Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

LONDON CALLING!

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

The May 2010 elections in the United Kingdom brought to power the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government of prime minister David Cameron (former head of the Conservative Party), and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat leader). Theirs is the first coalition government in the U.K. since the Second World War, and by all appearances it is an unmitigated disaster for the British people.

The “Con-Dem” coalition, as it has been justly labeled by critics, is implementing savage cuts to social services that will result in cuts totaling $130 billion by 2015.

The Con-Dem budget cuts are broadly attacking the public sector, from council housing, aid for the elderly, fire and police services, etc., to deep cuts in education and national arts programs.

Public resistance to the cuts is growing, but a militant refusal to accept the government’s austerity measures has so far been best expressed by U.K. students, who have been organizing teach-ins, walk-outs, marches, and other forms of protest. Con-Dem cuts to education have been especially vicious, with up to 80% of the teaching budget to be slashed and student tuition tripled to 9,000 pounds a year (during the election campaign Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg promised his party would vote against any tuition hike). Students are also opposed to the Con-Dem move to eliminate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a subsidy of £30 a week to low-income students that helps with the purchase of books, transportation, computer supplies, and other necessities in higher education.

On Nov. 10th over 52,000 students marched through central London - a protest against education cuts that culminated in the forceful occupation of Tory party headquarters. Days later, on November 24th, around 100,000 students participated in the “Carnival of Resistance” national demonstrations. Afterwards student activists announced “London Calling,” another day of national demonstrations to take place on Thursday, December 9, 2010. This time the students vow to march on the Parliament in London, where the Con-Dem coalition government will be voting on education cuts. Clare Solomon, president of the Student Union at the University of London, hopes the march will be the biggest student protest in history, saying “This is the fight of our lives and we don’t intend to lose it.”

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

The poster announcing the London Calling student protest knowingly refers to London Calling, the apocalyptic song and title for the 1979 double album by the U.K. punk band, The Clash. Designed by the band’s official “war artist” Ray Lowry (1944-2008), the album cover featured a photo of Clash bass player Paul Simonon violently smashing his electric guitar onstage during the band’s 1979 New York performance. Lowry’s graphic design was a combative inversion of the album design for Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album, which used a black and white photo of the crooning Presley strumming an acoustic guitar.

The song London Calling was released as a single in 1979, and its politically charged lyrics became anthemic to the international punk movement. Apparently those confrontational lyrics have become eternal; a stanza from The Clash song is quoted on the London Calling student poster - “London calling to the faraway towns, now that war is declared and battle come down.” By alluding to the contentious spirit of The Clash, U.K. students are upping the ante in their row with the Con-Dem government… but they are not alone.

Devastating cuts are being made to U.K. arts funding, with the Con-Dem coalition proposing that nearly 30 percent be slashed from the national arts budget, a move sure to ravage galleries, museums, community arts organizations, orchestras, and theaters. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Michael Boyd, has called the cuts “a big blow to theatres.” Actor Sir Patrick Stewart condemned the cuts, saying they will be “challenging if not life-threatening in some areas of live theatre.” Grants to museums are slated to be cut by 15 percent, and money to the Arts Council of England, which distributes funds to hundreds of arts venues - will be slashed by some 30 percent. Arts education in U.K. schools is also targeted for reduction or elimination. Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), which has provided arts education plans to schools, has had its budget cut in half to £19 million. The aforementioned only begins  to describe the ruinous cuts - but how are U.K. artists resisting the conservative onslaught?

A number of artists have organized the “Arts Against Cuts” (AAC) web log, which is described as “an umbrella space for students, artists and cultural workers to display and align their ideas and actions against the cuts.” AAC has reported that students at Goldsmiths College and Camberwell College of Arts have both seized and occupied buildings in protest against arts cuts. AAC was also involved in a protest at the December 6, 2010 Turner prize awards at the Tate Britain.

The 2010 Turner prize winner was “sound artist” Susan Philipsz, who won for her “aural sculpture” titled Lowlands, a tape recording of Philipsz singing the 16th century Scottish lament “Lowlands Away” while standing beneath three different bridges over the Clyde river in Glasgow, Scotland. The prestigious Turner is Britain’s top arts award, and 1st place winner Philipsz received 25,000 pounds ($39,000). The Turner competition is heavily weighted in favor of postmodern conceptual works, with painters effectively barred as competitors. As usual, the “anti-anti art” Stuckist group held a protest in front of the Tate, goading Turner prize party goers with signs that read; “Abandon Art All Ye Who Enter Here.” Stuckist spokeswoman Jasmine Maddock commented to the press, “It’s not art, it’s music. They don’t give the Mercury Music Prize to a painter, they shouldn’t give the Turner Prize to a singer.”

  Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

But this year the Stuckists were not the lone rabble-rousers at the gala art world affair. The Dec. 6 event was disrupted by up to 400 students and art teachers from London art colleges, who invaded the Tate gallery to protest the arts cuts. The protestors inside the Tate held an hour long teach-in against the cuts and how to resist them, then attempted to enter the Turner prize room with the intention of interrupting the televised proceedings. Tate security personnel prevented the protesters from entering the hall where the award ceremony took place, but the demonstrator’s chants of “Education should be free for all - not a product for purchase,” reverberated throughout the museum and could plainly be heard in the TV broadcast. The chanting nearly made the announcement of the Turner prize winner inaudible. To her credit, when Susan Philipsz accepted her prize she said, “I support Artists Against the Cuts.”

The protestors refused to leave the museum, and instead continued to hold a mass teach-in and life drawing class near the Tate’s entrance. A series of speakers addressed the crowd regarding the arts cuts, and others handed out flyers about the Con-Dem plan to cut arts funding. In the aftermath of the Tate debacle, Artists Against Cuts released a flyer with a headline that read, “We Shut Down the Turner Prize; Now Let’s Shut Down London.” The flyer exhorted readers to participate in the London Calling mass student demonstration, stating;

“this is the most important national day of action before parliament vote on legislation which will treble university fees. we must fight back against this DESTRUCTIVE ATTACK on the arts, humanities, and social services. come and join the arts bloc as we march to protect the intellectual health of our nation. we are not just fighting fees; we are fighting philistinism!”

The British public’s rejection of the Con-Dem cuts, and in particular their disdain for the double-crossing Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, should be instructive for citizens of the United States. The Tory leader David Cameron ran his election campaign on a platform of “voting for hope, voting for optimism, voting for change.” Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg ran his campaign on promises of a “new politics.” It all has a familiar ring to it. Once in power as a ruling coalition, the “change” promised by the Con-Dem partnership became the most draconian cuts in social services since the 1920s. Now that President Obama has extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, a betrayal of his campaign promises and a total capitulation to the billionaire class, the nature of his administration stands fully exposed.

Look to the rising masses of the U.K. for an answer, and remember the lyrics to that Clash song - “London Calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboards, you boys and girls.”

