Posts Tagged ‘contemporary art’

Review Of A Review

July 29, 2016

Here are excerpts from a book review by Robin Adele Greeley that appeared in the Summer 2016 Critical Inquiry. The book is Art beyond itself: Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line by Nestor Garcia Canclini.
“Artistic practice, once object-based, is increasingly founded on contexts; artworks are being “inserted in the media, urban spaces, digital networks, and forms of social participation where aesthetic differences seem to dissolve”. This “de-defining” of art throws into question long-standing analytical concepts such as Pierre Bourdieu’s art field that still depend on some idea of national cultures and distinct spheres of aesthetic production or (at the other end of the scale) on postmodern nomadism with its illusion of a world without borders.”
“Our trouble in providing a cogent storyline for contemporary art, Garcia Canclini insists, is of a piece with our vacillations about how to confront a post 9/11, post-2008 world in which conventional categories no longer explain contemporary experience, economics and politics have become “an unconvincing display,” and coherent narratives founder on the “barely explicable ruins of what globalization has destroyed”. Yet it is precisely in contemporary art’s ability to capture this state of incoherence that Garcia Canclini situates its capacity to address our present condition.” [!]
“Garcia Canclini argues that what defines contemporary art’s persuasive power is its “imminence”: its ability to “[insinuate] what cannot be said,” to “[say] things without pronouncing them fully,” maintaining them inventively unsettled. Art’s imminence is “the place where we catch sight of things that are just at the point of occurring”; it produces a “zone of uncertainty…suited not so much for direct [political] action as for suggesting the power of what hangs in suspense”. Art’s ability to critically embody that constitutive indeterminacy is what allows it to confront the bewildering splintering of competing or unconnected narratives.” [we’ve seen this movie before]
“If, for Ranciere, art’s politics resides not in giving marginalized social groups a means of representation but in introducing between the work and the spectator the paradox of the unanticipated, then Garcia Canclini rethinks this model, giving light to art’s current postautonomous condition.” [Didn’t anticipate that one, did you?]

So, next time you encounter something (“just at the point of occurring”) labeled art that makes no sense (“in which conventional categories no longer explain contemporary experience”) and is totally incoherent, you’ll have a handle on how to articulate what it is you are looking at and its significant imminence. Or not. Either way you’ll be able to say “that’s art!”


Hall Of Zombies

December 12, 2013

A recent foray through the 3D section of a college art department, one that grants a BFA, presented a stark and discernible contrast. The ceramics area was all alive with whimsical creations — creatures and humanoid figures, narrative and abstract shapes in bright and varied colors, textures and surfaces. These forms originated as base clay, eventually glazed, fired, etc. The sculpture production centered around detritus derived creations composed of the cast offs of consumer society – bottles, cans, plastic bags, furniture parts, tea bags, apparel, etc. These likewise were multicolored, textured and various in attempted forms. These pieces never managed to escape the trauma of their base material’s initial priority — that of promoting a commodity based and driven culture. The components’ original intended function was to signal fulfillment and happiness found within (the beverage, food, purchased acquisition, etc. that they originally contained and delivered). Any application to utilize this spent residue was in actuality a contestation of its original functional intent by design; akin to wrestling to undo the Bauhaus through utilizing its own signature designs to create Non-Bauhaus creations. In spite of itself, each piece became a struggle, not only to overcome the overwhelming “aura” of the component material employed but, more importantly, to imagine an “other” to the market compelled ontology that these materials insist on reproducing. Few succeeded in this no rules cage match. Unlike the ceramics area “alive with whimsical creations”, the sculpture trek turned into a flight down a hall of zombies.

It Takes Place In Real Time And You Can’t Control What You’re Going To Say

October 28, 2013

Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and MIT professor amongst other things, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on the 10-18-13 Moyers & Company. The emphasis of their exchange was on how the self has been re-identified as one dependent on the mobile device – smart phone, laptop, etc. “You begin to feel yourself as you mesh yourself with the means of communication.” A resulting outcome is the inability of face to face conversation, resulting in one excuse for its avoidance being the title of this blog posting. The mobile device over determines exchange; “The sweetness of something new that’s coming into us on our phone.” or its anticipated promise. Conversation becomes torn, “Attention divided between the world of the people we’re with and this other reality.”

