Monday, November 14, 2016



Did Somebody Say Fascism?  Shadefreude and Hannah Arendt on the American Election of Donald Trump

In 1950 Hannah Arendt wrote these words in the preface to her book The Origins of Totalitarianism

“Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecendented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.

Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.“

To read these words, one may have the strange feeling of a déjà vu with the election of Donald Trump to the presidential office of the United States of America.  Though we do not have the two World Wars our experience is neatly sandwiched between Operation Desert Storm and the seemingly endless and ongoing oil wars in the Middle East, with a chain of revolutions, wars, skirmishes and crises in between (Arab Spring, Ukraine, etc), all redoubled with the largest mass movement of refugees in recent history. Homelessness and uprootedness dominate the current discourse with an increased drive toward the traditionalist nationalist narrative as things take a wider turn toward the populist politics of the conservative right precisely because certain sections of the populace want to return to the Edenic origins from which we supposedly arrived, where gay, lesbian, trans, metro, liberal, vegan, gluten free atheists were simple fancies and where real men and women took part in the daily routine of tilling and farming the earth or making stuff in factories only to come home to sleep in separate beds and where business oligarchs made dreams possible by engineering comforts into reality and made everyone else wealthy and prosperous at the same time.

If history is any sort of coordinate, and in America it rarely is because for some strange reason America prides itself on its ignorance of history and geography, it certainly should be now. Both history and geography are inexplicably absent from the discourse of American politics.  History is treated as quaint and useless while geography is presented as something almost un-American because should any normal American show signs of knowledge in this area it would almost certainly be perceived as a cowtailing to the politics and hegemony of others. To an average American, Czech Republic remains Czechoslovakia 24 years after this state broke into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  It is a detachment signifying a distance not only ideological but intellectual, but one that does not come from simple stupidity, most Americans are actually not complete idiots, it seems to come from a type of strength of self-identity that governs the dealings of most US politicians with other nations, it is an arrogant hubris that is normal in the US and completely illogical, inexplicable and dangerous to everyone else.  Interestingly enough, in Czech Republic the leading politicians have embraced Trump on the simple premise that he, unlike other presidents before him, actually knows where Czech Republic is, given that he seems to hunt for his love interests in the waters of Eastern Europe. 

To be certain I have treated the American political campaign with a completely identical distance, observing most of the events leading up to the election from the high tower of detachment. The campaigns of both Clinton and Trump seemed unreal most of the time and like jokes during others, Clinton the supposedly decent and calculating candidate whose first order of business was to save face at all costs, Trump the crazy nationalist press whore to whom all sorts of attention, positive or negative, is equally valuable.  Trump does not have a drug of choice and does not discriminate between what type of fix his he gets, he accepts them all sight unseen.  During all of this, both Clinton and Trump have been called fascist, but now that we know that Trump is going to be the next president, we should analyze whether or how this label applies.  To be sure and in light of the information that we have on both, the danger posed by each candidate as president can be summed up this way, Trump is dangerous potentially and Clinton actually, Clinton is after all tied to the Military Industrial Complex, while Trump’s only famous political stunt was as a Birther.

Thou Sayeth Fascist and Thou Shalt Receive

Of course the problem is that fascist, if we want to be completely specific, is a term applied to the ideology of the Italian system of government under Benito Mussolini, yet like Nazi, the term has been loosely thrown at anyone whose political stance is different from one’s own in order to discredit them.  For many years the term corporatist was used pejoratively in an attempt to replace the term fascist but with limited success.  Corporatist just does not sound dirty enough.  But where the term Nazi fails because it’s been properly profaned by intellectuals and idiots alike, the word fascist remains an acceptable term for everyday use.  In its simplest iteration the words fascist and corporatist signify an absolute interconnectedness between the worlds of business (banks, corporations, technologies, etc) and government, making them indistinguishable from one another, with a third external component in the church.  What Fascism also signifies is a movement toward a totality in which all three worlds that make up the day to day happenings in which most of us move, with little chance of escape or wiggle room for alternatives.  The idea is that by combining these three world into a seamless whole, preferably under a single party rule, the entire apparatus would move smoothly, society would be totally administered, business able to police itself, ideology left to the church and government’s sole purpose would be to protect both worlds from the people through the rule of law, written specifically for the worlds of business and the church by the government. Trump’s Mussolini-like act behind the podium seems to suggest that the movement is certainly one toward a corporate agenda, though he will certainly be hard pressed to make himself into an absolute ruler in a government that is still operational under certain checks and balances.  But the success of Trump’s campaign certainly deserves attention.  

