Posts Tagged ‘Secular Criticism’

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?


Our Contemporary Comfort With Revisionist History

December 17, 2010

            Thursday December 16 found Brett Michael Dykes following the continuing BP oil spill saga in the Yahoo News Blog, The Lookout. He writes that the “independent” commission appointed to investigate the oil spill and the various responses found the building of sand berms at the insistent instigation of the governor of Louisiana to be a “colossal waste of time and money”. They claim that only a miniscule amount of oil was captured by this boondoggle, described as “underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive”. It appears the insinuation is that, in addition to being exceptional political grandstanding (and theatre), it was also a utilitarian means of repaying Bobby Jindal’s election campaign high rollers. In response, the ever web savvy Bobby responded to the Lookout by denigrating the report as “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense”. I guess, according to Jindal, the “independent” commission was using the wrong search engine terms in arriving at the associations that comprise history.

            “Revisionist History” seems to be making a comeback from its overuse during the Soviet/ Chinese “Communist” era. Remember when China used to be considered “communist”? I guess teabaggers consider it more apropos to blast the socialist threat at home than to speak of the actual and historically real socialism found with a top global economic “trading partner” (whose governance structure includes a sizeable chunk of the world’s total population at that). But I digress (mea culpa for anticipating my view on historic revisionism). Well, at least if not a comeback then our culture seems to be becoming quite at ease with the term’s use. The Texas school board used it as motivation for its mandate to update textbooks and it was used equally so by their critics. It is thrown around repeatedly in accounts of various political intrigues and “scandals” here in the heartland (Rahm Emanuel, resident of Chicago?). Indeed, there is even a “revisionist history” museum in Kentucky (though it is not called that) which will soon be joined by a theme park featuring a large boat sans body of water (complete with incentive tax abatements and taxpayer paid infra structure). Maybe the boat isn’t really “revisionist” history after the recent archeological discovery of a very “real” prehistoric “Atlantis” civilization in the Persian (er, Arabian) Gulf. This civilization may be the “historical” reason for the many great flood accounts that the big boat sailed on. But again, I digress.

            History for Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao appears to have been different than history today (yes folks, the Chairman was an actual contemporary of the Comrade, as well as old blue eyes- the Chairman of The Board, but yet again I digress). History then had to do with the past. “Revisionist History” spoke of colonialism and Imperialism, and who got to determine the past. At the time, the past had an intense influence on the present, and who got to do what. Today, folks like Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange and Jimmy Wales have completely reoriented what history is, what it is about, and what it has to do with today. This redeployment of what comprises “history” (what comes up with any given search engine inquiry) contributes to our contemporary comfort with revisionist history. After all, revise your search engine inquiry terms, and you get a different set of associations (ah the internet, the great equalizer!). It also explains our annoyance with “digressionist history”, you know, the one that is full of disparate associations that have to do with actual events, in already played out time (what once was referred to as “the past”).

Only Certain Ideas Are Legitimate

October 10, 2010

            In his 2009 book, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso), Jacques Ranciere frequently references Guy Debord and the spectacle. Debord’s account of the spectacle is taken as a description of the kind of soup that we all find ourselves in. Currently, here in the US, the upcoming midterm elections occupy the center ring. Several visual ads have caught the attention of the pundits intent on flexing their acuity for discovering the “underlying truth.” One was for a race in West Virginia; that the ad was actually staged and recorded in a Philly diner with a casting call soliciting “hick” types, clothing, etc. (by an actual Philadelphia lawyer?) Another ad was that of a hard hat here in Ohio that the Steelworkers Union found fault with the fact that it was actually a portrayal by an (non union) actor and in no way was indicative of the blue collar (union) outlook.

