There a widespread, often repeated observation among grandparents that personalities and talents seem to skip generations. Perhaps this is just the wishful thinking of elderly people disappointed in how their children turned out, but in the case of my brother-in-law, Hank Palikowski and his son, Hank Jr., it definitely seems to possess some credence. Having had an opportunity to meet Hank’s father on several occasions, I’d say his grandson is much more like him than Hank is. Both grandfather Palikowski and Hank Jr. are pragmatic, successful and highly intelligent individuals, while frankly, my brother-in-law has proven to be a damned fool and a pretty gullible one at that. As regular readers of this Web log will readily recall, Hank Jr. proved to be an artistic prodigy and was selling works for prices in the five-figure range before even graduating from high school. He was eagerly accepted on full scholarship at Brown, where he went on to pursue a doctorate in fine arts. Hank Senior, on the other hand, is currently holed up in the wilds of West Virginia with his brother Arthur’s wife, storing up freeze-dried food and AR-15 ammunition in anticipation of the coming Apocalypse. So maybe there is something to that old wives’ (and husbands’) tale after all.
Hank Jr. occasionally makes the trip down from Rhode Island to the DC area either to visit my sister Rose and his siblings and cousins; and, sometimes, perform curation of various exhibits at one of the many prestigious art museums located here. As a matter of fact, he was in town this weekend and dropped by to visit me at my home in Great Falls, Virginia. Both Cerise and Veronica were out of town, so it was just me and my cat Twinkle there to greet him on Saturday afternoon.
I offered him a drink and typical of Hank Jr., got a request for a green tea chai latte. “If you have any goat milk,” he told me, “that would be really good.”
It happens that I did – organic, mesquite-fed Fainting Goat milk from New Mexico. So I made two, using Hakoshima spring water, my best Kotobuki matcha tea and Bhutanese chai spice, sweetened with just a touch of itadori honey from the Ryōhaku mountains of the Ishikawa Prefecture. As I handed him his, Twinkle jumped up on his lap and began purring. “Nice,” she proclaimed in her most authoritative tone, demonstrating, I guess, that Hank Jr. is either highly charismatic or smells like catnip.
“How’s your doctorate going?” I opened, being, I must admit, a bit concerned at this point that Hank Jr. might prove to be a perpetual student.
“Finished all the course work,” he stated with a confident shrug and a slight smile, “still have to finish my thesis, though. Great chai, by the way.”
“What’s the subject of your thesis?” I pressed, being concerned about it in an avuncular manner, naturally.
“Minimalism,” he replied, clearing his throat in preparation for the subtitle, “a retrospective of its roots in the Incoherent, Dada, De Stijl and Constructivist schools; an analysis of its cross-pollinating influences with Bauhaus, the Fluxus movement, and musique concrète; and, a projection of its implications for the denouement of postmodernism, the future of succès de scandale and the continued relevance and viability of performance art.”
“And what,” I inquired, “is your thesis advisor’s assessment of that?”
“As she put it,” he sighed, “’A thesis of such scope will require a substantial time to complete, but if successful, could achieve monumental stature.’”
“Well,” I opined, “if anybody can address those subject areas with respect to the Minimalist oeuvre, I’m sure you can.”
“Thanks,” Hank Jr. responded, taking another sip of chai, “it’s nice to know somebody in the family has confidence in me. When I told Mom about it, all I got was a blank stare.”
“I wouldn’t hold it against her,” I advised. “My estimate is, after telling them about your doctoral thesis, you’d get a blank stare from ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of the English-speaking people on this planet. But as long as it gets you the damn sheepskin, who cares if anyone besides you and the professors who read it knows what the hell it means? If scholars let that bother them, nobody would write a doctoral thesis about anything.”
“I guess not,” Hank agreed, this time adroitly combining a shrug and a sigh into an eloquent semiotic of twenty-first century intellectual futility. “Outstanding chai, though.”
“I do my best,” I assured him.
A pregnant pause ensued as Hank Jr. absently stroked Twinkle with an attitude of intense concentration, his eyes cast toward the ceiling. After about two minutes, he spoke. “There was something I wanted to ask you about. I have a problem with one of my works.”
“Please,” I earnestly inquired, my curiosity suddenly piqued, “tell me about it.”
“It’s… an installation,” he began, “at a pretty important public gallery in Boston, but there’s this… requirement, I guess you’d say, for a National Endowment for the Humanities review… and that means filling out an application, of course, and part of that is describing the work, which I did.”
“And what was your description?” I prodded.
“The Viewer / Participant…” he continued, “… um, that is, you see, I want the work to involve the person quite deeply, not just have them stand there looking at something as they usually do in a gallery. So, first of all, the Viewer / Participant steps into this gateway, like the ones they have in secured buildings, one that closes all around you like cylindrical phone booth – it’s that type of security gate where it examines you with X-rays and sniffs you for chemicals like the ones in plastic explosive and so forth – but instead, what happens in the booth I designed is that it scans you with low-energy ultraviolet lasers and gets a 3-D image of you like it’s going to print you with a 3-D printer. Then they step out of the booth on the other side from where they entered it, and there’s a stand with a virtual reality head set on it, with plaque that has directions for them to put it on and tells them how to activate it. And when they do, they walk around this space with surfaces that correspond to the ones projected by the VR program and is populated with images of themselves. And what the VR program does is give each image of them different skin colors.”
“So they can see themselves as they might appear if they were another race?” I asked.
“Race is an artificial construct, but yes, that is one interpretation,” Hank Jr. confirmed. “It could also be, for example, how they might appear if they were from the distant future or the remote past.”
“Sounds – clever, insightful, and… provocative,” I mused.
“Too provocative, apparently,” Hank Jr. complained. “My application was rejected.”
“For what reason?” I wondered.
“Because it might result in images that emulate blackface,” he explained. “That was the rationale for rejecting the proposal, anyway.”
“Okay, well, blackface is a mighty sensitive subject these days,” I reminded him. “You heard about the incident last week, for example, right?”
“I guess not. Why don’t you tell me about it?” Hank Jr. implored, betraying the signal frustration of every misinterpreted artist.
“Oh, so you didn’t know, then?” I sought to confirm.
“Know what?” he huffed, somewhat miffed, “I haven’t had much time to pay attention to the news lately.”
“For starters,” I explained, “Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, was called out for having a certain photograph on his personal page in his medical school yearbook.”
“Medical schools have yearbooks?” Hank Jr. interrupted, clearly astounded.
“Apparently so,” I affirmed, “and the photograph in question contained two figures – on was a person dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and a hood, while the other was a person in blackface.”
“Oh, [expletive]!” he exclaimed. “Blackface?”
“Well, the Jim Crow minstrel outfit probably didn’t help any either,” I surmised.
“Which one was him?” Hank Jr. demanded.
“Does it matter?” I retorted.
“Seems to me it would!” Hank declared. “If it wasn’t the governor in blackface, if it was the governor wearing a Klan outfit, and some other guy who’s what – some doctor looking at diseased feet in Richmond or something like that now, and he was the guy in blackface – why would it be such a national scandal that directors of an art gallery in Boston would get their knickers in a [expletive] twist about it? I mean, it’s not like my VR program dressed people up like Grand Wizards or put them in Nazi SS uniforms or made them into Aryan Brotherhood morons with swastika tattoos parading around with tiki torches or stuff like that!”
“Good point,” I allowed. “The problem is, Governor Northam claims he can’t remember which one was him – or even if he’s actually one of the people in the picture. What’s more, he says he didn’t edit the yearbook and doesn’t know how that picture got onto the page with his name and academic information on it. And now, it’s gone even further than that – after the Northam brouhaha, Mark Herring, the Attorney General of Virginia, tried to get out ahead of the media maelstrom by holding a press conference where he admitted to wearing blackface in college.”
“And what was his excuse?” Hank Jr. angrily muttered.
“He said he did it so he could go to a costume party as a gansta rapper,” I related. “After which, Governor Northam chimed in to say that while he didn’t know about that yearbook picture he, too, had put shoe polish on his face once so he could imitate his entertainment hero, Michael Jackson. Then he offered to do a moon walk for the network news cameras to prove it, but his wife stopped him.”
“Holy [expletive]!” Hank shouted as Twinkle jumped off his lap and strutted indignantly out of the room in reaction to the noise, “what the [expletive] is wrong with these people?”
“Hard to tell, exactly,” I ruminated, “although I think the fact that the folks in Dixie never got over the Civil War might have something to do with it. You know how to tell if a southern redneck has terminal Alzheimers?”
“No,” Hank Jr. spat as he downed a overly large slug of his chai latte, “how the [expletive] do you know if a [expletive] southern redneck has [expletive] Alzheimers?”
I waited a moment while the question hung in the air. “They’ve forgotten everything but Pickett’s Charge. The fact is, my boy, what they say below the Mason-Dixon Line is true – y’all just cain’t git no further South than Virginia.”
“Well,” Hank Jr. fumed, “it’s not like my VR program dresses people up like Jim Crow and has them tap dancing around with [expletive] banjos singing Way Down Upon the Suwannee River! Can’t those idiots in charge of that gallery in Boston understand the difference between bigoted mockery and a work of art?”
“Put yourself in their place,” I recommended. “All it would take would be one self-righteous, politically-correct bozo to see themselves in virtual reality with a Negro complexion and jump to an ignorant conclusion about it. The next thing you know, there’s a couple of hundred protesters picketing the art gallery, chanting irate slogans and demanding Henry Palikowski Junior’s head on a platter – or a sincere, groveling apology and the end of his career as an artist at the very least. Come to think of it, those gallery directors you’re complaining about probably did you a favor.”
“Maybe,” he grumbled. “But having your work characterized as racist is no [expletive] picnic, that’s for sure.”
“Nevertheless preferable, however,” I offered, “to having it publicly condemned amid calls for your crucifixion in front of Faneuil Hall. Beats me about the Blue Man group, though, I must confess.”
“What about the Blue Man Group?” Hank Jr. groused, still quite clearly angry about his predicament.
“Well,” I observed, “back in 1987, here you had three white guys who danced around doing ridiculous, outrageous, comical stuff, playing weird musical instruments, and before every performance, they painted themselves blue. And these days, it’s a franchise – there are ongoing theatrical shows in Berlin, Chicago, New York City, Orlando, Las Vegas and Boston, for that matter, with between seven and nine guys up there on stage, faces painted dark blue, dancing around playing weird musical instruments behaving like clowns, rolling their eyes, mugging for the audience like fools during Carnival, and everybody thinks it’s all in good fun and just fine. Where are the protesters picketing those venues? Nowhere to be seen. An yet – think about it – if they had painted themselves black instead of blue what would have happened then? ‘The Black Man Group?’ How would that have gone over on the marquee of the Boston Garden, I wonder? What if they had painted themselves yellow? Can you imagine the furor in the Asian community? How about if they had painted themselves red? Native Americans are already deeply insulted by sports teams with names that refer to them, how do you think ‘The Red Man Group’ would play with them? And ‘The Brown Man Group?’ My God, I’ve lost count of how many ethnic groups that would offend. And what if Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton hadn’t put on any paint at all, and gone on stage as ‘The White Man Group?’ Even back in 1987, even in New York, they would have been run out of town as racist bastards. But blue? For some reason, they could paint themselves blue and get away with what amounted to nothing more than an updated burlesque of an old-fashioned riverboat minstrel show. It’s amazing, really. I mean, how come the Celts weren’t offended? Doesn’t their ethnic heritage include painting yourself blue with woad? Why didn’t the Irish and the Scots and the Bretons and the Welsh realize that the Blue Man Group was profiting from a blatant expropriation of their sacred culture?”
“Given the Celts I know,” Hank Jr. ironically snarked, “they were probably all too drunk to notice. Hell and damnation, tell me what I should do, uncle…”
“Don’t say it!” I cautioned.
“All right,” he relented, “Tom, please, help me out here – I need some suggestions on how to get my VR performance art installation approved.”
“Now we’re talking,” I began. “Look – it’s simple – the answer’s right there in front of you. Matter of fact, it’s so close, as Br’er Rabbit would put it, ‘Been a snake, it woulda bit ya.’”
“Okay,” Hank Jr. softly barked as he killed his chai latte, “Amaze me.”
“All you have to do,” I revealed, “is tweek the software in your VR program. Instead of giving people different color skins, give them VR software ‘skins’ – recognizable versions of themselves styled as birds, dogs, cats, kangaroos, elephants, lizards…”
“So they look like the [expletive] GEICO gecko?” he shrieked. “Turn it into something out of [expletive] a Universal Studios theme park? Damn it all, this is serious art, not an option on a ticket to [expletive] Disneyland for Christ’s sake!”
With that, he slammed his latte mug down, stared at the floor and sulked for a full five minutes.
I know the kid – what the hell, I waited. Then I asked the central determinant question.
“How much is the grant money?”
“Oh [expletive],” he groaned, “it’s [expletive] huge – the VR angle – the patron is a Silicon Valley billionaire.”
“Well then,” I concluded, “there we have it.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, raising his head to look me in the eye. “I guess we do.”