Sunday, March 29, 2009

vampire pumpkins and urban densities: an essay on method in art criticism and other intellectual pastimes

Vampire Pumpkins and Urban Densities: An Essay on the Nature of Evidence

The problem with there being two Jerry Cullum blogs is that sometimes I want to write about something of use to both readerships (or equally useless to both readerships, but I want to lay it on them anyway), and I have to explain things at length that one readership already knows but the other does not.

The context of the title is a thread of discussion of a supposed Gypsy belief that pumpkins left in a pile for more than ten days turn into vampires, a belief that apparently extends to watermelons (which raised in turn a discussion of which Balkans fruit was actually being translated by these distinctly North American terms).

The beliefs were apparently all recorded by one legendary Yugoslav folklorist in the 1930s. (“Apparently,” based on a first reading of cross-references in Wikipedia.)

The natural assumption is that the first time, the Romany folk were having him on, and every time he asked another community, “Say, do you folks have any stories about pumpkins that turn into vampires?” they too were off and running. “Let’s see if he’ll go for this one. He went for it! What else can we make up?”

Now, the right way to do linguistic or folklore studies is to play extremely dumb. You never ask the question you’re trying to learn about, you ask a question that will elicit the answer you want without the informant knowing that that is the information you actually want. (This may explain why anthropologists are so often accused of engaging in espionage.)

In the case of vampire pumpkins, the folklorist ought never to have gone further than “So those are your legends of human vampires. Does anything else ever become a vampire?” And even then you can’t be sure, because when your informant is trying to make up ever more preposterous stories, there are only so many animals and vegetables and minerals in a given vicinity, and he may think of watermelons before he thinks of, say, pebbles in the road or some other comic improbability.

As the hoax perpetrated on Margaret Mead indicated, sometimes erroneous belief in the veracity of an informant can have long-lasting methodological consequences and can affect human behavior in societies far removed from, in this case, Samoa. (That debate is not quite over; there are still those who say that the young Margaret Mead was too well informed already by her mentors to have been taken in so completely regarding “coming of age in Samoa.” Others say, if I recall correctly, that it was her mentors’ beliefs that were the problem.)

It is, of course, a natural trait to make something up on the spur of the moment, even when one isn’t trying to lie. If someone holds up a hoe and asks, “What do you call this?” a quick-witted jokester may say, “In these parts we call that a galligiggle.” But a visitor who asks “What did this big house used to be?” may get the sincere answer “Oh, back in ’29 that was going to be the Gallagher mansion, but then they turned it into a hospital in the Slump before it became the veterans’ club around 1955.” Then the well-meaning informant will realize an hour later that he has conflated two different stories and the house had nothing to do with the Gallaghers, and it was the Rodericks who were building a mansion, anyway.

So many bodies of knowledge depend on a variety of investigation techniques that the word “interdisciplinary” ought either to be retired or made universal: all disciplines ought to be interdisciplinary. A researcher learning to bracket the personal and environmental variables in a scientific experiment is having to employ several different unrelated academic disciplines. Cultural theorists who cast doubt on the objectivity of science often overlook the need to explore their own personal distortions—which does not mean that the distortions they observe in science are not there. Even a bad experiment can yield valid evidence. Even a good experiment can yield valid evidence that is extrapolated to unwarranted conclusions.

Anyone who writes or, worse, edits art criticism quickly learns how universally applicable this dictum is. A constant dilemma, in a world in which words in print are limited, is how much has to be left out because to explain it would raise too many difficulties. An artist slightly misinterprets a fact or misspells a name; the result is a perfectly valid work of art that operates excellently as an autonomous aesthetic object. But the error and its interesting consequences will have to be passed over in silence because to explain it would exceed the limits of space and the reader’s patience.

The worst example of error and wrongly weighted substantiating evidence I ever experienced was the misspelling by an artist of the last name of the poet from whom she had requested the text she incorporated into her artwork. I confirmed the spelling through a wide variety of other citations, only to be telephoned by an irate newspaper editor who informed me that his intern had finally tracked down a picture of a book cover that proved that all the literary societies and book warehouses that had featured the man over the years had spelled his name wrong. I have since noticed that sometimes even title pages spell someone’s name wrong or contain a garbled subtitle; sometimes even the person’s web page, put together by someone else, will spell things wrong. (More than one of my own online biographies contain misspellings and minor errors that were not mine but that I have no power to correct.)

This is a different sort of evidence, of course, and mostly an ultimately decidable sort; I once demonstrated through the wonders of Google’s digitized copies of original texts that an anecdote reported by Bertrand Russell and universally ascribed to William James not only had originally had a different punch line than the one Russell gave to it, but had been an event reported by Oliver Wendell Holmes when William James was just a wee lad. (Actually, I made up that last phrase out of nothing and I do not vouch for the accuracy of James’ age at the time that Holmes’ book was published. “To the best of my recollection.” And I would not quote me that it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, either, until you look up the relevant thread in the joculum blog…or was it in the comments thread of the crowleycrow blog…?)

The relative reliability of oral and textual evidence is an elementary and easy part of the problem. The evaluation of perceptual evidence and the simple gathering of on-the-ground information is slightly more perplexing. David McQueen and I were discussing Saskia Sassen’s flabbergasting ability to combine many different academic disciplines in the investigation of the phenomenon of the contemporary city, and in our separate ways, each of us was agreeing that the only problem with Sassen’s data was an overreliance on unconscious models of certain cities based on the nature and quality of the data and the nature and quality of the persons collecting the data. Some of the phenomena that Sassen described as “invisible” are not invisible at all to the researchers of a certain social class who get from the airport to the city center on the cheapest available public transport and who look for churchyards in which to eat lunch alongside the workers, whose difference from those of preceding decades is evident to anyone who pays attention to styles of clothing and to the incidentals being carried by the aforementioned workers.

This sort of evidence is anecdotal and therefore not to be trusted unless supported by data. But just as though the economic collapse of 2008 was obvious to anyone who was reading the economists and supplementing the data with direct observation, the city provides clues depending on one’s position within it and how ready one is to understand what it is that one is seeing.

But it is “understanding what one is seeing” that is the problem, and a lifetime of theoretical correction is often still not enough to uncover the truly invisible parts of the problem. The computer geeks are correct in their maxim that anecdote is not the singular of data, but anecdotes are frequently all the data that we have available, and we have to correlate the anecdotes and correct for the variables, whether the issue is the effect of changing flows of capital on individual human beings or the question of whether or not anyone on earth has ever believed in the existence of toothless vampire pumpkins.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mildred Thompson exhibition in Düren

The late African-American artist Mildred Thompson, well known to many readers of Counterforces, will be the subject of a retrospective survey exhibition, "Mildred Thompson, 'a life long exploration' 1936-2003," opening in Düren, Germany, on April 26, as a co-presentation of the Leopold Hoesch Museum and Schloß Burgau.

The exhibition, which runs through June 14, will be opened with a lecture by Donna Jackson, executor of Thompson's estate.

It will also feature a catalogue including an essay by the author of this weblog, who hopes to be able to get to Düren for the opening and is currently weighing options as to ways of making the trip feasible.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

the need for clarity: a post about Atlanta

Now that I (hopefully) have your attention, it has occurred to me that one reason Counterforces seems to have the overall lack of impact that it does may be its tendency to range all over the map, quite literally; one is equally likely to read posts about exhibitions in Estonia as in Atlanta. (Not that I am going to any of them, the ones in New York and Philadelphia included, but in the digital era we can see immediate reproductions of just about everything, including the rainbow body of Padmasambhava.)

Anyway, I wrote more comprehensively on the joculum blog about the appearance of Saskia Sassen, lecturing on urban theory, the night after the visiting Tibetan painters from Dharamsala participated in a panel about thangka painting (on which another panel member discussed the rainbow-body variety of thangka, though not the specific one shown here). Then last night the major players in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative discussed the issues involved in teaching science to Tibetan monks.

And tonight the Wm Turner Gallery opening described below takes place.

The disjunctures multiply. It's all just part of life in the big city. But some big cities are less used to be the multiplicities and disjunctures than others, and in the age of late globalization (a term I have just now made up for the era that began circa 1999) there are more of them, the cities and the disjunctures both.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

one last touch of the future

On Thursday, March 26, Wm Turner Gallery in Atlanta (there are William Turner Galleries elsewhere) opens a show by Joseph Nechvatal, described in his Wikipedia entry as a "post-conceptual-art digital artist and art theorist," and decidedly worthy of your personal attention if you are part of the Atlanta segment of my readership, and your online attention if you are not.

But I have no idea what is going to be in this exhibition, so I can't do much to explain why whatever it is might be worth your while. His earlier work making installations and individual artworks with computer viruses was part of what earned him a slot in Documenta 8 in 1987. In more recent years, he has pursued art that addresses artifical-life projects and "an interface between the biological and the technological."

More details to come, I'm sure, on and My ninety minutes are up. (See preceding posts.)

what is to be done? the future of...the future, I suppose

The fact that both Pat Courtney and Greely Myatt deal with issues of print, discourse, and communication (Myatt's assemblages of speech balloons being particularly dependent on seeing the thing at full scale, while Courtney's photos are addressing issues of scale in a different way) makes their work the perfect segue to my question.

