Hand the match*


In a complete coincidence having nothing whatsoever to with eye shadow or other heretofore smoldering fires in the D.C. area, this terrific digression on Smoke in The Paris Review, courtesy of the late great John Berger, with illustrations by Selçuk Demirel.

* another old-timey saying involving smoking, common among the hobo gentry when one too-many were gathered around your flame.

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

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.

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

The hazards of Political Art [part MCMXII]


Even for the most accomplished of smart ass, wise guy, artist provocateurs, political art is dicey. Art can be political. But if it is, it better also be very good.
So… Banksy has a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem called Walled Off. Okay. And he threw a street party to mock-celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration:

People from the nearby Aida refugee camp said afterwards they objected to the way the event had used Palestinian children as the centrepiece of the performance. “We came because we didn’t like the use of the British flags or the way they were using Palestinian children,” said Munther Amira, a prominent activist from Aida who planted a large Palestinian flag in the middle of a cake.

Banksy’s rendering of a British street party was intended to satirise other celebrations, including the dinner on Thursday, at which guests will include the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several dozen Palestinian children had been invited to the event, which included scorched bunting and flags, cakes and helmets painted with union flags set at a table beneath the looming concrete separation wall.
The event also included the unveiling of a new work by Banksy, etched into the concrete of the wall: a mock apology from Queen Elizabeth II to the Palestinians reading “Er … sorry”.

The Balfour declaration was the result of discussions between British Zionist leaders seeking political recognition of their goals for Jewish statehood and British politicians embroiled in the first world war.

Whoever Banksy is, his instinct to bring attention to Palestinian suffering is well-chosen but also lousy with pitfalls. Once any artist begins to make statements of expression using actual people, their stories, histories and emotions, they are using much more than words, paint, film or movement. I’m not convinced that it can’t or should not be done – it has and will again. But again: err first on the side of excellence. Good work is easily marginalized if it can be dismissed as manipulative self-promotion.

Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.

Emergent Forms of Other Belief


The Crisis Theme that seems to be the default, unchangeable background of everything these days can be exhausting. None of us seems to know how to handle social media – is it for self-promotion? sharing opinions? business? the fck is a status update? connecting instead of conversing – beyond obsessive attention to it or turning it off completely. That the tools have been created to make other people rich appears to be a mere byproduct, but is it? Do I need to read an article on it that my friends agree with to believe that? Every news item from the Dunce-in-chief to climate change to what’s wrong with the Democratic party to health care to guns hermetically seals us in a state of doubtful knowing. And like quicksand, if you try to get out of it too desperately, you’re only pulled back all the more. For those who insist on creating, it can be be double-trouble: your battle is not to react against but still ‘do something.’ What does that mean?

Friend of the blog Jed Perl lays out in an inadvertent cautionary tale in this Rauschenberg review, The Confidence Man of American Art:

It was as a genre-buster—an artist who crossed boundaries and cross-pollinated disciplines—that Rauschenberg was embraced in the 1960s. More than fifty years later, there are more and more artists who seem to believe, as he apparently did, that art is unbounded. The only difference is that our contemporaries—figures such as Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken, and Matthew Day Jackson—have traded his whatever-you-want for an even more open-ended and blunt whatever. A creative spirit, according to the argument that Rauschenberg did so much to advance, need not be merely a painter, a photographer, a stage designer, a printmaker, a moviemaker, a collagist, an assemblagist, a writer, an actor, a musician, or a dancer. An artist can be any or all of these things, and even many of them simultaneously. The old artisanal model of the artist—the artist whose genius is grounded in the demands of a particular craft—is replaced by the artist who is often not only figuratively but also literally without portfolio, a creative personality-at-large in the arts.

One can argue that there are historical precedents for this view. Picasso enriched both his painting and his sculpture by working back and forth between the two disciplines. And the work that Picasso did in the theater certainly precipitated significant shifts in his painting.