I for one was certain that Clinton was going to win the election and that there will be little surprise on the morning of November the 9th.  I am interested in seeing the day after, when the so called revolution realizes that it is now the establishment.  Trump’s political campaign was an iteration of Bush’s campaign, as both presented themselves as anti-establishment outsiders, when both were neither.  Both were able to mobilize sections of American society from which neither originated but decided to speak to and in their stead.  When looking at the states that Trump was able to carry it is apparent that he made use of those who on the whole seemed voiceless.  Arendt points out that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany wasn’t simply a carefully organized conspiracy of a select few powerful men, he in fact depended on his own popularity with the people.  He was able to mobilize the ‘volk’ because he was the only one that paid any attention to them.  It was they who stood with him because no other politician did. Hitler focused his attention on those that previously had no political experience or power, the seemingly disenfranchised multitude that was everywhere yet apparently entirely voiceless and forgotten.  The Communists in Russia did as Hitler did, with similar results. 

“It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system.”

Trump was apparently able to give a voice to a section of the population in the predominantly democratic but depressed rust belt states in the north like Michigan.  The polls showed overwhelming numbers in support of Clinton, but did anyone bother to leave the cities or the swing states and ask the people there?  Everyone was so sure of a Clinton victory that even the Republicans for a while did not believe that Trump actually won. Where Clinton’s surplus political power came from the gender gap, Trump focused his on class, precisely where Hitler was so successful. Despite the increasing race, gender, and culture wars being waged in the US, Trump was able to capitalize on the thing that trumps (pardon the pun) them both. If Clinton believes, like her husband, that ‘it’s the economy stupid,’ then Trump is betting on class relations. To be sure, the ‘volk’ that voted Trump into office were indeed mostly white and mostly rural, but not entirely, there were black, white, Latino, upper, lower, middle class voters that turned out, more Latino and black voters came out to vote for Trump than they did for Romney, yet they all seemed to have voted in order to gain a voice and not with their wallets the way they did with Bush.  Ironically they cast a vote for someone who along with Clinton is least likely to actually give them the time of day, for in order to cast a vote for someone that truly spoke to and for them would have been to vote for no one, no such choice ever existed. Trump’s nostalgically utopian slogan spelled out the tragic reality of America today, since America was great only in its specific iterations when in service to a specific race and class of its citizenry. Again, no such greatness ever existed when projected onto a global scale, if it did, it existed merely as a mediated image, an iteration of Trumpism dressed in 1980s fashion and hair styles dipped in gallons of hair spray.  A second irony dwells in the sad prediction that Trump may indeed make the US ‘great’ again by ‘fixing’ the economy, an iteration of Hitler’s economic miracle, propped up and supported by American and European banks and wealthiest families.  Trump is a business man, the nostalgic superhero of the American middle-class, sweeping in from the chaos of the streets like Batman, waging war with allegorical enemies, the entire source of his wealth owed to his father and eventually propped up by banks who bailed him out when times were lean.  Trump is filthy rich, but not necessarily from his real estate dealings, he owns very little, but rather from the selling of his name and his act, Trump is a master at branding and entertainment.  Trump’s ridiculous pronouncements take on an air of foreboding when seen through the historicist lens of Arendt. 

“For the propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.”

Thou Shalt Laugh at Your Neighbor’s Misfortune

Make no mistake, Trump is a genius manipulator, but he is no strategist.  He shoots from the hip rather than carefully organizes his every thought, he has others do that for him, yet all the top totalitarian leaders employed coaches, aides and consultants, to teach them proper form in public, from Hitler, to Kim Jong Un. To be sure, I draw on the similarities between the ideology put forward by Trump and the existing fascist ideology of the 20th century modernist era knowing full well that there is a world of difference between the two. Trump is not Hitler, and Trumpism isn’t fascism.  I draw on Arendt’s work in order to highlight knowledge already apparent in hindsight of the actions of fascists and the flirtation with the words and images of said fascism by Donald Trump. It was already in the early 1920s when social commentators noticed something wrong in the population of Europe.  Where from came the need and desire for a strong leader and one party rule? The danger of the Reds was purely virtual as far as Europe outside of Soviet Russia was concerned. Yellow Journalism was at its height and industrialist tycoon-run newspapers, opposed to the wave of liberalism and hedonism sweeping Europe and America, countered with remorseless trumped up attacks, making all sort of things illegal from marijuana to Communism. The liberals and the left caved and the nationalist right ushered in an unprecedented era of human suffering and destruction.

