Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Spirit Cooking with Marina Abramović: The First Cut Is the Deepest

Abramovic eyes

CAUTION: The following essay contains violent imagery not suitable for the faint-hearted or for children under 13. Welcome to the wonderful world of postmodern art.

A facet of the outlandish chronicles having to do with the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 that remains obscure and largely untold, is the unwitting role of the celebrity art world. This essay is an attempt to bring some much needed clarity to that bizarre collision of postmodern art with mainstream U.S. politics. The U.S. is currently so deeply divided that I loath making myself a target by writing this, yet I feel compelled to do so for the sake of history.

My report revolves around the “world renown” Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. Conservatives call her a Satanist and Liberals calls her a genius; both sides are altogether wrong. My essay’s subheading, The First Cut Is the Deepest, provides the upshot of my explication; I think what Abramović does is a wound upon art. Dissidents and conformists… please do read on.

Marina Abramović during 1974 "Rhythm 0" performance, photographer unknown.

Marina Abramović during her 1974 "Rhythm 0" performance. Photographer unknown.

Abramović calls herself “the grandmother of performance art.” During her performances she has cut, whipped, burned, and nearly killed herself. In 1974 she performed Rhythm 0, where for six hours she stood passively while her audience was invited to manipulate her body with any of the 72 objects provided them; a rose, honey, scissors… a handgun with one bullet. She ended up with multiple cuts, the clothes cut from her body, and the gun pointed at her head. This escapade became one of her most famous works.

A major turning point in the career of Abramović was her 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where she performed The Artist Is Present. Abramović sat motionless and silent at a table in the museum’s entrance hall for over 30 days and 16 hours as observers were encouraged to sit opposite her, one at a time, to exchange silent glances. After this engagement the elite art world bestowed true superstar status upon Abramović, proclaiming her the very symbol or icon of performance art.

In full disclosure, as a figurative realist painter, I have little regard, affinity, or patience for the works of Marina Abramović. Call my views regarding art passé or sagacious, but I would never allow someone to point a gun at me for the sake of art. While I challenge the importance of Abramović’s works and that of postmodernist art in general, I am dismayed by the lies and fabrications used against her for political reasons; this think piece is not a defense of Abramović, but it is a refutation of the falsehoods that have been directed against her. It is also of course, a critique of postmodernist art.

Perhaps Abramović’s greatest achievement was her 1996 Spirit Cooking project, not for any profundity of the work itself but for its unintended consequences. Spirit Cooking began as a portfolio of eight etchings illustrating 25 letterpress prints of made-up “aphrodisiac” recipes. These were not instructions for preparing actual meals, according to the artist they were “evocative instructions for actions or thoughts.” Having no experience in drawing (which is the postmodern definition of an artist), Abramović’s Spirit Cooking portfolio is a banal plodding mess, at least in my opinion, so naturally it is in MoMA’s permanent collection.

In 1997 Abramović created a multimedia installation version of Spirit Cooking at the Zerynthia gallery in Paliano, Italy, where the recipes in her Spirit Cooking print portfolio were splashily daubed on white walls with copious amounts of coagulated pig’s blood. Unknowingly, she had just helped to launch one of the biggest cultural/political scandals in U.S. history.

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The email that started it all; June 28, 2015 message from Marina Abramović to Tony Podesta.

During October and November of 2016, just before the U.S. presidential election would pit Donald J. Trump against Hillary Clinton, Wikileaks started publishing a huge cache of emails stolen from the personal Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The 20,000 pages of emails showed the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party, as well as revealing the controversial skullduggery of Ms. Clinton. An anonymous hacker had pinched the emails and turned them over to Wikileaks for publication… and the rest is history.

One of those purloined digital messages published by Wikileaks was an email sent by Marina Abramović on June 28, 2015 to Tony Podesta, a collector of her work since the 1990s and the brother of John Podesta.

Knowing John Podesta was a wealthy art collector and one of her biggest supporters, Abramović wanted to honor him with a Spirit Cooking themed dinner as a “thank you” for a large donation. The email was innocuous enough, it simply read: “Dear Tony. I am so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love, Marina.” As it turned out, John Podesta did not attend the dinner party of ten.

Inquisitive conservatives investigating the cryptic “spirit cooking” reference soon found the following video on YouTube shown directly below:

The video documented preparations for the 1997 multimedia installation of Spirit Cooking at the Zerynthia gallery carried out by Abramović and an assistant; the video showed Abramović using pig’s blood to paint her recipes; “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk drink on earthquake nights” read one. “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain” read the other. Fast forward to 2016, and people sheltered from the harebrained excesses of contemporary art expressed revulsion after viewing this film, while political opponents of John Podesta, the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton moved in for the coup de gras. Gossip about Spirit Cooking spread like wildfire over social media; in a flash it was characterized as an elite cabal of Satan worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles that lingered around the Clinton campaign.

On Nov 4, 2016, the editor-at-large at Infowars Paul Joseph Watson, conservative YouTuber Mark Dice, and right-wing libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux, separately published videos on their respective YouTube channels accusing Abramović, and by extension John Podesta and Hillary Clinton, of having links with Satanism. The YouTube video from Paul Joseph Watson is shown directly below:

Molyneux’s video Spirit Cooking: Evil In Government, included a talkfest with American nationalists Mike Cernovich and Vox Day, purportedly to shed light upon the “disgusting practice of ‘Spirit Cooking.’” But Molyneux’s supposed reliance on empirical evidence soon gave way to the conjectural, the irrational, and quite frankly, the absurd; he stated that “the amount of immorality that seems to be emanating from these practices, these rituals, I don’t think it’s too far to say that they’re downright Satanic.”

In summing up his video talk Molyneux proclaimed; “I hope this is going to shock people into recognizing that there is, you know, if these stories turn out to be true, there is a sort of layer down here of truly deep, conscious, and focused willed evil.” He went on to ask Cernovich where he placed “this level of immorality” in his world view; Cernovich replied:

“These are ritualistic practices, where are they learning… that’s what I always ask as a lawyer, as a detective, as a journalist… where are they learning this stuff, who is teaching it, because clearly they have shared traditions. Clearly they have a shared language, clearly they have shared symbolism. They’re learning it from somewhere, whether that’s from the Devil, from Satan, or from practitioners… I can’t tell you, but I can tell you as a rationalist, and as somebody who maybe doesn’t believe in God necessarily, they’re learning it from somewhere. And we need to ask people, whatever you believe about religion, whatever you believe about good and evil… where the hell are they learning this sh*t from?”

Where are they learning this shared language? Why, in the halls and exhibit rooms of prestigious museums and galleries; in the articles found in haughty and oh so cosmopolitan art magazines; in the positive reviews of trendsetting exhibits found in the legacy press (you know… the “fake” news). Who is teaching it? Have you visited the Department of Art at your local university lately, or perhaps an acclaimed art school? Try spending some time glancing over the endless number of websites and blogs dedicated to covering postmodern art.

I would like to add that none of the hundreds of thousands of people associated with the groups and institutions just mentioned are Satanists, well O.K., maybe one or two are. But political activists on the left and right, not to mention the overwhelming public at large, pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the pretentious idiocy found in the impenetrable bubble that is the contemporary art world. If they were to pay attention they would be rewarded with dubious art achievements from the likes of Martin Creed, Piero Manzoni, Damien Hirst, and those boorishly despicable beasties the Chapman Brothers. Yeah, take a look… this is art today.

Right after the hysteria that ensued following the discovery of the Zerynthia gallery Spirit Cooking video, another controversial video surfaced. This one showed the annual fundraiser dinner gala held in 2011 by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), then directed by the charlatan Jeffrey Deitch. I must admit, it did look like a satanic ritual, but it was just good clean innocent fun as practiced by well-to-do Hollywood bluebloods who were inebriated and desperately trying to escape their endless state of terminal boredom.

That original unedited video showing the MoCA fundraiser dinner gala is shown directly below:

Marina Abramović was asked to design the look and feel of the gala, attended by roughly 800 glitterati of the Los Angeles art world and entertainment industry. Tickets went for $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000. For those sitting at the round tables reserved for $100,000 ticket holders like California governor Jerry Brown and then LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the centerpieces were rotating platforms; upon each a live nude woman was draped with a life-sized human skeleton, a nod to Abramović’s Nude with Skeleton performance. As centerpieces for the less expensive tables Abramović hired 50 young artists and dancers to sit on rotating platforms placed at intervals beneath the tables, their slowly spinning heads protruding through the table tops.

The spinning head hirelings were paid a paltry sum, resulting in American dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer writing an angry letter to Deitch and MoCA on the subject of exploitation. This was a more meaningful controversy than anything offered by Abramović. The letter was signed by 49 other artists— I would have signed it myself if I had been given the chance.

Deborah Harry from the long defunct band Blondie sang for the crowd, after which dessert cakes in the form of life-size nude replicas of Marina Abramović and Deborah Harry were sliced up with large lethal knives and served to the crowd.

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Cutting the Abramović cake at the 2011 MoCA gala dinner.

The cakes were created by the food artists of Kreëmart, a specialized bakery founded by Raphael Castoriano that creates confections for the worldwide postmodern art crowd. Castoriano helped produce and distribute the video of the MoCA event shown above, which detractors used as further evidence that Abramović, and by extension John Podesta and Hillary Clinton, were involved in a satanic death cult.

In a 2016 editorial written for artsy.net, the au courant aficionado of art Alexxa Gotthardt attempted to make sense of the election time “crazed political conspiracy theories” surrounding Marina Abramović, which Gotthardt unceasingly attributed to the “alt-right community.” I am sorry, but blaming the “alt-right” bogeyman is a fast talker’s glib attempt at avoiding the irrefutable dilemma— art has become repulsive, alienating, meaningless, and unapproachable. Average Americans in the tens of millions did not need soapbox propaganda from the “alt-right” to realize that cryptic words daubed onto a wall in congealed pigs blood was something other than fine art; they consequently believed the worst of anyone associated with Spirit Cooking.

Alice Cooper and friend. Photograph David Bailey 1972

Alice Cooper and friend. Photo David Bailey 1972.

In some ways the histrionics over Abramović and her shock art reminds me of the outrage directed against Alice Cooper by straight-laced critics back in the early 1970s. At the time Cooper and his band were a scandal because of their horror rock stage performances. Cooper would command the stage as a villainous antihero and his stage theatrics included sham knife fights and using an axe to chop off the heads of dolls and mannequins, all with generous amounts of stage blood. Cooper draped himself with live snakes as he crooned to his audience, and he simulated his execution by guillotine, electric chair, and hanging at the gallows; all this and more. No, it was not high art, but it was low-brow rock ‘n roll extravaganza. It should go without saying that Cooper was regularly accused of being a Satanist. As we know today Cooper is a Christian who has quietly voted the Republican ticket.

