Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Brief Hallelujah and the problems continue

Of course I begin with Hallelujah for the election of Barack Obama. No matter what, it has to be better than the last eight years. We are all relieved and proud.

We all know that Obama cannot solve all the big problems overnight, but we hope, hope, hope, that he takes dramatic actions to change the course of several severe, forever problems, particularly Israel and Palestine. Please Obama take advantage of your mandate to really take action on a new way to think about that painful situation. Gaza is a nightmare as severe as Guantanamo right now. The West Bank is fragmented by Israeli settlements funded by our money. The State of Israel relies on millions of dollars in our aid. And in fact, there are many Israelis that completely oppose their government policies. The Palestinians deserve respect, apologies, and the possibility for the basic necessities of life, water, food, shelter, as well as freedom to lead a normal life. The Israelis are following a policy of systematically destroying those basic given necessities, destroying Olive Trees, orange trees, dividing land. As I sat and ate a quince grown on our tree in our garden, I thought of the destroyed orange groves in Palestine, bulldozed ruthlessly, for no "security" reason. As I eat olives, I think of the thousand year old olive trees being destroyed. The farmland divided by walls.

Barack, don't let the pressures on you obscure the facts.
The facts are that Gaza has an electric fence around it, Apache helicopters flying overhead all the time, gunboats patrol the shore, missiles fired at suspicious activity. This description comes from Hollow Land by Eyal Weizner, one of three books that have come to my attention courtesy of Adbusters 78
The Lords of the Land, The War for Israeli's Settlements in the Occupied Territories 1967 - 2007, by Idith Zertal and Akiva Bdar, Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of the Occupation by Eyal Weizner, and Hold Everything Dear, Dispatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger. Be sure to look at the slide show on their website. Obviously, the wall is another famous example of the architecture of occupation.

At the same time I am increasingly aware of the boldness of Palestinian artists in the Occupied territories and around the world in making Palestine visible, in resisting obliteration, in revisualizing the past, in creating history, in perpetuating Palestine. Cultural workers are playing a crucial role in the Palestinian resistance. I have just become aware of Project 6 plus and its collaborative exhibition with Palestinian artists called Secrets, and that is just one example.

And of course the awards going to Emily Jacir are cause for celebration. I hope she uses her exhibition at the Guggenheim as a pedestal for the Palestinian cause. Not to mention the money itself to support the cultural institutions in like Khalil Sakakini in Ramallah. That would be terrific. But Emily is simply the most prominent. There are many writers, poets, visual artists, dramatists, actors, dancers, singers, calligraphers, filmmakers, video artists, photographers, who are active in the cause. Of course the great poet Mahmoud Darwish was the best known, and his recent death is a great loss. But his words live on.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Afghanistan Treasures and Bagram Afghanistan

While I am on the subject of contradictory language and situations, the stunning exhibition of Afghanistan art, the Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, is full of them.

First, it makes no bones about the fact that the war in Afghanistan starting in 1979 and continuing to the present has completely destroyed archeological sites in the country. ( The same is happening in Iraq). Bagram, one of the primary sites, is known to Americans only as a huge American airforce base. We also happen to know that not far away is a major black site where we and others are practicing torture. So as we look at these objects from so many centuries ago, we think about today, and how much is lost in terms of culture, civilization, and history because of war.

Second, it clearly tells us that these objects are commercial, they was no mystical or sacred dimension to them. I liked this honesty. It was so refreshing.

Third, it explains the intersections of cultures on the Silk Road, and we see it in the art work, in other words, no one culture is privileged, we have Hindi mixed with Hellenistic, mixed with Turkic, etc.

Last, the objects themselves only survived because they were hidden away. They are now touring the world, hopefully to raise money for the museum.

But one has to ask, is it ever going to be safe for them to go back to Afghanistan??
That is everyone's hope.

Holland Cotter and the New Language of Art Criticism

Cotter's recent review of an exhibition of Joan Miro at the Museum of Modern Art was startling. He is consciously taking on the current political language of war and using it to apply to modern art. It works as an eye catching article, but why does it bother me so much?

Here is an excerpt:

"Joan Miro:Serial Murderer of Artistic Conventions"

"Amputate tradition, torture the past, terrorize the present. The impulse to destroy was part of what made early Modern art the guerrilla movement it was.

