Saturday, June 03, 2017

links for the weekend

Is Jeff Koons ‘Seated Ballerina’ A Copy of This Ukrainian Sculpture?

Koons' representative admits copying Zhnikrup's statue under license

Louise Blouin turning full-timers into contract freelancers

for those who may have never heard of Blouin before, we've linked to at least one piece published at blouin art info sites.

Middlebrow Tantrum in “Culture Crash” Misses the Mark

Well, the short version of a relatively short story is that this scene is a bit rocky.  Not being a huge fan of Timberg myself I don't much dissent from a review that describes his writing as the work of someone who failed to grasp that downsizing that hit industrial America could hit the culture industry, too; but it seems that arts critics have not entirely come to terms with the reality that if the empire is in some kind of real decline then the least necessary field of remunerative activity might be arts criticism.  I mean, sure, I write about the arts consistently but that's because I'm doing it strictly for the pleasure of it while holding down a fairly pedestrian day job.  One of the great misrepresentations of arts history within American academics about the arts, in my experience, is the failure to articulate the degree to which what used to be called sinecure was a necessary precondition to consistently productive creative life. 

Apropos of a more pop art topic, there's a piece in this month's Atlantic that rhetorically asks whether Disney ruined Pixar

Meanwhile, over at his blog, Rod Dreher has been incensed that an artist who made a replica of the gallows used to hang 38 American Indians consented to have the sculpture taken down and burned by the tribe whose ancestors were hung in the largest public execution on record in the region.  Dreher's outrage was mainly that a "woke" artist got pressured into letting his own work get destroyed.

Dreher seems to have been primed for outrage mode.  It's seemed as though "woke" is a term used by the African American writerly and activist community.  As yet I've never heard any American Indians from any tribes use the term "woke" and am not sure if I ever actually will.  Dreher's outrage seems to allow for slippage in appropriated nomenclature.

His readers seem to be trying to make a case that he's flipped out without a terribly compelling reason.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/arts/design/emmett-tills-coffin-a-hangmans-scaffold-and-a-debate-over-cultural-appropriation.html?_r=1

By HILARIE M. SHEETSMAY 31, 2017
 
 
Protests over Sam Durant’s sculpture “Scaffold,” installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden of the Walker Art Center, have drawn immediate parallels to the controversy this year over Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” in the Whitney Biennial.
 
Both works, made by artists who are white, recall historical acts of racial violence and have been viewed by many as painful and insensitive to communities that have suffered directly from those injustices.
 
Central to both cases are issues of cultural appropriation and artistic freedom. Should white artists, no matter how well intentioned, represent harrowing stories that are not their own to tell? Conversely, should any subject matter be off-limits to artists because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other life experiences?
 
Calls to remove the works from public view have drawn different responses from the institutions, with the Walker and the artist agreeing to dismantle and burn the sculpture, and the Whitney keeping the painting in place.
 
Mr. Durant’s wood-and-steel scaffold, made in 2012 and previously exhibited without incident in Europe at venues including Documenta 13, is a composite of the gallows used in seven United States government-sanctioned hangings from 1859 to 2006. Those include the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., ordered by President Abraham Lincoln — the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.
 
...
 
The contexts of the two pieces, with Mr. Durant’s sculpture displayed outdoors in a public park and Ms. Schutz’s painting indoors in a temporary exhibition, have different parameters and may have had an impact on how each institution reacted. The Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, expressing deep regret at the “anger and sadness” that “Scaffold” had brought to local Native Americans, quickly agreed with Mr. Durant to remove the gallows structure from the sculpture garden — a space where children often play. [emphasis added]
 
On Wednesday, Dakota elders led a private mediation with leaders from the Walker, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and Mr. Durant. The artist transferred the intellectual property rights of his work to the Dakota Oyate. The entire sculpture will be dismantled in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in a four-day process beginning Friday. The wood will then be taken to the Fort Snelling area, a site that is sacred to the Dakota people, where they will ceremonially burn the wood at a date yet to be determined.
... 

The context of the presentation of the pieces may have had an impact on how each institution reacted?  That's soft-balling it in quite a bit, isn't it?

There's a difference between the controversial painting showcased at the Whitney that you can only see by going into the Whitney to observe the painting and a sculpture that replicates a gallows on public display in a public park.  Frankly it's not the least bit difficult to be sympathetic to the concerns of the tribe.

It would seem as though Dreher, being Orthodox, should be able to grasp more firmly that the numerous debates about cultural appropriation could be construed as debates about the nature of what is regarded as sacred an profane.  Cultural appropriation can be thought of as a kind of blasphemy but if that is what it is the question of what sanctifies the culture that is regarded as appropriated might need some, pun unfortunately unavoidable here, fleshing out.  If what sanctifies a culture from appropriation is skin color then is it paradoxically possible that racial essentialism is the main defense?  Or is the case subterreneanly a religious or doctrinal concern? 

I saw some comments at Dreher's blog about how Christians wear and present crosses, and how the cross was more than just a symbol but a literal means of public execution.  Sure, but let's not forget that after TWO MILLENIA of Christian theological reflection the Cross is understood in doctrinal and soteriological terms in a way that a gallows used to execute American Indians never will be. 