Abramović 1990. Alice Cooper did a much better job of it two decades earlier.

Abramović 1990. Alice Cooper did a much better job of it two decades earlier. Photographer unknown.

In the same vein, in 1967 there were the original shock rockers, the psychedelic band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Founded by the brilliant vocalist Arthur Brown, the outfit became known for their dark, over the top theatrical stage performances. In ‘68 the group released a 45 single of their song Fire, an apocalyptic rock anthem that began with the words, “I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you— Fire!” Brown wore an actual flaming metal helmet when performing the song, bringing inspiration to Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, and a host of other rockers. Today, only the most closed minded religionist would call Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, et al., “Devil worshippers.”

Though involved in markedly different modes of expression, I believe Cooper is a more honest artist than Abramović. At Alice Cooper concerts attendees suspend belief and enjoy the over-the-top theatrics, they know it is just a charade; whereas some devotes of Abramović actually seem to believe that she offers “a religious experience” comparable to “the earliest days of Christian mysticism.” In point of fact we are looking at the cult of Marina Abramović. Consider the “Abramović Method,” touted as having been “developed over decades of research on performance and immaterial art.” Created by Abramović, the “Method” is an “exploration of being present in both time and space. It incorporates exercises that focus on breath, motion, stillness, and concentration.”

So if you are seeking phony enlightenment, you may find it in the repackaged synthetic Zen Buddhism of Abramović.

While much of postmodern art revolves around the kitsch and the superficial, Abramović’s “radical” performance art, we are told, is profound. It allegedly delves into the transcendental, the philosophical, and the abstruse aspects of being human; themes of trust, departure, cleansing, and the limits of the mind and body, etc., are supposedly examined in her performances. I don’t buy any of this nonsense. Abramović has all the profundity of a circus sideshow starring Miley Cyrus.

"Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful." Photo commemorating Abramović's 1975 performance piece of the same name.

"Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful." Photo commemorating Abramović's 1975 performance piece of the same name.

Take the above “glamour” shot for instance. It makes reference to Abramović’s “iconic” 1975 video performance where she sat before a camera and aggressively, painfully combed her long hair with a brush and comb for 50 minutes while continually chanting “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” The words also served as the title of the work.

Movie poster for the low-budget 1972 American horror film, "Daughters of Satan." The low-brow kitsch aesthetics embodied in this poster animates the "high-art" of Abramović.

Movie poster for the low-budget 1972 American horror film, "Daughters of Satan." The low-brow kitsch aesthetics embodied in this poster animates the "high-art" of Abramović.

The performance was widely regarded as feminist. However, the razzle-dazzle ensanguined beauty shot has nothing to do with the original work, rather it is a betrayal of that work. The knives, chunks of fresh meat, and blood-spattered text are simply for shock value and meant to frame the art star’s allure and ascendancy in the art world. Unlike the 1966 Beatles’ album Yesterday And Today with its infamously censored “Butcher cover“— reportedly a mordant comment on the American war in Vietnam, Abramović’s photo lacks even the tiniest inkling of profundity. The photo radiates the type of kitsch associated with low-budget B movie horror films like the cheese fest 1972 Daughters of Satan.

If you find the works of Marina Abramović objectionable, allow me to introduce you to the Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch. On Saturday June 17, 2017 he will oversee a performance titled 150.Action, a “major work” that revolves around a newly slaughtered bull and Nitsch’s assistants covering themselves in the entrails, gore, and blood of the unfortunate animal. The performance group will also bathe in 500 liters of fresh blood— for the metrically impaired that is over 132 gallons of blood.

Official PR image for the "150.Action" performance conducted by Hermann Nitsch.

Official PR image for the "150.Action" performance conducted by Hermann Nitsch.

This atrocity masquerading as art takes place at the Dark Mofo festival of music and art held on the Australian island state of Tasmania. If you are familiar with American street slang you will know the grind show is aptly named. The festival was created, and is hosted by, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which is also presenting Nitsch’s performance. I will address the questionable history of MONA later in this article. The museum describes the performance as “A bloody, sacrificial ritual performed by the patriarch of Viennese Actionism, his devoted disciples and an orchestra.” All of this gore is rather old hat for Nitsch, save for the orchestral accompaniment. I cannot imagine what he will do with an orchestra… he must be getting soft.

Hermann Nitsch performance, date, place, and photographer unknown. In this photo assistants use cow, lamb, and pig entrails and blood.

Hermann Nitsch performance at his Prinzendorf Castle in Austria, year unknown. Assistants use entrails and blood from cows, lambs, and pigs. Photographer unknown.

Hermann Nitsch is a founder of Viennese Actionism, a performance art that includes the slaughter of animals and the drinking of their blood, the covering of performers with blood, entrails, and excrement, the mock crucifixion of performers, the mockery of Christianity, and the shattering of every imaginable taboo. Nitsch once said of his works; “I’m not a social critic, I just show the divine comedy and the divine tragedy at the same time, and most people are not willing to open themselves up for this consciousness.” He became the most well-known of the actionists and actionism became an influential aesthetic; it ripples and twitches through the tenebrous works of Marina Abramović.

Hermann Nitsch was a premier guest at the 2009 Incubate arts festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. In this photo assistants undergoing mock crucifixions drink and bath in animal blood.

Hermann Nitsch was a premier guest at the 2009 Incubate arts festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. In this photo assistants undergoing mock crucifixions, drink and bath in animal blood. Photographer unknown.

There is no clearer indication of the unhealthy condition of contemporary art and the debauchery of art criticism today than the fact that nary a murmur of criticism or protestation of 150.Action has come from the art world. Not surprisingly, animal rights groups have raised a ruckus, gathering 20,000 signatures to stop the killing of the bull, but from the art world… silence.

Starting in the early 1960s individual Austrian artists in Vienna like Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Hermann Nitsch began staging “transgressive” public art actions. The performances became known as “actionist,” the school, Viennese Actionism. In 1963 Adolf Frohner, Muehl, and Nitsch staged a three day public actionist performance before a small audience of some 30 people in Muehl’s basement studio. The actionists dressed in white robes, crucified a dead lamb upside down (intentionally mocking the Christian symbol of the Lamb of God), and after disemboweling the animal bathed in its blood.

In 1968 Günter Brus publicly masturbated and covered himself in his own feces while singing Österreichische Bundeshymne, the Austrian National Anthem. Also in ‘68 Oswald Wiener, Peter Weibel, Brus, and Muel staged Art and Revolution, where the four crashed a student lecture at the University of Vienna and flogged themselves, urinated on one another, masturbated, covered themselves in their own excrement, and forced themselves to vomit. In 1969 Otto Muehl and Brus staged Piss Action at the Hamburg Film Festival, where onstage a standing naked Muehl urinated into the open mouth of the nude Brus on bended knees. In its ludicrous description of Viennese Actionism, the Art Story Foundation wrote that Piss Action was “one of the most notorious demonstrations of art merging with life and breaking free of the walls of the art museum.”

Günter Brus vomits during an unauthorized actionist performance of Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna, 1968.

Günter Brus vomits during an unauthorized actionist performance of Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna, 1968. Photographer unknown.

Today the Viennese Actionists are acknowledged and celebrated by the art establishment as the wellspring of today’s performance art and one of the most influential art movements of the late 20th century. In this we see the acceptance, sanction, and advocacy of the ugly, transgressive, anti-humanism embraced by the postmodern art world. Which brings us back to The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).

MONA allegedly cost over $200 million to build, it was founded and financed by multi-millionaire David Walsh, who made his fortune as a professional gambler. The museum is the largest privately funded museum in Australia. It has also become a major tourist attraction, drawing enormous crowds. MONA has been described by Walsh as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Others have not been so charitable. In his article titled MONA’s Brutal Banality, Michael Connor of the conservative Australian literary and cultural journal Quadrant, wrote:

“MONA is the art of the exhausted, of a decaying civilization. Display lights and taste and stunning effects illuminate moral bankruptcy. What is highlighted melds perfectly with contemporary high fashion, design, architecture, cinema. It is expensive and tense decay. For the uncomprehending, uncritical, unmoved tourists it is meaningless matter superbly showcased—though if you threw out the art and put in a (gay) wedding expo, a psychic convention or a showing of hot rods they probably wouldn’t even notice, or care.”

Walsh’s personal art collection displayed at MONA is said to be worth some $100 million. It includes such bizarre postmodern carny works as Stephen Shanabrook’s On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell, a gruesome sculpture cast in dark chocolate that depicts the shredded remains of a suicide bomber. Then there is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a machine that is fed meat, vegetables, pastries, water, and enzymes and then excretes the equivalent of human feces. Read A Human Masterpiece, Artnet’s excruciatingly fawning review of Delvoye’s Rube Goldberg excrement device; it tries one’s patience but also demonstrates how literal crap has been embraced in the dominant postmodern art world.

"On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell." Sculpture cast in dark chocolate depicting remains of a suicide bomber.

"On the road to Heaven the Highway to Hell." Sculpture cast in dark chocolate depicting remains of a suicide bomber. Photo Stephen Shanabrook.

Last but not least let us not forget Greg Taylor’s Cunts… and other conversations, 2008 - 2009, 151 life-size white porcelain “portrait” sculptures of vaginas. I don’t know how a man sculpting women’s genitalia has not escaped angry accusations of misogyny and “cultural appropriation” from the many progressives found in artistic circles, but then the postmodern art world is a confused and contradictory realm. One can only imagine what the pink “Pussy Hat” wearing crowd would make of “Cunts…” All that is missing from MONA is a Fire Eater, a Snake Charmer, and a Sword Swallower.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the German artist Ulay, a long time artistic collaborator with Abramović as well as her former lover. From 1975 to 1988 they jointly created performances dealing with gender roles and identity, sexuality, and the physical limitations of the body. It has been said that their works were the most innovative and trailblazing in the history of performance art. An example of such a “cutting-edge” work would be their 1977 collaboration Relation in Time. In a gallery setting the couple sat back to back, their long hair interwoven like a rope, making them inseparable. They sat immobile like that for 17 hours. Sorry, it’s not even as interesting as it might sound. In 1988 the power couple of performance art even made a work out of their separation; in The Great Wall Walk the two walked over 1,500 miles along The Great Wall of China from two opposite ends, meeting in the middle for one final embrace.

