Archive for February, 2012

Sputnik Daze

February 27, 2012

            There was a massive high over Ohio tonight with moon and stars as bright as headlights on an endless black. The local news reported the space station would be passing overhead and I went out to look. As a child we went out to witness the Sputnik’s humiliation of American enterprise by the now very defunct Soviet Union. Actually, we went out to see this unimaginable event called a satellite moving like a star. No one thought of the politics it “symbolized”. Tonight I’m sure not a handful of people in the Midwest bothered to go out for a glimpse at wonder. It still amazes to know that the little spot of reflected light speeding across the northern sky holds living, breathing human beings as we watch.

            The local paper ran a guest editorial columnist today making the case for organizing as a panacea for these troubling times. “The times have changed” stated the writer, referring to how folks once used to look to a single job sustaining them for 35 years till retirement while today there is uncertainty as to even having a job, let alone it lasting, etc. Historical insight was given as to how during the 1930’s depression era, programs were implemented to address the jobless conditions and stimulate the economic revival. Programs that the author said were only put in place thanks to organizing, citizens coming together to demand them, not because of the benevolence of political leaders, the wealthy or captains of industry. These were the models advocated to be emulated in today’s dire economy, models of people solving social and economic challenges through being organized.

            There’s an anecdote of Duchamp being at an art show and commenting to his companion of how dreadful the work of one of the artists was. Later the pair met that individual and Duchamp gave the young artist words of encouragement. “How could you do that?” asked his companion later. “I didn’t want him to stop.” came Duchamp’s reply.

            The same reaction wells up to the local guest editorial. Yes, I would like things to be better. And yes, organizing once was very effective. Standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the working folks at the drive thru lane of Mickey D’s leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not that the folks with their individual orders waiting in their cars would wonder about the fool standing in line that is bothersome. It is the professional organizer standing there in line not recognizing that all these folks have individual orders that they are completely convinced will be uniquely filled that has me concerned. Back in the 1930’s folks gathered around a single common radio to listen to FDR’s fireside chats, most rode public transportation with their fellows in order to get to work, run errands or visit, they sat together in movie theatres to be entertained, and were drafted and went to war as one with the new decade. The “individual” life was not promoted, not at all as acceptable and everyday as the one in common. Organized “commonality” continuously had to disassociate itself from identity with organized “Communism”.

            As the writer of the editorial points out, times have changed. Unfortunately, so has organizing. Now it is about the individual, with individual aspirations, expectations and identity. It extends to ear buds piping “your” music from an individual i pod, being the sole occupant and driver of a car, watching the movie of your choice on your cell phone, and choosing to make the military a career in an all volunteer armed services.  That IS the 21st century. Now it is no longer referred to as “organizing” but as networking, systems, programs, or interaction. Looking to depression era forms for today’s social and economic challenges is like the people of the depression adopting pre civil war forms for theirs. The times have changed. The recourse advocated by this editorial is dreadful and yet, one certainly doesn’t want the writer to stop.

You Don’t Join A Nudist Colony To Socialize With Your Clothes On

February 20, 2012

Recent personal involvements motivated me to revisit a popular archival posting, Where Art Becomes Critical (4-26-2010). Many viewers access this entry through the search terms of a quote by Theodore Adorno utilized within the posted essay: “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”
This is a very disquieting statement regarding what it is to be moral. It is rather akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Both statement’s address complacency, though Adorno’s speaks more of the comfort of culture than MLK’s.
Though culture is formed by the everyday of the social (see Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life), it likewise permeates the everyday, especially the culture formed by previous generations. It can’t be shrugged off, though it does evolve. Maoist thinking believes that the privilege and entitlement of such prior overriding cultural influence can only be overthrown through drastic militancy. In this sense, Adorno’s outlook regarding morality is much more unsettling than MLK’s. Indeed, Rick Santorum is refusing to be silent about things that matter. And things do matter within culture.
Democracy and the inequity of domination by privilege and entitlement within the operations of a constituted democracy are at the heart of the many Occupy movements that have spread across the globe. Reports of the internal workings of these various unaffiliated movements recount an almost obsessive concern for an ethic that reproduces the sought for democracy and equality, the elimination of precedence accorded privilege and entitlement. Great lengths are taken to accommodate different outlooks, perspectives, demands, and to arrive at a group consensus before policies are determined, actions undertaken. This, of course, flies in the face of those with an agenda who prefer the short circuit provided by privilege and entitlement. Keeping the trains running on time is a priority for those who have a predetermined destination. But as de Certeau pointed out, the practice of everyday life doesn’t always follow the predetermined designs, plans, and machinations of professional educators, organizers and leaders. The worldwide Occupy movements have been quite unique in recognizing this exigency. This makes them very attractive for the dispossessed homeless. Pitching one’s tent there and then finding the group continuously disregarding consensus in favor of entitlement in order to maintain some undisclosed agenda (known only to the privileged few) would be like joining a nudist colony where some folks always get to keep their clothes on.

