The Tale of the Ugly American

Each summer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsors a site-specific instillation on their roof. Most of them have been pretty satisfying affairs. The best of the lot was Doug + Mike Stern’s Big Bambú in 2010. Roxy Paine’s Maelstrom in 2009 worked for me, as well.

I read the description of The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi, this year’s installation, and my enthusiasm was dampened. I am not a fan of political art. The collision of politics and art rarely works for me. The political message almost always sucks the life out of whatever artistic merit a piece might have. I usually end up feeling harangued.

This year, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi’s work is said to be an emotional response to the violence in Lahore, where he lives. He’s painted a landscape across the stone floor. The images of red foliage is meant to reflect Central Park. Using red acrylics, detailed, delicate leaves were painstakingly, drawn across a huge span of the floor.

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But when you pull back, what you see is the foliage dissolving into splatters of blood.


What I suddenly realized is that for many people, this degree of horrific violence is an everyday occurrence. I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed and quite moved. My preconceived notions about pedantic political art, not to mention my lamentations about my daily commute, were turned to dust.


After I left the museum I was pretty rattled. If you have an ounce of compassion for innocents who suffer, you can’t help but to be moved. I was wondering how the piece is being received by the media so while riding the 5th Avenue bus downtown, I looked up the review in the New York Times. Mid-column I read this:

“A curious, illustrative thing happened on the day of my visit to the Met. Across the terrace I saw a large man lying face down on the stained floor pretending to be a bombing victim as his wife and several children laughed and took pictures. Then the kids piled on top of him in a heap of chortling bodies.

I was chatting with Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art and the exhibition’s organizer, and we were dumbfounded. Ms. Wagstaff went over to ask the man what he was thinking. She reported back that he said, ‘A sick sense of humor runs in the family.'”

I raged as I re-read these paragraphs over and over again. I’m basically a pencil pusher. I’ve had exactly ONE fight my entire life ONE! I was in sixth grade. I’m so complaisant and prone to run from a fight that sometimes I worry that I have low testosterone. But I kept thinking that if I had see this unfold in front of me I’d have snapped and kicked him right in his sick sense of humor. In front of his family. Then I realized that this piece was inspired by witnessing acts of violence! Are we all monsters inside?