Despite the endless beguilement with Abramović expressed by the art press over the years, truth finally emerged in November of 2015 when Ulay sued Abramović for violating a contract over their collaborative works. After their breakup Ulay sold his archives to Abramović, who not only agreed to their maintenance but arranged to administer saleable materials. Ulay claimed Abramović told galleries to list her as the exclusive creator of their shared works, that she failed to provide him with sales statements, and that in the course of 16 years she only paid him four times. Abramović forcefully denied these charges.

In September of 2016, a court in Amsterdam ruled that Abramović was in breach of contract, and ordered Abramović to pay Ulay significant damages. Furthermore, according to Ulay’s legal team, “The Court has ordered Abramović to respect her obligations under the agreement, ensure that Ulay is properly credited as joint author of these works, and desist from future infringement of his moral and economic rights.” This was the most important part of the court decision, since Abramović was literally erasing Ulay from history. Even her 2010 MOMA performance, The Artist is Present, was an uncredited appropriation from Nightsea Crossing, a 90-day collaborative performance with Ulay in the 1980s where the two sat silently facing each other at a table. Swindling; I think this behavior is the authentic “Abramović Method.”

“Art is anything you can get away with” was a thought first expressed by the Canadian philosopher and writer Marshall McLuhan in his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage. True to form, Andy Warhol plagiarized the catchphrase and made it his own; over time the words became a benediction in the house of postmodern art. There is almost no end to what Marina Abramović has gotten away with; she once said of her performances that deal with mysticism and occult ritual:

“If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art or in a gallery, then it is the art. If you are doing it in different context, in spiritual circles or private house or on TV shows, it is not art. The intention, the context for what is made, and where it is made defines what art is or not.”

I find Abramović’s philosophy as stated above to be fallacious, it is but one of the problems I have with postmodern artists like her. If I create an oil painting, and I place it in a private house or it appears on TV, it is still art. If a critic tosses my painting into a garbage bin then it would be art in a dumpster. My painting need not be in a gallery for it to be art. Conversely, if instead of an art gallery Abramović was on a street corner violently brushing her hair and mumbling to herself, people would think of her as just another colorful, but slightly moonstruck character.

Incautious critics and bourgeois art aficionados have called Abramović the most significant artist of our time, which I find absurd. Voices in today’s art scene celebrate an allegedly unstructured, diffused, egalitarian “pluralism” that has “expanded” the definition of art; altogether scratching out moth-eaten notions of good taste, quality, standards, and beauty. But it is a partisan pluralism that declares painting dead (unless it is a perverted grotesquerie), while it beats the drum for craftless, self-indulgent rubbish. Where today’s art elites see “pluralism” I see only anti-art and the dominance of Conceptual art, Installation art, Lowbrow art, Street art, Performance art, and Appropriation art… the anti-aesthetic tyranny. Into this landscape rushes the artless brutes.

As an aging punk rocker I completely understand the theory and practice of anti-art, a modus operandi I engaged in myself during the late 1970s. Punk artists wanted a new aesthetic to combat the stultifying conformity and somnambulism of the late 20th century, this led to extremely offensive, disturbing, and scandalous means of expression, all of which I believed to be absolutely warranted and necessary at the time. During those days, some of the pop music sacred cows included the Electric Light Orchestra, the Bee Gees, and Captain & Tennille. In that context, I still think the punk explosion was crucial, but the minute it was successfully co-opted and commodified it became dead to me. I obviously have no trouble with upsetting the apple cart, but today, Abramović and those like her, are the apple cart.

I grew up in the early 1960s watching horror films, reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and listening to Rock ‘n Roll. Halloween was (and still is) my favorite celebration— but these things were attacked by the Christian right for being trashy, immoral, and in some instances demonic; at the same time these were guilty pleasures for many conservatives. In the present day, American culture is awash with ghoulish entertainment, from The Walking Dead to American Horror Story, nevertheless many conservatives enjoy these shows. Rightist social libertarians are now saying that “conservatism is the new punk rock” (recall the rightwing Johnny Ramone, co-founder of the 1st American punk band the Ramones). Why then have some conservatives made Abramović a target? Simple, they still speak with the fundamentalist voice of the Christian right they claim to disavow. However, just be forewarned… the new young conservatives are out to sink the GOP of yesteryear.

Marina Abramović. Photograph by Dusan Reljin for August 2014 issue of Vogue Ukraine.

Marina Abramović. Photograph by Dusan Reljin for August 2014 issue of Vogue Ukraine.

Because I am an artist, I highly value my right to free expression and speech, rights that I would never deny anyone. I may rebuke Abramović and her cohorts, but my admonishment is not a call for censorship. What I want is actual pluralism in art, where a beautiful painting displaying craft, skill, meaning, and narrative can once again be prized by collectors, art critics, gallery owners, and museum directors; this was already largely lost by the late 1970s. In my opinion, a truly outsider, rebellious position would call for painting’s restoration. When was the last time YOU saw works by a living painter in an art museum? And by the way, wasn’t the “rebellious” postmodern coterie co-opted and commodified long ago? Ask the multi-Billionaire Medici of Los Angeles Eli Broad, he collects postmoderns like they were stamps.

In 1863 the conservative French Academy of Fine Arts was about to present their Paris Salon, the greatest art event in the West at the time. The Salon was dominated by academic artists; in an attempt to preserve their authority they rejected submissions from realist and impressionist artists. The blacklisted undesirables organized a Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of the Refused), and thousands came to jeer and ridicule their paintings, nonetheless the first avant-garde was born, and it eventually overthrew academic art. The anecdote about the Refused is apropos because Marina Abramović and today’s postmodern artists are the new Academic art establishment.

A brand new Salon des Refusés is long overdue!

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UPDATE: 6/19/2017

Hermann Nitsch carried out his bloody “150.Action” performance art on June 17, 2017. Press summations on the atrocity can be found here: The Art Newspaper and the Daily Mail.

Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds pack the Crowne Plaza's Ballroom to hear the keynote speaker for TRAC 2014, Roger Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When hundreds of arts professionals from all over the country, indeed from all across the globe, come together at a four day symposium to enthusiastically discuss the future of realism in painting… it could be said that something might be afoot in the art world. TRAC 2014, or The Representational Art Conference, took place from March 2 through March 5, 2014 at the beachfront Crowne Plaza hotel in sunny Ventura, California. I attended a few of the programs offered on Monday, March 3rd, and offer my observations of the conference with this article. I do so as a figurative realist artist, and a proponent of social realism.

On the day I was present there were around 500 or so artists, academics, curators, critics, and students gathered for the event. I am certain that overall attendance for the entire conference was much higher. TRAC 2014 was the second international conference on representational art to be presented by the California Lutheran University (CLU) of Thousand Oaks, California, the first having been held in 2012. TRAC was organized by Michael Pearce, associate professor of Art and curator of The Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University, where he also teaches figurative painting. Co-founder Michael Lynn Adams is also a realist painter and a visiting lecturer of drawing and painting in the CLU art department.

The official catalog of TRAC 2014 affirmed that the event’s organizers “believe that there has been a neglect of critical appreciation of representational art well out of proportion to its quality and significance; it is that neglect that The Representational Art Conferences seek to address.” It was further stated that the purpose of the event was “not to establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art, but to identify commonalities, understand the unique possibilities of representational art, and perhaps provide some illumination about future directions.” Lofty and praiseworthy ideals. I certainly concur that representational art has been overlooked if not ignored… but did TRAC 2014 deliver on its mission?

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton making his opening remarks at TRAC 2014. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

My day at TRAC 2014 began with the keynote address delivered by British conservative philosopher, activist, and author Roger Scruton. Well-known in Britain, Scruton remains an obscure figure for most Americans, apart from those conservatives that take pleasure in reading weighty cultural/political criticism.

He is perhaps best known, at least in artistic circles, for his 2009 BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters, which hauled postmodern art over the coals while praising the virtues of traditional representational art.

His documentary certainly won Scruton the admiration of embattled traditionalists in the arts, and his condemnation of postmodernism undoubtedly led the organizers of TRAC 2014 to request that he appear as keynote speaker. But Scruton’s view of the arts has its detractors, and I count myself amongst them.

Four years ago I wrote about Scruton on this very web log, criticizing his BBC documentary in an article also titled Why Beauty Matters, so I was interested in hearing his public address.

Hundreds packed the “Top of the Harbor” Ballroom at the Crowne Plaza to hear Scruton deliver a stimulating address, and they were not disappointed. With dry wit and calm demeanor, the soft-spoken thinker disassembled postmodern art and philosophy, bedazzling his audience for nearly an hour. In describing the impact of postmodernism on the arts, he paused occasionally to verbally flay this or that celebrity art star.

Starting with the progenitor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, Scruton called that artist’s 1917 porcelain urinal: “a joke against art that has been elevated to art.” Moving on to the 1960s when postmodernism began its ascendancy, Scruton said: “I know it is heresy to say so, but Warhol’s Brillo boxes are not original, nor are they works of art.” Then Scruton arrived at the present, where his flaming arrows met multiple targets. He ridiculed the bisected animals displayed in tanks of formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, declaring that Hirst was abetted by sycophants and his success was due only to “a ballet of complicit deception.” The unmade bed and personal detritus of Tracey Emin was assessed as so much rubbish by the sharply critical philosopher, who then disparaged the “particularly loathsome Chapman Brothers” for producing art that “is not new but simply transgressive.” As for Jeff Koons and his insufferable Balloon Dog sculptures - they “deserve only to be punctured.”

All of the above was music to the ears of those gathered. Scruton could hardly have found a more receptive and appreciative audience. I admit to chuckling at some of his jibes made at the expense of today’s postmodern art stars, and it was definitely refreshing to hear someone rhetorically stick a knife into the elite art world. Scruton spoke in broad generalities when passing judgment on postmodernism, he struck at easy targets, but hurling insults at those he is disapproving of did not add up to much of a critique. I had the impression that most in the audience knew nothing of Scruton’s politics, and simply accepted him as a fierce critic of an art world obsessed with celebrity and very expensive though meaningless bobbles.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Roger Scruton. "It's very hard to change a whole culture. All one can do is start something and see what happens." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When it came to the hows and whys of the current dilemma we face in art, and more importantly, how we are to escape it, Scruton said little. That is not the case with his written works, which straightforwardly blame liberalism and socialism (one and the same in Scruton’s view) for the fall of Western civilization. In his address he did say that “if you make the mistake of going to a university to study philosophy,” you will be indoctrinated with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault - postmodern theorists supposedly admired by the left. Apparently it does not matter that a leading left-wing figure like Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed Lacan was an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan,” that Derrida’s scholarship was “appalling” and “failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood,” or that he said of Foucault: “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”

Scruton recommended that in order to fully understand the intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism, the audience should read the book, Fashionable Nonsense (published in the U.K. as Intellectual Impostures). I would also suggest the book for its take down of postmodern theory. But does Scruton know that there are socialists who also highly recommended the book? Or that it was written by Alan Sokal, who once said: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.”