Who will be the Aldus Manutius of the digital generation?

I refer you to the following (to the URL, not the lovely photo of a book that might make us think of Manutius):

Friend Grady Harris referred me to Clay Shirky's blog, and Shirky refers to "Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," and Elizabeth Eisenstein refers to Aldus Manutius.

Now, I was clued into Manutius long ago from my days setting vintage movable type and from reading around in the commentaries on Ezra Pound's Cantos. Manutius invented the octavo format and italic type. (And truth be told, I probably encountered his name first of all back in high school from some explanation by Doubleday of why their Anchor Books paperbacks used the dolphin-and-anchor symbol, Manutius' emblem of the slogan "festina lente," or make haste slowly.)

What difference did that make? Eisenstein's point is that the octavo format made books suddenly the portable things they had been back in the days of the Roman Empire's hand-copied volumes (I don't know that she says that, but they were). As long as printing presses were set up only to accept page sizes suitable for monastic libraries or Protestant pulpits but not for the casual reader, the full impact of the invention of movable type was limited by the format of the existing technology. A new technological paradigm releases a whole host of previously unavailable social options.

The problem is that it takes time and imagination to get from one format to the other, especially when the format in question is a whole social world of expectations and monetary exchange. And in the time between, a whole host of possible options come and go, and a few of them stick, or provide the framework within which somebody else makes a similar option stick.

And this is why this post is really about the condition of art reviewing in Atlanta and other American cities in which newspapers have been unable to adapt to rapidly changing social expectations and conditions of monetary exchange.

We (and I think I mean "we" in terms of a fair number of cities, probably not only in the U.S. of A.) are making do the way that Eisenstein tells us, via Shirky, that folks did in the transition into the Age of the Printing Press: awkwardly, and with a lot of options that will turn out to be dead ends.

The huge problem right now is that print media have been hit by a perfect storm (which, with my fondness for Freudian typographical errors, I first typed as "story").

Newspapers were suffering from the wholesale transition of classified ads to craigslist and others, and commercial and corporate ads to websites, just not the newspapers' websites. (The poor old print media never quite got the hang of making their websites as easy to navigate as their newspapers. And ads were the whole point: when you buy a newspaper, you are paying for the cost of the newsprint and ink and the delivery, not for anybody's salaries or company profits.)

Then came September 15 (as I now refer to the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers), and 9/15 was the print media's 9/11: just as a good many unrelated business enterprises went out of business following the attack on the Twin Towers because nobody was buying anything (leading to our then-President's admonition to go out and buy stuff so the terrorists wouldn't win), a good many unrelated business enterprises have been going out of business because even the folks who can afford to buy stuff are feeling disinclined to do so. That stuff includes print advertising.

So now we have a huge number of cultural activities formerly publicized in print and in online calendars that are now being publicized in a host of small online venues, each of which individually is read by a relatively minuscule fraction of the potential art audience. And the quirks and irritating oddities of the various venues ensure that the entire art audience will not read any single source of information.

And only the truly devoted read all of them, or even most of them. So there are not merely cracks for things to fall through, there are chasms.

Things will sort themselves out in the long run, and today's unpaid content providers will find niches beyond their current categories (though the financial reward for providing content was little enough in the heyday of print, it was more than zero, whereas the financial reward of content-providing as a sparetime activity in the heyday of buy-your-own-laptop -and-your-own-gasoline is less than zero).

But as John Maynard Keynes famously pointed out, in the long run we are all dead.

It is good that we have a plethora of overlapping sources that more or less cover most of the bases in a game with less than a full team of players. But how long this can go on until some of the players take their bats and go home is anybody's guess.

Looking at stuff is still part of my job description for now, when there is nothing else requiring my attention such as looking for misspelled names and other factual errors in other people's print copies. So I shall stick it out, and my hope is that the others with day jobs will continue to do so.

But as I have asked many times now, what is to be done?

last minutes (I always disliked the ill-phrased "last chance" category)

The only thing worse than "last chances" being the notion of "neat things to look at around town." But one's formats, like the wording of one's headlines, are, or in those days were, decided by others.

Anyway, going from working one's full-time job and then starting one's second job as a paid-by-the-column critic to being at one's full-time job and then being an unpaid blog writer who cannot drive at night has resulted in some challenging moments of scheduling. Occasionally finding galleries locked that should be open on Saturdays only compounds the problem.

Almost missing Gloria Ortiz-Hernandez, however, is all my own fault, but through March 28 you can still view the latest of her conversations with constructivism, at Kiang Gallery. (You should also check out next door at Sandler Hudson the utter emotional opposite of Greely Myatt's smart conceptual slapstick and Pat Courtney's emotionally engaging conceptual studies of pages from a miniature dictionary, but that is a separate essay, if ever written.)

Ortiz-Hernandez actually refers far more to intervening decades of elegantly rendered geometric art, but the dizzying trompe l'oeil dimensionality of the new work puts me more in mind of the original Russian constructivist Liubov Popova than ever.

I wish I had the financial capacity to fly to London and compare the magisterial Popova and Rodchenko show at Tate Britain, but fortunately we can look at that show online, room by room. See Tate Britain's website for that; and you can see Kiang Gallery's website for an overview of Ortiz-Hernandez—who has actually produced a work of sculpture for this exhibition in addition to her usual drawings. Some of the works on paper incorporate color, and the gallery description of its use as "almost penurious" is poetically accurate and utterly memorable, though I would stick with "sparing" and "understated" as blander adjectives, myself.

Hagedorn Foundation Gallery's new director Brenda Massie has given us "Changing Room: Women and Photography Today," a concept-based show that combines work by women artists with male artists who deal with objectification by, in one case, objectifying spectacularly and controversially, for totally opposite reasons.

I would enjoy writing about the whole show, had I not places where I need to be in ninety minutes. But the exhibition is uncommonly worth it, and deserves more than the short run it is getting. (Like the other shows mentioned in this post, except for Tate Britain's, it ends on March 28.)

Some of the artists are known from other galleries in Atlanta, most notably Melody Postma, whose uses of photo transfers for misleadingly nostalgic views of old-school objectification were recently on view in depth at Linstrum + Matre:

And of course, Susan Harbage Page is a known quantity of considerable distinction whose gender reversal of Andres Serrano's famous Klan portraits raises a whole set of subsequent issues through their allusions to female veiling and to the secret-society performance costumes from whom she lets us know the Klan took the shape of their headgear:

But it is Michelle Repici, who, for the record, I have never met, who is the real discovery of this exhibition.

The simplest reason for this is the viewer's initial puzzled reaction of why this work is in a photo-based exhibition, since it appears to be traditionally drawn printmaking on rice paper with no photography in it at all.

Then one sees the faces that form very subtle photo transfers, as in Postma's work. But that isn't the end of it; in fact, it is scarcely even the beginning.

Repici actually constructs her prints digitally from the beginning, laying in scans of fabric and textures that we associate with classical printmaking. The incorporation of photographs is done so integrally that for once, we do not have the sense that we are seeing work that started with the photo. (This is not to denigrate that sort of digitally transmuted photography—but to discuss work that I like at other people's galleries would be insensitive, if not downright invidious. So I shall wait for the next exhibition of historically inflected neo-romanticism by one of the two or three artists whose strategies I have discussed previously.)

Repici is quoting old processes to great new effect. When the results appear on large sheets of rice paper, we are left with the feeling that we have seen the future.

One could and should discuss the history of collage and its transition to digital collage, as in the work of Repici's professor Lynn Wright, but I'll leave that for other writers to explore. There is a great deal of discussion to be had here regarding photography, digital art, traditional media, and the conversations and quarrels among them all. (See the preceding post regarding ceramics and consciousness and the history of both.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

not the same cities, but the same page and website: form and its contents

"Contents" as a multi-layered pun on "discontents."

See today's reviews in the New York Times of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600" (Holland Cotter: and the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art's "Dirt on Delight" (Roberta Smith: for some of the most thought-provoking meditations on form and its physical and psychological impact that one could possibly imagine.

Cotter's point is that Korean art during a brief moment of the "fresh dawn" that was the apt name of the Choson dynasty took on a freedom from class strictures that resulted, at its best, in "fantastically zany" stoneware that looked "squashed and bashed, [its] glazes slathered and spattered on":

Which stood in stark contrast to the characteristic elegance of other vessels:

Now, it just so happens that Roberta Smith's review of the survey of ceramics from the past century or so raises not dissimilar aesthetic issues. (Neither Smith nor Cotter spell them out, but those of you who have been reading my last few posts can at least ask the right questions as to what they might be.)

George Ohr is the American prince of the squashed and suggestively splattered, for example, though he is represented by a piece that is, ironically, less true to his spirit than a vessel by one of his contemporary successors, Kathy Butterly:

Smith argues that painting and sculpture have found their way into ceramics so systemically that it is difficult to maintain the art/craft distinction, but that the medium itself "has one of the richest histories of any medium on the planet."

