Category: General

The City of Light Despoiled

Years ago I visited the breathtaking city of Venice, Italy, world-famous for its canals, gondolas, and Renaissance architecture. It is truly the most incomparably beautiful city on the face of the earth. During my visit I strolled through the remarkable Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), taking in the splendors of the Doge’s Palace and the magnificent St Mark’s Basilica.

Inspiring painters from throughout the centuries, the natural light found in Venice is ethereal, unearthly. Bellini, Titian, and Giorgione made the “City of Light” their home. In actuality, oil painting on stretched canvas began in Venice at the start of the sixteenth century, and the city’s Vendecolori, those professionals who sold prepared pigments for oil painting since the 1490’s, attracted artists from all over Italy and beyond. Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Michelangelo and many other masters came to visit “La Serinissima” - the most serene Republic of Venice.

But this article is not about the grandeur of Venice, it is unhappily about its degradation - and by extension, the decline of us all. Until just recently one could meander through the Piazza San Marco and feel as though you were walking back in time 500 years. Today however, the immediate thing that strikes you is the enormous commercial banner advertisement that hangs over the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana - the National Library of St Mark’s that faces the Doge’s Palace. It is the first time in history that public advertising has been allowed in the city, and there are other colossal advertisements being readied to despoil the beauty of Venice.

Lies on Sale!

[ Colossal ad banner for the Swatch "007 Villain Collection", hung on the National Library of St Mark in the Piazzetta of San Marco, Venice Italy, 2008. Photo - The Art Newspaper. ]

In an article titled Protest over advertising in St Mark’s Square, Venice, The Art Newspaper of London reports that advertising agencies “dealing in mega-advertising locations have realized they can exploit a recent change in the law” to put public space and building facades on sale to commercial advertisers. In other words, world cultural heritage is being sold off to the highest bidder so that banal, mass produced bobbles can be marketed to the masses. As confirmed by The Art Newspaper; “Currently the villain of a 007 movie looms out of a huge Swatch ad on the Piazzetta of San Marco while two Lancia cars drive over the façade of the Doge’s Palace and even the Bridge of Sighs carries a banner.”

The marvelous renaissance buildings of Venice being draped with inane commercial advertisements is an outrage and a cause for real alarm. It represents, not only an unrelenting dumbing-down of culture and an obfuscation of history, but a foretelling of the day when all public and private space everywhere will become nothing more than a platform for advertising. If the architectural wonders of Venice can be swathed in ads, then why not the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal? The world’s cultural heritage belongs to all of humankind, and it should be treasured and preserved, not turned over to a cabal of marketers and advertisers who have dollar signs in their eyes. It is time to take down those advertising banners in the Piazza San Marco - in fact, it is time to take them down the world over.

Art Exhibit Censored in Berkeley

In Berkeley, California, the city known as the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, an antiwar poster exhibition organized by the Art of Democracy project has been censored by a City of Berkeley-run arts venue.

The Art of Democracy poster exhibit was scheduled to go on display from Oct. 20 through Nov. 29, 2008, at the Addison Street Windows Gallery - a project of the Civic Arts Program and the Civic Arts Commission of the city of Berkeley. However, the show was never mounted because the gallery curator Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker, deemed four of the posters objectionable, citing city guidelines that allegedly proscribe the depiction of guns in works of public art. According to the San Francisco Gate, “The city of Berkeley has no formal policy on what can be shown in its galleries”. The censored posters by Tony Bergquist, Anita Dillman, Doug Minkler, and Jos Sances - utilized depictions of weapons to convey their messages.

Gallery curator Carol Brighton told Art of Democracy organizer Art Hazelwood, that the four supposedly offending posters would have to be removed from the exhibit before the show could be presented to the public. However, the 40 participating artists in the show - rejecting the arbitrary censorship - decided they would only exhibit as a group. Having effectively shut-down the exhibit, Brighton quickly booked a pottery show as a substitute.