            In the chapter entitled The Misadventures of Critical Thought, Ranciere writes:

“That is the truth of the concept of spectacle as fixed by Guy Debord: the spectacle is not the display of images concealing reality. It is the existence of social activity and social wealth as a separate reality…

To know the law of the spectacle comes down to knowing the way in which it endlessly reproduces the falsification that is identical to its reality. Debord summarized the logic of this circle in a lapidary formula: ‘In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.’ Thus, knowledge of the inversion itself belongs to the inverted world, knowledge of subjection to the world of subjection. That is why the critique of the illusion of images could be converted into a critique of the illusion of reality, and the critique of false wealth into a critique of false poverty.” (pg. 44-45)

            The “news” that political ads involve actors, doesn’t come across as very new to most of us. But one does wonder where it positions these modern day Christopher Columbus’s, as well as their readers, within this inversion. Would be aspirants for political leadership tout their disdain for big government while chastising their incumbent opponents for not having created jobs. “Vote for me” will get people hired. The last time I looked, the government grows with each new governmental job. The private sector, which always remains mum and never enters into this fray, are the ones not hiring, and like BP’s humongous oil spill, their actions are completely out of the pale of governmental capacity (archive post Spam Camouflage May 30, 2010).  Exactly how does a government leadership position create more jobs without making the government grow? The inversion becomes even more bizarre with a radio ad making the rounds on popular country stations. It starts out by decrying the destruction of our economy by the wasteful spending habits of Washington legislators who are chipping away at our rights (rock breaking sounds accompany this portion). It endorses candidate so and so who will protect our second amendment rights. The glaring slippage of this ad truly places it right up there with “the illusion of images [that] could be converted into a critique of the illusion of reality.” One solution in this “world that really has been turned on its head” is for the possession of a firearm to be mandated of every man and woman in the US (like the possession of auto insurance). Every new born would be required to own a gun. Akin to the right to a public defender, if you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you. That way we could finally get on with addressing the educational, infrastructure, and economic challenges facing our nation today without constantly being concerned about the erosion of our second amendment.

            Ranciere ends The Misadventure chapter with this hoped for approach to life within the soup of spectacle:

“This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible. Collective understanding of emancipation is not the comprehension of a total process of subjection. It is the collectivization of capacities invested in scenes of dissensus. It is the employment of the capacity of anyone whatsoever, of the quality of human beings without qualities. As I have said, these are unreasonable hypotheses. Yet I believe that today there is more to be sought and found in the investigation of this power than in the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast.” (pg. 49)

            On 10/7/2010 the AP ran a short article by Ryan J. Foley covering what could be construed as one of these “action[s] of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible,” a scene of dissensus, “of the quality of human beings without qualities.” It seems that the former editor of the (Wisconsin) Stoughton Courier Hub, Autumn Drussell, was demoted for revealing to her readers her actual (big box store) shopping habits, and relaying the advice given to local area small businesses by their own Chamber of Commerce (at a luncheon she attended). The paper’s advertising clientele demanded she be ousted. The last line of this article (what Harry Shearer likes to refer to as the buried lead) makes it tenuous to embrace Ranciere’s “unreasonable hypotheses” (as attractive as it may be):

“Stephen Ward, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism ethics expert, called her demotion draconian and chilling. “It really sends a signal that only certain ideas are legitimate,” he said.”

An Intolerable Image II

September 24, 2010

            In the spring of this year, the former Ms. M N responded actively, via her blog, to the coerced editing of a South Park episode that would have featured an animated image of the P M along with Jesus and Buddha. M N’s response was to suggest that on a particular day, everyone should draw the great P. This triggered a threat being made on the life of Ms. N resulting in United States federal authorities advising her to go into hiding and change her identity. Recently (as noted in this blog’s previous posting The Intolerable Image), the former M N’s tragic tale made it to the bigs, with a headline story on MSNBC. The meteoric plummet (and set back) was on account of a usurped, “off the record”, over-coffee conversation with a Seattle journalist ( This was unfortunate in that the former M N needs to disappear in order for her new identity to take root. Like the Dalai Llama, a reincarnation followed by an “aka” simply will not do.