Implying that postmodernism is the result of Marxist philosophy, as Scruton does, is nothing short of preposterous. Scruton upbraided postmoderns Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but Hirst is the darling of oligarch collectors and through their largess has become the richest artist in the world, now worth $1 billion. Emin voted Tory, admires the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and created an original work of art for him that hangs at 10 Downing Street. The ridiculous Gilbert and George conceptual art team also votes Tory, and once said, “We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly. She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.” As for the large and divergent postmodern art circles that exist in Los Angeles, I have met many a confused individual, but few with even the remotest interest in political matters.

Scruton’s defense of traditional art is part and parcel of his overall campaign against liberalism. In 1982 he became the chief editor of The Salisbury Review, a position he held until the year 2000; he continues today as a consulting editor for the publication. The Review promotes itself as a journal of “reactionary thought, undiluted by liberal cant.” During Scruton’s tenure as chief editor, the high-Tory reactionaries of the Salisbury Review poured scorn upon the peace movement, unions, multiculturalism, immigrants, feminism, and yes… non-traditional art. The Review’s editorial policy remains the same today.

If you read The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher, Scruton’s obituary for the divisive Iron Lady published by The Times of London, you will have a better understanding of the man’s politics. He said that Thatcher appeared on the U.K. political scene “as though by a miracle,” implying that she was a “savior” who broke “the power of the unions,” fought the “socialist apparatchiks” of the country’s educational system, and restored national pride with “the Falklands war.” He could have mentioned that Thatcher instituted draconian budget cuts to government arts funding, but he choose to overlook that particular miracle.

Throughout the TRAC address, Scruton peppered the talk with selected projected images or text. When he stated that “the disease of Kitsch effects more than art,” he brought up a photo of commercially available, mass produced gaudy statuettes of the baby Jesus and Mother Mary, all wrapped in cellophane and bedecked with price stickers. Here he spoke of postmodernism having stripped the sacred from our lives with its moral relativism, loss of belief, and repudiation of truth and beauty; and though people still have an intrinsic sense of the sacred - love of family, nature’s beauty, our feelings regarding birth and death - we are still swept along by the daily sacrileges of the postmodern spectacle. With some resignation Scruton remarked: “Maybe we are asking too much of people” when trusting they will abandon kitsch. The contradiction that seems to elude Scruton and his acolytes, is that the cellophane swathed baby Jesus was not maliciously created by godless commies, but produced by free market capitalists intent on making gobs of money.

At the beginning of his talk Scruton said that “we think reality can be captured in better terms,” than has so far been offered by the postmodern school. After sketching the outlines of art’s current predicament, he averred, “Don’t we have anything to contrast with this? That is what all of you people in this room are doing.”

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

During a lively question and answer period after Mr. Scruton's opening remarks, a member of the audience poses a query to Scruton. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of his address, for which he received a standing ovation, there was a vibrant question and answer session.

A young man asked a simple and naive question, “How do we change this situation?” To which Scruton responded with the unflappably British, “Right.” He elaborated that “it’s very hard to change a whole culture… all one can do is start something and see what happens.” But he hedged his bets by quoting from the 1845 Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it,” to which Scruton added… “and look at how that turned out.” I am unsure if that was more of Scruton’s vociferous anti-communism, a warning, or just a self-deprecating remark.

One last question was put to Scruton from the audience concerning the role of money in the art world. The new reality of the price tag being more important than the art is somewhat difficult to overlook these days, and with multi-billionaire oligarchs shaping the art world through their relentless acquisitions, Scruton’s sense of art being sacred is violated by this economic relationship, and rightly so. He acknowledged that money has been a corrosive force in art, but seemed at a loss to say anything else. I would have liked to hear more.

I wonder what Scruton says about Charles Saatchi, the King Maker of the postmodern art world. In the 1970s Charles and his brother Maurice started the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher hired the ad agency to create an advertising campaign for the Conservative Party’s 1979 election effort against the center left Labour Party. The agency’s Labour Isn’t Working series of posters, flyers, and billboards are credited with helping to sweep Thatcher into power. In 1985 Saatchi founded London’s Saatchi Gallery, launching the career of many a postmodern artist, and changing the face of British art. And to think… it was all accomplished without the connivance and intrigue of liberals and Marxists.

Organizers of TRAC 2014 set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak at the event. If they were sincere in their goal of not wanting to “establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art,” then Scruton was certainly an odd pick for a keynote speaker. I am not implying that the organizers were “politically incorrect” for turning to Scruton, but that organizers offered no counterbalance to his views.

In September 2012, the British debate forum Intelligence Squared, hosted an amazing discussion between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton titled The Culture Wars (watch the video of the encounter here). A Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, the author of some forty books, and a left-wing socialist, Eagleton debated Scruton on the subject of art and culture; What is it and why is it important? How does it impact us? What role does tradition play in art? What is the future of art in a globalized world? In the debate Eagleton chided Scruton for bemoaning postmodern art while at the same time supporting the very economic mechanisms that lead to arts debasement and decay.

Those who could not attend TRAC 2014 will want to watch the The Culture Wars video, not just to see Mr. Scruton engaged in a “smack down” with an intellectual adversary from the left, but to also get a glimpse of how TRAC 2014 could have broadened our understanding of art and the crisis it faces. Many figurative realist artists do not identify with political or cultural conservatism, and if the organizers of TRAC truly want to change the face of the art world, they are not going to pull it off by sealing themselves inside a right-wing echo-chamber.

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Read TRAC 2014: Part II, a continuing review of The Representational Art Conference.

Farewell Mr. Deitch

Jeffrey Deitch is throwing in the towel after serving as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) for three uneasy years out of his five-year contract. Details concerning his reign at and departure from MOCA abound, but you will not find the minutiae detailed here.

A large segment of L.A.’s art community did not trust Deitch from the very beginning, viewing him as an entrepreneur that wanted to transform MOCA into a celebrity theme park rather than a serious art institution. In June of 2012, MOCA’s curator Paul Schimmel was apparently fired by Deitch, though the circumstances remain unclear. After Mr. Schimmel’s firing, the four artists that sat on MOCA’s board of directors resigned.

Wanting to share my annoyance over Deitch’s style of directorship led me to write an essay in 2011 that remained unpublished - until today. I was pleased that Schimmel selected a work of mine to appear in his 2011 Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 exhibit at MOCA, but I continue to be critical of MOCA and its departing director. Though I never published my 2011 missing essay, I have decided to do so now as a sort of farewell to Mr. Deitch. That original essay is presented here for the first time:

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You might say the premise of this article has its basis in a quote from Oscar Wilde, “Everything popular is wrong.”

In 2008 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was in deep financial crisis and faced the danger of being shut down altogether. By 2009 the museum’s yearly attendance had dwindled to a mere 148,616 visitors, and its endowment fund, plundered to maintain museum operating costs, hit its lowest point since MOCA’s founding in 1980. Eli Broad (with a net worth of some $5.8 billion) bailed out the failing museum in Dec. of 2008 to the tune of $30 million dollars, adding it to his growing collection of L.A. cultural institutions he controls or influences.

Mr. Broad, the founding chairman and now life-time trustee of MOCA, was interviewed by the New York Times, where he said that in the wake of MOCA’s collapse and rescue the museum’s board sought a new director “who was, call it what you want, a game-changer, an impresario.” That flashy entrepreneur turned out to be Jeffrey Deitch, and he was appointed director of MOCA in 2010.

Up until Deitch’s entrenchment at MOCA, museum directors have generally come from the world of academia. Deitch is the first art dealer and commercial art gallery owner to be named director of a major non-profit museum, an appointment that signaled how museums will be run in our new gilded age. Before Deitch began his foray into the world of art he obtained a Master of Business Administration from Harvard and became Vice President of the international banking giant, Citibank. Moving from financial services, Deitch became an extremely successful and well-connected “art consultant,” servicing several high-end corporate collections. He then became a successful art dealer and established his for profit gallery, Deitch Projects, in 1996.

It is enough that many observers have compared Mr. Deitch to P.T. Barnum, that supreme American huckster known for exhibiting “human curiosities,” the marketing of hoaxes, the founding of Barnum & Bailey Circus, and for allegedly coining the phase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” A similar assessment of Deitch came from the senior art critic of Artnet.com, Charlie Finch, who wrote; “As with Cecil B. DeMille, the three words to describe Jeffrey Deitch are control, self-promotion and spectacle.”

Art in the Streets was curated by Jeffery Deitch and the exhibit ran at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) of Los Angeles, from April 17, 2011 until August 8, 2011. According to the museum’s press release, the show was “the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art” that traced the development of the phenomenon from “the 1970s to the global movement it has become today.” Far from being a review that offers considered opinion on the strengths or weaknesses of street art, this article instead focuses on the mechanics of the MOCA show, a process that barely concealed a money mad art market seeking to commodify art from the street.

The mural created by Italian street artist, Blu.

The mural created for MOCA by Italian street artist, Blu.

MOCA’s Art in the Streets exhibit received a lot of media attention, even months before the show opened its doors to the public. Jeffrey Deitch commissioned the Italian street artist named Blu to paint a mural on an outside wall of the Geffen Contemporary as part of the effort to generate publicity for the exhibit.

Detail of Blu's MOCA mural.

Detail of Blu's MOCA mural.

Known for his politically pointed images, Blu finished his contentious but awkward mural on Dec. 8, 2010. It depicted giant coffins wrapped in U.S. dollar bills, a caustic statement regarding the never ending wars in the Middle East and beyond that the U.S. is actively engaged in.

The very next day Deitch had the entire mural whitewashed, even though MOCA had received no complaints regarding the artwork. Deitch said the mural might have been offensive to some since it was located in the general vicinity of the Go For Broke Monument, a national memorial to the Japanese American soldiers who fought in World War II.

"Ayatollah Deitch" - 2011 street poster by the iGreen activist group.

"Ayatollah Deitch" - 2011 street poster by the iGreen activist group.

By whitewashing Blu’s antiwar mural, Mr. Deitch left himself open to denunciation. Alarmed over censorship, the L.A. art community’s concern was translated into action on the streets of downtown L.A. where MOCA is located.

On Dec. 16, 2010, anonymous street artists wheat-pasted posters of Deitch portraying him in the act of obliterating Blu’s mural. The poster depicted Deitch as an Iranian Ayatollah wielding a paint roller dripping with whitewash. As it turned out, iGreen, a group that supports the “pro-Democracy” movement in Iran through cultural work and art events, took credit for designing and posting the broadside.

