Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Notes Towards an Essay That May Never Be Written

Jerry Cullum

Angelbert Metoyer and Charlie Koolhaas’ collaboration is meant to direct attention to particular ways in which the world’s beloved specificities are being diluted and diverted by the currents of global commerce. You can’t count on not finding the most culturally improbable imports even in spots that seem unlikely to have the wherewithal to pay for them. Toss in the imponderables of global migration, and you have the recipe for the cultural collisions and negotiations that are C. Koolhaas’s photographic bread and butter.

Ms Koolhaas (who almost certainly doesn't require these attached honorifics or first-name cites to avoid confusion with her architect father) documents the indistinguishable components of the world’s conurbations, set cheek by jowl with the cultural inflections that remind outsiders of where they are. And the juxtaposed results are precisely part of what the writers in the Huyssen anthology would call an urban imaginary: the shifting imaginative nodes whereby residents not only navigate in an urban space but re-interpret its shifting physical modes and moods. It is possible, these days, to feel lost in one’s own home territory, and that particular condition has led and will lead to moments of spectacular violence.

But for every displaced migrant community or discomfited longtime local population at one another’s throats, there are dozens that seem to have settled into a functional style of co-existence that is not quite tolerance and certainly not cosmopolitanism. But it is a style based on the realization that in the absence of intolerable immediate conditions (and what constitutes “tolerable” shifts according to moods and modes of the moment), everyone is better served by going along to get along.

There is a great deal of impassioned theory-laden rhetoric about the lives of urban populations that we will not revisit here. What is at stake is how the imaginative lives of those populations shape the urban imaginaries of cities that have been tossed into the global discourse in ways that are distinctly their own, using the same components that the forces of multinational capitalism and state socialism have distributed unevenly across the planet.

Pico Iyer has written some of our best subjective impressions of the condition of the global soul, that particular socioeconomic class that is formed by not just the ability bujt the necessity to travel from one globalized cultural bubble to the next, on business or on the business of making and exhibiting art. (Nicolas Bourriaud is the most recent curator to write about artists as global nomads, a topic on which I noted a dozen years ago that not only are most artists the opposite of nomadic, but that most of the people who are actual global nomads are individuals who in other circumstances might not have chosen to wander the globe in search of better-paying work.)

So there really is what Iyer poetically (if with some degree of alarm) calls a global soul, a globalized social type. But ironically, globalized consciousness and what used to be called cosmopolitanism do not go hand in hand; some of our better-compensated global nomads are as provincially encapsulated in their own quite limited social worlds as was any young Englishman off on the Victorian version of the Grand Tour.

Metoyer and Koolhaas are not in that category, and the fruits of their world wanderings are meant to be explorations of the personal and social underpinnings of identity and difference. Metoyer’s mystical cross-blendings of cultural symbolizations overlay prettily on Koolhaas’ documentation of the parts of cities that could be anywhere, and the parts that are distinctly of their own time and place, and the parts in which whole genres of time and place collide and intermingle or sit uncomfortably adjacent.

Whether all their ventures communicate adequately, or whether all are successful as aesthetic objects: that, formalist critics can address. The mirrored hypercubes in the Sandler Hudson exhibition seem like windows into another world, but a world that is the one we live in. The single film out of the fifty-two currently in Metoyer’s oeuvre seems another such window into the not-yet of the time that is coming and in some ways is already here, and in many ways right outside the window in Midtown West. As William Gibson famously wrote, the future is already here, but is unevenly distributed. As is obvious once you think about it and bother to look around with eyes that are more than half-open and a mind more than half-awake.

I believe that Metoyer wrote in an earlier exhibition that we are enlightened but we are not yet awakened. But now it is high time to wake out of sleep.

Dufftown to Istanbul, or the wages and wagers of globalization

Dufftown to Istanbul (going westward?)

There are many reasons why my 2007 essay “Dufftown to Istanbul” was never completed (and why the chief documentation of that trip is the long poem Changing Planes in Prague, now apparently available on as well as the website…at a 30% markup that goes to Amazon).

Planning the extension to a proffered press tour, I had been struck originally by the curious appropriateness of traveling from the northwestern fringe of Europe to the southeastern fringe of the continent…and in fact I stayed on the European side of the bicontinental city, when eventually I flew there (changing planes in Prague) to attend the press conference for the Istanbul Biennial. Asia remains outside my personal experience.

Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland was a planned community of the eighteenth century that has become a center of the distilling of single malt Scotch, the one commodity that has continued to do well in the midst of the great global downturn, apparently as the one affordable luxury of which no one has felt they could postpone or reduce the consumption.

