Archive for August, 2011

Think Outside The Box?

August 28, 2011

            Recently I stumbled upon an interview/talk show format on The Ohio channel while channel surfing (content listings do not appear on their local provider’s website). The show featured the host and three media specialists from the Ohio State University. There was one from the school of business, another from the college of medicine and a third from the school of journalism. They, in themselves, functioned to “represent” their various schools. What they covered and stressed in the interview/discussion was their rapidly changing/evolving strategies and teaching involvement with the new media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Linked in, etc. The object was how to do ones’ job, as a media representative or practitioner, through these new and evolving resources. That is, how would/should a hospital represent itself and its services through twitter? How can an individual business capitalize on Facebook? How can a journalist “tweet” a news story while maintaining specific authorship and credit? These educators were all excited about helping students “brand” themselves through these media practices; to think outside the box.

            Could this be useful stuff for the chronically unemployed who are now losing their unemployment support and are beginning to wonder about whether they actually ever did work at a certain job for 20-30 years? Perhaps it was just a dream of another life?

            It occurred to me that branding is akin to how art is often represented in critical aesthetic analysis. It is a kind of framing, a separation of one aspect or element from the mass of the gestalt. Its primary function is to indicate exceptionality. Nowhere is this more pronounced than at an Amish farmstead where nothing is framed or separated out. Calling attention to any exceptionality is shunned. After all, these are “plain” people.

            Branding, like art, is intended to call attention to this, as opposed to that. The “that” always is assumed to be some nebulous, featureless unnamed; the box one is expected to think outside of. One almost wants to label this box “unbranded” but quickly must refrain since even unbranded products take up space on store shelves. The “that” begins to appear more and more like the Amish farmstead. Is the conventional wisdom purporting the box to be the pervasive, unmediated condition of our social interaction? Is that why it is so important to “think outside the box” and assert one’s brand?

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I Have A Dream

August 23, 2011

            Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Auguste Rodin shared more than similar first names. They both were sculptors, contemporaries, French educated (in the arts) and did large scale figurative work. Their work is recognizably different, not only because of style but also the history and disposition of the subjects of their individual pieces. OK, so they both worked from live models. The resultant figurative sculptures differed in how these interpretations “memorialized” their origins. Saint-Gaudens work differs from Rodin’s in many ways, one of which is in the body language of his figures. The body language found in The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial has influenced American figurative memorial sculpture much as Rodin’s Burgher’s influenced 20th century European Fine Art sculpture.

            My initial reaction to the public viewing today (via news media imagery) of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was of the body language of Mao Zedong. My recollections of the various stills and videos of the life of Dr. King usually showed him hand in hand with others, hands clasped or reaching out to touch another, or gesturing above a lectern as he spoke. I don’t ever recall his body language being of his arms folded over his chest. Yet there it is, larger than life. Some quick research revealed that the sculptor selected, Lei Yixin, likewise was a sculptor of the late Chairman Mao. Indeed, the granite and laborers involved with this project were likewise all from China. This may have been due to the substantial financial contribution of that government towards this monument to our Nobel Peace Prize winning leader of human rights           

            Part of the media news cycle, “latest” frenzy includes the various speculative dialogues that accompany such events. This one was no different, with talk of “what would Martin” say, think or do about America’s economy, first black president, our wars, the widening gap between rich and poor, etc. No one bothered to note that Dr. King’s final work of activism was in support of the demands of striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee. Would he have done this if he were German and these were Turkish “guest” sanitation workers?

            The body language of Dr. Martin Luther King, in a crowded hall giving a speech, walking up to receive the Nobel, walking arm in arm down a street with other Americans for a just cause, or addressing the huge crowd on the mall in Washington, was totally unlike anything portrayed by Lei Yixin.

