Category: Totalitarian Postmodern

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.