Arthur C. Danto passed away on 10-25-13. It would be pretentious to write an elegy or obit. Perhaps, especially within the volume of what Arthur Danto left us, it would be better to consider what is not found, what was missing. AP presented an elegant report by Hillel Italie with quotes, counter opinions and a brief history (Groundbreaking art critic Arthur Danto dies at 89, 10-27-13). That should suffice for reference and context. I would like to consider two areas of exploration left open within Danto’s contribution that are pertinent and relevant to understanding the art (and culture) after the end of art – the technological reproducibility of next to nearly anything today, and the “rhizomatous” aspect of art production (conflating the scientific and philosophic meanings) and how little this is valorized in our culture.

Hillel Italie gives some intriguing quotes: “”But now I have grown reconciled to the unlimited diversity of art. I marvel at the imaginativeness of artists in finding ways to convey meanings by the most untraditional of means. The art world is a model of a pluralistic society in which all disfiguring barriers and boundaries have been thrown down.”” Danto, of course, was most instrumental in the shift from the hierarchical, progression interpretation (of Greenberg) to one of no end (of art). “”From my perspective, aesthetics was mostly not part of the art scene. That is to say, my role as a critic was to say what the work was about — what it meant — and then how it was worth it to explain this to my readers,” he wrote.” reflects the innate conversational approach that he imagined his work to be about. And “”When I became a critic, I met everyone under the sun. But I knew very few artists when I was an artist. Some printmakers, some second generation Abstract Expressionists. … They were the great figures of my world, like Achilles and Agamemnon in ancient times,” he wrote in a 2007 essay about his own work.” reveals more than its brevity suggests.

Contemporaneous with Danto’s contribution and thinking were the works of other thinkers and critics, events and developments. Some of these appear within his work. Some are never referenced. Although this pluralistic society for which the art world is a model produces work in which performance, installation, ready-mades, found objects and collaborations are ubiquitous, what happens when one cannot distinguish the hand of creation, what produced what, because of the seamless incorporation of technological reproduction (what Benjamin had adumbrated)? Along with the end of art was the death of the author, but when authorship becomes usurped by technological virtuosity, what then? Is this as Turkle describes that “You begin to feel yourself as you mesh yourself with the means of communication.”? Though Danto thought that with the end of art, art’s interpretation likewise differed (no longer seen as a Greenberg progression), he never confronted the dissipation that this produced – that a work’s understanding now hinged on what was not art, what surrounded the artist (“I knew very few artists when I was an artist.”). This horizontal interpretation (of all outside what is the artist’s discipline having a bearing on “what the work was about — what it meant — and then how it was worth it to explain”) introduces rhizomatous considerations associated more with Deleuze and Guattari than Danto. This enmeshed, artist identity produces “Attention divided between the world of the people we’re with and this other reality.” The notion of art as conversation was prevalent before the end of art. It was implicated by the artist’s awareness and reference of what went on before the work at hand as well as after. Contemporary culture disrupts this by “The sweetness of something new that’s coming into us on our phone.” This sweetness is not necessarily in real time (nor referential to anything that went before or to come), but of an “other reality.” – acceptable to technologically driven art but not to conversation (which Danto imagined his own work as a critic). Art after the end of art just may involve a heavy emphasis on what is not art!