            Figurative sculpture concerns itself with body language, whether stylized like Giacometti, adumbrated like Segal, or over determined like Rodin and Saint-Gaudens. A just prior post, What’s In Your Pantheon Of Gods? (8-8-2011) elaborates how present day folks, in paid positions that involve dealing with the public, will continue to be taken in by really bad impersonations due to the aesthetic significance of “quirky”. “Quirky” enables the functioning of multiculturalism. “Within our contemporary aesthetic, ‘quirky’ is a carte blanche dismissal of any need for familiarity or intimacy with any particular, individual pantheon of gods.” Nowhere is this more apparent than with the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. In a very quirky way, it speaks more about where America is today than of what America was about when Dr. King was alive.

How This Depression Differs From The Last One

August 19, 2011

            The news of the past week/weeks has been very much about economics, whether the US credit rating, the up and downs of the various stock markets or the dismal employment outlook for many Americans (3,000 folks showing up in Atlanta for a job fair with 90 “potential” employers). You haven’t noticed because you were making art in a paid art related enterprise? Carry on with your self expression.

            The news itself reads almost like the newspapers in Soviet dominated countries 40 years ago. There’s the news that appears in print (online, etc.), and then there’s the news that one draws from implication, speculation and deduction that never appears in print (online, etc.). Of course it is not “the same”. There was a book that came out some years back, The Braindead Megaphone : essays by George Saunders. Not much I remember about the book save the title. The title seems appropriate for one side of the current depression. OK, no one wants to call it that (a depression). To call it that would imply that folks are riding trains for lack of anything better to do, and save for the immigrants crammed into trailers on their way into the US, trains are just about incapable of taking anyone anywhere. And it is difficult to hitch a ride on a plane, or freeway for that matter. But not on the internet highway (what it used to be called). Which gives us the other side of the depression.

            This depression differs from the last one in that the folks having access to the braindead megaphone are the wealthy powerful side, the ones determined to cut their losses and come out ahead of the current “financial crisis”. This all is very much in the Rancierean sense of consensus (police) AND the Latourian sense of the Ding. Unlike the genuine Ding proposed by Latour and Weibel, this is an artificial Ding, one comprised by those with access to the braindead megaphone, those who can make the noise and direct the attention (which is what a megaphone essentially does, and why it is part of a police arsenal). The flip side is the curious one, the one comprising the real Ding, though it is organized virtually and has little if any actual presence in the world dominated by the consensus, however much real impact this Ding may have. This would be the world of the BART demonstrations, with the extremes on the edge of the UK riots. The last depression had folks gathered around the radio speaker listening to FDR’s fireside chats. It had folks literally circulating (sharing) printed material. It had folks organizing, saying we are veterans with no where to stay, we are without work, we are hungry, etc. Today it is not so. Part of the quintessential job qualification required today is a “positive attitude”. To say “it ain’t so” is to become undesirable for employment, a pariah. After 40 years of welfare related program deprecation, no one dares admit they need such initiatives to get by (many employers refuse to consider those who are unemployed or have been for some time). It isn’t as much a matter of shame as they will get their kids on the school lunch program, and they will take advantage of their unemployment benefits as long as they last. No, it is more they won’t admit to working part time when they used to be full time, to having to bail on their house or debts, to being financially unable when it is mandatory to create a Warholian surface of belonging (being part of the status quo) simply in order to apply for employment. These matters of concern are not “made public”. Making public a shared condition is not today. That is the difference between this depression and the last. It is the “shared” part that makes for difference. The cell phone phenomena (a necessary precondition of membership as well as employment) organizes without sharing. It is always “individual” since the message reception/response is always private. It is never circulated as print media was during the last depression; never one voice heard by many from one source.

            So the Bachman’s, Obama’s, Romney’s, Buffet’s, Perry’s and Paul’s drone on over the braindead megaphone, speaking of things “as they are”, when actually this is noise made to direct attention in a certain direction (which is what megaphones were made for in the first place). The other side is below a gleaming surface of “positive attitude”, shiny in the Koons sense. What goes on there beneath the surface can only be accessed virtually. This kind of tension appears to be more explosive (and much more dissipated) than the communal, in the streets “shared” organization of the last depression. It is also of a completely different mode than what comes out of a megaphone, being it is reproduced from small hand held devices, usually received and extended by a single individual. This depression is very different from the last one. The last one was shared. This one is private, individual.

What’s In Your Pantheon Of Gods?

