Well, last month’s column was a little dark. What can I say? I was in a bit of a mood. I do stand, mostly, by what I wrote then: I’m pretty sure we’re all fucked. It was pointed out to me, though, that it may only be awareness that is on the increase, not existential threats themselves. After all, things looked pretty apocalyptic when we Europe lost a quarter of its population to the Black Plague, and we made it through that all right.
If we are going to survive the next few decades, the next century, it seems pretty clear that some issues are going to need pretty immediate addressing. The two biggest threats to the survival of civilization as we know it are, I would argue, militant Islam (in the short term) and climate change (in the long term). Artists have addressed both sets of subject matter. The question, however, remains: can artists actually play a role in crafting a solution to the issues, or do artists merely document this moment in civilization’s crisis without meaningfully altering the outcome?
I have written previously about the problems with political art: when too overt, too direct, it fails as art, falling into the role of propaganda, but generally lacking the mass media distribution of actual propaganda, it falls short of the goal of communicating a message clearly to large numbers of people. In some cases, politics may inspire a great work of art (e.g. Guernica), but the artwork doesn’t change the world (the Spanish Civil War still happened). The question is, need this always be the case? Can a work of art actually have the power to alter the course of history, allowing us to avoid these potential threats to the world as we know it?
I have already written about the threat of militant Islam in a previous article, and so I think it fitting to focus here on a few artists who deal directly with environmental themes in their work, and who might stand a chance of making an impact on the world.
Jenny Kendler’s work routinely addresses the idea of engangered species. Very often this subject matter manifests itself as aesthetically beautiful images or objects, quite successful as art objects in and of themselves. The question remains as to whether these images or objects can do anything to save the creatures so endangered. In most cases I am skeptical of their influence, but in at least one case, Jenny found a way to engage viewers/collectors in the actual building of awareness with regard to an endangered species.
In February 2012, I attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, where Kendler told me about an event she was involved with, In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists, at UnSpace Ground. This was situated in the outdoor plaza in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where CAA was taking place. For this event, eight artists and one biologist collaborated to create 35 art works representing endangered species living in southern California. In order to spread awareness of the endangered status of these organisms, viewers were invited to sign up to take custody of a work of art, in exchange for a commitment to learn and care about the species represented, and to reproduce or represent the artwork online. I wrote an article as my fulfillment of the pledge that I took on that day (this paragraph is a condensed extract from that article). The format ran something like a silent auction, with viewers selecting the work and species they wanted to care for, and signing up on form. As the event unfolded, Jenny announced each species, artwork, and its new caretaker, auctioneer-style. Both Stephanie Burke and I took custody of pieces by Jenny Kendler, a friend of ours whose work we have admired for a long time. Kendler’s work frequently addresses issues of ecology and conservation, but what I’ve always appreciated about its soft, quiet beauty, which has always reminded me of the animated film The Last Unicorn. This delicate aesthetic carries through her drawings and paintings, her sculptures, and makes an important subject palatable, avoiding any possibility of being called shrill or preachy. It is pretty with a purpose.
Kendler’s contributions to In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists were rendered in graphite and watercolor on little circles of paper, which were then mounted on vintage ribbons, like one might get for Best Pig at the county fair. They are similar to, although I believe separate from, an installation called Selection: 23 Endangered Species, executed in the same medium and also mounted on ribbons. Stephanie took custody of Muntz’s Onion, and I went for the Southern California Steelhead Trout.
This project, unlike most environmental art, required viewers to actively engage in the issue of endangered species, not merely to gain an awareness themselves but to share that awareness with others.