UPDATES:

In a forgone conclusion the Parliament voted on Dec. 9th to pass the tuition hikes, despite massive protests across the U.K. The 323-302 vote will raise tuition fees for university students from around $5,200 to $14,200. Students and their supporters are planning further creative protest actions against the Con-Dem austerity regime. On Dec. 10th Counterfire.org reported that “students across the country are meeting to form a National Student Assembly and to plan the next steps in escalating the campaign.”

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

During the Dec. 9 protests the students behind the occupation of the Slade School of Fine Art (Slade Occupation), Arts Against Cuts, and other art activist groups and their supporters, occupied the National Gallery in London. Approximately 200 students and artists took over room 43 of the National Gallery in order to hold a teach-in regarding the Con-Dem austerity plans. The activists seized that particular room because, as John Jordan of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (one of the groups that participated in the occupation) put it; “We chose room 43 because Manet’s Execution of Maximilian is displayed there and there is a work by Courbet down the corridor. It shows two ways of artists responding to rebellion. Manet’s painting is about political betrayal and Courbet gave up painting and applied his creativity to the Paris Commune.”

Arts Against Cuts released a flyer at the event that read; “We are here because: All our country’s art schools are under immediate threat from this education bill. We must preserve our cultural future as much as our cultural past. We are not just fighting fees and cuts - we are fighting philistinism, culture is invaluable. We act in solidarity with public sector workers and employees of the National Gallery.” Gallery staff did not interfere with the occupation, even after the National Gallery had closed. Participants in the non-violent action wrote a collective manifesto they titled The Nomadic Hive Manifesto before finally ending their protest at around 8 p.m. Slade Occupation has posted photos of the occupation teach-in, and Arts Against Cuts have also posted photos.

Sternchen Productions have uploaded a beautiful video of U.K. citizens engaged in an anti-austerity protest action that took place on Dec. 8.

Why Beauty Matters

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, Birth of Venus (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, "Birth of Venus" (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In November of 2009 the BBC network in the UK ran The Modern Beauty Season, a series of films produced for television on the concept of beauty in modern art. The series offered six films that ran the gambit of opinion on contemporary art, but it is the film by the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, that I wish to address here.

As a working artist I found myself in general agreement with some points made in Scruton’s film; that appreciating and creating things of beauty is a necessary part of the human experience, that beauty is “a value as important as truth and goodness,” that it has been central to civilization, and that “it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings.” We agree that there is a spiritual aspect to beauty - though we would likely disagree over a definition of “spiritual.” So yes, beauty does indeed matter, and I am of the opinion that it should be central in all the various disciplines of the arts; but perhaps my definition of such an elusive and ephemeral thing as beauty is more expansive than Mr. Scruton’s, whose vision seems to be restricted to what is known as European “classicism.” I am at variance with a number of his assumptions and inferences; the particulars of my differences are in part laid out in this article.

Postmodern art makes for an easy target, as it is has altogether forsaken skill, craft, and beauty - the very things most people think of when considering the arts. Postmodern artists from the late 1960s to the early 1970s attempted to remove art from the marketplace by creating “conceptual” works, i.e., performance, video, installation, etc., instead of merchandise for market consumption. We have seen how well that worked out. The art movement that previously strove for the “dematerialization of the art object,” as pro-conceptualist art critic and activist Lucy Lippard put it in 1973, has today placed itself in unwavering service to the elite art establishment it once sought to circumvent. Capitalism co-opted and absorbed conceptual art, which has become more of a commodity fetish than any of its other art world predecessors; it is synonymous with astronomical prices, billionaire art collectors, and shamelessly venal celebrity art stars - all good enough reasons to disparage it in my view. But that is my critique, not Roger Scruton’s.

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters the soft-spoken and erudite Scruton makes a populist argument against much of contemporary art that will no doubt strike a chord with significant numbers of people. But seeing as how the general public is largely indifferent to the goings-on of the art world, Scruton’s presentation provides surprisingly little insight into the field of art, instead he sets up a straw man, fueling the fires of misunderstanding by focusing on the more egregious examples of postmodern excess (for instance, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s Sick Film Work 610), then suggesting that liberal elites, moral dissipation, and the loss of religion are the reasons behind such works being produced. What I find interesting is that Scruton does not explicitly state such opinion in his film, he alludes to it - but he reveals his stance with more clarity and honesty in his writings. For example, in a 2006 essay titled Quo vadis? (Latin for, “Where are you going?”) he uncategorically declared his position:

“We cannot rescue our civilization merely by overthrowing the Marxist, post-Marxist, deconstructionist and postmodern ideologies that inhabit the universities. Even if we returned to the classical curriculum, and taught European culture as it was taught to me, that would not bring back the public consensus on which our civilization depends. (….) The most important thing on which European people can be encouraged to agree is that our inheritance is Judaeo-Christian, and that the Bible, and the two religions built on it, are an indispensable part of our culture.”

There are moments in Why Beauty Matters where Scruton sounds like a critic of the capitalist culture industry, as in the following comment;

“Our consumer society puts usefulness first, and beauty is no better than a side-effect. Since art is useless it doesn’t matter what you read, what you look at, what you listen to. We are besieged by messages on every side, titillated - tempted by appetite - never addressed, and that is one reason why beauty is disappearing from our world. ‘Getting and spending’ wrote Wordsworth ‘we lay waste our powers.’ In our culture today the advert is more important than the work of art, and artworks often try to capture our attention as adverts do, by being brash or outrageous. (….) Like adverts, today’s works of art aim to create a brand - even if they have no product to sell, except themselves.”

On the surface level Scruton’s remarks may have a ring of truth to them, but ultimately his critique boils down to right-wing populism, never attributing the crisis in modern art to the pernicious role of money - as did Robert Hughes in his fabulous The Mona Lisa Curse - but to liberalism and the waning influence of religion in the West. Why Beauty Matters is very nearly ahistorical in its presentation.

Detail of the marble sculpture, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his Ecstasy of St. Teresa (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of the marble sculpture, "Ecstasy of St. Teresa," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

While Scruton points out how certain philosophers of old influenced the world of European art, and he briefly makes mention of the substantial impact science had upon the arts, he never once mentions the central issue of patronage - a deciding factor in art history. In the film Scruton takes an almost mystical approach in describing how spirituality and religion have historically been linked to concepts of beauty, while completely ignoring the role of the Church as the primary financial backer and authority in the arts. Likewise, he ignores the role of monarchists and other ruling elites, who also tightly controlled art by way of patronage. Artists did not begin to free themselves of this rigid control until the early 19th century.

In one of his recently published articles, Beauty and Desecration, Scruton wrote that “Modern artists like Otto Dix too often wallow in the base and the loveless.” That observation reveals much about Scruton, and how the two of us have divergent concepts of what is beautiful. Dix lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of German history. He fought in the trenches of World War I where he saw humanity ripped to shreds in the world’s first mechanized war. At war’s end he became politicized, and through his art expressed disdain for militarism and Germany’s ruling class. He witnessed the fall of the German monarchy, the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi seizure of power. In their brutal repression of the arts, the Nazis removed Dix from the Prussian Academy and his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy - his dismissal letter declaring that his art “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.”