August 8, 2011

            Borat intrigued and repelled. Something about the mimicry wasn’t “just right”. Quirky. Yeah, ‘quirky’, that’s the new aesthetic term that appeared in the eighties re: pop music and visual art. Now, ‘quirky’ is understood by all as an aesthetic adjective. You’d think that after 20 years of exposé political documentaries folks in social service agencies would recognize bogus pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes. After all, this is the age of information. But no, ‘quirky’ as part of the popular aesthetic acts to counter just such recognition. What’s going on with Borat and the influence of ‘quirky’ to perpetuate antique Candid Camera within multi-culturalism?

            Jean-Pierre Vernant’s essay Semblance of Pandora: Imitation and Identity (Critical Inquiry Vol. 37 No. 3) contributes some interesting insights on ‘quirky’ and its questionably legitimate hold on today’s aesthetic. Vernant’s essay reaches way back into his specialty, classical Greek culture. He illuminates a mimicry that is performative. Modernism embraces the mimicry of Plato’s original model and the copy being like the model. “Modeling” is part of the lexicon of the current scientific culture and language, though not in the strict sense introduced by Plato. Vernant speaks of a different sense that the Greeks would have immediately recognized. It is the sense whereby the copy inspires conviction on the basis of the performance. As he puts it: “imitation (mimesis) essentially plays on the relation between two terms: the one who shows himself, puts himself on display, and the one who sees, who observes – the actor who mimes, the spectators who look at him.” (Pg. 415). What makes for a successful copy is the grace of god, or in the case of the Greeks, the gods. Without the qualities found embodied by the various gods, the performance falls short and becomes godless (without quality). The Greeks would have understood that well enough as the gods embodied qualities, were the qualities, whereas mere mortals only could aspire to be really good copies. If humans actually embodied these qualities, they would be immortal and the gods didn’t take kindly to competition. This outlook would be similar to comparing Angelina Jolie (as a kind of Aphrodite) with a homeless woman of the same physical composition. Were the homeless woman to be gifted by the gods with the qualities of beauty, poise, etc. her mimesis of Angelina would be applauded. Without the grace of the gods, she is marginalized and overlooked, without quality, though in the Platonic sense her features and physical characteristics are “like” the original. This grace could also be considered comparable to the talent and abilities of impersonators who sound and voice a political or celebrity figure with uncanny accuracy though they look not at all like the impersonated individual. In his book Mimesis and Alterity: a particular history of the senses, Michael Taussig presents mimesis as a form of knowledge for natives that were colonized by Europeans well into the 20th century (and beyond?). Although a cliché, “Knowledge is power”, for Taussig the aboriginal inhabitants of various locations considered their mimicry of the whites as somehow usurping the power of the colonizer’s culture (“This notion of the copy, in magical practice, affecting the original to such a degree that the representation shares or acquires the properties of the represented.” Pg. 47-48). Yet much of what Taussig notes continues to dog Plato (“…[W]e have mimesis based on quite imperfect but nevertheless (so we must presume) very effective copying that acquires the power of the original- a copy that is not a copy, but a “poorly executed ideogram,” as Henri Huberl and Marcel Maus…put it… Pg. 17). The “objects” given as examples come across as rather quirky though they are “very effective copying”. Vernant fills this gap within Taussig’s fine book. The native craftsman and shaman’s were unfamiliar with the European pantheon of gods necessary to create a successful copy in the western cultural sense, an un-quirky, ‘graceful’ copy. Vernant points out that for a successful copy to be produced (an un-quirky one) the spectator (as well as the performer) must be familiar with the pantheon of gods and the uniqueness of their graces. Within our contemporary aesthetic, ‘quirky’ is a carte blanche dismissal of any need for familiarity or intimacy with any particular, individual pantheon of gods. Considering such a sense of ‘quirky’, social workers (and others) will continue to be taken in by lame impersonations. The assimilation of ‘quirky’ into the current popular aesthetic is one factor that enables functioning within a multi-cultural society. Within a society of spectacle, this just about insures that even the most artless mimetic performances will be accepted as successful.