Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Mainstream Art World is Really Far Gone!

Looking at the dreadful "Redrawing the Art World Women who are expanding the boundaries of how we see, what we see and where we see it" in the March 23 New York Times Magazine, I was reminded of just how corrupted by capitalism the mainstream art world has become. On the cover Muccia Prada in some sort of pricey black dress( the devil wears Prada?) is framed by John Baldessari on the left, and a variety of other well known men and one young (little known) women. Notice that the woman looks like a child and is covering her mouth as though she has been caught by surprise. The many men adopt various confident poses. The photographic style purposefully imitates Irving Penn in several places in the magazine, angular black poses against a blank background. No context, no connection to what is going on in the world. Clearly these artists and this patron do NOT expand boundaries at all!

Then there are the art haulers modelling multi thousand dollar (leather) jumpsuits. Can we have a clearer message that art is meant to play the fashion/style game, rather than actually say something important.

Mari Ramirez is one bright note in the issue, but her show "Inverted Utopias" primarily priviledged abstraction rather than the deep social engagement that characterizes most of Latin American art.

Fortunately, there are many artists out their who are not embedded with capitalism, or who are turning it on its head, as reported in this blog and in other alternative sources. I am also writing on it in my upcoming book, Art and Politics Now: Cultural Activism in a time of Crisis.

The reporting on visual art in the New York Times is embarrassing. Other arts, theater, literature, poetry, dance, all of them are engaged with current political issues and that engagement is reported in the newspaper. Visual artists are represented as completely disengaged.

A review of the amazing book by Roberto Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, is focusing on the power of literature to create myths that support fascism. The book contains entirely imaginary writers who are preoccupied with mythmaking as the junta tortures people in Chile, the point is the fact that writers have power to create stories that can either support fascism or resist it. Bolano's book suggests that most writers' preoccupation with aesthetics and other academic concerns feed into the acquiescence to power that corrupts us and makes us passive instruments, rather than active resisters. For Roberto BolaƱo . . ."literature is an unnervingly protean, amoral force with uncanny powers of self-invention, self-justification and self-mythification. The mythmakers, he suggests, certainly do matter." While I would have liked a review of a book that focuses on mythmakers who are resisting capitalism, at least political context is included. All art has a political context, but you would never know that from reading mainstream art coverage.

Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, for example, whose reviews of shows such as the Whitney Biennial celebrate the most vacuous, empty art in the show. Surprisingly a non art reviewer caught up on Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, who actually made an effort to address something current, although their most political work was shown outside the Biennial at the Armory.

These two artists got multiple grants to try to represent Syria through their lens. Narcissism has been placed at bay at least a little bit. NEIL MACFARQUHAR who wrote the article writes on Muslims, the Middle East, and other important topics for the New York Times. He recognized that these two artists know that there is a world out there. What he didn't tell us is why they chose Syria and why they chose the particular format that they came up with a type of mime by an actor responding to questions. "We will live to see these things or Five Pictures of What might come to pass" seemed colonizing to me, but at least the artists went to Syria on their own, outside of the system and filmed subjects according to their own choices, not based on pressures from the international art world. The theme is intense, a culture caught between Islamic Fundamentalism, US pressures ( I would say the war in Iraq) , and a "repressive regime" as they refer to it ( that is an unexamined generality that could be further elaborated on in order to avoid a cliche perspective) . Of course the Syrians might see the pressures quite differently. It is not clear how they came with this triad of concepts.

Julia Meltzer has done other socially engaged work. She cares about the world. I would love to know how she decided to make the jump from the LAPD to Syria! But at least she cares.

Monday, March 24, 2008

4000 Americans and thousands and thousands of Iraqis have died in this war

What is there to say. No picture today. We have no picture of what is going on in Iraq really, just lots of misleading pieces of information, lots of deaths, and lots of money.

Here 's an example of "news coverage" This is from Navy Lt. Patrick Evans a military spokesperson in response to raids on the Green Zone today. " There have been some significant gains. However this enemy is resilient and will not give up, nor will we."

What are the gains? The destruction of the entire country and the killing of probably over a million Iraqis. The gains? fewer Americans killed?? Many fewer would be killed if they all left. The enemy?? Who is the enemy, the enemy is us. Why are we there ?

This particular article which has already been buried online, blamed the attack on "probably tensions between rival Shiite groups" What on earth does that mean? More prominent online is the article blaming Iranian backed militias. More propaganda for Cheney's next campaign to start a war against Iran. Later on we have Mosul where the area is "the last major urban area where the Sunni extremist al-Qaida group maintains a significant presence>" What are they talking about here?