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

Dix was forbidden to exhibit by the Nazis, they removed his artworks from museums and had them destroyed. They included his paintings in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, meant to condemn modern art as the work of Bolsheviks, “Jews,” and the insane. Dix was forcibly conscripted into the fascist home guard in 1945 at the age of 53, captured and later released by the French army at the close of the war. Given that chronicle, it is shocking that Scruton would accuse Dix of wallowing in the “loveless.” What type of art would Scruton have preferred to see Dix paint during that despairing period - inoffensive still lifes? Considering the barbarity that was all around him, it is remarkable that Dix painted anything at all, but even the most distorted of his expressionist grotesqueries contained more truth, and yes, beauty - than all the realistic classical nudes and respectable portraits commissioned by the German bourgeoisie of the period. Dix’s creations were beautiful, simply by virtue of the truths they told.

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton disavows modern architecture, and at one point in the film he takes the viewer on a tour through the community near London where he grew up, “a charming Victorian town with terraced streets and Gothic churches, crowned by elegant public buildings and smart hotels.” Scruton’s community was forever altered starting in the 1960s, when homes were demolished to make way for a substantial number of large office buildings and a bus station that brought people to and from London. Scruton claims the brand new modernist style buildings - “all designed without consideration for beauty” - were proof that “if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Today the office buildings and the bus station are boarded up and abandoned; everything has been vandalized and covered with graffiti. The once thriving community is now dilapidated and in a state of neglect, “but we shouldn’t blame the vandals” Scruton insists, “this place was built by vandals, and those that added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Standing in front of a large deserted office, Scruton says; “This building is boarded up because nobody has a use for it, nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it, nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damn ugly.” That assertion is pure demagoguery - of course people have a use for the building! There are countless “ugly” buildings currently serving as vital centers of community life, whether in housing, commerce or government. While some may find uninviting architecture to be depressing, that is not what leads to the collapse of urban centers; cities and towns shut down for economic reasons. The property owners that financed and directed the construction of the buildings Scruton deems offensive have now found it more profitable to close and padlock their properties, or have them razed to the ground; such are the workings of capitalism.

In his analysis of architecture and urban decay Scruton makes no mention of government policy or economics, as if towns and cities collapse into ruin simply because people have an aversion to unsightly architecture. He says nothing of the pressures brought about by layoffs and astronomical unemployment, cuts in government services, privatization, inflation, recession, and an increasingly globalized capitalist economy. He does not talk about the role of banks, real estate firms, and other financial interests that fail to invest in communities considered “unprofitable.” Regarding the decades long collapse of his home town near London, Scruton does not bring up Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, whose economic policies resulted in unrelenting assaults upon the British and Irish working class, the destruction of British industry, and crushing unemployment that by 1982 had put well over 3 million people out of work.

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton seems reluctant to say just who is responsible for all of this unappealing architecture, but as I have previously noted, he is more than willing to lay blame in his published articles. In The modern cult of ugliness, a December 2009 article for the Daily Mail, Scruton lets us know who the culprits are; “official uglification of our world is the work of the ivory-towered elites of the liberal classes - people who have little sympathy for how the rest of us live and who, with their mania for modernizing, are happy to rip up beliefs that have stood the test of time for millennia.”

Roger Scruton’s credentials are impeccable; a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University’s Blackfriars Hall, a Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of more than 30 books on cultural and political affairs. As should be apparent from reading this article, this learned man is also an ardent conservative. Scruton is quite well-known in Britain for his outspokenness, but less renowned in the U.S., apart from being appreciated in certain right-wing circles. He is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (home to such U.S. neoconservative luminaries as Michael Novak and Irving Kristol - the now deceased “godfather of neoconservatism”).

Mr. Scruton has been a columnist for a number of conservative publications. In Totalitarian Sentimentality, his Dec. 2009 article for the neoconservative journal The American Spectator, Scruton makes clear his view that conservatism best guards all things noble and just, while liberalism is but a hair’s breadth from tyranny and despotism. Scruton’s fervent political conservatism is inseparable from his views on art and culture.

In June of 2006, Scruton was invited to speak in Antwerp, Belgium before the Vlaams Belang (”Flemish Interest”), an extreme right-wing party of Flemish ultra-nationalists who seek the independence of Flanders. Variously described as xenophobic, racist, and fascist by their numerous opponents, the platform of Vlaams Belang calls for; Deportation of all economic immigrants who fail to assimilate, Repeal of anti-racism and anti-discrimination legislation, and full and unconditional amnesty for people convicted of collaboration with Nazi Germany. By having addressed the Vlaams Belang on the subject of his opposition to multiculturalism, Scruton makes it exceedingly difficult for his views on art and culture to be taken seriously - at least by this artist.

Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters is available for viewing on YouTube in 6 parts that are each approximately 10 minutes long. I have summarized each part below. I encourage everyone to view Mr. Scruton’s film in its totality.

UPDATE 2/28/2014: The YouTube video originally linked to in this article was removed. However, the “Documentary Addict” website now offers the complete Why Beauty Matters video.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 1)
Scruton states in the opening of the film; “In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but ‘originality,’ however achieved, and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness, architecture to has become soulless and sterile. (…) One word is writ large on all these ugly things, and that word is ‘Me,’ my profits, my desires, my pleasures, and art has nothing to say in response to this except, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we are losing the meaning of life.” At the end of this clip, Scruton engages postmodern artist Michael Craig-Martin in a discussion about the nature of modern art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 2)
Scruton’s conversation with Michael Craig-Martin continues in this section, with a short but quite remarkable conversation about conceptual artist Piero Manzoni - who canned his own excrement and sold it as art. Scruton continues with a general denunciation of modern art as an auxiliary to advertising and hyper-consumerism, before beginning a critique of modern architecture. He targets the “father” of modernist architecture, Louis Sullivan, for his credo of “form follows function.” Scruton avers that “Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justify the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen - and that is the crime of modern architecture.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 3)
In part 3 Scruton continues to assail modern architecture, which he asserts, is so dreadful that “it is there simply to be demolished.” He extols “traditional architecture, with its decorative details,” and tells us that in architecture “ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful, and satisfy our need for harmony.” In the remainder of this clip, Scruton presents the basic precepts behind his philosophy on art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 4)
In this clip Scruton describes how the clash between religion and enlightenment ideas impacted the world of art. He mentions the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), an English philosopher and writer who linked beauty with moral virtue - saying the two are “one and the same.” Shaftesbury’s ideas, Scruton tells us; “encouraged the cult of beauty, which raised the appreciation of art and nature to the place once occupied by the worship of God. Beauty was to fill the God shaped hole made by science. Artists were no longer illustrators of the sacred stories, who worked as servants of the church, they were discovering the stories for themselves by interpreting the secrets of nature.” Scruton also touches upon the aesthetical ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Classical Greek philosopher, Plato (429-347 BC).

