The most extraordinary work of art I’ve seen so far this year is a gallery invitation, a poster on newsprint of 247 small black-and-white squares, individual portraits of children and childhood. The invite is for a show called "The Agency of the Orphan" by Anna Craycroft, opening at Tracy Williams Ltd. on Mar. 7, 2008.
The random juveniles and their avatars include Eloise, Bambi, Tom Sawyer, Matilda, Dorothy, Li’l Orphan Annie, Buckwheat, Paddington Bear. Hard to believe, but Craycroft’s tableau skirts the cloying sentimentality decried by Oscar Wilde in his comment that "only the hard of heart would NOT laugh at the death of Little Nell" in Dickens’ Hard Times. Instead, Craycroft’s tots give the impression that the world is full of nothing but children and yet there is no such thing as childhood.
Funny, but this manchild motif is perfectly encapsulated in a photo, circulated by Hillary Clinton’s staffers as a diss of Barack Obama, showing Obama being cloaked in Muslim dress by a Somali warrior. Far from engendering the desired fear of Barack, the image shows him being wrapped in swaddling clothes, though not yet lying in a manger.
In the 1960s, Claude Brown wrote a bestseller about growing up in Harlem called Manchild in the Promised Land, a phrase which sums up the two-sided coin of condescension and promise that can characterize the black experience in America. What Obama has done is to universalize this paradigm for a new generation, many oldsters and the world. It is not dissimilar to the demands on our spirits of the "orphans" in Craycroft’s poster: out of one golden child, many expectations.
It is deeply unfair to equate Senator Clinton with Cruella de Vil and the Wicked Witch, yet the aura of the chosen child, cloaked even in an elegant man, makes it so. When seizing the sword from the stone, there is no place for Mom and we are all orphans.
Anna Craycroft, "The Agency of the Orphan," Mar. 7-Apr. 25, 2008, at Tracy Williams Ltd., 313 West 4th Street, New York, N.Y. 10014
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).