Archive for January, 2011

Reverse Kino-Eye

January 30, 2011

            Recently I attended a small town gallery hop. The handful of visual art venues featured either solo shows of local artists or group showings of a wide array of talent. These shows included photographs, paintings, watercolors, quilted fabrics, etc. Perusing the works I noticed a glaring absence, something an art historian, or at least a contemporary art historian, might take an interest in. Alas, this is not the stuff of significant art historical figures, so I’m left to speculate.

            Kino-Eye. With the early introduction of film (motion pictures), Dziga Vertov situated the camera wherever possible and called it Kino-Eye. Today, the camera’s presence is pretty well ubiquitous, from convenience store security to folks recording their surroundings on a phone. Everyone is a Dziga Vertov. Although the fascination with Kino-Eye lies mainly with the surprise and wonder of what “the machine” will see (that escapes the subjective gaze), we’ve learned since that with any machine “data in yields data out” (Who let the data in?). The purely objective “possibilities” that provided the initial attraction of this enterprise were already stained by the very human, and subjective, machine operator.

            This doesn’t mean that Kino-Eye hasn’t had a whale of an impact on how we perceive visual phenomena, and on how the visual arts produce visual phenomena, as well as on how we perceive and critique the visual arts. Although Warhol doesn’t reference Vertov specifically, wanting to produce “like a machine” certainly can be traced back to Dziga’s enthusiasm.

            With the small town art scene, there was an absolute paucity of representations of humans or human activity. What was presented repeatedly, were images lacking humans or vestiges of their activity. True, Andy Wyeth often did include the human or their trace within his paintings. One critique of his work that resonated was that there never were any airplane contrails in his skies. In the case of the multitude of works created by the local artists, there were no traces of recent human activity, period. Yet they all portrayed landscapes, seascapes, animals, flowers or animations with intensity, enthusiasm and energy. It isn’t as though there was no exposition of talent. It was as though there was an innate desire to elide the evidence of the social. “We don’t need to see that” the artist was reminding herself as well as her viewer. Why not?

            There is a kind of reverse Kino-Eye at play here. If one could marry the economic trickle down theory with the aesthetic regime described by Jacques Ranciere, these works would be prima facie evidence of its efficacy. The artwork presented here is set apart, individuated as art work per se with no utilitarian ambiguity. It announces its place and role within the civic by virtue of the hop’s venues and the works presented there. Analogous to the display of sports at a sports bar, the art here functions as an enhancement of the social. Within this culture, reflexivity is not conducive to the social. Reflexivity is considered private, personal. A Kino-Eye is relied on for a record of what we look like (while doing whatever). Unsolicited interaction with these reflexive records is socially disparaged (Want to see my 8 mm movies of our family trip to the Wisconsin Dells?). Of course, these same folks will flock to art shows at big city venues featuring celebrity artists entitled to show us what we look like. That’s what spectacle is about, isn’t it?

            With the gallery hop art, it is as though the work presented is the artist’s subjectivity put on display (qua subjectivity); hence primarily contributing to the social while at the same time eliding any reference to others (those actually comprising the social). It is akin to wanting one’s social cake (social gathering) and eating it too (taking part in it, not distancing oneself through any kind of alienation). Again, using the trickle down theory, this is not at all surprising since the emphasis today is on the artist, especially the international artist, and not the art itself (more lines of critical text are devoted to the artist, their history, resume and statement than to the work itself). I’m sure you can not only name, but also tell me something about many celebrity artists and yet not be able to speak cogently about any one specific work they’ve produced. (Jeff Koons made a big reflective balloon rabbit. Uh, it’s shiny. And big. He is quite the businessman, has a weird head, and is all the time reminding us of our intimacy with commodities, popular culture, etc.).

            Like the methodology of the Kino-Eye, the emphasis of subjectivity found at these art shows is no accident. Analogous to the motion picture machine set up to make objective images of whatever appears in front of it, the artistic endeavors here are the results of folks setting themselves up to NOT be objective, but rather, in the spirit of the aesthetic regime, to produce unique and distinct works that will allow them to socially interact as their originators (qua artists). It is a reverse of the objectively intended Kino-Eye in that the visually discernible reproductive activity is purely directed at a subjective, social end.

