July 29, 2007

Art and Inconvenient Truths

As it happens, I finished Kurt Vonnegut's novel Hocus Pocus (1990) and watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on the same day, yesterday. The connection: both are tendentious, both are concerned with environment degradation. One is good art, the other is decidedly not and doesn't pretend to be. One is naïve and bitter, the other is slick and evangelistic. At the same time, one convincingly makes the difficult connections between damage to the environment and religious beliefs, capitalism, greed, racism, class pretensions, and Yale. The other, with the approximate scientific depth of your average commercial for a headache remedy, pulls heartstrings and concludes with a web link. Two notes on that: (1) Yes, I admit, Al Gore brought me to tears several times; KV manifestly did not –even though there's a hell of a lot more to weep about in Hocus Pocus; (2) If Vonnegut had written another novel, I think he would have ended it with "go to http://www.tralfamadore.net/" [don't click on that]. And, don't get me wrong – of course we all want to fix global warming [and save…what? In memory of KV, let's be clear – it's not necessarily the planet we're trying to rescue, but our own miserable species]. Could it be that, ironically, the right wing is correct about the ill effects of profound reform on life-as-we-know-it: the whole deal, the ship of state, the health of the economy, etc., is, in fact, hopelessly tethered to waste, militarism and the heedless exploitation of labor and resources? And so it goes... R.I.P. KV 1922-2007 (photo by Jill Krementz/cover design by Paul Bacon)
from H/P:
It was speech by God to Adam and Eve supposedly…"Fill the Earth and Subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the Earth."


So the people on Earth thought they had instructions from the Creator of the Universe Himself to wreck the joint.

July 22, 2007

Artists and Authority

Is it true that artists are constitutionally hostile to authority? I just came across A Fine Madness (1966; 104 minutes) quite by accident, which makes the case. A young Sean Connery is poet Samson Shillito, who just can't abide employment, police, lawyers, responsibility, sobriety, ex-wives, psychiatrists, etc. He has a soft spot for Joanne Woodward though -- she's a waitress, who is Samson's meal ticket, manager and loyal protector. Unfortunately, but with the best of intentions, she hooks him up with a shrink specializing in creative types. Things seem to be working OK 'til Samson seduces the shrink's wife, played by Jean Seberg. (What a wrenching, tragic irony that Seberg in real life was pilloried and driven to despair by FBI dirty tricks in retaliation for her anti-authoritarian political views; she died by probable suicide in 1979). Anyway, when the Doc finds out, a lobotomy is scheduled. Oh yeah -- this is a comedy. I won't ruin the ending for you.

p.s. You can see an actual copy of an FBI planning memo that describes one particularly loathsome plot to defame and embarrass Seberg at this link (click on politics). The memo says: "Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP (Black Panther Party) and should be neutralized." Note that the memo comes from the FBI's 'Racial Intelligence Unit.'

July 20, 2007

More Intelligence: some list servs and feeds

Americans for the Arts has the really intelligent Cultural Policy Listserv. It's a once-a-week free e-mail briefing on a variety of issues, including government support for the arts, copyright, censorship, community arts, education and lots more, with links to pertinent sources and background. Sign up here. I'm guessing you already subscribe to artsjournal; if not, I highly recommend it for a vast amount of news, commentary and a family of the best arts blogs. One more? You can subscribe to the Village Voice arts coverage (or other sections) here.

July 19, 2007

Best of Intentions

Not surprisingly, given the name Central Intelligence Art, we have apparently attracted the attention of whatever spy agency tracks art theory. Onkafatso, code name of the agent assigned to us, though, in some weird inversion of the Stockholm syndrome, can't lay off commenting on my posts. And, he/she is certainly quite articulate (art theory literate spies are probably as difficult to find as those that understand Farsi, so we should be flattered). Now, Onkafatso is unhappy with my disparagement of artists' intentions – in one of my Serra posts I suggested that artists' intentions are not controlling in our analysis of the impact, experience, or social function of their work. (It's the last of 4 comments on that post.) Onkafatso thinks that if artists' intentions are not respected, it leaves the door open for art critics to make up all kinds of shit and, ultimately, to control the universe. But, I'm right. Artists' intentions are interesting, of course – and should be consulted. Nonetheless, if artists' intentions were determinative, African fetishes would cure river blindness, Byzantine icons would be portholes to the godhead, Frank Stella would be the incarnation of Caravaggio, and all artists would be great ones. Anyway, it's reassuring to know that deep in some airless, dark bunker, probably in the neighborhood of the Naval Observatory where you-know-who lives, someone is always listening and thinking. Thanks and keep those comments coming.

July 16, 2007

Ken Ashton at Civilian Art Projects

I visited photographer Ken Ashton's admirable show at Civilian Art Projects (CAP) late last week. It's a selection of images from his ongoing 'Megalopolis' series that memorializes the vast array of quotidian urban spaces we normally take for granted: backyards, alleys, warehouse districts and low-rise storefronts. He captures intense natural light (seemingly often daybreak or deep afternoon shadows), but the dramatic illumination is not so much for beauty or sentiment. Rather, it particularizes Ashton's subjects -- makes them fresh and real. We see our cities with the stone cold lucidity of a hangover. (You might not know that Ashton's work is included in two recent books: Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections from the of Julia J. Norrell Collection and Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 To The Present by Deborah Willis.) Lily Cox-Richard's looming, impressive 'At Stake and Rider', also on view at CAP, shifts attention from the urban present to the rural and the past. Fragments of classical architecture support an apparently calcified split rail fence that juts through the back gallery. Both artists will be at the gallery on Saturday, July 21st at 3 PM for a discussion and reception.

