Seeing Green – the ‘color-blind’ age

Films – our most powerful cultural vehicle – are, like our decisions about climate justice and immigration cruelty, only as good as the people who are making them. For a long time, the film industry hid behind a financial rationale behind the dearth of black, Latinx and Native American directors. Then it had to get even more sophisticated.

The NYT takes us back to the 1990’s, when supposedly everything was changing:

But as the decade wore on, a wall was re-erected, black filmmakers now say, and many of the same people who had been held up as the faces of a changing industry watched as their careers ground slowly to a halt.

“I was told that I was in director’s jail,” said Matty Rich, whose emotionally incendiary 1991 debut film, “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year. Major film studios hailed him as a prodigy. But he’s made only one other film since — in 1994.

Darnell Martin, whose vibrant 1994 romantic comedy “I Like It Like That” was the first studio-produced film to be directed by an African-American woman (it won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best first feature), said she was later blacklisted in the industry for speaking out against racism and misogyny.

“You think, ‘It’s O.K. — you’re like every other filmmaker,’ but then you realize, ‘No,’” she said. “It’s like they set us up to fail — all they wanted was to be able to pat themselves on the back like they did something.”

The New York Times recently convened a discussion with six directors who were part of a wave of young black talent that surged 30 years ago this month — beginning with the success of “Do the Right Thing” in July 1989 — only to come crashing down, as Hollywood in the 1990s and 2000s reconstituted itself around films with white directors and white casts.

It may sound obvious – it is – but the way filmmakers speak with a forward voice and vision is of course connected to those individual filmmakers. Our tender baby steps on diversity are quietly arriving after a very extended epoch of everything-else-has-been-tried-to-prove-we-aren’t-racist. Some remain convinced that everything hasn’t been tried, but still… teeny, baby steps. For more on the racial politics of the movie industry,  see this interview with the author of The Hollywood Jim Crow.

Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?

People in suits

dochollidayMaybe like some, I’ve been reluctant to act on or even write much about my perspective on the recent election, beyond sharing brief descriptions. The compulsion to hold onto that anger for a while longer, allow it form something useful, while at the same time reaching out personally to many who instantly became more vulnerable, has seemed to me the better course. Doing this, however, we risk a certain changed countenance and I indeed do feel differently about several things in many ways, my naiveté about many of our fellow Americans prime among them. But about other things, I do not feel differently, and in fact, my convictions have only grown stronger, and they offer guidance on how to proceed, which led me back to something by the great John Gardner:

The poet-priest had two functions: lawgiver and comforter. He had to know what laws to give, what comfort to give, what comfort to withhold as false. The poet has far less power now, but the job hasn’t changed. He must affirm, comfort as he can, and make it stick. Let artists say what they know, then, admitting the difficulties but speaking nonetheless. Let them scorn the idea of dismissing as harmless the irrelevant fatheads who steal museums and concert halls and library shelves: the whiners, the purveyors of high-tone soap opera, the calm acceptors of senselessness, the murderers. It is not entirely clear that these people are not artists. They may be brilliant artists, with positions exactly as absolute as, say, mine. But they are wrong.It’s not safe to let them be driven from the republic by policemen, politicians, or professional educators. Officialdom would drive out all of us, which is one reason that when we come out shooting we should all talk with dignity and restraint, like congressmen, and wear, like Doc Holliday, vests and ties. Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society – at least until society starts horning in – but between the age-old enemies, real and fake.

The larger curve

I love this stuff. From Henry David Thoreau‘s Journal, July 18, 1851:

Here I am thirty-four years old, and yet my life is almost wholly unexpanded. How much is in the germ! There is such an interval between my ideal and the actual in many instances that I may say I am unborn. There is the instinct for society, but no society. Life is not long enough for one success. Within another thirty-four years that miracle can hardly take place. Methinks my seasons revolve more slowly than those of nature; I am differently timed. I am contented. This rapid revolution of nature, even of nature in me, why should it hurry me? Let a man step to the music which he hears, however measured. Is it important that I should mature as soon as an apple tree? aye, as soon as an oak? May not my life in nature, in proportion as it is supernatural, be only the spring and infantile portion of my spirit’s life? Shall I turn my spring to summer? May I not sacrifice a hasty and petty completeness here to entireness there? If my curve is large, why bend it to a smaller circle? My spirit’s unfolding observes not the pace of nature. The society which I was made for is not here. Shall I, then, substitute for the anticipation of that this poor reality? I would [rather] have the unmixed expectation of that than this reality. If life is a waiting, so be it. I will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. What were any reality which I can substitute? Shall I with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over myself, though when it is done I shall be sure to gaze still on the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not, – that still distant sky o’er-arching that blue expressive eye of heaven? I am enamored of the blue-eyed arch of heaven.

The ruin that crowns the rocks

VanGogh-View_of_Arles_with_IrisesFrom Volume II of the Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Vincent writing to his brother Theo from Arles, 26 May 1888:

My dear Theo,

I read an announcement in L’Intransigeant that there’s going to be an exhibition of the Impressionists at Durand-Ruel — there’ll be some works by Caillebotte —I’ve never seen anything of his, and wanted to ask you to write and tell me what they’re like — there are certainly other noteworthy things too.

I sent you some more drawings today, and I’m adding two more. They’re views taken from a rocky hill from which you can see in the direction of the Crau (an area from which a very good wine comes), the town of Arles and in the direction of Fontvieille. The contrast between the wild and romantic foreground — and the broad, tranquil distant prospects with their horizontal lines, shading off until they reach the chain of the Alpilles — so famous for the great feats of climbing of Tartarin, P.C.A., and the Alpine Club. This contrast is very picturesque.

The two drawings that I’m now adding afterwards will give you an idea of the ruin that crowns the rocks. But is it worth the trouble of making frames for this Dordrecht exhibition? I find it so silly and I’d prefer not to be part of it.

I prefer to believe that Bernard or Gauguin will exchange drawings with us in which the Dutch will see nothing.

Have you met the Dane Mourier-Petersen — he’ll have brought you another two drawings as well.

He studied to be a doctor, but I suppose he was discouraged in that by the student life, discouraged by both his pals and his professors. He never said anything to me about it, though, except that he once declared: ‘but doctors kill people’.

When he came here he was suffering from a nervous condition that came from the strain of the examinations. How long has he been doing painting — I don’t know — he’s certainly made little progress as a painter, but he’s good as a pal and he looks at people and often judges them very accurately. Could there be a possible arrangement whereby he could come to live with you? As far as intelligence goes, I think he’d be far more preferable to that Lacoste, of whom I don’t think highly, I don’t know why. You’ve absolutely no need of 6th-rate Dutchmen or worse, who when going back to their country do nothing but say and do idiotic things. A dealer in paintings is, unfortunately, more or less a public figure.

Anyway, there’s no serious harm done.

The Swede is from a good family, he has order and regularity in his means of support, and as a man he makes me think of those characters Pierre Loti creates11. For all that he’s phlegmatic, he has a good heart.

I plan to do a lot more drawing. It’s already jolly hot, I can assure you.

I must add an order for colours to this letter — however, if you’d prefer not to get them immediately I’d do a few more drawings and wouldn’t lose anything by it.

I’ll also divide the order into two according to what would be more urgent or less.

What’s always urgent is to draw, and whether it’s done directly with a brush, or with something else, such as a pen, you never do enough.

I’m trying now to exaggerate the essence of things, and to deliberately leave vague what’s commonplace.

I’m delighted that you’ve bought the book on Daumier — but if you could add to that by buying some more of his lithographs that would be absolutely good — because in the future Daumiers won’t be easy to get hold of.

How’s your health, have you seen père Gruby again? I’m inclined to believe he exaggerates your heart condition a bit, to the detriment of the need to treat you rigorously for your nervous system. Well, he’ll certainly realize it as you follow his treatment; with Gruby you’ll last, but unfortunately for us père Gruby himself won’t last, because he’s getting old and when we need him the most he won’t be there any more.