Today’s left is continuing its struggle with itself. It lost its way during the 1960s and was not able to regain its footing, deferring to a set of outmoded prescriptions without so much as a modicum of self-reflexivity, instead blaming the outcomes of elections on the idiocy of the electorate.  The left should have been able to prop up Sanders toward the presidency, instead it decided to moan and complain about the corrupt Clinton campaign that swept him off his perch during the primary.  In 2011 it seemed that the left was reemerging from the swamps of history with the Occupy Movement, but in 2016 this wet dream finally turned into a sobering reality as the redeeming quality of grassroots movements oriented toward populist ideas morphed into sentiments of xenophobic nationalism.  The irony is, of course, that the left had by this time completely evacuated its discourse of critical thinking and above all of actual cold hard facts, let me rephrase that, the left had in fact directed critical thinking toward a defense of its position instead of putting forth a clear outline of its ideas, ideals and ideology, allowing for the manipulation of data, facts and stats by the opposition to go unchecked. The left had instead focused its gaze on the nebulous idea of multiculturalism and a type of reverse racism, clothed as white guilt.  It took less than ten years, roughly corresponding with the rise of the smart phone and the distribution of Google and the iPhone to every home and hamlet in a quasi-socialist manner, for the typical Joe and Jane to be on the one hand mortally offended by any deviation in the normalized speech and dress and on the other to be scared witless for not knowing whether they themselves have deviated in some way from the clearly outlined coordinates of acceptable mannerisms. Political correctness does have a place, mostly in an academic setting where a set of rules for conduct level the playing field and establish a standard of correctness. One has to wonder how and why was political correctness used as a straightjacket of western populations?

It is interesting to see when a feminist like Camille Paglia or black conservative Larry Elder hack away the myths of modern feminism and white privilege respectively, using simple numbers and facts, the left doesn’t know how to react and instead resorts to a wholesale ad hominem attack, hence the attacks on Donald Trump and a kind of strangely revolting acceptance of Clinton despite the overwhelming facts pointing to her as simply a George W. Bush in drag.  To be sure, the disinterested approach of cold hard facts and sober realism of the right is just as alienating and empty as the passionate appeal to humanity from the left.  What we witnessed during the last election cycle and especially in the last few hours before the results were actually called was a tragedy turned into a comedy. The seemingly endless tears streaming from the faces of disillusioned voters, the ridiculous vague open letters compelling readers toward unity and tolerance during hard times, the smugness of the wannabe industrialist victor, the awkward fall of the politico-military puppet backed by banks and the media were sweet music to the ears of all those who already gave the finger during the DNC.   Both parties have left most of the people neck deep in the dust of the techno-industrial wasteland and now they are slowly figuring out how to pull the plug on the rest. To have a hearty laugh at the expense of liberal apparatchiks or the conservative proletariat, both deeply troubling and paradoxical positions, is the only form of therapy that is and will be left when the doors of corporate America finally shuts its doors to the outside world. In some strange schadefreude way I am looking forward to the presidency of Donald Trump, the reality star buffoon with an orange toupee.  But did we not see this before?  Who still recalls the presidency of George W. Bush and his famous one liners, the stupefying lunacy of Sarah Palin, the muscle-flexing pronouncements of B-movie western cowboy Ronald Reagan? Donald Trump did actually achieve a first with his election, he is the first president we can watch on YouTube get roasted by SnoopDog. The Republicans have endless hours of horrifying entertainment in the National Archives and it will be a strange pleasure to witness the history of an American political reality show taking center stage from the Oval Office.  The question is, who will be the celebrity judge when we will first see Trump give Berlusconi a run for his money in pomposity, and how long will it take before somebody yells out ‘you’re fired’ at a presidential press conference?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