Just so, and there is much more. And I do not come to praise Rauschenberg or to bury him. One point can be that, for better or worse, he imagined himself and what he was doing. Sure he was affected by his culture and the times in which he lived. But Jed is correct – the question is where the question (whatever it is) takes the artist. If it runs you back into into the insufferable quandary of boredom or futility, it wasn’t the right question. We can work our way through this time, as others have other times, but not by taking it on directly. Okay maybe, if you’re Zola. But you’re not. So don’t do that at all. Ignore it? Abdication is consent. Also – nothing will change. That’s one reason to like the ‘confidence man’ citizen’s arrest of Rauschenberg. It’s a hefty charge. But that’s okay – you don’t need to [first] accept any of the givens about anyone or thing in order to get somewhere. And this is not about progress, anyway. It’s about getting to all some of that other space, all around you, that seems inaccessible. That’s what can be frustrating – and it’s not even true. It’s just a thing someone has created and you’ve allowed to be in your way, that you need to [yes] use your discipline to think beyond. And [yes] to make something.

Image: Portrait of Apollinaire as a Premonition, by Giorgio de Chiricio, 1914

The Ocean-Carbon Cycle

I just heard about this yesterday, from a marine scientist working on modeling the associated feedback loops as the pace of climate change alters the extent to which giant green zones in the deep ocean are sucking up some of our bulging CO2 inventory. Because of the ‘nature’ of our stupid discourse about climate change, no one hears about this at all. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t, you know, still happening:

Evidence suggests that the past and current ocean uptake of human-derived (anthropogenic) CO2 is primarily a physical response to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Whenever the partial pressure of a gas is increased in the atmosphere over a body of water, the gas will diffuse into that water until the partial pressures across the air-water interface are equilibrated. However, because the global carbon cycle is intimately embedded in the physical climate system there exist several feedback loops between the two systems.

So this is different from hypoxia zones in the Gulf of Mexico, as the shelf there is so shallow that the giant algal blooms just take up all of the oxygen, from everything. At greater depths, the rot has the chance to sink to the bottom and be absorbed by phytoplankton, eventually becoming some form of poop, settling to the bottom and working its way into the system (explanation below). This is why these giant expanses of green water in the open ocean are good things, even as they emanate from the Amazon River and cloud the pristine Caribbean. They are caused by the same forces that create biological dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico – the spewing of nutrient-rich effluent into ocean. But the rate they are changing from other forces, like the changing hydrologic cycle (warning: giant pdf) in the Amazon basin*, must go un- or under-discussed all because of the issue which must not be named, per the above mentioned discourse stupidity, which is more like cupidity than anything.

*The Amazon basin has experienced its worst droughts and its worst flooding in the last five years. Talk about naturally alarming. This is the kind of thing that needs to be reported on with the seriousness given to the pregnancy of a titular princess, mailed out and extensively unpacked, where you are left with the realization that you need to start walking to work now and forever more, saving your car trips for something special-er than buying lottery tickets or browsing at the mall. I have intentionally tried to offer a cursory explanation of the ocean-carbon cycle to demonstrate about how difficult it is to talk, which is one of the lower reasons that we don’t know more about it. No excuse, though it remains.

The Sound of a Tree Not Falling

Social Eco progress continues in Latin America, while the rest of the world fixates on reality t.v. shows and/or burns.

In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, the poorest people in the world have taken on the richest people in the world to defend a part of the ecosystem none of us can live without. They had nothing but wooden spears and moral force to defeat the oil companies – and, for today, they have won.

Human beings need to make far more decisions like this: to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and to leave rainforests standing. In microcosm, this rumble in the jungle is the fight we all face now. Will we allow a small number of rich people to make a short-term profit from seizing and burning resources, at the expense of our collective ability to survive?

If this sounds like hyperbole, listen to Professor Jim Hansen, the world’s leading climatologist, whose predictions have consistently turned out to be correct. He says: “Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with a sea level 75 metres higher. Coastal disasters would occur continually. The only uncertainty is the time it would take for complete ice sheet disintegration.”

via.