Interrogating the Sabotage

Bon Dieu. Saltz catches us up on the techno-climactic imitation-felt confluence-peddling praxus-shuffling symbolically-metaphorical thrice-divorced yet still unimaginably and singly imponderable grammatically-scientific but geographically-sociological and revolution-intolerant latest art show:

The catalogue has words in it that I didn’t know. The show is about the “precariat” and “geontopower.” I looked them up. The first word is about a generation born during a period of the greatest accumulation of wealth in the history of the world but who nevertheless live in unstable economies. It’s worth pointing out that 99 percent of all artists have always lived like this. Needless to say most of the artists included here are relatively well-off —either schooled, degreed, living in more than one city (that’s a nice racket), recipients of important grants and residencies where they do “interventions with the local communities.” This is not to say, of course, that no beneficiary of art-world largesse should feel qualified to make work involving social critique. Quite the opposite. But I want to see them walking the walk, not just posing the pose.

To define the second word, “geontopower,” the catalogue offers a dodge: “a set of discourses.” You can’t win with these people! Words like “undercommons,” “hypercapitalism,” “networked mediascapes,” and “anarcho-syndicalists” are tossed off. There’s lots of usual art-speak about art that “interrogates,” leading us to conclude that in the last 15 years the art world has gone from being undertakers proclaiming mediums dead to becoming lawyers taking depositions. In an old neo-Marxist tip of the hat, the approved word for artists is now “cultural producer.” No artist can rise to these levels of activism. Especially not very very young ones. (And these are the same people who end up writing the histories, curating the shows, teaching the courses, editing out “impurities” from bibliographies, reviewing one another’s shows, hiring colleagues for jobs.) Meanwhile, a claque of critics lauds every show and demonizes all those who don’t. It’s airtight.

There is no joy in attending a gathering of people who [ostensibly] do what you think you do but all urgency is being discussed in a language you do not understand. It could be that the end-product of the eventual combination of art and business schools is to organize an end-of-the-world exhibition where nobody comes.

What does Eau de Nil mean?

Noted early twentieth century cultural signifier Eau de Nil wends it way from Flaubert in Egypt to Hitchcock to a fresh moment in the sun thanks to a cool president’s new portrait:

The term first entered our chromatic lexicon in the late nineteenth century, just as Egyptomania was hitting its peak. While in the British Isles talk of “the East” referred primarily to India, France had a particularly strong affinity for Egypt—due in part to Napoleon’s brief 1798 attempts at colonization and the influence of the savants. “If you were French,” Wall writes, “the east was Egypt, a place at the very limit of the European imagination … Egypt was the orient, a country of the mind, a grand theatre of sensuality, despotism, slavery, polygamy, cruelty, mystery and terror.” This Egypt of the mind had little reality outside the poetry of Keats and Shelley; the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emile Bernard, and André Duterte (whose painting of the ruined temple at Thebes may have been the basis for “Oxymandias”); and the oddly popular theories of the occultist Helena Blavatsky and her follower, the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. For the French, Egypt as a concept was far more exciting than Egypt as an actual place. (Though not to Flaubert; to him, Egypt was where he bedded nubile young women after watching them dance the popular striptease, “the bee.”)

Image: the great portrait by Kehinde Wiley

The eve and the morrow

The great Colm Tóibín assembles and unfurls several aspects of Conrad in a review of a new book about the writer, sharing earlier appraisals by V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe. How’s this for precision:

In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad as “a writer who is missing a society…. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And then he laments:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked…. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction…. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.

And

Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made,” he finds “that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The Secret Agent, he discovers characters and phrases that strike him as “real” in a way they had not before. He notes a phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”

As Naipaul grows to appreciate that phrase he sees something essential in Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or throttled by their adjectives, as though the impulse were merely to make a fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if studied carefully or read in a certain light, stand apart, become precise. He observes that Conrad, despite all his concern with ineffability, often meant business. “Words which at one time we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his “reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.”

Just go read it all. It’s Friday – what else are you doing? Plus you’ll be relieved of thinking about vulgarians for a while better for it.

Image: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Slowed! to the Highest Bidder

Hilarity ensues as the Trump ministration launches a trial balloon for building a nationwide 5G network:

it was an unpleasant surprise to many when a draft proposal urging heavy federal involvement in the next generation of fast mobile networks emerged from the White House of Donald Trump — who won the presidency after promising massive cuts to regulations.