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 5)
In this clip Scruton explores the connection art has had to the West’s Christian religious traditions, and what he calls the defilement of those traditions by modern art. Scruton insists that art can redeem even the most tragic, sordid, and depraved reality. Here he contrasts Eugene Delacroix’s 1827 painting of the artist’s unmade bed (Un Lit défait), to Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an actual untidy bed with sheets stained by body secretions, the surrounding floor scattered with condoms, cigarette butts, and soiled underwear. Scruton comments on the juxtaposition; “There is all the difference in the world between a real work of art - which makes ugliness beautiful - and a fake work of art, which shares the ugliness that it shows.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 6)
Scruton concludes by saying that art has become “a slave to the consumer culture, feeding our pleasures and addictions and wallowing in self-disgust. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the ugliest forms of modern art and architecture. They do not show reality, but take revenge on it, spoiling what might have been a home, and leaving us to wander unconsoled and alienated in a spiritual desert. Of course it is true that there is much in the world today that distracts and troubles us. Our lives are full of leftovers, we battle through lies and distraction, and nothing resolves. The right response however, is not to endorse this alienation - it is to look back to the path from the desert; one that will point us to a place where the real and the ideal may still exist in harmony.”

COIN: Pentagon Postmodern

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart, The History of the World, at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

In 2004 Jeremy Deller won Britain’s most prestigious art award - The Turner Prize - for his short video, Memory Bucket.

Documenting Deller’s travels through the State of Texas, the film impressed the judges at the Tate Modern in London sufficiently enough for them to honor Deller with their highest award, plus a check for $48,000. That Deller admitted he cannot paint, draw, or sculpt to save his life was no impediment to his being proclaimed numero uno in the world of postmodern art; at least for a brief moment in time.

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

Deller had actually submitted a number of installations to the Tate’s annual art competition, Memory Bucket being just one of them. In the room at the Tate that displayed all of Deller’s works, one could find his wall chart, The History of the World. Supposedly an exploration of the connections between working class brass bands and the 1980s acid house scene, the chart is a jumble of hand scrawled lines and arrows, along with the names of important bands, events, places, and concepts in music.

Deller’s chart is all but incomprehensible - even to music lovers and historians. But then, striving to create works that are easy to comprehend has never been a strong point for postmodern conceptual artists. Nonetheless, Deller’s The History of the World has been an obvious inspiration to a rather unlikely group of artists, the U.S. military’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - who are also reported to possess a total lack of skill when it comes to painting, drawing, or sculpting.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security." Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

Trying their hands at conceptual art, the Joint Chiefs have created a wall chart installation titled Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, a brash reference to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, “COIN” for short, which the Obama administration is currently applying in the Afghan war.

While their work has a strong political dimension, the Joint Chiefs have to their credit avoided the tedious moralizing so common with much of today’s political art. By dispensing with outdated notions of craft, skill, and narrative (at least one that makes any sense), the Chiefs have given us a hardheaded no-nonsense look at what really lies behind America’s “necessary war” - confusion, bewilderment, and stupefaction.

The eddy of lines and arrows swirling across the face of Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security, pulls the viewer into the work’s dense subtext having to do with counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, and the impenetrable text that floats on the surface of the piece like an opaque cloud of obscurantist chatter (”Western Affiliation Backlash-Acceptance of Afghan Methods-Overall Government Capacity”) only points to the futility of attempting to make sense of the world. To fully appreciate this ephemeral work, one must put aside logic, as well as any attempt to understand history - just as the Joint Chiefs have clearly done.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security" (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

If Jeremy Deller gave us a fractious view of the world with his unsteady scribbles and nervous squiggles, the Joint Chiefs have delivered order and tranquility with their clean lines and methodically arranged catchphrases. They have created an installation to rival the Turner Prize winning wall chart produced by Mr. Deller; in fact Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security is a postmodern masterwork that will long be remembered after the last body bags are flown out of Kabul.

Every good postmodernist knows that an artwork’s true value is determined solely by its price tag and not some foolishness like “intrinsic spirituality”, or gads - “beauty.” It was wonderful when Jeremy Deller was given $48,000 along with his Tate prize, and it was even more fantastic when Damien Hirst sold his diamond encrusted platinum skull sculpture, For the Love of God, for $100 million. But with the creation of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security piece, one need ask - what is being born, exactly? It might be the art of the 21st century! Surely by its price tag alone that is so; it took the Joint Chiefs’ $636 billion to produce Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, making it the most expensive piece of art ever produced. Time will tell whether or not there will be a buyer.

MSNBC wrote an extensive review of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security installation piece that should be read by all. Click here for a large version of the artwork. Now that the war is finally escalating in Afghanistan and spilling over into Pakistan, one can only imagine what the next conceptual work from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be like - and what it will cost.

The LACMA Train Wreck

Train - by Koons

"Train" - Jeff Koons. Work in progress. The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, has compared the $25 million 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 23, 2009, Bloomberg News filed a report titled “Koon’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by LACMA Shortfall.” The story covered the now delayed collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and artist Jeff Koons, whose monumental “sculpture” titled Train, LACMA continues to insist will be erected at the museum’s entrance.

With a projected price tag of $25 million, the work by Koons - if undertaken - will be one of the most expensive public art projects ever to be mounted. However, the collapsing economy continues to incapacitate museums and galleries across the U.S., and LACMA is no exception.

In a Nov. 21, Los Angeles Times article titled “Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hard hit by recession“, writer Mike Boehm reported that the museum’s endowments and donations shrank from a total of $129.7 million in 2007-08, to $29 million in 2008-09, a stunning loss of over $100 million!

As a result LACMA has pushed back plans to build and install Koons’ Train until 2014 at the earliest, as the museum simply does not have the required financial resources to construct the ridiculous thing.

The Bloomberg article quoted LACMA’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, Barbara Pflaumer;

“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it; someone has to write us a check. This is a very tough economy. (….) The train is something on our to-do list. There’s no question we’d like it to happen. It’s a question of whether we can make it happen.”

Some things should just not be made to happen. On more than a few occasions I have inveighed against Koons and the Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, so I will not bore you stiff by reiterating critiques already made - though a reading of past fulminations would provide some necessary background to this story. Mr. Govan has persistently worked at making the Koons project a reality, but one really has to ask - why? Is it that Govan, LACMA’s Board of Directors and wealthy contributors, actually believe Koons to be the preeminent artist of our time? I shudder to think that is so, but no other conclusion seems possible.

Considering LACMA’s shaky finances during this exceedingly difficult economic period, not to mention the hard luck millions of Americans have fallen upon - who can sympathize with squandering so much money on something so frightfully banal and stupefyingly crass? That LACMA intends to commission and install Koons’ Train to the tune of $25 million, is analogous to proposing that our great libraries be emptied of the classics and filled up with romance novels, pulp fiction, and comic books.

