November 16, 2009

Flag as Road Kill & the USCC

This is the worst, best logo I have ever seen. It's perfect for the US Chamber of Commerce. Free enterprise has run over the flag with a Hummer. The nation's regulatory apparatus is a carcass waiting to be scraped off the highway. What were they thinking? Aside from the obvious substantive dissonance, it's a thoroughly wretched bit of design. The deep shadow behind the splatter appears mindless and irrelevant. Is floating road kill more appealing? Surely this bloody pulp of a pennant can't be trying to wave? There is a different version on their website that emphasizes the ethereal light at the expense of the shadow. Among it's other charms, consider also the logo's vapid, sloppy exploitation of familiar twentieth century art -- gestural painting, drips, Jasper Johns, Robert Frank and, perhaps, especially Claes Oldenburg's 1960 USA Flag. I'm having fun imagining the internal Chamber meetings in which the merits of this design were pitched and debated. BTW, what's the USCC's position on flag desecration legislation, constitutional amendments, etc.? Lucky for them, the Supreme Court thinks it's protected speech. Texas v. Johnson (1989)

October 21, 2009

Keywords by Raymond Williams

I’ve found myself picking up Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams frequently this semester – both to review for my Theories of Art lectures and to help prepare for a new seminar I’ll be teaching in Spring Semester, 2010 on art and public policy. Williams’ book is indispensable and hilariously brilliant. Each entry is a full-fledged essay on a word, including a study of derivation, competing uses and relationships to others words. My favorite: his winning trifecta on representation, realism and naturalism.

To start with, his definition of art is gloriously down to earth. Williams doesn’t tell us what we want words to mean. In a kind of Wittgensteinian mad clarity, he patiently documents the actual usage through the ages. Here’s a sampling plucked from the beginning, middle and end of his two page 'art' entry (citations omitted, some abbreviations spelled out):

Art has been used in English from the 13th Century. It was widely applied without predominant specialization, until the late 17th Century, in matters as various as mathematics, medicine and angling. In the medieval university curriculum, the arts… were grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Artist, from the 16th Century on, was first used in this context, though with almost contemporary developments to describe any skilled person. [….]

The emergence of an abstract, capitalized Art, with its own internal but generalized principles, is difficult to localize. There are several plausible 18th Century uses, but it was in the 19th Century that the concept became general. [....]

It can be primarily related to the changes inherent in capitalist commodity production…[as a]…defensive specialization of certain skills and purposes…not determined by immediate exchange (value)….This is the formal basis for the distinction between ….fine arts and useful arts. [....]

As these practical distinctions are pressed, within a given mode of production, art and artist acquire ever more general (and more vague ) associations, offering to express a general human (i.e. non-utilitarian) interest, even while, ironically, most works of art are effectively treated as commodities and most artists, even when they justly claim quite other intentions, are effectively treated as a category of independent craftsmen or skilled workers producing a certain kind of marginal commodity.

The book was published in 1976 and updated in 1983. Williams famously had no tolerance for post-modernism and the book does not take on the then-emerging vocabulary of late twentieth century criticism. Keywords is the work of a dogged Marxist modernist with a razor sharp mind and an awe-inspiring capacity for research.

A couple of other similar projects on my shelf that are more up-to-date, but in no way replace Williams' book: A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory by Peter Brooker (Arnold, 1999) and the more extensive Cultural Theory, The Key Concepts by Andrew Edgar & Peter Sedgwick (Routledge, 2002).

August 8, 2009

Working Class Heroes: Top Ten Film Recommendations

Just an update on the exhibition of film posters and stills I organized for the AFL-CIO. Local union blogs are picking up on the exhibition all over the country; there are some prospects that it may travel after it closes here in November. And, (here only!) my top ten (film, not poster) list, which actually has 13 choices and is more or less in order of preference:

