As we approach the 50th anniversary of the famous New York riot that is credited with having given birth to the modern LGBT rights movement in the US, much has been written about the popular history of the event and how it is remembered. In addition, there was a 2015 movie about Stonewall that drew a lot of criticism because of its portrayal of the event. This issue raises a lot of interesting questions about history, how it is written and how it is remembered. It also raises interesting questions about the historical accuracy of movies and what responsibility artists have to being historically accurate.
Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall? Let’s Argue About It
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the internet can spread misinformation, but why had this particular fantasy of Stonewall taken on such importance in the queer imagination?
To find out, I interviewed people who participated in the Stonewall uprising, historians who had devoted years to studying L.G.B.T.Q. history and contemporary queer writers. It turns out that it wasn’t just the question of who threw the first brick: Apparently no one can agree on almost anything about Stonewall.
Gay rights activists give their verdict on Stonewall: ‘This film is no credit to the history it purports to portray’
Roland Emmerich’s film about the 1969 riots has been labelled an offensive whitewash by many critics and campaigners. So what do some of those who were actually there at the time make of it?
Promoting the film, Emmerich defended both his narrative decisions and choice of lead, saying that he’d made the movie for as wide an audience as possible, and that “straight-acting” Danny was an “easy in” for heterosexual viewers.
I was at the Stonewall riots. The movie ‘Stonewall’ gets everything wrong
But “Stonewall” is uninterested in any history that doesn’t revolve around its white, male, stereotypically attractive protagonist. It almost entirely leaves out the women who participated in the riots and helped create the Gay Liberation Front, which included youth, trans people, lesbian separatists and people from all other parts of the spectrum of our community.
Art is in the eye of the community
So if the statue doesn’t provide an accurate idea of history, is it valid as a piece of public art? Jeff Hou, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, says no. He says the public realm is accountable to one audience – the public.
“In the public realm, works of arts and design are subject to the public process. In other words, the public can have a say in what’s appropriate in a public space in a democracy,” he told me.
Really interesting article that gets into the importance of history and why we fight over it. In addition, how do we acquire knowledge of the past? In doing this project, the lead historian has to distinguish between the massacres based on the strength of evidence to support their happening. What is also interesting is what kind of evidence was used. Should indigenous oral histories be counted on? Or only traditionally western accounts such as newspapers? This argument plays out in the United States as well.
Lastly, rather than writing a book, the research was presented on a map. Why does the impact of this information feel different when presented visually rather than verbally? What does this tell us about the power of art when learning about history?
“In many Indigenous communities, art works have long had dual functions as historical sources, as repositories of cultural or spiritual knowledge, and as maps of territory. There is an established tradition of mapping massacre sites through art, as in the acclaimed paintings by the Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, and Rusty Peters, among others. Watson wanted viewers of her video to be aware that any map is a slippery, contested artifact, and also to have a bodily response to the work. She told me the story of one of her relatives, who, after viewing the video, turned to her in anguish, saying, “Where wasn’t there a massacre?””
“Screenwriters interpret historical events to entertain, but to make up facts shows a lack of responsibility”
“Naturally, there are risks to taking in your history alongside your entertainment. There’s only one take on offer and popular historical depictions very much tend to play to the mores of the time. The dark side of Britain’s colonial past has long been papered over in our popular culture. The boundary between popular history and propaganda can sometimes be fuzzy.
“But to what extent is there ever such a thing as “pure” history, anyway? This is a theme eloquently explored by Mantel in this year’s Reith lectures. Confronting pupils with conflicting source material is one of the first lessons of grownup history: there is no one “true” interpretation of events. Historians may engage in an admirable search for the truth, but no historian can claim to present a neutral account: even if they stick to bone-dry facts corroborated by multiple sources, picking which ones to use is in itself interpretation.”
“To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.”
Writing history is an act of interpretation based on the past. Creating art about history further separates past events from the final work.
What happens when an artwork tells a story that distorts an actual event? What if that “distorted” artwork communicates a historical “truth”?
Below is a famous image from a civil rights protest in Birmingham. The image tells a powerful story. It turns out that the actual events leading up to the image and the people involved tell a much different story than one we would infer simply by looking at the image.
There is a sculpture, based on the above image, that tells an even more dramatic story pictured below. What does it mean if the artwork, though powerful, does not accurately tell the actual story of the events it is depicting? What if it tells the truth of the brutality of the crackdown on the civil rights movement through inaccurately depicting an event? What does all this say about the power of artwork? The connection between history and art?
Below is a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that discusses these issues and is where I found this story. I edited it down for class:
I found another blog post discussing these issues in greater detail. Really interesting discussion as well in the comments section.
When the Truth Gets in the Way of the Story You Want to Tell
“Put simply, we don’t like complicated stories. We like our stories cleaned up and sanitized and well tailored for public consumption. We like heroic knights vs. evil villains. We like incorrigible racists and bigots vs. tolerant human rights champions. We like credulous believers vs. rational freethinkers. We like medieval jihadis vs. freedom fighters. We like damned vs. saved. We like lazy welfare sponges vs. hardworking taxpayers. We like sinners and saints and darkness and light and red and blue and black and white. And if reality doesn’t serve up the story that we want? If the truth turns out to be a bit blurrier and more inconvenient than we’d prefer? Well, we’ll just tell the story how we want to.”
“Great art is always ambiguous. Rather than giving us answers, it forces us to ask new questions; complexity is its hallmark. None of this applies to American Sniper, a truly abhorrent film that cannot be confused with art, much less great art.”
“The role of art in our society is not to reenact history but to offer an interpretation of human experience as seen through the eyes of the artist. The philosopher Aristotle says it best: ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.'”
“There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy; or a mediocre guy doing a difficult job badly; or a complex guy in a bad war who convinced himself he loved killing to cope with an impossible situation; or a straight-up serial killer exploiting an oppressive system that, yes, also employs lots of well-meaning, often impoverished, non-serial-killer people to do oppressive things over which they have no control. Or that Iraqis might be fully realised human beings with complex inner lives who find joy in food and sunshine and family, and anguish in the murders of their children. Or that you can support your country while thinking critically about its actions and its citizenry. Or that many truths can be true at once.”