Photo by Jack GouldYou know, when I've a hankering for a diamond tennis bracelet or a $300 French frock for a 2-year-old girl—since I don't have a 2-year-old girl, I generally have to corral a random one walking by—I cruise over to South Coast Plaza.
And I've got to say I think it's in terrible taste for the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) satellite gallery at South Coast Plaza—or "home," as I like to call it—to be hectoring all of us with their glum pictures of poor people in their dirty, dirty clothes. (And I think we all know now that the myth about the nobility of the poor is a big, big lie! Oh, their clothes are torn, but never are they dirty! No! Except, guess what, Stevie Wonder—their clothes actually are filthy! Filthier than Nixon's mouth! That's right! They're not noble at all, and they let their children run around in filthy, dirty clothes, when they let them run around in clothes at all!)
I'm hearing a lot of talk—most of it emanating from the folks at the OCMA, surprise!—about what an important exhibit Walker Evans' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is. How Evans is, in fact, one of the most important American artists of the century. How his collaboration with James Agee for an unpublished Fortune Magazine spread in the 1930s to document the plight of Southern poor folks (I guess it's not really P.C. to call them "disgusting trash"), which resulted in the magnum opus Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is the defining document of Depression-era suffering.
Evans and Agee lived for a month among the Burroughs, the Tengles and the Fields of Hale County, Alabama. Agee wrote the words, and Evans didn't so much illustrate them as complement them in equal import. His photos depict emasculated, toothless men unable to provide for their families; their shoeless, pissed-off wives, who work alongside them in the fields; pretty blond toddlers sitting in piles of soft, chalky dirt; and dilapidated wood shacks without any of the ramshackle charm of a House of Blues or Country Bear Jamboree.
Apparently, the 1930s were a bad time to be poor white trash—unlike today's Springer-induced bull market. Evans' frighteningly crisp photos spare no starving-child detail. Most haunting is a picture of a small body, its foot bandaged, lying on the floor. Its face is covered by a scrap of what looks like a former flour bag, the faint logo still in evidence. In the book by Evans and Agee, there is no title for the photograph, but the OCMA has seen fit to allay our worst fears by adding the title Squeaky Burroughs Asleep. Who sticks a live kid on the floor and then covers his face with a flour bag? Who does that???
Poor people, that's who!
Evans did not consider himself a Social Realist like noble-Okie portraitist Dorothea Lange; nor did he consider himself a documentarian. Well, thanks a lot, Walker Evans! How's an art critic supposed to neatly pigeonhole you, then? How about this for a name for your school: "Dandy Fops Who Hate Women and Jews but Are Supposedly Liberal and Then They Take Pictures of Starving Dirty Children With Their Uncircumcised Little Wees Hanging out Because They Have No Pants and Make Everyone Feel Bad When They're Just Trying to Buy a Goddamn Montblanc Pen, but They're Not Social Realists, No, Even Though It Was the Great Depression and Everyone and Their Mother Was a Social Realist, Damn It, Just Who Do You Think You Are, Mr. Fancy Photographer Man?" But don't take that as some kind of judgment.
Walker Evans as quintessential American artist? Sure, why not? Blather on all you want, OCMA folks, with your cultural-elite liberalism. Yes, interminable articles in The New Yorker back you up. And even Vanity Fair got into the act this month, with a looong Evans spread nestled amid the deserved odes to Lady Astor and Warren and Annette. Sure, this exhibit at South Coast Plaza runs concurrently with a similar exhibit from the same wellspring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. All I'm saying is I just don't see why the OCMA has to be shoving starving American children in our faces when all we're trying to do is mind our own business and equip ourselves with some $10,000 Montblanc pens and maybe get a deep, soothing facial while we're at it. It's the exquisite details that make the man, you know? Those shiftless poor people would do well to remember it.
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" at the Orange County Museum of Art, South Coast Plaza satellite, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (949) 759-1122. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Through May 7.