I agree with the judgment of the curator of the Addison Street Window Gallery and am glad that the Arts Commission supported her decision. When I first saw Jos Sances’ poster, I had an immediate, visceral, negative reaction. I tried to figure out why I had reacted so strongly. I thought about the Eddie Adams’ photograph upon which the poster was based. I remembered the pain on Nguyen Van Lem’s face as the bullet fired by Nguyen Ngoc Loan ripped through his skull. That photograph affected me deeply as it did so may others because it caused me to wonder about how the Vietnam War had destroyed the humanity of both men. Adams’ photograph, in turn, caused me to think about Nick Út’s photograph of 9-year-old Phan Th Kim Phúc running naked on the street after being severely burned on her back by an American napalm bomb. I thought that Út’s photograph was powerful precisely because it showed how individuals were being brutally victimized by American actions. I wondered if the pilots of the planes, after they saw the photo, reflected on the unspeakable pain they were inflicting on innocent people.
I believe that in highly public places images of people who suffer because of American policies should first convey a sense of these people as human beings. I reacted negatively to Sances’ images because his images verged on racial caricature and stereotype. To me, they objectified people of color as little more than helpless victims. While the images may have elicited political outrage, they did not provide the basis for me to respond with empathy; they did not help me understand and feel my shared humanity with the people depicted. They failed to convey how the fundamental humanity of all people involved—aggressor, victim and witness—is threatened. I applied a simple test to the images: Would I want a young child to see the poster? My answer was no. If the child were a person of color, s/he might feel profoundly diminished without understanding why. If the child were white, s/he might look without feeling any human connection with the person depicted and walk on unaffected.
I Googled Jos Sances and looked at some of his other art. I saw that other images, e.g., of Noam Chomsky, Pete Seeger and Dr. Martin Luther King, and his public murals, conveyed a deep respect for the humanity of his subjects. These images made me wonder if I was wrong to judge this poster so harshly. I realized that the poster upset me because when I was young stereotypical images of Asians, however well-intentioned, made me feel wooden and empty. They have the same effect on me as an adult. But as an adult, I can appreciate that Sances’ intentions are generous and humane. While I do not think his images should be displayed in a sidewalk window where people have no choice but to look at them, I am glad that I will have a chance to see them at the Pueblo Nuevo Art Center and to experience, first-hand, what they express and evoke.
I very much appreciated the fact that Sances’ poster and the controversy sparked by the curator’s and the commission’s decision made me think about war, opposition politics, multicultural sensitivities, art, censorship and democratic values. Discussion of these issues is difficult and sometimes hurtful, but discuss them we must—particularly now.
Patrick Hayashi is a Berkeley resident.