            Recent developments continue this now-becoming-very-public saga of “forgive and forget” (something seemingly methodologically impossible within the connectivity and virtual immortality of the net and its 2 billion participants). On line, a Seattle based I group has come out in support of Ms. N, something she has not received offline from her democratically elected representatives ( ). In addition, an online petition has appeared signed by prominent western I intellectuals, writers and artists advocating for the universal rights of free speech, image making, and the circulation of ideas ( ).

            These online developments look very promising. In the heartland, we’ve been waiting for such news to make it to the bigs, though it never does. Why not? One suspects there may be other reasons for why such overtures on the part of the I community never make it to the bigs. Immediately springing to mind is the life of Malcolm X who very publicly endorsed an alternate embrace of a then contemporary mainstream I belief. But a less spectacular insight might be found in a drawn out religious response concurrent to that of Malcolm’s variance. This would be the very public ascension of what was known then as Liberation Theology within the RC church (Oops, no need to employ the strategy of deferral and coded description for the sake of intolerance here – the Roman Catholic church). Post Vatican council, many new ways of popularizing the practice of Catholicism came to the fore, one of which was embraced by the far leftist revolutionaries in heavily Catholic, and deeply impoverished, (what was then called) third world countries. This approach never found favor with the main stream Roman Catholic hierarchy. Eventually, it found itself condemned, and finally squelched entirely. Perhaps the universal right of free speech, image making, and the circulation of ideas is an intolerable image too.

The Intolerable Image

September 17, 2010

            “What makes an image intolerable? At first sight, the question seems merely to ask what features make us unable to view an image without experiencing pain or indignation. But a second question immediately emerges, bound up with the first: is it acceptable to make such images and exhibit them to others?” So Jacques Ranciere begins the chapter, The Intolerable Image (pg. 83) within his book, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso 2009). Ranciere spins this thread around and through the spectacle; that any imagery presented, eventually is subsumed within the spectacle and hence contributes to it thereby elevating (and at the same moment denigrating) the pain and indignation. The same goes for the critique of said imagery. Images become intolerable within this “ethical” framework of continuous spectacle. Yet the world is as it is, and must be considered as such, critically, not through the eye of revelation. How is this possible? He offers alternative presentations that do not elide the subject matter, do not stultify the viewer, and yet that can be made critically. One of which is the work of Alfredo Jaar, specifically that dealing with the horror of the Rwandan genocide, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. This reference is remarkable in that within this work, the horror is not shown within an image though an image of a text describing the horror is manifest. There is no “intolerable image” and yet an image of something intolerable is certainly presented.

            On 9-15-2010, MSNBC headlined a Jim Gold report entitled “U.S. Cartoonist in hiding after cleric’s threat”. This covered the ongoing tragedy of the very real threat on the life of M N for having made a facetious, but critical suggestion on her blog. Being that Ms. N’s blog was very much akin to this very blog, I am actively opting for the alternative proffered by Ranciere. Little comfort there to yours truly (another kindred creator of images) since the methodology of that very alternative is precisely what resulted in a fatwa on the life of Ms. N. What M N suggested, that on some imagined calendar date (say September 31st, 2010) we should all draw the P M, couldn’t itself have been an image of M, since no image of the P M exists. Any image of the great P is considered intolerable by the P’s followers, a substantial percent of the world’s population. So Ranciere’s alternative to dealing with the unrepresentable, without its contributing to the spectacle, has proven in actuality (historically) to be intolerable.

            Within the chapter, Ranciere implicates the voice, the voice of authority, and not reason (with regards the subject matter) as being the determinant that resonates within the outrage of critiques of intolerable images. This voice speaks on what constitutes spectacle, what is admissible, how, when, etc. Within many languages, a distinction is made between an active voice and a passive voice (an active or passive verb, tense, etc.). The Intolerable Image inadvertently remains confined within the passive sense of (in)tolerance. Passive in that it is one that elicits outrage, critique, or sanction but not action. Ms. N’s sorrow lies with the very active interpretation of tolerance; that an active intolerance can result in bodily harm, destruction, and even death. Is the example of the work by Alfredo Jaar to be taken only rhetorically, only another contribution to the culture of spectacle? If not, what response ought we to make regarding the brutality foisted on Ms. N (without any insurance to cover her “not at fault” losses and the enormous costs of her re-identification)? Ought not it be an active response?