Some Assembly Required

February 3, 2013

Near the conclusion of his essay The “Return” of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Elsaesser recounts an anecdote of displaying on his laptop old photos of his friends that he had digitized. Looking at the images, the seven year old daughter of one of the couples began trying to “click” on the photos of her parents made well before she was born, rather than ask “who are these folks, when was this, etc.” Seeing that nothing was happening with each click of the cursor, she walked away. Elsaesser uses this to draw out the cultural shift in images. “The idea of a digital photo as a window to view (to contemplate or be a witness to) had for her been replaced by the notion of an image as a passage or a portal, an interface or part of a sequential process—in short, as a cue for action.” (Critical Inquiry Vol. 39, No. 2 Pg. 240-241)
“Before I let this steam drill beat me, I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.” So goes the story of John Henry down in Pence Springs, West Virginia. Of course, in John Henry’s time, tools of hand labor were continuously being replaced by powered tools. The bit and brace eventually were supplanted by the electric drill, hand saws by various electric powered circular saws, etc. These in turn have “evolved” with cordless battery powered models. Likewise large stationary shop tools, originally endless belts systems with power generated by water wheels or steam gave way to large electric models, eventually the smaller portable models of today. The operators of these innovations, the craftsmen and artisans, still needed to rely on their attentiveness and physical prowess (athleticism) to accomplish any work. Their energy was consumed by maintaining attentiveness through the drudgery (and danger) of machine repetition as opposed to the drudgery of repetitive, totally physical exertion. Henry Ford capitalized on and cultivated this shift in culture. Hardt and Negri (amongst others) have adumbrated the shift in the nature of labor today, from the mind numbing but physical engagement of the Fordist era to the physically numbing but mental exertion of today’s service economy. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed the same phenomena occurring analogous to what Elsaesser describes. Students come in to work on their sculpture projects in the woodshop, with earbuds in and smart phones at hand. Somehow the tools don’t do what they anticipate, don’t fulfill their expectations. They walk away miffed, assuming the distorted creation they’ve found themselves with is on account of some software deficiency. After all, the tools of contemporary labor must have the latest software. One wouldn’t buy even a new model car without it. Stationary and powered hand tools, even those with rudimentary supplemental software, don’t respond too well to just point and click—to the operator feeding in the material and expecting the tool to produce the desired results. Save in the totally automated robotic systems, attentiveness and athleticism have not been displaced, even by the new “safe” tools loaded with sensors and brakes. Though the Elsaesser anecdote’s emphasis is on the “cue for action”, the greater concern may be for the loss of the ability to contemplate or witness.

Playing Ball

October 28, 2012

“NEIL BAROFSKY: Well, what I saw when I was in Washington was this real pressure on myself, on other regulators to essentially keep their tone down. And I was told point blank by Assistant Secretary of the Treasury that, this is about in 2010.

And he said to me, he said, “Neil, you’re a smart guy. You’re a young guy. You’re a talented guy. You got your whole future in front of you. You’ve got a young family that’s starting out. But you’re doing yourself real harm.” And the reason why you’re doing yourself real harm is the harsh tone that I had towards the government as well as to Wall Street, based on what I was seeing down in Washington. And he told me that if I wanted to get a job out on the Street afterwards, it was going to really be hard for me.

BILL MOYERS: You mean on Wall Street?

NEIL BAROFSKY: Yes. And I explained to him that I wasn’t really interested in that. And he said, “Well, maybe a judgeship. Maybe an appointment from the Obama administration for a federal judgeship.” And I said, “Well, again, that would be great. But I don’t really think that’s going to happen with my criticisms.” And he said it didn’t have to be that way. “If all you do is soften your tone, be a little bit more upbeat, all this stuff can happen for you.”

And that’s what I meant by playing ball. I was essentially told, play ball, soften your tone, and all of these good things can happen to you. But if you stay harsh that was going to cause me real harm in those words.” (From the transcript of the October 26, 2012 Bill Moyer’s interview with Neil Barofsky, former special inspector general for the TARP program under Presidents Bush and Obama)

I was very fortunate this past week to have a lengthy conversation with a professional arts educator. Part of our conversation centered around a recent show by one of her colleagues. I mentioned how difficult it was, if not impossible, to critique something like that. Quite frankly, I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, nor a handle on how to critique it. Criticism simply is no longer acceptable within what is espoused as art today, at least not within our contemporary popular culture. She agreed that criticism was not, having been replaced by positive and supportive constructive insights instead, and that she originally had the same impression regarding the show. Attending the artist’s talk alleviated her sense of obfuscation.