1. Salt of the Earth (1954) directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Production/distribution: Independent Production Company & Intl Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers. Filmed against the backdrop of the 1950’s Red Scare by blacklisted filmmaker Herbert Biberman, the film tells the story of a strike by Mexican American zinc miners in New Mexico. When the picket line is shut down by a Taft-Hartley injunction, the miner’s wives take over. Only a few professional actors were employed – most roles are played by miners, family members and union representatives.
2. Harlan County, USA (1976) directed by Barbara Kopple. Winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film follows a UMWA strike. Mountain culture is also front and center with music by Hazel Dickens and an interview with Florence Reece, during which the 76 year old activist sings her 1931 classic “Which Side Are You On?” a cappella.
3. Fast Food Nation (2006) directed by Richard Linklater.
4. Tout va bien (1972) directed by Jean Luc-Godard. Four years after the 1968 Paris demonstrations, a workers’ take over of a meatpacking plant provokes thoughtful (and sometimes absurd) ruminations on labor politics by employees, local union officials and management. Stuck in the middle are a journalist (Jane Fonda) and her lover, a filmmaker, who wrestle with the roles of intellectuals and artists in the struggle for workers’ rights.
5. Bread and Roses (2000) directed by Ken Loach. (Japanese poster pictured above)
6.The Navigators (2001) directed by Ken Loach.
7. Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin. A slapstick study of the alienating effects of the assembly line, time studies and automation. This was his final silent film.
8. Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza) (1981) directed by Andrzej Wajda.

9. Matewan (1987) directed by John Sayles. Based on the Battle of Matewan, a bloody 1920 confrontation between miners, who had been evicted from their company homes, and Baldwin-Felts detectives, hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Filmed on location in West Virginia. Hazel Dickens appears in the film and sings the title song, ‘Fire in the Hole.’
10. Cradle Will Rock (1999) directed by Tim Robbins. Tells the story of Orson Welles’ attempt to use the WPA’s Federal Theater Project for a Broadway musical about a steel strike. Also depicts depression era politics with a broad brush (and poetic license - the chronology is a little off). Subplots include anti-communist Congressional hearings; corporate plotting to aid Mussolini; and Diego Rivera’s famous confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller over the artist’s Rockefeller Center fresco.
11. The Organizer (1963) directed by Mario Monicelli. A professor (Marcello Mastroianni) helps Turin textile workers organize to fight for better wages and conditions.

12. Mondays in the Sun (2002) directed by Fernando León de Aranoa. Workers left idle by the closure of shipyards in a Spanish port cope with unemployment and dim prospects for work.
13. Baran (2001) directed by Majid Majidi. At an Iranian construction site where Afghan refugees are illegally employed, an Afghan teenage girl poses an a boy to obtain work after her father is disabled from a fall due to unsafe conditions. A young Iranian worker resents the new employee until he discovers her secret and falls in love.

July 19, 2009

Sun Ra: Space is the Place

Sun Ra's movie Space is the Place (1974) is visually splendid, brilliant and crazy; it has the most charming special effects ever and from start to finish a knockout score by Sun Ra. The commonplace becomes profound with repetition. I remember when WPFW arranged for Sun Ra to play the Old Post Office Pavillion on Halloween. A bright moment. Also try Sun Ra's Nuclear War. BTW, what you going to do without your ass?

June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: Blood on the Dance Floor

Last night, in a state of ecstasy, anger, and hurt, played MJ as loud as the stereo could tolerate. He was magnificent in his peculiar, excessive way -- an exemplary artist as Henry Miller describes in Tropic of Cancer, page 256, beginning with "do anything but let it produce joy....Things, certain things about my idols bring tears to my eyes: the interruptions, the disorder, the violence, above all, the hatred they aroused. When I think of their deformities, of the monstrous styles they chose, of the flatulence and tediousness of their works, of all the chaos and confusion they wallowed in, of the obstacles they heaped up about them, I feel an exaltation. They were all mired in their own dung. All men who over-elaborated. ... What is called their over-elaboration is ... the sign of struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambiance of the discordant spirit.... I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music....."

