Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Art of ConVicktion

The Michael Vick fiasco marks a sad and despicable chapter in American sport, painfully illustrating how misplaced is our hero-worship. But if any good has come out of this dog-killing debacle, it is an overdue appreciation for the often stunning work of courtroom sketch artists. Just look at the mastery of Vick’s sentencing captured by artist Dana Verkouteren:

Vick’s prison stripes are bold and stark, serving not just as a literal depiction of his courtroom apparel but as an allegory of inevitable justice. Vick’s defense team—the eldest gentleman behind, the slightly younger lead counsel to Vick's right, and the youngest seated—represents the three ages of man, a metaphor for the spiritual growth over time Vick will experience as he physically serves time. Perhaps most impressive is the array of characters in the background. Their detail is at once revealing yet obtuse. At far left, Vick’s brother clings to his wife in fear of the coming judgment. His fright is palpable, yet his embrace borders on amorous, as if to signify that sex can happen even on the day his brother goes to the slammer. To their left, a host of anonymous eyes observes the fall of an icon. Their gaze is one of incredulity as they ostensibly muse, “You jackass! How could you jeopardize your gargantuan NFL contract plus tens of millions in endorsements to make pocket change by letting dogs maim each other? You’re a complete idiot!” And at extreme right, the red doors symbolize, of course, the gates of hell.

Not since the Mona Lisa has background contained such intricate poignancy.

The splendid work produced by courtroom artists has gone virtually unnoticed in the glare of more respected masters such as Rembrandt and Renoir. But study Verkouteren’s piece against Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party:

Yes, in Renoir’s work, the wine flows as the subjects enjoy a lovely summer day instead of killing dogs (note the lady at left playing with a small dog rather than starving it and administering electric shock); startling technique aside, Renoir concentrated too much on the hats while remaining conspicuously silent on growing French colonialism in North Africa—a detail, I suspect, the daring Verkouteren would not have omitted.

Verkouteren’s piece is similarly on par with a work such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

Again, the technique is astonishing—there’s plenty of booze in the foreground, and the bartender’s got a nice pair. Behind her, a multitude of thirsty patrons clamor for absinthe so they can forget that their grandchildren will one day roll over to the Nazis without a fight. Manet managed not to paint outside the lines on this one, and his effort shows abundantly. Still, there is no apparent superiority to Verkouteren’s piece. And let’s face it: those impressionists often used hot models, so their subject matter was more interesting from the get-go.

Regardless, it is time for courtroom sketch artists to be placed among the masters. Their medium reflects who we are, in all of our seedy shame. Only when The Birth of Venus, American Gothic, and The Starry Night are joined by O.J. Tries on the Glove, Saddam Denies Court’s Legality, and Kenneth Lay Weeps Like a Girl will the human race's story truly be told…

(Sketch of Vick’s sentencing copyright Dana Verkouteren and Associated Press.)

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