Category: Totalitarian Postmodern

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.

Newseum: Super-Sized R-Rated Version

On Nov. 14, 2013, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. opened what it hoped would be a “blockbuster” show, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy - The Exhibit. If there was ever a more blatant abuse of a museum’s mission, I cannot think of what it might be. Slated to run until Aug. 31, 2014, the exhibit was created in partnership with Paramount Studios to promote its latest movie, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, written and directed by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Ferrell stars in the film as a 1970s anchorman at a fictional television news station.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man, all displayed at a fictitious museum back by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

A fictitious burgundy suit belonging to a fictitious newsman, who recited fictitious news, man - all displayed at a fictitious museum backed by a fictitious movie studio. Photo courtesy of a fictitious photographer.

Presenting some 60 costumes and props from Ferrell’s 2004 movie, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the Newseum exhibit was timed to coincide with the formal opening of Anchorman 2 on December 18, 2013.

The “personal effects” (read: movie props), belonging to the fictitious  anchorman - a burgundy suit, mustache brush, and jazz flute, are displayed in the Newseum as if they were the property of an actual historic journalistic figure like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward, or Carl Bernstein. Another prop from the Paramount film - the news desk of the imaginary Ron Burgundy - will also be on display, along with various costumes worn by Ferrell and co-star Christina Applegate.

Developments at the Newseum give added weight and validity to The Newspeak Newseum, an article I wrote after the opening of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on April 11, 2008. Quoting that critique:

“The traditional concept of a museum as an elite institution dedicated to research and the acquisition, conservation, and safeguarding of humanity’s collective heritage - seems to be giving way to a profit driven, entertainment oriented, glitzy pop culture approach to museum management. As corporate monopolies move ever closer to controlling the cultural life of the nation, the Newseum provides the clearest look yet of a cultural institution in the service of big business.”

Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Chrysler Group contracted Ferrell to appear in character as Ron Burgundy in a series of “70 different commercials of varying length and format” for the 2014 Dodge Durango SUV. With help from one of the largest ad agencies in the world, Wieden+Kennedy (known for its work with sweatshop giant Nike), the ads have proliferated on television and across the web, from YouTube to Ferrill’s sophomoric funnyordie.com. But that is not the end of it. Ferrill’s flood of publicity stunts, television and radio appearances, not to mention branded products promoting the Anchorman franchise, led the director of Anchorman 2, Adam McKay, to declare it has all amounted to “at least 20 million in free publicity.” The Newseum is just another component to that mass marketing campaign.

As of this writing, Anchorman 2 has made more than $125 million in the U.S. since it opened in Dec. of 2013. But for Hollyweird enough is never enough. On Feb. 28 the movie will be re-released in around 1,000 theaters. Advertised as a “Super-Sized R-Rated Version,” it runs 20 extra minutes and contains “763 new jokes.” The late 2013 release of Anchorman 2 had 95% of its jokes stripped-out through digital editing, replacing them with filthier jokes for the re-release. And to what effect? Co-director McKay is quoted as having said, that in talks with Ferrell, the two realized they could “replace every single joke in the movie with another joke.” McKay went on to say that “there were a couple of jokes left for continuity.”

The museum’s curatorial philosophy seems akin to McKay’s vision of film-making. The Newseum can replace every single legitimate exhibit giving insight and focus to history, with faux exhibits that are nothing more than advertising campaigns for mega-corporations. For continuity’s sake, a few examples of how a museum should archive actual historic materials will be kept in place. Behold the future of U.S. museums.

Obama and the Orcs

You may categorize the following as an expanded definition for Totalitarian Postmodern culture. On Dec. 9, 2013, Americans learned more about President Obama’s all encompassing surveillance program that uses the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in an ongoing espionage operation that sucks up personal information from everyone that uses the internet or any type of electronic communications. It should be remembered that four months earlier, on Aug. 6, 2013, Mr. Obama went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, of all places, where he stated categorically that the U.S. does not have a “domestic spying program.”

