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In N.Y., patriotism and its discontents

September 03, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Anyone following the Republican National Convention might be forgiven for thinking that the right pretty much owns the nation's most precious symbols -- the flag and the Constitution. At least this week. The protesters and protester-artists gathered here, on the other hand, are often portrayed as lacking reverence for these symbols. Artists, after all, don't hesitate to use the flag and other American icons for whatever purposes they choose. Protesters sometimes break the law.

The situation is not nearly so clear-cut, however. In fact, a battle is raging in New York galleries, theaters and community centers, and on the streets, over patriotism and all its trappings. At the exhibition "The Freedom Salon," at Deitch Projects in SoHo, the map of the United States is one such symbol that gets worked over. Siemon Allen turns a glossy rendering of the U.S. into what looks like an angry, braying animal. For another piece, Yoko Ono supplies a rubber stamp that says "IMAGINE PEACE" for visitors to use on another U.S. map.

The Constitution, well cast

No matter how much Republicans wrap themselves in red, white and blue, the left hardly appears ready to cede the Constitution to its opponents. Wednesday afternoon, several celebrities gathered at Cooper Union to participate in a reading of the document, and who would have thought that this dryly written charter, however inspiring its ideas, could provide such gripping drama? After a preamble beautifully delivered on video by West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Mandy Patinkin took the stage to begin. Richard Gere, Kathleen Turner and Blair Brown were among those who joined him to read the articles. For the amendments, Laurie Anderson and Bill Irwin showed up with several others. Martina Navratilova had to excuse herself, the program noted, because of a tennis commitment.

Whenever the words "impeachment" or "removal of the President" occurred, the clearly Democratic audience burst into applause. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams read that amendment, carefully emphasizing every word and generating loud cheers. Ossie Davis read the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, with oracular power, bringing the house to its feet. Betty Friedan gingerly walked onstage with a cane but became a pioneering young feminist all over again with her twinkling, satisfied reading of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Alec Baldwin was assigned the 25th Amendment, which begins by stating that, in the case of removal of the president, the vice president shall become president. Here the audience emitted a glum, scary "ooh."

"It can be grim, the Constitution," the actor interjected as he soldiered on.

A performance of the Constitution by and for Republicans would quite likely have had a very different tone. Probably the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms would not upset a GOP audience the way it did many at Cooper Union. Still, the example of committed artists using their talents to stir a crowd into active engagement with the core document of our republic had a nobility that transcended partisan politics and got to the heart of democracy. The Constitution took well over an hour to read, with never a dull moment.

Mourning Iraq casualties

One symbol both Democrats and Republicans have gladly relinquished is that of the Americans who have been killed in Iraq in the last 18 months. Demonstrators at Sunday's midtown rally tried to do something about that by carrying flag-draped cardboard coffins in protest. But those emblems nearly got lost in the exceptionally large crowd.

There could be no missing the 978 pairs of boots placed in neat rows in Union Square on Wednesday, however. Each pair represented a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. Though this assemblage was quiet in its eloquence, it had enough force to stimulate emotions. I witnessed a shouting match when I visited it. Police guarding the area added to the ominous, nervous atmosphere.

The boots were part of an exhibition organized by the American Friends Service Committee that's been traveling the country since January, and it's one of the most chilling visual statements about the war in Iraq I've seen here this week. It was far more cogent than, say, Olav Westphalen's painting at the Deitch gallery, drawn with crude, childlike strokes, depicting a baby waving to a soldier. Drawn on the painting is the caption "Daddy Go War. Bye Bye Daddy."

Shoes and boots are always powerful stand-ins for their wearers. In opera productions, high heels lying onstage have long signified sex. These boots in Union Square offered an elemental testament of life and death. One couldn't help but imagine who wore them.

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