A perusal of the Korean vessels (I've left the paintings and sculptures quite out of the discussion for purposes of brevity) ought to support Smith's contention without having to adduce further evidence.

just so story and other preliminaries

Readers of my joculum blog will be familiar with my citations of Richard Lewontin's assaults on the sociobiologists and their inclination to create just-so stories to fill in for evidence when it comes to Darwinian explanations of the genetic bases of human behavior. (Lewontin, like Stephen Jay Gould, holds to a more nuanced explanation of the relationship between evolutionary structures and social structures.)

So I'm amused by my own just-so stories, as much as by Denis Dutton's just-so stories in The Art Instinct, which I reviewed semi-favorably, but with some very serious disagreements, on this blog some months back.

So bear in mind the ease with which "I can imagine that such-and-such happened" becomes "it might have happened" and then "it must have happened" and then "it most certainly happened."

But recalling from D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form onward how the same basic natural forms are reshaped, recycled, and adapted to fit functions for which they originally never developed (I almost said "were intended"), I would not be at all surprised to find that some of our emotional reactions to color and shape are based on neuroreceptors that serve quite different purposes in other life forms. The resources of nature are immense, but they are not infinite. There is no intrinsic reason why we should not have complex emotional reactions to shapes and colors we were not meant to see (or more accurately, could not possibly see without technological assistance, such as coral reefs in the Pacific). The reactions could have (did have? no..."imaginably might have") been part of a complex biochemical response that evolved without reference to the use of these improbably pigmented mixtures of chemicals in far-distant and taxonomically independent species. When we encounter the stimuli, we have reactions that are not at all related to the functions of the shapes and colors in question, just as we have reactions of "cuteness" based on the visual cues provided by human infants needing nurturing, even when the creatures being viewed need no nurturing whatsoever.

There are directions in which all of this could be taken, but absent further experimental evidence I am going to say that I like my own fiction very much. And I think it has as much empirical evidence going for it as anything the sociobiologists ever fantasized as an explanation. Whether it has anything to do with why designers suddenly love improbable shades of blue and adopt them for things like airline tableware and seat cushions (or new-car interiors)...well, some just-so stories are intrinsically sillier than others.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

theory and practice in history: or, the many uses of art

What got me started on my theory-laden post about the Under the Sea Imax film was the thought that Salvador Dali would have gone completely mad (thus eliminating what he famously said was the only difference between him and a madman) had he been given the possibility of incorporating the film into his "Dream of Venus" pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. (Dali, in those halcyon months preceding the arrival of apocalypse, was decidedly keeping calm and carrying on.) The Freudian uses of underwater motifs as a metaphor for the unconscious and specifically for the doings of unconscious sexuality were a major guiding principle of Dali's enterprise.

And the oddity, as I've said, is that reality is so Freudian in the way that evolution designed things that were never intended to be seen by human eyes at all.

By contrast, Dali's undersea fantasias were as human-scaled and -sized as you can get; see Ingrid Schaffner's Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus: The Surrealist Funhouse from the 1939 World's Fair.

Now I see that UCLA's Hammer Museum is producing an exhibition of prints called "The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900," devoted to the uses of etchings by academics, realists, impressionists and symbolists alike. The medium tended to lend itself to psychological intimacy, since the small scale was ideal for contemplation-inducing subject matter, meant to be studied in seclusion rather than hung prominently in public rooms for the admiration of visitors.

The melancholy tone of the works in the Hammer's upcoming show make them a natural for studying the problematic behind the transitions from romanticism to neo-romanticism, which has stayed neo- for far longer than romanticism ever stayed originary.

However, I'll leave to one side the vexed question of the long transition of the neo-romantic imagination, which seems to be born anew in each successive generation. The transitions of the nineteenth century 1850-1900 were only the beginning.

For now, a couple of preliminary peeks at Félix Bracquemond's 1854 The Raven and Edvard Munch's 1895 Moonlight; scholarship and reflection to come later:

more theory in a moment, but first this

Jeremy Abernathy of provides a link to Young Blood Gallery's blog, where I learn that a British phenomenon I belatedly learned of via the has spawned parodies to which the Guardian refers only fleetingly and which Atlantans can purchase at the aforementioned venue (which means that Brits can buy the things almost anywhere they bloody well please):

The 1939 original, designed to be posted in case of invasion:

And the 2009 updates thereof, for the moment after the catastrophe has already happened:

Actually, the particular parody the Guardian reproduces is this:

a guide to being underwater: what I said in "Under the Sea at Fernbank"

Making a very simple subject very complicated.

Partly because it is.

I surprised myself at where I went with my meditation on the Jim Carrey-narrated Under the Sea Imax film, shortly to open at Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

So here’s a map of where I went in the sixteen hundred words that follow (or precede, chronologically, but in blogs the more recent tends to be read before the older post):

1) We look at and make movies and other works of art according to what we ourselves have experienced visually, and learned to be suspicious of or become bored by. Past pieces of culture change their aspects according to current preferences, too.

2) We also design according to the day-to-day stimuli of our environment. This includes new subject matter made available by, say, improvements in underwater photography as well as by digital technology.

3) And we focus on documentary subject matter that reflects or provides metaphors for the dominant economic and emotional forces of our own historical moment. We look at big mean animals just at the moment that we drive big mean driving machines, and others of us look at little colorful diverse animals the same way we look at little colorful diverse pieces of club design or, God help us, other subcultures.

4) So when we discover new colors in nature at about the same time that we can cheaply replicate new colors in manufacture, imaginative designers such as Karim Rashid combine the subconscious cultural fascination with new bright color with their own interest in finding new and more interesting ways of being functional. They combine responses to unspoken cultural shifts with their own wish to change the world. (The nineteenth century discovery of coal tar derivatives in the Mauve Decade parallels our own moment in terms of technological function, new discoveries in nature, and better living through chemistry.)

5) And that’s about as far as I can get with a movie about fish. Except that I end my ramble with a meditation on the actual environmental message about global warming and species diversity that the Imax movie is meant to convey. And except that

6) I kind of ponder where we might be going as we shift from the delusional speed of economic concentration that was financial globalization and move tentatively towards whatever is going to emerge as the New Normal. But I only kind of ponder that.

So much for the latest on Counterforces. Soon to come on joculum: a meditative survey of Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction and Reason, Faith, and Revolution: reflections on the god debate.

Now go have fun.

Under the Sea at Fernbank: more theory than you thought anybody could ever wrest from just one Imax movie

A couple of self-ironizing lifetimes later, André Gregory’s remark to Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre that the theater is in trouble, and that it is in trouble mostly because everyone is doing such a good job of performing roles themselves that they don’t need to go see a play, seems both obvious and naively simplistic. But then, so does everything else from more than fifteen minutes ago.

Like the proverbial fish paying no attention to the pervasive medium in which they exist (until it suddenly isn’t there anymore), people these days use the digital media for performative purposes. And when you are earnestly performing in public at every moment (whether tweeting or constructing visual narratives of your day or what you had for lunch, often included in visual narratives of your day), your entertainment is likely to be non-narrative, or so incorporated into the taken-for-granteds of narrative that you pay no attention to the new normal of narrative structure.

Or else you pay reflexive attention to it: the different fascinations with the Watchmen film from those who revere Dylan and Cohen and appreciate the ironizations of an alternative 1985 seem to be different from those who primarily appreciate the ironizations or outright send-ups of the film's and the graphic novel’s narrative precursors. (The film further ironizes the music, which beginning with songs that were meant to be ironic to start with, means that irony piled upon generational irony becomes too irony-clad to be anything but unintentionally sincere.)

This is a rather strange way to segue into a discussion of the Imax film Under the Sea narrated by Jim Carrey and playing soon at Fernbank Museum of Natural History (and at many, many theaters near you, I’m sure). But the film had me thinking about art history, and that means thinking about narrative structure as well as visual structure. And everyone over the age of sixty seems to be talking about the Watchmen movie, usually in conjunction with Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Ludwig would have loved the film, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Under the Sea wrestles with the problem (without letting on that it is wrestling with the problem) of how to make the real world entertaining to audiences accustomed from infancy to special effects that make everyday reality seem the dull affair that it in fact usually is. Art has been wrestling with the same problems, and the Imax natural history film is a special case of popular art in which (unless you are dramatizing, say, the age of the Pharaohs) SFX have to be limited to soundtrack, lighting, editing, and camera angles.

So as we watch the film we focus, often, on the sheer profligacy of nature, which disturbed Annie Dillard no end in her lyrically philosophical nature writings, but here is used mostly for the “O, wow” impact of immense schools of colorful fish or immensely tiny shrimp. And the spectacle value neutralizes the sense of sheer excess pursued for the sake of survival; as Dillard wrote (I think it was Dillard, anyway), nobody feels disturbed at the sight of a field of wildflowers, and the fish of the tropics count as the wildflowers of the sea.

For Under the Sea is a delectably edited O-wow look at the life of the Coral Triangle of Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands of Indonesia (let’s leave the West Papua political problem out of this), followed by the Great Barrier Reef and on down to the colder waters of South Australia. (The South Australian waters are becoming less cold than they once were, and that’s the point of Under the Sea's understated environmental message about the unpleasant effects of global warming—but let’s stick with art history for the moment.)