Another friend of mine who makes work addressing environmental themes is Osvaldo Budet. Osvaldo is a Puerto Rican artist who has, in his recent work, been specifically interested in the warming of the Arctic. He discusses this at length in the artist statement on his website:
Beneath the scenic surface of this frozen landscape lies another history rooted in human exploration and exploitation. European explorers, sailers, hunters, fur trappers and whalers used these shores for riches as early as the 17th century. But the Arctic wilderness is also rich in natural resources and has long been dotted and scarred by coal ming communities and structural remains. Through these lands, above and below the surface presents a remarkable story of twentieth century man’s struggle against the elements and our present technocratic society’s challenge to fathom the speed and implications of this changing place. In conjunction with the ‘Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar and Meeresforschung’ and the ‘Hanse-Wisseschaftskolleg Institute for Advanced Study’, I embarked on a month long expedition as artists in residence to the ‘AWIPEV-Koldeway Station’ Arctic Research base in Ny- Ålesund, Svalbard. Here I lived and worked with the community and the scientists working there to respond to the physical and political dimensions of the changing polar environments stressed by profligate human activity. Using the mediums of painting, photography and documentary film making I used this white stage of the Arctic to explore the idea that the landscape is a construct or reflection of our culture and interests of the system we inhabit. I photographed the visible scars and human impact of the landscape with the intention to then construct a ‘new reality’ in the studio and artificially ‘clean’ and change the images to create vistas that encompass the beauty of the wilderness we may expect to find in this region. By digitally eliminating any visible human activity in the landscape I aim to question the the social and political implications of our technocratic societies management of our resources and lands in such fragile part of the world. These fictitious places I create in my photos are imaginary vistas of grandeur and serenity; the ideal Arctic which we project in our collective memory and expect to find there in the flesh. In opposition to these romantic looking photos, my simplistic graphite line drawings of out of place and awkward structures and people, dwarfed in white space of the sheet of paper describe exactly that which has been eliminated, void or missing in the photographs. These drawings record the missing human dimensions of the photos and all at once the graphite and ink drawings point to unreal looking situations and an even stranger reality. Playing with reversals of imagination, construction and elimination these photos and drawings invite us to discover contradictions and connections, continuities and breaks which are a contradictory experience to the harsh reality of the places I seek to evoke.
Osvaldo’s partner Shonah Trescott works with similar themes at times, and the two have collaborated on several pieces including the artist residency that involved an expedition to the Arctic. Their work generally fits the traditional gallery model in which artists makes commodities for wealthy collectors to purchase, and therefore while inspired by and based on a vital environmental concern, the works themselves may not reach a wide enough audience to alter the course of climate change. (That being said, Osvaldo is fairly well recognized internationally, and his prominence may bring some additional attention to the issue.)
However, Osvaldo has also worked in documentary film, and he and Shonah were the subjects of a BBC short documentary called “Drawn Into The Light.”
The documentary film ‘Drawn into the Light’ follows the artists Shonah Trescott and myself on expedition to the high Arctic to live and work for a month in the most Northern Settlement of the world. Featuring interviews with the artists, international scientists, policy makers, builders, researchers and ordinary citizens. The film asks, “Who is allowed to shape our landscape, and what are the criteria for these decisions? Questioning the well-documented concerns that we are in the throes of a climate crisis that threatens life on Earth as we know it. I delved into a world of ice and snow, to tells a story woven in ice, revealing the heavy human ties which bind us all with this fragile region of the world.
Documentary film is an excellent medium for activism, and by its wider distribution may reach audiences that the artworks themselves do not.
A final artist I would like to mention in closing is Grant W Ray. I wrote about his 2010 exhibition at Spoke in my former project, the Chicago Gallery Snack Report at Art Talk Chicago. Ray’s piece in which viewers were invited to attempt to clean pieces of coal with a toothbrush and soapy water was hilariously Sisyphean, and made the point (that coal will always be a dirty fuel) in a fun, playful way.
Despite my earlier doomsaying, there are some artists who see the problems facing humanity in our future, and are not dismayed, but rather encouraged, in that they see the situation as being resolvable with sufficient effort. These artists are making work that is not only based on environmental concerns, but represents a real effort at working towards a solution.
Everything is fucked.
