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Mark Twain & Controversial Art


Last year American artist Charles Ray created a stir with his commissioned figurative sculpture Huck and Jim. Originally meant to be permanently installed along New York City’s High Line in the public plaza outside the new Whitney Museum, art critic Jerry Saltz informs us that Ray’s proposal was declined because the work would “offend non-museumgoing visitors.” Saltz goes on to explain that Huck and Jim is “a 21st-century sculptural masterpiece…. a classically traditional Western figurative sculpture in the vein of the ancient Greek and Roman art widely worshipped as beautiful.…[T]he subject matter is totally familiar, even banal or boring: two large, naked figures, both male — nothing not already seen in probably 100 other American museums.”

The Whitney’s refusal to fund his proposal didn’t stop the determined artist. Ray later sculpted and installed Huck and Jim at the Art Institute of Chicago without controversy. Saltz suggests this is “Perhaps because it was inside a public institution called a museum, within the confines of rooms known as galleries, where people know to allow ambiguity, nakedness, sexual tension, and unstable subject matter, even around race.”

What would Twain think about this re-representation of his beloved characters Huck and Jim? Maybe he would be amused by it. When Twain heard that artist Lester Ralph’s illustrations depicting a naked Eve in his Eve’s Diary (1906) caused the book to be banned by the Charlton Public Library in Worchester, Massachusetts, he said, “But the truth is, that when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

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Charles Ray’s Huck and Jim appears to be inoffensive, as long as it is housed in a museum, but maybe that attitude will change over time, as did the attitude of the Charlton Public Library. The problem is that it isn’t just about nudity in this case. Ray’s sculpture evokes an uncomfortable reminder of white privilege and the history of slavery and racism in America. I am not so bold to imagine Twain’s reaction would be amusement only. It might also astonish him to see his characters still playing starring roles in our country’s social struggle to heal the wounds left by slavery.

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