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

September 9, 2010

Rhetoric: 1. persuasive speech or writing  2. pretentious words  3. empty talk  4. skill with language  5. study of writing or speaking effectively

            Encarta Dictionary: English (North America)

            “It is fascinating to observe, following the studies of R.W. Lee and Michael Baxandall, which take us through the topoi of the critical literature (I confess we would likely grow tired of these old chestnuts had we not discovered them from the standpoint of the Chinese difference), how all our classical theorists became locked in the same “self-evidence” (calling that sedimented configuration of thought “nature” or “reason”) and hence discussed and argued from within it. Once more it appears strange how, on the European side, the notion of painting submitted – by its own will or by force, in any case systematically – to the assumptions of a purely European invention (which in large part even defined Europe), namely, those of rhetoric. Painting is obliged to respond to the requirement for inventio (by giving precedence to history, using a narrative theme, ancient or modern, profane or sacred), for dispositio (the drawing is to the painting what the plot is to a tragedy, said Aristotle), for expressio, which is analogous to poetic elocutio, (the painter’s aim, like that of the poet, is to express the particular characteristics and passions of the characters). The same Horatian function of “instructing” and “delighting” is attributed to painting and to poetry; painters are enjoined to unite freedom of imagination and the requirements of imitation, to respect the “proprieties” of dress, age, sex, feeling, and condition, and finally, to aspire to a concentration of effect. A perfect painting, like a perfect poem, is a construct ordered by reason whose most insignificant part is causally linked to the dramatic intention informing the whole, thus to produce emotion.”

            Pg. 213-214, The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting by Francois Jullien

            “The sculpture, which measures approximately 16 feet long and 11 feet high, is a double-helix wave form of reflective acrylic-coated aluminum rods. Suspended 25 feet in the air, the sculpture provides a striking image for students, staff and visitors walking through the main atrium of the Academic & Research Center.

            Shotz says she chose the helix shape because it unifies the various disciplines housed within the Academic & Research Center. “The helix is a form found throughout nature,” she says. “It’s similar to half of a strand of DNA, a helix describes a mathematical curve in three-dimensional space and it’s similar to a wave, which is the form of light and sound.””      

            Percent for  Art: “ANGLE OF INCIDENCE” at Ohio University, ArtsOhio September/October 2010  re: recent sculpture installation by Alyson Shotz

Anything’s Possible

July 26, 2010

            The AP ran another “Anything’s Possible” story today. You know, toddler climbs Mt. Everest with nanny to call attention to the plight of career-obsessed households, woman skateboards across Greenland to raise awareness of global warming, etc. This time it was about a 60 foot home made catamaran arriving in Sidney after 4 months crossing the Pacific from San Francisco. No, it’s not a vacation travel story even though sailing is a wonderful way to spend a summer. Oh, by the way, the boat was made totally out of recycled components (when you read some of the recycling, almost anything today could be considered recycled- candles made out of wax, steel made out of iron ore, plastic made out of BP skimmed oil, etc.). This entire adventure was the gift (brainchild) of Dennis de Rothschild  (“a descendant of the well-known British banking family” the article hastened to add).  The article quotes Dennis as saying “There were many times when people looked at us and said ‘You’re crazy.’ I think it drove us on to say ‘Anything’s possible.’”

            Sunday evening, July 25th, Ann Curry did a piece for NBC’s Dateline entitled ‘America Now: Friends and Neighbors’. To say it was about Southeast Ohio would be totally inaccurate. To say it was about hunger, about the present, on-the-ground conditions of the American economy would be much more succinct. It focused on the lives of various folks over several months- people unemployed, underemployed, out of luck, making bad decisions, or just plain stuck. It showcased the heroism of just getting by day-to-day, whether in the larger “giving” sense of keeping a food pantry operational or in the minute “personal” sense of caring, to not abandon one’s progeny (as one man said “I’m worth more dead.”). It was an accurate snapshot of an American offspring that does not normally get any attention, let alone 60 minutes of air time.