Glenfiddich, the distillery that pioneered the single malt concept (after generations of selling their product for inclusion in blended whiskies), has for half a dozen years sponsored an on-site summer residency program for a number of global artists (not coincidentally from countries where Glenfiddich is already a valued product). I was brought over with the assignment of writing about the multicultural, complexly encoded artwork of Romeo Alaeff, which I eventually did in a couple of online posts.

Scotland had earlier voted in a majority of nationalist parliamentarians, leading London alarmists to write as though the Scots were on the verge of, as it were, firing on Fort Sumter. It led me to think of the oddity of Scotland’s position as a fringe country within Europe, so opposite in every sense to Turkey’s position on the other fringe; the dualities being too many to enumerate, with the position of the geographic margin being the single point of similarity between a little-known Scottish town and the onetime capital of a continent-spanning empire.

But the products of the Speyside district (and I might have more euphoniously and accurately titled my never-written essay “Aberlour to Istanbul” were that town name not also the brand name of Glenfiddich’s French-owned competitor) are distributed globally, and what comes out of Dufftown in green glass bottles finds its way to the farthest corners of the planet’s marketplaces. (Contemplating Glenfiddich’s global reach during my August 2007 visit, I found myself recalling the moment in the film Hotel Rwanda when the military strongman reminisces fondly about having visited the Scottish distilleries and muses, “I wonder if I shall ever see those places again.”)

All of this was brought to mind by the arrival at Atlanta’s Sandler Hudson Gallery of a collaboration between Houston- and Guangzhou-based artist Angelbert Metoyer and his wife, photographer and sociologist Charlie Koolhaas (Rem’s daughter, if you really must know, as I did).

And the implications of their particular take on globalization may form the subject of yet another unwritten essay. (Cf. my fortunately timed preliminary Counterforces review of Andreas Huyssen’s Other Cities, Other Worlds: though they never use the term, Metoyer and Koolhaas are very much tackling the issue of urban imaginaries in the era of globalization.) Guangzhou to Lagos, Dubai to Shanghai, it’s all one global city (I don’t mind)…inside my heart remains the same? or not, and that is the point. (Apologies for thus mangling the lyrics of a 1980s song familiar to fans of Wim Wenders.)

The photographs above are all by Jerry Cullum, 2007; images from the Sandler Hudson Gallery exhibition will appear in subsequent posts specifically about that body of collaborative work.

Monday, May 25, 2009

what is to be done and not done, version the whatevereth

I have written repeatedly about this odd transitional moment, in which, in Atlanta at least, all the art reviewing is being done by unsalaried volunteers (and has become the uncompensated feature-story base in which assorted ex-AJC writers and photographers address Southern mores and matters other than the artworld—if as one friend says, "a job is something you wouldn't do if you weren't getting paid for it," writing research-based prose is clearly not a job, just as the non-writers always suspected).

I haven't been fully understood when I write about the ways in which nobody has yet figured out how to take full advantage of the technology available to us, and I'm not sure if this attempt will be any less subject to misprision, misinterpretation, and misreading, pick your term and pick your theorist.

I have written some downright wrongheaded pieces on the Counterforces blog, in the expectation that, a la Wikipedia, the self-correcting function of the Internet would quickly come into play. Perhaps because Blogspot makes it a pain to record comments (LiveJournal is better in that regard, and debates happen on my joculum blog regularly), my blog posts are being treated as though they had the status of full-blown reviews. (And indeed, some of my two thousand word essays are meant to be regarded as such.)

But the nature of the digital medium allows for immediate corrections. Just as it was once possible to alter copy (or at least headlines) in time for the afternoon edition, today the digital equivalent of the afternoon edition can happen any time somebody points out an egregious misperception.

In parallel fashion, the half-formed opinion on a blog can be reformulated in a finished piece for an art-reviewing website in a matter of hours, if the writer is accustomed to meeting tight deadlines from the days of print and hard copy. There is no need for reviewing sites to compete for turf with blogs, which are playing different games and which, as I have said, are too diverse and too dispersed to make for a very efficient means of communication with an art audience that, unlike us art types, does not spend most of its day thinking about what is out there to be contemplated or purchased art-wise. Reviewing sites, supplemented by print for the bereft readers of newspapers, are the wave of the future. Individual reviewers, however, are currently living in their own separate bloggy worlds, and need to be approached to write something more formal and complete when it appears they have said something that needs to be seen by someone other than their own loyal readership.

So why do we persist as though our digitalia possessed the unalterable status of cold print? In part, I presume, it's for reasons of recollecting Orwell; having been assured by a novelist's number one fan that I had offended the novelist's sensibilities, I deleted an observation and informed said novelist that I had done so, remarking that except for those addicted to downloads or screen captures, there was now no evidence that the remark had existed, save on Google's servers: "Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia."