I’m thinking more and more that we shouldn’t judge the Good Lord by this world, because it’s one of his studies that turned out badly. But what of it, in failed studies — when you’re really fond of the artist — you don’t find much to criticize — you keep quiet. But we’re within our rights to ask for something better. We’d have to see other works by the same hand though. This world was clearly cobbled together in haste, in one of those bad moments when its author no longer knew what he was doing, and didn’t have his wits about him. What legend tells us about the Good Lord is that he went to enormous trouble over this study of his for a world. I’m inclined to believe that the legend tells the truth, but then the study is worked to death in several ways. It’s only the great masters who make such mistakes; that’s perhaps the best consolation, as we’re then within our rights to hope to see revenge taken by the same creative hand. And — then — this life — criticized so much and for such good, even excellent reasons — we — shouldn’t take it for anything other than it is, and we’ll be left with the hope of seeing better than that in another life. Handshake to you and to Koning.

Ever yours,

Vincent

I hope to have news from you tomorrow, otherwise I’d be in quite a tight corner as I only have money left for tomorrow, Sunday.

Image: View of Arles with Irises, May 1888, oil on canvas, Vincent van Gogh

Art into Business

I know a lot of people, sure don’t we all. And I know many of them think this ‘slide’ is a horse that departed the barn, found the violin factory and played no small part in a performance of the Brandenburg concerto in 1971. Okay, fine.

But still. I’m going to interview the critic Jed Perl for my show in a month or so. He had a recent piece out about the Met director and Davos and well, horse… barn… Brandenburg D minor 7th:

“We need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.” That’s what Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had to say the other day, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. My heart sank when I read these words. They may be the saddest words ever spoken by the director of a major museum. Campbell had begun by complaining that at Davos culture was “an add-on,” “the entertainment”—and I can sympathize with his frustration on that score. But Campbell’s problem—and more than five years into his tenure it’s beginning to look like Campbell’s tragedy—is that at the first sign of frustration he’s ready to turn art into a business.

I’ve been told by people close to Campbell that I misunderstand him. I’ve been told that deep down he’s still the scrupulous scholar who as a curator at the Metropolitan produced what are probably the two greatest tapestry shows ever mounted in a museum. But the gifts that make a great curator (visual refinement, historical imagination) are not necessarily the gifts required to be a great museum director, who must make the case for art’s elusive, transcendent powers in the face of a world dominated by the rapacity of metrics, big data, and businessmen who live and die by such measures. I don’t think Campbell meant any harm to the arts when he argued at Davos that what he called “the culture industry” had to connect with the rest of the world “at a deeper socioeconomic level.” The effect of Campbell’s words, however, was to deny art the unique, stand-alone power it must have in a modern society.

The trouble with Campbell is that he imagines the only way to speak truth to power is in a language you’re absolutely sure the powerbrokers understand. But the great cultural arbiters have always taken an altogether different approach. They have taken it upon themselves to reimagine the nature of power. They have set out to convince the people with the fat bank accounts and the political clout that transcendent values are urgently important, an essential aspect of a healthy democratic society. What the great cultural arbiters have always done is insist on the power of art in the face of other kinds of power—the power of bottom lines, flow charts, metrics, big data.

As they say in the old country, read the whole thing.

World of Waldman

The poet Anne Waldman is a national treasure, a connection to some of the most profound American cultural high notes of the last 40+ years who is still showing us the way today.

I interviewed her for my show last year (video soon here) and she was an endearing guest who shared with me some of the simple joys of conversation, even amidst the enormous breadth of her poetic presence. In honor of that, here is her poem, “The Lie” from Helping the Dreamer: Selected Poems, 1966-1988 (Coffee House Press, 1989):

Art begins with a lie

The separation is you plus me plus what we make

Look into lightbulb, blink, sun’s in your eye

I want a rare sky

vantage point free from misconception

Art begins with a lie

Nothing to lose, spontaneous rise

of reflection, paint the picture

of a lightbulb, or eye the sun

How to fuel the world, then die

Distance yourself from artfulness

How? Art begins with a lie

The audience wants to cry

when the actors are real & passionate

Look into footlight, then feed back to eye

You fluctuate in an artful body

You try to imitate the world’s glory

Art begins with a lie

That’s the story, sharp speck in the eye.

