WAHOO–Chief of the Logos

In honor of the 2016 World Series, & the Cleveland Indians–


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Follow-up (after clickable file):

Chief Wahoo’s friend, at right, may illustrate a few other dimensions of the logo issue. First off, unlike Wahoo, he might be considered a real Indian, albeit from the high country of high up-lift which feeds various great rivers of the sub-continent, including the Indus.

He obviously carries considerable cultural meaning–most of which I don’t yet know. [I’ll put up more when I learn it, and hope those who know will help teach me. -Yours Crudely.]   Some might call him–or possibly her–grotesque, others fearsome. I see a distant relative of Chief Wahoo, though far more intricately developed. In comparison, the Chief seems  like an emoji. No doubt the many details of the hardwood mask shown [which hangs in the Bod, from the Richardson collection] all come with highly developed back-stories from over-lapping religious, mythological, and folk traditions.

Depending on how we consider it, the image itself exists in multiple dimensions at the same time. Besides the spatial & historical, there’s presence, essence & response. The presence is the wordless sense of the perceived object. The essence is the spirit with which it was made & intended to be shared. The response is what’s stimulated in the viewer, beyond the simple perception.

When we suggest the nature of a response is “in the eye of the beholder,” that’s what’s meant. The Dalai Lama may respond quite differently on many levels from how you, I, a wide-eyed child, a cutting-edge painter, or a TIbetan villager might–let alone a Taliban exclusivist or radical fundamentalist of any other tradition. So, too, may one person react as if the image of Chief Wahoo were of a “grinning fool” & consider that demeaning to Indians, whereas another (e.g., any Indian fan) may consider that same concept (of the “crazy fool”) elevating, a non-sectarian, folk version of holy.

There is no denying the huge effect the responder’s predisposition has on any response. Indeed, sometimes the world seems “lenticular,” i.e., like one of those signs that show one image looked at from one angle, and an entirely different one from another direction. We see the evidence of such everywhere, certainly in political interpretation & response. One of the pleasures humans find In art involves this freedom of response; in art, this freedom of response is appropriately enshrined as a fundamental principle.

It is what it is. Each observer is entitled to free response–so long as this does not infringe the freedom of others to respond differently. Freedom of response does not mean freedom of action, destroying something just because you don’t like it, for example. We may say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, along with its opposite. That’s because response depends so much on the responder. All but exclusivists who would mandate everyone’s responses, if they could, at least half recognize this principle.

I say half-recognize, because we are also right to half-disbelieve in the principle. Usually the disbelief comes from the sense that our responses are in synch with those of others and seemingly directly based on the perceived reality giving rise to the image–magnificent landscape, work of art, or whatever, where we say, Ah, that’s so beautiful, it takes my breath away. Similarly, most people will find certain things inherently disgusting–& don’t want their noses rubbed in same.

Nevertheless, in art & other use of imagery, there’s a more or less large grey area in which we don’t just acknowledge “the eye of the beholder,” but consider the principle of free response so enshrined, that we implicitly regard all responses as equally valid. Since each responder has an equal right to that freedom, we may tend to consider each response equal valid, but the two concepts–“validity of response” & “freedom of response”– aren’t at all the same, a confusion that can easily give rise to a fallacy of “relativity.”

The fact that you have the freedom to be “wrong” doesn’t make a wrong response right! First, the freedom rightly assumes what the Romans expressed as degustibus non disputandum est, meaning there’s no dispute in matters of taste. They are what they are. There’s no right or wrong in most such matters, even if there is more & less nutritious or healthy. If lutevist taste good to you, I have no basis to claim that’s wrong. Nor the reverse. Where taste is the question, right & wrong aren’t part of the equation until introduced from another dimension, e.g., the moral dimension (“don’t eat people”).

It’s hard to find a more “lenticular” or polarized response than that generated by Chief Wahoo. On the most basic level, one camp finds the image profoundly offensive, while the other responds with protective affection. If it were only a matter of “taste,” there would be no right or wrong in the matter; yet both camps believe more than taste is involved, including various principles. To avoid confusion, before considering this “more,” I emphasize that the “freedom to have one’s own taste” in the matter is a given.

The freedom to have what others may consider “poor taste,” like that to enjoy lutevist, remains even where reason seeks to introduce a dimension in which right & wrong, better & worse, become entirely appropriate judgments. In the case of symbolic use, for example, if the intent is to communicate “x” (a stop sign, say), it can be wrong to interpret it as “y” (“drive on through”). Intent & its interpretation are distinct from matters of taste.

Closely related to what may be called “artistic intent,” but also its own thing, is what I called “presence” above, not just a matter of “perception,” however, as created objects & images inevitably incorporate an inner spirit, generally reflecting the spirit that went into their making. This is related to the intent as embodied in the symbolic “essence,” but is not exactly the same, being to some degree independent of the maker’s intended meaning.

In the case of Chief Wahoo, then, people of course retain the freedom of taste in their personal response. They can be entirely wrong, however, to claim the essential intent is to be a demeaning racist stereotype. People do not, as a rule, apply these to themselves, or adopt them as beloved symbols, logos with which bonding has taken place.                   

