Tuesday, March 28, 2017
What the current art world controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till tells me, is that a preponderance of white artists, who think of themselves as liberal, have no awareness of their (overused term alert!) privilege and unconscious racism. Exclaiming in droves on Facebook and elsewhere that they know better how black people should respond, their righteous arrogance is mind-boggling—perhaps not a surprise to blacks, but to me, because these are people I know.
This also happened a couple of years ago when issues about Kara Walker came up on my blog, with comments on Facebook. Walker, a black artist whose work is collected primarily by whites, often features blacks being abused by whites, as well as Jim Crow imagery, which many blacks find degrading. But when black artists and academics expressed this on my FB page, white artists had no qualms about telling them they were “ignorant” and “anti-art.” One even said that Michele Wallace, who had written a negative essay about Walker, “didn’t understand art”— obviously unaware that Wallace is the daughter of venerable black artist Faith Ringgold.
Now the black activists protesting the Schutz painting are being called “poseurs” and “panic merchants,” “a niche group” whose responses are “ridiculous” “nit-wit shit,” and “about some people assuming they have the exclusive right to certain aspects of American history.”
The most frequent cry from whites is that of “censorship”— a term I associate with attempts of authoritarian governments to control the masses, rather than the struggle of the downtrodden to keep their experience from being co-opted and mischaracterized by their oppressors. One art editor on FB called it a “whiff of the Cultural Revolution,” while a socialist columnist, addressing the “foul attempt to censor and suppress” the painting, wrote, “The arguments being used are worthy of the Nazi officials who banned Jewish artists from playing or conducting classical music on the grounds of their ‘un-German’ spirit” – to which a commenter replied, “Bringing up Nazis in this issue is like a Nazi painting a picture of the camps and blaming the Jews for being too sensitive.”
I think of a friend who once worked in a dentist’s office that was decorated with pastoral prints. One showed a group of good ol' boys sitting under a tree, and hanging from one of the branches, barely perceptible, was a noose. The white patients who crowded the office never noticed it, nor did the white dentist who chose it, but it gave my black friend chills. At her request, the dentist took it down. Censorship? Political correctness? No, simply consideration for his employee. And a reminder that not only may we not see things as others do, we might not see them at all.
I once asked a white collector why he bought a Kara Walker work on paper. “I liked the way it was drawn,” he said. And the imagery? “Oh, I didn’t care about that.”
Another white artist friend calls the controversy “trivial” because, he says, it has nothing to do with the day-to-day struggle of poor blacks. In fact, a number of white artists were maintaining that art is unimportant in the scheme of life, or in the face of our current political miasma—a curious stance for those who have devoted their lives to it. But when the protestors call for the destruction of the painting, they turn around and argue for its intrinsic value as if it were a sacred object.
While it’s true that many economically disadvantaged blacks, survival on their minds, may never know about this issue and, if they did, might not care what happens at the Whitney, the arts are important in shaping the culture and the perceptions of those who make decisions about our lives. Do we hold our judgment and listen? Or continue to send the message that the white establishment couldn't care less?
Beyond the question of the subject matter, a big problem with Open Casket, as Aruna D’Souza and Ann Landi have also pointed out, is that it’s not a great painting, and one wonders if the result would have been different if it were. Instead Open Casket is a Dana Schutz before anything else, with the result that it trivializes and makes a decorative cartoon of a horrific event. As one commenter said, “I'm not sure that 'rubber stamping' a style on a loaded subject is a good strategy for a successful painting”.
Adding insult to injury is Schutz’s statement that she was empathizing as a mother, if not a black mother, which indicates she must have missed the conversation around the distinction between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” at the top of the news the last several years.
If I were King of the Whitney, I’d leave the painting up and make the dialogue around it part of the exhibition, posting the dissenting remarks and holding symposia with an eye to giving black voices a platform—because, in the end, the conversation is much more consequential than the painting.
Friday, March 10, 2017
At 6:30 last Friday morning I was waiting for the BBC to contact me with details about Banksy’s latest project – a hotel in East Jerusalem, named the “Walled-Off.” The day before I’d received an email with the heading “BBC NEWS-URGENT” (which, like most messages that say URGENT nearly went into the spam folder) and had agreed to comment on it live at 9:30 in their studio at 200 Liberty Street. When I got there (found a taxi, whew!), finally passed Pentagon-like security and arrived on the 18th floor, I was greeted by a beautiful woman named Kizzy. She took my coat, gave me a plastic cup of water, and immediately ushered me into the sound room—a padded cell with a wall-size green screen and projected view of Manhattan. In front of the screen was a desk and chair, with an eerie camera lens embedded in the opposite black wall. To the right was a big monitor with me, only me, on it (if you think looking into a magnified mirror is scary, try HD!). Kizzy wired me up and left, closing the door. I fluffed my hair in the monitor. In my ear I could hear an announcer, parts of the news program, and a lot of interference. A British male voice came on, asked me to say something to test the volume, and told me we’d be live in seven minutes. I still had only the barest information about Banksy’s project and no idea what I’d be asked.