“Claes Oldenburg once said, “Anybody who listens to an artist talking about his work should have his eyes examined.” Groucho Marx put it better when he said, “Who do you want to believe, me or your own eyes?” [“actually Chico, dressed as Groucho, made this remark in Duck Soup”]” (Robert Morris The Idle Idol, or Why Abstract Art Ended up Looking Like a Chinese Room, Critical Inquiry Vol. 34, No. 3 pg. 444)

Dispelling the need to critique after having witnessed it with my very own eyes was rather unsatisfying, if not downright unethical. Maybe there was a Chico, speaking in the guise of Groucho, within this professional academic’s solo show. But what could it be? And how to find it since it certainly was right there before my very eyes? In a totally unrelated text (The Parallax View), on a totally unrelated matter (the distinction between approaches to the obscene supplement of violence within the notion of sovereignty) Slavoj Zizek writes: “And this brings us back to where we began: perhaps we should assert this attitude of passive aggression as a proper radical political gesture, in contrast to aggressive passivity, the standard “interpassive” mode of our participation in socio-ideological life in which we are active all the time in order to make sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change.” (pg. 342)

Part of the lack of critique or dispute within contemporary art today is that so much of it exists within this “interpassive mode of our participation” (both the artist creator as well as the viewer/spectator). The artist (as well as the viewer) exerts so much creative and material investment to be “active all the time in order to make sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change.”  This is primarily to keep the opportunities of career, networking, and earnings always open and available. Stay positive and supportive in your tone and presentation. “And that’s what I meant by playing ball. I was essentially told, play ball, soften your tone, and all of these good things can happen to you.”

Why Write?

May 27, 2012

            May 24,2012 AP article by Travis Loller, DNA Study Seeks Origin Of Appalachian Melungeons reports on a “scientific” account of a separated group of Americans. Melungeons, like various other separated groups (“In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. — from New York to Louisiana.”) strove mightily to distinguish themselves from African ancestry, primarily through creative narratives, historical accounts of their uniqueness. “Estes [Roberta Estes, lead researcher] and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.” Legal cases (both before and after the elimination of institutionalized ownership of people), intent on establishing distinction, are cited by the article. Ultimately, a present day Melungeon is reported to have paid for three separate DNA tests in order to negate the results of the study. He was very surprised that they all came back the same.

            “Separate but equal” was a big part of the warp and woof of the writers of the Federalist Papers, the framers of the US Constitution, the early legislators and jurists who established our country’s outlook on democracy (and the laws “put in place to penalize the mixing of races”). Property ownership was fundamental to that separation. Every school child knows that the US bicameral legislature came about to reinforce and underwrite the priority and precedence of property ownership within our representative democracy. The recent Citizens United ruling certainly maintains that original intent. The Melungeon myth making allowed folks access to capitalist enterprise that otherwise would have been denied them. On the other hand, Jim Crow laws, in the north as well as in the south, maintained the sanctity of the myth built up around the authors of the Federalist Papers, the US Constitution, and early amendments and laws. “Separate but equal” has never left us.

            In What Was Contemporary Art (ArtMargins vol. 1, issue 1) Octavian Esanu writes about the impact and influence of institutional grants, residencies and fellowships in forming the characteristics and quality of what we’ve come to know and recognize as contemporary art. He describes the role of the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art network as moving art away from the Modern, to the post modern “democratization” of art. Anyone could apply. Those granting the funding were not necessarily practicing or accomplished artists (being instead professional institutional administrators). The end result was Beuys’s, “everyone is an artist.” Esanu describes the funding grants as financial leverage. Although always far short of any kind of individual sustainability, they are used as leverage to form the present day artist entrepreneur (written about too often in this blog). A small amount of financial commitment yields enormous ideological clout. Within American culture and governance, this same outlook could be broadened to include the many “service oriented” involvements meant to address community problems throughout the US. A large bank, energy company, or retailer can boast of its substantial and significant contribution to some food bank or summer camp program. The funding is never large or significant enough to even cover the program’s yearly administrator salary. But the goodwill certainly is leveraged into generating a belief that the capitalist enterprise is genuinely interested in addressing and solving this problem, this need within the community. As Esanu points out to be the case with the SCCA funding, it ultimately creates a “separate but equal” situation within the arts – those generating art independent of any institutional funding, and those reliant on these resources to generate art. “Everyone is an artist.” Within the “service oriented” approach (the one lauded by all the current crop of graduation commencement speakers) the same “separate but equal” culture is promoted and reproduced regarding food, shelter, health care, education and self governance.

