The Dying Gaul, a worthy opponent



//Please read the end of this blog post (the "Update" portion) to understand why I decided to post this. This essay is one from my book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, Blue Like A River, in which anyone who opposed the protest was made to look like a fool, idiot, moron, looney, or corrupt.//

It might have been the attempt to make me look like Hitler, or the shaky use of Microsoft Paint to add a devil’s horns and eyes. How law enforcement officers, particularly the Morton County Sheriff, dealt with seeing themselves caricatured to appear to be simple-minded troglodytes with murder and mayhem as their only goal, I don’t know.

But I do know why the protesters did it. So do the Gauls.

When the slide of “The Dying Gaul” flashed on the screen during my ancient art history class at college, I was already overwhelmed after weeks and weeks of endless statuary and mosaics, trying to understand the art not just in its aesthetics, but in its historical context.

The art professor became excited about this sculpture, however. “This one is unique,” she said. “It depicts a dying Celt, but the artist showed respect for him.”

In ancient times, according to my professor, it was common to create statuary that depicted military wins. While the bodies of the sculpture were generally realistic, the faces of the defeated figures were almost a caricature, garish with twisted and exaggerated facial expressions, barely human. It was a way to show that the enemy was clownish and a lesser creature, a way to build oneself up by putting the other down. 

But “The Dying Gaul” is different. You can see the bleeding wound which will bring about his death. His pose is of one slowly dying, slumping back into the earth. And not only does the entire figure appear realistic, including the face, but there is a torque on his neck. A torque is a stiff neck ring that would often signify which tribe a person was from. By including a torque, along with the realism of a defeated warrior whose face is bowed in dignified defeat, the artist is sending a powerful message to the viewer: this warrior was worthy, and was a human being who belonged to a specific tribe.

Somewhere along the line, the ancients figured out how to extend grace in depicting the people they defeated. Perhaps they realized that if they illustrated their defeated opponents as mere clowns, it didn’t say much as to their own prowess. Winning is no big deal, if all you did was take down some clowns.

But a noble human being, strong and dignified and full of real human emotions? To defeat such an opponent was the work of real strength.

Fast forward a few thousand years and now we have the internet and keyboard warriors who take the photographs of private citizens and public servants who are human and have families and have hopes and fears, and crudely draw KKK hats, Hitler mustaches, and pig snouts on them. The faces, in particular, are the target, just as they were in the ancient days. The face, the eyes--the place we see our individual humanity--was always desecrated. 

Even photographers got in on it. John Wathern, an environmental activist who participated in the protest, used his camera to take close-up photos of law enforcement to help in identifying and doxxing them as well as to seemingly give his Facebook fans a blank slate to comment on the humanity of the officers. At the front lines, he would take photos of officers while they were in the process of hearing slurs and negative things shouted at them.

“You can tell he has no soul,” one protest supporter wrote about an officer.

“That one is evil, you can see it in his eyes,” wrote another.

There is little difference in choosing to depict the image behind the lens during a time of stress and use it as the total summation of a person, than depicting a person as clownish. I wondered, as I scrolled through the vicious comments people left about the officers Wathern had photographed, if they would appreciate someone coming to their home and taking a photo of them grimacing, constipated on the toilet. Would such a photo, in that moment of embarrassing duress, be a fair equivalent of their entire existence? As proof of a soul? As the full story of who they are? How about a photo when they were screaming at a former significant other, eyes full of rage? Is that the accurate view of a person, that moment of hurt and anger?

Of course not. But whether through selective photographic timing or with digital ham-handedness, law enforcement (and private citizens) were shown to be simple, soulless things.
“The Dying Gaul” is a sculpture that says a couple of important statements that connect with these ideas: there is dignity in defeat if the battle is well fought, and it is possible for all involved to retain humanity despite the wins or the losses. We simply have to choose to see it that way in order to depict it that way so that it will be remembered that way.

That’s the way.

This, however, seems to be an age of fantastic rhetoric, exaggeration, and a chosen desire to mock people with infantile techniques. Thankfully, the digital masterpieces of those who call themselves keyboard warriors will not be unearthed centuries from now, revealing to the future world how small-minded we were in being unable to see opponents as worthy and actual human beings. 

This was an age of fighting clowns, motivated by grudges and slogans, where we exercised our free speech with Photoshop.

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