Cubism sentenced illusionistic art to the Death by a Thousand Cuts. Dada unleashed an anti-aesthetic Reign of Terror: Beauty? Off with its head. Decay? Let’s have more. Surrealism, a slippery business, let the killer instinct run amok. Tossing manifestos, dreams and libidos like bombs, it aimed to bring Western civilization to its knees and keep André Breton in the news.

So in 1927, when Joan Miró said, “I want to assassinate painting,” he wasn’t saying anything new. What was new was the way he carried out his cutthroat task. That process is the subject of “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937,” an absorbing, invigorating and — Miró would be mortified — beautiful show at the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition illustrates, step by step, exactly how Miró stalked and attacked painting — zapped its conventions, messed up its history, spoiled its market value — through 12 distinct groups of experimental works produced over a decade."

OK Here is what I think
Yes indeed modern art wanted to do away with the tired academic traditions, yes Dada was opposed to traditional aesthetics, because World War I was proving those histories to be bankrupt, but somehow I feel that Cotter has it all wrong. Even as he quotes Miro "I want to assassinate painting" I still feel that his language doesn't work. It is distracting. It is in the wrong arena emotionally.

These artists were definately committing acts of cultural resistance in response to social and political changes, but these violent contemporary words distort the real meaning of what they were intending to do. It affiliates them with destruction in an entirely different way. In Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire, the spirit was humorous, spoofing, light, as a counter to war and destruction. Cotter makes it sound like these artists were dark and evil.
I would love to discuss this with other critics.
here is a link

Monday, November 3, 2008

Art of Democracy Censored!

These four posters were removed from an Art of Democracy Poster exhibition in Berkeley California. The posters have been show in venues all over the country. The censorship coincides with Berkeley erecting a monument to Free Speech!
The posters are by Doug Minkler Anita Dillman,Tony Bergquist,Joe Sances, , in order seen on blog)
The censorship is all the more ironic since two of the Art of Democracy exhibitions ( about 100 works) are devoted to art works addressing books that were subject to censorship in the past. Apparently the reason that they were censored is because the gallery director is opposed to the representation of guns because she is a pacifist.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Art of Democracy An Amazing Project

There is so much to write about The Art of Democracy project. In this photo I am talking to Art Hazelwood in the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. Hazelwood and Steve Fredericks of New York Society of Etchers are the two main organizers of the nation wide project. It includes exhibitions in states across the country, all listed on the great website.

It started with an exhibition in 2006 at the National Arts Club called the Art of Persuasion. Printmakers are part of a tradition of activism in art that goes back centuries. That is because printmaking is a multiple, inexpensive form of art that can be very straightforward at the same time that it is aesthetic. Woodcut, lithography, silkscreen, wood engraving, photo offset, all lend themselves to strong graphic images. They also lend themselves to collective activity. But the media included in these many shows are every possible type of work. In addition, there is a collective exchange of posters ( some of which are seen on the wall behind us), which appears across the country, sometimes as separate shows, sometimes in partnership with other art shows. This collective message is an essential part of the project.

I have visited only a few venues of the Art of Democracy, each one completely different. One venue was a show that I organized of Selma Waldman's work that I spoke about in the previous entry.

On Vashon Island is the exhibition organized by Greg Wessels at the Two Wall Gallery called Up Against the Wall.
Here is one installation shot. I have put up a lot of images of all the venues on my Flickr site (Art and Politics Now! I am having trouble getting it to come up), because there are too many art works to discuss individually on my blog. But be warned that the Flickr site refused to organize them so just look at all of them on their own. That perhaps is all the better, because the random groupings at venues is really irrelevant to the larger presence of these many strong statements.

The Vashon show was notable because it is in a rustic site on an island full of liberals (typical Northwest artists isolated from each other). Greg Wessels in putting out his call for art addressing the theme of art of democracy gave a lot of people a chance to participate, to voice their ideas, to get together.

In fact one of the big benefits of a project like the Art of Democracy is that it gives artists who care a lot, but have no where to put the art that speaks to issues, a place to show. It stimulates them to create work on the theme, to bring together their art and politics. It supports a connection that the mainstream art world does not really support. For example, we have Betti Bowman who is living a suburban life with kids and brooms. She read a book on torture by Mark Danner called Torture and Truth. She started thinking about ordinary activities she was doing in relation to the horrible revelations. The result is "this is not a broom" ( my title), but an instrument of torture. This is not a child shivering near a pool, but a human being shivering from torture. It is a long way from Bellevue Washington to Abu Ghraib, and Betti Bowman is reaching out and thinking about it.