There is another aspect to this tale. On a surface level the Koons Train sculpture bears a close resemblance to two other train artworks; these were created in Scotland and Brazil respectively, well before Koons drew up his Train proposal for LACMA. The Scottish and Brazilian train projects are little known in the United States, so a close examination is in order. Comparing the three train projects, one is not so much left with the suspicion that Koons simply lifted his idea from others, as one is given insight into just how much Koons’ Train is totally uninspired and lifeless.

Straw Locomotive - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

"Straw Locomotive" - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

Scottish artist George Wyllie produced a public art installation and performance piece in 1987 titled, Straw Train. Wyllie paid tribute to the history of the Scottish Railway industry by building a full-sized steam engine locomotive out of straw. The work of building an accurate replica train from straw took place at the abandoned Hyde Park Works in Springburn, Scotland, where the nation’s first private locomotive company built steam engine trains for export and domestic use. At its peak the massive train factory covered 60 acres, employed 8,000 workers, and constructed 600 trains a year.

Upon completion, Wyllie’s Straw Train was paraded through the streets in a public procession that followed the route real engines would have taken as they were transported to the shipping docks at the Finnieston port. Once at the port, Wyllie’s Straw Train was suspended from the famous Finnieston Crane, a prominent landmark in Glasgow, Scotland, celebrating the city’s industrial heritage. The Finnieston Crane once loaded untold numbers of the massive locomotives produced at the Hyde Park Works onto transport ships for export. Wyllie’s whimsical sculpture remained suspended from the massive crane for several months as part of the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 – attended by some 3 million people.

Following the Glasgow Garden Festival, Straw Train was transported back to the Hyde Park Works in Springburn, where it was set ablaze in a public performance. As flames consumed the dry straw, the sculpture’s metal armature was exposed. When the straw was reduced to ashes and only the metal framework remained, one could plainly see that the artist had incorporated a giant metal question mark into the structure – the artist’s emblematic signature but also a query as to the fate of Scotland’s industrial past.

Straw Train had great resonance for the people of Scotland, making direct reference to their proud history and accomplishments even as the artist posed relevant questions about capitalist economic restructuring and the resultant deindustrialization of society. Conversely, Koons’ work is altogether bereft of social import. It fails to challenge or advocate and does not lead to any meaningful introspection, it has no connection to history; in fact it makes absolutely no claims about anything whatsoever, it simply exists, like the faux Matterhorn Mountain at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Koons said of his project; “It’s very visceral. It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life.” Just what exactly does that mean? Such a statement could be used to describe a pile of junked automobiles - if one’s intent was obfuscation. And what can be said of those at LACMA who find profundity in Koons’ gobbledygook explication?

Train at the entrance to Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The train at the entrance of Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The popular theme park Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) in Canela, Brazil, incorporates a life-sized steam engine train into its entry way in much the same manner that LACMA looks forward to doing - although only L.A.’s museum has pretensions of presenting “high art.”

Canela is a small picturesque city situated in the mountainous region of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Mundo A Vapor is a charming theme park that presents the history of the steam engine, from toys and crafts to productive technology and train transport – it offers informative displays and fun for the whole family, including a miniature train kiddy ride. The theme park is internationally famous for its unconventional entrance façade which makes use of a full-scale replicated steam engine locomotive; a life-size reconstruction of the 1895 train crash in Montparnasse, Paris. The train’s steam powered whistle actually screams on the hour as the train’s chimney discharges billowing clouds of steam to the great delight of tourists, who crowd around the locomotive to take still photos and shoot videos (one such amateur video can be viewed on YouTube).

Chances are only a handful of people know, or care about, the name of the architectural engineer commissioned to design the entrance façade at Mundo A Vapor, and it is my educated guess that the professional was not awarded $25 million. It never occurs to the jovial tourists flocking around the steam engine behemoth - marooned at the theme park doorway like a beached whale - that the tableau was designed by a specialist; that detail is simply irrelevant. To the cheerful multitudes the train façade offers only a fantastic setting for photographs, nothing more, and that is how it should be seen. If those gathered around the train were told that the locomotive was in fact a majestic sculpture of paramount importance, created by a modern master of unsurpassed vision, and that the objet d’art was worth ten of millions of dollars, they would most likely laugh out loud at the preposterous tall tale.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

So then what precisely is the difference between the locomotive at Mundo A Vapor and Koons’ Train? Aside from the fact that the Brazilian train does not spin its mighty iron wheels as the LACMA train is being designed to do, the one and only distinction is that LACMA’s Train is linked to brand Koons; declared by inordinately powerful individuals with exceedingly bad taste to be the finest high-end commodity available on the “art market” today. Museum culture is undergoing a transformation where a sham populism guided by market forces is quickly becoming the norm. Some museums are developing into zones for the appreciation of the kitsch, shallow, and gaudy; there is no better example of this than the relationship LACMA has cultivated with the likes of Koons.

The train at Mundo A Vapor is a real crowd pleaser to be sure, and undoubtedly millions have stood beside it to have their pictures taken, but does anyone think of it as a magnificent artwork? Would anyone in their right mind say of the train; “It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life”? Well… perhaps some would, just as they might say the same thing about that thrilling roller coaster ride at Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain - but that does not add up to momentous art or a thoughtful art experience.

200 One Dollar Bills

200 One Dollar Bills - Andy Warhol (Detail) Silkscreen ink on canvas. 1962. 80¼ x 92¼ inches. Sold at Sotheby’s auction for over $43 million.

"200 One Dollar Bills" - Andy Warhol (Detail) Silkscreen ink on canvas. 1962. 80¼ x 92¼ inches. Sold at Sotheby’s auction for over $43 million.

On November 11, 2009, Sotheby’s in New York held an auction of Post-War and Contemporary art, attracting a crowd of deep-pocketed collectors who ended up spending over $134 million in acquiring 52 artworks by an assortment of celebrity artists – mostly from the Pop Art school of the 1960s. The biggest seller of the evening was Andy Warhol, whose 200 One Dollar Bills - the earliest silkscreen print made by the artist – was sold to an unidentified bidder for the ridiculous sum of $43,762,500.

The celebratory headlines regarding Sotheby’s auction bordered on the giddy in the mainstream press, “The Art Market Shows Signs of Life” (Wall Street Journal), and “Warhol painting gives brush-off to art downturn” (Financial Times), are but two examples. Reading these accounts one is left with the impression that the great economic crash of 2008 never occurred. During the same week as the Sotheby’s auction, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the actual unemployment rate in the U.S. soared to 17.1 percent. But you would not have known this from the frenzied bidding at Sotheby’s or from the laudatory accounts of the auction in the media.

