Every several years or so, perhaps every decade or so, a work of art captures my emotions and imagination, and sticks in my memory, even though it may be several years between viewings – assuming I ever see the original of the work at all. One such is Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party; another is Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox; another, Picasso’s Guernica; still another, Edouard Manet’s The Old Musician. I have never seen the originals of the Rembrandt and the Picasso. I know them only from reproductions. But they haunt me. I recently discovered another such image while visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC: Patricia Cronin’s Memorial to a Marriage (hereafter Memorial ).
Memorial is a bronze sculpture, cast from a marble original, depicting two women lovers, lying in bed wrapped in one another’s arms in a gentle embrace. I am still processing the emotions evoked in me by seeing this powerful work a few weeks ago, but I think … I think … I am at the point where I can at least attempt a synopsis of the complex feelings.
The sculpture – I will concentrate on the bronze in the National Portrait Gallery – depicts the sculptor Patricia Cronin reclining on a bed with her lover – now wife – artist Deborah Kass. That phrase “lover – now wife” contains in suspension all the feelings seeing the work precipitated in me, and why I stood there in that gallery staring at it with such single-minded fixation.
The first is a feeling of profound peace. In fact, the phrase that came to mind as I stood in the gallery, near to tears, contemplating the work was that famous line from Dame Julian of Norwich’s Shewings of Divine Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be most well.” Yet intertwined with this feeling of peace there was, paradoxically, a feeling of deep sadness and tragedy – and anger, even rage. Because Dame Julian’s writings are embedded in a religious tradition – in this case, Catholic Christianity, but the following can be said of all forms of Christianity historically – that has for two millennia contorted itself ethically and theologically, and exerted its political and cultural influence, precisely in order to make sure that, for gay and lesbian people, “all manner of thing shall [quite decidedly not] be most well,” in fact, not well at all. That is why, on a deep, almost visceral, level, Memorial is can be viewed with profound ambiguity, why it is so susceptible to different, even opposite, interpretations.
What Cronin has achieved with Memorial is to subvert – while simultaneously reminding the viewer of – the long tradition of funerary art, especially funerary sculpture. Because of the semiotic kinship of Memorial with funerary sculpture, even as people who support marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, etc., celebrate the marriage of Deborah Kass and Patricia Cronin, we are reminded that, had the politics of LGBTQ rights played out differently, the same work that celebrates the mutual life and love of these two heroic women could easily have been the grave marker demarcating the Nation’s retreat from full equality for people with minority sexual orientations.
Like all people of good will who take seriously the Constitution’s and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal rights and equal protection of the law, I want very much to see Memorial as an unambiguous celebration of life for people like Patricia Cronin and Deborah Kass, because I have many friends, many of whom I consider family, who are gay and lesbian. But I am also realistic enough to know that vicissitudes of culture, politics – and religion, especially religion – could also end up rendering Memorial as a tombstone – like the tombstone marking Matthew Shepard’s grave.
Hence the rage.
The gay playwright Jean Genet once said “A person’s position in bed is no one’s business but his own,” a principle that now, by the 21st century, should be self-evident. But this issue is still undecided, even in the wake of Supreme Court decisions like Windsor and Obergefell. Those crucial battles have been won, but the war is far from over at the Federal level. At the State level, so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts continue to proliferate about as virulently as the current measles epidemic, and, at least in more conservative / “red” States, people still get exercised about which bathroom trans students may use, even though no cases – as in zero cases – have ever been recorded of trans students assaulting their heterosexual classmates.
So just as the history of civil rights oscillates between hope and despair, in an analogous way, as I stared at Memorial, my interpretive / semiotic faculty oscillated between rage and joy, both reactions occupying the same affective space in my consciousness even as I looked at Cronin's work: rage at ongoing efforts to curtail full equality based on sexual orientation by State legislatures purporting to defend religious "freedom"; joy at the salient victories won by, e.g., the litigants in Windsor and Obergefell.
But I remind myself that such oscillation has always been the case when the Nation deals with the question of whether it has the moral courage to apply its own Constitution consistently to all oppressed and marginalized groups. During Reconstruction, the initial election of African-American candidates, most of whom were former slaves, to elective office oscillated with the subsequent corrupt Compromise of 1877 that made possible the withdrawal of Federal troops enforcing the Reconstruction Amendments, thereby making possible the rise of the Jim Crow South, and the rise of white-supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
We may very well be experiencing a similar period of moral oscillation in dealing with the issue of LGBTQ rights, specifically marriage equality. Cronin's Memorial to a Marriage is located squarely on the fault line where the two political and moral tectonic plates collide: one plate advancing the restriction of LGBTQ equality; the other plate celebrating and promoting it. As I looked at Cronin's great work, I experienced in my imagination the cultural quakes induced by this opposition. I alternated between seeing Memorial as a monument to marriage equality and, a moment later, seeing at as a marker memorializing the death of same.
I am committed to seeing Memorial as celebratory. But, at the same time, I am realistic enough to know that celebration can turn to mourning if the national Zeitgeist once more favors the ostracism of sexual-orientation minorities.
That is why Cronin's work haunts me: it is not clear, at least to me, which part of that opposition will prevail. So perhaps the real value of Memorial is its function as a warning against complacency.
James R. Cowles
"Memorial to a Marriage" … bronze, Gareth E. Kegg … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Patricia Cronin and Deborah Kass … "NY Times", Timothy Greenfield Sanders
Limestone funerary relief … Akhenatonator … CC0 1.0 Universal