While I was at the gallery, I had an interesting talk with CAP's director Jayme McLellan about politics and art in Washington. More on that later. It is, however, noteworthy that CAP has already done some interesting programming on Darfur and on government surveillance. Both events were well attended, but there was very light representation from DC's art community. Strange… It reminds me of a piece I wrote a long time ago about politics and Washington art for the Corcoran's 1985 The Washington Show. No link for that - it was pre-web, but nothing's changed. Anybody remember The Washington Show?

July 10, 2007

Hirst Skulls, 'Nam Skulls & the Whitney's Summer of Love

On the subject of Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted cranium, here's an article in the Washington Post about GI's psychedelic painting and graffiti on VC skulls brought home from Vietnam. The photo by the Post's Gerald Martineau is available online, but not with the story. For now, the skulls are stored at Walter Reed's National Museum of Health and Medicine. (I told you to go to there, remember? But, sorry, the skulls are not on view.) Instead, a last minute loan has just been announced to the Whitney Museum for its Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. That's false, of course, but you heard it here first, anyway. For that matter, Summer of Love, up until September 16, is required viewing. Check the film schedule before you go and plan to spend a couple of hours. (I especially recommend the documentaries: Peter Whitehead, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, 1967, 70 min.; Paul Sharits, Piece Mandala/End War, 1966, 5 min.; Howard Lester, One Week in Vietnam, 1970, 3 min.; Third World Newsreel, America, 1969, 31:30 min.)

Re: macabre souvenirs, it's old news that Rumsfeld secured a piece of the plane that flew into the Pentagon. I prefer Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym's Buildings of Disaster (see, Design Intel sidebar). At any rate, souvenirs are, generally speaking, better than memorials. They take up a lot less space and accomplish more or less the same thing. The mall is getting crowded.

July 6, 2007

Serra, Serra: last call

Insightful commentary by Gainesville subterranean bodhisattva JCS claims Serra's recent work constitutes a monumental gesture of resistance to authority. It's an attractive, if romantic, idea and it's certainly consistent with Serra's intention. Nonetheless, I have my doubts. The flaw is that you need the Serra back story to make that argument: tough guy, against the odds, hostile public, etc., etc. (I'm sympathetic - my self-image was forged by TV and movie cowboys, too.) But artists don't get to decide how their work functions in society. The work functions on its own. An important part of the critical enterprise is to figure out the actual, on the ground, impact of specific works of art. In my view, Serra's scale virtually guarantees its future as just another (loud) phrase in the vocabulary of wealth and power. Another way of asking these questions is an old one (Benjamin's): what is, really, the political tendency of this work? Or Marcuse's: How does this work help to demystify institutions and relationships in society and , thereby, 'break the power of established reality (and those who established it) to define what is real'? Can 'Serra' (the brand) escape becoming an emblem of capital? As to net social impact, it would be interesting to compare Serra and Gordon Matta-Clark (the recent Whitney retrospective was fascinating) and, for good measure, add in Damien Hirst's new $100,000,000 skull.

Note: to follow up on an earlier post where I wondered why Wal-Mart had not seized the opportunity to sponsor the Serra MOMA retrospective – the actual sponsor is conglomerate LVMH / Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

July 3, 2007

Serra, Sculpture, Serpents, Cincinnati

If you had been born and raised in Cincinnati like me, you would have been haled along to the ancient serpent mound near Peebles early and often by enthusiastic elementary school instructors, camp counselors, Sunday school teachers, troop leaders, parents and relatives. Made for an extremely dull day. Can't really see shit from the ground. Even aerial photos are pretty boring -- the most prominent feature is the contemporary visitors' walkway. Nonetheless, the adults always seemed to enjoy it and that kept them off our backs for awhile. And, the little maps are cool.

I remembered them yesterday as I was looking again at the Serra Guggenheim Bilbao photograph. All of which lends support to the idea about autocratic power and death.

For information call 1 800 BUCKEYE.

July 2, 2007

Speaking of Richard Serra...

In the language of art, work of this scale signifies two things (1) the aggrandizement of autocratic power and (2) death. These are the pyramids of the twentieth century. Perhaps each should contain a burial vault or, better yet, cryogenic chambers. (But, seriously, we don't care about earthly remains so much anymore. The secular version of the afterlife is "being remembered." And that's what museums are for.) Tell me I'm wrong because I love this work and it's important to me. Alert: The MOMA show runs only 'til September 10th. Given lazy summer attitudes, vacations, etc., that's going to slip by quick, fast, in a hurry. You can see a video walk through, along with Serra interviews here. Also - check out MOMA's video of Torqued Ellipse IV (1998) and Intersection II (1992) being installed in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (!) Sculpture Garden.

ps: did you know that Tony Serra is Richard's brother?