Press accounts have not offered any in depth analysis of the meaning or repercussions of Sotheby’s astonishing sale. For instance, with museums across the U.S. slashing budgets, firing staff, freezing hiring and wages, canceling exhibits, reeling from plunging endowments, and in some cases permanently closing their doors to the public – all because of the economic downturn; how is the making of $134 million by Sotheby’s auction house and a handful of commercial agents any indication of a healthy arts scene? Moreover, with more and more artworks being purchased by private parties at astronomical prices, artworks to be sequestered away in private collections – how will under funded museums be able to acquire important works? What will happen to the public’s access to historic works of art if they are all held in private collections?

Roll of Bills - Andy Warhol. Pencil, crayon, and felt-tip pen on paper. 1962. 40 x 30" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4,226,500 by Manhattan art dealer, Larry Gagosian.

"Roll of Bills" - Andy Warhol. Pencil, crayon, and felt-tip pen on paper. 1962. 40 x 30" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4,226,500 by Manhattan art dealer, Larry Gagosian.

One should recall that in February of 2009, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, his so-called stimulus package. That plan allotted $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, monies that were distributed in July of 2009 to 631 arts organizations across the U.S. It was a woefully inadequate sum, as over 2,400 art institutions in dire straights had applied for financial assistance. To put all of this in perspective; one unidentified individual purchased a single print by Andy Warhol for over $43 million. Again, how does such an acquisition contribute to the health and stability of the art world? It is simply an exchange of trophies between oligarchs.

Writing for the New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter seemingly joined the crowd enthralled by all that is golden, informing us that Warhol was “one of the first modern artists to realize, or rather to say out loud, that money itself is beautiful, is art, which has helped create the reality that, aesthetically speaking, it is as often as not, the price tag, not what it’s attached to, that generates value.”

I could give Cotter the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is opposed to art being monetized to the extremes we are presently witnessing; but if that were the case then he would have said so – however feebly. Instead, Cotter’s observations are equivocating and fuddled. He seems to be in agreement with the widely held supposition in elite art circles that the essence of art is not humanist concern, historic import, or spiritual core; let alone technical skill and artistic vision - but simply exceptional marketing skills and sky-scraping prices. The avariciousness exemplified by Warhol’s early 60s quip; “Good business is the best art” – has become one of the prevailing tendencies now poisoning the art world. It is indeed a shame that Cotter, and other art critics as well, are unable to proffer anything approaching a well thought out critique regarding the dominant role of money in today’s art world.

"Violins Violence Silence" – Bruce Nauman. Neon tubing with suspension frame. 1981-82. 62 x 65" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4 million.

"Violins Violence Silence" – Bruce Nauman. Neon tubing with suspension frame. 1981-82. 62 x 65" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4 million.

At least one commentator mustered a somewhat critical assessment of the proceedings at Sotheby’s. In his article for the New York Times, arts writer Souren Melikian made a few withering comments about the auction, first laying into Warhol by writing; “The price paid this week for the Warhol signals the triumph of what some might call commercial propaganda. The essence of propaganda is relentless repetition, and few names have been tossed about with as much insistence as Warhol’s.” Melikian closed his article with a wry jab at Bruce Nauman, whose “(….) neon light tubes attached to a suspension frame, executed in 1981 or 1982, realized $4 million. The letters they form read ‘Violins Violence Silence,’ hence the title of the work. The alliteration aside, the contradictory evocations of the title do not mean a great deal. But then, meaning did not seem to be a primary concern on a day when the mechanical reproduction of 200 bank notes cost more than $43 million.”

In the early 1950s Nelson Rockefeller, whose family ran the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), referred to abstract art as “free enterprise painting”; but what would Mr. Rockefeller have said about the art sold at Sotheby’s? Certainly the works avoid serious examination of the world and our place in it, not even in a cynical or banal way. In some cases the works, like Warhol’s, are nothing more than brazen celebrations of money; empty, meaningless, and without the slightest interest in the human condition. But then, Warhol once said; “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

In the early 1960s Robert Scull, the taxi cab company tycoon and art collector, purchased 200 One Dollar Bills directly from Warhol. I have no idea what Scull paid for the print, but seeing as how he had purchased an original painting of flowers by Warhol at around the same time for $2,500, it is hard to imagine the purchase price of 200 One Dollar Bills being any higher. In 1973 Scull sold off a portion of his Pop Art collection at a controversial auction that made over $2 million – which at the time was an extraordinary amount of money. It was the event that ushered in the overriding role of big money in art. Scull’s auction was considered so offensive and exploitative by artists that dozens of them set up a picket line outside of the auction house in protest. Warhol’s painting of flowers sold for $135,000.

In 1986 Scull sold Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills for $385,000. At the 2009 Sotheby’s action it sold for $43,762,500 - perhaps ten years from now it will sell for $1 billion. Whatever its inflated “market value” turns out to be – it will merely be a reflection of the gross narcissism of those rich enough to own it.

The forces involved in the Sotheby’s auction represent an extremely influential layer in the elite art world, people who must surely believe they are shaping and controlling the future of art; but as any student of history will tell you, the most grandiose plans of the powerful are often times thwarted by material conditions, social pressures, and the acts of the independently minded. I count myself amongst the latter category. I obviously do not believe that “Good business is the best art” or that it is “the price tag, not what it’s attached to, that generates value.” In fact, I do not believe business has anything whatsoever to do with creating art, just as it has nothing to do with one’s prayers or one’s heart when it is bursting with love. Call me a fool, but I have always believed that art serves a very noble purpose in our collective experience. It is one of the highest expressions of human achievement, so great in fact that scholars throughout the centuries have always pointed to the arts and sciences as the truest measure of civilization. If in lieu of art, all we pass on to the future is a superlative business acumen – then we shall be appropriately judged.

Here I am reminded of the words of Joseph Incandela, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Incandela is a physicist working on producing the so-called “Higgs boson,” a particle that so far has remained unobserved, but could someday help answer a number of elemental questions pertaining to matter in the universe. Needless to say Incandela is a man of lofty thoughts, and unsurprisingly he made an interesting comment about art in a recent CNN interview concerning his research. Believing that art and science are linked by shared goals, Incandela remarked; “Both of them enrich the human existence beyond just the maintaining of health, wealth and welfare. They both have an idealism also associated with them, a timelessness.”

Art Hate Week!

Hate At Tate – Billy Childish. 2009. Poster. Announcement for “National Art Hate Week”, an event promoted by The British Art Resistance. Small text reads, “National Art Hate Week: Programme 2009. Morning HATE commences 10.30 am Daily. Picasso, Rothko, Doig. Evening HATE at 6.00 pm (Wednesday and Thursday only). Hirst, Koons, Warhol.”

Hate At Tate – Billy Childish. 2009. Poster "against cultural fascism" that announces “National Art Hate Week”, an event promoted by The British Art Resistance. Small text reads, “National Art Hate Week: Programme 2009. Morning HATE commences 10.30 am Daily. Picasso, Rothko, Doig. Evening HATE at 6.00 pm (Wednesday and Thursday only). Hirst, Koons, Warhol.”

