Archive for November, 2011

Story Telling Time

November 27, 2011

            Monuments. The memorials, remembrances of a life, lives or events gone by. Works of will made to withstand the everyday that ultimately erases, erodes and obliterates what is deemed significant (the everyday of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera). The Column of Trajan, a 3D account of Trajan’s exploits from a time when the only 3D movie experience to be had was while sleeping (no glasses needed). Maya Lin’s list of names on reflective marble literally sunk into the real estate of our nation’s capital. GPS assists in accounting for ownership of each square meter of that real estate, as the Wall Street Occupiers have learned. Public space is not but it “belongs” to someone, even if it is the public’s in name only. And so recent memorials and monumental endeavors are scarce and few, for reasons as profound as agreement as to what is significant (to remember) to as mundane as the lack of financial resources to build and maintain the edifices. Recent memorials have been designed around chairs and benches (signifying the absence of the loss). One suspects it could also have as much to do with our culture’s emphasis on multi tasking and user friendly function.

            Memory today is about something else (other than the subject) embodying the significance, much as an icon or idol was once believed to “embody” a spirit or value (such as the flag of a country “embodies” that country’s vitality). A contemporary Column of Trajan would now be located online, virtual, in cyberspace. No disagreeing that texts, images, documents, photo’s, video, movies, technical readouts, etc. are all significant. Storage in the cloud is cheaper and easier to maintain (and, ostensibly, totally accessible). A recent Christmas TV ad for electronic communication devices capitalizes on the “absence” of the soldier father becoming a real embodied presence through his toddler’s interaction with his “being” on a tablet. One can almost imagine a perverse movie script about a child growing up believing that her father is an image on a screen (and not knowing any better).

            What of the unimagined, the elided when speaking of soldiers and war? Are they to be forgotten? A study out of Switzerland at the latter part of the 20th century (during the Balkan conflict) found that civilian deaths far outnumber those of the military in today’s armed conflicts (chances of survival favor those in the military. This says something depressingly accurate about the current conflict in Somalia). Prior to the American Civil War, military deaths outnumbered those of civilian casualties in organized armed conflicts. That war marked a stasis. With the First World War the balance shifted, with the Second it started to be lop sided, with Viet Nam and beyond it took on proportions like 100:1 civilian deaths to soldier’s. Today? Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, were maimed or disappeared during the conflict that is now “winding down” with a final American withdrawal (save for “some trainers and advisers”). We mourn our lost, in countless local monuments and memorials to those who “have served and made the ultimate sacrifice”. But what of the Iraqi civilians? Again, disagreement over significance as well as the economics of a devastated country constrains such an expression of memory. The summer 2011 Critical Inquiry (Vol. 37, No. 4) features an article entitled Virtual Commemoration: The Iraqi Memorial Project. It is the contemporary monument, by Joseph DeLappe (no glasses needed).

            Historic fact is determined by economic necessity. Little did Marx imagine the incredibly creative ways used to accomplish this. It all works as long as no one pulls the plug on the cloud. In that event, it is back to story telling time.

Occupy And The Tea Party

November 20, 2011

            This past week one of the items in the news was that of a Tea Party affiliate in Tennessee inviting a couple of “representatives” of Occupy Memphis to come and present their views and debate at a meeting. News accounts given of the event were of a somewhat strained but non confrontational encounter (3 Occupy folks insisted on speaking when 2 were officially invited). News accounts could very well leave one thinking that at the conclusion everyone left scratching their heads, believing the “other” would join them in the end.

            Better sources than this blog are available to find out whatever there is about both Occupy and the Tea Party. News accounts given were curious in how they “framed” the situation. Framing is an essential component of current, cultural image-making practices. THAT aspect was never considered – by the reporters, Occupiers, or Tea Party goers.

            In the first paragraph, parentheses were used around “representatives” because Occupy has no representation. Some of their banners read: “this is how democracy works”. That’s simple enough. Yet the news outlets framed these folks as “representatives” of Occupy. The news accounts, as well as the Tea Party interlocutors, emphasized the absence of “demands”. “Demands” were considered fertile ground for framing the efficacy and seriousness of any political enterprise by those writing the news. “Demands” are negotiable positions that can be met, dismissed or exchanged according to the Tea Partiers (Constitutional right to demand a redress of grievances). For Occupy, their movement is the demand. “Wanting to take back their government” was promoted as an intersection shared by both the Tea Party and Occupy. This latter framing tactic (perpetuating the myth of “the middle”) succeeded marvelously as that evening no account whatsoever was given of the absolute difference of these two approaches with respect to government, the role of government, and the history of both of their individual outlooks.