            The Teabaggers will have a field day with the Curry piece; something about welfare states, handouts and the entrepreneurial spirit, self reliance, etc. They won’t even notice the AP article on ‘Plastiki’ (the name of de Rothschild’s craft). After all, we all want a bigger boat, don’t we? I guess we’re supposed to believe that what Dennis and his entourage did was enterprising, self reliant, and of the greatest service to the world community. To say that sailing is a wonderful way to spend the summer is an understatement (Tony Hayward can attest to that). Nothing entrepreneurial, self reliant, or community oriented was ever attempted, let alone accomplished. Mr. de Rothschild did not start up any large global recycling enterprise, company, or cooperative that provided contributors with living wages and benefits, that paid taxes to the local schools to educate his future employees, that struggled to provide its participants with access to nutritional, locally produced foods. No, to do something of that sort would be to commit to actually doing something within the world community, not just saying “Anything’s possible.” But that wouldn’t be refined enough, too mundane, entangled in the day-to-day.

            On the other hand, the heroic embodiment found in the communal spirit of the folks portrayed in Ann Curry’s Dateline piece will get slammed by the Teabaggers. Here, individuals are actually being entrepreneurial, enterprising, and self reliant by playing the bad hand their community was dealt. And they are doing it all without losing their cultural heritage (Stuart’s Opera House’s locally funded talent competition). How is it that the Teabaggers will seize on this while the Liberals completely fail to notice any of it? How is it that Liberals have become so (obsessively) preoccupied with promoting “Anything’s possible”?

Spam Camouflage

May 30, 2010

            Artworkshop International keeps sending me spam. Do you think they are trying to tell me something? The subject line always refers to some international art workshop with some artist whose name is always unknown to me. I’m sure the artist of the week has a practice, of which networking and being an educator probably occupy the greatest part.

            One of America’s longest running wars, with no determinable outcome in site, has been the one in Afghanistan. Their president, whose country is the site of our war, is often quoted chastising the NATO or US forces for perpetrating civilian deaths. The curious realization is that he never criticizes the Taliban for civilian deaths. A raid by the occupation forces which has gone awry resulting in civilian casualties is, of course, a cause for concern and regret. But a roadside bomb or suicide attack, resulting only in civilian casualties has no effect on Hamid Karzai’s ire.

            This past month the international corporate giant, BP, has been hogging the news with the mess they are creating in the Gulf of Mexico. In the past, when the Mexican currency was devalued, or Hugo Chavez did something or other in Venezuela, or Nigerian rebels threatened Shell oil production, or the Iranians rattled their sabers, etc. the price of petroleum products shot up and the stock market reacted sharply. This past month, neither has happened. The stock market has gyrated, mostly on the basis of the European debt crisis, and the price of petroleum products has actually decreased.

            What is it that remains hidden within these “news” events (OK, so spam isn’t news)? Where’s the theory interface that can shed some light on our everyday?

            With the international art workshops, it is almost obvious. The topic of hierarchy, and the binary representation of what is deemed “art” and what is not, was covered within the post entitled House Haunting (January 21, 2010)  as well as briefly elsewhere. It is a recurring theme with this blog. And sure enough, that is what is hidden in all the spam from Artworkshop International. The commercial exploitation of the covert pressure exerted by this binary mystification of what constitutes “real” art provides fertile ground for this ongoing educational enterprise. The educator must be the “real” artist, the student is just a wannabe. As an artist, at some point, one must learn to make discoveries and self educate. Otherwise, being an artist becomes little more than someone proficient at coloring between the lines.

            With Hamid it is just as obvious only stating it reveals so much more about us than him. As long as Afghanistan is occupied, for Afghans the occupier will always be considered the “Other”. For Hamid Karzai to embrace humanism (or religious tolerance) by extending 18th century notions of equality and equity to ALL acts of war that result in civilian casualties would be to abandon his own solidarity with his countrymen and its reliance on an “Other”.  After all, what is war if not the actualization of an Other?

