Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Our shame for a lifetime of denial and forgetting

The Monarch by Hannah Yata ©2013
  This painting by Hanna Yata shocks my sensibilities, conjuring up in my imagination bipolar images of the best of times and the worse, of being and nothingness, of the beginning and the end.

The Monarch strikes me as an entrancing fantasy of stunning, evocative, erotic beauty and, at the same time, an apocalyptic nightmare of our planet’s last gasp, a final brilliant flash of orgasmic pyrotechnics as all life on earth – each species exquisite and irreplaceable – fades into extinction never to be seen again – all because of human greed and stupidity.

Yata writes, "The psychology of how women are portrayed in art and the media are amplified and exposed in my work. In turn, I’ve reinterpreted my experiences and how women are portrayed in today’s society to also extend to how it seems that we as individuals and as a race have objectified, commodified and exploited women, animals, and nature."

Her paintings are a striking rebuttal to most American historians who still promote the idea of “American Exceptionalism,"  which asserts we are qualitatively different from – and superior to – other countries and people around the world.

But the reality is, as her expressionistic paintings show, we are the opposite. Having built our American Empire on the backs of the oppressed – women, Native Americans, immigrants, animals, and Mother Nature – is not something for which we should feel proud.

Where is our shame?

Years ago, I wrote about becoming a vegetarian after reading Jonathan Foer's book, Eating Animals.[1] In his book, Foer tells a story about how Kafka was at a Berlin aquarium, after becoming a vegetarian, when he surprised his friends by turning to talk to the fish in an illuminated tank, saying: “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore.” [2] 

To Kafka, the fish was the poster child of oppression because, beyond all others, fish are the forgotten ones; their very existence beneath notice and unacknowledged. Foer goes on to say:

 “Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely–yet not entirely–forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification. Fish for Kafka must have been the very flesh of forgetting: their lives are forgotten in a radical manner;” [3]

Evoking that same moral clarity through her evocative paintings as Kafka did through his essays, Hanna Yata once again asks us to acknowledge our shame for a lifetime of denial and forgetting – hopefully before it is too late.

For those who might be interested: here are some 
of my own visions of apocalyptic climate change: 
 How to Have Hope in an Era Between No Longer and Not Yet
 In the Bible, God takes credit for the Great Flood – Who Will We Blame Now?
 Ecocide: The End of Eden

[1] Jonathan Safron Foer, Eating Animals, Little Brown & Company: New York.
[2] Ibid. p. 36
[3] Ibid. p. 37


Anonymous said...

Found your blog through the amazing works of Hanna Yata ( and your writing really touches me. The symbol of the neglected fish is indeed very accurate in how we treat the underprivileged and the environment; it also makes me think of the fact that humans evolved from ocean creatures like the fish - yet what are we doing to them now?

Jean Stimmell said...

Thank you, Hepingsheng,for your insightful comments. The fish truly is a symbol of how we oppress others, not only fellow humans but all other sentient beings; and, as you observe, they are also our brothers and sisters.
I like your blog. Keep doing it. What was it that Goethe said? Something to the effect: "If you can dream, you can do it,"