The world revealed in Under the Sea is considerably more visually interesting than the murky tones of blue and black and beige to which generations of whale- and shark-watching viewers have become accustomed. It’s also more various than your standard view of a colorful coral reef, and the narrative pace of the visual improbabilities is worth considering.

Carrey’s narration keeps things moving without cutesifying the action overmuch. Viewers are all too ready to go “Yeah, yeah, yeah” at the slightest hint of anthropomorphized animals, unless the ascription of humanoid touches brings out our own animality. And Carrey’s delicately anomalous narration makes, for example, cuttlefish sex seem both utterly alien and painfully familiar.

But mostly it is the utterly alien that this film sticks close to, and this continuous immersion in the unfamiliar is what brought art history most insistently to mind.

The Surrealists made much of the curiously disturbing qualities of coral and of anomalous-looking undersea creatures, but they were limited to the exigencies of black-and-white reproductions and specimens in museum collections. Their approach had more in common with the sixteenth and seventeenth century’s Cabinets of Curiosities than with the Surrealism in Other Creatures’ Everyday Life revealed or framed in this Imax film.

Garden eels undulating in tandem like oversized cilia or like, as the name implies, plants in an undersea garden; sea dragons whose bodies imitate the leaves of undersea plants; all in a ludicrously overstated palette that is more reminiscent of the design world of Karim Rashid than the almost colorless Bauhaus and constructivist world of contention beloved of earlier generations of undersea filmmakers.

In other words, this is a real world in which the dreams of earlier generations of artists are shown to be no more than unimaginative imitations of what an endlessly inventive planet has to show us, once we have the technology to go down and make movies about it.

Gorgeousness, though, is fragile; just as Karim Rashid’s reinventions of function depend on an economic and emotional substructure that makes his superstructure plausible, the ecosystems of the tropic seas depend on a planetary substructure that is currently sliding towards grimly colorless versions of extinction and survival.

It’s worth noticing what slices of the real our films choose to show to us in different moments of imaginative history; masters-of-the-universe moments have always focused on the big, the bad, the klutzy contending for supremacy, and this film shows us giant male cuttlefish facing off obstreperously while the smaller fry disguise themselves and slip by unnoticed; but in this film we are still in a historical moment in which we can focus on difference and revel in the fact that Darwinian struggle has made possible a diversity so dazzling that our most surrealist moments failed to catch up with what real life had to show us, out in the threatened shallows of the world’s tropic waters.

What’s odd is that so much of what Under the Sea has to show us is the stuff of standard tourist photography. The lusciously colored corals and swarms of reef fish have been documented by so many divers that they might be one of the sources of the nursery colors that began to dominate design about the time that global prosperity and good-quality waterproof cameras made snapshots from beneath the waves a de rigueur aspect of the upscale tropical vacation.

But editing and pacing and elegantly sequenced close-ups produce a hallucinatory effect that de-exoticizes these environments and makes them into the real world that they in fact are. Rather than souvenirs of a human being sticking his head into one more gigantic amusement park, the territories that Under the Sea shows us are the genuine spawn of an evolutionary process that human beings have perhaps irremediably put in danger. The hallucinatory quality is in ourselves, finding a real-world strangeness that is all the more unsettling (rather than comfortably “exotic”) because it is real, and a nature not at all inflected by culture.

And our Imax filmmakers can show us the real lives of creatures that seem so incredibly strange because we’ve gotten so good at dramatizing ourselves and manipulating the technology with which to do it. (So culture does determine what we can see of nature.)

Once we have gotten up close and pseudo-personal with the world’s real diversity, we may wonder how anyone ever was satisfied with the seahorses and scorpions of the nature movies of half a century ago, much less with the elaborations of them that still populate too much of the world’s animation. It’s the real-life elaborations of biomorphic geometry in films of the Under the Sea generation that lie behind the exuberance of the best and most optimistic of twenty-first century design, and it is comforting to know that reality outpaced human fantasies in terms of aesthetics a good many millennia ago.

We just didn’t know that it had until we had the tools to go look at it properly.

The problem, as began to be observed thirty years ago during the first convulsions of world economic and environmental dislocation, is that a sufficiently disordered planet ends up being dominated by adaptive but boring survivors—by English sparrows and city pigeons rather than the more environmentally specialized avian species.

And when it comes to the world’s oceans, thanks to overfishing and the increase in overall water temperature, the seas end up dominated not so much by boring but adaptive species as by…as by, increasingly, nothing much at all. Stretches of desolation and dead corals are becoming less and less the exception. We are in hot water.

So in spite of the Surrealist attraction of Under the Sea, it communicates the message that somehow we got to get our heads out our own internal organs and look at the threat that confronts us. But until we’ve seen what the reality is that we’re losing, we can’t begin to imagine what we ought to be doing about it.

And it would be more than merely a shame if a couple of generations down the road, this flamboyantly extravagant real-world stuff were to become only a well-documented memory, raw material for the imaginations of designers and makers of fantasy art.

But the need for future action is no reason not to immerse one’s own visuality in the O-wow qualities of the Imax production. It’s just that action ought to follow contemplation, at least in terms of voting for the practical acts that will help. (Environmental activists so often take on a puritanical tone that a little reminder of the sensuousness of our threatened ecosystems is downright helpful in this regard. Nature is intrinsically hipper than thou, for it brought forth thine own claims to hipness.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

a year without the sand mandala? and other notes and queries

Now that I have indulged my notoriously understated sense of humor (perhaps I do myself too great an honor to call it "understated") it is time to return to firmly serious ground, as indeed I already did after the opening paragraph of the previous post. (And I need to explore further the issue of the neo-romantic imagination that Mitchell's work also raises in a different fashion; I haven't really explored it in sufficient depth for over a decade.)

Emory University's Tibet Week (March 23 - 28) will bring two distinguished artists from the Norbulingka Institute—Tenzin Norbu, master thangka painter and teacher, and Dolmakyap Zorgey, scholar and deputy managing director of the Institute. So in that sense we shall have Tibetan-exile contemporary artists in residence at the Carlos Museum, bringing with them thangkas painted by other artists of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's premier fine-arts center for teaching, training and research.

I write "in that sense" because their mission is to display contemporary examples of traditional thangka painting, which adheres to prescribed rules.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anger. That's number seven.

I always forget about anger. That really pisses me off.

Another question that I forgot to list is "What can I put on the wall above this piece of furniture so that I will feel a sensation of muted happiness when I walk through the door in the evening or out the door in the morning?"

And now for something completely different:

Linda Mitchell's subtle evocations of childhood and more than childhood in her new works at Mason Murer probably answer a whole bunch of questions at the same time. At least, that's what I think. Having watched Mitchell's work evolve over many years, I feel like she's attaining new and consistent heights as a serious artist, and doing it with nursery-style animals that are far more than merely cute, combined with archetypal arches that remind us of why arches are archetypes. Part of the appeal is that the symbols don't quite add up, or the cutesiness is undermined by some grotesquerie that doesn't quite belong there:

But when you see the work under less than optimum conditions, you don't trust your own judgment. Go look, and tell me whether I am an idiot.

sometimes I ask joculum questions on Counterforces and vice versa. I'm cool like that

A joculum thought for Counterforces

I have been thinking again about the tale regarding the man who showed up shabby-looking at a swank site, and then was treated shabbily by the staff. He tipped extravagantly on departure. Next visit, he was treated royally, and stiffed the staff on departure, remarking, “Last time, I rewarded you for this time. Now I am rewarding you for last time.”

It is not at all the same as Charles Williams’ Way of Exchange and certainly not like “paying it forward,” but it is good whenever a new way is found to disrupt the expectation of quid pro quo. Done rightly, the operation of exchange and preparation permits all parties to the transactions to observe the operations of their own lust, greed, pride, envy and what have you (gluttony, inertia and the seventh sin that I can never remember, but heedlessness or cluelessness makes a good substitute), and this is indisputably a good thing. For it is better to know when one previously did not know, and to understand in part in a way that one previously did not understand in part.

It's all about me. No, really. It is. And it's about you, too. But not about him or her. They can shove it.

We love the works of art that we do (as distinct from merely understanding the ones we don't love) because they answer the questions that we have.

Some of the most common questions are, "How can I replicate the feelings of contentment I had when I was a small child?" and "How can I get a really long-lasting emotional high without using illegal substances?" and "How can I invest my money in a way that will also increase my social standing with my peer group?" and "How can I be grossly self-indulgent while feeling that I am doing something that is worthwhile?"

Other questions include "How is it possible to portray a complex mathematical operation using only blocks of color?" and "How can I learn something real and also boost my sense of smug personal superiority at the same time?" and "How can I be less disgusting than the unsatisfactory creature that I ordinarily find myself being?" and "How can I learn that I am asking for answers to questions without knowing what it is that I am really asking for?" and "How can I learn that I usually ask two-thirds of these questions on the same day?" and "How can I learn that I ask the wrong questions, this one included?"

The answer to all of these questions is, "Art."

We never reach the realm of pure and unalloyed questions, much less answers. We shall always be self-aggrandizing two-year-olds learning how to solve ever more complex equations.