But surely it ought to be possible for the digitalized artworld to take on some of the positive aspects of Wikipedia, through an agreement to refrain from snark in the comments section and make one's remarks focus on areas where one feels or can demonstrate that the reviewer has gotten it wrong. Said reviewer can then revise, rethink, retort in kind, or delete as he or she sees fit.

And eventually an agreed-upon format will emerge that will be the twenty-first-century replacement for the kind of newspaper review that, in the Atlanta metro print market, appears to be effectively extinct.

I now wish to illustrate the truth of my original observations regarding the capacity for quick updates, by adding a centrally important piece of news:

Former AJC arts reviewers Cathy Fox and Pierre Ruhe have instituted a blog devoted specifically to supplementing AJC arts coverage with the sorts of reviews for which both of them became highly respected prior to their departure from the publication (for which both continue to write on a freelance basis):

Scott Silvey at Whitespace

Scott Silvey's ambitious sculptural installations will be remembered by those who attended various alternative-space shows prior to his decamping for parts ever further afield.

His new and quite different paintings of flowers and architecture, transported to Atlanta at immense expense from his current home base of Tokyo, reflect his sensitive effort to transmit the spiritual currents of a culture via visual metaphors. But first and foremost, they are uncommonly fine paintings.

Though the show runs into July, it should be visited early and often (and for once, that cliche should be taken literally). Silvey's combination of painterly gesture and precise drawing technique results in a body of work that rewards extensive and repeated viewing.

One hopes that the various artsites on the Web will provide full-length reviews in due course, or are already in process of doing so. There are formal and factual questions that ought to be addressed in greater depth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

an interim post, pending a better one

I am pondering the problems of parochialism versus localism (i.e., local spins on global issues that arise from ignorance more than from informed takes on local specificities, or escapist strategies that are unacceptably shallow versus escapist strategies that know they are escapist and believe that there is something worth escaping from) but that will have to wait. So will the review I actually intend to write of the Andreas Huyssen anthology of which a preliminary note appears below.

This was written for the readers of the joculum blog, most of whom come out of an intensive literature rather than visual art background, and since Huyssen's particular angle on the culture of specific global cities is informed by works of fiction, I pitched the review that way. Then I realized it would be both shallow and parochial to omit some of the amazing insights of the individual essayists, regarding Buenos Aires and Johannesburg and Beijing and all those other cities of which we know less than we think we know...just as we know less regarding Istanbul than we think we know because Orhan Pamuk has done such a good job of representing the city he remembers and sometimes inhabits, but one which is changing spectacularly even as I write these words....

So don't hold me to this preliminary draft, which I'll most likely delete once I finish something more substantial:

Last year Andreas Huyssen published a volume of collected essays (fruits of an earlier year-long seminar) titled Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age.

I have learned to live with the word “imaginary” as a noun, though it means that one has to make clear each time that an imaginary is not “the imaginary,” not the abstract concept of “that which is imagined,” and that an urban imaginary is no more imaginary than the rather physically organized social order that it governs.

We are ruled by our images and our ideas, which, as Bob Dylan sang of dreams in “Talking World War III Blues,” are only in our heads. But what is in our heads results in real deaths and real commodities and real hunger and real everything else.

Huyssen is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, which makes him the perfect person to compile data on global cities and the real reach of globalization as distinct from the statistically observable (or so they say) aspects of same. For Huyssen can perceive, at least to some degree, the imaginative structures that inform the dominant schools of theory.

In fact, Huyssen’s introduction to the volume is probably a quick way for literary types to get up to speed on the state of urban studies, since it begins with a glimpse of the sociological wisdom of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and gallops from there through the modernity studies of the 1980s and their subsequent incorporation of the impact of differing forms of imagination in global circumstances. Differences matter. (All cities are not the same; not everybody is McDonaldized in the manner that universalizing theoreticians would suppose; modes of resistance are not as uniform as they would suppose, either.) “An urban imaginary marks first and foremost the way city dwellers imagine their own city as the place of everyday life, the site of inspiring traditions and continuities as well as histories of destruction, crime, and conflicts of all kinds. [It}is the cognitive and somatic image we carry within us of the places where we live, work, and play. …Urban imaginaries are thus part of any city’s reality, rather than being only figments of the imagination.”

