The Paycheck is Not Enough By Bill Lasarow
If you have not yet heard about Kerry James Marshall’s stained glass, titled "Now and Forever," at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, I want to make note of it for you (we are also including a few pictures that have appeared in the media). They replaced century-old stained glass depicting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. But that is only the lesser half of the story. Marshall’s civil rights-based replacement rejects not only the subject but the aesthetic and style of the predecessors. His cognizance of them as a historical statement is clear, and the story that they reference is such an uplifting narrative. These replace images of glaring insurrection, war, and the most blatant and cruel form of racism that has ever existed. A foundation that is a fantasy built on the bones of its oppressed in order to present a veneer of civilization while merely stealing ostentatious comforts. But Mr. Lee and Mr. Jackson led and now symbolize both treachery and barbarism.
Kerry James Marshall, "Now and Forever," 2023, stained glass.
Photo courtesy of the Washington National Cathedral.
Each of Marshall’s windows are bisected, picket signs with a few key words forming a white upper half. We see the figures in the lower half below head and neck; faces are covered. Now THAT is populism, because instead of a glorified leader or, rather, ruler, we see ordinary people. Who they are individually is hidden. The blue slacks and red floor mix with the white upper portion in an obvious quote of the flag; it’s a simple enough point: protest and demonstration for a moral cause could not be more patriotic. In four stained glass windows Marshall both responds with grace to that awful history, and helps us to better grasp our own national narrative.
Kerry James Marshall, "Now and Forever," 2023, stained glass. Photo courtesy of the Washington National Cathedral.
The fact that Marshall charged $18.65 (as in the year that chattel slavery ended) for "Now and Forever" serves as a reminder that there are more important motives than chasing after a larger and larger payday. Keep in mind that he has been one of this generation’s most successful artists. But the public good of a project like this produced great generosity. It also raises questions about the primary motive that drives graduating high school and college students: “What will I be able to earn?”
Paychecks. We all know you can’t get to first base without a paycheck, right? That is why we inject various activity routines into our days and weeks. The search for a larger purpose is rooted very deeply in most of our psyches, but it begins with necessity, which demands first to be met.
(Left) Rick Griffin, poster of Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1968, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco performance.
(Right) Rick Griffin, “Pacific Vibrations” surfer movie poster, 1967.
The exposure to college is so much more than that proverbial buffet of ideas, but to the thoughtful, serious, and diverse people that populate these institutions as well. College is the very best place to experience a wakening effect. This is very much feared; and it’s characterized as something opposite from what it is: open mindedness, independence of thought. When we ENJOY the give and take of disagreement at college we are gaining tools that will serve for the rest of the time we are blessed to have.
Nothing could be more American.
Nothing could be less American than political violence and coercion of those you either disagree with or regard as inferiors. You want to get a good look at your Commies and Fascists? There are damned few of those in any of our colleges for good reasons. There will still always be a certain number of each, you cannot change that.
Some folks are just that way and we share the nation and the world with them.
R. Crumb's famous "Keep on Truckin'" illustration from Zap Comix.
But in America a key goal that we inherit every generation is to keep these folks on the margins. It is now widely understood that just such folks are closer to a allying themselves to a repressive hegemony that at any time since the Civil War. The growing hatred of higher education is not a mark of pragmatism but of nihilism. No, college is not entirely about the paycheck, that would not, by itself, be enough.
Robert Crumb, “Untitled,” 2015, from Art & Beauty magazine.
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Paul Morris, and David Zwirner Gallery.
I am privileged to come from a generation, now in our 60s and 70s, that frequently went to college as a form of self-realization. Our depression and wartime parents’ generation often messaged “do something you love to do.” I sure took them at their word, as did plenty of others. And if I am so much better off because of that, just understand that this was a historically fortunate cohort. We entirely missed the Great Depression and WWII, instead getting the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, mostly secure in the widespread middle-class affluence and stability that still reverberates. It is not close to having disappeared, but the task of the new generation is to restore it.