But we have the option of learning how to ask a wider and more self-aware variety of questions. And then we have at least the possibility of a few better answers.

Or at least we have the option of looking every once in a while at some better art.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

worlds in collision...fortunately, not Velikovsky's or the other guys'

Looking at some books by local authors I have never been able to get into (we have some globalization theorists at Emory like Frank J. Lechner and John Boll who have written books on the topic and co-edited the 2003 Blackwell anthology The Globalization Reader), I have been reminded of how many autonomous areas of discourse (as the academics like to call them) exist to describe exactly the same phenomena.

And the fields of discourse themselves generate phenomena, as with the artworlds in which power and money are exchanged and the art itself is written about in the global magazines, versus the many others that are barely described but that function as limited scenes of aesthetic and commercial action, and the ones that are never described but are sustained by carefully directed hype and/or commercial need.

Lechner and Boll seem particularly committed to some areas of theory I haven't thought of in a while ("macroanthropology" being a case in point). Their take on the implications of the civil aviation system links them to the impressionistic (lovely impressions) studies of Pico Iyer on the lives lived until recently by the economic classes for whom "flying across oceans has become a mundane routine" rather than the once-in-a-lifetime experience it sometimes is for those emigrants who don't have to sneak across lightly defended borders at night. (There was a recent artwork in a global exhibition that commented on the alternate phenomenon, the forcible-deportation flights that the world's airlines do not advertise.)

Lechner and Boll belabor points that I wouldn't care to make, personally, but it is a reminder that what is commonplace (and has been since age twenty-three) for some people is completely never-thought-of-before for others. They feel compelled to begin with the point, for example, that while "extraordinary events like the Olympic Games" and the more ordinary events of world commerce exemplify world culture, all sorts of seemingly local enterprises such as a chess club already depend on a network of previously agreed-upon global structures. (I would say that they always have, the problematics of cultural hybridization dating back at least to the rise of world trade networks some time in the Late Neolithic.)

I'm still not sure that World Culture: Origins and Consequence asks the questions that I want to have answered—though I would need to read it closely to answer that question; though Lechner and Boll are serious theorists asking serious and valid questions, and do include many of the authors in their bibliography that I would want to see cited in such a book as this 2005 effort that has sat for a couple of years in my To Be Read Someday pile.

It is as Thomas Pynchon wrote in his Proverbs for Paranoids, if They can get you to ask the wrong questions, They don't have to worry about answers. But it is the fact that the world culture that they address is an actual entity at such right angles to the one I want to address that has got me to thinking.

International bureaucratic structures impose all sorts of implicit categories, as in the UNESCO lists of sites worthy of historic preservation...all of them more than exemplary and important to save for the sake of our common human inheritance, but somehow the very act of categorization creates the sort of artificial perspective that obscures as much as it enlightens.

For example, the plunder that has traveled around the world in the wake of invasions from time immemorial has as often preserved objects as it has destroyed them...and even this preservation has come under discussion, as in the case of Oceanic artifacts that were meant to rot but were carried off to museums instead. Museums in the countries involved own no such artifacts because the ones left on site decayed as they were intended. Yet there are now those in the countries in question who would like to get a few examples of what the local curators themselves no longer believe in, having gone on to prefer other cultural ways of organization instead.

And some philosophers of global culture such as Kwame Anthony Appiah have argued that instead of gathering up all the, say, Benin bronzes in West Africa it would be good to distribute Benin bronzes to museums in Greece and France that don't have any and send a few Greek vases and French medieval madonnas to museums in Africa with insufficient acquisition budgets.

But such issues maintain the salaries of a fair number of bureaucrats as well as museum curators and university professors, and the worlds in contention are seldom those of the folks on the ground who would like to have some say in what their local museum has or doesn't have. (Sometimes, those folks want to burn down or bulldoze the local museum, and that is a separate issue. As is the issue of whether the world's historic legacy ought to disappear into private collections as wantonly as the output of the world's art fairs currently does, or used to before at least a few collectors started prioritizing between buying paintings and keeping their private airplanes. I look forward to the ongoing reports in world newspapers from the various global art venues as 2009 continues.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

and by now you are happy that this is part three of a three-part post: on the Neues Museum and others

Michael Kimmelman’s architecture review on David Chipperfield’s renovation of Berlin’s Neues Museum [ ] brings back memories of one of the exactly two press tours on which I have ever been invited—or, rather, in this case, not invited.

Actually, the High Museum invited editors and salaried art writers from around the nation to be their guests on a December 1989 press tour of Berlin in conjunction with Gudmund Vigtel’s magisterial historical survey of “Art in Berlin.” (Being only a freelancer and a second-tier editor, I had not expected to be invited. Such invitations are for the elect, not the preterite. The one exception, for which I shall be eternally grateful, being the 2007 press tour to Glenfiddich's Artists in Residence exhibition, for which I have never been able to recompense William Grant & Sons with any degree of adequacy...even though I thought the residency program was a daring idea, which the corporate bean-counters may have been trying without success to kill. Some of them certainly disagreed with the notion that artists should be invited to hang out in Scotland and make art instead of advertising. I have occasionally written in this journal about this and about 2007 resident artist Romeo Alaeff, whose socially and politically charged work may have surprised many. But I digress.)

Getting back to Berlin 1989: My dear colleague the late Mildred Thompson, who at that time was reportedly the only African-American serving as a member of an art magazine’s senior editorial staff, went to the Goethe-Institut and got the both of us sponsored as a two-person freelance Parallel Action that served as subversive shadow to the authorized press junket, with which I kept crossing paths by accident.

Mildred and I pursued independent professional itineraries from our respective spare-bedroom bases of operation (mutual friends had helped us couch-surf avant le lettre in widely separated neighborhoods. My chosen way into East Berlin via Friedrichstraße station led straight to the Museum Island, where I was stunned to see evidence of reconstruction on the New Museum. It had remained a bombed-out ruin while Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Old Museum had been painstakingly restored and filled with appropriate exhibitions. I snapped lots of pictures of the cordoned-off structure, since my official reason for going was to write about architecture (which I did, at length, including discussions of hypothetical building designs by Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind that were unrelated to later actually constructed projects).

Kimmelman now explains that the German Democratic Republic had undertaken a restoration just before German unification, but it required new funding and Chipperfield’s sensitive redesign to finish the decades-delayed job. And he has left the ruins in place where it was possible, while incorporating them into a fully contemporary museum building in which, as Kimmelman writes, “the new parts ... look clearly new, the old, old, while the two go together gracefully.”

This is an elegant departure from the postwar tendency in so much of war-ravaged Europe to create a sort of Disney World of architecture in which one thinks one is seeing a meticulously and miraculously preserved building until one sees, in photographs of the site, how few stones or bricks were left standing upon one another circa 1945. Friedrich August Stüler’s 1855 building didn’t have the cachet of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s legendary design for the Old Museum, and Stüler's New Museum has gotten little enough respect in the sixty-five or so years since its devastation. Maybe this will get it a little fresh attention, if not indeed a new respect.

It had long struck me as painfully appropriate that some of the large-scale plunder (or effort at preservation) of German archaeologists was cemented into the wall in the Neues Museum, such that the Chinese murals in question couldn’t be removed for safekeeping like the rest of the ancient art. Looking in West Berlin at the fragments of Buddhist and Nestorian paintings from the Silk Road, I wondered what scraps and fragments, if any, still adhered to the New Museum’s ruins.

If I ever have the resources to get to Berlin again, which I strongly doubt, I suppose I shall have the chance to find out. Chipperfield used every scrap of the original building that could be adapted to the reconstructed and renovated one.

a further note regarding Samuel Beckett: part two of a three-part post

In case you wonder why, apart from the presence of two authors so world-famous that an enormous number of Atlantans have read them, a performance of the early letters of Samuel Beckett (being published by Cambridge as an international project under the aegis of the Emory University graduate school) might be of interest, I offer this extract from Gabriel Josipovici’s review essay in the TLS:

“’My dear McGreevy, The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my MSS with an economic note in the 3rd person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope. I feel slightly paralysed by the courtesy of this gesture. I would like to get rid of the damn thing anyhow, anywhere (with the notable exception of “transition”), but I have no acquaintance with the less squeamish literary garbage buckets. I can’t imagine Eliot touching it – certainly not the verse. Perhaps Seumas O’Sullivan’s rag would take it? If you think of an address I would be grateful to know it.’

“This [extract from one of Beckett’s early letters] might remind readers of two other ambitious and irreverent young men writing to each other for support and to try out their literary skills: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But what follows certainly will not. After quoting two lines of Dante in Italian to make the point that his sunburn makes sleep impossible, Beckett goes on to comment on Proust, whom he was reading with a view to fulfilling a commission to write a short book on him:

“’I have read the first volume of “Du Côté de chez Swann”, and find it strangely uneven. There are incomparable things – Bloch, Françoise, Tante Léonie, Legrandin, and then passages that are offensively fastidious, artificial and almost dishonest . . . . His loquacity is certainly more interesting and cleverly done than Moore’s, but no less profuse, a maudlin false-teeth gobble-gobble discharge from a colic-afflicted belly. He drank too much tilleul. And to think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!’