June 10, 2009

Working Class Heroes

Working Class Heroes: Selected Film Posters and Stills opened yesterday at the AFL-CIO International Headquarters. This is the second exhibition I have organized for the AFL-CIO. The show was expertly, flawlessly installed by Nilay Lawson and Breck Brunson. It’s open Monday – Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, through November 15, 2009. The AFL-CIO is located at 815 16th St., NW (just north of Lafayette Park). Here’s some excerpts from the wall text for the show:

Film is one of the most democratic arts. As German critic Walter Benjamin observed in his seminal 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, cinema dispenses with the ‘aura’ of the unique work of art destined for elite connoisseurship. For the audience, there is no single ‘authentic’ Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Royals and workers, presidents and unemployed investment bankers see copies and one copy should be as good as another. Where reactionaries saw mass media as a looming threat to great culture, Benjamin welcomed it, arguing that the mass distribution of film, especially, would open the door to new content and eventually unlock art’s political potential.

This exhibition of film posters and stills represents a wide range of Hollywood, independent and foreign films that incorporate workplace and organizing themes. In some ways, Benjamin’s prediction looks sustainable. Many of the films presented here have, in fact, helped bring public attention to important stories about worker safety, the exploitation of immigrant workers, impediments to achieving union recognition and other important issues. Many, but certainly not all, are also exceptional works of art.

In the process of selecting films for representation in the exhibition, one major theme quickly emerged: the celebration of the working class hero. The movies love heroes and in many of these films, especially Hollywood’s, the plot boils down to an individual’s battle with a hostile system, rather than true collective action. In that way, the depiction of workers shares a heritage with filmland’s other rugged individualists -- the cowboy, the secret agent, the detective, the lonely genius, etc.

Nonetheless, it’s a near miracle that some of these films were produced by business corporations. The profit motive surely plays a part (Norma Rae, Erin Brockovitch, for example, were box office hits). And, the power and progressive politics of stars (Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda) and directors (Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh) has been a key factor in moving working class hero scripts through a system that otherwise might not be sympathetic.

Most of the contemporary movies here are independent and foreign projects that have attracted distribution by virtue of their sheer quality (and the growing influence of festivals to get them off the ground). Not surprisingly, these films take a more nuanced view of the workplace. Indicative of the profound economic shifts experienced by workers in the last forty years, layoffs have been a major theme. Mondays in the Sun, Hula Girls, The Full Monty, and The Navigators all depict workers coping with closing factories and mines, declining job security, out sourcing and privatization.

Still, the real complexity of organizing and collective bargaining mainly eludes the camera. The grit, drama and intensity of organizing campaigns and strikes is brought to life only in a few, most notably, Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (perhaps the most remarkable labor film ever made), and Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Harlan County USA.

May 2, 2009

Enlightenment Criticism

Note to art theory professors: before you teach students to disparage the European Enlightenment, make sure they’ve experienced it. Make sure you have, too.

April 1, 2009

Lou Andreas–Salomé

Currently reading The Freud Journal by Lou Andreas–Salomé. She was 50 years old when she started studying with Freud. The book documents her experiences in Freud’s often contentious weekly Vienna seminars. He became very attached to her. He brought her flowers. She visited with him at home frequently, often staying late into the morning hours talking about current issues in psychotherapy. On such occasions, Freud insisted on walking her home. By all accounts, they did not have a love affair. (Lou had broken Nietzsche’s heart thirty years earlier; she was Rilke’s lover when she was in her late thirties and the poet was in his early twenties.) Her reflections in the journal are often quite original and provocative. For example:

“It was wonderful to arrive in the Syringasse in the evening with flowers from Freud … I long thought that his concept of ‘polymorphous criminality’ was a colossal exaggeration until I realized that there is inevitably an emotion analogous to hate at the onset of all conscious awareness. We attain our separate individuality only by repelling something and being repelled by it. If hate and the doom of death are found in the underworld of our dreams, that only betokens the first point of departure – the first chilling isolation and separation without which an ego would no more come to be than would pulmonary respiration without the interruption of the direct supply of oxygen from the maternal body.”

February 15, 2009

Chris Kraus

Suggested reading before heading out to the College Art Association Annual Conference in LA: Chris Kraus’s Video Green: Los Angeles Art and The Triumph of Nothingness ( Semiotexte, 2004). There’s double resonance for CAA in LA – Kraus’s book is not only a perceptive look at LA’s art scene, but Kraus won CAA’s 2008 Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism.

Kraus writes in blood (to borrow from Nietzsche) – a passionate, highly readable mix of autobiography, art criticism, cultural commentary, sexual fantasy and fiction. (When was the last time you read a book of criticism from cover to cover in one day?) Her main lament is the blankness of the art fostered by LA’s MFA powerhouses, but, commendably, she spends more time writing about what she likes.

To put it mildly, Kraus is present in her criticism. If George Romero had written The Death of the Author instead of Roland Barthes, it would feature Kraus. She’s decisively undead and if it’s multiple subjectivities or omniscient god-complex criticism you want, you’ll have to kill her again and again and again.

Moreover, to her credit, Kraus’s rejection of prevailing professionalized modes of art-making and talking about art does not pitch her backwards into reactionary beauty fetishization, like many of her contemporaries. She likes broadly conceptual, project based art that is engaged with the city and its many communities.

Still, it may be a little jarring for new readers to credit opinions on fine art from a writer who claims to be a former prostitute, topless dancer and domination/submission addict who trolls the internet for sexual partners to punish and humiliate her. Is connoisseurship of the many modes of sexual debasement a qualification for talking about art? Put another way, does having strange men come in your face (one of Kraus’s reminiscences) give you any insight into the experience of looking at contemporary art? Well, if you put it that way, I guess it’s kind of perfect.

Also check out LA Artland: Contemporary Art from Los Angeles (Black Dog Publishing 2005). It’s a flawed, but useful Taschen-style arts-poitation coffee table book edited (and with good essays by) Kraus, Jan Tumlir & Jane McFadden. Another useful book is Sunshine Noir, a catalogue for the 1997 show of the same name organized by Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Humlebaek, Denmark.

January 27, 2009

Ornette Coleman, Virgin Beauty (1988)

Album of the Day, Month, Year: Ornette Coleman's Virgin Beauty

I bought this album probably not too long after it came out in 1988, didn’t like it and put it away. Don’t think I’ve heard it since. First of all, Jerry Garcia on guitar struck me as a cop out. Unlike most of my generation I was never a Dead Head. Born and raised on John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Archie Sheep, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Monk and Miles, Charles Lloyd, John Handy (and James Brown) -- the Dead always bored me my to tears. I went to one concert and feel asleep. (I did like the Dead’s first album a lot – haven’t heard that for years either. Still have the LP but never play vinyl anymore.)

Anyway, in the fashion of Ornette’s early, great double quartets, Bernie Nix and Charles Ellerbee also play guitar on Virgin Beauty. Al McDowell and Chris Walker contribute dizzying, syncopated, snappy, cracking, trebly bass lines. Denardo Coleman and Calvin Weston fire up the drums. The only voice not doubled is Ornette’s horn.

Listening to it my studio yesterday, I was transfixed, knocked out, in love, amazed, captivated. I danced all by myself for nearly an hour. This is a great band swinging, funking, rocking and bluesing with that crazy, piercing alto totally in command over all the commotion. And then, there’s a magnificent, soulful Ornette solo at the end. What was I thinking? Ornette’s always ahead of the curve, but how could it take me so long to catch up with this one?

January 22, 2009

Dolores Huerta and Barbara Carrasco Visit Chicano Art & Experience at the AFL-CIO

Legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta visited our show yesterday with distinguished artist Barbara Carrasco. Barbara’s portrait of Dolores is in the show. In fact, the print we have is signed by both Barbara and Dolores.

Dolores, along with Cesar Chávez, is a co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association which evolved into the United Farm Workers of America. She was instrumental in the grape boycotts that brought the farm workers’ struggle to international attention. At 78, she is still very active in progressive politics and social change in her work as an individual and through her foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation. (pictured at right: Barbara Carrasco, Rex Weil and Dolores Huerta with Carrasco's Dolores. You can also see, behind Barbara, Sun Mad by Ester Hernández)

p.s. the show is featured on WETA-TV's Around Town. See the Janis Goodman review here (scroll down to 'art reviews.')

January 14, 2009

Big Al Carter (1947-2008)


photo by David Peterson
The Washington Post Magazine