”We’re not Venezuela,” Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said at a policy gathering in Washington. “Government taking it over, controlling it, is probably — clearly — not the way to go.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican chosen by Trump, was even more blunt: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network”

The proposal is rooted in concerns about China and cybersecurity, according to two administration officials familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Unresolved questions include the extent of taxpayer funding, and whether a fifth generation, or 5G, network would be owned by the government, one of the officials said.

If the federal government directly participates in building a wireless network intended for commercial use, it would be a departure from the decades-long tradition of auctioning licenses to telecommunications companies to build their own networks. Phone service has been on a deregulatory path for decades, including legislation in 1996 that President Bill Clinton said “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.”

Very observant of Representative Walden, but so many (and varied) plans are afoot and this is where they play the V card? So frightened are we of the massive, self-created Beowulf of ‘government-run _____’ that we are willing to abide any and all inferior services because THE MARKET! One might say it is cunning to introduce the security threat into this discussion until you remember who’s in charge and that you have every reason to be suspect even of unscheduled emptying of waste baskets. But the rending of garments about how great our competitive monopolies are at doing everything and the temerity to threaten them with a network built and own by Guhvuhmint is indeed tender and endearing.

Monuments and Moby Dick


There are a slew of metaphors in these border wall prototypes and the proposal to designate them a singular national monument, which one could argue they already are. And I don’t know quite what is the best of the ‘elegance from idiocy’ interpretations… or how many… oh, it’s America, we can choose all of them:

Which fittingly brings us back to Trump. As with much minimalism, these prototypes are hard-edged geometry and impervious materials brought into the American landscape of the West and arranged to impose order, inspire awe, and try to manage and align mystic political forces — and to make something that while instantly obsolete, like some useless Stalin Gulag project, meant to last forever. Trump has made something that evokes a real monument — one that may correctly be said to stand for everything he believes in. And I think mustn’t be forgotten. The structures represent a menacing presence that imparts brutal cruelty, fear, contempt, and coldhearted malice — something nihilistic and destructive that doesn’t believe in the substance of the American creed but only in the appearance of being cocksure, in theatricality, and manipulative statecraft.

It’s horribly unjust – to them – how each U.S. preznit seems to symbolize the country during his(!) time in office, and though at times it is beautiful, usually the truth only hurts. But this time it’s just stupid, ignorant, fearful, racist and depraved.

Great D.H. Lawrence quote at the end of the article. Nice going.

Terrifically Boring


The movements on the Green energy front (What does it mean?) have become complex, obscured tea-leaves reading exercises and here’s another one that will get little attention though it rolls disparate dynamics into one [silent] scream:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday unanimously rejected a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have propped up nuclear and coal power plants struggling in competitive electricity markets.

The independent five-member commission includes four people appointed by President Trump, three of them Republicans. Its decision is binding.

TL;DR – the commission endorses markets. ‘Sustainable’ was an iffy signifier until people. Started. Making. Money. Or put another way: Guy comes into his shrink’s office after a hundred sessions and the doc lays it all out. Everything comes down to: It doesn’t matter which green we’re talking about. They both point to the same place. Ugly, perhaps, and maybe not inevitable enough to happen in time. So parades and grandstanding will seem a little gratuitous and a kind of devolution at the hand of the money power. Again, hate the irony, not the player.

Image: future skate park?

Steps in Rome


Not to say ‘toward’ or ‘from.’ No need to be so speculative at the top of a New Year.
The Cavour is a neighborhood just to the north of the Coliseum. Steps leading down to a small street from the large excavation of the Imperial fora, backing up from the Trajan forum specifically.
The name Cavour seems to relate to the ancient neighborhood, Suburra, which has become kind of hothouse stand-in for over-charged criminality with new film and TV depictions. I had heard it was kind of red-light district in earlier times. Colleen McCullough mentions it as a densely-populated neighborhood of working people and perhaps a dozen or more different ethnicities where Gaius Marius bought apartments for his wife Julia. The area is still home to a lot people and not a few chic new restaurant of at least a dozen ethnicities.
But before you descend the steps down to the those places, or toward the metro stop of the same name, from the Via Cavour you can look back over those large holes of ruins and see Victor Emannuele and the remains of the Republican Forum and the Palatine Hill.
It was just that, turning around for another look prior to descent, which occurs now. We look up as we go down, even in the Eternal City. Remembering the way, learning, forgetting again old acquaintances, seeing them through the lens of the new.
Whether steps are old and cracked or well cared for, lead us forward or back, down or higher – they deposit on the fringe of a new space. There for decisions to then be made about joining the madness, skirting the trouble, perusing the menus or busting in and asking for a table. Reservations? Sure, you may have them. But don’t let that stop you.
Excelsior. And step lively.