I did fine. Interspersed with my comments were those of a male British critic with a sonorous voice, clearly an experienced presenter (I never caught his name), who did even better. Kizzy came in, unwired me, gave me my coat and I went out into the sunshine, off to tea in Tribeca with my friend, Elenor.
More images here:
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
In 1993, on one of the most horrid hot humid days ever in New York, I was on Fifth Avenue with my Chinese paper parasol when a man with a camera ran up and snapped it in my face. I said, nastily, “You can’t do that” and he said, just as nastily, “I wasn’t taking a picture of you, I was taking a picture of Tiffany’s window behind you.” I walked about two more blocks before realizing that he was Bill Cunningham from the Times and when I got home, wrote him a short apology, saying that I mistook him for a rude tourist from Iowa. I forgot about it completely until several Sundays later when I was meeting a friend who had with her a copy of the Times—and there I was, in a layout about parasols, snarling under mine. That week I received a print of the picture in the mail and a note from Cunningham who wrote, “The image of you and your parasol turned me into an aggressive New Yorker…apologies. The tourists are the polite ones…it’s me who is not too polite. Best regards, Bill C.” – more gracious than I deserved.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
One of the things I appreciate about nature is that there’s no advertising. Even more, except for trail markings, some artfully piled rocks, the rare piece of litter and the flag at the top of the mountain, when I hike in the woods I don’t have to come in contact with anyone else’s sensibilities.
Then there’s New York, which is nothing but other people’s sensibilities, all vying for my attention. The idea that advertisers get to shape the human environment is one of the worst outcomes of unfettered capitalism. Do I really want to think about psoriasis when I’m on the subway? Or look at that guy in his Calvins high about Houston Street? We can’t avoid it, advertising is everywhere, on every possible bit of real estate including the risers on station steps, and we accept it with no complaints—but when someone presumes to write his/her name on a wall with a marker, everyone goes apeshit.
Art or not, at least it’s the sign of a real person, someone who’s not trying to sell me anything, just letting me know s/he was there.
So what would the world look like if the graffiti artists were to prevail? It would look like Bristol, England, which I visited on my trip to Banksy’s Dismaland (more about that in a later post):
Banksy's "Mild Mild West" next to The Canteen, which advertises itself as "responsible, delicious, and noisy", and where we had roasted duck salad with celeriac root fries. Those street artists eat well!
Work by friend, PETRO, who was our guide.
And I love these little whimsical bits you could easily miss. Later we went to the opening at Fluorescent Smogg Gallery to celebrate more work by PETRO and others:
COSMOGG SECRET INSTALL - BRISTOL 17th September from Fluorescent Smogg on Vimeo.
All photographs by Carol Diehl © 2015
Monday, September 28, 2015
In a previous post I called out (and, I hope, shamed) Dan Brooks in his NY Times essay, “Banksy and the Problem with Sarcastic Art” for writing a negative critique of Banksy’s pop-up theme park, Dismaland, without bothering to actually experience it. Now I’d like to address another aspect of that piece, the fact that Brooks doesn’t get British humor, thereby offending an entire culture.
Before expounding, Brooks might have, like any good writer, consulted Wikipedia, where it says: “A strong theme of sarcasm and self-deprecation, often with deadpan delivery, runs throughout British humour.” This is a surprise? I thought humor was one of Britain’s most famous exports. But then Brooks lives in Montana.
So, of course, the Brits say it best, as evidenced by these comments on Brooks’s blog:
Patricia: Hello your piece about Dismaland was a load of bollocks just saying .smiley face
Sam: Hey arsehole, I noticed you didn’t offer a right to reply on your hilarious Banksy critique you coward. American critics can’t seem to help but embarrass them selves when it comes to understanding British cultural work. The reason you can’t pin down where the depth lies in his work is because you can only see it through the lens of your own cultural experience you prick. Its not for you, (American goal/success obsessed, materialists), its for us, (British people who live under the yolk of class oppression). He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be in the work and that’s a big part of its value. Just accept it. It’s Far more poignant and rare to see outward looking work like his, rather than most American introspective conceptual art that’s obsessed with the artist and the individual, that when you get down to it, exists as little more than in invitation to fuck or be fucked. Write about shit you see in your own culture but leave our work out of it.
