Last week, a two-part billboard went up, welcoming visitors to Kansas City. There’s nothing extraordinary about cities down things like that. In fact, when it happens (and it happens quite often), it’s usually a welcoming sign with welcoming images that are representative of the area. But sometimes things go awry and things are put on billboards that are more than controversial. Last week, Kansas City was enjoined in one such controversy. Not because of this first part of the billboard:
but for the second part of the billboard:
I have yet to hear a news report or read a newspaper article where someone says the first part of the billboard doesn’t represent Kansas City with its beautiful buildings and trees and expansive sky. But I have heard quite a bit about the other half of this two-part billboard.
I’m sorry, but is that really an adult male standing on a chair set up high on scaffolding? And is that man pointing a rifle?
Considering the gun control debates and the unconscionable acts of violence visited upon schools by people with guns over the past few years, that depiction alone is disturbing. But when you realize that the rifle is pointed at a statue of a Sioux man on horseback, the imagery becomes that much more shocking.
It doesn’t matter whether the artist’s name is Albert Bitterman or Pete Cowdin or Joe Blow or any other name. It doesn’t matter whether he believes in the power of fortune cookie predictions or the power of logic and science. What does matter is how others are perceiving this artwork the artist alleges is a “narrative created by and for white culture.”
Let’s put this artwork into perspective, shall we?
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would applaud artwork that depicted Lee Harvey Oswald pointing a rifle at John F. Kennedy with the tag line, “Welcome to Dallas” because it would be highly offensive … even if the artist claimed the artwork was a “narrative created by and for white culture.”
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would applaud artwork that depicted James Earl Ray pointing a rifle at Martin Luther King with the tag line, “Welcome to Memphis” because it would be highly offensive … even if the artist claimed the artwork was a “narrative created by and for white culture.”
To many, this two-part billboard looking down at the busy intersection of 19th and Baltimore is offensive. They aren’t taking away the message that this billboard is a “narrative created by and for white culture.” The message they’re getting is that it’s okay to stand out in the open and point a gun at anyone who is Aboriginal.
You see, while it’s great to have an artist statement that can be downloaded from the artist’s website that explains the artist’s vision for that piece, the fact of the matter is that most people aren’t going to visit the artist’s website for his artist statement on the piece.
They aren’t going to invest time trying to find out who the artist is, never mind, find out if he has a website. They’re going to look at that adult male standing on a chair set high on scaffolding and pointing a gun at a sculpture of a Sioux man on horseback and evaluate it in a contextual sense. What they see is an adult male standing on a chair set high on scaffolding, pointing a gun at the sculpture that represents an oppressed minority. They don’t see a “narrative created by and for white culture.”
When tourists drive through this section of Kansas City, they aren’t going to pull into the nearest WiFi hot spot, whip out their iPhones or laptops in search of the artist’s statement.
They’re going to look at it and evaluate it in a contextual sense, and what they see is an adult male standing on a chair set high on scaffolding, pointing a gun at the sculpture that represents an oppressed minority. They won’t see a “narrative created by and for white culture.”
What they are going to see is hate speech they may wrongly assume is sanctioned by the residents of Kansas City.
Having a billboard with an adult male standing on a chair set up high on scaffolding with a gun pointed at a Sioux on horseback to be perceived by tourists and residents as a “narrative created by and for while culture” is about as effective as coughing in front of chain smokers in the hopes your presence and your coughing will make the smokers feel guilty … a lot … maybe enough to quit smoking! Guess what? It’s not going to do much more than annoy the most ardent of tobacco enthusiasts and mildly amuse those who occasionally indulge. If anything, it will actually encourage smokers to increase how much they smoke just to prove a point.
But it won’t change anything.
It’s time to take a stand against offensive, negative stereotyping … especially when it involves violence. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and realize that the old adage “for things to be right, they also have to look right” has a rightful place in society and this is one of those places.