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It Makes One Think

January 28, 2011

            In an essay entitled Does Democracy Mean Something? Jacques Ranciere references a quote attributed to Plato’s Menexenus: ‘the government of the Athenians is a democracy by the name, but it is actually an aristocracy, a government of the best with the approval of the many’. (would it read any different if it said ‘with the approval rating of the many’?). Elsewhere in his writings Ranciere presents an interpretation of democracy as being a governance amongst equals. It would have the quality of being a governance by those whose qualification to govern is the absence of qualification (“whose only commonality is that they have no entitlement to govern”).  Approval ratings and equality, both associated with democracy. Each entails a specific difference.

            The world hasn’t witnessed social upheaval of such an intensity as currently making the news since prior to the collapse of the Berlin wall. At that time we all said “Who’d a thunk it?” Now, no one is speculating on what the consequences of such revolutionary change will be. Reagan World was full of black hats and white hats. Today few wear cowboy hats. A lot of large countries (and one particularly small country), “democracies” in name, are paying close attention to these events. This loss of approval by the many of a government by the entitled is making them think. Or is it the possibility that equality produces governance by those not qualified to govern?

More Intolerable Imagining

January 22, 2011

            Imagine that: a good looking movie actress snuggling with a good looking movie actor. Yawn, you say. (What’s to see after the challenge of locating Kat Von D’s engagement bling amidst the sea of illustrated skin? Sparkler embedded ink, the next generation of tattoos?) The AP’s Nahal Toosi reports that Pakistani actress Veena Malik finds herself on the wrong end of an edict after she and Indian actor Ashmit Patel created just such an image. This led to a heated exchange between her and the edict’s author, Mufti Abdul Qawi, who admitted to never having witnessed the image. Malik was adamantly active and went on the “offensive” in her defense, something that does not bode well after what befell the American woman who simply suggested a non-existent image through the dialog bubbles of a cartoon (see September 2010 archive postings The Intolerable Image and An Intolerable Image II).

            Nothing like the introjection of fundamentalist religion into a culture’s political process to make the Left stand up and take note! It also casts a discerning light on Jacques Ranciere’s politics of aesthetics and the place of speech within his account of the consensus/dissensus dynamic that comprises the political. Ranciere describes three regimes that make up the aesthetic history of the west- the ethical, the representative, and (the latest) the aesthetic. Contemporary events can show signs of any and all. Is it imaginable that these same regimes can be found in reading? (Is reading part of the aesthetic – the life and loves of images?) The hierarchical structuring of time, space, and their valuation, such an integral part of the representative regime with its emphasis on narrative (long, long ago in a country far, far away…), likewise stain the reading of any given text. Ranciere’s consensus/dissensus interpretation of politics can be read in just such a manner; that what has been marginalized, having no voice, can displace what was determinant of the entire conversation- speaker, spoken, and topic of conversation (witness recent events in Tunisia). It is so easy to slip into the narrative, time-line logic of imagining that what has been displaced wanes and disappears (Tunisia, the sped up version). Toosi’s report begs to differ. When reading Ranciere, perhaps it is more appropriate to imagine the flux of the aesthetic regime; what was once displaced may return to displace that which had previously displaced it (as an equal opportunity displacer). Progressive modernism, which comforts and nourishes the Left’s imagining, favors the narrative, time-line logic (considering that, just how progressive, how modern can it be?). That the consensus/dissensus evaluation of the political could involve a flux (and not a progression) is, quite frankly, an intolerable image of sorts for the Left.

            Veena take heed!

