A Strange Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

In this blog entry, Art Simon, author of Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film, ponders provocative commemorations and the meanings of the JFK assassination.

With the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up this Friday, the air and cable waves have been jammed with recollections, profiles and anecdotes about the slain president and his administration. PBS devoted four hours to JFK on the American Experience, NOVA took another look at the logistics of the killing, The New York Times reported on the meaning and on-going sequester of Jackie’s blood stained pink dress. Even the AARP Newsletter ran a piece by Bob Schieffer about his experience of being in Texas on that fateful day. The list goes on and on

But one of the stranger commemorative events is taking place at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth in an exhibition featuring the art that was collected and displayed in Suite 850 of the Texas Hotel where the Kennedys spent their last night together. The curators, while not wanting to re-create the room exactly, have brought together works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and Kline that were no doubt put on display to let the well bred first couple know Texans were not totally ignorant about high culture.

Dangerous Knowledge 2e_smThis strikes me as among the strangest forms of reenactment yet for an event that has been subjected to all kinds of re-creation, from The Warren Commission, to Hollywood versions in JFK and In the Line of Fire to an episode of Seinfeld (or was that a reenactment of a reenactment?) to a 2004 video game called JFK: Reloaded that places the player in Oswald’s alleged sixth floor window with the rather perverse object being to re-create the shooting just as The Warren Commission described it.

Somewhere Sigmund Freud has a knowing smile as the nation cannot break free of its own repetition compulsion and the killing of JFK. But with the art exhibit in Fort Worth we have moved away from reimagining the public space of Dealey Plaza and into conjuring the private aesthetic experience of the first couple. Why? Having heard from virtually everyone involved in the assassination, from Secret Service agents to Governor and Mrs. Connolly to witness-bystanders, and having participated in the question posed by virtually everyone alive at the time—do you remember where you were when you heard the news?—the only experience not yet tapped is that of the Kennedys. And since we can not get to the heart of their experience, we might substitute for it their experience of the hotel that morning, their waking up to a wall of 20th Century masterpieces.

As I have written about the culture of the Kennedy assassination over the years, I have always been reluctant to speculate about mass psychology, resisting the impulse to diagnose the various national obsessions around JFK and his killing. But with another nod in Freud’s direction, it does seem as though the art exhibit in Fort Worth is one more example of our 50 year old fetish, a need to find substitutes for what we don’t know but wish we did—about the Kennedys, about Oswald’s motives or those of his accomplices (depending on your opinion), about exit and entrance wounds and about what the Sixties might have been had the assassination not happened. We respond to the absence of knowing with a glut of images, recycled footage of Camelot, yet another examination of the Zapruder film, another memoir by someone who claims to have known the private side of the President.

And yet turning our attention to art on this 50th anniversary is not a bad idea. I would suggest however that we look not to what hung in the Texas Hotel but to what got produced within weeks and then within a couple years of the assassination, namely the silkscreen portraits created by Andy Warhol and the underground film masterpiece Report made by Bruce Conner. Indeed, pop artists at the time offered a fascinating reply to the assassination and its afterlife in the pages of Life magazine, the Warren Report and American culture generally. It’s a shame that in the media blitz now attending to JFK’s death, these works are being overlooked. Nearly 50 years after their making, they still present a compelling and visually provocative commentary on the meaning of the JFK assassination, both in its time and ours: Who gets to write the history of an event like this? Who profits from its telling and re-telling? How should we understand the moving image as evidence and window onto the past?

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