            The Tea Party grew out of the financial collapse at the end of the Bush presidency. When President Bush urged folks to go out and buy an SUV after 9/11, a Tea Party would have been considered superfluous if not downright unpatriotic. Nascent Tea Party followers could afford a new SUV. Hot off the financial bubble of the Clinton years, the sky was the limit as to what their investment earnings would bring, whether stocks, bonds, or real property. Life was good. With the financial meltdown of 08, investments were lost, equity in real property drastically diminished, and liquidation of either became devastatingly unrealistic. The world changed. These folks were mad (to have lost so much) and the government was to blame. The Tea Party provided an outlet for those with the managerial savvy needed to accumulate such a damaged position. It had excellent organization, and an in-your-face presentation that proved very successful. The government, especially the presidency of Barak Obama and the congressional “professionals”, were to blame. Government had caused the loss of their former position and by retaking their government they intended to get it back. Like all good financial managers, they would do it through the rule of law, the US Constitution.

            The Grateful Dead and its followers were once described as the largest disorganized religion in the world. Much the same could be said of Occupy. Occupy is hung up on that word “democracy” from which the fundamental 99% / 1% perspective appears. The loss for Occupy is that of democracy itself, when wealth has final say over the interests of the populace in matters of governance and policy. By “retaking the government” Occupy hopes to assert the “democratic” (inclusive and equitable) how and why of such decisions. “Assert” rather than “re assert” the how and why of government aligns them with the Arab Spring movements that they identify with. This is a marked difference from the Tea Party that wishes to “re assert” the original how and why of a constitutional representative democracy. The Tea Party wishes to have their share of wealth restored by a government they hold to blame. Once their loss is “made whole” (in the legalese language of property and insurance), they will be more than happy to go away (and buy an SUV!). Occupy claims they will not go away until the interests of the people (the 99%) are “made whole”, that is, are of greater importance than the position of wealth. Occupy projects an undefined, to-be-determined trajectory. On the basis of an already existent Constitution, the Tea Party maps out a return. This is quite a difference!

            As the history of art in the last 100 years has repeatedly pointed out, framing is everything when it comes to presenting and understanding imagery.

Imperialism’s Last Gasp

November 13, 2011

            This week economist Brad Bateman submitted an op ed piece in the NY Times (November 6, 2011) calling for a rethinking of Capitalism. He advocates for a more worldly and nuanced outlook (“types of capitalism” and “economic systems”). Now we’ve all read our Jameson and Negri, and their descriptions of late term capitalism. Those accounts of capitalism conjure up images of Saturn Devouring His Children by Goya. After all, you can claim to take the capitalism out of making a profit (most private institution’s of higher learning, such as those that employ Prof. Bateman, claim to be doing just that by declaring themselves not-for-profits, ostensibly to “profit education”) but you can’t take the making a profit out of capitalism.

            I wrote that to be able to say this. Recently, through back channels, it was brought to my attention that a certain art venue dear to my heart, one operated primarily through volunteer initiative and never actually earning a dime (always just enough to pay the bills), and a local artist very much into earning a profit and running a rather large scale, involved enterprise were potentially going belly up within months. Both of these ventures have been around for quite some time and were reasonably stable until the past year or two. Both could easily be considered icons of local art making/art presentation. Reasons for collapse can vary, but our recent depression- er, recession, probably plays no small part. It is curious to note that a Tsunami or war would contribute to the same outcome but that an economic crisis affects both the totally for profit capitalist enterprise as well as the anarchic, not for profit one. Big money going on strike for greater profit is an equal opportunity iconoclast.

            In his summation to Iconoclash (Latour/Weibel eds.), An End to the “End of Art”? On the Iconoclasm of Art, Peter Weibel traces the early Iconoclash of image making/images through to the more extensive enterprise (theoretical as well as material) of the modern era (19th century to the present). Within this history he claims the iconoclastic element to be inherent within the modern. This genetic makeup of modern art parts company with that of the late image iconophilia of science. Iconoclasm in modern art seeks to avoid iconoclash by always migrating to something/somewhere else (as the “avant garde” artists of NYC left Manhattan for the borough of Brooklyn, and beyond). “So modern art is iconoclastic and at the same time, as a consequence of this iconoclasm, it propagates a non-iconoclastic solution to the iconoclastic fallacy and trap.” (pg. 629) “This exhibition shows some escape routes and cornerstones not only for painting after the last picture, featuring possible paintings after the last painting, but above all art after the end of art; art produced by iconoclastic gestures aimed to end art. This art after the end of art opened the way to new practices of art. Modern art is constantly questioning its own raison d’etre. This self criticality can be interpreted as iconoclastic, but actually, it is the motor of its evolution and transformation.” (pg. 636)

