When I was growing up I understood that a perfect life was only to be found in being, like Barbie, the doll, the tiny waist, the big boobs, the long legs, (and didn’t we all mutilated our Barbies at some point?) Or even better would be to be to Miss America with her glittery crown. That path to that most perfect of lives delineated by taking that walk down the runway, past the eyes of all those judges. To become the most beautiful of all, to smile that Miss America smile, waving and smiling, smiling and smiling.
And everyone smiles; Miss America, the politician, the News Anchor, the sitcom actor, the movie star. They smile and smile like they’re the weatherman announcing beautiful spring days all 365 days of the year. Smiles that reflect our gleaming cheery shinny surfaces back to us. Miss America, with vaseline coating her teeth keeping them shiny and from sticking to her lips through her hours of smiling and smiling under bright hot lights. She’s the girl next door, sexualized in her bathing suit and heels, cleavage crafted by duck tape pulling the breasts into just the right shape as she poses for the cameras.
And the cameras, recording all these smiles and smiles, smiles that tell us how we should smile (eat, sleep, love and die). And all those smiles from the camera going to that box of flickering light that keeps streaming entertainment and information and entertainment at us – our stories about how to live, what to believe, to wear to think. All arriving on our screens prepackaged, sugar coated and celebrity approved.
Miss America’s counter part is the perfect hero, the astronaut who stood proudly on the surface of the inhospitable moon with his flag. He’s our hero, Neil Armstrong or whomever, our perfect dance partner for our Miss America. He ‘s our American knight taking his place in the line of white knights that stretches back to the crusaders and conquistadors who raised their own flags on their distant forts and strange beachheads.
There’s a mural at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, in the center of which is an Apollo astronaut, holding the flag. To his far right is a golden glow filled with planets, at the edge of which is a representation of the big bang as a bright yellow and orange ball with four rays of light emanating from it, forming a Celtic cross. White cloud trails of cosmic dust stream away from the glow of this “big bang” flowing towards the center of the mural and the feet of the astronaut, while looming large above him is the earth. Above the earth the sun is a small white globe from which four large limbs of light emanate, again, forming a cross, behind which stars recede into deep space. The mural reads like text starting to the viewer’s left with the universe’s primordial beginnings then guiding us to the center on swirls of prehistoric vapors to the astronaut gripping his flag. We continue reading to the right and upwards above the moon to the earth, and on to our “divine” sun and the tiny dots of stars beyond. This scene looming large at the entrance to the museum gives us a universe who’s sole purpose is as a backdrop for the glory and manifest destiny of man as he conquerers the moon and prepares for the glories in the galaxies beyond.
It’s March 20th, 2003 and I’m sitting in my studio feeling stunned. Painting suddenly seems useless in the face of the bombs we’ve begun raining down on the city of Baghdad. As if to prove my countries reason to be we’ve chosen to destroy the city where all cities began. It seems such a useless explosion of macho might, and what for? Then the man on the moon holding that flag and laying claim to our barren moon reveals an arch – from our patriotic myth of scientific and technological prowess to this destructive present. That white knight who could do only good now lashes out at the first sign of his own vulnerability.
(And if I had wanted to be Miss America had the man on the moon been my childhood hero, my white knight? )
When I was a really lost and confused young artist my pictures were a way for me to come to grips with my world. My images dealt directly with my need to find out who I was and how I could (or couldn’t) navigate my way within the confines of my culture. Now as a somewhat less lost, and (somewhat) older artist, it’s the culture as a whole and not just my place in it that I’m seeking to come to terms with. The astronaut became how I could look at this war and try to understand why–why here, why now. The astronaut and Miss America are tools I use to expose the subtle pervasiveness of the hubris I see as leading us to this moment–why we want Miss America to never stop smiling and our astronaut to grip tight to his flag, as we send bombs down wherever we suddenly feel an urge to drop them.