On Being a Professional Artist


First off, let me write that this is not a how to guide about how to become a professional artist.  There are hundreds, if not thousands of those out there, most of them geared toward commodifying the artist personality and by extension the artwork.  I’m not sure if following those guides actually help or not, just like I’m not sure whether my two years in an MFA program actually prepared me for a life of a professional artist.  What I can say is that after the MFA professionalism is something that is not given over by a degree or title but acquired, and even if one doesn’t sell the work they make, does that make them a lesser artist?  I suppose that to be a professional in western culture means to make money off of what one does, but does that immediately negate all the artists that slave away in and out of their studios daily who do not have gallery representation or sell their work, do not appear in flashy magazines, do not get to exhibit in the art fairs and biennials around the world, do not have long write ups on art blogs and are generally ignored? 
For me to believe that I am a professional artist I have to have certain criteria met.  I have to be able to make work, which means that I have to have a space to do it, preferably a studio.  I have to be able to communicate with the people I know like and enjoy my work and to get it out to those that may one day like and enjoy my work.  Easy enough I suppose, I have a studio and a computer.  But sending off random emails to curators and galleries is like knocking on a stranger’s door, first you don’t know if anyone is home and second what do you say if they open up?  The elevator speech? The ultimate in self-presentation and commodification?  Give me a run-down of what you do and what you are about in 30 seconds. Go! Fair enough, even I understand the merits of this type of presentation.
The road to being a professional artist is a long and arduous one.  But the question is what is wrong with just calling oneself an artist and leaving the word professional out of it?  Some people get there by walking over others, by screaming the loudest, by kissing enough ass along the way.  It would be naïve to think that those people do not exist.  Those artists are not bothered by ethics or common decency, or the dignity of those they callously throw under the bus just so they can get a short step ahead.  But for myself I have to be somewhat naïve to think that those artists will one day end up in the trash heap of history, that their behavior will get them excommunicated, because the reality is that the artworld is filled with people of the most terrible sort, many of whom are at the top of the pile, but just as many are the rank and file, waiting to fill the few spots that might one day become available at the top.
My naiveté is that I believe that the alternative is also possible, that the alternative to the commercial artworld is not only the academic profession, where you have to watch what you say and how you say it. My advice, if one can call it that, is to read whatever you can and listen to whoever you can about being an artist and as soon as you do that, forget everything you read and heard, because those people don’t know shit.  Only you know how to make your work and what’s best for you.  Professionalism destroys art.  An artist has to be first and foremost, free.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Made In LA



I can’t stand the word archive anymore.  Every curator is an artist and every artist is a wannabe curator.  The tables have flipped almost perfectly against the artist in every imaginable way when it comes to vanguardism and edginess.  No longer, it seems, does the average artist work with any complex issues, though they may appear that way at first. The artist of today is content with towing the line of populist sentiment, pop and pseudo-philosophy, not even commenting on these issues as much as simply cleverly regurgitating what everyone already knows.  The archive is just one of these recent developments that the artworld better soon forget because it is fucking up a whole generation of artists that could have otherwise been helpful in other lines of work, like the food and service industry.   The ridiculousness of the archive is that as a term it has the right tone and desirability for the elite.  It reeks of academicism, and importance.

But this importance is also very tenuous, for not every archive is necessarily equal in importance to the next, especially when considering the varied nature of archives such they are found in libraries, museums, or the Vatican.  The body as archive is a bullshit term made to inflate the importance of any mediocre performance art and artist. The artist as curator and archivist is another delusion favored by many in the artworld in “this most foul year of our lord,” 2016.  No longer has the artist make anything or have anything made for them.  The artist as archivist needs only to select existing objects with added importance and provenance in order to make a work and by magic the meaning is extracted via various juxtapositions.  This method ought to work even if supposedly all the objects on display have no intrinsic provenance, description or when nobody really knows what they are as is the case in the work by Gala Porras-Kim. Not only is this approach not new by some 100 years, or conceptual, or even interesting.   Duchamp routinely selected objects for display in the early 20th century, with a major but important difference, he did so in order to upset and disrupt the status quo. One could always call a Duchampian ready-made into question, but it was far from bullshit and did not conflate itself with false importance.  Duchamp was much too aware of the false position of the elevated artwork and artist. In the 1970s, the conceptualist’s approach to objects and indeed the archive would have been their total dissolution.  Here in Made in LA, an archive of questionable provenance is presented via a few selections by Porras-Kim who then attempts to pull some sort of immanent meaning out of their choices, or perhaps the audience is meant to do the pulling.  Either way, the false import of most of the objects presented, seem to want to force a meaning, indeed any meaning at all, even if as the review in LA times suggests, “the show shrugs its shoulders,” and the resulting reaction is a so what?”