An Orc warrior from the "World of Warcraft" online computer game, or an agent from the U.S. National Security Agency? Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, producer of World of Warcraft.

An Orc warrior from the "World of Warcraft" online computer game, or an agent from the United States National Security Agency? Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, producer of World of Warcraft.

The Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica collaborated in publishing reports on Mr. Obama’s spying operation that should give pause to all those who cherish the right to privacy.

The Dec. 9 revelations are based upon documents disclosed by the American whistleblower, Edward Snowden. It has been revealed that since 2008, the NSA has been surveilling the estimated 48 million players of the online computer games, World of Warcraft (WoW), Second Life, and other online role-playing games.

The NSA has not only been monitoring the users of these games. They have been collecting their personal data, their communications with other players, and their online social networks and profile photos. Furthermore, they have infiltrated the online games with agents whose duty it is to actively recruit game players as potential informers for U.S. intelligence agencies.

The number of intelligence agencies that have infiltrated the games under anonymous avatars are so numerous that a special “deconfliction” group had to be set up in order to keep intelligence agents from inadvertently snooping on each other. The Pentagon, C.I.A., F.B.I, and the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), all have agents spying on online gamers.

The mass NSA surveillance also included compromising Microsoft’s Xbox Live online mulitplayer gaming and digital media service. It must now be assumed that all virtual environments offered by Xbox Live are monitored by the NSA. Blizzard Entertainment, the company that makes World of Warcraft, made it known that it was “unaware of any surveillance taking place,” adding that if such spying was occurring, it would be done without the company’s “knowledge or permission.” At the time of this writing Microsoft had declined to comment on their Xbox Live platform being used extensively by the NSA in spying operations, likewise the company behind the production of Second Life, Linden Lab, declined comment.

Secret agents for the NSA. Avatars from the 3D virtual world of "Second Life." Image courtesy of Linden Lab.

Secret agents for the NSA. Avatars from the 3D virtual world of "Second Life." Image courtesy of Linden Lab.

And why is there deep intelligence work being carried out by the NSA in the realm of those Orcs, Gnomes, Night Elves, and Humans that virtually populate WoW?

Why are there undercover NSA agents mixed in with the simulated pretty young things that socialize and flirt with each other in Second Life?

Because, the NSA felt it would be a gamble to leave the gaming community “under-monitored.”

In the words of the NSA, gamers represent a “target rich communications network” they dare not leave unobserved, least terrorists gather there cloak-and-dagger style to exchange secret plans for attacking soft targets in the West. By implication, every other “under-monitored” sphere of public life must be surveilled and infiltrated.

In addition, the Washington Post published a report on Dec. 10, 2013 that the NSA is using web browser “cookies” to conduct mass surveillance. Based on another NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden, the article revealed that the government has been using Google “PREF” cookies to gather intelligence on untold numbers of people. Cookies are the bits of personal information that are saved to your computer when you have visited a website, they record the sites you visit and what you view, they also allow Big Brother to track and spy on you.

On Nov. 27, 2013 the press reported that yet another document leaked by Mr. Snowden revealed that the NSA is “gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.” The NSA says it is only interested in compiling profiles on the porn habits of Muslim militants so as to “call into question a radicalizer’s devotion to the jihadist cause.”

Are we so sure that the Obama administration would never apply the term “radicalizer” to members of the Tea Party or to antiwar protestors? And why not, they are already spying on those that play online fantasy games! Malicious government snooping has certainly taken place before; read my article Remembering Jean Seberg before you say that the U.S. government would never use a fabricated sex-scandal to destroy the career and reputation of an American citizen.

The story of Jean Seberg (1938-1979) provides the contextual background for why Mr. Obama’s NSA surveillance is so dangerous a threat, not just to the basic democratic rights of all, but to creative professionals working in the fields of visual art, music, literature, cinema, etc. Art must be produced in environs free of government spying, intimidation, and bullying, or it will become self-censoring, timid, and conformist. In other words… it ceases to be art altogether and instead becomes an accessory to power. Those involved in the arts must come to the fore to denounce the rise of the maximum surveillance state before it is too late.