            The BP debacle is the most curious. It defies interpretation as a “hidden”. Yet the “hidden” aspect is the most revealing one for our times. All previous stock market reactions and petroleum product increases have been due to international “governmental” political reasons (politics can be interpreted variously, by some accounts everything can be political), or some “natural” disaster or incidental mishap within the chain of delivery. This time the producer has erred internally within their own production. There have been no repercussions as there were for the other events. The other events were primarily State interference or dabbling in the “market”. Now, however, the State has been totally powerless. And the market hasn’t flinched. It is as though BP, being such a huge source of revenue for the market, has asserted its hegemony. It (as well as Exxon Mobil, Shell, etc.) calls the shots and determines value (We are too big to fail). It is a goose laying golden eggs and no one wants to have it otherwise (so the eggs are a little soiled, so what?). There is no threat to delivery of product, so the markets remain unaffected. This in itself implicates the complete incompatibility of a “green” economy and the market. It makes no difference whether super tankers sail on pristine blue waters or on a cesspool, as long as product delivery remains unaffected. We watched as major businesses were ostensibly monopolized by the State under Putin in Russia, thinking it was simply part of the “Soviet” DNA. Ditto for China. Now, for a brief instant, we have been given a glimpse into what otherwise must remain hidden. The actual, real order of things has now been briefly but completely exposed by BP’s screw up. It is that giant international business affiliations determine how States are run, and not that States determine how business should be conducted within their borders. This is borne out by BP’s emphasis on “recapture” of its oil during the first month, not on plugging the leak. Maintaining continued access to their product motivated the initial response to the loss of lives and environment. The only real solution, they have constantly reminded us, is to drill another well.

            Spam always insures that there is something we are not to see.

Response to Peter Nielsen Comment

April 26, 2010

Peter Nielsen

Executive Director Of Institutional Advancement

Vermont College Of Fine Arts,

            Your comment was posted on my small blog (as was this response). It is part of the process, so it appears though it may not enhance my position.

            One questions the value of being a strict constitutionalist. After the surreptitious dismissal of the program director, claiming to be a continuation of G. Roy Levin’s pedagogical initiative is suspect. “Being open and truthful can lead to a better understanding for all involved” appears to have incorporated exceptions exercised through institutional discretion for the sake of expediency. “It is in this sense that we must read Said when he himself speaks of exile not as “privilege,” but as a permanent critique of “the mass institutions that dominate modern life.”” (Mufti quoting Said, part of the blog posting).

            I have no problem with the brochure’s mission statement. Nor with a studio art pedagogy that promotes itself on that basis. VCFA is not unique in that regard. Many schools do. In the light of Edward Said’s work, and the “networking” emphasis that has evolved (since G. Roy Levin’s passing) and become dominant today (in politics and business, it was always affectionately referred to simply as “the good ole boys” network), I have difficulty with the association of that statement with being critical. That statement is not about being critical. It is about the art making process. Today’s networking economy may embrace “critical” as just another cliché of exclusivity, but as Mufti elaborated, there is some substance and history to the critical approach. The mission statement does not reflect that. My blog posting was about one person’s (Said’s) understanding of being critical. And why, given the nature of secular criticism, the marketing department at VCFA should revisit where art becomes critical.

            All for the best,

            Stanley Wrzyszczynski

Where Art Becomes Critical

April 26, 2010

            Hot on the heals of the Program Director’s dismissal, a promotional brochure for Vermont College of Fine Arts appeared in the snail mail box. Its mission statement reads:

“Where Art Becomes Critical   Guiding Principles   Artist =Thinker Artist = Speaker Artist = Community Maker   It is the Program’s hope and belief that our students are radicalized by their time in the Program. Radicalized in the fundamental sense of having gained a more complex and confident view of the world as artists and as people. Students learn that making art doesn’t have to focus on being better than, or isolated from, others. That it can be a cooperative, mutually-beneficial venture and that being open and truthful can lead to greater understanding of all involved. They realize that the real rewards in making art come from struggling with the process and not from the perfection of a shiny, fashionable, salable object. And perhaps most crucial, they recognize that art is not simply about art, and artists are not lone geniuses, but both exist and take on their significance through a relationship to the world. Both the art and the artist are part of the social, cultural, political, and economic context that partially influences and defines them, and therefore they help to influence and define. All artists have an obligation to understand and struggle with these extra-artistic issues.”