            In today’s Newark Advocate (May 27, 2012), Rental Registration Committee Seeking Feedback From Renters, Ann Sudar reports: “An ad-hoc committee is looking for more feedback on the possibility of bringing a rental registration system to Newark [Ohio].” “Although several landlords and property owners attend the meetings to voice their opinions, more participation from those renting properties is needed, said Lesa Best, committee chairwoman.” “Renting properties is one of Newark’s biggest businesses, and more than 42 percent of the city’s housing units are rentals, Best said.” “At the end of each meeting, there is a half-hour session for public comments. About 90 percent of the people who speak at the meetings are landlords, Best said. “I understand we are talking about landlords’ livelihoods, (so) of course they are coming,” she said. “Landlords are vital to the economy of Newark. That’s why we always want their input.” Best said she has not heard many comments from people who are renters. She encouraged more people to attend the meetings.”

            Why write?

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.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern

January 1, 2012

            They were a husband and wife tag team of studio art faculty. She did cats. If any of your work per chance showed feline, her name would immediately surface. That was her expertise.

            There was a recent art opening of very current work by a local artist. Without being overtly formatted as such, the work chronicled, “journaled” (ours is the culture of predication) the symbiotic creativity of the parent-child relationship, the Pop Culture bedrock of family. Be it baby Louie, Lourdes, or Chaz, that relationship is totally comprehendible within the public imaginary, almost iconic by definition (mother and child). It is currently red hot and circulation is practically guaranteed. You can stake your career on it. And the artist did.

            This week found me reading something I would never have stalked at my favorite book supplier, the library. It was a gifted book, a rather long one (comparable to War and Peace by the looks of it). “The New York Times bestseller COLLAPSE: how societies choose to fail or succeed JARED DIAMOND author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel With A New Afterword” floats in a cloudy sky over a Mayan ruin landscape on the book’s cover- all in black, white, and tones of grey with a few spare horizontal lines of orange. How much of that IS the book cover by design and how much is marketing is totally academic (it is all one and the same, including the academic!). I haven’t completed the book. But this is not about the book. The author includes his anecdotal and personal experience as part of his professional expertise. Sounds only natural for a naturalist who studies nature to rely on his observation. Nothing exceptional about that, is there? But when one starts to do the math, a different image emerges; one of exception that accounts for the book’s cover. Jared Diamond is no Upton Sinclair. It “appears” that the two have a certain affinity. Both seem to be stating that something is rotten in Denmark. Like current news media, Diamond tries to present “both sides”. This is no simple matter he has researched and writes of. His research has taken him all over the globe, as well as to his second home in Montana which is the subject of the first chapter. Folks there have issues (problems) of historic precedence as well as contemporary urgency. Things are unpleasant. According to Jared the citizens of Montana could choose to address these issues through the passage of laws and vigilant enforcement. Diamond himself lives and works in, and is a citizen of Los Angeles, not Montana. Returning to the math, almost a half century has found him at his profession of research, teaching and writing, with accolades aplenty. His second residence in the Bitterroot Valley was the result of an initial professional invitation on the part of a foundation to spend time there. To put it in distinguishing language, how many students lives has he touched? How many have followed in his footsteps to become research and teaching professionals? Now multiply this by how many have done likewise, within the same or affiliated professions without having encountered him. Add to this the professionals who stake their careers on their expertise with regard cats or “family”, and the ranks swell incredibly; a very large contingency of people, “business person[s] without a business” (Our Literal Speed, unless you consider branding a business), who can afford a second home in a desirable location, yet not predicate themselves as part of the problem (or the solution). The tone of Jared Diamond’s discourse does not implicate him as part of the problem or the solution. After all, researching, analyzing, and disclosure of research analysis IS his profession. Laws and their enforcement are what other people, residents (the people he has studied), do to address these matters. His research and writing requires distancing and detachment to maintain professional standards and credibility. And there’s the rub. To paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver, within a democracy there are no spectators.

            Judging a book by its cover, I sense that the primary difference between Sinclair and Diamond is that Diamond’s work is produced and consumed as part of a society of spectacle. It has vast appeal (and is marketed) to intelligent, knowledgeable professionals (like himself) who will “Tsk Tsk” while engaging in quality entertainment worthy of their education and station. Where Sinclair utilized the text to activate change, Diamond simply wants to do his job, report on his correlations, sell books, and retire to his home in Montana.