Now it may be that the most cogent argument that white privilege is a real thing is that white adults in America think there's such a thing as a "right' to education or participation in the arts and that a post-Romantic obligation to defend the arts in spite of matters of taste or profanation for anything that isn't "my" commitment is important.  Dreher would probably not feel any need to defend a re-run of Serrano's "piss Christ".  Why would he? 

But, as worries that the NEH and NEA will be given just enough money to oversea their own respective administrative deaths continue, these kinds of cases may be arguments for the a-kind-of-prosecution.  This can be easier for people on the left to forget, willingly, than those on the right, but all art is inevitably a manifestation of an empire.  You'd think that anyone who could even quote Walter Benjamin at all would never forget this for one fiftieth of a second but concerns about the lack of state funding for the arts is going to remain a left/blue thing; it may simply be that there will always be someone who will regard art funded by the state as propaganda only when the guiding ideology is not his or her own--all state-funded art is going to be at one level or another propaganda of a plain or indirect type.  A gallows sculpture could be built with the idea of meditating on the ways whites have killed non-whites through governmental and informal means and for artists they may well feel this is a sign of how they are trying to think through tough issues.  All state-funded art is cultural imperialism and if it's easy to forget this when you feel like your art (however you define that) should be bankrolled by the state cases like the above controversies can be a reminder that there is a difference between foundations and states and how and where and why they opt to present art.

But in a way the arts castes of the United States may not grasp the extent to which all of them, regardless of skin color, bask in what's now known as "privilege". 

Here on the opening weekend of another superhero movie it can be easy for those committed to highbrow arts to look down on the lowbrow.  Dwight Macdonald argued that there's no point at all in begrudging the masses their love of the low-brow.  Let them have their pulp fiction and comics and jazz or rock and roll or blues.  He argued that the synergistic relationship between the low brow and the high brow was something that was going to persist.  He was against the middle-brow, infamously (if, at least, for those who know who he is). 

But a disdain on the part of participants in what Adorno called the culture industry for superheroes is misplaced.  As I read about the history of opera it was fascinating to read that in those earlier operas the hero of the aristocratically funded opera was from the aristocrat classes.  This hasn't changed, Hollywood royalty playing superheroes is basically the same kind of thing, the aristocracy of a new empire presents itself as enacting the heroism and beneficence of a new aristocracy.  Sure, it's not always literally superheroics--it may take the form of Hollywood depicting journalist investigating abusive priests in Spotlight; it could be Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife, playing someone who saved children from the maw of Nazi machinery of death; it could be any Aaron Sorkin-scripted character saying the right magic words in front of a camera that "changes everything"; it could be Baby Boomers fondly reminiscing on how their favorite pop album changed the nature of the music industry; the gist is still foundationally the same, superheroics.  What may be offensive to a group of journalists and entertainers about the superhero genre is that it makes so explicitly and shameless what artists and poets and journalists subconsciously believe should be most true about them.  Not envy, exactly, a kind of unrecognized transference, it's easier to look down on the self-aggrandizing tendencies of others than of yourself.

The royalty of the entertainment castes are still celebrating their own virtue like those entertainers who put on operas to celebrate the virtue of the aristocratic castes of their time centuries ago back in what we now call the Baroque era.  The term that what seems to be getting called the alt-right these days likes to use for this sort of thing is virtue signaling, and the participants of the alt-right are at least as bad about it themselves as they perceive the rest of the liberal world around them as being. There is a problem, at least within the realm of Judeo-Christian literary tradition, which is that according to one of the prophet's, there is none that is righteous, not even one. 

I have no problem with the basic idea of superhero stories.  The first reason is that I don't have a problem with the idea that there are people out there who can physically or intellectually do things I can't do, things that are beyond what I could accomplish.  The second reason is that while I have what some have told me is a really bleak view of the human condition (beyond simply being a Calvinist) I have this "low anthropology" that might be described as a floor rather than a ceiling.  We're stuck on the floor.  We aspire to more, constantly, but we don't get off the floor without being lifted up.  There are those whose bleak assessment of the human condition might be described as a ceiling, a ceiling that in some cases might be at floor level, I.e. beneath the feet of whomever is contemplating the "ceiling" of the human condition from which the pundit is frequently exempting himself or (slightly less often) herself.

 I have no problem being the kind of Calvinist who believes we humans are weak and miserable and frail creatures who do not know how to truly and fully live our lives as humans who, yet, are given mercy and love by Christ to become better people than we would otherwise be and to have opportunities to both give and receive love.  I do have a problem with what passes itself off as an ostensibly low anthropology that looks down with contempt on the super-majority of the human race by someone who's chief beef with the human condition is how people are just, ultimately, not really worthy of what the pundit regards as most defining legitimately human experience and ability.  There can be any number of disagreements a person can have with Adorno but his comment about the arts comes to mind, that it is the measure of a philistine that if he or she cannot see their very selves in the arts they set out to enjoy they regard whatever is set before them as not really art.  There are ways of living out this kind of self-regard from eith the left or the right or from a white or a black perspective. 