Response To Scottsinope Comment

January 17, 2011

            “I do not take the phrase “community of sense” to mean a collectivity shaped by some common feeling. I understand it as a frame of visibility and intelligibility that puts things or practices together under the same meaning, which shapes thereby a certain sense of community. A community of sense is a certain cutting out of space and time that binds together practices, forms of visibility, and patterns of intelligibility. I call this cutting out and this linkage a partition of the sensible.” Jacques Ranciere, Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics

            For Scalia, the legal definition of “person” constitutes a partition of the sensible. Something is always excluded as well as included (“cutting out of space and time”); hence his stance that the Constitution does not protect women against discrimination. This particular cutting out of time and space historically has resulted in various inequities within our country as well as others.

            “The common denominator of the Governor’s consolidation effort is that the services involved, provided by the social entity of the state, are unproductive; by their very nature undesirable economically.” “the state’s primarily expenditure involvement  [is] with physical and mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities.” “corrections was not included [among the other primarily expenditure involvements] because he intends to privatize it.” From blog posting Connect The Dots. The other offices, bureaus, and agencies mentioned deal with areas that contribute to the state coffers, and hence it would be inappropriate to consolidate them with those that are primarily an expenditure of state funds.

            Gun ownership (what for me falls under private property rights) is pretty well defined. When legislators address the grievance of the Tucson shootings, it will be through redefining “person”, not private property rights.

            Europe in the 30’s had just come off of the chaos of WWI’s aftermath and was dealing with the new economic crisis of the time. One of the responses to this economic pressure by many countries was to define certain elements of society as undesirable, not contributing to the rest of society.        

            My posting is entitled Connect The Dots. After 9/11 many were condemned (but not held accountable) for not doing so.

Connect The Dots

January 16, 2011

            Great deal of pain coming out of Arizona in the past weeks. The media put a positive spin on as much of it as they could, while keeping the contested parts as an “also ran” reportage. Other events of the time were quickly overshadowed by either being relegated to “local” news worthiness, or not reported at all. It was a good time to go unnoticed. Here in Ohio, a new governor was sworn in. He is all gung ho to create jobs and make money for the state, after which we can all have a “nice fistfight”. First off he instituted yet another government office whose mandate is to devise ways of eliminating the state’s Medicaid obligations. That immediately created jobs with the promise of more money. Another proposal is to consolidate the various offices of mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities into one office, one service. Why didn’t he also include the state’s agencies for arts or tourism in this single entity? Then again, it is only understandable that he wouldn’t include any offices of transportation, sport or gaming commissions since we don’t like to associate anyone involved with those as also being disabled, addicted or mentally ill (projected gambling casinos will only generate jobs and revenue for the state). Likewise for agriculture, business or commerce. Nope, these folks all contribute to jobs and revenue, unlike the state’s primarily expenditure involvement with physical and mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities (OK, corrections was not included because he intends to privatize it. Got me there.).

            Tucson’s tears prompted some to not “retreat, but reload” with regard to gun restriction, regulation, and gun related violence. After all, if the constitution specifically spells out a given right, how else could it be interpreted? Some wacko is to blame, a deranged, substance abusing sicko. Associations with those lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights are simply wrong, misplaced; guns and abortion, both legal but not the same

            Recently, at two separate speaking events, Reagan Supreme Court appointee Antonin Scalia claims that the constitution does not protect women against discrimination (one of those news events that went unnoticed). The argument turns on the word “person”, the definition of which is determined socially (see Ranciere’s community of sense in previous posts). OK, according to our longest serving justice, it must be specifically spelled out in legislation, like the right to bear arms (“b-e-a-r” as opposed to “b-a-r-e”). Close to 10% of Americans, being or having been incarcerated, are eliminated from the constitutional “sense” of the term “person”. Rights under US law are considered comparable to a grocery bag of goodies. Some staples are not necessarily included, which occurs when there has been a public transgression resulting in a criminal record. This also underlies the current imbroglio regarding what constitutes marriage in most states. Given Scalia’s carefully deliberated statements, both in thought and execution (Would he do it any other way?), and the actualities of a socially constructed “sense” as to who gets a full bag of groceries and who doesn’t, some citizens of the US of A may one day discover they are not quite a “person”. Many more will feel this is not only appropriate, but constitutionally sanctioned.

