Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pilato's Ribbon

Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with  the story of the Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, giving a speech in February, 1948; it's very cold, and he is not wearing a hat. His comrade Clementis stands beside him:
Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.       
     The propaganda department made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottswald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people.  On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew the photograph, from seeing it on posters, and in schoolbooks and museums.       
     Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottswald has been alone on the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.  Nothing remains of Clementis but the hat on Gottwald’s head.
I've been thinking of Kundera's book on memory and forgetting since I learned that the image of Jerry Sandusky  in a giant mural at scandal-plagued Penn State has been painted over. The artist Michael Pilato had been working on the mural (titled "Inspiration") for more than a decade, and when he was contacted by the mother of one of the victims, he painted Sandusky out and painted in an empty chair, with a blue ribbon to represent the victims of the abuse. What else could he have done, really? I try to imagine walking by the mural and seeing Jerry Sandusky there; I can't, and I'm not even distantly related to anyone involved, except that I am human, and like all of us, horrified by the whole thing. 

I recognize in the mural, and that ribbon, the potential for sentimentality, which has, really, no place in art.  If you haven't, you should read Image editor Gregory Wolfe's marvelous, brain-sparking essay on Thomas Kinkaide, "The Painter of Lite™."  Trying to define this notoriously difficult-to define word, Wolfe quotes R.H. Blyth: “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” According to Wolfe, the problem with sentimentality is "that of a misrepresentation of the world in order to indulge certain emotional states."  I might nominate the those characters on Pilato's mural for this misrepresentation, larger than life as they cliché-ly are, but then I remind myself that the his piece is called "Inspiration," so the rules for this particular mural may not be the rules I appreciate, necessarily, in art. Thomas Kinkade troubles Wolfe for "not so much the treacly emotion he seeks to evoke or his inveterate prettifying of nature, but the political subtext underlying his iconography.... the packaging of nostalgia."  

We who have just learned of it are yet at the beginning of the Penn State horror. The children, terribly, knew more than did we. Well, more than most of us; the adults who knew failed to act.  In his mural, now, Pilato acts. The blue ribbon, the ribbon symbol...yes, the ribbon as a symbol has the potential to be sentimental, but it is, at the very least, a response.  I would nominate him for his mural, responding as he did so quickly, when so many others in power did not. 

Pilato's act shifts the mural's focus from an exaltation and elevation of humans to a discussion about frailty and flaw.  Wolfe writes: "Perhaps, at its best, sentimentality strives for something approximating the theological virtues of hope and love. But in refusing to see the world as it is, sentimentality reduces hope to nostalgia. And in seeking to escape ambiguity and the consequences of the Fall, it denies the heart of love, which is compassion."  

Clementis' hat and Pilato's ribbon. Of course, the circumstances of the displacements are quite different, and it's got me thinking about the difference between art and propaganda, between censorship and revision. Kundera writes about the removal of Clementis with his typical grim grin, humor and tears at once, this shaping of history into something blank and full of forgetting. Propaganda is a matter of systematic manipulation of information delivered when necessary, revised when necessary. 

But Pilato's work isn't propaganda, right? And his challenge here is instructive. Art's ongoing-ness, art's process of revision, is fascinating. Revision isn't elimination, but seeing again (re-vision), and it requires the same attentive, thoughtful, focused consideration of the original motivation.  Pilato's mural is his version of documentary and to remove, eliminate, Sandusky's image, to simply paint him out would have been—though at least what the heart wants, what the ethical, pained, enraged heart wants—a violation in some ways of the mural's laws. The blue ribbon Pilato has painted in is, I think, the revolutionary act. It works against forgetting. 

Kundera writes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Unlike Clementis' hat that because it sits on Gottswald's head in all the photographs now seems to have always been Gottswald's, Pilato's ribbon becomes a part of our collective recognition of the importance of paying attention, of acting, of rescuing. 


  1. Thank you for this beautiful article, I will cherish it always. I learned a lot from this experience and your letter sums it up. Peace and love, Michael Angelo Pilato.

  2. Dear MIchael: That's great to know! Thank so much for reading. Amy



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