On December 10, 2013, over 500 international writers signed the statement, A Stand For Democracy In The Digital Age, which was published in 30 papers around the world. The petition by Writers Against Mass Surveillance demands an end to Big Brother-like spying, warning that “A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.” So far the statement has been signed by authors and writers from 81 different countries, and signatories included five Nobel Prize winners and a great number of celebrated writers.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my full support for the petition campaign created by Writers Against Mass Surveillance, and I encourage those professionals engaged with the written word to sign the statement. I await the organizing of a similar petition initiated by other arts professionals. However, let us have no illusions; those of us who believe in democracy and human rights have our work cut out for us. Mainstream political parties and leaders will not defend our rights… that will be a task for the people to take up.

A Postmodern 4th of July

Updated 7/2/2016: The following essay was originally published on July 2, 2013; its stubborn truths endure.

Recent circumstances dictate a reconsideration of the American Revolution of 1776. The revelations that the Obama administration is currently running a massive, all encompassing surveillance operation that spies on average Americans, is but another example of why the U.S. and its democracy are in dire straits. However, the crisis we face is much more than a “political” question, it is also cultural paralysis and torpor that confronts us. In fact, the two have always been intertwined.

In June of 2005 I coined a phrase to describe the all pervasive aesthetics of our media bedazzled, profit mad society - “Totalitarian Postmodern.” I may eventually write a book on the subject, seeing as how I am daily confronted and confounded by onerous examples of the genre in art, cinema, literature, music, and other expressions of Pop culture. For now, consider the following as a possible entry in my forthcoming subversive coffee table book.

You may pity me for my vision, but I offer this essay in the spirit of 1776. This post was inspired, if that is the correct word, by a commercial television advertisement I felt too insulting and injurious to the democratic spirit to let pass.

A postmodern Paul Revere. Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"The Italian Invasion commercial begins with the patriot, Paul Revere, using a maritime brass telescope to gather intelligence on the approaching enemy." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

The offensive advert in question is for the new FIAT 500L “Urban Utility Vehicle”, i.e., “car.”

A 30-second version of the ad titled Italian Invasion is currently running on U.S. television, just in time for the July 4th holiday when smarmy hucksters aggressively peddle useless goods all wrapped up in red, white, and blue to the great unwashed. I have always cringed at the spectacle of the American Revolution being reduced to idiotic advertisements contrived to sell widgets, but the FIAT ad has my blood boiling. So, I have seized my metaphorical Brown Bess, Tricorne, and Gadsden flag, and have set out to teach a few things to Doner USA, the advertising agency responsible for producing this marketing travesty.

First, I must reluctantly encourage the reader to watch the extended Director’s Cut of Italian Invasion that FIAT has posted on YouTube. The video is wrong on so many levels that it takes one’s breath away, but I will try and describe the affronts to logic and historic fact that are contained in the film. As a rule commercials are an insult to human dignity, but Italian Invasion is especially so. I realize it was meant as a whimsical flight of imagination, but it is one of a distinctly reactionary nature.

On their YouTube page FIAT’s ad copy starts with the following whopper: “Just imagine how different America might have been if the Italians had invaded instead of the British.” I am sure that is a question the indigenous people of the Powhatan Confederacy must have asked themselves, but for the English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, German, French and other peoples who had taken up residency in the British colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, the British did not invade them. The British Empire was the longtime colonizing power and ruling governance of The Thirteen Colonies. The first British colonial presence was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

Apparently no one at Doner USA or FIAT ever took a basic class in the history of the United States… but it gets worse. What if America had been invaded by the Italians instead of the British? The unified state of Italy did not even exist in 1776, and it would not come into existence until 1870. Up until that date the country was divided into numerous states and kingdoms, none of which were capable of matching the immense, far reaching military and political power of the British Empire. Instead, Italian Invasion is a reference to the 1960s British Invasion of the U.S. music scene, inexplicably layered over America’s war of independence. In the advertisement, the FIATs replace the Beatles as rock stars.