Woody Guthrie’s Music

February 6, 2012

A past news article headline declaring something like “Upcoming Woody Guthrie Museum will focus on the artistic and not the political” seems to have attached itself permanently to my brain. It concerned the projected museum addition in Tulsa Oklahoma. The headline is in perfect accord with Ranciere’s distribution of sense. At the same time it leaves one flabbergasted that what originally was an organic unity has been conveniently dissected. One is left scratching one’s head thinking would this be the same Woody Guthrie if he had written product jingo’s for radio ads, Broadway musicals, or academic music in some conservatory?

Serendipity finds the recent Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012) featuring Aesthetics and Politics: an Interview with Jacques Ranciere by Gavin Arnall, Laura Gandolfi, and Enea Zaramella (from 2009). In this article the conversation ranges not only over the distribution of sense and the aesthetic regime but also the nature and place of the museum. Regime orientation is defined by artistic practice (“Surrealist practices clearly belong to that tradition that is part of the actual tradition of modernism,” pg. 290). A museum concerns itself with these practices. No such establishment recuses itself from the contemporary and its ways. As Ranciere points out, the contemporary can and does include not only the aesthetic regime, but aspects of the mimetic as well as the ethical. It would come as no surprise to find elements of these within a museum’s practice, but a predominance of the aesthetic regime would probably prevail. “On the other hand, the aesthetic regime is based on a specific form of equality that is much more inclusive (everything can enter the realm of art), but has no specific connection with political equality.” (pg. 296). That, in a nutshell, explains the justification of the Guthrie Museum headline.

It is very unsatisfying, this equality of the museum where the presentation of difference comes across like an LL Bean catalog; everything fitting together (with a smile) and appearing to be there “naturally”. The discomfort doesn’t become apparent until one considers something like inequality itself- economic, educational, or social (of a racial, ethnic or religious bent). One immediately recognizes that given the inclusiveness and equalizing character of the aesthetic regime, and the “no specific connection with political equality”, it becomes difficult to understand how, if at all, inequality could be considered within a museum, let alone presented. It appears to be a subject which by definition, is not possible.  As Ranciere sums it up: “There is an egalitarian presupposition at the basis of the aesthetic regime. On the one hand, that presupposition supports the capacity to see aesthetically in general, the possibility to perceive and appreciate objects and performances as artistic. On the other hand there is an aesthetic utopia that has thrived on that presupposition, the program of a community of equals, where equality would be achieved in sensible life, in everyday life. In that case, the presupposition has been transformed into a telos. The enactment of equality always entails the risk of that transformation. (pg. 296)

Imagine an observation/presentation of how news articles inadvertently highlight the various aesthetic make up of subject matter. A man shoveling snow as opposed to a man using a snow blower highlight certain distinctions or inequalities (if you don’t believe me re: the inequality, the backs of the two gentlemen will convince you). Nowhere is this aesthetic more apparent than in news features of crimes, crime reporting. The composition or make up of the crime scene, the victim’s home or neighborhood brings the severe aesthetic disparity into sharp focus. Like the snow moving difference, in crime scene reporting one will find meticulous homogeneity of design/function components in some well to do crime scenes (think Tiger Woods being rescued from his crashed luxury SUV through the use of one of his top of the line golf clubs), a hodge podge of genuine and imitation components (ala Saddam Hussein’s Las Vegas-esque palaces), and deteriorating “make do” with sheets or towels for window covering and ad hoc purely functional 2×4 or plumbing pipe hand rails, concrete block steps, etc. In short, the aesthetic make up of the “crime scene” speaks inequality much more than any contextual reference. Yet, shown within a visual art gallery setting, the inequality becomes watered down, possibly becoming elided, eventually disappearing altogether when the spectator leaves the room. Those engaged in the current discourse regarding inequality and inequity would do well in considering the shortcomings of the visual arts in voicing such matters. Visual art cannot escape its heritage of wealthy patron portraiture, fine residencies in idyllic landscapes, and sumptuous settings of food.  Within the current regime of art, inequality, like the life of Woody Guthrie, requires dissection for inclusion in the distribution of sense.