And as we thus “live by fiction” (to quote a once well-known book title), we also live in collisions of the global and the local, collisions that differ in the contexts of Buenos Aires, or Beijing, or Johannesburg or Mumbai, to mention only a few of the cities discussed by the seminar participants. The reality experienced by Okwui Enwezor’s globe-hopping consumers of the planet’s numerous art biennials is not at all that of…well, of anybody else, and this much is almost too crushingly obvious to point out. The genuinely globalized among us are few in number, and it is not necessarily a superior condition.

Huyssen assumes that the debate he analyzes is already known to his readers, at least in outline, but he does make reasonably clear what theories he and his fellow essay contributors are reacting against. This is a book to lend complexity and specificity to a discussion too often weighted in favor of vast generalities—of the immense forces that are indeed shaping the destinies of the citizens of the world’s many cities, but that are by no means the whole story.

In fact, the vast generalities are seldom a story at all, and that is why this volume ends with an excerpt from a lyric narrative of a city, Orhan Pamuk’s meditation on the dialectic between hüzün and melancholy and tristesse (the three terms not quite synonymous) in the Istanbul of only yesterday and how it shaped individual imaginations as well as urban imaginaries. (What has happened in the frantic postmodernization of recent years, followed by whatever the Great Global Recession has done, is not part of Pamuk’s story, nor of any of the other essayists in a volume that originated in the first years of our present century, already almost a decade in the past.)

As Huyssen’s citation of Calvino implies, the stories we tell ourselves are always already too simple. We never see reality whole, any more than we construct it all by ourselves. But we do construct it collectively and individually within the limits imposed by physics and biology, and we stretch endlessly against the limits imposed by history.

And Other Cities, Other Worlds is a useful volume for helping us to remember that and to better understand its implications.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

George Kornegay

A number of years ago, the legendary Bill Arnett introduced me to the folk-art installation of the Reverend George Kornegay. Kevin Duffy now brings us up to date on this remarkable 95-year-old's story:

The larger story of the perennially threatened folk-art environments of the South (and of the state of Wisconsin, and of a good many other places around the globe) remains neglected, or shunted off to the specialty pages of the vernacular-art journals such as Raw Vision. But the story needs to be told in a more general context. And it needs to be linked to the quite different story of the vernacular environments of art-school-educated creators (as well as the category of "folk artists with Ph.D's in non-art fields").

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Cross-Cultural Comprehension: Yana Dimitrova at Kibbee Gallery

Viewing “we collected stories,” Yana Dimitrova’s just-closed Kibbee Gallery show, I remarked, “It’s always important to understand what it is we don’t understand.” I have since realized I was paraphrasing the punch line of one of my favorite Charles Shultz cartoon strips, but the point remains valid.

Dimitrova’s installation was meant to respond to the architectural space of the gallery while turning it into a version of a small Eastern European museum, a simplified museum of Bulgarian patriotism. Since one room honors a nineteenth-century martyr of the Bulgarian war of independence against the Ottoman Empire and another room is devoted to a nineteenth-century Bulgarian poet, I gather (not necessarily accurately, which is my ongoing point here) that the rough equivalent would be an installation in Bulgaria devoted to Nathan Hale and Walt Whitman—except that Whitman somehow has acquired a global reputation; and a poem in English posted next to a portrait of the poet would have a different resonance in a world where nonsense phrases in English decorate T-shirts and jackets across continents.

So the type and degree of cultural sub- or semi-literacy isn’t quite symmetrical or reciprocal across dominator and marginalized cultures, although Bulgaria is a special case because, unlike its Balkan neighbors, it was a Russophile state from the beginning, linked by religion and the Cyrillic alphabet as well as the other accidents of history that counted for more than geographic proximity did. (The next-door Romanians looked to Paris, not Moscow or St. Petersburg, and were proud of their ancestral “latinity.”)

So here we have—well, never mind their names, although we do have a biographical paragraph in English regarding the martyr, rather than the original-language extract from the poet, and Dimitrova gives us their last names in the titles of the portraits. We still won’t recognize or even be able to read the slogans nor will we understand the significance of the effective erasure of one, overlaid by the decorative trim of the museum.

The point is that to judge from the comments about the show that have appeared thus far, the opening night crowd (and there was only one other public event during the run of the show) understood nothing. And why should they? I thought the Bulgarian poet looked a bit like Arthur Rimbaud, and likewise misidentified the semi-erased reproduction of a famous photograph of the martyr in full resistance regalia. (We won’t go into what I thought it was a picture of, but it would have fit into the overall theme of twentieth-century Bulgarian history, not nineteenth.)

