Three actors wielding baseball bats destroy 14 life-size portrait heads, but don’t worry: it’s art.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

I took my 6-year-old to watch three actors take baseball bats to 14 works of art. Does that make me a bad parent? You be the judge.

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The Decimation of Professor Richard Fink took place at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, in Kirby Theater. My daughter, Samantha, insisted we sit in the front row. Reading the program, I learned that, while decimation traditionall y refers to killing one in 10, in this case, one in approximately 10 life-size portrait heads would survive an act of brutality. The subject of the portraits: Richard Fink, the George H. Corey Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus.

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Mark Oxman, who became friends with Fink while teaching sculpture at Amherst in the 1970s, created the 16 sculptures—unique works, not multiple copies or editions—and conceived of the on-stage decimation. The portrait heads were modeled from life and cast in plaster.

 It’s relevant to mention that violent behavior is generally frowned upon in the Amherst public schools. Baseball bats are strictly for baseball. Parents are more likely to speak of “consequences” than “punishments.” I’ve never even seen a kid play with a water gun—we have “water squirters” here. To make matters worse, I’d been a slacker of a parent for most of the day. With my husband at the dentist, I’d turned on The Parent Trap (Lindsay Lohan version) specifically so that I could take an afternoon nap without anyone pestering me.

By the time the house lights dimmed, more than 100 people had gathered in the theater, where 13 of the sculptures stood in three rows on stage. “Good afternoon and welcome to The Decimation of Professor Richard Fink,” announced director Peter Lobdell '68, senior resident artist in the theater and dance department. “Enjoy the next four minutes and 40 seconds.”

As Samantha snacked on crackers (not organic), three hooded actors—Brooke Bishop ’10, Michelle Escobar ’12 and Eric Swartz ’11—marched on stage and systematically bashed the sculptures with baseball bats. Part of Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges provided the soundtrack.

I don’t know Richard Fink. I certainly have nothing against the man. Yet it was strangely satisfying to watch his likeness destroyed. Samantha seemed to agree. She sat transfixed, smiling.  Every so often, a sculpture would fall from the ceiling and shatter—the best part, according to my daughter. Soon a cloud of plaster dust filled the stage. When it was all over, spotlights illuminated the two lucky survivors. The three actors removed their hoods, revealing their faces to the exhilarated crowd.

“What the hell was that?” exclaimed the man behind me.

“That was amazing,” sighed his friend.

Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.

Comments

When Burgess wrote "A Clockwork Orange," it wasn't a recommendation for how to educate a society.

"Strangely satisfying" to whom?  Why?   This sick, barbaric episode greatly diminishes my respect for the students at Amherst as personified by this representative sampling.   Do you mean you don't have anything better, more humane, more constructive to do?   What a blow to my feelings about the Fairest College.

Now that the video is available I would like to reply to K. Brooks Low. You judge our students and, indeed, Amherst College, harshly on the evidence of a sweetly satiric article on the web site? That's silly.

Watch the video. 

By the way, the performers and the videographers were students. Everyone else involved with this event are working professionals in the arts. The work was conceived by its sculptor, Mark Oxman, director of the sculpture program emeritus at American University, Washington, D.C. I choreographed and directed the performance.

Decimation is a serious, but funny, piece of art — which now, alas, only exists in this video. But for the two that were saved

But have I been taken in? Are you deliberately trying to sound stupid and superior? You may have fooled me.

Peter Lobdell '68

In response to Peter Lobdell, no sir, I was not fooling you.  I was dead serious.  The video simply reinforces my disgust for this episode, and for those involved in it.  On what grounds do you claim that this decimation is a serious and funny piece of art?  What is the point?  Please explain it to me since I just don't get it.   Would you think it was funny if the busts had been of Abraham Lincoln?  Albert Schweitzer?  Marian Anderson? or of your mother?  The working professionals involved in the event must be a sad bunch, in my opinion.  I think that you are the silly one.  I would have paid money to get one of those busts, and others who know Professor Fink would have also.   Maybe a "Fink statue" fund could have been created and the proceeds given to a worthy cause.  What a waste.

K. Brooks Low '58

Dear Mr. Low:

 I will explain it to you. Back in the 20th century Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” declared that art is just what the maker of the art claims it to be. Therefore each viewer also may judge the work to be art, not-art, or something in-between. Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” opened the way to conceptual art. Mark Oxman is a nationally recognized sculptor and the director of the sculpture program emeritus at The American University. He wanted to make a performance art piece that would in fact produce a tangible work. He met with Prof. Fink over eighteen months to create the sixteen busts. At that point they were not art and they most definitely weren’t for sale. Fourteen busts were destroyed in the performance art piece. Only in their destruction did they become art. As aspects of a theatrical piece they were ephemeral. Only those attending the performance actually experienced the art piece.  The video is simply a record. The two sculptures that remained are the art that Mark Oxman created  both as a sculptor and as a conceptual artist. Prof. Fink’s two daughters selected the busts that would survive and they possess them today. You are perfectly free to mistake a likeness for the person; to deem a performance disgusting; to respond to a work of art. I think Mark Oxman will be delighted that you are so powerfully moved.

 Peter Lobdell ‘68

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Again in answer to Peter Lobdell:

      In my objection to the sculpture decimation episode, I asked several questions.  You did not answer any of them.  You did not “explain it”.  Instead you talked about some possible interpretations of art (the author of the original report, Emily Gold Boutilier, doesn’t agree with your description of this episode since she describes the 14 sculptures as 14 “works of art”, whereas you claim that they are not art until they are part of the decimation process).   You also mention qualifications of the perpetrators of the event, and guess that Mark Oxman will be delighted that I am so “powerfully moved”.  Was that the goal of this piece   -  to make people feel powerfully bad?

       None of this bears on the main point  -  that is, the emptiness of purpose of the wanton violent destruction of likenesses of a living being (one of Amherst’s finest professors, no less),  with no meaning or context to it.  Isn’t there enough real violence on this earth depicted in the daily news to satisfy your lust for violence?  Do you call that “art” too?  Can’t the Amherst Drama Department think of anything better to create than this empty exercise?  There is of course a place for the depiction of violence in the theatre in places  that fit into a story with a real message.  In my humble opinion, this sculpture decimation has no message, except that those producing it were bankrupt for better ideas.  As I said before, what a waste, and what a sad day for my beloved alma mater.

K. Brooks Low  '58

Fink will be avenged!!

I took sculpture from Mark Oxman in either the spring or fall of 1971, can't remember which.  One of his methods of teaching involved us not getting too attached to our "art".  After an afternoon of frantic exhortations to "Make art!", Professor Oxman would ask us each if we had taken our sculpture as far as we could.  If the answer was yes, the next step was to destroy the "art", so we could move on to our next effort.

It didn't surprise me in the least after reading the headline that it was Mark's suggestion for the decimation, and that it was his "art" that was destroyed.  Bravo!  To thine own self be true.

Steve Cousey, '72