Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet, playwright and social activist, was appointed poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002. That same year, he wrote “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem that questioned who engineered the 9.11 attacks and asked broader questions about social justice in America. The lines that really pissed off bigwigs were: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey tried to “fire” Baraka from the poet laureate post because of the poem, which he deemed anti-Semitic. (Baraka says the poem accused Israelis, not Jews.) When McGreevey found there was no way to fire Baraka, in 2003 he opted instead to completely abolish the poet laureate post in New Jersey only three years after it was created.
Had the powers that be taken the time to listen to Baraka, they would have found he was communicating information he said he had seen reported on Israeli and Jordanian television. Had they actually read the poem, they would have figured out that it primarily condemned America’s inherent racism against everyone, particularly blacks. But no one considered Baraka’s artistic message. No one took the time to remember that it was a poem, not a law or a legal declaration. And they booted Baraka for it.
Santa Fe artist Martin Cary Horowitz, like Baraka, is undeniably skilled in his craft. Horowitz is a world-class gold leafer. He gold leafs things most people wouldn’t dream of gold leafing—impossibly smooth bronze curves, stacked spheres that stand larger than most adults and a 104-inch-tall steel hand grenade.
Linda Durham Contemporary Art placed the grenade in a place of importance outside its Paseo de Peralta gallery just before the 2004 presidential elections, and some members of the general public were none too pleased. “Grenade” was moved to the grounds of Horowitz’s shop, Goldleaf Framemakers (627 W. Alameda St., 505-988-5005) and things quieted down for a while. Now it is back in its original home, reflecting the South Capitol sun.
“By coating this object of violent destruction with gold leaf, Horowitz links mechanistic aggression with a symbol of wealth,” writes essayist Judy Prisoc in “What The Grenade Means to Me,” a collection of essays gathered in a contest hosted by the gallery.
Prisoc goes on to further dissect the associations suggested by “Grenade,” writing, “War is glorified or gilded to make it more palatable from afar and Grenade ironically and elegantly implies that organized aggression and the status of gold should be examined.”
Many viewers, however, apparently didn’t take that second step of cognition and simply stopped at the association made between violence and wealth. In the first five months it was displayed, the grenade was pushed over, spray painted and broken apart. The reaction begs the question: Are weapons really supposed to be exalted like that—gilded, placed on a pedestal and admired?
Thankfully, Linda Durham is not as quick to dismiss Horowitz’ controversial piece as McGreevey was to dismiss Baraka’s. Just because “Grenade” has angered some people, doesn’t mean it should be forcibly removed from its post (or have its post eliminated completely). While not everyone in Santa Fe is happy about the golden grenade’s return, the role of the artist is to make the viewer think. Horowitz, in that regard, has certainly done his job. And while Horowitz insists on remaining mute about the piece’s meaning, he does say one thing: “Who in their right mind would blow up a golden grenade?”
The grenade, then, could be seen as a sign of peace. It will never explode. It’s beautiful. The piece has taken a horrible, destructive thing and turned it into a source of beauty. Looking past the subject matter, it becomes clear the most impressive aspect Horowitz’s work lies in the process.
The quintessential Horowitz piece is, in fact, a beautiful, smooth, nearly flawless curve of copper hung on the wall, gold leafed and shining. Horowitz practices the ancient Italian technique of water gilding, applying gold leaf to smooth surfaces with glue.
Yes, a grenade is a scary thing. But, that scary thing, gilded and placed on a pedestal, is exalted to a level of admiration. Never mind that humans the globe over make use of the grenade. The tool is not allowed to cross the boundary into our aesthetically pleasing everyday lives.
It cannot be said that “Grenade” is poorly constructed or ugly; Horowitz is one of the best gold leafers in practice today, and the thousands of dollars’ worth of 23.75 carat gold that coats the steel grenade is truly gorgeous. The surprise of “Grenade” is more a statement about the mind than it is about the art itself. Art is a powerful thing; while it can be dismissed as inconsequential by some, it’s a form of communication that is wide-reaching in its influence.
Whether it’s a poem calling out Ariel Sharon or a giant, golden explosive, there is potency in the message. The grenade shines in the autumn sun, recalling aspens in the Sangre de Cristos and warm bowls of butternut squash soup. What is there to fear?