Dimitrova’s point, expressed with her customary exquisite command of pictorial conventions, is that the history and symbols that mean so much in her homeland are of no use or significance whatever in her present context. But this is the circumstance of nearly everyone in the age of globalization. The myths and cultural tribalisms of the dominant industrial democracies have not so much come under question as they have been set aside by a digitalized world-without-borders in which corporate logos and brand slogans have displaced the totems of national governments when it comes to the imaginations of the subject populations. Cynical about national pretensions and brand loyalty alike, the denizens of the demesne of global commerce don’t understand what it is they don’t understand.

And installations like Dimitrova’s might help them understand that fact, if anyone had the time to look and to write about them. There are ample imperfections in this particular presentation (I’m not sure that all the moments of incomprehension are instructive) but I’m glad that Kibbee Gallery made the space available for the experiment.

Friday, May 8, 2009

culture wins out over nature, in an occasional round or two

Having done my best-case defense of "Moore in America" at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (where it is exceptionally well situated, given the challenges of fitting a touring exhibition into a space not previously designed to accommodate it), I must say that for me, full-scale or no, Henry Moore comes with too much 20th-century cultural baggage to suit me. The catalogue from the New York Botanical Garden points out why and how British sculptors rebelled against and/or lampooned Moore as an excessively revered icon; I find myself disturbed by how much my genuine aesthetic delight depends on my focusing on small sculptural details standing out against sharply contrasting background elements, the trees sometimes playing Giacometti to the foreground's Moore. The sculptures themselves carry the weight of too many prior contexts.

But that's just me. The substantive arguments pro and con can now begin, with a full range of the real stuff there to be looked at. I'm sure there is ample prior critique online from "Moore in America" as it was installed in New York.

And I bet there are two if not three generations for whom Henry Moore is not associated with all the cultural weight and freight to which I allude. They get the chance to start fresh, and that is distinctly good.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A (Very) Short Essay on Nature and Culture

A (Very) Short Essay on Nature and Culture

Jerry Cullum

As I’ve noted before, what made the modern trinity of Freud, Marx, and Darwin so satisfying for so long was that this league of extraordinary gentlemen covered all the bases: Mind, Society, and Nature. (As C. G. Jung noted about the Christian Trinity, the unacknowledged and quite untheorized masculine exclusivity of the makeup meant that a feminine fourth and more was bound to arise sooner or later, but let that pass for now.)

The problem was that very few thinkers seemed able to cover more than two of the three bases at any one time, and a generation or so ago, Marx and Freud seemed to be the logical combination. Today it seems to be Freud and Darwin, and Darwin is the dominant partner.

The late (and sometimes wrongheaded) British art critic Peter Fuller was one of the few opting for Marx and Darwin, but of course the problem is one of stopping with any of the possible dualities. The trinity is a trinity for a good reason (and ought to be a quaternity, or at least adjusted for gender within the bases of mind, society, and nature)—leaving out any of the aspects symbolized by these figures leaves one with a truncated or partially blinded analysis. The old binary of nature and culture is a better place to start, because it’s an opposition that isn’t one, once you look closely at it.

I’ve just been re-reading one of those once-new books I never got round to writing about, wherein there is a certain amount of tsk-tsking about the colonialist eighteenth century’s naturalization of the libidinal relations of heterosexuality and the social forces of domination, the life cycle of the sugarcane being presented as though within the confines of the monogamous family and the libidinal fantasies of the eighteenth-century gentleman that the riches of sugarcane made possible being played out within architectural grottoes that embodied the particular…well, that is a well-known story, and I don’t have to keep writing about it.

But there is no need to jump up and down and get all red in the face about such matters; for the truth is that we always make nature in our own (social) image, whether we are male or female, in a socialist or a capitalist or feudal society. And we make nature in our own individual psychological image, too. We pick and choose whatever metaphors we find most psychologically and socially attractive, and de-emphasize or ignore the rest, and usually we do it unconsciously. For if we were conscious of our own inconvenient truths, we might not embrace the particular set of delusions that we do.

As it is, we remain sleepwalkers, bound by our own set of personal and societally delimited delusions, and disinclined to look at the way the others have set up their own sets, except to denounce and argue against them.

But nature is nature, and ultimately it includes culture. And transcendence, if it exists, is part of nature, or nature is part of transcendence, so our religious beliefs or lack of same don’t really get us out of this particular bind of doubleness.

I find, stacked as though I had once intended to write about the two together, Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life and Peter Fuller’s Theoria: Art, and the Absence of Grace. Danto’s 2005 collection and Fuller’s 1988 volume have little enough in common except the topic of art and what "nature" or the impossibility of same might come to mean. Fuller was looking at the oppositions between Marx and John Ruskin when it came to science and art, and as always presented some provocative suggestions on how to get from Victorian discomforts to postmodern discontents, via the dawning discipline of sociobiology modified by a less reductive understanding of the workings of the social imagination. (As I’ve indicated, the social imagination may be social because it is so largely unconscious…people who control the media are not necessarily aware of the distortions of their own perspective caused by their position in society combined with their own predilections when it comes to art, sex, food, or anything else, all of which may be a result of how they were brought up in early childhood….)