            The current consensus is that modifications, or establishment of gun laws are not a practical solution to the grievance posed by the Tucson transgression (along with Columbine, Virginia Tech, ad nauseam). Yet, something will be done. Legislation will not leave this incident unaddressed (since it involved one of their own, a legislator). Our esteemed Supreme Court Justice, along with Ohio’s newly elected Governor, may be indicating the future direction and determination of just such legislation. The common denominator of the Governor’s consolidation effort is that the services involved, provided by the social entity of the state, are unproductive; by their very nature undesirable economically. The constitutionality of legally determining “person[age]”, espoused by our longest serving Justice, allows for this avenue of restricting and regulating behavior without diminishing clearly defined private property rights (the framers of our constitution were unfamiliar with the terms “mental health”, “substance abuse”, and “developmental disability”). Precedent has been set with the public’s unquestioning embrace of laws restricting sex offenders. Sadly enough, this all brings to mind Europe in the 1930’s with its definitions of persons and undesirables.

The Face Of Jesus

January 6, 2011

            One of the phenomena of the history of Western Christianity is people finding Jesus, and his entourage, in the everyday. OK, I agree, that was the original intent of the religion. In this case, I mean finding Him sensually, in the everyday; they find his face or likeness on a piece of toast or a flood lit, rusty oil storage tank. Such recognition can earn the astute breakfast practitioner a few bucks on Ebay, as well as cause headaches for the oil company planning to provide its facilities with a facelift.

            Several months ago I saw the face of Jesus in the image of Zahra Baker taken while she was waiting to be fitted with a hearing aid at one of those charity health clinic events that compensate for the lack of a universally provided, fundamental health care in the USA. You may not remember but she was the 10 year old girl whom fate had afflicted early in life, lost a leg, hearing, parents split up, found herself in another country, father remarried, step mother was abusive, poverty, etc. The image of her face revealed a quietness, an openness to things being better.

            Last night there was an American Masters documentary on PBS which covered the life of Pete Seeger. The short coming of documentaries is that they always leave you thinking that the end was already anticipated at the beginning, and thus mitigated what went on in between. Wrong. Pete Seeger’s life was filled with quite a bit of affliction and uncertainty during an exceptionally trying time for our society. True, he was privileged by being white and native born, but this didn’t provide comfort or exception during the times he lived through. Like George McGovern, no reference was ever made that he was a veteran by those challenging his patriotism or commitments. At the end of the documentary, Zahra Baker came to mind. Many of the images of Seeger’s face during his early, and then middle, strife filled years also showed a quietness, an openness to things being better.

            Maybe the commonality was the sensuality of sound. In Zahra’s case, she could enhance her enjoyment and active participation in life. With Seeger, he could structure community; one of sanity and humanity (amazingly, community much in the manner described by Ranciere since it spanned many peoples, differences, times, and geographies while also being political in the contentious sense). The sensual and the everyday intimately intertwined. Unfortunately, at the end of the American Master’s documentary, I also found myself thinking “Sorry, Pete, but you lost”. Today, the closest thing to loosely organized, spontaneously singing groupings of people would be flash mobs. Sensual interaction has become a deeply personal expression of individual choice and ambition. Like tattoos, it is the mark of one’s identity and personality. Most musical sound is experienced within the confines of earphones, emanating noiselessly from an ipod, phone or other electronic device. The songs themselves, and the music, have become commodified. Little is found in the common domain (even “Happy Birthday To You” has been contested). Indeed, many question the very existence of a commons.  In the end, after much suffering, Zahra lost her life and her body was dismembered, scattered about a North Carolina county. After suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, Pete Seeger’s music-as-a-social-event has been hyper-individualized to the extent that it is not, save for the buzz.

            This week, in the United States House of Representatives (“the people’s house”), John Boehner took the speaker’s gavel in hand, and the election’s much ballyhooed “primary need” to provide jobs quickly was displaced by the priority of killing and dismembering the health care legislation passed in the previous congress. What were the lyrics to that old song; the one about Joe Hill (who died 10 years ago), his ghost, and the words that it spoke?