A spokesperson for iGreen commented on the group’s Facebook page, “We usually keep our focus on Iran, but since there is a new Ayatollah in town we had no choice but to take a position!” The art collective appropriately titled their poster, Ayatollah Deitch.

In early January of 2011, LA RAW, a collective of Los Angeles artists, was formed to wage a street campaign against Jeffery Deitch and his censoring of Blu’s mural. On Jan. 3, 2011, dozens of artists and activists held a protest at MOCA decrying the obliteration of the mural and the commodification of street art. At that demonstration Carol Wells, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), offered her summation of Deitch’s handling of Blu’s mural; “Curation is what happens before it goes public. Censorship is what happens after it goes public, and putting it up on the wall and taking it off is a clear act of censorship.”

Projection on the outside wall of Geffen Contemporary MOCA. Part of a protest against censorship carried out by L.A. artists on Jan. 3, 2011. Projections were made over the mural Jeffrey Deitch had just ordered whitewashed. Screen capture from a video made by Jesse Trott - www.vimeo.com/18419889

Projection on the outside wall of Geffen Contemporary MOCA. Part of a protest against censorship carried out by L.A. artists on Jan. 3, 2011. Projections were made over the mural Jeffrey Deitch had just ordered whitewashed. Screen capture from a video made by Jesse Trott - www.vimeo.com/18419889

On April 6, 2011, a little more than a week before the Art in the Streets exhibit opened, an unidentified group known only as LA Anonymous added their two cents to the controversy by wheat-pasting parody posters of an old fashioned circus announcement on a downtown avenue.

The large full color print depicted billionaire Eli Broad dressed in the traditional garb of a circus ringmaster, replete with top hat and whip in hand, with Jeffrey Deitch dressed as a clown bowing at his feet. Behind the ringmaster and clown, the whitewashed wall of MOCA appears at the bottom of the poster, a reminder of the destruction of Blu’s mural. The poster’s text declared, “Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth”, a reference to the Barnum and Bailey “Greatest Show on Earth” circus posters of old.

"Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth" - 2011 street poster by "LA Anonymous." Photo courtesy LA RAW/laraw-art.blogspot.com

"Broadum and Deitchey - Safest Show on Earth" - 2011 street poster by "LA Anonymous." Photo courtesy LA RAW/laraw-art.blogspot.com

The week before the MOCA exhibit opened, Deitch commissioned a second mural to be painted on the very wall where Blu’s mural had been whitewashed. It does not speak well of the street art “movement” that Deitch could so easily find a group of veteran graffiti artists to assist in painting over the memory of Blu’s mural. The founding of America and the founding of the graffiti movement was the replacement mural’s rather confused theme - and what the two supposedly have in common was not clarified by the substitute mural.

Titled Birds of a Feather, the alternate mural showed a Plains Indian woman wearing a majestic eagle-feather war bonnet (in reality a headdress worn only by exemplary male warriors, each feather representing a foe humiliated or killed in battle); a copy of the U.S. Constitution upon which the words of its preamble “We the People” can be read; a 19th century steam locomotion train whose coal car is filled with spray paint cans (trains and railroads in actuality helped make possible the destruction of Plains Indian culture), and a feather quill pen scribing the edict, “What you write.” Lee Quiñones, the graffiti maven in charge of creating the wall painting, explained that the proclamation was intended to mean, “What you write is what you are, respect the movement that moves with you and for you.” Respect the movement? How is a team effort at facilitating an outrageous act of censorship any less disrespectful than the suppression of art carried out by a lone censor - Jeffrey Deitch?

Butoh dancer/performance artist protesting censorship at the opening of "Art in the Streets." The dancer had literally been whitewashed. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

Butoh dancer/performance artist protesting censorship at the opening of "Art in the Streets." The dancer had literally been whitewashed. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

At the April 17th opening of the Art in the Streets exhibit, artists and activists held a protest in front of MOCA to denounce Deitch’s censorship of Blu’s mural, but also to show their opposition to the commodification and marketing of street art. Seeing as how the museum is located in the historic Little Tokyo area of L.A., it was fitting that a major component of the protest was a performance piece based on Butoh, the unique dance-art movement founded in Japan in the late 1950s by choreographers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Independent filmmaker James Knight videotaped the opening night protest, creating an intriguing film he titled Whiteout: Butoh for Blu. In the film’s opening, one protestor, after saying he thought highly of “90 percent of those in the show,” offered the following remark regarding the exhibit, “The question remains - who legitimizes this? Do we really need the market as the driving force in our culture?”

During the opening of "Art in the Streets," this alter was created to commemorate Blu's obliterated mural. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

During the opening of "Art in the Streets," this alter commemorated Blu's obliterated mural. Screen capture from James Knight's 2011 film, "Whiteout: Butoh for Blu."

One of the Butoh dancers, Khadija Anderson, commented off camera: “I think it’s very dangerous to view MOCA’s reaction to Blu’s antiwar mural by erasing it as anything less than censorship. I believe not to boycott this show after the mural has been buffed would be to go against the very intention of any street art that isn’t about self-aggrandizement. The quickest way to silence dissent is to give the dissenters authority and put them on the payroll.”

On July 10, 2011, the L.A.’s arts magazine, Artillery, sponsored a debate at the Standard Hotel in downtown L.A. concerning topics relevant to this article. Some 100 people representing a wide spectrum of L.A.’s arts community attended the event. I went to hear pro and con arguments regarding: “Eli Broad: How much is too much”, and “Whitewashing MOCA’s mural: censorship or sensitivity?” Winners of the debates were decided by audience applause, and the event was moderated by Artillery magazine’s editor, Tulsa Kinney.

When Kinney began the intro to the debate, before she even finished the sentence -”MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch had Blu’s mural whitewashed” - there were loud boos and catcalls from a good portion of those gathered, a clear sign of audience anger towards Deitch. In the debate over the mural’s destruction, artist Anthony Ausgang argued that Deitch was within his rights to eradicate the mural, as MOCA owned the wall and Blu had received compensation. Artillery columnist Josh Herman did not even present a case against the censorship of Blu’s mural, instead he presented an off topic litany of complaints about L.A.’s art scene. Even so, when it came time to vote, the audience overwhelmingly condemned Deitch for whitewashing the mural.

Artist and former director of the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, Mark Steven Greenfield, debated writer and Artillery magazine contributor Ezrha Jean Black on the subject of Eli Broad subsidizing or owning virtually every major cultural institution in the city. Greenfield argued that Broad was a “venture philanthropist” who sought to enhance his public image and expand his influence by controlling and manipulating the city’s arts institutions. Ms. Black took the position that in these days of austerity and shrinking government support, Broad’s money has benefited the arts. She went on to exclaim, “As to the charge that he is a manipulator, oh yeah, it is called ‘good business.’” While Black was pronounced the debate’s winner, some 40 percent of the audience agreed that Broad exercised undue hegemony over the cultural life of L.A. Needless to say, I profoundly disagreed with Ms. Black’s opinion regarding Eli Broad’s pervasive influence, and by extension, the growing domination of corporate power over the arts.

In January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that banned corporations from using their vast wealth to support or oppose candidates for political office. In essence the 2010 Supreme Court decision allows corporations to pump unlimited funding into the coffers of political candidates. The outcome has been the further distortion of the democratic process by giving corporate powers the ability to openly purchase candidates and the legislative process. If it is reprehensible to short-circuit democracy by legitimating the absolute takeover of government by massive corporations, and yes, Fortune 500 plutocrats like Eli Broad, then is it not also unfitting to give control of the nation’s cultural life to those same corporate powers and tycoons?

Eli Broad and his fellow billionaires sitting on the MOCA board of directors fully expected Deitch to pull the museum out of its financial doldrums, and Art in the Streets, Deitch’s first blockbuster extravaganza at MOCA, was concocted as a spectacle to generate large crowds and even larger ticket sales. The show attracted 201,352 visitors during its 16 week run (April 17-Aug. 8, 2011); it would be the highest attended ticketed exhibit in MOCA’s history.

That long-standing capitalist anecdote, “Give the people what they want” (as if they had any real choice in the matter), is pertinent here. I do not believe the role of a museum is to provide an uncritical venue for popular entertainment, any more than I assume a library should be the repository for self-help books, fashion magazines, and cheap romance novels. Deitch’s exhibit was less a “museum survey of graffiti and street art” than it was the positioning of certain artists for acquisition at the next Christie’s and Sotheby’s private art auction (several of the artists in the MOCA exhibit were previously represented by Deitch Projects, which closed in June 2010 as Deitch became director of MOCA).

In 1750 the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, observed that “the arts spread flowery garlands over the iron chains of law, inducing consent without obvious coercion.” Rousseau’s critique seems pertinent here, given that corporate power and men like Mr. Deitch are turning the art world’s remaining shreds of autonomy and integrity into exceedingly bad jokes. As an example of the corporate patronage that has been abetted by Deitch, let us take a look at Levi Strauss & Co. and Nike Inc., both of which were major sponsors of Art In The Streets.

In 2010 Levi’s opened a temporary silk-screen workshop in San Francisco, followed by a photography workshop in New York, a film workshop in Los Angeles (located in MOCA during the street art exhibit), and finally a screen printing workshop in Berlin, Germany in July of 2011. Artists who attended the Levi’s workshops were given access to workspace, equipment, and materials free of charge. During the Art In The Streets show MOCA’s gift shop sold Levi’s denim “trucker jackets” that were emblazoned with art from various street artists, for $250 each. Now consider the following, Levi’s pays Haitian workers 31 cents an hour to manufacture apparel in sweatshops Levi Strauss & Co maintains in Haiti.

In 2009 the Obama administration fought to keep the minimum wage in Haiti to just 31 cents an hour, so that American companies like Levi Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, and Hanes could continue to reap enormous profits from Haitian workers. This is all made very clear in Haiti-related U.S. State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by the weekly Haitian newspaper Haïti Liberté as well as The Nation. You can read excerpts of the U.S. State Department cables regarding Haiti and Levi’s at the Business Insider, Inc. website.

On July 13, 2011, the Associated Press published an exposé of the abysmal working conditions laborers suffer in Nike’s Asian manufacturing plants, where most of the company’s 1,000 factories are located. Titled Nike Faces New Worker Abuse Claims, the article noted that the 10,000 female workers at the Nike plant in Taiwan make roughly 50 cents per hour; the workers complain of being physically abused by plant supervisors (suffering kicks, scratches, and slaps), and of being fired for registering complaints. Workers in Nike’s Indonesian plants also complain of severe ill-treatment, verbal and physical abuse, extremely low wages, and arbitrary firings.