“This ability to tear into what he dislikes but not let it blind him to what is admirable in a work or artist would remain typical of Beckett.”

I am tempted to go far beyond fair use (but it’s all available online in any case: ) as I discover fresh joys in Josipovici’s essay (in this passage, I've altered for American sensibilities one jarring anglicism):

“At some point in the 1930s Beckett toyed with the idea of becoming an art dealer. His comments on works of art are therefore slightly different from those on music and literature. He spends hours in the National Gallery in Dublin, relaying to McGreevy (who was himself to become, in time, Director of that gallery) what the new Director has done with the rehang and commenting in detail, especially on his beloved Dutch and Flemish masters. In London it is the same with the National Gallery, and in Paris he often drops into the Louvre to examine this or that work or artist he has grown interested in, duly reporting his impressions back to McGreevy. Among the most surprising and fascinating letters are those Beckett sent back to family and friends when he undertook a six-month trip to Germany, from September 1936 to April 1937, specifically in order to study the art on view there. He travelled from Hamburg to Berlin via Hanover and Brunswick, to Leipzig, Dresden and on to Munich via Bamberg and Nuremberg. Everywhere he went he tried to see all that was on show and much that wasn’t, for under the Nazis much art was starting to be withdrawn as “decadent”. Beckett badgered directors to give him access to these pictures in the vaults, and made friends with (usually Jewish) patrons and collectors, who invited him to their houses and introduced him to some of the banned artists. The weather was bitter; Beckett was depressed both by his health and by what he saw happening to Germany; finally, exhausted, abandoning plans to visit Stuttgart and Frankfurt, he flew home. The letters not only tell us a great deal about Beckett, but form an invaluable record of the state of German museums and art galleries in the 1930s, and include descriptions of paintings, by artists from Signorelli to Van Gogh, which have since disappeared, the victims of Nazi looting or Allied bombing.

“By the end of the decade friends were showing him pictures they had purchased with queries about provenance and authentication. But Beckett could no more become an art dealer than he could become a lecturer in French, a commercial pilot, a student of Eisenstein or any of the other careers he briefly toyed with but either resigned from when they became a reality, or simply left to drift in the realm of possibility.”

And by a lovely coincidence, that bit about “victims of Nazi looting or Allied bombing” segues into my final topic of the day, Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times essay today on the reopening of Berlin’s Neues Museum.

architecture, news reporting, and all that: part one of a three-part post

The morning’s New York Times (March 12, 2009) contains the typical spread of articles regarding the momentous set of shifts in sensibility and organization through which global culture is currently going.

The abrupt inability of newspapers to earn their keep is one of the most obvious and immediate of such shifts. As has been pointed out by, most recently, James DeLong (, the problem is one of business models rather than consumer wishes: people need information, and the information needs to be compiled and analyzed by someone, but someone has to pay the expenses of doing so, and right now the major means of information retrieval are in the hands of clever mammals getting a free ride on the backs of the perishing dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, as happened in the great disruptive extermination to which I’ve alluded, we may end up with an era in which the shifts change the very color of the geologic strata before and after, but in which it takes a few hundred lifetimes before the new operators evolve sufficiently to get it right.

Culture, of course, evolves more rapidly than biology, but the analogy sometimes turns out to be disconcertingly exact: there is a huge amount of exploring evolutionary dead ends, wastage of unexplored opportunity, and, as Walter Benjamin said of history, an immense piling up of wreckage. No wonder his Angel of History looks with dismay at the junk pile heaping up behind him as he is swept backwards into a future that he cannot see. He knows exactly how to fix things, if only he could jump over there on his own just a little and rearrange the wrack and ruin.

Atlanta is one of the cities being served poorly by the information gathering technology for which people are willing to pay anything. The blogs and the websites being maintained by various public-spirited folk at their own expense and on their own time do the best that they can, but in the best of economic times the city has never shown much inclination to treat the arts as anything but a marginal enterprise, slightly more suspect than pop culture because fewer people are willing to drop their extra dollars on them. “The arts,” as a certain elected official said some years ago, “are, by definition, self-sustaining.” (He then disproved his thesis by mounting a very elaborate exhibition that was unable to earn back its own expenses.)

These days, the result of unsystematic information distribution is that people don’t even get to know about the free events they might like to attend.

Some, such as the public performance of extracts from Samuel Beckett’s letters by the writers Edward Albee and Salman Rushdie and the Atlanta actors Brenda Bynum and Robert Shaw-Smith, one would like to keep a secret because one would like to get a seat. (And for those of you in Atlanta reading this before Saint Patrick’s Day, given the parking situation and my tendency towards early exhaustion, I would happily accept the offer of a ride from downtown Decatur.)

Other recent events, such as Kemp Mooney’s lecture last night at the central Atlanta public library, also illustrate the need for analysis and contextualization. I read the evite and made note of it, though in the end I was too fatigued to get on MARTA and go. Only this morning did I realize how many people may not have been on the e-mail list who might have filled the auditorium to overflowing.

A systematically edited website that readers check as regularly as they once did the daily newspaper would have offered a nuanced discussion of the issues that probably were raised by this distinguished longtime Atlanta architect commenting on the design of Marcel Breuer’s building. It was a historic occasion, both because of the insufficiently appreciated nature of the building and the person offering the perspective (with the added attraction of the opportunity to see parts of the structure not ordinarily open to library patrons).

That Atlanta has one of I. M. Pei’s first buildings and Marcel Breuer’s last illustrates the city’s tendency to be ahead of or behind the curve but all too rarely directly on it. We get the work of the soon-to-be-famous because we like quality, as long as it’s cheap; and we get the work of some of the supremely famous because we like to bask in reflected glory, so long as everybody knows that it is glory. If nobody local knows that the person is supremely famous, why spend the money?

It’s a town where the only thing that counts is what you did last week, or actually more like last night or last lunchtime, so the incentive to hire the best to do anything except for the prestige value just isn’t there. A city capable of repeatedly revisiting the possible demolition of another of its famous library buildings, designed only a quarter-century ago by two of its most celebrated architects, continues to illustrate why some of its most successful publications have been those that print photographs of the people who attended last month’s gala rather than the people who made possible the past decade or so of culture.

And since this is a city that focuses on what happened last week (which, apart from the nineteenth century, is what it considers history) and on what is going to happen tomorrow (because next week is too far away to think about…as Scarlett O’Hara famously said, we’ll think about that tomorrow)…why then, oughtn’t there to be a better way of analyzing and disseminating the information about what is going to happen tomorrow?

Locals who read this weblog a week from now will already have missed not one but both of the events to which I have referred. (Assuming the event at the library actually happened…I’ve not confirmed that independently…and assuming that nothing interrupts the scheduled course of next week’s history in the interim.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

a commentary on art in the more distant regions of global artmaking

It occurs to me that though many artists well known in their communities are not necessarily earning a living from that fact (something that keeps me from being annoyed by who gets recommended for "genius grants"...usually they could use the money), some who deserve national acclaim are doing okay, and it would be nice if there were a way of separating out the vehicles of recognition from the cash awards.

There are indeed artists who have a decent income already who deserve to be better known in the world at large, in any city you care to name. And there used to be non-cash-award touring exhibitions that featured the art of the people who were already "emerged" locally but utterly unknown past the city limits or outer reaches of the conurbations within which they resided. But now cash awards and their attendant press releases seem to be the only vehicle with which to publicize such folks to the entire planet.

I remember well when the corporations yanked the funding for the touring shows during the last great economic downturn, which devastated the art world more lastingly than it did the corporations or the country.

questions which tend not to edification and answers that do

It came to me in the night that the artists in this burg (and longtime readers of my non-art blog or former venues in which to read my stuff know to which burg I refer) have no idea how marginal most of the art scene really is...not just the makers but the venues and the ones who write about it. When by default one of the best art sites online depends on writers who get around by bicycle, then the great tradition continues of art writers who get by via holding down a non-writing real job, or more usually two real jobs, or three if you count transient gigs.

But fortunately I have decided not to write an autobiographical piece, because it has occurred to me that there are exhibitions about to close about which I have not written because others have reported more than adequately on them. So since readers who can actually visit it have already read at least two excellent descriptions of the piece (both of which give away the surprise), I shall only remind you of the existence of Martijn van Wagtendonk's remarkable installation at MoCA GA:

And those of you who do not reside in Atlanta and have no idea what I am talking about can comment and then I'll know who migrates over to this blog from the one to which I devote most of my theory and energy. Probably nobody except my two most faithful readers, both of whom know me personally and one of whom lives in Atlanta.

And there is some extraordinary work at Mason Murer (as I know from photographs and from the writing of others) that I haven't so much as seen because I seem to run out of time or out of energy before getting there. As locals know, I miss much simply because I am so dependent on hitching rides with others to openings that challenge my waning night vision.

Monday, March 9, 2009

self-indulgent self-congratulation, a genre that the Web knows all too well

I was feeling morose about the number of Atlanta and Athens artists I have felt confident were headed for greater things who nevertheless didn't (some by self-sabotage, some by just plain bad luck) and was somewhat buoyed by the knowledge that I may (or may not) have written the first-ever fan letter to Sarah Vowell.