Beaver: LOL. Takin’ some heat for your Dismaland piece. I guess that’ll happen when you deconstruct the only functioning tool in the room. And anyway, if you can thrill to the demagoguery, than surely you can at least find some amusement in the irony of a society which makes a bond of the chasm and defends it by hurling at you fragments of their smashed and deconsecrated urn, the last remaining ashes of wit mixing irretrievably in the wind with whatever comes next.
Dismaland, featuring "Mediocre" by Axel Void of Miami. Photo: Carol Diehl © 2015
Monday, September 21, 2015
So Friday night, Ray, Magda, and I are sitting around chatting in their living room in London’s Hackney Wick, when Ray hears a sound in the garden and gets up to check, thinking it’s a fox. Instead four young gang members being chased by the police have climbed over the high brick walls and are now at the back door begging to get in. When we go to the front door there are police cars everywhere. Magda and I go upstairs to watch the drama unfold from the windows, a vivid lesson in the difference in policing styles between England and America. First of all, the cadre of cops that show up are a bunch of truly hot guys—young, slim, and handsome—like maybe the rugby team has come to the rescue. They get to the garden—not by breaking down our door—but by nimbly scaling the series of walls and as I watch one climb over the next wall in pursuit, I’m thinking that even if cops in America were that fit, they’d be weighed down by all the equipment they carry. I’m also realizing that if this were happening in America, guns would be involved, and instead of standing at the window, I’d be under the bed. We watched as they arrested two out front, and felt sad for everyone. The boys—who, we were told, been fighting in a gang war with knives, boards with nails in them and machetes—didn’t look evil, just young and clueless. The police were respectful and professional. When they left Ray went out to the garden to try to salvage his climbing cherry tomatoes, and I went to bed.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
One of Banksy’s many talents is getting people in the public sphere to reveal themselves at their most self-serving. Like turning over a rock, his Dismaland has brought to light a gaggle of journalists (and/or editors, who goad them into it) willing to put their scruples aside and gain exposure by taking advantage of Banksy’s notoriety. I mean, really, you’d think that the first requirement of having an opinion on any experience would be to actually have the experience. But nooooo….first to tip me off to this phenom was a commenter who asked if the author of the negative Dismaland critique in the LA Times had actually attended it. Then in today’s New York Times Magazine, one Dan Brooks waxes at length on “Banksy and the Problem with Sarcastic Art.” citing negative reviews from Business Insider (“bad and boring”), HuffPo (“Dismaland is not interesting and neither is Banksy”) and others to bolster his point—while there’s no evidence that he, or any of the other writers, found occasion to visit the event. This conundrum is especially interesting when one considers that Brooks fancies himself a specialist in “ethical dilemmas” who, in his blog, has taken issue with those having an opinion about a book they haven't read.
Rats! I should have written a critique of the Jeff Koons retrospective, which I missed, based on my certain assumption that I would have hated it.
Is this happening relative only to Banksy or does it portend a trend? If so, it’s bad news for readers, good news for writers who will no longer have to leave their chairs to cover music, art, theatre, restaurants, etc. Think of the gas money they can save! And no need to get a baby-sitter. As for hard news, staying home is not only a lot safer than going into a war zone, the food is much better.
I’m off to Dismaland next week, will report.
Update: More on Dan Brooks's ethical dilemmas:
Update: More on Dan Brooks's ethical dilemmas:
Monday, November 17, 2014
The HBO documentary, “Banksy Does New York” reviews the anonymous British street artist’s month-long self-styled "residency" in New York where, in October of 2013, he generated a new work every day for a month, touching down in all five boroughs. In a brief segment of the film, I discuss the artist’s engagement with the writings of Hannah Arendt. The text is part of a lecture, “Banksy: Completed,” in which I follow his clues to reveal the philosophical origins of his work, given in the past year at University of Southern California/Fullerton, the Berkshire Museum, the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, UK and upcoming, Rochester Institute of Technology.