After the AP released its current findings, Nike promised “immediate and decisive action” to put an end to such abuses. Nonetheless, ever since the 1990s and the following decade, when the company was caught using child labor in Indonesia and Cambodia (involving girls as young as twelve who worked for 22 cents an hour, seven days a week, for sixteen hours a day), the sports equipment giant has said it was “taking steps” to improve working conditions in its Asian plants. It should be noted that while Nike workers in Asia are insulted, physically abused, intimidated, and paid slave wages, Nike Inc. earned $1.91 billion in fiscal year 2010. The company CEO, Mark Parker, received $13.1 million in compensation for fiscal year 2010.

While the word “groundbreaking” was often used to describe MOCA’s Art In The Streets exhibit, the elite art world’s commodification of street art has been ongoing ever since it transformed Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat into international art stars (a special section of the MOCA exhibit featured their works). The crowds of young people that attended Art In The Streets would probably be very surprised to know of Haring’s passion for the book, The Art Spirit, written in 1923 by the American painter and arts educator Robert Henri (pronounced Hen-Rye). A collection of writings and transcribed talks Henri gave to his many art students, the book opens as follows:

“When the artist is alive in any person, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible. The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it. Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit - there will be precious works to fill museums.”

I should add that Robert Henri was the leader of the very first avant-garde art movement in the U.S., “The Eight Independent Painters,” a group that defied the American art establishment in 1908 by painting gritty urban ghetto scenes and portraits of working people instead of saccharine canvases that glorified the wealthy ruling class. For all of their efforts “The Eight” were attacked and maligned by conservative cultural and political circles, and a hostile press christened them the “Apostles of Ugliness.

Henri’s full statement is not only achingly beautiful, it overflows with the undeniable truth about art. While MOCA published a “comprehensive catalogue” to accompany its Art in the Streets exhibit, with a forward by none other than Jeffery Deitch, aspiring street artists would be better off reading Robert Henri’s manifesto from 88 years ago.

Ward Kimball - Art Afterpieces

In the early 1960s, American artist Ward Kimball (1914-2002) began to playfully alter reproductions of Old Master paintings; he painted directly on the mass-produced replicate masterworks, substantially altering the prints by inserting a number of incongruous images, or sometimes only slightly changing the facsimiles by inserting the tiniest of details.

Kimball was a superb draftsman, caricaturist, and cartoonist employed by the Walt Disney Company from 1934 to 1972. He was known as one of Disney’s “nine old men,” that circle of senior artists and animators that were the major force in the animation division of Disney during its most inspired period. Kimball was responsible for creating or animating some of the best known Disney characters - Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio and the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland to name but a few. Kimball’s accomplishments for Disney Studios are legendary and much too long to list here, but he had many interests outside of that particular animation studio.

Cover art for "Art Afterpieces" by Ward Kimball. The cover made use of the 1871 painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait Of My Mother," by James McNeil Whistler (American, 1834-1903). The painters whose works appeared in Kimball's book were given full credit, and each original piece was identified by artist, original title, and date of creation.

Cover art for "Art Afterpieces" by Ward Kimball. The cover made use of the 1871 painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait Of My Mother," by James McNeil Whistler (American, 1834-1903). The painters whose works appeared in Kimball's book were given full credit, and each original piece was identified by artist, original title, and date of creation.

When not laboring on Disney projects, Kimball made mockingly sardonic statements on contemporary society with his ridiculous additions and edits to old master paintings.  Kimball’s parodies included Gainsborough’s Blue Boy as a bearded Beatnik in dark sunglasses, and Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic sunflowers stuck into a vase that happened to be an empty VAT 69 Whisky bottle. More than a few of the altered images made comment on the hyper-consumerism that was voraciously engulfing the U.S., and some of Kimball’s works were pointedly political, most however were simply absurdist in nature.

Kimball gathered together 60 of his best (some might say, worst) altered paintings and compiled them into a full-color humorous soft-cover booklet titled, Art Afterpieces. Of the artworks in the book, each was credited to the original artist and bore its original title. Kimball offered no pseudo-intellectual, mumbo-jumbo art theories to justify his indelicate comic works. They were, after all, created for a joke book.

Published in 1964 by Simon & Schuster, the little book of visual pranks became wildly popular in the U.S., flying off the shelves of stores across the nation. As a precocious 11 year old in 1964 I purchased my own brand new copy at a local dimestore for $1.50. The now yellowed and dog-eared original edition still has a place of honor in my book collection, and from it I have gleaned the illustrations presented in this article.

As a collection of sophomoric visuals, Art Afterpieces, while boorish and uncouth, also happened to be hilarious; no doubt even the most snobbishly cultured people at the time laughed at the book’s loutish humor while behind closed doors. Nevertheless, the book was never accepted as anything other than a cheap joke book for those who were eternally adolescent, no one took it seriously, and on no account was it ever looked upon as high art. In fact I am hard pressed to say that it was ever regarded as art at all - even by Mr. Kimball. The book proved so successful that it was reprinted in 1967, and again in 1980 (with a new foreword penned by comedian Jonathan Winters).

"Des Glaneuses" (The Gleaners) - Jean-François Millet. Oil on canvas. 1857. [1]

"Des Glaneuses" (The Gleaners) - Jean-François Millet. Oil on canvas. 1857.

One of Kimball’s most memorable altered paintings to appear in Art Afterpieces, was his reworking of the 1857 masterwork, Des Glaneuses (The Gleaners), by Jean-François Millet. On the back cover of Art Afterpieces, Kimball revealed what inspired him to alter Millet’s masterwork:

“When I was a young problem child I used to get sent to the principal’s office to catch hell for such things as melting holes in the celluloid pencil sharpener with a magnifying glass or changing a chicken’s egg to a baseball on the teacher’s blackboard drawing. One day while I sat in the principal’s outer office awaiting my turn (I wasn’t the only bad guy), I got to studying a reproduction of Millet’s famous painting, ‘The Gleaners.‘ You know, the one that shows some European peasant women bending over the ground picking up what appears to be exactly nothing.

I soon got hip to how it feels to keep bending over and picking things up. My punishment for my misbehavior in the classroom was to spend an hour each day for a week picking up paper and trash from the schoolyard. This must have left a scar, for as the years roared by, every time I saw ‘The Gleaners‘ I wanted them to be picking up the trash. Then one day it happened. I had some paint left over, and in a matter of minutes Millet’s peasants were busy earning their salt cleaning up discarded beer cans and film boxes. That’s how Art Afterpieces got started, if you want to know.”

"The Gleaners" - Ward Kimball. 1964. Altered reproduction of Jean-François Millet's masterwork.

"The Gleaners" - Ward Kimball. 1964. Altered reproduction of Jean-François Millet's masterwork.

It is more than likely that readers of this web log have heard of the U.K. “guerrilla artist” who goes by the nom de guerre of Banksy; but is anyone familiar with Kimball? Why Banksy is widely celebrated and Kimball unheard of outside of certain quarters says a lot about today’s celebrity driven elite art world and who it selects to be groomed and promoted as an “art star.” In the summer of 2009, the Bristol museum in London mounted an exhibit of over 100 works by the pseudo-anonymous Banksy. A number of the works shown were his so-called “subverted paintings,” modified reproductions of famous masterpieces that had been painted upon or otherwise edited by Banksy. The paintings have time and again been hailed as ingenious, original, even revolutionary, but when first seeing them all I could think of was Ward Kimball’s Art Afterpieces.

"Agency Job" - Banksy. 2009. "A reworked Millet or a modified Ward Kimball?"

"Agency Job" - Banksy. 2009. "A reworked Millet or a modified Kimball?"

When Banksy exhibited his version of The Gleaners (renamed the Agency Job) at the Bristol museum, was it a reworked Millet or a modified Ward Kimball? Certainly no one mentioned Kimball; it is fair to assume that everyone thought Agency Job was another of Banksy’s spoofs made at the expense of the art world… without knowing that Kimball had delivered the joke 45-years earlier, and with the same Millet painting!

"Portrait of the Doge Loredano" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Giovanni Bellini (Italian, 1430-1516). Bellini painted his portrait of the chief magistrate and leader of Venice in 1501.

"Portrait of the Doge Loredano" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Giovanni Bellini (Italian, 1430-1516). Bellini painted his portrait of the chief magistrate and leader of Venice in 1501.

Banksy’s approach is certainly not an homage to Kimball, that would necessitate acknowledging the influential artist by name and admitting owing a debt to his rare talent.

I think that in all probability Banksy was familiar with Kimball’s The Gleaners, and that he was counting on his audience not having that same familiarity.

In fact, the process Kimball once used to innocently alter the art compiled in his dimestore joke book of despoiled masterworks has now become a de rigueur practice for much of the postmodern art establishment, except that no one dare breathe the name of Ward Kimball.

Why does no one speak of Kimball? Ignorance of his life and work has much to do with it, but it is more a case of not wanting to let the “cat out of the bag,” seeing as how Kimball’s attitude about his artworks in Art Afterpieces blows the theoretical cover off of postmodernism. He simply did not think his altered paintings were important, and he offered no haughty theories to justify them. To Kimball his paintings were simply a joke.

2009 altered painting by Banksy, in which the original Old Master painter was not identified.

2009 altered painting by Banksy, in which the original Old Master painter was not identified.

Postmodern artists that “appropriate” the works of others while justifying their acts with lofty sounding gobbledygook, might think they have inherited Kimball’s legacy, but his altered reproductions were not meant to be exhibited in museums and galleries, purchased by billionaires for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, or endlessly discussed by art snobs.

The renowned cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973) wrote the foreword to Kimball’s Art Afterpieces. Kelly befriended Kimball when the two worked together as artists and animators at Disney Studios starting in the mid-1930s.

A genius in his own right, Kelly is today generally regarded as the originator of the modern comic strip because of his innovative cartoon creation, Pogo.

In his foreword Kelly properly situated Art Afterpieces in the tradition of published farce; the introduction is reprinted here in its entirety:

“It is correct, we believe, to claim that Mr. Kimball’s addenda, as they are collected in this volume, are original. The Parisian school of underground poster art says flatly, ‘Vive le moustache!’ This group, claiming to be unique, has in fact produced nothing more than the additives of the mustache, the scrawl of eyeglasses, and occasional monocle (inevitably lopsided), and, if the viewer is lucky, he is treated to a blacked-out tooth in a creamy smile.

Then there are the hackneyed efforts of the imitative American alteration group, the so-called Subway Atelier in New York City. True, these monsters have made use of the added four-letter word across the faces of some of their subjects, but this is merely potential juvenile delinquency and to be classed with the accidental banjo-work of a messy monkey armed with a melting chocolate bar.