The Italian Invasion commercial begins with the patriot, Paul Revere, using a maritime brass telescope to gather intelligence on the approaching enemy, who at first he mistakes as British soldiers. He yells to a group of disinterested colonials, “The British are coming!” Taking a second glance through his spyglass at the advancing peril, Revere realizes his error, “Wait…” he says, “it’s the Italians.” The camera zooms in to focus on four red FIAT 500Ls speeding their way to the unidentified colonial village. The ad’s theme music, Marc Bolan’s 1972 Children of the Revolution, is suddenly audible as Paul Revere begins his famous “Midnight Ride” on horseback to warn the colonial militias in Lexington that the British army was coming to disarm them.

Just the opening 20 seconds of the commercial as described above presents such a thicket of nonsense and claptrap that I am left slack jawed. If the Italians are “invading” the Thirteen Colonies then why is a song from British Glam Rocker Marc Bolan the commercial’s theme song? Would not something like Domenico Modugno’s Volare have been a more appropriate choice? No doubt the Chief Executive Officers over at Doner USA wanted to capture that young and hip 20-something demographic, but how many from that age group are listening to the early 70s recordings of Marc Bolan and T. Rex?

"As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting 'The Italians are coming!' and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement." Screenshot from Fiat's Italian Invasion commercial.

"As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting 'The Italians are coming!' and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement." Screenshot from Fiat's Italian Invasion commercial.

Obviously, some CEO loved the idea of using Children of the Revolution because it was thought the song could be an ironic evocation of the patriots of 1776, while making for a catchy advertising jingle.

But Bolan’s song actually held profound meaning for a generation of anti-establishment young rebels in the early 1970s, I know, because I was one of them.

We took the lyrics to heart - “you won’t fool the children of the revolution,” though the ad execs over at Doner USA think quite the opposite is true. But back to the commercial…

"When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy?" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy?" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting “The Italians are coming!” and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement.

For reasons that continue to elude me, when hearing of the Italian invasion, all of the colonial women start stripping off their garments.

As they run about in a collective frenzy, flinging away their cotton caps and aprons, pulling off their bodices, even ripping off their long skirts and petticoats, they make their way to the center of town in a risqué, leggy, hip-swinging procession.

This inexplicable behavior seems to mostly affect the town’s pretty young females. When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy? Do Americans now fantasize this is so after having invaded so many countries in order to bestow the blessings of democracy upon the natives? But I digress. Back to the commercial…

The colonial men in the advertisement generally keep their wits about them when it comes to disrobing - save for the lone black man featured in the film. He looks like a model for Abercrombie & Fitch as he stands in a shop doorway, his gaze nails you as he provocatively peels off his jacket. At the time of the American Revolution there were around 350,000 African slaves in the Thirteen Colonies, but there were also substantial numbers of free blacks; a free black man by the name of Crispus Attucks was one of the first martyrs of the American Revolution. Attucks and four other colonists were killed when Redcoats shot them at the 1770 Boston Massacre - Attucks was the first to die. Of course none of this history is conveyed in the commercial, gutted as it is of all historic meaning and understanding.

As Revere nears the end of his ride, other scenes show colonial men preparing a hasty welcome for the Italian invaders; a fellow hurriedly changes the traditional shop sign in front of an establishment from one that reads “Pub” to a sleek modernist sign that reads, “Club.” Presumably inside that tavern, hands are seen bruskly throwing tea cups off a table and replacing them with cups of coffee.