Since Kyle Gann's monograph about the Charles Ives Concord Sonata finally got published I am thinking of a comment Ives made about what would now be called cultural appropriation.  His conviction was that if you are genuinely sympathetic and at one with a group whose musical idioms you make use of then you have shared values and what you've down isn't necessarily merely what would now be called appropriation.  I suppose a way of translating this concept would be to say that if a Christian makes use of musical idioms spanning continental Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and parts of Africa the unifying variable would be the Christian faith.  As a person of mixed racial lineage it would be impossible for me to have a strictly white or non-white "heritage"; the one unifying element across the lineages is the Christian faith.  It's possible for whites and American Indians alike to, say, be Presbyterians or have an appreciation for Spurgeon or to have attended Pentecostal churches.  So to put it in explicitly religious terms, a shared creed across idioms allows for an opportunity to share expressions of praise for Christ that would not necessarily automatically be bracketed into what gets called "cultural appropriation".  If someone who isn't a professing Christian of any kind made use of the sounds of different kinds of Gospel music then, sure, that could be construed as cultural appropriation.

Perhaps the common thread I'm seeing in the debates about cultural appropriation that makes it seem so weird is that we seem to live in an era in which we want there to be a category of the sacred and the profane based on skin color while simultaneously seeing a lot of people attempt to explicitly reject such an essentialism as thoroughly racist (which it frankly is) but ..  and here's the twist that's so prevalent in these debates, kinda just for the "other".  We seem to live in a secular era that wants to figure out how to identify the boundary markers of the sacred without making any concession at all to the potential legitimate existence of categories that could be regarded as divine.  For North Americans and some Brits we even want to secure for ourselves (but not necessarily others) the right to complete disregard all categories of the sacred for anyone else.  We don't yet seem to have people who are able to entirely recognize the extent to which double standards about the sacred and the profane in an ostensibly secular age are guiding these undercurrents in the debates.   Rod Dreher's recent reaction suggests that some of the people who you might think would be primed to already be able to understand these categories of thought might choose not to because they're outraged that stunt political art hit a raw nerve with an American Indian tribe that went into mediation to have the art work removed from the public park so that it can be dismantled and burned. 

1 comment:

Cal P said...

In regards to superheroes, this is why Batman has always been one of my favorites. It's not that he is edgy, or "grey", or whatever, but that one can see in Batman that "toll" it takes to be a superhero. In someways, this perhaps makes Batman the most pure of all the JLA. He recognizes that playing the hero is an incredibly alienating, fracturing, and painful life. It's directed at a goal, maybe a neverending goal, but he, even if imperfectly judging from certain comic arcs, understands this and takes his upon himself. So, his heroics are never very far from the insanity, egotism, obsessiveness, envy etc. of his rogues gallery. This isn't unique, but it's something Batman is cognizant of in a way that others aren't. Is Lex really long when he sees the same sets of emotions and rationalities that drive him in Superman?

I will always remember what Richard Wurmbrand wrote about his imprisonment and torture for refusing to submit his pastorate to the Romanian communists' supervision. He said that we'd be foolish to think that martyrdom involved a silly play between white hats and black hats, that martyrs die become they merely won't renounce Christ. No, so he tells the story of a local pastor who refused to submit. So, the local commissar spread rumors throughout the village that the pastor was a pedophile. It took root, and a mob showed up and lynched him. He died for Christ, but where is the glory? This is why I think the newer movie Silence is terrible. I haven't seen it, but I get it. I'm not well enough read on Scorsese canon, but it seems a recurrent theme is the bankruptcy of the hero, like DeNiro in Taxi, or DiCaprio/Damon in The Departed, and now Andrew Garfield. The ones with greatest aspirations to do something become maniacs or total failures. And this is the kind of pessimism of a ceiling variety, rather than the floor (which I sympathize with, and I'm going to borrow this metaphor). To quote wisdom, perhaps we really ought to count the costs before building our towers.

On another note, I've appreciated the work of Paul Gilroy on race. For him, the white-black racial essentialism is bogus. Blackness has less to do with some sort of pristine Africana, than the identity of the dirt of a society. Cultivating "blackness" as a cultural form is counter-cultural, meant to subvert the reigning white paradigm. It's more about empire and social status, than skin color or some perceived bounded set of identities. And the history of the creation of white and black depended upon the realities of the Atlantic World. Crossing and crisscrossing the Atlantic, between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, created unstable identities, where distinct peoples, particularly merchant types, became a grab-bag of different forms. This sort of thing helps undermine the hegemony of whiteness, which, as a crypto-Marxist, I see as a class-dividing tool, used to help get poor "whites" to buy into a society that really has nothing for them. Cultural appropriation is the natural and organic process of peoples being together, but now that it is labeled and shamed, racial essentialism, and infinite fragmentation of identities, is more powerful than ever. I tend to see it all as a control mechanism.

my thoughts,
cal