The issue would be more complicated, if the original spirit of the actual representation had been that of a demeaning stereotype, before being adopted to do the opposite function (encourage bonding, the sense of team). A case could then be made that the particular “presence” was, in fact, demeaning, however unintentionally. Thus, an open mind, though I don’t yet find any basis in presence or essence of the image itself to consider it wrong. Taste aside, it seems otherwise wrong to attribute racist belittling to either its intent or its spirit, and equally wrong to claim some prior proprietary right to the broad territory represented by either the term “Indians” or use of the “happy fool” caricature.


[Obviously, there can be a right & wrong even in matters of taste, as in right & wrong identification of ingredients, for example. Your right to think a lemon tastes like an eclair is not in question, but it would be wrong to mis-label them or try selling one as the other, even though that would no longer be the case if the names were switched in general use.]

In sum: A FRESH (& Final?) LOOK

The issue isn’t natives v. Indians, an oxymoron even in most parts of India. If Chief Wahoo didn’t have a feather, he could as easily represent the Bangalore Space Cadets or Burning Ghat Crazy Sadhus, or the Kamakazi Pirates. Maybe those few critics who claim the generic feather shown is a blasphemous mis-appropriation of a sacred symbol ought to lighten up a little bit, that being quite a stretch (further than those who would prohibit cartoonists from supposedly representing their holy figures).

Those who find Wahoo offensive have a right to their feelings, of course, even though they may be wrong to feel offended. (Or not. See below.) Some misguided fools may even object to any association with grinning fools, though many native cultures elevate versions of the same, revering the holy fool, with respect to the trickster. It’s a disservice, as well as misrepresentation, to act as if native people don’t joke & laugh as well as anyone else.

To a 7th grader in the prime of his happy adolescence, there was no greater culture-hero than one who brought mirth & (preferably uncontrolled) laughter forth. It was always laughing with, not at, however, hilarity, not disdain. That same high regard for holy fools may have helped fuel interests in zen, dharma bums, & stand-up comedy, this no stranger to provoking offense, from breaking linguistic taboos & speaking plain truth to shedding hilarity on the oxymoronic contradictions of everyday life & hypocrisies of the powerful.

It’s true that from ancient times on, satirists have not always fared well personally, thanks to the pay-back of those with power who didn’t appreciate being butt of the fun. Indeed, the territory between humor & political speech, as between speech & action, can be quite irregular, slippery when wet, and a minefield littered with pay-back over gored oxes.

Then again, there are always intolerant critics who will find what any creative artist has to offer offensive, as in response to George Carlin actually saying the “7 words you can’t say on TV” out loud. The potential to cause offense knows no limit in form or genre, as shown by attacks on musicians like Pete Seeger for their political positions.

Note that in Chief Wahoo’s case, neither satire nor any political positions are involved, expressed, implied, or intended. In the case of a provocative artist or taboo-breaking comedian, we can at least trace the kind of conditioning that gives rise to the sense of being offended–for better or for worse. Some entertainers find being offensive their bread & butter. There’s a wide range of “taste,” besides, with no fixed line or formula, so even the best-intended miss sometimes, while the worst may lack any redeeming social value.

To be fair, I do see what triggers the offended reaction in many, i.e., the source of the conditioning associated with the image. First, there may be some uneasiness at being a member of any group singled out by others, particularly with a history of negative consequences. Offense may be taken from as innocent a form as a nursery rhyme about “Ten little Indians sitting on a wall,” with no negative depictions (except being eaten).

But then there is an ugly side to racist caricatures, with a negative history of its own.  Leaving my personal associations of the gestalt aside for the moment, I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty weird image, and, however unintentionally, does cross-trigger associations with that negative history, the “little Red Sambo” syndrome some critics have described. One would not adopt an image like that today. (Even the team management can probably see this, at least in private, without expressing any disloyalty to the beloved symbol.)

It reminds me of when a “Friends of the Refuge” organization on whose founding board I sat was designing its stationery. The first version adopted (the best we had) looked (to me) a little like “a deformed crane trying to take a dump into the wind,” although the volunteer artist was doing her best, and had no interest in ridiculing cranes. Subsequent versions became significantly better at catching the elegant grace of the bird.

It’s harder to improve an old logo to which generations of players & fans have become attached. It’s a gestalt, a whole of its own, a matter of love & baseball. Changes can feel riskier than switching to a new recipe for Coke or giving Pepsi a brand overhaul, raising issues of fidelity. Nevertheless, brand & logo styles do change with everything else, and this “feathered bird” could indeed be happily tweaked–retaining an “Indian” caricature, I’d hope, including a grin, but in a style less confusable to the uninitiated.

As in any artistic endeavor, the proof would be in the pudding. But PLEASE! Don’t drop the Chief for some spirit-less alternative–like that ‘Block C’ used on the current batting helmets. Some caps do just great with home city initial(s), but on the Indians, it looks too much like a grade that could use improving.