Print by Anita Dillman

[ Vote Issues Not Image - Anita Dillman. Lithograph. 2008. For "depicting guns, violence and weaponry", this print was one of four artworks censored by the City of Berkeley-run Addison Street Windows Gallery. Dillman’s non-partisan and rather benign image portrays 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, surrounded by depictions of windmills, an atomic power plant, a fuel efficient car, the caduceus - ancient and international symbol of medicine, a destitute mother and child, and an AK 47 automatic rifle. ]

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), an artist’s rights watchdog group, wrote a letter to Berkeley City Mayor, Tom Bates, voicing disapproval over the censorship of the Art of Democracy exhibit (read the NCAC letter here - pdf format). Copies of the letter were also sent to all members of the Berkeley City Council, as well as to the curator of the Addison Gallery, Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator, Mary Ann Merker. In part the NCAC letter read:

“While we sympathize with the City’s desire for a world without guns or violence, the decision to put a blanket ban on all art including guns is not only unproductive, it threatens to silence important political speech. The recent incident involving the four Art of Democracy posters, which express strong views on US foreign policy, is a clear example of the type of serious political expression that the ban can suppress. To suppress political speech, which enjoys the highest constitutional protection, a government venue has to have significant interest - in security, public safety or the like.

“It is hard to see how the City can demonstrate such an interest given the nationwide presence of guns and weaponry in war memorials, murals, and film posters, just to enumerate what one can see in the street. In fact, one of Berkeley’s iconic murals, the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, contains guns. In this context there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate justification for banning the representation of guns from a public gallery. Indeed, according to the organizers, no other venue among the fifty to host the Art of Democracy exhibition around the country has censored the show.

We urge the City of Berkeley to review its guidelines and uphold its proud tradition of free speech. We all want to see fewer guns and less violence in the world, but suppressing a discussion of violence just because it graphically refers to violence, would not accomplish that goal.”

In its article on the squelching of the Art of Democracy exhibit, the Berkeley Daily Planet quoted censored artist Jos Sances; “I think the city wants to control what kind of images are up on the window. I think it should reflect the people of the city and honestly, most people in Berkeley would not be offended by these images. The city is afraid of censorship and wants everything to be nice and sweet. Unfortunately art doesn’t work that way. Art is often dirty and tough.” Another of the exhibit’s censored artists, Doug Minkler, has been circulating the following open letter;

“City council, friends and press,

In February of 2008 Melanie Cervantes and I drafted a number of letters alerting the city that there was a serious problem involving arbitrary unnecessary curatorial censorship of the Addison street windows. Since that time I have learned that there have been others who have not been allowed to show their work in the Berkeley’s Addison Street Windows. The curator, Carol Brighton, and the Berkeley Art Commission’s decision to back her ban on military symbols in this public space was an unconstitutional act. To limit debate on this most central issue of our times - war - through an abolition of war objects is not legal.

The embedded journalist/embedded art commissioner model does not reflect the community of Berkeley nor the bay area. Our three months of meetings and letter writing trying to correct this policy accomplished little. No one to whom we wrote or spoke to at the city wanted to take on this censorship issue.

Today the community of Berkeley has again been denied an opportunity to view important work (the Art of Democracy exhibit) due to this absurd ban on artists who show military armaments in their work. This is like telling poets they can’t use the word ‘death’ in their poems because it might be unsettling to the children that read their poems. All poets that use the word ‘death’ are banned from exhibiting in the Addison Street Windows by order of the city of Berkeley. Context is everything.

I support the current attempt being launched by the Art of Democracy artists to have these precious windows freed from the current censorship policy. The 1st Amendment guarantees our free speech, but this guarantee means nothing if we do not enforce it. Please speak up.”

While the Addison Street Windows Gallery censored the Art of Democracy poster show, they did not succeed in stopping the exhibit - an alternative venue was promptly found. Opening Nov. 8, 2008 and running until November 30, 2008, the Pueblo Nuevo Gallery in Berkeley will be showing the vibrant - and completely uncensored - political posters from the Art of Democracy project. For more information on the City of Berkeley’s flirtation with arts censorship, view the Berkeley Has A Censorship Issue! page on the Art of Democracy website, where you can see the four censored posters, see photos from the Pueblo Nuevo opening, and read the original Press Release from the censored show at the Addison Street Windows Gallery.

The Enduring Works of Goya

Los Caprichos, the world-renown etchings by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), are being displayed at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery in Fullerton, California, from November 1, 2008 through December 12, 2008. The exhibit is actually the tenth stop in a traveling national museum tour that began in 2005 and is slated to continue until 2010.