            Zmijewski is on to something when he urges that “professional” artists implement their professional abilities, utilize their art expertise for social change (Applied Social Arts). Yes, there is the risk of shame, of historically falling on one’s face because of the decision to get involved with a specific social action. But this ostensibly “required” deference and detachment, primarily on the basis of what is expedient for one’s career and profession, reinforces and contributes to the status quo. Clinging to an assumption that being “about” something sets one apart from being the actual something does not contribute to the solution of the problem that “something” may actually be.

The Centrality Of Security

December 27, 2011

            An acquaintance sent holiday greetings in the form of a forwarded email. It was from the OP Ed section of the 12-25-11 New York Times. In an article entitled A Victorian Christmas, Maureen Dowd looks at the life and writings of Charles Dickens through a contemporary lens (comparing the insecurity of his childhood “homeless” experience and society’s economic inequities, and the outcome on his writings, particularly his Christmas variations). Christmas for Dickens (according to Dowd) involved a reflection on what could have been, what didn’t occur, and what was. This led me to reflect on the times of Dickens’ writing, and what was contemporary to it. In other parts of the world was social upheaval. Slavery was on the verge of ending while industry was forming a proletariat. Marx was responding to this. Darwin was of that day. Historians like to say that the writings of Melville, Dickens, Flaubert and others give insight into the times, what moved the age, the workings of society and the individuals that comprised it.

            A punch line that arises in many angst permeated liberal discussions is that “the revolution took place, and we lost”. The joke relies on the lead up conversation advocating for some kind of radical social enterprise. To a limited extent, the “failed” upheavals in Europe and North America of the 1960’s lend credence to this form of gallows humor. Though lacking the enormous historic detachment (necessary for analysis) of events from over a century ago, most agree that something took place in the 60’s, that what occurred failed, that what didn’t occur was relegated to utopian aspirations, and that the outcome of failure led to what it is we have today. One could liken the resolution of that upheaval of a half century ago to the Father Knows Best TV sitcom of roughly that same time period. The upheaval was around how society “ought” to be structured. In the end, something in charge of society (father), as opposed to society itself (the family), determined what became priority and policy. The revolution took place and we lost. The outcome was of an accelerated social inequity, in earnings and worth as well as opportunity, resulting in the contemporary situation that Dowd connects with Dickens’ life and writing.

            Presently there is social upheaval recurring almost globally, with slow but continuous frequency. We do not have the luxury of chronological distance to assist us in grasping its significance or character. In an essay entitled What To Do With Pictures (October 138) David Joselit likens formatting to the art medium of today. Unlike the material mediums of previous art (paint, metal, paper, etc.), formatting permits digital operations in terms of actions and activity through the use of data. Underlying this insight is the consideration that the art of the last 50 years has shifted and become entwined with the market political economy of today. With the end of art, the “romantic” notion of ideas and utopias has been eschewed for the “realism” of economics. Folks created art for the Medici’s, the burghers of Antwerp, and the European bourgeoisie because ultimately it paid the bills (and sent the kids to college), not because it created new forms of knowledge (which version one subscribes to becomes a matter of formatting the data!). According to Joselit, omnipresent is current art’s involvement with market culture. One would look in vain today for writers or artists whose works reflect the “spirit of the age” (in the manner of the 19th century), in contradistinction to the driving force of the age. But then again, maybe that very collaboration is indicative of the spirit of current social upheaval. Analogous to the grammar of nouns and verbs, the art before the end of art was more concerned with nouns, the subjective elements. The art after the end of art is more concerned with the verbs, the action words that predicate a service economy. Perhaps the upheavals of today are about the disappearance of the subject, the emphasis on the predicate, the ultimate mobility and fluidity of labor totally and solely determined by market force. Symptomatic of this is the increasing pressure to always be connected via an individual mobile communication device, so that anywhere, at any time, the bearer is prepared to accommodate any needed change in activity or action required by the market (always available to be accessed or appropriated). A perfunctory review of some of the issues precipitating upheaval- job security, health care, housing as a “home”, reassurance of retirement consideration, the uncertainty of the everyday ecological environment, etc.- reveals the centrality of “security”. For the limited 1% determining priority and policy, security against terrorism and financial chaos supersedes the “security” issues of the 99%.

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.