The passions are sisters

My thanks to a new friend who told me about the Letter to D’Alembert on the Theatre, written by J.-J. Rousseau in 1758. It seems that Jean D’Alembert wrote an article about Rousseau’s hometown of Geneva in which he talked about why the city needed a theatre, Rousseau struck back with alacrity on the effects of culture on morals and politics. It’s good stuff. A sample:

[partisans of the theatre say,] “Tragedy certainly intends that all the passions which it portrays moves us; but it does not always want our emotion to be the same as that of the character tormented by passion. More often, on the contrary, its purpose is to excite sentiments in us opposed to those it lends its character.” They say, moreover, that if Authors abuse their power of moving hearts to excite an inappropriate interest, this fault ought to be attributed to the ignorance and depravity of the Artists and not the art. They say, finally, that the faithful depiction of the passions and of the sufferings which accompany them suffices in itself to make us avoid them with all the care of which we are capaable.

To become aware of the bad faith of all these responses, one need only consult his own heart at the end of a tragedy. Do the emotion, the disturbance, and the softening which are felt within oneself and which continue after the play give indication of an immediate disposition to master and regulate our passions? Are the lively and touching impressions to which we become accustomed and which return so often, quite the means moderate our sentiments in the case of need? Why should the image of the sufferings born of the passions efface that of the transports of pleasure and joy which are also seen to be born of them and which the Authors are careful to adorn even more in order to render their plays more enjoyable? Do we not know that all the passions are sisters and that one alone suffices for arousing a thousand, and that to combat one by the other is only the way to make the heart more sensitive to them all? The only instrument which serves to purge them is reason, and I have already said that reason has no effect in the theater. It is true that we do not share the feelings of all characters; for, since their interests are opposed, the Author must indeed make us prefer one of them; otherwise we would have no contact at all with the play. But far from choosing, for that reason, the passions which he wants to make us like, he is forced to choose those which we like already.

He is?

Market aphorisms

Okay… now back to the important stuff.

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with art critic Dave Hickey while he was in town to do a lecture at the school. I ended up spending the entire afternoon with him, as everyone else on the schedule baled; it turned out that his rather salty reputation proceeded him. Anyway, he and I got along great and it was a fun afternoon. I really came to like Hickey, and even attended his lecture that evening with a painter friend, because I was sure there was no way he was going to say in public any of the things about art, painting, and teaching it that he had said to me over the course of that afternoon. Of course, he said every bit of it, as though I doubted him personally.

so, per James Wolcott, Hickey seems to now be on a semi-retirement interview tour:

Sarah Douglas: Hmmm…a sort of partial retirement then?

In other words, I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear. I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking. I’m about to leave. I’m giving it all up for chess, that type of thing. I’m actually giving it all up for statistics. My mother was an economics professor. I’m proficient in math, and statistics, game theory, symbolic logic and all of that. I want to write a creative writing book about the statistics of literary prose accompanied by software so you could compare the statistical shape of your writing to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ray Carver or David Foster Wallace. My idea is to provide professors a way of teaching creative writing without having to read quires of crap. Also, I really believe that most of the problems with literary prose tend to be statistical. They have to do with sequencing, and the calculus is helpful in gaining this sort of information. When I was in graduate school I invented a grammar based on the paragraph rather than the sentence—very radical at the time. I also had works by writers in three states of revision so I could say: the numbers are like this here, and then here and then here. So I could make empirically based observations about intention. Hemingway means to do this. Gertrude Stein means to do this. D.H. Lawrence means to do this. I was fighting against professorial Freudian and Marxist musings on the artist’s intentions. I hate all that woozy political and psychotherapeutic crap applied to books and art.

What about art critics? Do they have any place in this system anymore? They used to have an influence over whether people bought things or not. Do they still have that?

We have no power at all. We just market aphorisms. This is mostly because of magazine economics. Good critics are expensive. I am expensive. Academics work for free to get tenure, and, since they are worried about the approval of their colleagues, they are fearful of making value judgments. Also, most of my peers and contemporaries learned how to write magazine journalism. We know how to do a transition, we know how to do a lead, we know what a hook is, and we’re literate. Most critics today come out of art academia, where they don’t even understand the future-imperfect tense. People like me, the late Bob Hughes [see Jim Kelly’s perceptive eulogy on Robert Hughes at VF Daily], Chris Knight, Peter Plagens, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl—we’re sort of like sewing machine repairmen after the sewing machine has gone out of fashion.