Etching by Goya

[ El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstrous (The sleep of Reason Produces Monsters) - Francisco Goya. 1799. Etching from the Los Caprichos series created during the 1790s. The artist’s self-portrait in no uncertain terms refers to the political and religious mood of 18th century Spain. ]

Privately published by Goya in 1799, the eighty celebrated prints of Los Caprichos (the Caprices), provide a dark and phantasmagorical depiction of the artist’s homeland during the Spanish Inquisition. Said by Goya to be a criticism of “human errors and vices”, the Los Caprichos etching suite reads like a fevered dream, full as it is with demonic looking creatures, prostitutes, and goblins - in addition to corrupt clergymen and oligarchs. If the foibles Los Caprichos depicted over two centuries ago seem familiar to us today, it is because Goya captured the eternal truth about how social divisions, economic crises, superstitions and erroneous beliefs can lead to mass psychosis - a condition we suffer from acutely in these postmodern times.

In July of this year a university student in England writing a dissertation on Goya, contacted me by e-mail to ask if I would be willing to answer a number of questions regarding the artist, his legacy, and the enduring influence of his works. I responded favorably to the request by writing the following observations, which, since others have similarly made inquiries concerning my thoughts on Goya - I have decided to publish here in part:

Q: In what way has Goya influenced you in your artwork and your views on war?

A: Goya was, and continues to be, an influence in my life and work. I first became aware of him when I was a mere child. Flipping through an art book I discovered Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son. It was an image that simultaneously horrified and intrigued me. Not being a sophisticated reader at the time, I could only imagine what the painting was supposed to signify.

Painting by Goya

[ Saturno Devorando a su Hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son) - Francisco Goya. Oil mural transferred to canvas. Created between 1819 and 1823. One of the so-called "black" paintings the artist created directly on the walls of his home outside of Madrid. This macabre image was located in Goya’s dining room. Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Later on I rediscovered Goya, stumbling upon his nightmarish Los Caprichos series of etchings. Of course I became infatuated with him, and by the time I entered my teens I was well aware of the master’s Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) etchings. At fifteen I already knew that I had no choice but to be an artist, and at the same age I also became an activist against the Vietnam war. It was Goya’s remarkable works that helped convinced me to trod the path of social commentary in art - and I haven’t looked back since.

Q: Do you think that the Disasters of War etchings are impartial? Can you ever be impartial when using journalistic techniques to record disturbing images?

A: When it comes to opinions, I do not believe it is possible for anyone to be “impartial”. One must first ask the question, “where do opinions come from?”; and in today’s world of media management and manipulation, it is not difficult to conclude that popular views are manufactured. I do not know that things have ever been different, after all - the word “propaganda” is derived from Sacre Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the office of the Vatican established in 1622 to advance the faith. We currently live in a corporate media saturated environment where monopolies present “sound bite” news that informs, or rather, misinforms the general public, so I do not see how it is possible to talk about journalism as an objective or impartial force - if indeed it ever was one.

Goya’s Disasters of War series of etchings was most decidedly not “impartial”, but why would anyone think it necessary for it to have been so? In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain with only one thing in mind - conquest. Before Goya created his etchings, should he have first stopped to consider the humanity of the French imperialists - endeavoring to present both sides of the conflict with his artwork? Perhaps the notion of impartiality or objectivity is overvalued. Would it not be beyond the limits of decency to demand that “both sides of the story” be told when reporting on the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews? One could offer an examination of Nazi atrocities, but anything other than a purely subjective denunciation would be unthinkable.

Painting by Goya

[ El Tres de Mayo de 1808 (The Third of May, 1808) - Francisco Goya. 1814. The artist’s depiction of French occupation soldiers executing Spanish civilians. The English art historian Kenneth Clark referred to this painting as "the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention". Museo del Prado, Madrid. ]

Q: In my opinion, The Third of May works because Goya’s translation of the event supported the Spanish resistance movement against Napoleon’s army. Do you think that The Second of May is an inferior work of art because the civilians are armed?

A: Goya’s painting, The Third of May, is far easier for a contemporary audience to understand than is the companion piece, The Second of May. With the passing of time, only historians can decipher the particulars represented - and both paintings are heavy with historical import. However, The Third of May is an unmistakable depiction of political repression, making it an eternal image that plainly illustrates an atrocity committed by faceless soldiers against unarmed and defenseless prisoners. In that sense it is more accessible to a contemporary audience unfamiliar with the events portrayed.