            And yet the art, as art, never actually ends. “New practices” maintain the art, as art, as separation from the “useful” iconophilia of science. It is the separateness of art from other practices that established its value “as art” in the 18th century (when the differentiation of art, as Art, began, according to Ranciere. Prior to that, it was imagery and representation in service of hierarchy.). Analogously, as much could be said for the origins of the capitalism that professor Bateman says needs to be tweaked to adjust to current conditions. Many have linked the history of art and its evolution to the political economy. Just as within late term capitalism imperialism shape shifts to new practices and transformations, so likewise art (after the end of art) may only be the cultural manifestation of imperialism’s last gasp; late term capitalism’s need to maintain a non cumulative separateness of value within what would otherwise be only commodity.

Without Stain

November 5, 2011

            It was a complicated critique. It probably needs to be read again. It was about what Venetian perspective painting did for color in art. The history of color in art up until then designated color with the magic of spices and essences, with the tactile experience of material and its history. Prior to that art was from memory, with the implications that memory contributes to the work presented, through the multitude of connections that only imagination can supply. With the Italian renaissance (of art and science), and the accompanying Northern flowering, what was “seen” became integrated and crucial to the work of art. And, oh yeah, it was about black, the color black, what spawns all experience of color. That is what I remember.

            “What has happened to modern art?” is the concluding section of Iconoclash edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Adam Lowe’s To See the World in a Square of Black shares the card with Weibel’s summation. Lowe’s essay IS complicated and worthy of rereading. One segment explores the radical shift in color pre Venetian renaissance painting, and after. Prior, color and its associations were bound not only with the artistic process and methodology (especially memory) but also with the poetics, spiritual and symbolic resonance of whatever materials were involved and their capacity to produce color. After, came the world which we assume, the world of identity and representation, the world of mimicry to make one believe that it is “just like” what “reality” is, the world of Kino eye; the scientific world of Galileo that Lowe describes thus: “The ancients, and their Islamic commentators, had long held that colors were of two kinds – real, such as those of mundane dyestuffs, and imaginary, such as those shown in the divinely meaningful rainbow. The savants of the Scientific Revolution iconoclastically changed all this. Galileo had urged the fundamental distinction between primary qualities, such as size and shape, and secondary ones, including color. All colors would then be imaginary, and the real occupants of the world were primary,” (pg. 564)

            This radical shift in re-presenting the world through imagery, the imagery of art as well as words, yielded the modern emphasis on the conceptual, “the real occupants of the world”. Color ultimately becomes conceived as pixels of light which produce something “primary”. All that film footage of nuclear test explosions from the 1940’s and 50’s were only representational imagery of the “real occupants”- Einstein’s physical theories and equations. As Lowe puts it (pg. 544): “The wordsmiths mediate visual logic while the professionals involved with the preservation and display of images are subjected to, and happily collude in, the oversimplifications that reduce the complexities of visual communication to mission statements and “black boxed” trophies.” Until a screw up occurs, that is.

            Just such a screw up took place this week when a cleaning lady at an art museum in Dortmund, Germany did her job just a little too well by eliminating a million dollar stain. That particular stain was the focal point of a work titled “When It Starts Dripping From The Ceilings” by the late Martin Kippenberger. Perhaps she allows herself to be caught up in the spirituality and poetics of the moment in order to get through her mundane nightly tasks, or perhaps she simply did not “see” the work of art in the art featured as art by the art institution that employs her (it is a conceptual piece after all). No matter, it is now up to the owners and/or insurers whether to restore the piece or not. Restoration implicates memory (to restore what is lost, gone, no more). Just what was the color of that stain?



            In the spirit of the time, there are alternate essays that could be written, other interpretations of these same events and texts. Perhaps our cleaning lady and her misadventure with the mighty Kippenberger resonates with the Iconoclash of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She may just be part of the 99% who don’t find the conceptual to be the art in art, but rather are still enamored by the silliness of colors deliberately and painstakingly selected, arranged and applied manually to make a work of art, as evidenced by Lowe’s description of Manuel Franquelo’s work. The “media’s” message is the millions that were erased instantly, much as the bank debacles of 2008 erased wealth (lost, gone, no more). Occupy calls attention to “the professionals involved with the preservation and display of images” not being able to imagine such a million dollar work of art being experienced by anyone other than conceptually.