Ray Charles’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” is a tearjerker for me. I tend to get emotionally overwhelmed by certain patriotic songs generally. There is something about the gap between those laudatory lyrics and reality that just tugs right at me. The emotional pang comes from somewhere in the praise, the striving, and the falling short.
The song was used in a video released by the Biden Harris administration recently. It is a collage of images of people at work, making things, moving their bodies in space, reuniting. The video opens with a view of rural a white church and closes with the attempts at unification “A Country for all Americans. A Future for all Americans. A President for all Americans.”
As the song comes to a close the images speed up, building on eachother, creating momentum, moving so quickly you might miss the final figure: a young Black woman stopped in the middle of a street painted with the telltale yellow letters of a Black Lives Matter street mural. She is holding a large, gilded frame and looking through it directly at the camera. The frame, the woman, and her position on the street are all direct citations of the artwork that this video cites.
For her 1983 performance Art Is… Lorraine O’Grady built a parade float featuring a massive gilded frame for the African American Day Parade in Harlem. Fifteen performers, all dressed in white, rode on the float carrying their own frames. The performers jumped down as the parade moved, handing out and holding up the frames so the paradegoers and passersby could frame themselves. The artwork is about celebrating the everyday, framing Black joy, and the agency of posing oneself.
The frames are meant to evoke those used to display art historical masterpieces on permanent display in famous museums around the world. But in the 40 photographs that survive as document to the performance movement, momentum and the joy of public space stands out.
The Biden-Harris video riff on O’Grady’s Art Is… uses the same trope of the gold frame to try and show the ways individual Americans frame themselves. Their video entitled “America the Beautiful” uses Charles’s song and collage to try to knit the separate frames together. But the gaps between scenes, like the gap between Charles’s song and reality, hit me hard.
It got me thinking about Art Is… and the ways that the events of 2020 pull at both the video and O’Grady’s documentary images. A campaign and a parade both rely on groups of people gathered together sharing and celebrating in public life. The joy-filled gathering of O’Grady’s performance is not possible in 2020. The pandemic prevents the physical movement of people side by side. Instead in Biden-Harris’s video, momentum is achieved by through the seemingly simple presentation of frame after frame.
2020 also has its impact on Art Is… At least six of the forty documentary photographs for Art Is… feature white cops charged with patrolling the Harlem parade. Well before the social justice revolutions that arose after murder of George Floyd, these men stand out from the crowd. They are physically separated by barriers and by their uniformed stance as enforcers of “public” safety. But they also stand out in these photographs because — unlike the other framed parade goers — none of them look at the camera. Instead they are intent on overseeing the crowd and performers.
The tensions pictured in the photos of Art Is… show the antecedents to calls for police abolition in 2020. But there are no cops in Biden Harris’s “America the Beautiful.” There are workers, families, artists and athletes of all kinds and agency is squarely set on the subjects who frame themselves. It is a powerful proposition — that through this election the United States becomes a place where everyone can frame themselves and thier own destinies and do so together. I’d like to believe that the portrait put together by the Biden Harris video leaves open a future without police, but video’s strategy of avoidance is a dangerous form of policing in itself. Not recognizing the many forms of state surveillance at work to maintain the white supremacy as the status quo is not to see America. It falls into the rift between praise and reality.
The young woman in the final scene holds a gold frame, she frames herself, but the video does not stand boldly for the challenge lodged by the gold under her feet. For a country, a future, a president for all Americans, Black lives must matter.
Stay tuned because this tension between O’Grady’s artwork and the “America” framed by contemporary forces like the Biden-Harris administration is bound to be examined in Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And the artist’s first museum retrospective due to open this spring.