There are only five days left to go see Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud (1969-1972), on view in LACMA’s Art of the American’s Building through Sunday, January 15. This is the first public exhibition of the work in the US, and, with no future US exhibitions scheduled, it may not be seen again for a very long time.
But be warned, it’s not a pleasant piece of art. The lifesize installation confronts our country’s violent racial history. It makes you cringe, makes your stomach churn, it’s the kind of art that makes us all want to turn away and never look back – but that is precisely its strength. In a contemporary society that’s been dubbed “post-racial” we owe it to ourselves to revisit the difficult questions surrounding race, social justice, humanitarianism, and oppression. Kienholz’s art brings us face to face with these unpleasant truths.
The installation is set in a large black room. Inside are four automobiles each facing inward and pointing to a fifth car – a pickup truck. Their headlights illuminate a center stage area. In the middle of these headlights lies a brutal narrative.
On this particular night a young black man went on a date with a white woman. Afterwards they made the mistake of sitting in his pickup truck. Perhaps they had been followed, perhaps they had been stumbled upon, but either way they were found. The four vehicles surround the young couple. Six white men – all wearing disturbing and grotesque rubber masks – get out of their cars and pull the black man from his truck. One man holds a limp shotgun warningly, preventing the white woman from getting out as well. She has to sit in the truck and watch. The other five men wrestle him to the ground, bind him, and pull down his trousers. They’re going to castrate him. That’s his punishment for going on a date with a white woman. Inside one of the cars sits a young boy. He is the son of one of these white men and his father has brought him along to give him a taste of what it is to be a man.
This is the moment the figures are trapped in forever. A moment in which one man is screaming for his life, one young woman is powerless to stop it, one young boy watches in horror, and six grown men act out vengeance and hatred. If this doesn’t make your soul ach, then you don’t have one.
The gut-wrenching nature of Five Car Stud triggers a complicated conversation on race. Unfortunately, most people nowadays seem to hate conversations about race. Their reactions range from mildly perturbed to downright defensive, followed by a statement expressing that racism is old news. This is a frightening and all too trendy misconception and it needs to be stopped immediately.
Racism never ended.
This is not an accusation against white people. In fact accusing all white people of being racist is an equally stupid statement as assuming racism is over. Two statements, both true: racism still exists AND white people are not racist.
The truth is white people hate racism just as much as non-white people. As a whole, white people are politically correct and culturally sensitive. Back in the Civil Rights era, white activists tipped the scales in favor of minorities on countless issues. White politicians signed the new laws. White artists (like Edward Kienholz) acted as major campaigners against the social injustices that were too often ignored by the media. When Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington DC in 1963, he rallied 250,000 non-violent protesters – one quarter of whom were white. This is why so many people wrongly believe in the post-racial myth, that racism just evaporated one day. Telling white people that racism does indeed still exist is like telling them there’s a boogieman – and everyone can see it except them.
Remember in the movie The Usual Suspects when Verbal tells the detective, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” Well, in the four decades since the signing of the Civil Rights Act racism has gone incognito, but it has not gone away.
The good news is race-based hate crimes like the one depicted in Five Car Stud have decreased tremendously over 30 years. The bad news is racism comes in many forms and often is more subtle than it is violent. Racism still runs rampant in US institutions ranging from education to health care, from housing to the criminal justice system. Like some kind of indestructible cockroach, it flourishes in bureaucracy and infests the very fabric of our systems. Every time a pseudo-academic claims these institutional inequalities to be “classist” rather than racist, please ask him why it is that socio-economics so accurately follow race lines. Then politely explain that “low-income” is a euphemism for “minorities”. Until we successfully achieve equal opportunity economic disparity will always be directly linked to race.
In the Supreme Court case Loving v Virginia, 1967 (two years before Kienholz began work on Five Car Stud) the Court validated interracial marriages. Despite the legal triumph, Kienholz still felt compelled to remind us that racism hadn’t ended. Guess what happened in the years after 1967? A lot of white people married non-white people. It started as a trickle, now it’s a tidal wave. According to the 2010 census the group that identifies as “two or more races” has increased by 50% in 10 years. White people love minorities. Literally!
The bizarre backlash of so many people not being racist is the post-racial myth that racism is over. No it’s not. Racism is no longer defined as an indivdiual who hates a group, but as a system that prevents a group from succeeding. A post-racial world is a wonderful aspiration – one we should continue to work toward – but it’s still a fantasy. Speaking about it in present tense is a dangerous lie that perpetuates false comfort.
The best way to stop racism is to stop pretending it’s all gone. It is imperative that we continue to revisit painful works like Five Car Stud, because without these provocative images we run the risk of being blind to the boogieman who continues to so effectively haunt our institutions.
Five Cur Stud (1969-1972) Revisited, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, September 4 2011 – January 15 2012
No Such Thing as Post-Racial America, New York Times
Don’t Call Them Post Racial: Millenials Say Race Matters to Them, ColorLines