Perhaps one of the most confused scenes from Italian Invasion comes when the FIAT 500Ls drive to the center of town and the camera focuses on a young woman standing in the middle of a gated garden. The camera zooms in on her as she cuts off her waist-length blonde tresses with a pair of scissors, tossing away her cotton cap to reveal a voguish two-toned bob hairdo. Is this haircutting scene meant as a gesture of sexual liberation? Do the filmmakers infer that colonial life was something to escape from, that emancipation and the leap into modernity comes with foreign invasion? The message I suppose is that and more, or whatever else one wishes to see in the ad’s pastiche of postmodern falsities. Since the scene is mixed with the threat of foreign invasion and occupation, it evokes the head-shaving humiliation inflicted upon European women accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the aftermath of WWII.

"The 'Director's Cut' ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"The 'Director's Cut' ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

The “Director’s Cut” ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk. Revere, noting three comely but half-dressed young women at the edge of the assembly (previously shown doing their faux strip-tease routines), removes his Tricorne hat to them. A male voiceover announces “The Revolution just got bigger!” as Revere invites the trio for a joyride in a FIAT by opening its door. Now historic reality runs headlong into postmodern spectacle. The sex bomb threesome wiggle towards Revere, and one of them purrs… “This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!”

In the vernacular of 1776 Colonial America, a woman of “loose morals” would have been referred to as a “hussy”, but Italian Invasion is the delusional superimposition of 21st century standards (or lack thereof) over the moral and political sensibilities of the country’s founders. The commercial invites viewers to imagine themselves as figures in the American Revolution, but we no longer have any reference points. The revolutionists of 1776 dreamt of liberty and a world without tyranny, while contemporary Americans dream of owning 60 inch flat-screen TV’s.

"This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion."

The “Director’s Cut” parting shot is of Revere standing by the FIAT’s open door with his extended spyglass held at crotch level. As the women get into the backseat of the car, one of them casts her gaze upon Revere’s “spyglass”; he self-consciously collapses the telescoping lens in the ad’s last frames. So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection. In the shorter version of the ad meant for national television, the women intones before getting into the FIAT… “This is going to start a revolution.” The visual pun about the spyglass, and the jab at today’s Tea Party movement, are both absent.

The vulgar treatment of Revere is of course disgraceful, but the ad executives at Doner USA, like most in the field of advertising, Hollywood entertainment, and yes… the arts, seem unable to communicate anything about the real world that is profound, thoughtful or reflective.

"So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

Paul Revere was a silversmith, artist, and an activist in the Sons of Liberty, which militantly organized against the British authorities. He founded an intelligence network known as the “mechanics” that spied on British soldiers and their Tory supporters. Revere of course is best known for his “Midnight Ride” of April 18, 1775. Under cover of darkness he rode through towns on horseback to warn the people that the British army was marching on Lexington, Massachusetts to seize the guns, powder, and shot stored by patriots. Revere had pre-arranged with Robert Newman, the church officer of Old North Church in Boston, to signal patriots in the area in the event of British troop movements. Revere’s ingenious signal code was for Newman to hang a single lit lantern in the church bell tower if the British army approached Lexington by land, or two lit lanterns if the army came by sea.

During his midnight ride Revere did not actually yell “The British are coming!” since many in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. As stated by Revere himself, he yelled, “The Regulars are coming out!” The warnings roused patriots all throughout the countryside, and on the morning of April 19, 1775, seventy seven armed Lexington volunteers confronted some 700 elite troops of the British Empire. It is not certain who fired the first shots, but the unequally matched forces fired upon each other. Eight militia men died and nine were wounded, one Redcoat soldier was lightly wounded. The Redcoats disengaged from the battle and marched on Concord to seize patriot military supplies.

At Concord around 400 American militiamen fought with and defeated some 100 Redcoats at the city’s North Bridge; these were the shots “heard ’round the world.” The American Revolution had begun in earnest. The retreating British army was reinforced as it desperately attempted to return to Boston. All along the 18 mile route of retreat, the Redcoats were shot at by the militia, now numbering in the thousands. By the end of the day, the Battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in 90 patriots being killed or wounded, and some 250 Redcoats killed or wounded.