Made in LA’s affair with the archive continues with a vitrine display of hundreds of images collected in three ring binders.  Again the question comes up, so what? Another archive was Daniel Small’s installation of artifacts of a Cecil B Demille’s film The Ten Commandments. Though this was a pretty interesting part of the show, its hidden meaning is of obvious self-referentiality. Where else but in LA could we get a museum display of fake Egyptian artifacts, excavated from a film from the 1920s for which they were made and that depicted a more or less fanciful and faked Egypt, and presented as the real thing in a sacrosanct way, with tags that spell out descriptions like “circa 1923?” The display is actually quite fetching and funny, though I’m not sure that this is the point.  The exhibit of artifacts is also complemented with drapery paintings from the old Las Vegas Luxor Hotel.  On the back of the disappointing Matthew Barney Geffen show, where the artist coopted Egyptian themes of alchemy and gold making for his brand of art made from cash, Small’s show is much more complicated, even self-reflexive, aware of the tenuous line between art and farce. 
 
I cannot even fathom what is the current state of painting in and around Los Angeles, if the paintings that are now being show at the Hammer Museum are some sort of a representative sample, but I will venture a guess that all is not well in the painting world.  The paintings in this show are far from good or interesting.  Anti-aesthetic, maybe, but aligning oneself with a once-over fashion because the 1980s are so in right now shows only the regressive nature of the paintings rather than their edginess.  Like the archive, the paintings do nothing else other than reference themselves and this is what makes them boring and unneccesary.  What is the purpose of a painting of a home page other than superficially raise the importance of one of the most superficial of mediums? To comment on the now or the medium?  So what? Too much bad art was already made in the service of raising up a lowly practice into the exalted and noble realms of fine art.  It seems as though the exhibition was made with an assumption that the general visitor to the show is either an art tourist or an idiot because neither takes actual history into account.  Stealing, appropriation, wordsmithing, these are the tools of the modern artist and curator because it does not matter whether someone actually did the same exact thing before, what matters is the renaming of a practice and framing it in contemporary terminology, perhaps as unintelligible as possible, with enough pomp to embarrass even the most staunch Marxist cultural critic and the public will believe that what they are looking at must be important. 

Made in LA suggests that it is a platform for “emerging and under-recognized artists” and for the most part it delivers, but what part of emerging and under-recognized does Sterling Ruby fit?  If there was one artist in LA who needs less exposure and validation, it would have to be Ruby. His selection in the show is almost obvious from the standpoint of a representative LA artist and his installation of welding tables is quite nice, not amazing or mind-blowing, but nice.  

On the other hand, Kenzi Shiokava’s selection can only serve as a good omen in the way that art in LA could be heading or be seen.  Shiokava’s totemic sculptures are substantial and engrossing, suggesting a long term engagement with assemblage and art from trash in the vein of Noah Purifoy.  At 78, I wonder how long he’s been making the kind of work that is now getting public attention through artists like Theaster Gates?  Skiokava’s work deals with the sacred and the absurd at the same time.  His is a work in which 20th century existentialism goes out to dinner with the newly refound 21st century spiritualism and the meal is on the house. 

Other notable hits of the show are Labor Link and Fred Lonidier’s video installation, a much needed antidote to the ultra-right wing saturated presidential campaigns and their obsessive media feeding frenzy.  And then there is Kenneth Tam’s funny Breakfast in Bed, a video of a small group of men, all strangers who answered one of Tam’s Craigslist ads, participating in strange games and horseplay, lots of times naked from the waist up.  The video is shot in a 70s style small wood paneled studio, immediately bringing up comparisons with exploitation videos of the most terrible kind, but what happens on screen is nothing of the sort.  During most of the filming the humanity of the men is what is palpable.  The film never resorts to a wanton ridicule of the participants.  Why would it need to?  The participants are all men between 20 and 50, mostly white, but they never come off as anything but, even if the activities they engage in are completely ridiculous. 
 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Repeating History: A Nostalgic Perspective 

A typical critique of nostalgia has the same overtone of a cliché as does the sentence ‘when one does not know his history, one is destined to repeat it.’ This sentence seems as true as it is patently false in the same way that nostalgia, still a dirty word in our so called post-modern culture, seems to be a word that describes a true emotion, longing, but at the same time keeps its distance by suggesting itself to be a delusion, a sentimental longing for a simple past, a home.