Enough said about “being open and truthful can lead to greater understanding of all involved” (3/21/10 posting, Tribute to Jessica Lutz) except that a comma is needed after “venture” (or is that intentional?). Let’s consider where art becomes critical!  

            In an essay entitled Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, secular criticism, and the question of minority culture (From Edward Said and the work of the critic: speaking truth to power, edited by Paul A. Bove’), Aamir R. Mufti elaborates on Edward Said’s “secular criticism” and its unique and integral association with exile. Referencing Said’s emphasis on Erich Auerbach’s compilation of Mimesis while in Istanbul during the Second World War, Mufti writes (pg. 236): “Said therefore reads Auerbach’s exile, and the composition of Mimesis during that exile, as questioning received notions of “nation, home, community, and belonging” (World, Text, and the Critic pg. 12)”. Later (pg. 237) he writes: “The German Jewish critic in (“Oriental”) exile becomes, for Said, the paradigmatic figure for modern criticism, an object lesson in what it means to have a critical consciousness: “The intellectual’s social identity should involve something more than strengthening those aspects of the culture that require mere affirmation and orthodox compliancy from its members” (WT 24; emphasis added).” On pg. 238, after quoting an essay by Emily Apter, he follows up with: “The form of cultural “literacy” that Said calls secular criticism makes an ethical imperative of loss and displacement. It holds, with Adorno, that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” (Theodor Adorno Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life 39) It sees minority as a permanent condition of exile and requires that in our affiliative efforts at critical community and comprehension we assume the posture of minority.” On 239 he emphasizes what he takes to be Said’s meaning of secular criticism: “Secular implies for Said a critique of nationalism as an ideology of hearth and home, of collective Gemutlichkeit; a critique of the “assurance,” “confidence,” and “majority sense” that claims on behalf of national culture always imply; a critique of “the entire matrix of meanings we associate with ‘home,’ belonging and community” (WT 11). It contains the charge that the organicism of national belonging, its mobilization of the filiative metaphors of kinship and regeneration, obscures its exclusionary nature; it can be achieved only by rendering certain cultural practices, certain institutions, certain ethical positions representative of “the people” as such. Secular criticism seeks continually to make it perceptible that the experience of being at home can only be produced by rendering some other homeless.” Finally, on pg. 240, he summarizes: “Said’s insistence on the critical imperative of the secular can appear elitist, and hence paradoxical, only if we forget the haunting figure of Auerbach in Turkish exile that he repeatedly evokes. It is in this sense that we must read Said when he himself speaks of exile not as “privilege,” but as a permanent critique of “the mass institutions that dominate modern life.” Saidian secular criticism points insistently to the dilemmas and the terrors, but also, above all, to the ethical possibilities, of minority existence in modernity.”

            Today, many artists, as well as their art, describe themselves as being nomadic. Nomadism shares many of the same characteristics as exile. Indeed, it would not be difficult to conflate the two. They are not the same. What Mufti is describing is a position in regards to the world rather than an economy of networking as “a relationship to the world”. The nomadic economy is underwritten by tribalism. One could almost say it is an essential condition of the nomadic. The tribal may not appear to be a “nationalism” that is tied to place (a “hearth and home”) but it is about belonging, being identified as part of a group. VCFA’s mission statement may not promote tribalism as such, but marginalizing the “isolated” or “lone” artist certainly does implicate that. Considering such an adumbration of collective art making and artists, and the excluded minority thereby rendered “homeless,” VCFA’s marketing department should revisit “Where Art Becomes Critical.”