The subway heroes of New York
After three men jumped onto a subway track in New York to save someone who had collapsed, Kelly Grovier considers what it means to be a Good Samaritan.
BBC By Kelly Grovier 16 June 2016
Dominated by the anguish emanating from the Orlando nightclub massacre, the news this week has strobed a dark light into the grimmest corners of the human heart. Amid such despair, there is little wonder that millions of people have since sought solace by watching and sharing 60 seconds of compassion captured recently by a graduate student in New York, after she noticed that a man had collapsed, unconscious, onto subway tracks at a station in Manhattan.
Handheld and shaky, the smartphone lens that chronicled the rescue of the man’s leaden body by a scrum of strangers, shortly before the arrival of a train that could have crushed him, has etched a restorative scene of heroism into the popular imagination. In doing so, the video revives a visual tradition of celebrating sudden, unsolicited displays of physical courage, with countless depictions of the New Testament’s Good Samaritan in works from Rembrandt to Delacroix, Bassano to Van Gogh.
When Sumeja Tulic, a Bosnian-Libyan student at the City University of New York, heard a “large thump” echoing from the tracks as she waited for the R train from City Hall, she barely had time to aim her smartphone camera before several bystanders had leapt down from the platform to retrieve the unresponsive stranger who’d crumpled forward. “I don’t know where these men got the wit and quickness”, Tulic later told a reporter for the New York Times. Indeed quickness was essential if the unconscious man and his rescuers were to avoid impact with the oncoming train, whose imminent arrival had just been announced.
Most memorable to Tulic, as she watched the heroic act unfold, was the sheer heft of the fallen figure, whom she described as “about six foot tall – a heavy man by default”. The imagined strength required to hoist him out of harm’s way is what suspends the act in the mind’s eye, and transforms the deed from mere intention to the archetypally gallant. In this respect, the resonance of the act captured by Tulic finds its more compelling parallel not in one of the well-known paintings by the heavy-weight artists mentioned earlier, but in a sculpture by the comparatively less well-known French artist, François-Léon Sicard.
100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age by Kelly Grovier is published by Thames & Hudson.
After a week of recovering from the shock and horror of the Orlando massacre, it is not surprising that we question human nature. But it is good to remember that for every bloodthirsty lunatic like the monster that stalked the Pulse nightclub, there are three more people like the ones in the videos above and below, who are capable and willing to do acts of kindness - even to the extent of putting their own lives in danger - to come to the aid of a fellow human in trouble.