That history repeats itself because we are not aware of it is a simplification, a sounding board for generations that grew up with false wisdom masquerading as studied fact. What if it is precisely the opposite that is true? What if it is because we know our history that we repeat it again and again? The nostalgic knows this and therefore she yearns for a time when this was not the case, which is of course never. This case in point was well put in the short mini-series A Young Doctor’s Notebook. Based on a book by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, it follows the protagonist as he is guided through his early adulthood by his older ghostly self. He knows he is talking to his future self and knows exactly the outcomes of his actions in advance as he spirals toward morphine addiction, yet every time his future self warns him against a specific action, the young doctor does it anyway, usually with a sense of personal or moral justification, because the weight of the moment is greater than the supposed abstract and inconclusive future.

This is of course a contradiction from the standpoint of the young doctor that points to Mannoni’s dictum ‘I know very well, … but nonetheless’ which also points further to Zizek’s critique that sums up ideology as a fetish object of desire. Zizek describes fetishism in three forms. First is ‘co-substantial with the symbolic order’ meaning that I know very well that there is nothing behind mere appearances and that the appearances are more powerful and yet I continue to act as though the true core behind those appearances is somehow inherently powerful, I show my father respect even though I know very well that he is a ‘corrupted weakling.’ Second is the ‘cynical-manipulative distance’ meaning that when I know there is no Santa Claus, I nonetheless feign belief for the sake of my children. Third is fetishism proper that Zizek claims needs no ‘but nonetheless’ because the fetishist knows how things really are and ‘the disavowal of this knowledge is materialized in the fetish,’ he chooses the fetish rather than real love because the fetish truly arouses him. The young doctor knows very well that his future is very grim, should he continue on the road toward self-destruction as outlined by his future self, but nonetheless decides to follow that very road not because he does not believe his future self, but because the momentary morphine-induced escape from the brutality of his all too sober reality is more appealing and perhaps arousing, substituting his momentary lapse in reason with pleasure derived from his fetish.

Is this not exactly our current predicament, with thousands of books, television programs, films, and internet articles on history, all pointing in the same direction, toward a knowledge of that history, that at the end of the day we are simply not smart enough, did not learn enough, and cannot overcome a simple tendency toward parroting ourselves and repeat our same mistakes even though we knew what they were going to be in advance? Those on the left and the right have this argument at their disposal and they use it with equally zealous audacity and authority, apparently neither willing to learn its message. The nostalgic knows this also and this is why she spends so much time in quiet solitude.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Back from the (almost) Dead

It has come to my attention that The Gutter Art Critic has been dormant for a long time, over two years to be precise. I am not sure why this happened. Maybe it was because I got into graduate school, maybe because I was busy with making work and residencies abroad, maybe it was life and maybe I couldn't bring myself to write anything sensible other than complaints about the fucked up things I saw around myself. Whatever it was.... today is a new beginning, a rebirth of The Gutter Art Critic. I hope that two years of graduate art school has given me a new perspective, I also hope that living near Los Angeles, the supposed new capital of the art world (whatever that means) has given me a new impetus to write about art and culture from ground zero. Ok, maybe not quite ground zero, I don't actually live in Los Angeles, maybe ground five and a half, because I am pretty close, as close as I think I can stand it. But don't get me wrong, I actually like Los Angeles, well, parts of it anyway. I also hope that you, my readers, wherever you are and whoever you are, will find the new blog interesting and worth the effort. Since I started GAC there have been close to 10K hits, which is way more than I would have every predicted. Ok, I realize that GAC has ten followers right now (thank you wherever you ten people are right now!) and that in the scope of real readership for mainstream blogs 10K is like a drop in the ocean, but GAC is not concerned with numbers. I couldn't give two shits less about the popularity contest we call western culture right now. What I want is to put out something that is real, authentic and that has feeling. This stuff comes from the heart! For the past two years I've been writing academic theory papers and working on a thesis using peer reviewed materials, primary and secondary sources, and on and on. Much of the time I don't know where my theory begins and someone else's opinion ends, or vice versa. The new GAC is hopefully going to meld the shit I learned in grad school with the real world shit I experienced, without the ridiculous opinions of others who think that I'm either not going far enough or that I have already gone too far, even if it concerns the same piece of work or writing. That said though, I want to say that I enjoy reading the comments left on GAC, I do read them and I look for them. If you read this and want to comment, do it and I thank you for it! I may respond but I also may not. Grad school definitely taught me that everyone has an opinion, but opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. Stay tuned!!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Killing and Painting