We’re all so busy burning the land and boiling the sea that the new Mad Max movie looks less like an escapist fantasy and more like a preview of what the world’s going to look like in a generation or two. The huge populations of the developing world are pushing their way towards a standard of living defined by the industrialized nations of the west, following a path through massive deforestation and consumption of fossil fuels towards a consumer utopia that is absolutely unsustainable, but also irresistible. While the version of Chinese cuisine exported by its emigrants is a global favorite, in China itself gastronomes can’t seem to find satisfaction without boiling dogs alive or cutting the fins off sharks to allow them to slowly bleed to death as they circle like the Bismark, unable to swim, to the bottom of the dying oceans. The oceans, of course, are filled with plastic, swept up by ocean currents into massive constellations of plastic particles that, if this were a Neal Stephenson story, would be aggregated into a massive, floating, plastic city, but in the real world end up breaking down into toxic chemicals that poison the waters and enter the food chain. Tiny pieces are ingested by microorganisms and end up in your sashimi; larger pieces choke the guts of albatrosses, killing for example one-third of the albatross chicks born on Midway Atoll.
Cops keep killing people. Or raping them. Or both. (Courtrooms aren’t safe either.) While there’s some heavily agenda-driven debate on the demographics of the victims of police violence, the basic facts seem to be that while the majority of Americans killed by the police are white, this is because 63% of Americans are non-Latino whites, and for a single individual having an interaction with law enforcement, the odds of being killed by the officers is much greater for a non-white civilian (four times worse, says one study). Racism certainly exists within police forces, but even without it, the combination of a frustrating and dangerous profession, deadly weapons, and a near-impunity created by a culture of corruption, coverups, and silence would be enough to guarantee the regular recurrence of unjustified killings of civilians by law enforcement. Nobody knows how many Americans are killed by the police each year. There are 18,000 or so law enforcement agencies in the US, and they aren’t required to compile their data on officer involved shootings. Of course, they don’t want to do so. They don’t want to be subject to the scrutiny that would challenge the power which they enjoy. And power corrupts. It is known.
Understandably sick of being killed by the police, some people have been taking to the streets in protest, others in riot. The peaceful protests are cheerfully ignored by those in power, while the violent riots are condemned, though the events in Baltimore showed that if you burn the heart of your city to the ground, you can at least provoke the cops into putting on a puppet show of justice, charging the officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray with murder…and then releasing each of them on bail less than that set for a single rioter. (Although this fact is perhaps less damning than it seems on the face of it; the officers aren’t likely a flight risk, and have much to lose by running rather than fighting the charges in court.) And they even fucked that up. I’m not sure whether to take it as a sign that things are getting slowly better, or that they don’t change at all, when I was reminded that 45 years ago as of yesterday, National Guard troops killed four students at Kent State in Ohio. Two were protesting the Vietnam War, the other two were walking to class when they were killed.
Of course, not all cops are bad cops, and we should be grateful to those who perform this vital service. It was a traffic cop who gunned down a pair of would-be jihadis, attempted mass murderers armed with potentially very lethal rifles. The previously seemingly-paranoid fears that Islamic extremism is coming to the United States have been replaced by a grim realization that it is already here. The Muslim fanatics were attempting to shoot up a convention putting on a “draw Muhammed contest,” which can be interpreted either as a militant defense of freedom of expression, or as an intentional provocation of exactly the kind of violent response that it got. The organization putting on the event is the American Freedom Defense Institute, which sounds like either a fictional group from Team America: World Police, or like a new euphemistic name for the School of the Americas. They have been described as a hate group (by the controversial and extreme Southern Poverty Law Center), and certainly aren’t shy about their criticism of Islam and their defense of Israel. Whether they are in fact anti-Muslim or are instead merely opposed to extremist violence, the group’s views are Constitutionally protected speech. Even if the contest was actually intended to provoke just this kind of attack, it’s perfectly legal to hunt over bait in Texas if you’re hunting feral pigs. Certainly when I was growing up, no matter what my kid brother did to provoke me, if I ever hit him, I was the one to get in trouble, not him. Ironically it’s the same strategy used by Palestinian protestors, getting kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers to provoke the soldiers to shoot at them so they can point out to the world how brutal the Israelis are. It’s a dick move, but it works.