For a revealing view of the resistance from their own perspective, see the excellent movie Meeting Resistance which interviews the resistance and finds out their motives. Steve Connors and Molly Bingham embedded with one community of resistance fighters, not a "group" but a series of individuals affiliated in different ways, for ten months. They gained their trust enough to be able to interview them about what they were doing. The immediate impact of the movie is that we see the occupation by the US from their perspective, huge machines, soldiers, heavily armed invading every street, action, neighborhood. We look up at these enormously armed men and wonder what on earth do we think we are doing.
Steve Connors one of the filmmakers commented to me "I think a major problem for people attempting to remain informed by reliance on the media here in the United States is that only rarely are Iraqi's as motivated human beings, driving events, taken into consideration. The view from here is that they lay passive as Americans enact their policy decisions upon them."
This is so true.

Friday, March 21, 2008

New York Artists Against the War in DC

The Embedded Blanket of Lies
This quilt is a compilation of some of the lies we have heard from the government and the media over the last five years. Many of the lies were taken from this website
They have been recorded in plays like David Hare's "Stuff Happens", poems, performances, and even in books.
The symbolism of putting them on a comfortable quilt on a bed is obvious and layered. Not only is a quilt covered bed one of our primary escapes from reality for many hours every night, but the softness of the material is also echoing the softness of the information, all based on fabrication and the desire to frighten the American people as well as Congress into supporting the war. And of course the lies continue every day.

The New York City Artists Against the War are a large group of artists who are deeply committed to using their skills to create agit prop in protest against the war. I have posted their work here on several occasions.

Beginning the Sixth Year of the Iraq War

Washington DC
March 19
The Dead Marched in front of Blackwater
on the National Mall , near the White House, and around the city. Each Marcher wore the name of a person who had died in Iraq. They were silent and haunting. This is the simple, but effective statement that brings home the reality more than any slogan.
The power of the visual, the power of performance, the power of bringing protest into everyday life.

In addition there was a Freeze In at Union Station. Here is the video link. Again it was a protest that was part of daily life, hundreds of people just stood still in the midst of an action, then after about five minutes, they all shouted, end the war.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Controversy at the Northwest African American Museum

When Kwame Garrett and his friends intervened at the opening of the NAAM, they declared that the museum was a "Sham" . The reason is that they felt that the programs planned by the museum did not reach out to the youth who were vulnerable and dying in the street because of police brutality. The young woman holding this sign told me that the museum would not solve this problem, that is the reason for her sign. A moving interview with Earl Debnam one of the protesters who occupied the building from 1985 - 1993 was broadcast on KBCS radio on March 6, 2008.

There seems to be quite a bit of planning for youth at the museum. Brian Carter, the Director of Education, in Northwest Colors Magazine, is reported to have these plans just for a beginning.
"Carter has brought together students from four local high schools to create a Youth Docent/Curator Program. They will not only give tours of exhibits, but will also work with museum professionals to create their own exhibits. “It’s pulling the curtain back from museums,” Carter says. “Because I know as a youth I thought they were unapproachable and they’re really institutions and you’re just kind of brought there for 30 minutes twice a year.”

That can change, Carter says, by giving youth a say in how the museum operates. After being introduced to the museum and exploring a topic that they themselves chose, “they’ll fabricate the exhibit and then mount it in the gallery, and then they’ll act as tour guides and they’ll give tours of their exhibit to school groups, to organizations or individuals. What we want them to do is once they go through they program, they can be ambassadors for the museum.”

According to the protesters this isn't directly engaging with the current crisis for black youth. A discussion with Kwame Garrett was broadcast on March 13

His perspective is that the museum fails as a community center because it has no places for community activities, performance, film and video production, radio. He calls it a high class exhibit with some housing. The class issue is fundamental to the disagreement. What constitutes culture, what constitutes community? Hip Hop is a huge community in Seattle, but it seems to have no connection to the NAAM so far. UMOJA is a Central District community festival which includes many types of arts is another example of community. But I am sure most of the participants in that festival came to the opening of the museum. And the gift shop is offering lots of community based art works.

