Lawrence Weschler

Here in America

An Exchange on Transgressive Art, Censorship, Abuse, and Family

in correspondence between Eric Fischl, Susan Twomey, and Joe Pinkelman

Around the middle of the last decade, in the wake of 9/11 and deep in the midst of the Bush years (which that event had so darkly colored), the eminent American painter Eric Fischl began noticing “how quickly the conversations I was having with my friends turned anxious and unsettled”—this in the words of his forthcoming memoir, Bad Boy. “It wasn’t just politics: it was the places they were looking for comfort, solace and certainty. It seemed that everything had become toxic and everything endangered.” Such feelings, he explains, became even more exacerbated as he surveyed the country as a whole, where a yawning divide in sensibilities seemed to be growing. And yet, he felt, it was precisely the role of artists, broadly understood (which is to say, including poets and playwrights and the like), to address such civic concerns; and it was out of these musings that the idea was born for his America: Now and Here project, “an arts fair that would set up in small towns and regional centers across the country and try to spark a national conversation through art about the feelings and longings… dividing America.” His notion struck a chord, and soon dozens of artists were contributing original work, over twenty playwrights provided five-minute flash plays, and more than fifty poets collaborated on a braided renga-style group poem. Plans were being made to package the whole thing in a convoy of trucks and send it on the road.

And then the financial crisis struck, and, alas, not terribly much came of the idea. Still, Fischl’s efforts weren’t entirely in vain, and therein hangs a tale. One particular outcome of Fischl’s initiative came when Susan Twomey, the executive director of a small community arts center in Monmouth, west central Illinois, amid the sprawling wheat fields about three hours southwest of Chicago, contacted Fischl to see whether he’d be willing to serve as judge for a national juried arts show at her center. Fischl agreed, and things proceeded apace.

Now, Fischl is no Grant Wood; he isn’t what one might call a gentle American pastoralist. His breakthrough works, in the early ’80s, were edgy and transgressive, evoking suburban angst, and particularly sexual unease, in all sorts of never previously attempted ways: consider the eponymous painting Bad Boy, in which a naked woman, spread atop an empty, disheveled bed, exposed herself voluptuously before a pubescent boy, whose hands, behind his back, were busily pilfering her opened purse. So the series of events that followed—when one entrant, California artist Joe Pinkelman, submitted a trio of conventionally kitschy ceramic vases, covered over with conventionally kitschy Catholic imagery (a saccharine sweet priest, the fish symbol, floating bouquets, and the like) interspersed with considerably more disturbing imagery lifted from hardcore homoerotic sites—might not have been entirely unexpected. The way they played out across the sequence of letters that follows, however, was thoroughly engrossing, and raises all sorts of issues—regarding freedom of expression and censorship, civic duty, and the role of the arts in American life generally—that continue to play out far afield.

—Lawrence Weschler


Dear Eric,

I am writing this letter to you today because, frankly, I don’t quite know what else to do. I am truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

When Joe Pinkelman sent in his works, addressing pedophilia and the priesthood, I really struggled about what to do. I agree with the viewpoint of the artist, 100 percent. I was, however, truly worried about the backlash that those works would bring to the Buchanan Center for the Arts [BCA] and the conversations that we are hoping to build.

I warned my board to prepare for the possible repercussions with these pieces.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lawrence Weschler, a former staff writer at the New Yorker (1981–2001), is this year leaving his twelve-year perch as director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He is artistic director emeritus of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the author, most recently, of Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.

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