In Defense of “Many Stitches Hold Up the Sky”

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I write today in defense of “Many Stitches Hold Up the Sky” — the controversial mural that will soon grace the Route One-facing side of Fort Andross in Brunswick. The $70,000 painting was commissioned by Brunswick Public Art, and ever since some pictures were released it has drawn a steady stream of criticism from left-wing writers and art critics. I covered the first wave of protests with interest, sort of in a bemused way, but a recent piece in the Portland newspaper has gone too far.

My fellow Bowdoiner Daniel Kany, art critic for the Portland newspaper and a former editor of the Maine Arts Journal, has a guest column in which he excoriates BPA and the mural they paid for. With no one defending the poor Hallowell liberals, Jen and Chris Cart, who poured their souls into this crappy painting, I feel I must step up on their behalf.

The mural must stay. Once it’s up, of course.

I’ve learned to take most art critics’ views with a grain of salt, considering most of them tell me Manneken Pis, a statue of a peeing baby, is high art. But Mr. Kany has a few specific criticisms of the mural that are worth addressing, each of which he places in the broad category of “offensive ideological triggers.”

For one, the mural contains doves. These doves “trigger” Mr. Kany as they are not native to the area, and, more triggeringly, are a symbol of icky Christianity. Another trigger is the depiction of a black woman, which Mr. Kany falsely says shows the young women on “her knees.” At the risk of being pedantic, she is in fact on one knee, and was painted that way specifically to avoid an “offensive ideological trigger.” But for Mr. Kany, and perhaps for the rest of the southern Maine art community, the only acceptable way to paint a black person is, I suppose, standing up right.

Mr. Kany is also triggered by the inclusion of a Native American woman, who is depicted helping create the quilted fabric of the metaphorical community. He calls her a “noble savage” and points out that she’s seen on the bottom of a ladder, as if having her at the top of the ladder would somehow satisfy his liberal conscience. And he finds the back-to Canadian woman’s rump a little too seductive for public art. Then there is the young Asian woman, presumably a Bowdoin student, playing an instrument — a scene Mr. Kany describes as “performing for us.” And then there are the “tiny Wabanaki men launching a canoe” which the artists added in response to other critics being triggered by the lack of  “tiny Wabanaki men launching a canoe.” The list of offenses goes on.

In all these instances, it feels like Mr. Kany is telling on himself. Why can’t the young black woman be a vital part of the community who can do whatever she pleases, whether that involves crouching, jumping, or standing? Why can’t the Native American women be an industrious entrepreneur delivering some quilting fabric? And why must the young Asian woman be performing rather than practicing her craft? Is there any possible way to depict people who aren’t white that wouldn’t offend liberal sensitivities?

Taken together it would seem the only way to avoid “offensive ideological triggers” would be to erase these characters from the mural altogether, as no arrangement of postures or ladders or instrument-playing would ever satisfy a critic who has set out to be offended. But Mr. Kany reveals that he’s not really a serious about the whole deal when he writes that “‘Many Stitches’ could hardly have been designed to be more ideologically offensive.”

Really? Is that a challenge? I’ve previously offered to do the mural for half what the Carts charged, and I’ll renew that offer with a promise that I could make a more offensive mural with my eyes closed. If that tame blend of multicultural mishmash is the most ideologically offensive thing Mr. Kany can imagine, then I think he lacks the imagination an art critic ought to possess. You don’t even need to theorize about the infinite ways a more offensive artwork might have been created, because most people would probably find actual history more “ideologically offensive.”

The mural could, for example, show English settlers tipping over a canoe with an Abenaki baby in it to test the theory that Native American babies could swim. That actually happened. The mural might also show the baby’s father, whose name is given in the histories as Squando, leading a raiding party on Brunswick settlers and robbing a business owned by Thomas Purchase. In one of the first Maine-based skirmishes of King Phillip’s War, Purchase and co. led a deadly retributive attack on Squando’s retributive attack. Yet, according to Kany’s criticism, a few doves are more ideologically offensive than racist infanticide.

He continues: It doesn’t remotely fit an understated, enlightened, historic, tolerant and quietly cultural town like Brunswick.”

And herein lies my biggest disagreement with Kany.

“Many Stitches” is in fact the perfect representation of Brunswick — a town filled with and controlled by rich white liberals. This mural encapsulates bourgeoisie liberals so perfectly they ought to hang it in the Louvre. It’s rich white liberals paying other rich white liberals to paint a picture that contains rich white liberals’ idea of enlightenment, tolerance, and multiculturalism. The mural is not a departure from liberal values or an aberration, but rather the predictable artistic outcome of post-modern liberal culture.

Reading some of the criticism of Many Stitches gives one the feeling that we’re destined for a future of boring public art, where artists kowtow to liberal sensitivities, self-censoring their creative impulses in favor of the safe and the sterile. The future will be full of inoffensive landscapes and flowers, I suppose. Certainly, every Maine artist will think twice before the endeavor to honor some non-white culture in a mural.

It’s worth noting, too, that Mr. Kany doesn’t offer any suggestions on a more fitting piece of art for the side of the old fort, other than to say “more stakeholders” should have been consulted. So perhaps the better mural for the side of the building could be one that depicts a conference room filled with rich white liberals talking about which rich white liberals they want to hire to paint a mural that makes rich white liberals feel good about themselves without offending rich white liberals. It’d be kind of “meta” in all the right ways.

Until then, however, Many Stitches Hold Up the Sky is the perfect mural for Brunswick, and I will be heartbroken when it is vandalized with tomato soup just hours after it goes up.

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