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  • Karl Thunemann

The Evidence Persists

A few years ago I attended some meeting or other, a lecture or political group or maybe even a funeral. As I looked over the others sitting there, I saw someone familiar but changed somehow. I looked at the man next to her and then I knew. This was the face of a woman who had been beaten over and over for many years, often slapped hard in the face, so that much of the tissue was scar tissue, especially her permanently swollen lips. The man next to her was the wife beater.

I knew some of the early wives he beat. They were needy, dependent women who thought a handsome man with talent would be worth devoting themselves to, an achievement. I put one woman to bed with a broken arm and bruised face. Another one, daughter of a lawman, took a few beatings as if deserved, then finally waited until he passed out from drinking and took a cast iron frying pan to him. He deserved it. What I was looking at decades later was a woman who must have thought she had to stay with this guy. Sadist, meet masochist.

… This man died not long ago. …. His eulogy in the newspaper was a pack of lies. His talent was all stolen work from others, his identity was invented, and he was so undependable and capricious that his success in terms of money was mostly due to the work of his last wife in creating a vision that people wanted to believe.

I looked for online illustrations of this kind of face to put in here, because I’ve seen them with news stories, but the outfits that provide images tend to offer pretty girls with bloody and purple bruises rather than the thickened features of the older habitual victims.

But this is not what my subject is. This man died not long ago: his rage did not save him from that and maybe she will miss him. But his eulogy in the newspaper was a pack of lies. His talent was all stolen work from others, his identity was invented, and he was so undependable and capricious that his success in terms of money was mostly due to the work of his last wife in creating a vision that people wanted to believe.

SCALPING: A bronze by Bob Scriver.

On another day I read a eulogy that was equally unreal. The man was a drunk, had spent time in jail for breaking regulations (not laws) where he had been treated badly, and he loved men but married and used women. He was pictured as a hero, a loving grandfather, very pious, dedicated to his grandchildren. It was nonsense.

Funerals demand eulogies that impose praise on scoundrels. I’ve done dozens as the officiant but never had to lie because for such people I refused to do the service. But in the Sixties I was not so moral and much more subject to pressure from people in general — it’s just that I wasn’t ordained yet. Not that ordained people are more choosey. In fact, an argument could be made that at death a person’s uniqueness and impact should be honestly recounted, a bottom-line summary rarely done. But maybe the dead person will come back for vengeance the way they did in life. Christians are assured that all the bad stuff is recorded in a big book, like grade school.

I spoke at my mother’s funeral and tried to describe the decades of conflict between us as she worked to pull me into her version of respectability, and I tried to forge a different way. My childhood playmate and her mother, who lived across the street, were horrified. They sanctified all mothers and had raised dozens of children, not always with good results, but they never let that be public. My playmate was so scandalized that she refused to speak to me after that.

In the Sixties when the crippled and abandoned from WWII were either dying or hardened to taking moral shortcuts in order to survive, the rez people were very mixed. Some were Pentecostals who believed God would intervene with miracles. Some just went numb. Some kept busy with daily repetitious work, always doing what was expected of them. But there was a rising number of people who were what my brother-in-law called “those artist guys” whom he claimed he could not understand. Like Bob Scriver.

When Bob did his sculpture of a bucking bull, he called it “An Honest Try,” and that was how he saw his own career. He had started too late to go as far as he could have and he was not flashy, but he thought he had been honest, hadn’t cheated by bragging. Nevertheless he did cheat in a lot of small ways. Very small. But still . . . He told the story about his father being so honest about taxes that he was losing profit and how he had to be persuaded that everyone minimized and maximized without actual lying. That idea is still alive today. It’s considered a basic part of doing business.

Honesty in art is an elusive concept anyway. When Bob took the same subject matter as other artists, experts said he was copying. For instance, his big piece of a group of buffalo pursued by a hunter on a running horse was said to be a copy of Charlie Russell’s sculpture of the same subject, but the design was not the same (Charlie showed circling and Bob showed divergence), the size was different, and the casting of the bronze was different quality. Experts should know that.

The result was that Bob obsessed over originality, things that were never done before. Others did, too, and one made a sculpture of a baby being born, half out of the mother. Bob never did that, but he did make one icky sculpt of a scalping. Whenever he looked at it, he made that face of the man being scalped with his tongue sticking out. I think sometimes he thought of himself as a victim.

If I told you more about the copying done by the original wife-beating man, you would know who it was and that would be awkward. He hasn’t been dead that long. It would amount to beating his wife again. It is a submerged aspect of things like art and medicine.

Anyway, our assumptions about art, Westerns, and what makes art valuable have changed radically over the years. When a culture movement like the one beginning for us in the Sixties (Westerns) amounts to a peak wave and then finally recedes, it becomes history and then it’s possible to talk about how the pressure to make money and to matter can distort people into unadmitted criminal behavior. Now we’re into a period of political revelations due to the desperation of near destruction.

Perhaps my mistake is taking encomiums too seriously. I was not at Bob’s funeral. I wrote a book instead, but maybe I’m not finished. Now that some people are dead, and their work is not worth so much.


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