Of course, if Islamic extremist terrorists are finally putting the tip into Lady Liberty, the Muslim-majority world has been getting it head, shaft, and balls for a while now. It’s regrettably understandable that some, seeing the horror of the Islamic extremists, come to treat Islam as synonymous with evil, but in fact most of the victims of Islam extremists are their fellow Muslims. Every day it seems, Da’ish comes up with some new horror even more fucked up than the last: throwing homosexuals in Iraq to their deaths from tall buildings, then burning a captured Joradian pilot alive by roasting him in a cage, and decapitating just about anybody they can get their hands on. Also, they fuck goats. And donkeys. But only when they aren’t being provided with enough sex slaves from among the local population.
There’s no happy ending here, no feel-good wrap-up to make the absolute horror of the world a little more tolerable. There’s nothing to do but look for some nepenthe to dull the sensation, to feel it a little less. Maybe you drink, because, as Bukowski put it, “When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” Or you go to the movies. And then, just trying to hide in the dark and forget it all of a couple of hours, you get all bent out of shape because Iron Man cracks a weirdly anachronistic rape joke. Because it’s impossible to have any sense of perspective in this world of fire and death, impossible to ignore the fact that when you stub your toe on the way to the gas chamber it still hurts.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been teaching Foundations at Northern Arizona University. Recently I was invited to present at a session at the FATE Conference “Tectonic Shifts” in Indianapolis. (The whole #boycottindiana thing didn’t start until our last day there.) It was, among other things, an opportunity to reflect on what, exactly, Foundations is, as a subject, and what it could and should be.
Foundations programs typically include Drawing, 2D Design, and 3D Design. They often also include Color Theory, Figure Drawing, and (very occasionally) an introductory Digital Media class. This presupposes a certain set of priorities that influences students’ perceptions of what art is, and bear in mind that within a college or university setting, most students in a Foundations course will not necessarily be art majors.
The premise seems to be that most of the classes are set up to prepare a student to work in two-dimensional plastic arts, chiefly painting. And indeed, in the popular imagination, painting serves as the holotype for what art is. The combination of Drawing, 2D Design, and Color Theory is perfectly geared towards preparing a student for Painting I, or perhaps Printmaking. In my own studio practice I am a painter, and perhaps I was drawn into this medium by a similar set of assumptions. (What I thought I was attracted to, in my teens and early twenties, as “painting,” was in fact primarily illustration, albeit rendered in paint.) 3D Design is a nod to sculpture, and some departments have begun introducing various courses in Digital Media in an attempt to “contemporize” their departments.
I’m not particularly interested in reinventing Foundations, certainly not in the sense of being on some sort of crusade to throw out the traditional model. But I am interested in how and why we have formed our assumptions about what comprise the fundamental building blocks of an artistic practice. Certainly the type of Foundations that I learned when I was in college, that I used to build the technical skills that form the basis of my practice, and that I now teach to my students, have much more in common with the kind of art we saw before 1965 than since.
I should here also mention that I attended community college and then a four-year public state university, and now teach at a similar university, so my experience was and is very different from what one might have at an art school. The foundations curriculum at MICA, RISD, or SAIC might very well be very different from what I’m used to. If I were to look at a cross-section of contemporary art, and use that as my starting point to reverse engineer what a Foundations program should be, I would imagine that the first semester would consist of Introduction to Art Theory, Art History Since 1965, Digital Photography (probably camera phone based), and Writing For Artists. If there was a first-semester foundations studio course at all, it would probably be Found Object Assemblage.
