As is better known in California, where she lives, than in Rochester, New York, where I live, Alice Walker received recognition last spring as a "state treasure." The resulting controversy reached us out here in the boondocks, and an official note was made of Ms. Walker's reception of the award by our local newspaper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which is called "the D&C" by everybody around here. Now, what exactly was the controversy?
Every Saturday our D&C prints a set of short editorials, each of them headed "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down", summarizing the D&C's view of some of the more striking events of the week.
Here is their editorial of April 30, 1994, exactly as printed, except that I here omit the "Thumbs down" symbol and the inset picture of Ms. Walker which decorated the D & C editorial:
[Thumbs down] for the insensitivity of an award to Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Alice Walker. She was recognized last month as a "state treasure" at the fifth annual Governor's Arts Awards in Los Angeles.
Walker, the author of The Color Purple, whose latest work is about female mutilation, said she was horrified when she received the award statuette -- a foot-tall sculpture of a nude woman's torso -- without arms, legs or head.
"Imagine my horror when, after four years of thinking about the mutilation of women, I was presented with a decapitated, armless, legless woman, on which my name hung from a chain," Walker told the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Though these mutilated figures are prized by museums and considered 'art' by some, the message they deliver is of domination, violence and destruction," she said.
Walker said she was going to keep the gilded statuette out of sight, packed in a box.
After thinking about all this for a while, I sat down and wrote the following Letter-to-the-Editor to the editorial page editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
To the Editor:
Thumbs down on your "Thumbs down" of April 30 regarding the statuette presented to Alice Walker in Los Angeles in token of her recognition by the Governor of California as a "state treasure." What should have been an honor for the author of The Color Purple was, according to Ms. Walker's complaint, "a decapitated, armless, legless woman, on which my name hung from a chain." This, to a woman whose most recent work concerns the horrors of women's mutilation, was a "message...of domination, violence and destruction."
The D&C agreed, deploring the "insensitivity" of the award. But isn't this a case of the mote in their eye and the beam in your own?
Consider: Inset in the D&C's editorial page article about all this was a photo, about one by one and a half inches, labeled "Walker" and presumably intending to picture the famous writer. But what it shows is most of her head, and part of a right hand under her chin, as if she had been to the Guillotine and the rest of her body discarded. Even the top of her head was missing, sliced clean off in a straight line. To call such a mutilated rendition "Walker" reveals a lack of taste and sensitivity at least equal to that of the State
(signed) Ralph A. Raimi
The D & C did not print my letter. They have known me over there for forty years, and have printed innumerable letters of mine, and op-ed pieces -- and indeed articles about me -- but this time they sent me a printed form postcard:
"... Though we value every reader's opinion, we regret that we are unable to print your letter... We encourage you to write again... Try to make a single, clear point... We look forward to your next letter."
I therefore wrote a personal letter to the Editorial Page editor whose name was printed on the postcard, asking him to reconsider. I hoped he hadn't rejected it for its irony. Newspapers often distrust irony, I acknowledged, because it is sometimes taken literally by an unwary reader; but I had tried this one out on some of my unwariest friends (I told him) without mishap.
Still, if he really thought it would be better, I went on, I was willing to write him a deadpan, solemn-ass professorial exegesis of the esthetics of incomplete effigy, thus explaining even to the most literal-minded what was so disingenuous about the Walker allegation of having been dissed.
This time I did not even get the postcard.
So I figured that if Rochester didn't want to hear about the way its own newspapers dismember the treasures of the State of California, the clean-cut truth should at least be told in San Francisco. I therefore sent the account exactly as printed above ( beginning with the title, “Editorial Decapitation” and ending with the word “postcard”) to the San Francisco Chronicle, which had been the ultimate source of my information. I added a covering note explaining the circumstances, which were for the most part contained within my submission for that matter, and asking if they would consider it for their Op-Ed page. I didn’t even name a price, for I am used to writing pro bono publica.
Well, in the event The San Francisco Chronicle didn’t print the above account of the silent reception of my first objection to the D&C’s “Thumbs down” tidbit, saying that while it was amusing it was already dated, not part of current news, and so not fit for an op-ed piece. So it goes with State Treasures in the domain of Art: They can accuse the world of the silliest things but cannot be called to account, because the “call to account” is no longer news the following week.
Furthermore, some of these treasures are oppressed, a status which of itself renders them immune to criticism. I would dearly love to add to their oppression, these folks who make being oppressed a profession, who take airplanes across the country on speaking tours explaining the oppression they have endured for their fees (plus expenses). But no, their sensitivity must not be mocked in the newspapers; indeed we have laws forbidding the sort of speech that mocks them. With protection from mockery, anything in the way of foolishness can earn them a fee while maintaining in all its purity their sense of oppression. If this is the artistic purity that generates their literature as well as their speaking tours I cannot see much future in it. It is, or will soon become, as dated as my own poor effort to penetrate the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle.
2 June 1994.
Revised 2 August 2007