“What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” But Ludwig Wittgenstein’s disciples at Cambridge seemed to think the trap within which we buzz was shaped by how we use words. In fact, it is shaped by how we use the world as well as how we think about it.

And now I am going to stop and figure out how to take pictures of the sculptures of “Moore in America” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

And then I do need to think about how to rescue Fuller from himself by way of Danto; for Fuller, like Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct or Brian Boyd in his about to be published book doing the same Darwinian things to literature, often seemed so infatuated with the biological substrate of art (and John Ruskin's intuitions of same) that he quite overlooked how much his own psychology determined his aesthetic tastes, or lapses in same, and how much biology is behind the most abstract of modernist artwork and the most socially committed of contemporary new media, just as our psychology and sociology are behind our particular interpretations of biology.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

More Moore, Here and There: An Emphatically Localist Review Essay

More Moore, Here and There: An Emphatically Localist Review Essay

Jerry Cullum

Except on their computer screens, most folks don’t get to travel all that often. And until such time as totally immersive virtual reality finally arrives as an option, what is on the computer screen is not much more than what one would get in a video game or a movie. There is only a bit more sensory involvement than one would get in a book—or, depending on screen resolution versus print-photography dpi’s, perhaps less.

And in the case of artwork meant to be seen in a physical context rather than in mechanical reproduction, this makes a huge difference. Just as size matters, environing space matters.

So, even if sophisticates with travel budgets might sneer, it is a big deal when art so well known as to be a historical cliché arrives in a place that hasn’t gotten to experience it at first hand.

Hence the arrival of “Moore in America” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden constitutes more of a philosophically interesting event than an entertainment-calendar one. (It's a misleading title, but a productively misleading's not Moore who is or was in America, but these particular sculptures, in very particular American GPS locations.)

Everybody knows Henry Moore. For a while in the mid-twentieth century, it was impossible to open a magazine without seeing a Moore sculpture used as an illustration for some article on mothers and children, or the Great Family of Man, or archetypal psychology (Erich Neumann wrote a Jungian book titled The Archetypal World of Henry Moore), or whatever.

But Moore’s oeuvre ranged from intimate drawings to immense bronzes meant to be viewed in an outdoor context, and it matters very much what the context is. The big bronzes are usually viewed in alienating concrete plazas, suggesting the postwar existentialist situation of the isolated individual, or more accurately, the family group viewed as an autonomous unit.

But human beings live in a nature deeply modified by culture, and viewing Henry Moore in an environment of artificially landscaped nature makes his art a whole different animal.

So Moore for the botanical garden is an unexpectedly provocative notion. It’s also, of course, a very beautiful one, and it would be all too easy to stop at the sensory punch in the eye of spring and summer color juxtaposed with the smooth curves and subdued palette of Moore’s metallic shapes.

But the Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of those universalizing locales of cosmopolitan ecology that fit well philosophically with Moore’s mid-century universalism. Moore emphasizes the shared biological and psychological structures of humanity; the garden emphasizes common structures of botanical existence, and the nature of our physically threatened global ecosphere.

Differ me no Difference or Differance With an A (if anyone still thus defers these thirty years later). When it comes to the sinking ark of species diversity, we are all in the same boat, and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s call for a New Cosmopolitanism is to the point with nature as much as with culture. (Whether sustainability is sometimes used as a tool to threaten local livelihoods is a separate issue, and we won’t go there today.)

Of course, people don’t go to the garden to think about species diversity. They come to look at pretty red roses and green conifers and all the plant world in between them, and at bright blue poison frogs and gorgeous orchids in the protected spaces.

And on that level, “Moore in America” is an appropriately diversified visual knockout. Sculptures are framed against a generally blue sky, or nestled amid the tiny intimacies of an herb garden, a hortus conclusus if ever there was one.

Moore’s bronzes are a local treasure that can be lent by the British foundation that administers his legacy. The world’s plant life, unlike (or could it be like?) the world’s archaeological treasures, can be made more secure by spreading the wealth around.

“Moore in America” is a piece of global culture bumping up against global nature, and that makes it a delight for the mind as well as for the senses. And if we are only likely to think such thoughts in the privacy of our own laptop screens because the sensory immediacy of the smells and sounds and visual intricacies of life in the garden distracts us too much…well, that’s as it should be.

