NSA were in bed, trying their hardest to judge the zeitgeist, history, but they were fools just the same. When asked how so, she lit a cigarette, eviscerating the interviewer with a sideways look.
The interviewer then asked her about her current work, some of it mimicking African mnemonics. Of course, she said. The conversation lurched back to Art history, portraits. You see—she was speaking in the third person here—as a child she used to have a Eurocentric view. One that used to love portraits things like that.
That's where she dropped the quote about one man's murder vs a million. She too mentioned that Stalin, though not the originator, had indeed used it to mark bourgeoisie sensibilities.
The interviewer, working for a bourgeoisie magazine, shifted, uncomfortable, then launched into a diatribe against Stalin's camps. The artist, in her usual nonchalant way, castrated him with a mocking laugh. She said the point wasn't about who said what and what dirt one could launch at the speaker—this too was a sensibility she wished to see less of, an unthinking reaction only fit for cowards in Pravda—but rather the quote. What matters is she as an artist is moving away from the tragedy and towards the statistical.
The interviewer scoffed, found his footing and launched a counter attack. Things like portraits, religious or secular, were odes to power. The idea of a painting was an ode to power. What was she thinking, then, painting? Who did she think bought her paintings for thousands of dollars? Rebels or those with a strong sense of bourgeoisie sensibilities?
I wanted her to launch into a withering diatribe that would castrate the interviewer again, but instead she stared while he squirmed.
She brought the interview back to her work and how she was still trying to make people care about the statistics—that which mattered the most.
The interviewer, sensing a victory or at least revenge (though the two should never be confused), mocked this too, saying that she was essentially poo-pooing human nature. Not to mention classics like Guernica—what was she, a heretic?
Heretics aren't rich, she said and released a sigh.
The interviewer softened his stance. He must have sensed the cross she carried. Woe the rich artist, as a youtuber commented.
She went on to say that she was not against the time honored tradition of activists using such emotional pressure points to make a bigger change. No, but her art would try to speak to something better—
To an audience that doesn't exist? laughed her interviewer.
A portrait is not Guernica, she said. Or perhaps she said a portrait Guernica is not.
The interviewer, now seeming more like a clickbait interviewer, asked about the Mona Lisa.
What of history?
Why do an interview?
A necessity, she said.
For marketing? asked the interviewer, smiling now, happy as hell now. Marketing is the ultimate hypocrisy. It calls to the emotional aspect of humans, a complete opposite from your supposed art.
I'll take the money, so long as I can buy enough rope to hang them with. The interviewer scoffed. I admit that I too flinched at this statement.
The interview was over, however, and the youtube comments exploded. No one likes an artist who speaks too much. And me? Well, I'm withholding my judgement.
What is an interview, after all? How much about what an artist presents on an interview is representative of what they place on canvas, to say nothing of what I see and feel and think when I see that canvas (or the side of a building)?
Not much, I say. I rest easy knowing that. And I enjoy her art even more.
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