For Day 29 of his unsanctioned sojourn in New York, Banksy repurposed an original artwork, an overwrought pastoral oil painting purchased for $50 from a thrift store. With his painted addition of a solitary Nazi officer seated in contemplation on a bench, the scene of an autumn forest by a river with snowy mountains in the distance is transformed from kitsch Americana to Caspar David Friedrich-esque German Romanticism, the falling yellow leaves now signifying the decline of the Nazi regime as well as a warning, perhaps, of our own social and political decline. Scrawling his signature under that of the original artist, Banksy, on his website (which existed only for the duration of the “residency”), entitled the work ", oil on oil on canvas, 2013," and described it as "a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store," with the intention that the proceeds go to the Brooklyn-based nonprofit that benefits homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. Housing Works auctioned it off and ultimately, after much bidding drama, netted at least $450,000.
On the Village Voice blog, writer Raillan Brooks no doubt Googled “the banality of evil” to discover that it was associated with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “theoretical reckoning of the Nazis' rise to power.” Brooks, concluded, however, that it more likely had “something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he's actually saying”—when it’s clearly the theme that underlies all his subversive enterprises.
A Report on the Banality of Evil is the subtitle of Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness account of the Nazi criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was accused of engineering the extermination of European Jews. Writing originally in The New Yorker, Arendt expressed shock that Eichmann did not come across as a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” a man whose thinking was so conventional that he spoke only in clichés. This led Arendt to develop her thesis that beyond Hitler’s vile nature, it was the mediocrity of his functionaries, their unwillingness to think for themselves while attempting to fulfill their mundane needs and individual ambitions—hence their banality—that enabled the Nazi atrocities. Therefore Banksy’s title has to do with the original painting being itself a cliché, the work of a painter who is trying to please others rather than thinking for himself, and by inserting the Nazi officer, Banksy is adding a symbol of banality to banality, with his “oil on oil.”
While being tried as a war criminal, Eichmann insisted on his innocence: he never killed anyone or ordered that anyone be killed, nor did he have a grudge against Jews. He was a man eager to get ahead and his job, which he fulfilled efficiently, was to arrange for the transportation of Jewish prisoners to death camps. To do otherwise, he explained on the stand, would be to break the law at the time, and he was not a law-breaker. Their destination was not his responsibility. Upon hearing his sentence of death, Eichmann said, “I am convinced in the depths of my heart that I am being sentenced for the deeds of others.”
This concept is at the heart of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel, The Reader, later made into a film. One of two main characters, Hanna, is being tried for war crime, but she’s not an officer, nothing like it, simply a guard who never considers the possibility that she could defy orders and unlock the burning church in which most of her prisoners die. Like Eichmann, what’s chilling about Hanna is her ordinariness; she’s just doing her job. Arendt suggests that evil is more accidental than intentional, less a result of ideology and conviction than a by-product of petty ambition and the drive for personal security.
Expanding on Arendt’s thesis was Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment that measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to inflict what they thought were electrical shocks on a hidden subject, an actor whose screams they could hear. Milgram concluded that, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.... (When) asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Commenting on this experiment, Banksy has noted, “Garments are symbols of authority and we have a powerful tendency to accept authority….Take the man out of the doctor's costume and his test subjects refuse to do it.”
Ironically, while railing against this failure of humans to question their environment, Banksy consciously uses it to his own ends. Not one to skulk around in a hoodie, as he appears in his 2011 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” one of his methods for avoiding detection is to look as official as possible. To “turn invisible” he recommends a high-vis vest, hardhat, clipboard, and business cards—not to speak of three stories of scaffolding under a CCTV camera.
It is therefore significant that Banksy’s Nazi officer is not depicted as an ogre, but a lover of nature, which makes him all the more normal and therefore frightening. In that context, Banksy’s entire crusade can be seen as one against what Arendt called a “failure to think” or, in other words, mediocrity and banality in all its forms.
The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we're told, this is the only way we can be sure.
--Banksy, Wall and Piece.