Come on, guys. (I address my critical contemporaries in Atlanta.) This is a show where your eyes and your brain can get back in touch with the rest of your body. And it matters very much that it is happening in real time and real sunlight and shadow, and in a specific place that encompasses physical possibilities gathered responsibly from other places.

So get out there and have fun, y’hear?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Forces and Counterforces: A Review Essay on Several Recent Books

Forces and Counterforces: A Review Essay on Several Recent Books

Jerry Cullum

One of the difficulties in the generation-old discussion of centers and margins in the global artworld is that the centers continue to generate the terms of the discussion. The centers tend to be a bit more decentered these days, in that the centers’ movers and shakers now congregate in agreeable vacation spots to organize global biennials and art fairs; but by and large the spokespersons for the margins, if they wish to have their voices heard, had better have the wherewithal to get themselves to the places where the power brokers congregate. Otherwise, even in the era of the Internet, they are out of luck.

The centers still speak for the margins, and about the margins, and bring what they consider to be enlightenment to the benighted and culturally unsatisfactory margins. The margins are expected to be appropriately grateful, and sometimes they should be; as Frederic Spotts wrote recently about the budding Abstract Expressionists in World War II era New York who encountered the exile artists from France, they “suffer[ed] a sizeable inferiority complex—for the good reason that they were inferior.” (We’ll return later to Spotts’ productively outrageous new book from Yale, The Shameful Peace.)

But this has always been the case, and one way of overcoming our habitual Eurocentrism and America-centrism might be to look at the history of art in traditionally marginal places in Europe that have gone through periods of systematic cultural humiliation, and at major European centers that underwent transient moments of humiliation of their own.

Poland might be a good place to start. Tate Britain has just published a small catalogue for a small show, Symbolist Art in Poland, with the announced goal of looking at the cross-national impact not just of the Arts and Crafts Movement (which really did span continents) but of Pre-Raphaelitism, which viewed from the perspective of a politically and culturally suppressed Poland circa 1900 could be viewed as a “modernist lodestar,” because, in the terms suggested by Andrzej Szczerski, it represented a form of art that was simultaneously “nationalistic and cosmopolitan,” and echoed a strong Symbolist strain in Polish culture.

Now, it so happens that we have from the University of California Press a new internationally focused as well as psychologically sophisticated view of Symbolist art, Michelle Facos’s Symbolist Art in Context, and from Palazzo a rather attractive Arts and Crafts Companion by Pamela Todd that doesn’t cover the movement’s global reach as extensively as the magisterial catalogue from the Arts and Crafts touring exhibition of some years ago, but that sets a context for the Tate Britain catalogue’s reference to the Arts and Crafts societies in Kraków that found the movement a useful framework within which to consider the development of a national style out of surviving folk and vernacular styles of design and construction.

These revisionist efforts are struggling against prevailing currents in their attempt to establish once critically marginalized art movements as contributors a century ago to the creation of a global modernism that was, at its geographic edges, simultaneously internationalist and locally inflected. (As we are reminded by the major Kandinsky retrospective currently in Paris and headed for New York, by 1909 the proto-modernists were moving out of their own phase of exploring vernacular styles such as glass painting, and had begun to create the sorts of non-objective painting and sculpture that would come to dominate the twentieth century.)

Nonetheless, the insistence is certainly defensible that the Pre-Raphaelites might, in spite of our currently prevailing opinion, have been part of the larger cultural currents that created “the universal formalist language of modernism,” and it might be interesting to follow up on the offhand remark by Bernd Roeck in Yale’s recent Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia (mostly about Aby Warburg and other expatriates encountering Renaissance art up close and re-inventing art history in the process) that the stylistic perfection of artists such as Sargent in a rare Florentine exhibition of international contemporary art in 1896-97 reflected “the need for something different. Paintings such as Sargent’s demonstrate the historical necessity of the work of Cézanne and Kandinsky and of Malevich’s Black Square.”

Movements such as Symbolism were diametrically opposed to what (as Roeck reminds us) Carlyle had earlier called the “steam-engine intellectuals” in love with technological progress, who would shortly generate such things as the Futurist Manifesto that recently celebrated its centenary. But they may have had a greater impact on proto-modernism than we think.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the productive collision of vernacular styles and international modernism, it might be more useful to look at a book such as Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen’s new volume from Yale, Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics. Aalto could be geometric when it suited, and organic when that seemed appropriate to the task at hand, and overall was deeply concerned with expressing the distinct sensibility of Finland within a context that could stand up to global competition. For the artists and architects of the newly emerging countries on the margins of Europe, the task was to create an internationally inflected regional style that resisted the temptations of popular but ultimately self-defeating localisms.