These historic facts are nowhere to be found in Italian Invasion. The producers of the ad did not even bother to give the correct hour of Revere’s famed ride (it was depicted as taking place in broad daylight). You would think that “Midnight Ride,” the words eternally associated with Revere’s heroic deed, might have clued in someone at Doner USA or FIAT, but what is a little distortion of history when there are mountains of money to be made? As for the characters depicted in the commercial, one cannot imagine them lifting a finger to defend against any enemy. They perhaps might go for a romp in the hay, but fight in a revolution? Never!

The “actors” in this loathsome commercial, both in character and off camera, remind me of the Alpha and Beta castes from Aldous Huxley’s 1931 futuristic novel, Brave New World. They have not only been genetically engineered to value hyper-consumerism and conformity, they live to pass those values on to the rest of society. They are bred by the state in decanting bottles, predetermined to possess youthful good looks, radiating sexuality, and a modicum of intellect - but not too much intelligence - just enough to know some insipid truths; “Ending is better than mending”, “More stitches less riches”, “Civilization is sterilization”, and most importantly, “History is bunk.” That last quote came from the American industrialist, Henry Ford, who in the society described in Brave New World, had become god-like; “Our Ford” replaced “Our Lord.”

Postmodern aesthetics rely on irony, but the producers of FIAT’s Italian Invasion commercial are ignorant of the biggest irony embedded in their ad, or perhaps they are aware of the irony and are banking on you not noticing it. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama bailed-out the ailing Chrysler Group (one of the “Big Three” U.S. car manufacturers, the others being “Our Ford” and General Motors) with $12.5 billion in tax-payer supplied bailout funds. In 2009 Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, and at the end of bankruptcy proceedings that year, the United Auto Workers pension fund, the U.S. and Canadian governments and FIAT became the principal owners of Chrysler. In 2011 the U.S. government sold its shares in Chrysler to FIAT, effectively handing Chrysler over to Italy. The Italians are coming indeed.

As in Brave New World, FIAT’s Italian Invasion commercial is populated by oversexed 20-somethings. Huxley’s dystopian novel presented the horrifying vision of a society where sexual promiscuity was a method of state control; the maxim being, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” All those involved in producing the FIAT advertisement unconsciously served up that Huxleyan vision as the new American reality, and that is one of the things that I find so chilling about the ad. While U.S. society teeters on becoming the surveillance state depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, it has already become the conformist, ahistoric, consumer-oriented and sex-obsessed social order from Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps President Obama’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens is not such a bad thing… providing that everyone looks hot.

Modern Painters: Art & War

The April 2008 edition of Modern Painters: The International Contemporary Art Magazine, is devoted to “the politically driven art made in response to war and its critical reception.” An introductory statement from the magazine’s Assistant Editor, Quinn Latimer, sums up the profusely illustrated April edition thusly: “Each month, with some discomfiture, we publish art criticism that rarely touches on the Iraq war. But the fifth anniversary of the American invasion compelled us to unambiguously address the conflict. For while there has been no shortage of artistic responses, their critical reception has been scant. Modern Painters is devoting this issue to speaking to that void - and to filling any implied silences by putting words and images in their stead.”

Cover of Modern Painters April 2008 edition

[ Modern Painters - Photomontage cover by Martha Rosler. ]

Ordinarily given to commentary and analysis of contemporary art, from painting to photography, film, architecture, design and more, the Modern Painters’ Art & War edition is indicative of what bubbles just beneath the surface of the art world. Editor Susan Morris struck what for me seemed a positive note, when she wrote in her editorial statement that the magazine’s staff; “began to wonder about art and activism, art in the age of terrorism, the nature of propaganda, and the role of art in wartime. The stories in this issue are, we hope, the start of what will be a continuing conversation.” A single issue of a magazine is of course not enough, but it is a step in the right direction towards developing a questioning and contentious aesthetic. Morris’ words are pleasing to my disposition, since what she describes is in actuality the general direction this web log has taken since its inception.