Now from the west rises a Lochinvar who is apparently a distinct cut above the messy monkey. In a talk with him this critic learned that Mr. Kimball, a youth of fifty, was disturbed about the publisher’s estimate that his work was ‘unfailingly funny.’ According to Mr. Kimball, if his work is funny, it has failed. ‘Cheen Crimes!’ exclaimed Mr. Kimball, his mouth full of melted chocolate bar, ‘this stuff is a lot deeper than they realize. It gets me right about here,’ he added, putting his hand to his throat.

For the fact of the matter is that Mr. Kimball is a master finisher. He finishes what others have started. Any bull can charge into a china shop, but the bull in this book ENDS the job.”

"The Visitation" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on a work by Mariotto Albertinelli (Italian, 1474-1515).

"The Visitation" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on a work by Mariotto Albertinelli (Italian, 1474-1515).

In praising Kimball’s works, Kelly aimed one of his typically droll remarks at Marcel Duchamp and his circle, accusing them in a tongue and cheek manner of having been poseurs “claiming to be unique.”

Kelly implied that any of Kimball’s altered masterpieces had to be more sophisticated than Duchamp’s feeble gesture of scrawling a moustache on a post-card sized reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and after viewing Kimball’s altered masterworks in this article, who can disagree with Kelly’s inference?

So why then are Kimball’s paintings not included in the collections of postmodern works currently held by today’s museums?

Kelly went on to lampoon “the so-called Subway Atelier in New York City” as pretenders to the throne of artistic genius. His reference to graffiti writers or the “American alteration group” as he put it, is instructive for two reasons. When his foreword was written in 1964 everyone understood graffiti to be the artless defacement of public property, this was accepted even by those making the graffiti, so Kelly was implying in a humorous way that Kimball was only slightly more talented than the hooligans that scrawled on subway walls.

2009 altered painting by Banksy, in which the original Old Master painter was not identified.

2009 altered painting by Banksy, in which the original Old Master painter was not identified.

But not even Kelly’s perceptive outlook and steely skepticism could have prepared him for the day when those “messy monkeys armed with melting chocolate bars” would actually be seated at the pinnacle of the elite art world.

I never forgot Kimball’s Art Afterpieces, though it seems the rest of the world did. Searching online for evidence of the book’s existence turns up almost nothing, scarcely even a mention.

More baffling is Kimball’s persona non grata status in the elite art world, where kitsch aesthetics are all the rage and lowbrow art regularly, if mystifyingly, fetches astronomical prices.

Today’s museum curators, gallery directors, arts writers, critics, art historians, and wealthy art collectors pay no attention to Kimball, but I say, give credit where credit is due.

At the time of its publication Art Afterpieces was a kitsch joke book that no one attached any importance to, least of all Kimball. Art world gatekeepers have since invented the theories that could be used - if they were so inclined - to describe Kimball’s works. He might be depicted as an “appropriation artist” that “deconstructed accepted boundaries” through the use of “ironic repurposed imagery.” With enough of that kind of regularly appearing hype, Kimball, even from the great beyond, could be transformed into an international art star.

Still, I think his avenging spirit, with melting chocolate bars in hand, would most likely come after those responsible for his deification.

"The Abduction of the Sabine Women" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594-1665). Poussin painted his canvas between the years 1633-34.

"The Abduction of the Sabine Women" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594-1665). Poussin painted his canvas between the years 1633-34.

"George Washington" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on a portrait of the first President of the United States as painted by Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828).

"George Washington" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on a portrait of the first President of the U.S. as painted by Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828).

"Madame Hamelin" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Jacques Louis David (French, 1748-1825). David painted this portrait between the years 1802-1810.

"Madame Hamelin" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an oil painting by Jacques Louis David (French, 1748-1825). David painted his canvas between the years 1802-1810.

"The Artist’s Studio" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Jan Vermeer (Netherlandish, 1632-1675). Vermeer painted this work in 1665.

"The Artist’s Studio" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Jan Vermeer (Netherlandish, 1632-1675). Vermeer painted this work in 1665.

"Portrait of Niccolo Spinelli" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Hans Memling (Netherlandish 1435-1494). The German-born Memling became one of the greatest masters of early Netherlandish painting. Memling is thought to have painted this portrait in 1480 or later.

"Portrait of Niccolo Spinelli" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Hans Memling (Netherlandish 1435-1494). The German-born Memling became one of the greatest masters of early Netherlandish painting. Memling is thought to have painted this portrait in 1480 or later.

"Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Sir Thomas Lawrence (British, 1769-1830). Lawrence painted this masterpiece in 1794,  Kimball transformed the subject into a militant communist activist. At the time, "Pinko" was a pejorative aimed at those who were left of center politically.

"Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Sir Thomas Lawrence (British, 1769-1830). Lawrence painted this masterpiece in 1794, Kimball transformed the subject into a militant communist activist. At the time, "Pinko" was a pejorative aimed at those who were left of center politically.

"Jonathan Buttal: The Blue Boy" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on an original by Sir Thomas Lawrence (British, 1727-1788). Lawrence painted this masterpiece in 1770, Kimball transformed the subject into an early 1960s Beatnik.

"Jonathan Buttal: The Blue Boy" - Altered painting by Kimball, based on a work by Sir Thomas Lawrence (British, 1727-1788). Lawrence painted this canvas in 1770, Kimball transformed the subject into an early 1960s Beatnik.

“Please Do Not Enter”

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

Photo of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. ©

Photo of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. ©

Given the abysmal level of cultural literacy in the U.S. at present, it is utterly astonishing that some 50 years ago a nationally televised popular show like Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concert” series even existed on mainstream TV. By comparison, today’s television broadcasting only provides further evidence that we have slipped into the New Dark Ages.

On January 18, 1958, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) gave his very first televised Young People’s Concert at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, of which he was the conductor. The What Does Music Mean lecture and concert was broadcast countrywide on CBS television, and the station judged the classical music concerts of such consequence that they were given the station’s prime time slot for three consecutive years. Imagine that happening on today’s commercial television networks.

During the 1958 concert Bernstein explained classical music as a creative force to a packed hall of youngsters not much older than I was at the time, and he conducted the orchestra in renditions of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. I faithfully watched the Young People’s Concert series as a child and the instructive presentations fired my imagination (between 1958 and 1972, their were 53 such concerts). Bernstein addressed youngsters without talking down to them, but the thing was, his delivery was so sophisticated that even adults unfamiliar with classical music were held mesmerized by the conductor’s lectures.

Since it is rarely mentioned, it might come as a surprise to aficionados of classical music that Bernstein was a political activist that held socialist ideas, and because of this the FBI put him under surveillance beginning in the early 1940s. In his book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, author Barry Seldes noted that the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, “listed Bernstein for incarceration in a detention camp in the event of a national emergency”.

You owe it to yourself to watch that very first 1958 Carnegie Hall broadcast (A YouTube video of the original telecast can be found here; parts I, II, III, and IV). In the presentation Bernstein acknowledges a correlation between classical music and visual art;

“Now one of the best pieces that paint pictures is by a Russian Composer called Mussorgsky and he wrote a piece called ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ What Mussorgsky did was to take a lot of pictures hanging on the wall in a museum and write music that he thought could describe them - in other words, to try and do with notes what a painter does with paint. But of course notes can’t do what paint can do; you can’t draw your nose with F sharps, you can’t draw a building or paint a sunset with notes. But you can sort of try to do it.”

It amuses me that Bernstein wished he could “sort of try to do” what an artist does with paint, but the Maestro would undoubtedly have found my clumsy attempts at musicality to be just as entertaining. My passion for classical music has always been based on an appreciation of it being the highest achievement in the musical arts. Not only do I listen to it everyday, but I give it my attention when working at the easel. It is a grievous mistake to think of the genre as an exclusive area of interest for snobs and the well-to-do, it belongs to one and all. The high arts, which include classical music, prepare one for lofty thoughts, ideals and dreams, and without these we cannot hope to create a better world.

In his 1973 Harvard lecture series, The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein addressed the question of aesthetics, and in doing so lobbed a grenade into the postmodern present. One can almost hear the gate keepers of the official art establishment diving for cover:

“(….) But these days, the search for meaning through beauty and vice versa becomes even more important as each day mediocrity and art-mongering increasingly uglify our lives; and the day when this search for John Keats’ truth-beauty ideal becomes irrelevant, then we can all shut up and go back to our caves.”

Bernstein was making reference to the 1819 poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by English Romantic poet John Keats, specifically the final two lines of the poem. Bernstein imagined Keats’ words as a philosophical guideline for civilization, and I concur. “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

When getting shot is not art

Update 5/11/2015: Chris Burden died at his Topanga Canyon, California home on May 10, 2015. He died of malignant melanoma.

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Shooting someone outdoors for reasons having nothing to do with aesthetics is most definitely not a work of art. However, shooting someone in a gallery, if properly motivated by contemporary art theory, does comprise a profound work of art. Just ask any au courant hipster.

On May 15, 2012 in the rural town of Stockholm, New York, Shawn Mossow shot his friend in the right leg with a .22 caliber rifle because his pal had continually pestered him to do so; the young man simply wanted to know what it would feel like to be shot, so Mossow obliged his buddy’s request. After Mossow and his chum acted out their irresponsible experiment, the 25-year-old shooter was arrested by the police of St. Lawrence County and charged with reckless endangerment and held on $10,000 bail.

Mossow’s 24-year-old friend (the police have not released his name) was taken to a hospital and is expected to make a full recovery from the gunshot wound; he corroborated Mossow’s explanation that the shooting was consensual. While the act involved mutual consent, that hardly seems an excuse; what if Mossow’s friend had been permanently disabled or killed?

Although the .22 rimfire cartridge is generally regarded as an “underpowered” bullet used primarily for target shooting and hunting small animals (squirrels, rabbits, etc.), a well placed shot can nevertheless be fatal to a human being. For instance, if Mossow had managed to shoot his friend in the femoral artery of the thigh, the man could have rapidly bleed to death and Mossow would now be facing a murder indictment instead of reckless endangerment charges. The upcoming trial of Mossow and friend should be an interesting one, though not likely to be covered by the art press.

It really is a shame that the two lowbrow goons in the small town of Stockholm, New York were unfamiliar with contemporary art theory, otherwise they might have transformed their act of tomfoolery into a highly acclaimed performance art piece; a conceptual work that could have brought fame and fortune instead of public censure, crushing legal problems, and possible jail sentences. This is what happens when you do not read publications like Art In America.