The post-1918 creation of the newly re-emerging countries out of the colonial turf of the newly fallen European empires set up regional instabilities that resulted, two decades later, in a fresh colonization of Europe. Frederic Spotts’ sprightly but scholarly The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (Yale University Press) gives us a fresh look at the years in which the French were intended to surrender their notions of their mission civilisatrice and accept once and for all the intrinsic superiority of German culture. (At the same time, the French were to be kept quiet by being allowed to pursue their own high-cultural entertainments as they saw fit: except for Jews, Freemasons, and a few troublesome modernists such as the Russian émigré Kandinsky, French painters, sculptors, and composers were left pretty much free to present new work, and even writers were less attentively suppressed than elsewhere in Hitler’s Europe—though mainstream publishers engaged in considerable self-censorship.)

As Czeslaw Milosz noted in his autobiography, the economic dependence of the cultural life of Paris on the wealth wrested from the sweat of variously colored colonial peoples proved such an excellent model that others chose to bring it home to Europe. And from 1940 to 1944, the self-declared center of world culture suffered under the arrogance of those who considered their own culture self-evidently superior, while the global center’s exiles unknowingly set up the conditions for their own supplantation by the postwar art of New York (let us leave aside the issue of whether the idea of modern art was “stolen” thanks to postwar commercial and geopolitical shenanigans…the AbEx generation took French ideas and ran with them).

While we are reconsidering centers and margins, it might be interesting to combine Bernd Roeck’s study of Florence 1900 with a book like Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s forthcoming The Venus Fixers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2009), a contextual history of the American and British painters and art historians who found themselves, as military Monuments Officers, engaged in preserving and repairing the artistic and architectural heritage of Italy endangered by the tides of war as the Allied armies advanced and Allied bombers carried out air strikes on military targets in artistically rich cities.

Brey looks at the nonpolitical efforts of Italian cultural officials (regarding the official Fascist exploitation of medieval and Renaissance culture, one ought to look at the older book Donatello Among the Blackshirts) but looks even more at the scholarly reverence the so-called Venus Fixers brought to their task, a reverence stemming from the visions and revisions studied in Roeck’s book. These were scholars of the old school and connoisseurs of the new school alike, and their personal conflicts are as illuminating as their cooperation and improvisation as they tackled an unprecedented task of cultural rescue.

Brey also offers a touching portrait of the last remnants of the “fragile sophistication” of the world of aristocrats and American and British expatriates whose Renaissance art collections were sequestered in secluded villas…it was a world already under siege forty years earlier amid the emerging modernist currents visible in Florence circa 1900. The cosmopolitan multinational community that found common ground in discussions of beauty represented, not the “trial run for the Europeans of tomorrow” that Isolde Kurz saw it as being (as quoted in Florence 1900), but what Roeck describes as a fast-disappearing world that “wanted to keep the wheel of time from turning, seeking an artificial past and in the process inventing a city beyond the oppressive burden of history.”

Aby Warburg considered that particular version of trans-European culture “claustrophobic” and fled for wider horizons, and at more or less the same time Ezra Pound was already in the process of re-inventing the Renaissance and Greece and China on behalf of a cross-cultural British and American modernism (even if he was soon enough bamboozled by Fascism’s seductive mix of Renaissance culture with making the trains run on time).

So even the history of seemingly stultified traditions of connoisseurship could do with some brushing against the grain. But that topic needs to be reserved for another time.

For now, after we have journeyed through a new way of looking at the margins of what used to be called Western culture, perhaps those of us who grew up in Europe and the United States will be ready to consider a book like Rebecca Brown’s Art for a Modern India, 1947-1980, recently published by Duke University Press. (I don’t yet own a personal copy of the book and have only been able to peruse the text superficially, so my remarks here are based largely on my prior knowledge of the topic.)

India never surrendered its own sense of cultural self-respect, thanks to a combination of vigorous nationalism and awareness of a long history that was studied as much by the scholars among the Victorian occupiers as by the nationalists. (What the Victorian occupiers made of Indian culture, and how they valued it vis-à-vis the burgeoning forces of Victorian art, is another story.)

Brown’s book illustrates the difficulties and the promise of inserting a local aesthetic vocabulary into a global conversation that was at the time still insistent upon the superiority of its own way of doing things and thinking about things. The challenge of presenting an aesthetic that would interpret the modern for and by a freshly re-emerged nation was a separate but related one.

And simply because of the limitations of our own starting points and best methods for defamiliarization and de-exoticizing of topics, some of us in the United States or the United Kingdom may still find it productive to approach the problems of art in the Delhi or Bombay of what is now yesterday by beginning in Kraków 1900, or by changing planes in Prague.