It seems to me that the museum and the protesters aren't really very far apart. Culture as a means of intervening in the oppressions and lack of hope for black youth seems to me what both sides want. The museum is embracing the community, and can easily accomodate all types of culture. It isn't even one week old!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Inside the Northwest African American Museum

One of the featured artist is James W. Washington, Jr. painter and sculptor, born in Gloster Mississippi in deep Jim Crow, moved to Seattle in 1944 to become a successful artist. Here is the symbolic portrait of Mark Tobey with whom he studied for a few years in the 1940s. The James Washington Foundation put together the exhibition of this important artist's paintings and sculpture. At the opening the Foundation also gave a scholarship awards to two art students, Theresa James at Garfield High School and the Hugo Shi at the University of Washington.

Next is the Jacob Lawrence Exhibition with his large tile mural of "Games" formerly in the King Dome and then the Convention Center.

The exhibition is dazzling. Also included is his George Washington Bush series, the story of an African American pioneer who came on the Oregon trail with five wagons.

The exhibition has selections from his Builders series

Finally, is the Journey Gallery which tells of the accomplishments of African Americans who traveled from all over the world to come to the Northwest. It comes up to the present including present day East Africans.

Northwest African American Museum Opens in Seattle!

Hundreds of People Turned Out for the Grand Opening of the Northwest African American Museum

After so many years this was a landmark event. It began with eight years of sit ins by Wyking Kwame Garrett, his father and many other activists who saved the building from demolition at the time of the construction of the I 90 tunnel lid. Then it went into a transition when the city planned to sell it to this group, but then backed out ( according to the activists). Finally, in 2003 the Urban League took it on and brought it to fruition, complete with low income apartments.
Barbara Earl Thomas as Curator

was a central spirit in the final creation of the museum, and she presented a brilliant metaphor at the grand opening. It is like the pickle jar at Thanksgiving she said, as it passes around the table each person tries to open it, until finally the last person opens it easily. She declared that the Museum was the work of everyone there.
The galleries include the Journey, which tells the story of Northwest African americans journeys to the Northwest in so many ways, and their accomplishments once they arrived. Two art exhibitions, Making a Life, Creating a World, feature Jacob Lawrence and James W. Washington Jr. and finally there is a superb cafe and gift store.
It is a thrilling beginning. Programming and future events are in the works, primarily a benefit for the Museum education program next Sunday night honoring Quincy Jones at the Paramount Theater.
At the opening Wyking
came to the podium and decried the museum as a sham because it did not address directly the current problems of black youth. He was asked to leave and eventually even put in jail, which is way over the top and not appropriate at all. But perhaps if he had gone inside, he might have felt differently. The inspiration of seeing Black History on the walls, and the amazing accomplishments of so many talented people was thrilling and the large crowd obviously felt that way as well.

The politicians turned out in force. Here is Maria Cantwell shaking the hand of someone yet to be identified, behind her Jim McDermott, Ron Sims, and even Gov Gregoire spoke, although she doesn't show up here.

Carver Gayton is the executive director.

And everyone was happy !

See the next entry for the inside

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The College Art Association honors Chicana Artists, Yoko Ono, and Donny George

This was the year of Chicana art at the College Art Association! A formidable array of outstanding Chicana artists and one Chicano posed for this photograph at a special ceremony where many received awards. Front row left is Benito Heurto, who gave the award to Celia Munoz, ( in white on the right end of the second row). Also awarded was Amalia Mesa -Bains next to Celia.
Santa Barraza in pink at the other end of the second row, received an award from the Women's Caucus for Art. Finally, Yolanda Lopez next to Santa Barraza also was honored. Laura Perez, front row right, has written a new book on these artists, an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the range and variety of their work.

Also receiving an award was Yoko Ono! This is not her look at the Conference, but close, she had on a big white cowboy hat.
She created a "love in" with all the people who came to hear a conversation with hard core white haired art historian Jonathan Fineberg. Instead of a serious interview, she showed some home movies, handed out little lights and taught the audience to spell "I love you" with them.
Quite an accomplishment. If art historians and artists can say "I love you" with flashing lights, anyone can! One friend of mine who was there said it went right past the brain to the heart and she found herself so moved she was crying.

Also honored was Donny George, one of my personal heroes. He was director of the National museum in Baghdad when it was looted and described the events of those disastrous days almost hour by hour as he tried to save the many treasures in the museum. His narrative was easy on the criticism of the US Forces (since he is currently living here), but he told how it took a phone conversation with a curator at the British Museum and eventually a phone call from Tony Blair directly to George Bush to get the museum protected.
George finally left Iraq in September 2006. The current state of the looting of antiquities in Iraq is no longer even discussed in the press here, but we can be sure that it is ongoing and disastrous.