Image: Plan of Rome and the area in question, approx. 350 A.D.

Eco Hustle, You’ll Tide edition

My Christmas column, originally published in Flagpole magazine in December 2008. Painfully, mostly still relevant.

In December 1843, Charles Dickens did a hell of a thing. The son of a debtor, Dickens found himself drowning in debt as well and penned a Victorian morality tale in a desperate attempt to ease his financial burdens. The story we have come to know as A Christmas Carol was written in the span of six weeks. No publisher would touch it and so Dickens published it himself. The book was ready just before the holiday that it celebrated and all 6,000 copies sold out in the span of a week. It became a holiday institution immediately, its popularity serving to “redefine the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday,” according to wikipedia.

Dickens’ hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, had lost all use for the human endowments of charity, community, friendship and love. In fact, he demonstrated contempt for anything but money – a pose that has been greatly admired in our own culture until rec… well, we have at least sought comfort in epithets like conspicuous consumption and luxury tax. The analogy brings up some uncomfortable comparisons to go with our holiday cheer.

With our ability to supply basic necessities at a zenith, we strain for meaning and stimulation, indebting ourselves to buy things for a holiday we swear is not about material objects. We accept gross inadequacies in national and local healthcare, energy use and environmental degradation; the plight of those beyond our borders reduced to fables. If the ghost of Jacob Marley returned tonight, what bleak landscape would he threaten us with as an eternal post-mortem walking tour? Wait. Don’t answer that just yet. Viewing the world through the lens of consumption, we interpret events in the language of commodities. We’re perfectly at home with these unimportant distinctions between consumers and citizens (neighbors?) yet the only thing that preoccupies us more at this time of year than Christmas are the moments of consternation at how crass and commercial it has become.

Instead of ghosts, perhaps our dreamscapes are inhabited with the representative elements that first appeared as improvements to daily life, only to become seeds for greed and short-sightedness as they gave rise to our modern society. Christmas Past might feature a child waking sweetly on a long drive with her parents to Grandma’s house. She might peer over the big backseat of a large automobile and ask, “Papa, are we there yet?’ and he might answer, “Yes, Angel. Thanks to the new Interstate road system we’ll be there in another few minutes!”

“If we only knew then what we know now,” we might say. But what would we do differently? If we could revisit critical junctures, would we choose to begin down a more sustainable path?

Christmas Future would surely take place in that green, green landscape of the BP and IBM commercials, where birds chirp and squirrels chase deer and all sorts of other nonsensical pastimes envelope us in open meadows while we pull on rainbow cigars. The future would have to be particularly incoherent and disorienting in order to be sufficiently post-whatever we’ll be over by then. To pull this off, the virtual reality rendering might crash into a smoky apocalypse to really get our attention. The idea that what we find would tug at our innocence enough to invoke a specter of regret is both the genius of the Dickensian cliché and wishful thinking. Scrooge was savvy for his day, but we have fourth graders who would have him for lunch.

It’s Christmas present that is the problem. How do we see ourselves at this particular juncture? More attention is being paid the loss and destruction of water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, soil and air than ever before. Yet the prices for most raw materials are near historical lows and continue to fall. Supplies are cheap and appear to be abundant as technology continues to stay just ahead of depletion. Richer on a more grand scale than ever before, the resources upon which civilization depends to create economic progress are declining at a rate proportional to the gains in material well-being. We are thriving and yet the quality of our finest moments seems diminished.

Do we admit the disjuncture about the way we live and all it takes to support it? How about the one that really makes a mockery of Wall Street, that the earth is a closed system? Would we be startled by a solution waiting just outside our reach, ready for us to take charge if we might dare?

A Christmas Carol is not known as irreligious text but note the lack of religion in Dickens’ tale. We get all exercised about presents but exchanging gifts was the birthright of the pagan holiday, Sol Invictus. Let’s give it back – or better yet, announce where it came from. Notwithstanding the nefarious ploys of being drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, do these not both attempt to consecrate the One and True Light?

Ah, the sun. Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun god, had already made December 25 a holiday; the early Christians were chastised for being unobservant until they begged and borrowed and made the post-solstice feast their own. The Romans were just the next in a long line of people trying to remain in good stead with our main star. Perhaps we would do well to take our place in that procession. The moral hymn of our day is waiting to be written or perhaps we just need to re-read an older one to be reminded that we, too, need to change our ways. Dawn we now?