This unknown San Francisco writer named Sarah Vowell had sent an unsolicited book review to Art Papers sometime in the early 1990s, and I had looked at it before passing it on to editor Glenn Harper and resolved to write a note saying, "I don't know what Glenn is going to decide, but I really, really like your book review and hope you send us more of them."

I suspect I never actually wrote the letter but Sarah Vowell sent us a couple more book reviews and then disappeared from sight until one day we got a copy of Radio On and I said, to a general lack of interest from the rest of the office, "Hey, this is great, that reviewer I liked so much has written a book." After which I occasionally wondered whatever happened to Sarah Vowell until one day I was listening to NPR and heard her byline spoken before an op-ed piece. The rest is history, or a whole bunch of subsequently published books about history. (Looking again at my copy of The Wordy Shipmates reminded me of my writer's crush in the early '90s on this unknown sender of an over-the-transom review in a building that still has transoms.)

I tend to become rather passionate about work I believe in; when I decided decades ago that the Caribbean writer Derek Walcott was the only poet who interested me in an anthology of English-language Caribbean writers (so Aimé Césaire wasn't at issue), I ordered his books from England because they were unavailable here, and followed his subsequent career, including his poems as they came out in American Poetry Review. And I exploded when one day a local writer was sneering about the worthlessness of APR and wisecracked about their "house Jamaican, Derek Walcott." After correcting him that Walcott was from St. Lucia I went on a tirade about the plurality of poetry and why this guy's love for Charles Bukowski did not negate the value of Derek Walcott. (I shall refrain from telling the rest of the story, as the late Paul Harvey might have put it.)

It pleased me no end when Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature, though I am sure that this guy, like some others who I will not name, is of the opinion that if somebody wins the Nobel Prize, it means that they suck.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"und?" [Cassiel to Damiel, in Der Himmel Über Berlin]

Looking at a couple of tote bags filled with books and catalogues from past professional society meetings, I find myself wishing that the visual art and creative writing and literary professional associations could be compelled to hold one enormous joint meeting, just once, in which all the seminar presenters and plenary session speakers and publishers would have to meet and mingle and listen or at least productively ignore one another.

As it is, they exist in ignorance and/or contempt of one another, certain that they and they only constitute the only world worth knowing. (The same goes for any subgenre of the aforementioned worlds of art and literature where people of like mind get together.)

And while these rather elaborate worlds glide on in mutual ignorance, supported by the budgets and the esteem of their educational institutions and/or their peers and colleagues (and this is the operating procedure of plausibility-structure reinforcement from CAA and AAR and AWP all the way to Dragon*Con), most folks just want to read things and look at stuff.

And the procedures whereby these latter folks might be educated out of the worst examples of their preferences and into the better or best examples, or into other preferences altogether—those procedures remain unknown to most of those who engage in mutual self-congratulation that they belong to this supercool world and not to those dorky other ones. Yeah, right, you keep on saying that, guys. Meantime life outside goes on all around you. (Guitar chords, and a throaty voice singing, "And though the rules of the road have been lodged, it's people's games you got to dodge....")


Freudians will make much of who I left out of my Beep Beep Gallery list, since it couldn't have been very many people...but except for Chris Carder, whose work I left out because I haven't seen his work become quite as ubiquitous as that of the other seven artists (and perhaps it is), the website list was one name short of a full exhibition program if there are nine shows rather than eight.

I've missed more than one show I very much wanted to see at Gallery Stokes, where Dayna Thacker's curatorship is beyond reproach...Amy Freeman's "Wide Awake" consists of paintings that prove that a personal symbology can produce oddly discomforting yet utterly captivating visual effects. But that just happens to be the most recent exhibition, and I have no idea what the rest of the year's schedule is like.

So random cross-sections on this blog should not be taken as the Word From On High. That is not the function of blogs, nor is it the accomplishment of art magazines, much less of newspapers.

if I had time to write more now, which I don't, I would have much to say about this, and even more about some quite lovely exhibitions currently up around town...I happen to like John Cox's paintings of trompe l'oeil figure drawings overlaid on Chinese calligraphy and his replications of the effects of time's erasures on the art of antiquity, currently on view at Sycamore Place Gallery and Studios, but then, I'm a sucker for work that references the borders that angels cannot transgress between the material and the spiritual (another fan of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire) even if I prefer his trompe l'oeil tours de force. Almost everyone else was left stunned by his effects of texture, which are not inconsiderable. And so I honor them likewise; for what I like and what is likely to survive for the ages are not at all the same thing.

now this.

The 2009 season at Beep Beep Gallery proves that the gallery has become the Heath Gallery of the Atlanta alternative scene. (I would call it the Fay Gold Gallery, but the recent decision of Fay Gold to shut down her gallery and represent artists privately would make that a backhanded compliment.)

Everybody on the 2009 roster of solo shows is either a local superstar already or well on the way to getting there.

Dosa Kim, Michi, Bethany Marchman, Steven Dixey, Sam Parker, Alex Kvares, Born, and so on…these are clearly the names to conjure with (in Atlanta) in terms of artists who know how to make aesthetically defensible alternative art, and some of the works in the just-closed survey/preview exhibition (or it will be just-closed by the time anybody reads this) represent major breakthroughs for the artists on the list who were arguably still on the verge of local superstardom.

Some of them are even making their mark now in the national and indeed the global alternative art network, that paradoxical world of superstar fame that operates as yet another parallel network of being established, a system of recognition and reward that overlaps with but is far from identical with the global art world in general.

How artists from the realms of lowbrow and graffiti, visionary and pop surrealist, and all the other related and unrelated subcategories make it from that world into the lusted-after world of the global art fair and the global biennial…welll, wouldn’t you like to know.

Someone (and it won’t be me) ought to analyze the work that makes it and why, say, Raymond Pettibon is so obviously intelligent and multi-layered that he blows away the less complex sentiments of his competing users of text and cartoon-influenced graphic rendering. (He does, by the way.) He may also have caught the attention of an influential gallery owner early on (I have no idea) or been more marketable to some collector base than equally worthy artists of his generation, but I have no clue.

The social history of art is complex, and it’s understandable that we should perceive conspiracy where there is dumb luck, and dumb luck where there is recognition of genuine accomplishment, and recognition of genuine accomplishment where there is conspiracy.

What is curious is that the general plenitude of income and diversity of tastes among the collector bases of the planet made possible the evolution of such a curiously parallel set of art worlds in which each had no respect for the other, and that there were whole worlds of art beyond them in which work was made that got neither respect nor financial reward. There has always been work that got neither respect nor financial reward until the incessant demand for auction product gave the artists their long overdue due, but the era that may now be coming to an interruption rewarded a larger and more diverse percentage of lesser-rank artists than ever before in history, perhaps. (Perhaps. How would we know? We have no idea how many artists there were in proportion to patrons in societies we know only from their archaeological leavings.)

instead of a manifesto: on forces and counterforces, the world over

The routinization of the World Wide Web and its associates (more and more key sites every year aren’t prefaced with “www.“) has allowed the whole world to watch whether one wants or expects it, as we know all too well: it is possible to pop in on the art scenes of Moldova and Mauritius and Jacksonville, Florida, and to feel embarrassed that the website of Jacksonville artists was better than any in Atlanta, though that has changed, in both directions. ( — the layout and content of which I still admire for ready legibility and for willingness to debate, on revisiting the site after Lisa Alembik's query below.)

It’s obvious that the global art scene has become a global competition in ways that were never true before the major redistributions of capital that preceded the current planetary economic collapse. A couple of videos that have gotten press in more than one international art magazine come from southeastern Europe and West Asia: one shows an artist fretting over what kind of art could possibly attract the attention of an international audience from the base of his recently emerged country, and the other has our two artists trekking over the hills and valleys, asking passing shepherds how to get to Tate Modern. (One answer: make a video asking that question, since the video has been in biennials, if not at Tate Modern.)

But of course the world’s art worlds are as multiple as the world’s worlds in general. And for every artist aspiring to global biennials, there were ten sweating over creating new and different landscapes and abstractions that would hang in hotel corridors. (This was no bad thing, for before the current downturn there were ever more hotels interested in installing art of a higher quality than “hotel art.” That was an intrinsic part of gaining international credibility as a destination lodging, and it is fascinating when accidents of history such as the burning of the not yet opened Mandarin Oriental Beijing lead one to look up online the design scheme and incipient art collection of such an entity.)

And I suspect that each system is and was essentially autonomous, even if the systems service the same sets of people in different aspects of their lives. It is for those who actually function in the worlds in question to explain how they work; the rest of us just kibitz from outside, and it is possible to function as an outsider for one’s whole career in the world’s second-tier cities.

In some ways, the second tier is a more uncomfortable place to occupy, because the scene is always full of people who think they ought to be in the first tier and resentful because they aren’t. But most of the people from such places who are thought of by their peers as being privileged denizens of the first tier are in fact only slightly higher up in the second tier.