Painting by Goya

[ El Dos de Mayo de 1808 (The Second of May, 1808) - Francisco Goya. 1814. The invasion of Spain by France in 1808 triggered an anti-colonial uprising amongst the Spanish citizenry. Goya painted the outbreak of the revolt in Madrid when the French army used Mamelukes (Mercenary Arab soldiers), to help repress the Spanish populace. Today the painting hangs alongside its companion piece, The Third of May, 1808, in Spain’s Museo del Prado.]

To a modern viewer ignorant of history, The Second of May appears to be nothing more than a vicious melee. However, in its day it was perhaps the more popular painting, and it certainly was well understood by viewers to be the depiction of Spanish patriots rising up against a cruel foreign invader. That the painting portrays armed Spanish patriots engaged in acts of violence does not make the work less important or effective, but one does need to know some history to fully appreciate the canvas.

Liberty Leading the People, painted by the French artist Eugene Delacroix in 1830, portrays an armed populace in the middle of a violent revolutionary upheaval. They follow Liberty, a bare-breasted women clutching a rifle and the tri-colored banner of the nation. A romantic representation of the French Revolution of 1830, the canvas has also become an iconic portrayal of the radical democratic spirit - and the portrayal of people in arms has not made it less so.

Q: Why do you think that Jake and Dinos Chapman “defaced” a set of the Disasters of War prints? They say that their version of the Disasters highlight the inadequacy of art as a protest against war.

A: The Chapmans modifying prints from the Disasters of War series was not meant to bring about renewed interest in Goya, but to themselves; their prime motivation being to disparage the very idea of art as a moral force capable of challenging unjust wars and those who wage them. A cursory examination of history will underscore the undeniable fact that art has played an enormous role, not only in successfully building consensus for wars, but in maintaining and extolling them. I doubt that even the Chapmans would contest the veracity of this statement. If it is to be admitted that art and culture can help initiate war, then why is it so difficult to realize that art and culture has also effectively hindered it?

What the Chapman’s statement indicates, is not just their inability to grasp history, but also their enormous failure to understand the social forces and institutions that give rise to wars. The Chapmans are incapable of offering perceptive systemic critiques of society, but they are very useful indeed when it comes to dishing out hopelessness, despair, and the usual reactionary tripe about humanism being a blight. But then, perhaps I underestimate the Brothers Chapman. Conceivably they are cut from the same mold as the early Italian Futurists, whose leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, proclaimed; “We will glorify war - the world’s only hygiene.” I am certain Marinetti would have loved the Champman Brother’s “enhancement” of Goya’s antiwar etchings.

What I found particularly odious about the Chapman’s reworking of the Disasters of War, was that the gesture came about while the combined armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom were involved in the unpopular military occupation of Iraq. In essence, the Chapman’s reworked etchings clearly proclaim that all protest is futile, so why bother.

One hundred and eighty years after his death, some have traced the modernist art movement back to the works of Francisco Goya - like art critic Robert Hughes, who called the Spanish master “the first modern artist”. Goya’s portentous works continue to reach out from his epoch to shed light on the horrors and follies of our own time. As a child in late 1950s Los Angeles, exposure to the works of Goya altered the course of my life. I am thrilled by the certainty of some young person walking into the Goya exhibit in Fullerton being similarly transformed.

Goya: Los Caprichos. November 1 - December 12, 2008, at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery in Fullerton, California. Opening Reception, Saturday, November 1, 5 to 8 p.m. (Gallery closed for Thanksgiving holiday). Directions to the Cal State Fullerton campus and its Main Art Gallery are available here.

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola

Photomontage by Josep Renau

[ Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1949. ]

In 1949, as a statement on the limitations of American style elections, the contentious Spanish artist Josep Renau created the photomontage Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola. In the artwork the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant have mutated into a double-headed behemoth; the only difference between the cojoined grotesque twins being a predilection for one soft drink over another - the very “choice” the monstrous corporate candidate offers the people. Renau depicted his imaginary creature as a servant to militarism and entrenched political power - represented by the Pentagon and the U.S. Capital.

Though widely recognized and hailed in Spain, the works of Josep Renau (1907-1982) are little known outside of his homeland. Before long I will write about Renau on this web log, detailing his life, controversial works, and contributions to art - complete with examples of his controversial graphic inventions.