Monday, June 16, 2014
Photo: Dennis Kardon © 2014
There’s much that disturbs me about Kara Walker’s much-lauded and wildly popular installation at Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Sugar refinery, but I’ll start with its undeniable beauty. Made of sparkling white sugar, this gigantic, crouching sphinx-like figure, with curves like a Brancusi, looms like a symbol of purity in the vast darkness and decay of the factory’s interior. The sweet smell is overwhelming, and the piece itself is intended to degrade over time; when I was there, skeletal dark lines were beginning to form between the polystyrene blocks that form the core of the sculpture. Conceptually and figuratively, it’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly fulfills part of nonprofit Creative Time’s original mission to ”support the creation of innovative, site-specific, socially engaged works in the public realm, especially in vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest…while pushing artists beyond their normal boundaries.” [See note below]
So why does its beauty upset me? Because the installations’ sheer gorgeousness and spectacle serve as a distraction from the insidious agenda that makes a mockery of another part of Creative Time’s mission, to “foster social progress.” I have long felt that Walker’s work—in which blacks are portrayed as passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual drama—doesn’t invalidate, but rather reinforces the stereotypes whites have imposed on blacks to justify racism, and is entirely dependent on the gratuitous titillation that violence and sex inevitably engender, regardless of the context—or the race of the person who perpetrates them. Walker’s sphinx conflates two familiar white parodies of black women: the big-assed, sexually available Jezebel, with her vulva hanging out for the taking, and her opposite, the maternal, large-breasted but desexualized Mammy, who sublimates her own needs to fulfill those of her white charges.
Whites are discouraged from criticizing black artists, but white critics, curators, and collectors are free to ratify work that enrages many black intellectuals, whose protests are then dismissed as attempts at censorship. That Walker’s work is celebrated, even tolerated, tells a lot about the racism that’s still subtly endemic in the art world; it’s hard to imagine a “genius grant” being awarded to an artist, no matter how Jewish, whose specialty was caricatures of big-nosed Jews sucking Nazi dick.
Vulgar photos taken by visitors posing with the “sphinx” are all over Instagram, and castigated online by writers who are upset that the artwork is not being shown proper respect. Derived from minstrel shows where whites in blackface lampooned blacks, the caricatures Walker appropriates were created with the specific intention of provoking ridicule. Should we then be surprised when they succeed?
Roberta Smith in the Times writes that Walker “evokes the history of the sugar trade, its dependence on slavery and slavery’s particular degradation of women, while also illuminating the plagues of obesity and diabetes that keep so many American dreams unfulfilled.” Yet it can also be said that Walker is providing massive advertising for Domino Sugar, which donated the 80 tons that make up the sculpture. As a sponsor, the familiar Domino logo is prominently featured on a wall at the site as well as Creative Time’s website, and a Google search for ‘“Kara Walker” Domino’ garners over 88,000 links. Statements that speak of “history,” along with the fact that Walker’s images are based nostalgically on our antebellum past, present a view of slavery that locates it dangerously outside the present capitalist global economy—when it is still very much part of it.
While Creative Time’s website includes a compelling essay written by the narrator of a documentary about the forced and child labor that constitute modern slavery, it doesn’t name the mega-corporation that owns Central Romano, the plantation on which it was filmed: Flo-Sun, of which Domino is its best-known subsidiary. If the people at Creative Time, along with Walker, have seen this film—as indeed they must have in their research—I wonder how they feel about the ironic possibility that Walker’s sculpture might have been enabled by slave labor.
Pepe and Alfy Fanjul, who run Flo-Sun, inherited the sugar empire from their Cuban father. Dubbed “the Koch brothers of Southern Florida,” they‘re said to be friends and neighbors of the Kochs who, in comparison with the sugar barons, look like Mother Theresa clones.
In the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls have been subject to repeated allegations of labor exploitation, particularly of undocumented Haitian migrant workers with little to no legal standing before Dominican government institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor includes sugar from the Dominican Republic—much of which comes from Fanjul-owned plantations or is imported to Fanjul-owned refineries—on its annual "List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor." Both a 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary [“The Price of Sugar,” narrated by Paul Newman, view here] and the 2007 film "The Sugar Babies," narrated by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat [author of the Creative Time essay] call attention to the working conditions of impoverished cane-cutters laboring at the Fanjuls' Central Romana. In the United States, meanwhile, opponents of U.S. agricultural subsidies and government protections have long criticized the Fanjuls for building their dominance in the domestic market on the backs of artificially inflated prices and the U.S. taxpayer…. more
Post’s Page Sixis the ex-wife of former KKK leader David Duke, and the current wife of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard and member of the American Nazi Party. He now runs white-supremacist Web site StormFront.org. A company representative said, “While we may not agree with someone’s politics, we wouldn’t terminate them for that….We will not discriminate against anybody….”
Photo: Carol Diehl (2014)
Note: I lifted this mission statement from Creative Time’s Wikipedia entry, well aware that it is not same statement that appears on their website. However having been Director of Public Relations (a somewhat hilarious title, given that I was the entire department) for Creative Time in the mid-80’s, when it was a pioneering organization and very true to its nonprofit status, these were the words used to promote it and feel best represent the inspired vision of founder Anita Contini.
Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit
Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit