The Siren Song of a Leader Lost: Why Kennedy’s Assassination Still Inspires Artists Today
It’s been nearly sixty years since Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas made harrowing headlines. It was one of those brief glances of history playing out in real-time that sticks with you — a sensation that’s as commonplace as ever now.
Take a walk through each space at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza today and you will quickly discover it’s not the art-going experience you might be used to. The space itself conjures up an uncommon mix of emotions, which, in a serendipitous turn, reflects the unique composition of art and artifacts that make up the collection at the thirty-two-year-old institution. But take a closer look at the museum labels throughout the space and you’ll stumble upon something mysterious: much of the art is nowhere near as old as the assassination itself. In fact, the newest edition to the museum, a piece titled 3 Hours in Dallas, was created just a couple of years ago. Nicola Longford, CEO at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, still marvels at the way contemporary artists re-imagine what went down that day.
“Over time, the Museum has acquired works of art that have been inspired by Kennedy’s death… most of the artists and their works were created long after November 1963, and some of the artists were not even alive at the time.”
As where many of the events that reshaped our country seem to come and go in their prominence, the assassination of JFK continues to be an enduring source of inspiration for creators of all ages. As curator at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, here’s Stephen Fagin’s take on it:
“This familiar and compelling imagery, now shorthand for a defining moment of loss, has been repackaged, it seems, for each generation to absorb and interpret.”
We spoke with Nicola and Stephen about Dallas Arts Month, what North Texas residents can expect from their current exhibition, Art Reframes History, and why artists today still flock to the Grassy Knoll for inspiration.
&: What mindset do you employ when you curate an exhibition about a hyper-specific moment in history?
SF: I find it impossible to divorce myself from the history of the assassination even when considering art based more in imagination than reality. However, that foundation in history really provides a fantastic opportunity to contextualize this art for visitors. In the case of Paul Sokal’s piece, 21 November, we observe an unseen assassin in a fully imagined moment of contemplation the night before the assassination. Yet within that triptych, we’re able to help our visitors pinpoint links to the history of the event and allusions to very real theories about the assassination – and that piece was created quite recently, in 2018.
NL: Collecting and curating art specifically related to the assassination of President Kennedy was not part of the Museum’s initial priorities. One of the curious and fascinating aspects of our collection, now well over 90,000 items, is how the artifacts, documents, films, photographs, and art have found their way into the museum. It was not long after we opened that people would simply show up and drop off personal memorabilia, home movies, films, photographs papers, documents, hoping to find a loving home for these historically relevant items.
&: It sounds like walking into one big time capsule.
NL: Yes, very much so. Art Reframes History, our current exhibition, builds on the inspirational power of these items and showcases a wide range of creative and provocative artistic expressions spanning five decades, with some of it being very recent – created as late as 2019. Dallas Arts Month has proven to be the perfect time to share these works with the community.
&: What is it like seeing the same subject matter retold and reimagined in so many different ways?
SF: It’s remarkable to see the different ways the assassination of President Kennedy has been interpreted over the decades, and in virtually every medium imaginable, from paintings and sculpture to novels, poetry, music, film and textiles. I think it speaks to the cultural resonance and multigenerational impact of this event. While the root inspiration may be the same, every approach is unique, and the diversity in these responses helps us better understand the relevance of the Kennedy legacy today.
NL: The impact of Kennedy’s legacy on artists is so profound. It clearly resonates within a broad range of painters, writers, musicians, composers, photographers – and new works continue to be created every day. This is the core ingredient and intent of this exhibit, and to emphasize that so many at any age can be inspired in different ways by this historical event, regardless of being close to the action on the day it took place, or many years removed.
&: How are you seeing artists bring a fresh perspective to such well-known subject matter?
NL: The pieces on display highlight a range of creative expressions across time and space. We hope viewers will consider how historical context informs all artistic creativity and understanding in some capacity. One cannot separate art from history.
SF: I found that for some baby boomers who had deeply personal and emotional experiences on November 22, 1963, it was inevitable that they would, at some point, find a way to process this tragedy through some form of personal expression—almost like a generational obligation. Artists not yet born at the time obviously have an entirely different perspective that is just as valid and sometimes even more interesting considering the ways in which they first came into contact with the event. An assassination education via film, comic book or pop art certainly yields a different response than having experienced it in real time via black and white television.
&: Tragedy is the great unifier. What are your thoughts about tragedy as a source of inspiration?
SF: I think all forms of personal expression present meaningful ways for us to confront and process moments of trauma and tragedy. Most children of the early 1960s, for example, did not have access to counseling and were forced to internalize their grief. Some turned to music, art, and literature to tap into and release that sorrow. Tragedy and loss of any kind provide opportunities for contemplation and hopefully, renewal, whether one seeks meaning in a meaningless act of violence or to do justice to a horrific event by creating something beautiful in stark contrast.
&: What do you think makes this specific tragedy so compelling to artists, even after all these years?
SF: The assassination of President Kennedy was one of our first collective moments of modern media saturation, from news coverage of the arrival at Dallas Love Field to the amateur films of those fateful seconds in Dealey Plaza to the heartbreaking photographs of young John F. Kennedy, Jr. – on his third birthday – saluting his father’s casket. Considering the glamour of the Kennedys, a promising life cut short by tragic violence, the complex array of characters and theories that play into our understanding of the event, the lingering questions, and the visible ways in which the Kennedy legacy still impacts us today, it is difficult to imagine a time when this event will cease to inspire those who newly encounter its history and mystery.
&: How do you think audiences will react to this special exhibit?
NL: What we really want guests to take away from this exhibit is that the powerful impact of historical events can reverberate through generations to the present, especially for artists. We feel truly lucky to be able to share this array of work that demonstrates the influence President Kennedy’s legacy has had on artists of all disciplines.
Click here to learn more about special programming surrounding Art Reframes History and Dallas Arts Month.
All images courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza