Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise in Seattle

Images courtesy of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence

Three panels are shining in the depths of the Seattle Art Museum, the Birth of Eve (bottom)
Saul and David (not pictured) and Jacob and Esau (top)
Their glowing gold surfaces have been restored by new technologies, this is the last time they will be seen outside of Italy. Some have been suspended in a chemical bath, others cleaned by lasers. The result is an entirely new experience of the doors.

We can see both the front and back, we see the detailed anatomy, complex spatial arrangements, sequential stories, landscapes, animals, birds, trees, hills, buildings, all in original new perspectives. Ghiberti found new ways of telling old stories and working with bronze. On the back we see the bronze with its undulations that mark the high and lower relief.

The ten panels of the Gates of Paradise were commissioned by the Guild of the Calimala with the support of the major merchants in Florence. Ghiberti's salary was "equal to that of a manager of a Medici bank." The cost of the panels was immense, tens of thousands of gold florins. They are the second set of doors created by Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence, and famous for the fact that he opened up the design into large squares of narrative.

The wealthy merchants of the community believed in commissioning modern art to call attention to their city. These gilded doors were the most sensational example of that idea. They are the same idea as Donald Trump gilding St. Gaudens 19th century statue of Sherman on horseback in the lavish 1980s. But the difference is telling. Trump is a contemporary merchant who used his personal fortune to restore a nineteenth century statue of a brutal military leader. In our country the government has little regard for contemporary artists, it does not fund individual artists anymore. The NEA actually was a funder for this exhibition of Renaissance art, the result of cultured business men from 500 years ago.

So what does Ghiberti show us?
no 9 Saul and David: David is killing Goliath by chopping off his head in the foreground, we forget that the famous sling shot didin't actually kill Goliath, just stunned him. Ghiberti has pulled no punches in this gory scene.
This is the most Roman in style of the three scenes on display. Since the Romans were really good at invading other countries in rows of soldiers, it is a natural reference for this battle scene as well.

no.5 Jacob and Esau is the story of Betrayal, the story of the younger brother in cahoots with his mother stealing his brother's blessing from his elederly blind father Isaac by wearing an animal skin that made him feel hairy like the older son Esau whom his father preferred.

no 1 The creation of Eve. The almost floating body of the nude Eve with a small angel pointing to her reproductive organs is the center piece of the story, the serpent is in the background, the creation of Adam, favored later by Michelangelo, is off to one side. It is the beautiful Eve, as predecessor to the virgin Mary who is celebrated here. But the next panel which didn't come to Seattle shows the next stage of her life, her older son Cain, killing her younger son Abel: Fratricide.

Other scenes not included in Seattle are Noah's Art, where the foreground image is Drunken Noah, rather than the orderly two by two parade that we are all used to, Sacrifice of Isaac,
(Abraham about to kill his own son),and Moses and the covenant. The story of Joseph is about betrayal, jealousy, and retribution.

Joshua is the story of the destruction of Jericho.
Lots of battles. lots of betrayals, lots of attacks on non Jews

The end is Solomon and Sheba, the peaceful coming together of Jews and Gentiles. The Queen of Sheba was from the lower Arabian peninsula. Solomon had 700 marriages, but this was apparently only a meeting of equals not a seduction.
Ghiberti begins with a celebration of Eve and ends with honoring the coming together of peoples who are different. He has overall a peaceful theme, in spite of all the betrayals, battles, and deceits.

Too bad, the Old Testament can't be interpreted like that by everyone today, with the final message of peace .

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008

War Made Easy How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death

Last night I saw War Made Easy, an amazing film that traces the way war is constructed by Presidents in the same way over and over, putting over first lies, then drumbeats, "Peace" "Freedom" "Democracy" to make war, spread destruction, kill thousands.
In World War I ten percent of deaths were civilians. In the Iraq war ninety percent of deaths are civilians. The film used clips that dated all the way back to Roosevelt, and even World War I, but focused on the period from LBJ to GW Bush. There was even a transcript of Nixon talking about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam at the same time that he gave public speeches as a "man of peace." The film laid bare the full extent of the campaign to disguise the death and destruction of war, to ignore the will of the people, to discredit opponents, to silence the perspectives of those being attacked.

Norman Solomon has analyzed the rhetoric of war from its initial promotion to the final withdrawal, and found astonishingly similar terms over the course of every war: contrived issues or provocations, Congressional resolution, ridicule of doubters, "support our troops", admiration for military equipment by press,; then as the war drags on , escalation of the war, increased death justified for peace, and finally, the use of the meaningless term "quagmire", and using nationals to kill each other, instead of US soldiers. And throughout the film, were pictures of people killed and terrified by actions on the ground that are the physical manifestation of this fabrication of of Peace, peace, peace, war for peace.

At the outset of World War II, there was Pearl Harbor, which FDR apparently knew was coming.

At the outset of the US war against Vietnam there was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, supposedly an attack from the North Vietnamese. It has been recently admitted to be a fraud. Congress authorized the war immediately.

Today we have some sort of incident in the Strait of Hormuz, well timed as Bush visits his Middle East. No identity was established for the small boats that approached the big aircraft carriers in a narrow strait, but we do know from experts that the "threats" recorded on a radio were not spoken by Iranian Farsi speakers.

And of course there was 9/11 that enabled the vague purposefully unending "war on terror". Fitting it into this established narrative for war, it is a smooth example of a provocation which led immediately to the Congressional resolution, the drumbeat, the ridicule of doubters ( in this case firing journalists), the celebration of the military, the support our troops, and now we have gotten to the end of the narrative, the arming of nationals, in this case Iraqi Sunnis to kill other Iraqis, in addition to all the other arming of Iraqis we have pursued with police forces, etc.

IS the Strait of Hormuz the beginning of the next narrative, since the Weapons of mass destruction narrative has foundered?

The movie was narrated by Sean Pean. Anti war activist. Creative people making a difference.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Robert Storr: Trapped in a Modernist Box

Throngs gathered on January 10 to hear Robert Storr, Dean of Yale Art School, last curator of the Venice Biennial, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art, speak at Kane Hall on the campus of the University of Washington.
He was talking about Kim Jones, whose work is on exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery until January 27. We heard only a little about Kim Jones though. We learned that he is "the only artist for whom war exists as a subject and an issue" according to Storr. That is the only artist in the "top ten" artists in Artforum. The clarification is necessary, because it tells you what perspective Storr comes from. He was speaking more about the "art scene" in New York and its obsession with prices and status, a topic which we in Seattle do not obsess about too much for a lot of reasons. It was helpful to us to be reminded of just how empty the "art scene" is though. Storr established himself as a man who is still embedded in the past by suggesting that the only other artists who currently address war are Raymond Pettibone and Jenny Holzer!

He owned up to painting abstract minimalist art himself. He quickly declared that Kim Jones, although he is the ONLY artist addressing war, was "not a political artist, he had nothing to preach, nothing to rebut". These are very tired knee jerk disclaimers from modernists who fear above all else that artists might actually try to say something about the world.

And of course, to declare that Jones is the ONLY artist addressing war is completely absurd. His work is based, apparently, on the fact that during Vietnam, soldiers electrocuted rats, so he does a lot of rats. A type of PTSD played out with rats. His public performances "violate the code of good conduct on the street" according to Storr, although in the slide he showed no one was even noticing Jones in the New York subway, where there is, as far as I recall, NO code of good conduct.

Storr declared that Jones did a type of "war drawing" of mutual destruction, without actually explaining the game. The destruction is that he ERASES the drawing. Have we heard this somewhere before?
Could it be the famous erasure of the 1950s? The modernist narrative is that Rauschenberg erased a drawing by De Kooning in 1953 as a gesture of succession to the next generation of artists that rejected abstraction.

When Storr was asked if, given the need for artists to engage the world he was encouraging students to study Middle East history or other topics like that, he declared, yes of course, one elective is required at Yale.
ONE elective, no wonder the most promoted art in New York is so often self referential and vacuous.

According to Storr, Jones is "theatricalizing genuine alienation." Well that sounds good, but if you parse those words they date back awhile. It is pure modernist argot. And individual artistic alienation is not the point today.

It is the US that is alienated today not the artist. The US is alienated from its stated principles, its supposed morals.

The day after Storr spoke, a demonstration addressed SIX YEARS of the illegal base at GUANTANAMO holding prisoners with no charges, no due process, no way of getting out. Amnesty International and World Can't Wait called for its closure, as well as all sites of torture worldwide. There was a public performance that "violated the code of good conduct in the street" because it re enacted water boarding, the form of torture that involves simulated drowning by strapping a prisoner to a board and putting his head in a soaked towel ( see entry on Selma Waldman). We use it regularly on prisoners ( and have for many years trained others to practice it, dating back to Chile in the 1970s) .

Perhaps it would cheer up Robert Storr, who seemed to regret the emphasis on money and status in New York, to know that there are plenty of artists who discard their training to be greedy status seeking capitalists. They are choosing to speak about what is going on in the world. In fact, as an old modernist would say, "the good artists" are doing just that.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Deportations: Artists Can Make Visible the Invisible

Deportations are part of the US today. We think of the Nazis deporting Jews to concentration camp, we think of the US sending the Japanese to prison camps in World War II, but today, in partnership with the anti immigrant frenzy is the deportation frenzy.
Few artists have addressed this subject, other than Chicanos, whose families have long been divided by arbitrary laws.

Today, the numbers are huge.
230,000 immigrants including young children are detained each year.
ANYONE who is not a US citizen can be deported, including refugees, student visa and business visa holders. longtime legal residents with green cards convicted of a first time criminal offense.
In 1996 Congress changed immigration laws eliminating due process protections for immigrants who wanted to challenge their deportation.
Many are detained in centers that look like, smell like and feel like prisons. Sometimes they are jails.
After 9/11 there have been more and more detentions and deportations.

We have heard most about the "extraordinary renditions" and the illegal status of prisoners at Guantanamo. Artist Trevor Paglen and Journalist A.C. Thompson who wrote Torture Taxi, have written about and photographed some of these illegal sites in other countries by tracing secret airplane records.
Making visible the invisible.
In Afghanistan, the prison near Kabul that they identified is now being expanded to bring in the prisoners from Guantanamo. These are the "war on terror" detainees.

We hear very little about the hundreds of thousands of other detainees of all nationalities, held inside the United States awaiting deportation. They can be locked up indefinately. They have little medical care, poor food, no phones. They are moved frequently to prevent contact with families and lawyers.
This is the other side of the racist frenzy that has seized the US.
Families are ripped apart, people are unable to live their lives.
Making visible the invisible is something artists contribute to a political catastrophe- theyat least put it on the radar of the general public. That is the power of art, one image tells so much. Comparing the two images at the top of the page, the man with the image of his family speaks volumes, the signs with texts are helpful, but do not carry the same effect.
The statistics and information on deportation and detainees is from Hate Free Zone, Immigrant Justice Network and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Friday, January 4, 2008

SPARC Paint Down the Wall

These are a few details from a still unfinished mural in the parking lot of SPARC, The Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California.
The project is called Paint Down the Wall. The mural is the work of a team of young muralists, some of whom have worked with SPARC for a number of years.
Their mural is protesting the building of the wall between Mexico and the United States as well as the brutal actions of vigilantes who stand at the border. The wall itself is only one physical manifestation of the anti immigrant frenzy that has spread across the USA. The absurd hypocrisy is that as anti immigrationists are shutting out people trying to make a living, the full enactment of NAFTA ( as of yesterday) will dump US subsidized cheap corn, beans, and sugar on Mexico, putting thousands of farmers out of business. There was a big protest yesterday in Mexico, reported here only on Free Speech Radio News
The mural shows Mexican immigrants at the border of all ages, men, women, grandmothers, children. They seem to have already been detained. At the center of the mural are turkey vultures, one of them grasping a bleeding calaveras ( skeleton). A captured family crouches under a tree, death as a calaveras lurking just behind them, while in the distance dark shadows of vigilantes threaten captured illegal immigrants with a whip and a dog.

At the other end of the mural a looming portrait of a Minuteman and other paramilitary types create a physical blockage of the space. A self styled vigilante with a blond goatee looks at the border with his huge binoculars. An elderly white man holds a sign" This land is my land, This land is not your land and it will never be."
The yellow and black highway sign of a running family that warn drivers of immigrant families crossing the road now includes the words "stolen lands" in a reference to the fact that all of California, Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas were declared part of the USA after the Mexican American war in 1848. All Chicano/as are historically Mexicans who ended up on the wrong side of the border. Only the lightest skinned former Mexicans were allowed to become US citizens.
Currently, SPARC is running a fund raising campaign to save the many murals in Los Angeles that are threatened or destroyed, or covered with graffiti . Attacks on the murals, like attacks on immigrants, are on the rise. Part of the reason is the government's actions in shutting down creative outlets that provide opportunities for youth to express themselves constructively.
Go to their website to see more of their murals and donate to save the murals
These murals are worth studying by anyone who wants to make a mural, a skill that is notably declining in our culture. Baca's own roots are with David Alfaro Siqueiros as a muralist and she encourages others to follow in that grand and outspoken tradition that uses large scale figures and dramatic spatial relationships, as well as clearly written texts incorporated as signs, to make the mural speak out loudly and clearly. That is the crucial element, that we can understand what this mural is about without knowing anything. And we can be educated by it.

Here is SPARC's statement about the PAINT DOWN THE WALL project. It is ongoing:

"When world events become so intolerable that you must take action, artists have the power of their brushes, spray cans, pens, cameras, to respond. We are asking those of you who object to the creation of a NEW BERLIN WALL on the border between the United States and Mexico to take up your brush and respond. We are organizing first a virtual paint in on the Internet which will be followed by n action at the border fence in the Playas de Tijuana to place our designs on the actual wall. Follow the instructions below for adding your image to the wall and sign up for our newsletter for further plans to PAINT DOWN THE WALL "

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year! Resist Ignorance!

I am starting the New Year with a quote from someone who declares himself to be ignorant.

“But I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from Al Queda operatives by looking at them because they cut their beards off. It’s like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses on you know? I mean not a racist thing, but they’re all brown with black hair and they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or Spanish.” “Return of the Nativist,” New Yorker, December 17, 07.

This type of ignorance is the basis for many of the major problems facing the United States from the President down to the ordinary everyday racist like this man.

In searching for art online about immigration, I found a website of excellent political cartoons. Perhaps the subject is too far away from New York City and too complicated for most post modernists steeped in how to distance themselves from on the ground facts. Let me know if you know of artists addressing the subject!

Above is one of the dozens of cartoons at This cartoon is by Barry Maguire.

Ignorance manifested itself also in the Walt Disney big budget film National Treasure: Book of Secrets recently released. I went to see Helen Mirren as an action hero, and I wasn't disappointed, but the ignorance of Walt Disney studios, their willful laziness with respect to Mesoamerican culture and civilization is disturbing.
Suggesting that the hieroglyphs are pointing to a city of Gold is such a stereotype: it was the Europeans that were greedy for gold and pursued it as a form of capital, the Mesoamericans gave gold a different value, usually ornamental metalwork, a technique that was used hundreds of years after the Olmec. The City of Gold is called Olmec, when it is obviously a fantasy of Mayan and Aztec through the lens of Euro American obsession with gold.

The reference to human sacrifice (and was it different from the colonial slaughter or our own wars ?) and emphasis on gold, are simplistic distortions about a highly complex culture that predates Maya and Aztec by many hundreds of years. Mirren's character, as a professor, is hostile to treasure hunters, making a bow to the movie's own stereotypes. A quick read by either the set designers or the writers would have made the references more accurate and less cliched. One surviving type of Olmec artifact is colossal naturalistic heads which could easily have been used as a basis for the lost city in the movie.

But I guess feeding cliches to the American public is what Walt Disney is all about. (I say that sadly as I have to confess that my own father worked for Walt Disney in the 1950s as a consultant on Secrets of Nature. He brought me home a photograph personally autographed by Disney that I still own).

While National Treasure Book of Secrets may see itself as harmless, the perpetration of ignorance and stereotypes is never harmless. Granted, in the end, the Helen Mirren character miraculously transforms herself from a glyph specialist to the leader of a major archeological dig, and the main characters vindicate their ancestors rather than gaining personal wealth, but the over all message is find the - "precolonial" as they call it - gold.

Stereotypes and cliches perpetuate ignorance and racism. They can also lead to oppression and death as we see in the war in Iraq and on immigrants both Arab and Latino.