That is the main thing in my opinion. I am not, as a critic, concerned with comparing her work to other artists addressing torture. I am advocating that artists think about what horrors are being committed and have been committed, and do something about it. Since they are artists, the obvious response is to make art. And a lot of artists are doing just that.

The show on Vashon has a huge range of styles, media and ideas. Betty Gardner from Priest, Idaho brought puppets, a perfect concept for the current world. The collage that she left in the show shows Bush handled by puppet hands of various capitalist forces like Enron and Halliburton.

In San Francisco at the Meridian Gallery there were uber famous artists like Hung Liu, Enrique Chagoya, William T. Wiley, Oliphant and Botero, well known artists like Juan Fuentes, Sandow Birk, Bella Feldman, Malaquias Montoya, and unknown artists like Patrick Piazza as well as the anonymous San Francisco Print Collective. The exhibition included a huge range of materials, ideas, and scales of work. As an art historian I favored Sandow Birk's amazing adaptation of Jacques Callot's 16th century series on the Depravities of War and the printmakers working in the Mexican tradition of aesthetic expression with politics like Malaquias Montoya. But the new names were also inspiring.

What Art and I are talking about is the purpose of the project as a collective activity, a way to bring together many different artists. On the website he compares it to the American Artists Congress of the 1930s. The big difference of course is that with the internet these artists are much more widespread. They have never sat in the same room and called for an exhibition to resist fascism. But that is what art of democracy artists are doing. Art and I also discussed the difference from earlier political art- there is no collective political ideology among these artists, in some cases there is no political analysis, only a representation of the issue itself, as in the evil Bush. Some of these works succeed as an effective form of protest, a call to action, or a simple statement. A lot depends on the artists' perspectives and background. Hung Liu was trained in Communist China, she knows exactly how to make an image speak. Artists from Chicano art collectives have always understood that aesthetics and politics work together.

But the real purpose is to demonstrate that artists can and do pay attention to what is going on in the world. A lot of them care a lot, but their art training, isolation, and the always negative comments of the mainstream press, discourages the production of issue oriented art. But as the Art of Democracy shows, nation- wide artists are defying the norms of the art world in order to address current concerns.

There were two works I liked the best- both were both aesthetic and potent as a statement. First was the installation of the poems of Roque Dalton seen here, in which the poems dangled provocatively from the ceiling. He is a major leftist poet born in El Salvador. The second was the homage to Pramoedyna Ananta Toer by Priscilla Otani. Pramoedyna Ananta Toer is a major resistance poet that I have never heard of. He is Indonesian and banished to an island Prison on Buru Island. He wrote The Buru Quartet, an epic poem and recited it to other prisoners orally until it was written down and smuggled out.

The two venues of Banned and Censored, the African American Museum and Library in Oakland and the San Francisco Center for the Book, could not have been more different. The first is an old Carnegie library in downtown Oakland in a rapidly gentrifying area. But the African American presence intervenes in the genteel era murals in the library, and the exhibitions are a quiet statement upstairs that explodes in our brains all the more resonantly because of the juxtaposition to African American history in videos and photographs.

The San Francisco Center for the Book is a place of production, people were making books as we looked at the art works. I am showing you Emory Douglas strong work based on Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, called The Assassination of Pecola Breadlove.

My last stop at Gallery Zapatista was even more full of productive energy, hopping with workshops in art and dance, the printmaking workshop making posters for a demonstration, the artists intensely friendly and generous spirited.This is a picture of Gato. He has just finished the poster for a rally and he gave me one to take home. These artists experience activism, art, and community as a single concept. It is a long way from the individualistic art training that prevails in most art schools.

The Art of Democracy reaches across class, race, gender and history to create a community of people who share a common concern in the state of the country. The hope is that that sense of community will continue after the election, that the freedom to create topical art will continue to inspire artists.

The possibilities are endless! Amazingly, The Art of Democracy itself has been censored in an unfolding story. See next entry for the current information.