The British Art Resistance (B.A.R.) has organized National Art Hate Week for “the disruptive betterment of culture” and for purposes of giving UK bourgeois art institutions “a necessary kicking.”  Sarcastically modeled after the two-minute hate rallies found in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Art Hate events will encourage people to express contempt for “the business of culture” as well as those who feed at the trough of the postmodern culture industry.

Art Hate actions are to be held on the steps of the Tate Modern and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the National Gallery of Scotland, and other select locations. In part, a statement of intent released by the B.A.R. reads as follows:

National Art Hate Week takes the symbol of the swastika hung from a gallows as an emblem of resistance against cultural fascism as disseminated by the bureaucrats of art.

National Art Hate Week is a call for direct action against the mass acceptance of art as a phantom economy for the smug manipulative elite and their ensuing grip of control over culture as a tool for mediated emotion, market lead non-critical homogeny, and boring popularism.

National Art Hate Week presents a unified front of non-unified creative individuals against all that is despicable and loved by the people. We oppose the deliberate socio-economic strategy to make us all complicit in our own idiocy. We oppose the affront of state endorsed auto-cryptic balderdash and oppose the ruffians who have been pulled from the ghetto and polished up for elevated status and easy consumption by the masses.”

 National Art Hate Anthem – Jamie Reid. 2009. Record sleeve art for a limited edition 7" vinyl single produced in conjunction with the Art Hate campaign. The single was recorded by the group, Silent Revolt (Harry Adams, James Cauty, Billy Childish). A parody of songs by the Sex Pistols, side one is titled "Pretty Vacant Art Hate", and side two – which is blank – is titled, "God Save Marcel Duchamp." Jamie Reid designed the iconic graphics for the Sex Pistols back in 1977.

National Art Hate Anthem – Jamie Reid. 2009. Record sleeve art for a limited edition 7" vinyl single produced in conjunction with the Art Hate campaign. The single was recorded by the group, Silent Revolt (Harry Adams, James Cauty, Billy Childish). A parody of songs by the Sex Pistols, side one is titled "Pretty Vacant Art Hate", and side two – which is blank – is titled, "God Save Marcel Duchamp." Jamie Reid designed the iconic graphics for the Sex Pistols back in 1977.

If that is not clear enough, then the ensuing bit of propaganda from B.A.R. will certainly not help you in the least. The following excerpted outburst appears with its original spelling:

“such a time comes when the distinction between art and high finance has become so foggy and moribund that one has eaten and consumed the other leaving only a bloodless husk – as if a particularly veniminous spyder had swung from its web and suck’t the life essence out of an otherwise joyiously singing cricket.

and so the word ‘art’, which is a mear label or ‘catchword’ as it were, has by subtle manipulation been inverted, bit by bit, to mean its direct oppersit. what that direct oppersit is i do not venture to answer. but it could possably be termed ‘financial anti-art’, or ‘bankers dada.’

in just such epochs heros of a mythical nature are apt to step forth. Not dressed for war but never-the-less cloth’d in poetry. that these heros will be melighn’d and slandered by the cultural elite is the mark of their true worth and necessity.”

For more information, visit the British Art Resistance website, and read the UK Guardian’s article, National Art Hate Week needs you.

LACMA’s $25 Million Choo-Choo Train

The March 2009 edition of The Art Newspaper reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is funding the building of a monumental sculpture by postmodernist artist Jeff Koons - at a cost of $25 million. Titled Train, the “sculpture” consists of an actual 70-foot long steam locomotive hung from an immense 161-foot construction crane. If the project actually proceeds, it will become, in the words of The Art Newspaper - “the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum.” It should be restated once again that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains $50 million to service the needs of art institutions for the entire United States of America.

In my April 2007 article, Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New, I detailed the collaboration between LACMA and Koons when it was merely at its formative stage. At the time, the Annenberg Foundation provided LACMA and Koons with funds for engineering studies concerning the feasibility of such an edifice. As it turns out, The Art Newspaper reported; “LACMA has already spent about $1.75 of $2 million pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies.” In my ‘07 article I wrote:

“Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, ‘A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.’ There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think!

(….) Koons supposedly represents the ‘best and brightest’ from the national cultural scene - a sad ‘fact’ I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; ‘Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Modern art enthusiast and critic, Waldemar Januszczak, wrote an article for the TimesOnline of the U.K., in which he describes his waning love affair with postmodern art. He was specifically writing of the U.K’s conceptual Young British Artists and the Tate Modern, but his words can just as easily apply to LACMA, Koons, and postmodern art in general. Significantly, Januszczak took great pains in his article to describe himself as a booster of contemporary art, writing that “it’s been my life, my career, my sustenance” and that when he offers a critique - “you can be confident it’s serious.” Januszczak wrote:

“What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear.

(….) Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual - pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life - so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday.”

It is entirely appropriate for Januszczak to compare today’s postmodern art elites with the entrenched French Academy of the 1860s and its attempts to suppress Impressionism. But LACMA’s patronage of Koons reminds one not so much of the French Salon as it does the insensitivity and pitilessness of France’s Ancien Régime just before it was overthrown by the revolution of 1789. At the same time as American museums layoff staff and cancel exhibits, as galleries go out of business and artists struggle to stay alive, while millions across America lose their jobs, homes, or both - LACMA fritters away tens of millions on what can only be seen as a monument to triviality. How many thousands of artists could LACMA commission with $25 million? How many art workshops could it subsidize in underserved communities? Let them eat cake indeed.

On March 4, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its research on artist unemployment rates, a report that concludes joblessness is not only skyrocketing for artists, but that the artist workforce has “contracted” and that “artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers.” The NEA found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 129,000 artists were unemployed nationally, a 63% increase from the previous year. While the NEA report did not give a state-by-state breakdown on unemployment rates for artists, a previous NEA study found that more artists live in California than in any other state of the union (some 140,620 working artists), even ranking above New York, which came in fourth. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that there are huge numbers of artists now unemployed in the state of California.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California is presently last when it comes to contributing to arts funding. The national average for state arts funding comes to $1.35 per capita - but California’s funding for the arts comes to a trifling 15 cents per citizen each year. The California Arts Council (CAC) is the state’s arts policy-setting agency, administering grant programs and directly supporting arts programs for all of the state’s citizens. It has a budget of only $5.6 million to administrate cultural affairs for the entire state of California.

A February 28, 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that the unemployment rate for workers in the state of California has reached 10.1%, the state’s highest jobless rate in twenty-six years. Statistics from the Employment Development Department of the State of California show that as of January of this year, 1,954,900 Californians are out of work, with 537,000 now jobless in Los Angeles. Those are the official statistics, but how many Californians are underemployed or have simply given up looking for employment? The aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece quoted one economist as saying, “California is hemorrhaging faster than the U.S. economy.”

In light of these facts, a price-tag of $25 million for the LACMA-Koons Train boondoggle verges upon lunacy, and it most assuredly is an indication of an arts institution profoundly out of touch with the realities lived by the vast majority of the working population of California and the nation. I should reiterate here that the base salary of LACMA director Michael Govan is $600,000 while the total annual compensation for a sitting president of the United States is $400,000.