How should one begin when writing about George Zimmerman painting? It might be a good idea to put Zimmerman in a context by which we can judge what he is in fact doing and why is it that this is either accepted or not. George W Bush as we know is painting also, and when he was alive, John Wayne Gacy was painting as well. As much as we would like to dismiss their art as hacky, or worse, let us not forget that it has been decades of unrelenting deskilling of artists, pluralism and appropriation of art for the sake of money and consumerism among other things that have resulted in non-artists claiming the status of artist and non-art elevated to high art. Can we at all imagine a time fifty years ago, when critics like Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg were writing about art and producing actual criticism, which meant that artists had to be somewhat accountable to a de facto higher authority than themselves? Regardless of how wrong or conservative these critics were, in their approach to critique, one thing is certain, and that is that criticism ought to serve as the art world’s peer review, its zero level coordinate, rather than a one way ticket to celebrity status. The lack of real criticism in contemporary art, supplanted with descriptive methods of writing and a lack of interest in the periphery of art making by fringe avant-garde and emerging artists created just such a situation in which criticism’s only function is to create status without judgement. One can argue that such a situation is more democratic, because it allows members of the public to engage in what was once reserved only for those skilled or educated in art and art making. The counter argument is that it is precisely this democratization that destroys the function of what it is trying to democratize. In a recent article in the Guardian (Friday, 13, 2013) the author looked at the impact that smartphones and particularly the iPhone have on photography. While we drown in endless streams of images and while we supplement images for real experiences (people taking pictures of paintings in museums rather than looking at them and so on), photography as an experience is on the rise, but professional photography is suffering. “Kodak used to employ 40,000 people in good jobs. What have they been replaced by? Twelve people at Instagram.” On the one hand we do not have to pay a professional photographer thousands of dollars for a few snapshots of a wedding, we can do it ourselves, but on the other we are more and more giving our power over to technology, which as we well know tends to be (mis)used by governments and corporations looking to protect their bottom lines.

We could also say that perhaps it is payback time, because at the beginning of the twentieth century it was photography that put many painters out of business of painting family portraits. We could argue that photography did not actually destroy painting as a practice as we could say that the iPhone and Instagram will not truly destroy photography as a professional practice, because no matter how many millions of people can readily take a snapshot, most will not go out of their way to stage photo shoots, or create photographic panoramas in miniature. One might say that photography’s salvation can only lie in increasingly obscure methods of shooting or avant-garde methods, pictures might therefore attempt to resist their commodification but also resist the appropriation and democratization process itself, and perhaps the only way to accomplish this is through criticism, which brings us back to George Zimmerman.

Taking the example of Gacy, let us look at the social and psychological context of Zimmerman’s work. Gacy’s works have been sold for thousands of dollars and the implications are that a work of art by a serial murderer, without any art training, credentials, skill or artistic passion, must rely on the status of celebrity, notoriety and fascination with the shadow side of human nature to create value in a work of art. Zimmerman in this case is a weak example of jus t such a fascination. He did not murder dozens of victims and bury them under his house like Gacy, he was not responsible for the deaths, displacement and ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens like Bush. Yet he did set a precedent with this particular type of work. In the art world, much like in Hollywood, when celebrity no longer has to rely on a particular skill, just celebrity itself, status given over by celebrity is enough to sell work. How much different is the case of Jeff Koons, whose career as an artist was preceded by one as commodities broker? Though he studied art in college, his insider contacts from trading were what really got him started on a career of super stardom since he could use those contacts to peddle his own mediocre art. Is not Zimmerman’s just another case of an individual (ab)using a particular system, in place such as it is, for his own benefit? It would be silly to simply dismiss his work as hacky (it is) or as the worst kind of kitsch (which it is also), anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge knows this. The point is much more radical. In the wake of the Beuysian truism “everyone is an artist”, Zimmerman is doing exactly what many of us would do should the opportunity present itself, by this is meant the unflinching self-merchandising and crass (mis)use of the term. In a typical class of thirty kids, it is usually the biggest idiot who takes the rest of the class down with him, if he is the one disrupting class and does not own up to his own idiocy. The teacher will usually punish the entire class rather than look for the culprit. Does this not seem like the obverse of the situation with contemporary art, where a handful of hacks are able to undermine generations of honest work in a matter of hours on the auction house floor?

Predictably, Zimmerman’s painting sold for $100,000 and Zimmerman himself became an “artist” after painting only a single piece. It is hard to say whether it is time to laugh or to cry.