Genet… Away


A young* man in dark slacks, white shoes, a blue button down shirt and vest walked up the steps of a library. A grand edifice equal to its holdings, the building featured a trio of main entrances and the man entered, knowingly, the one on the right with an automatic door. Past security to the bank of elevators, he waited only momentarily for the doors to open, close and transport him quickly up to the third floor. He found the PQ’s and three rows in walked all the way down the aisle, almost to the very end. He arrived at the section and began reading titles.

After a minute so poised, reading the spines as if making a selection beyond a single book he had come for, he pulled out one book, opened it, perused, but then replaced it. He took out another and put it back without opening. Then spying another on a higher shelf, he took down the book, opened it to the verso and just before letting out a startling loud sneeze, lofted the book high in one hand to avoid splattering it with the involuntary spray.

Involuntary, but not invisible. Because when quiet down the row resealed itself and he looked around and saw no one, the man spied the bit of phlegm he had caught in the other hand that covered his mouth, just as involuntarily. Now quite deliberately attempting to safeguard the books from the one soiled hand, he continued his quest for a few more minutes. When he had finally decided on a selection, the man took the book back down the long aisle. Before turning into the bank of stairs as though he studiously and by habit avoided the elevator on the way down, he turned into the men’s room just opposite the first shelf of PR’s.

Inside the empty lavatory, he shifted the book to hold it under the armpit of the left, soiled hand, while he turned on the cold water with his right. The handle was easy to turn, perhaps, easier than expected, and just as the water fired against the basin, the book came loose from the pit, as he leaned over the sink to clean his hand. Into the full spray and quickly filling basin it fell, splayed open at page 139.

He grabbed the book quickly, though damage had been done. He finished cleaning the hand and went downstairs to circulation.

“Can I help you?” the kind young woman asked.

“I….” and he proceeded to explain what had happened. She frowned, but not in the way he might have expected.

“What book is it?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s a novel by Jean Genet. It might actually have been a play…” he was saying but she shook her head.

“OH. Don’t worry about. No one reads that book,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of ruined. But really, no one is going to miss it. So don’t worry about it.”

“I came here for it, to get it,” he said, as though he stood for legions.

“It’s not even in English,” she assured, of which there was no need.

“No, Genet was… it’s in French.”

“Exactly.”

“How does that matter?” he asked but exasperation began to appear on the woman’s pleasant face. She seemed so understanding. Too understanding, such that her understanding seemed worth nothing at all.

“Look at the last time it was checked out,” she instructed, with a kind of obviousness the man felt he had little encountered. “1972?”

“What difference does that make? It was about to be,” he said and looked at the women checking out a book with the next clerk down, “tied for 1st as the most recent book checked out of this library.”

“Do you want me to ask my supervisor?”

“Ask her what?”

“it’s a him,” she pointed out and now the young man began to appear exasperated.

“Okay. Ask him if you can dry off the book and lend it out to me.”

“it’s pretty wet.”

“Indeed. Tell him I’m very sorry.”

“He won’t care. He’ll just say to take it out of circulation.”

“It’s the only copy you have.”

“Was,” she corrected him. The man sighed, handed over the book and felt a sneeze coming on.

By Alan Flurry
________________________
*Relatively

Plenty

Even when

Louise Bourgeois: Self Portrait, 2007
there’s plenty wrong, there’s still plenty of the other, too. It just gets crowded out, like blue sky by rain. No need to blow sunshine, just a little pushback – like this digression on the graphic sensibility of Louise Bourgeois:

Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois suffered more than the usual number of grievous blows to the psyche, and her inner life stayed tightly wrapped around their memory. War, illness, sexual jealousy, mental instability were all things she witnessed in her first decade, and she never forgot—or forgave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the attractive young Englishwoman who lived with the family as a tutor was also her father’s mistress, and this betrayal in particular was something she never got over. In addition, or perhaps in response, her mother was fragile and often ill, and young Louise became her companion at various spas and treatment centers; she was released from her caretaker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one.
After the loss of her mother, and encouraged by her charming and tyrannical father, Bourgeois started a small business selling works on paper, prints, and illustrated books out of a corner of the family’s tapestry workshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. To acquire her stock, she scoured the auction houses and book dealers, and she seems to have absorbed, almost overnight, the dominant graphic styles of the day. She had a particular affinity for Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the illustrated book form, which was then in vogue. Something about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they combined text and pictures, and the way the image was printed from engraving or etching plates, the whole satisfying feel in the hand of beautifully made paper embossed with rectangles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the template for how Bourgeois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

Have a template for how you think what matters most to you. Seems like all the advice anyone might need.

Image: Louise Borgeois: Self Portrait, 2007. MOMA