PRINT September 1992


John Ahearn

ON APRIL 23, 1992, the New York Post, that crusading tabloid founded by Alexander Hamilton, ran a half-page article under the headline “City Pays 100G for Art Blasted as Anti-Black.” The art in question was a group of three sculptures by “internationally renowned Bronx artist John Ahearn,” which were to stand next to a new police station in the South Bronx.

“‘We were stunned,’ said a top Bronx cop. ‘We spend so much time trying to work with the community, and that artwork is so clearly racial stereotyping. The message the art would have sent was, at the very least, insensitive. At most, it could have caused a riot. The pieces were unbelievable.’”

“Unbelievable”? You’d think Ahearn had stuck a nightstick up his ass or floated Kojak in piss.“Unbelievable”? The sculptures are life casts Ahearn made of real people and a real dog from the community he lives in. “Unbelievable” is an odd choice of words for this P.C. P.D. spokescop, since Ahearn’s work is realist to the max.

Perhaps what makes these works politically incorrect is not that they are unbelievable but that they are, in fact, very believable. To some, apparently including some residents of the area and certainly including local cops, the young man in the hooded sweatshirt with his pit bull is a scary-looking dude. The shirtless basketball player with a large boombox is not dissimilar from Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but the fact is that these are literal impressions of real people. There is no Stepin Fetchit here.

Is Spike Lee accused of stereotyping? Not in his black characterizations—only when he caricatures Jewish concert promoters or makes Bensonhurst Italians into guidos. In the cases of Lee and Ahearn, stereotypes seem to be a function not of the work itself but of its maker. Ahearn is considered unqualified to depict blacks because he is white. Lee is considered unqualified to depict Jews and Italians because he is black. And Lee himself considers whites unqualified to make films about Malcolm X.

Ahearn’s sculptures are not a dis to their subjects. They are a loving tribute. Ahearn, a white man—a mick to some, a Celtic-American to others—has lived in the South Bronx for ten years, in a neighborhood where politically correct white cops would never tread without packing a piece. He’s a part of the community and his work is about the community. He has depicted many of its members. His grouping for the South Bronx station house included a young girl on roller skates. Unfortunately the Post did not see fit to photograph that sculpture, only the two young black males who could be seen as threatening.

My dictionary defines a stereotype as “a conventional, formulaic, and usually oversimplified conception, opinion, or belief. A person, group, event, or issue considered to typify or conform to an unvarying pattern or manner, lacking any individuality.” That’s not what we have here. What we have here are actual individuals. They may be types, but no more than you or I. To call them stereotypes is to dis the people, to impugn the salt of the earth.

A stereotype is a cliché, not a type. People do present types. There are physical types, there are cultural types, and there are fashion types. Some are typed by others but many type themselves. There are good types and bad types. And there are people who approach the notion of stereotype. What makes Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth so very excellent is the realism of their typing. They are so stereotyped they are virtually quadraphonically typed. And that’s in the nature of art, and especially, but not exclusively, of satire.

Many people approach the nature of stereotype in their own lives. When these people come from certain segments of the population, depicting them has become a taboo. We must not transform our stereotypes into sacred cows, or we endanger the extremely critical process of analysis and mockery that is our last peaceful chance to restore sanity to a schizoid society.

Perhaps there is a kinder word than “stereotype.”

My dictionary defines “archetype” as an original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype. Is there anything wrong with archetypes in art? Don’t rush to answer.

The word “stereotype” derives from the Greek stereos, solid, and tupos, impression. In its original usage it referred to the precomputer printing process in which a metal printing plate was cast from a raised mold of type. If the Post still uses hot type anywhere that means the paper is stereotyped in several senses. It’s odd that this tabloid is now working the stereotype patrol. It’s almost scary. Get ready for the image police, ready and willing to bust any artist for work that is racist, sexist, classist, ageist, or in any way stereotypical. Here come the metaphor muldoons, the characterization bulls, the usage smokies, and the iconography heat. It’s a bust. We better get back to action painting quick.

Today any artist making work with meaningful content (as opposed to, say, drive-in-movie-screen-sized abstractions inspired by bad weather) runs a gauntlet between the smut patrol on the right and the stereotype squad on the left. And it’s getting worse. Forget just say no. Just say nothing.

Charges of stereotyping, like charges of obscenity, depend on the assumption that the public must be protected from its own stupidity and crassness. I may be naïve but I believe that sticks, stones, bullets, bricks in the head, Molotov cocktails, nightsticks, and nuclear weapons may break my bones, but sculpture will never hurt me unless it falls over.

What is the correct form of public sculpture? A sword-brandishing general on a rampant horse? An Aryan goddess with a fig leaf and no arms? Perhaps what is offensive about Ahearn’s statues is their depiction of real people. These are boys in the hood.

They are not the leadership in cultural assimilation. They are not larger-than-life. Would a heroic bronze Robocop have been more acceptable? Superman? Batman? Wesley Snipes posing as the crack lord in New Jack City?

Maybe sometimes it is heroic just to survive. Maybe sometime heroism isn’t the point at all. Maybe sometimes realism, humanity, and heart are preferable to heroism. Maybe the world has had enough of larger-than-life. Maybe what the world needs now is a scale of one to one: art that’s lifelike and life-size.

Glenn O’Brien is the editor of Sex, a book by Madonna to be published this October by Warner Books, New York.