Third- and fourth-tier places don’t have that problem, except when someone really does make it unexpectedly. One artist from such a place gained a moment of national recognition (more noted in the region than in the nation) very late in life, and when the place in question brought in some regional critics to tell them how to go and do likewise, I couldn’t find a nice way to say, “She got famous because her work is uniquely compelling, so it grabbed the attention of the decision-makers.” Instead, I talked about how a regional scene might present its unique context to a national audience so as to make its local concerns comprehensible to others.

It’s why I like large-scale juried regional exhibitions; the winners and the whiners are completely different every year, depending on the preferred aesthetics of the juror. Every year the local heroes get slapped down and the nobodies are raised to their level of due recognition, even though every year the worthy nobodies and the justly recognized local heroes are also omitted because, as the sociology of knowledge teaches us, all knowledge is partial knowledge. We know in part, and we understand in part.

Most critics don’t seem to understand the multiplicity of knowledges. That particular knowledge certainly won’t get you very far in terms of the global art world, which functions in terms of the self-validated sets of argument that determine, not what is hot this year, but which of several possible ways of knowing will be deemed respectable. This is not the same as elevating one aesthetic arbitrarily; even that which will be deemed to be crap two decades hence has a certain plausibility structure within which it responds to the questions that interest the global art world this season. It’s just that there are intellectual contagions that sweep the planet with regularity. It doesn’t mean that the truly talentless are snatched from obscurity for no good reason, as every grumbling artist in, say, Lower Gnat’s Fork remarks when some artist who grew up in Upper Gnat’s Fork makes the Whitney Biennial. (There may be a causal relation between the imaginary artist in question being a consummate jerk and the degree of success; or there may not, as in my oft-cited case of the truly wonderful painter who got in because his canvases had been moved against the gallery wall to make room to show the curator the work of the edgy, ambitious photographer who also got in. And that particular edgy, ambitious photographer is not a jerk, but rather generous overall…especially as compared with his competition. )

My personal opinion, firmly contradicted by everyone else, is that local critics ought to match artists with audiences…leaving it to others to validate and elevate, the liaison between the audience and the venue ought to present a reasonably nuanced “If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like.” That is the function of newspapers, whereas art magazines serve a completely different function, and art websites can afford to do all of the above: to educate an already interested audience and to publicize the existence of work that would excite a certain audience, even if that audience does not share the personal preferences of the critic. One needn’t and shouldn’t reward ineptitude and stupidity, but one ought to recognize the virtues of work well on the way (it’s a risk worth taking even when the work never gets there…there are too many pleasant surprises).

Sites such as and have the advantage of forcible deadlines. If the critics writing therefrom suffer the mistakes of writing too fast to get the stuff posted, they also suffer the agreeable discipline of writing about work that they would rather not have to write about at all, as well as the work about which they have interesting things to say. Lacking that discipline, it is possible to fiddle with refining one’s observations until the show is over, or never to say anything at all even about the work one truly loves. It is occasionally the work that one finds most deeply involving that leaves one unable to say anything meaningful about it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

reprising Jeff Dahlgren

I presume that many readers of Counterforces (especially the international ones) do not subscribe to the Public Domain listserv in Atlanta.

I had been going to post one of my intermittent manifestoes to the artworld of Atlanta regarding the deeply unsatisfactory condition of art reporting in the burg. can't do it all, or even most of it. I do not even pretend to be functioning as a critic these days, and only write when something sufficiently overlapping with my well-known sets of concerns happens along. Even then, as with Christian Bradley West / Mehmet Dogu / Chen-cheng Hung, I am capable of forgetting that I intended to do it.

Jeff Dahlgren is one of those productive gadflies that every art scene needs, though as with most such gadflies he sometimes tends towards logorrhea, as do I. But I was struck by the writing quality of this manifesto, from which I have excised a few expletives but not all, and would like to share it with the world since it has already been shared with the listserv at large.

Dahlgren doesn't know the whole Fahamu Pecou story, of how a conceptual joke about being famous for being famous actually made him famous (as I predicted, one of the two cases in which my predictions have been borne out—this being a respectable average because I rarely suggest that someone is going places).

Atlantans might want to know that newspaper critic Catherine Fox has in fact been picking the right shows to cover within her one-review-per-week limits. There is little enough out there that fits into the global picture, which is why I am pleased with Karen Tauches' insistence that local scenes need to address their local picture. I have said the same, and was thinking just the other day of my essay of a decade or so ago, "The Whole World Is Watching—But It's Tuned to Another Channel." Jeff is right that until the local scene has the courage to say that really bad artists stink, and to say why, we are effectively dead. I have always preferred to write about the good stuff, and by no means all of the good stuff, which should be evident by how much it takes to get me to post something. (A hundred bucks a column from a now-deceased print venue used to be a certain incentive to produce copy, even though it increasingly barely covered weekly expenses, and my need for hitching rides to openings after dark was increasing exponentially. Now I no longer need to function as anything but an opinionated public intellectual, like everybody else out there...speaking as one who has never been able to jump start anyone's career, anyway, as a look at the roster of artists I have championed will indicate. But then, I am hard pressed to name an Atlanta critic whose writing has actually gotten somebody into a gallery, though it has sometimes reminded museums that they had meant to buy a piece from the non-Atlanta artist, anyway. And I dearly wish that the artists I have juried into regional shows had had a more consistent career track than most of them have appeared to have: some other Atlanta critics do have more international connections, but Jeff's irony is well taken: local critics are not going to launch people on the career track, even if those who are better connected than I can offer advice.)

Anyway, here is Jeff's eloquent cri de coeur to the Atlanta art community. I can testify that all or at least most, of the artists I have written about on Counterforces fall into his category of sacred artists rather than careerists...which tendency has not always brought them into a condition of other than severe financial discomfort:

"I can easily understand a self-aware artist with self-aware safe work realizing through careful studies and carefully written bios & resumes,that there is a matter of chess-like negotiation to the thought that goes into even the very making of their art. This type of artist considers their moves,much in the same way any business person would consider their moves. I'd like to contrast this with the times and the fact that we as people seem somehow subdued by technology and media in the face of obviously tulmultuous times. I'd also like to contrast this with ART itself in relation to any other business a person might engage .
"Art tends to behave as the canary in the coal mine. It still seems to be doing so in that honest passion itself has found no escape from being subverted and succumbing to a need (or lack of choice?)to utilize channels that render it meaningless-if it had meaning from the getgo.
"A certain intent reveals itself in art making,yes? It seeps through the work and shows itself for what it is. A perfect example would be Fahamu Pecou. His work borrows from a sentiment that wishes to make an observation about the media. It almost seems to slyly make a comment from an honest and angered place,a place that speaks truth to power. But as is obvious,it does not.It is utilizing the very system itself in the work itself. If there's is anything to discuss about this work as freshly handling a traditional topic,it is that it is unaware of any observation it may have accidently made in hopes of making some sales. It is incapable of existing without negating itself and is as cheap as a bacardi coaster left on the floor of a night club. It has grabbed its ankles for that very same power,the very same observation it wishes to mock. If that is its strength,its observation,then what we as a people are saying is that the doom some have been prognosticating is all ready amongst us- and laughs at how it has coaxed itself into our lives. Laughs as it drugs and renders mediocre artists with pure intentions.
"I beg of any of you with these pure intentions to hold on. To maintain the vision. To seek to circumvent these dead routes. Or perhaps even attack them.It is about the work itself. The work itself is the investment that,yes-it ultimately achieves the very same unspeakable goal. But in doing so shows how to dig deep and fertilize the soil,not rape it and move on for your own benefits. Simply do not go after it directly. Destroy it as you go.It will fall and turn to delicious mulch for future generations.
"But wait-Is this not the very technique that video taped night vision nobodies use to **** **** all the way to fame by? To shave their heads and go "crazy" for attention? To curse out stage hands for 5 minutes to faciltate ticket purchasing attention? Is there an escape from the cycle at this point? When big corporations use the very same culture jamming techniques to sell us back our asses? Don't you all want a chance to be on teee veeee? (WOOP TEE DOO GUYS)

"Do we have any other choice but to address the thing itself? Anything else is part of it.
"We look to our critics as mentors-dont we? Word on the street tells their real lecherous motivations-and we all know it. They know the ropes and how to help us position our work,don't they? They will steer you right,wont they? Don't they know? Here in Atlanta,the proof is in the puddin'. Bang up job so far guys. You help create our perception of ourselves you useless ****s. Thanks for being on our sides. Thanks for not utilizing the sacred thing that is ART to cowtow to backwards unproductive business traditions- traditions that secure future hacks of jobs to maintain your ******* cyclic dead scene. Not ours. Ours is sacred. Again...the proof is in itself. Step back and take a look if you need to.
"Is there any hope for work to slam an honest fist through all of it -based entirely on the strength of FEELINGS. of ART.Nothing logical to it,it expresses and is a conduit and
serves to carry us forward,serves people so that we may move forward to write about this history.Not become it.So that WE may record the important happenings.
"Must everything be about adding something to your resume or your bio? To being safe and proper? What's that???Where does that belong??? This is applicable to certain styles of art. Your work bores and is given a pass as hopeless dead weight to the word ART.. You know who you are."