On November 19th, 1971, a 25-year-old conceptual artist named Chris Burden had an associate shoot him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle during a “performance” piece titled Shoot. The event took place at the F Space gallery in Santa Ana; Burden stood against a wall in the empty white gallery as an assistant fired a single shot into the artist’s exposed upper left arm - the event was filmed for future generations. That Burden’s assistant could have hit the major blood vessel of the upper arm, the brachial artery, causing the artist to bleed to death; that the .22 caliber round might have ricocheted off the gallery wall and into a bystander’s head, was certainly no cause for alarm. The act was after all a deeply philosophical work of art; Burden and his assistant never faced charges of reckless endangerment.

No doubt most people are troubled by the legal and moral ramifications involved in what Mossow and friend did, and so the harebrained duo are justifiably rebuked and now find themselves facing court proceedings. On the other hand, Burden, having escaped the fate of pushing up conceptual daisies, has gone on to become a much celebrated art star.

Vallen: Under the Big Black Sun

My 1980 silkscreen print, Whatever Happened To The Future!, is included in Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. My print was created at the height of the Cold War when nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed a distinct possibility. Originally conceived as a street poster, I fly-posted my print on L.A. avenues in 1980 and gave it away at antiwar protests in the city. Eventually the print was reproduced as a cover for the L.A. Weekly newspaper in the year of the poster’s creation, extending the distribution of the image across the nation.

1980 Silkscreen poster by Mark Vallen

1980 silkscreen poster by Mark Vallen at MOCA's Under The Big Black Sun

Signed copies of Whatever Happened To The Future! can be directly purchased here. In addition my print appears in the illustrated exhibition catalogue for Under the Big Black Sun, which also features essays by art critics and historians, Francis Colpitt, Thomas Crow, Charles Desmarais, Peter Frank, and MOCA’s chief curator Paul Schimmel.

Mr. Schimmel wrote that the exhibit; “addresses the dynamic period in American art when modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end, and a multiplicity of movements, forms, and genres began to take shape simultaneously.” The exhibit’s name might sound familiar to fans of early 80’s L.A. punk rock. Schimmel, explains why; “The exhibition borrows its title from an album by the Los Angeles–based punk band X to suggest that, during this post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era, disillusionment had eclipsed ‘California Dreamin’ and hippie optimism. The title also alludes to the plethora of individual art practices, both studio and poststudio, that flourished within this dystopian atmosphere, creating an artistic milieu in which ‘everything under the sun’ was permitted and produced.”

When I produced the Whatever Happened To The Future! print I was deeply involved in the late 1970s punk movement, an experience that had enormous impact on my political and aesthetic views. In fact, I was in the midst of creating a number of paintings and drawings on the theme of L.A. punk when I briefly shifted gears to design Whatever Happened. In essence I am a social realist painter and draftsman, and on a personal level the most fulfilling work I do is in that sphere, so in retrospect I feel somewhat ambivalent about the Whatever Happened print. It was unquestionably imbued with punk aesthetics, but it was also influenced by the philosophy of the Situationists (more on that later).

The impetus to create Whatever Happened To The Future! came from a long train of events. As a child in the 1950s the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full swing; I literally grew up with the atomic bomb as it had become emblematic of American power. As a teenager in the late 1960s I became a peace activist opposed to atomic weaponry, but by the late 1970s the arms race had relentlessly escalated to the point where it seemed only a matter of time before either the U.S. or the Soviets would launch atomic Armageddon. Here I might add that in 1978 one of my favorite L.A. punk bands, The Weirdos, released an incendiary single titled We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb, a searing indictment of U.S. militarism; two years later I would create my silkscreen print.

As previously mentioned, in the late 1970s I began reading the theoretical tracts of the Situationist International, a small group of disaffected artists and left intellectuals active in Europe (mostly France) from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The Situationists influenced a number of the more politically minded punks and artists of the late 1970s, and while I never fully subscribed to their beliefs, I found some of their ideas intriguing. Their stance that “art must not only be critical in its content, it must also be self-critical in its form”, had great appeal to me at the time; it meshed perfectly with punk aesthetics. The Situationists advocated “détournement”, i.e., “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble” for the purpose of “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” A Situationist analysis of culture, combined with the apocalyptic vision of punk, led to my creating Whatever Happened To The Future!

There is little doubt in my mind that Situationist philosophy influenced performance and conceptual art, but today’s postmodern artists use the Situationist method of détournement uncoupled from its guiding political principle of subversive quotation. Postmodernists generally avail themselves of the Situationist détournement roadmap but have discarded the compass (Richard Prince comes to mind), so the road they travel endlessly loops back to art that exists solely as an adjunct to power, privilege, and profit, the triumvirate Situationists sought to end.

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One of the exhibit's large-screen slideshows.

A sprawling multi-faceted exhibition, Under the Big Black Sun gives some insight into the period it covers, and I found the exhibit more engaging and insightful than expected.

There is a gloomy undercurrent to many of the installations, photographs, videos, and conceptual pieces that dominate the show; MOCA providing context for the art by projecting large-screen slideshows throughout the exhibit space that display bleak images from the era; carnage in Vietnam; the assassination of Harvey Milk; the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, etc. Painting receives short shrift in this exhibit, reflecting the postmodern clarion call that “painting is dead.”

Assembled works in the exhibit address a multitude of concerns - from consumerism, urban life, American history and militarism, to issues of racial, gender, and cultural identity. A number of works in the exhibit are well thought out and skillfully executed, while others are intentionally artless, exasperatingly incomprehensible, and narcissistically inward looking. Taken as a whole the exhibit leaves one with the impression that the late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of dissolution and entropy, which was certainly true, but the weakness of the show is that it provides no real understanding of the socio-economic factors behind such a radical shift in aesthetics. To be fair, mounting such a vast exhibit is a considerable undertaking, and Mr. Schimmel has barely scratched the surface of a historic period just beginning to be understood.

In the MOCA screening room with the Cramps

In the screening room with Target Video (pictured, the Cramps).

As a nexus for artists of various backgrounds to experiment with subversive aesthetics, California’s early punk rock milieu offered unique terrain.

Under the Big Black Sun presents a barebones look at the phenomenon, starting with punk’s confrontational graphic design, represented in the exhibit through flyers, posters, and extant copies of punk magazines like Slash, Search & Destroy, and Flipside. I worked at Slash for a time, creating drawings that appeared as cover art for two separate editions (works not included in the MOCA exhibit).

The San Francisco-based Target Video project of Joe Rees and Jill Hoffman documented some of the first West coast punk bands, and a small screening room in the MOCA exhibit projects live performances captured by Target of the Screamers, Weirdos, Dils, Avengers, X, Mutants, and others. The Los Angeles punk scene was also a testing ground for performance art, and the MOCA show presents a short video of The Kipper Kids (Martin von Haselberg and Brian Routh), who were closely associated with the early L.A. punk explosion. Mark Pauline was well known in early punk circles for his bizarre robot machines, the first of which MOCA has on display.

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Viewing the "agitprop" posters at MOCA's Under The Big Black Sun.

My Whatever Happened To The Future! print is appropriately situated amongst the posters and drawings MOCA defined as “engaging in social dissent and political protest”.

Vibrantly colorful, unabashedly activist in orientation, and sometimes confrontational, these works condemn war, racism, and state violence, rally the public to collective action against injustice, and encourage viewers to become part of a people’s movement to expand and deepen democracy. Displayed are posters from collectives like La Raza Silkscreen Center and Fireworks Graphics, as well as prints by artists Malaquías Montoya, Carlos Almaraz, Rachael Romero, and Rupert García (García will appear at MOCA on Thursday, Dec 8, at 6:30 pm, to discuss his work - the event is free with museum admission).

The overtly political prints and drawings mentioned above are incongruously out of sync with Paul Schimmel’s supposition that “(….) modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end.” As the fly in the postmodern ointment, I must point out that the artworks in question reveal neither a shortage of optimism, nor lack of certitude that a united citizenry armed with the truth can create a better world; which is antithetical to the postmodernist view of there being no objective truths or linear historical development.

Paul Schimmel makes his case that “what cohered as postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between 1974 and 1981″. Nevertheless, one might also make the argument - as does cultural critic Fredric Jameson - that postmodernism, as “the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism”, marks the alleged triumph of “commodification over all spheres of life”. It is typified by depthlessness and affectlessness, a loss of historicity, a fascination with the “‘degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch”, and as a product of the spectacle society of multinational capitalism, it is “catastrophe and progress all together.”

As if to make my point, that “master narrative of progress and succession”, otherwise known as the material force of history, is in effect knocking at MOCA’s front door. Tens of millions of Americans are without work, have no health insurance, or have lost their homes to bank foreclosures as social conditions in the U.S. worsen. While Under The Big Black Sun opened to the public, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement was just beginning in New York’s financial district. As I write this, the anti-plutocracy demonstrations have now spread to over 100 U.S. cities, with a major encampment ensconced on the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall, just a few blocks from MOCA. How artists in part responded to the social crisis of late 1970s America can to a certain extent be viewed at Under the Big Black Sun. The question for today is, in what manner will American artists respond to the biggest economic collapse since the 1930s?

Whatever Happened To The Future? It remains to be created by all of us.

Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 runs at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) from October 1, 2011 through February 13, 2012. The Geffen is located at 152 N. Central, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Phone: 213-626-6222.

Lucian Freud: RIP

On July 20, 2011 famed realist painter Lucian Freud died in London at the age of 88.

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) held a major retrospective of works by Freud in 2003. Consisting of 110 paintings, prints, and drawings, it was the one and only exhibit held at MOCA that I was ever impressed with. While the exhibition was still running the co-editor of CounterPunch magazine, Jeffrey St. Clair, published a review of the show. Titled The Paintings of Lucian Freud: Flesh and Its Discontents, the essay is a close approximation of my own feelings regarding the artist. An excerpt:

” (….) from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic. Too much technique. And the concession must be made. Freud is very serious; his irony is dark and far from the flippant excretions of a Jeff Koons; and his is a master technician, cribbing from sources as varied as Egyptian painting and sculpture, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, Velasquez, Cezanne, Courbet and Bonnard.”

 Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

As if echoing St. Clair’s words the Chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Charles Saumarez Smith, commenting on the death of the painter, said that Freud’s passing marked “the end of an era”, and now that Freud is gone, “it is as though the figurative tradition has gone with him.”

Mr. Saumarez Smith went on to say of those artists who continue to carry the banner of figurative realism, “it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream.”

Naturally I beg to differ. While Saumarez Smith may believe Freud’s “surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form” to be a thing of the past, the discipline has outlasted the complete dominance of abstract expressionism; I have no doubt figurative realism will also survive the whims and excesses of today’s postmodernist art.