Modern Painters’ Art & War edition offers its readership insightful articles coupled with multiple examples of artworks created by a wide array of professional contemporary artists. Ara H. Merjian is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at Stanford University, where he teaches modern art. His article, Diminishing Returns: Wartime Art Practices, uses the American war in Vietnam as a starting point for his critique, writing; “During the Vietnam War, artists stopped making work as a form of protest against its atrocities. Why is a similar response to Iraq unthinkable, and what is the artistic community doing instead.” Merjian answers his own rhetorical question by presenting an overview of current antiwar artworks and projects - but he also gives us a conundrum to brood over when he writes;

“(….) these commendable efforts have not led to an antiwar movement in a consistent - and consistently obstreperous - sense. Even sustained examples in various mediums - Fernando Botero’s paintings addressing human-rights abuses at Abu Ghraib; Martha Rosler’s photomontages; Paul Chan’s series of videos from Afghanistan and Baghdad; Mark Wallinger’s painstaking installation re-creating censored British activist Brian Haw’s protest placards - constitute relatively isolated cases, somehow stripped of a mass and momentum that might have stemmed the war’s relentless swell.”

It’s not often that my name is mentioned in the same breath as that of Karl Rove, so you will excuse my wanting to share the following with you, but it’s one of the finer points made in Merjian’s article that has to do with the complexities of language, visuals, and of articulating views outside of acceptable mainstream parameters.

“Just as there is no geographic center to the global war on terror, there is no ‘center’ to its language. Terms ranging from peacekeeping to Patriot Act open onto consequences far less transparent than their monikers would suggest, evincing what artist and activist Mark Vallen has called, with his tongue only partially in cheek, ‘totalitarian postmodern.’ Karl Rove and company’s brilliant expropriation - conscious or not - of poststructuralist figures of speech to insidious ends has, in many instances, run circles around leftist efforts at subversion.”

The April edition of Modern Painters also carries several other commentaries, columns, and reviews of note. In the article Display Tactics: Political Curating, freelance curator and critic, Tirdad Zolghadr, challenges the effectiveness of recent exhibits that have addressed the Iraq war. Five Years and Counting is a portfolio of images from over a dozen of today’s artists who have created works in opposition to the Iraq war. Home Delivery: Martha Rosler’s Photomontages, is Richard Meyer’s essay on the fierce cut and paste montage work of Rosler, who has four stunning works in the magazine’s pages, plus - she created the powerful cover art for the magazine. No doubt of interest to artists, activists, and academics, Modern Painters’ Art & War edition is available on newsstands most everywhere.

Clearly L.A.’s Dominant News Farce

Corporate advertising art and design without a doubt makes up much of the modern urban environment we move through on a daily basis. It has become so omnipresent that people barely notice it - inciting major advertising corporations to dream up new schemes for attention getting in an ever escalating battle over shaping public opinion. As a result, more than a few aggressively offensive and obnoxious visual campaigns have been inflicted upon us. One that comes to mind is the current ad promotion for L.A.’s local television “news” broadcaster, CBS 2 - KCAL 9. Now blanketing Los Angeles are hundreds of illuminated bus shelters and gigantic billboards that read: “CLEARLY- L.A.’s Dominant News Force.”

Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news

[ CLEARLY: L.A.'s Dominant News Force - Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news. Illuminated bus stop shelter on the streets of Los Angeles. A picture perfect example of the Totalitarian Postmodern aesthetic. ]

That the advertising company behind this jingoistic marketing blitz decided on martial language for its promotion is bad enough, but the ruthless slogan is coupled with a militaristic image that conjures up the brutality of war. No doubt the ad execs responsible for the campaign will stand behind the subterfuge that the image simply represents the CBS/KCAL fleet of helicopters flying over the city against a backdrop of L.A.’s ubiquitous palm trees, but look again, what’s that you see - Vietnam?