Arts professionals have some soul searching to do. It is transparently obvious why a greater part of the U.S. population feels alienated from and at variance with contemporary art. In short the public’s gut reaction that art has nothing to do with them and that it is only for the privileged few, is in fact an astute observation based upon the circumstances before us. It is high time that American artists begin to create the new works and institutions that will help free the public of such an erroneous opinion.

L.A.’s MOCA in Meltdown

Los Angeles’ flagship museum dedicated to modern art of the last fifty years may cease to exist. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), has been incapacitated by a crushing financial crisis of its own making. On November 19, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The museum has burned through $20 million in unrestricted funds and borrowed $7.5 million from other accounts. Cash from donors is being sought. A merger has not been ruled out.”

It appears that MOCA Director Jeremy Strick and the museum trustees are guilty of a total failure of leadership - not to mention the gross mismanagement of the world famous museum. As a nonprofit institution, MOCA collects little government funding and instead relies on donors for some 80% of its expenses. By checking the GuideStar website, which keeps track of nonprofits and their donors, it has come to light that Strick has a salary of $500,000. Readers should be reminded that the annual compensation of the president of the United States is $400,000. Strick also pays at least five higher-ranking MOCA employees six figure salaries. Furthermore, the Board of MOCA loaned Strick over $500,000 for the purchase of a house - all at a time when the museum is tottering on total financial collapse.

In his Open letter to MOCA’s board of trustees, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight puts the blame for MOCA’s crisis squarely upon Director Jeremy Strick as well as the museum’s trustees; “As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop”. Knight went on to disparage the supposed “rescue plans” being considered to save the museum as “shameful”. The irate art critic made the following comments about the proposed rescue strategies:

“One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation - controlled by one of your own trustees! - in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.

Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum’s permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.

The third plan I’ve been told about is even worse - total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.”

Apparently the Armageddon option has been selected. On the Los Angeles Times arts blog, Knight stated; “(….) here is what I’m told the board is now prepared to do: formally approach the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about a merger, which will effectively mean a transfer of MOCA’s extraordinary collection to the Mid-Wilshire complex.”

To be honest, I have never been enamored of MOCA. True enough, it houses notable works from the likes of Arshile Gorky, Robert Rauscheberg, Jackson Pollock, and others; and in 2003 it did present a wonderful retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud. But as of late MOCA has advanced pointless and vacuous works that tell us nothing about the human condition, witness the loathsome Takashi Murakami. To survive as a viable institution, which seems doubtful at this point, MOCA’s continued existence depends on more than just massive infusions of capital - it requires a new vision. That being said, I take no particular delight in seeing one of the major art museums of my city going to ruin.

MOCA’s dilemma is indicative of the crisis now rippling through the world of elite art institutions, a disaster that will only intensify as late capitalism careens into worldwide depression. But the problem is much more than just financial, it is one of art and culture having reached an aesthetic and political impasse. Breaking through that dead-end to reach the transformative and liberating will be necessary if the crisis in contemporary art is to be resolved.

UPDATES:
Dec. 23, 2008. In its article, MOCA accepts Broad’s lifeline, the Los Angeles Times reports that MOCA has voted to accept a $30-million bailout offered by billionaire Eli Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”). Additionally, MOCA’s director Jeremy Strick has resigned and the ailing museum has appointed UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Charles E. Young as its CEO. Acceptance of the Broad offer ends speculation that MOCA might merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Bloomberg.com reports that in a Dec. 23 joint statement made by MOCA and the Broad foundation, Mr. Broad said; “It is in the best interest of the city for MOCA to remain independent.” There is more irony to be found in that remark than in all of the postmodern art found in MOCA’s collection. In 2007 Broad was ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans - with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion. He is also the founding chairman of MOCA, and his bailout of the institution should be seen in that context. Broad is also chair of the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority, which plans a $1.8 billion “improvement” of the downtown area where MOCA is located.

Nov. 21, 2008. A spokeswoman for MOCA released the following statement: “MOCA has received a letter from the California attorney general’s office. The California attorney general has broad jurisdiction and oversight over California nonprofits, including MOCA. The letter requested information and documents related to the museum’s finances. MOCA is fully cooperating with the attorney general.” So far the office of the attorney general has not commented on its investigation of the museum.

Petition Helps Free Michael Dickinson

In a major trial that challenged an artist’s right to free expression, the British artist Michael Dickinson, who lives in Turkey, was prosecuted by the Turkish government in 2006 for creating a photo-collage seen as “insulting the dignity of the prime minister”. Dickinson faced years in prison for his artwork, but on September 25, 2008, the judge in the case dropped all criminal charges against him.

In part Dickinson’s release was secured by global protests initiated by artists. A member of the Stuckist International - the “art movement for contemporary figurative painting with ideas”, Dickinson received immediate backing from Stuckism’s London headquarters. Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, wrote a widely publicized letter to the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in which Thomson stated: “It is intolerable that a country applying for European Union membership should censor freedom of political comment in this way. I trust you will communicate your strongest condemnation and ask for this case to be abandoned immediately.” Thomson also sent a similar letter to the current British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

But Michael Dickinson’s predicament was also noted by others. I followed Dickinson’s trial closely, and when Mark Givens, the editor-in-chief of MungBeing arts journal in Pomona, California, started a worldwide petition to call for the release of Dickinson - I became a signatory. In part, the petition stated:

“We, the undersigned, support an artist’s right of free expression. We stand firmly with Amnesty International in their calls on the Turkish authorities to terminate without delay all prosecutions against individuals under the notorious Article 301, and to abolish all other articles in the Turkish Penal Code that stifle and punish freedom of speech and expression. We call for the prosecution of Michael Dickinson over his political collages to be dropped.”

In Southern California’s Inland Empire Weekly, Kevin Ausmus’ article, Pomona editor helps keep British artist out of jail, summarizes the successful campaign waged by Givens to free Michael Dickinson. An except from that story reads:

“After hearing of Dickinson’s plight, Mark Givens of Pomona, editor-in-chief of MungBeing, decided it was necessary to start an online petition on the artist’s behalf. Now, Givens’ ‘tremendous support’ in publicizing the case is being credited for galvanizing the necessary publicity to tip the verdict in Dickinson’s favor (….) Though the petition gathered less than 600 signatures overall, those who did sign proved to be of high quality in the international art community, including Steve Bell, a British political cartoonist for the Guardian known for his controversial caricatures; Mark Vallen, a Los Angeles-based painter and activist; Noam Chomsky and several artists associated with the Turkish Freedom Movement.”

When facing the seemingly insurmountable problems of today’s world, it is not difficult to see why some surrender to hopelessness and indifference. However, it should not go without saying that our actions, or lack thereof - do make a difference; which has been amply demonstrated by the successful defense of Mr. Dickinson.