Posters for Apocalypse Now and Miss Saigon

[ Left: Movie poster for the film Apocalypse Now, depicting a fleet of army combat helicopters on a "search and destroy" mission over the jungles of Vietnam. Right: Theatrical poster for the musical, Miss Saigon. Someone should tell CBS/KCAL that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. ]

A quick glance at the official theatrical posters for the musical Miss Saigon, and the movie Apocalypse Now, tells you exactly what served as an inspiration for those ad execs behind the CBS/KCAL campaign, but honestly - someone should tell them that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. Or could it be that the CEO’s had the Iraq war in mind when they approved the billboard and bus shelter graphics? Perhaps they hoped that by equating the journalists of CBS/KCAL to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, some of that “support our troops” sentiment might rub off on their broadcast clients. Such an ugly and perverse display of venality coming from the commercial advertising world cannot be discounted.

CLEARLY: The Ugly Reality

[ CLEARLY: The Dominant Force? - US Army Blackhawk helicopters fly over occupied Baghdad, March 2007, in this now widely published photo taken by AFP photographer, Patrick Baz. ]

At any rate, whatever the impetus behind the CBS/KCAL ads might be, they are a picture perfect example of what I like to call, Totalitarian Postmodern, a dangerous aesthetic that threatens and undermines democratic values.

Totalitarian Postmodern

Totalitarian Postmodernist poster on trains in Washington, DC
Is Totalitarian Postmodern the latest in design trends? It may well be, since visual styles usually go hand in hand with the political realities of the day. This prime example of a totalitarian postmodernist poster was recently spotted on trains and train stations in the Washington, DC area. Reminiscent of the propaganda posters issued by the fascist regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain, the authoritarian looking placards were apparently issued as public service announcements by The MARC Train Service. The posters read, “Report any unusual activities or packages to the nearest conductor - Watch, Ride and Report.”

The poster depicts train riders steadying themselves in their seats, holding on to safety straps and poles, but the style of the artwork is also a direct reference to the politically charged Soviet posters of the late 1930’s. The train riders even appear to be holding red flags, but instead of a slogan like “Long live the great unity of the working people of the world” the poster instead calls on viewers to “Report any unusual activities.” Such wording conjures up George Orwell’s, 1984. In that tale of a horrifying modern dystopia, constant surveillance of the population by the one-party state was the order of the day, with the populace encouraged to spy on and inform against itself. In 2002 a similarly Orwellian poster was issued in London by the Metropolitan Police working with the CCTV, London’s mass transit provider. That unnerving poster bore the slogan, Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes - the watchful eyes of the police of course, and the poster confronted rapid transit users all across the city.

It is interesting to contemplate how the Watch, Ride and Report poster was sanctioned by The MARC Train Service to begin with. No doubt an advertising agency was used to create and print the artwork, which entailed artists and designers, copy writers, proof readers, editors and of course department managers who would approve the work as it progressed. Finally, the poster had to be approved by MARC and its managers and directors. And yet, while passing through all of those hands not a soul objected to the blunt authoritarian style of the artwork. Despite the fact that I’ve noted the totalitarian postmodern style used in tongue-in-cheek commercial advertising before, what makes the MARC Train Service poster different is that it offers no irony or humor. Instead it is a serious poster concerning public safety measures and law enforcement in a time of color coded terror alerts, increased FBI powers, and Homeland Security surveillance.

That a people professing allegiance to democracy and human rights could be reassured and comforted through the use of aesthetics utilized by dictatorial regimes should be a cause for concern, but then, we live in exceedingly bizarre times. The totalitarian postmodernist style is not just restricted to announcements from the “public sector”. As I mentioned previously, it is a deeply rooted aesthetic in modern commercial advertising, though it does not always have such an obvious political veneer. An excellent example of this would be a billboard I saw on a heavily trafficked boulevard in Los Angeles just prior to 9-11. The huge billboard was an advertisement for a major department store, and I regret not having taken a photograph of the offensive display. The gigantic minimalist ad featured nothing but bold white text centered on a unadorned green background, with the store logo tucked away in a corner. The billboard simply read, SHUT UP AND SHOP. But that’s the subject of another essay.