I should be clear here that this isn’t some Swiftian “Modest Proposal” in which I argue that contemporary artists have no hand skill anymore, and that it’s all showmanship and networking and name dropping. Not that it’s not, just that I recognize that there’s no point in bemoaning the fact. Rather, I am saying that over the past few decades, the new work being produced has often (not always) emphasized concept over technique (I am under no illusions of this being a groundbreaking revalation), and that when contemporary work does require hand skill, that hand skill might have little or nothing to do with traditional plastic art skills of drawing, painting, carving, and casting. Rather we see cabinetmaking and welding, mechanics and electronic engineering, computer programming and choreography, each used as it suits the artist’s needs. Indeed, an art education that geared students to produce for the contemporary market might look something like two years of hardcore art history and theory, culminating in a “sophmore seminar” in which the student produces a written proposal for an ambitious thesis project. The following year is spent on exchange to a vocational trade school where the student learns whatever skills he or she needs to execute the project, whether that be horseback riding or taxidermy, mountaineering or tattooing, explosive demolition or flintknapping. The fourth year consists solely of guided studio time coupled with a class in professional practices. The thesis show is presented at the end of the fourth year, and the fifth year is devoted to developing a new, post-thesis body of work intended for submission to grad schools or galleries.
I don’t know if this would be any better or worse than what we have now. I, for one, would feel the loss of the traditional media in art programs. I’d certainly be out of a job. But if art education exists not as a sort of pyramid scheme in which we enlist the help of the next generation in taking our classes so that we can repay our student loans, in the hope that they will one day pass on this curse to students of their own (like the monstrous antagonist in It Follows), but as an actual service to our students, then it must prepare them for the world that they will actually face.
I’m left with the question of what role my beloved traditional media play in an ever-changing world. There are only so many hours in the day, indeed, only so many hours in a lifetime, and every new skill that is introduced must of necessity displace something else. Introduce Robotics, and a student never takes Lithography. Introduce Relational Aesthetics (which I’m currently teaching), and perhaps it’s Figure Drawing that gets left behind. Earlier today, a student was planning her schedule for the Fall, and had to choose between my Color Theory class and a 3D Printing class being offered at the same time.
In some cases, the progression seems natural: that digital photography has relegated the entire darkroom to the role of alternative process makes sense, for the same reason that wet collodion printing isn’t taught in Beginning Photo. The technology has evolved. (I love oil painting, but for me, Beginning Painting makes more sense in acrylics.) But the kind of theory-driven, technique-thin program I hypothetically described above sacrifices some of the most important elements of artmaking. The “wow, I made that!” satisfaction of a well-executed representational drawing can be what inspires a student to pursue art as a degree, a career, a life. For all the practicality of digital photography, there is an alchemical magic to the darkroom that can never be rendered in pixels. And as any observational painter or drawing teaching will tell you, you’ve never really seen something until you’ve tried to draw it. This is the magic, the power to inspire, that we must preserve at all costs as we chase the spotlight of new technologies and ideas through the prison yard of the art world.
Last month, on January 6th, I published in this blog a column entitled, “Chilling Me Softly.” The topic, generally, was about censorship, about the intentional cultivation of censorship as a promotional strategy, and about the the subsequent chilling effect that occurs. I was writing specifically in context of the film The Interview. One paragraph read:
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, may balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
I was concerned that, despite all the publicity (generally interpreted as a good thing) generated by the censorship of The Interview, that the long-term consequence would be a chilling effect: that is, a reluctance on the part of cultural producers to tread on certain lines (in this case, the mocking of a dictator) for fear that their lives would be threatened, their work not shown, their investment of time and money lost. I was tired. I finished the article, make a quick top page feature image in Photoshop, and published it.
And the next day, the Charlie Hebdo shootings occurred.
The events of the day have been widely reported. On Wednesday, January 7th, two Islamic extremist militants of Algerian descent attacked the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper. Their motive was plainly offense at the newspaper’s publication of unflattering characitures of Muhammed, the prophet of the Islamic faith. They killed 11 people and wounded 11 others. They fled the scene after killing a French police officer and running over a pedestrian. The two were ultimately killed in a shootout with French police.
One question that media outlets faced in covering this story was whether or not to show the images, published in Charlie Hebdo, that had provoked the attack in the first place. Some feared that by doing so, they would face the same kind of attack. They censored themselves out of fear. Others phrased their self-censorship as being a form of “respect,” which some called cowardice by another name. In particular, some news outlets that had published Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (which I discussed, image included, in last month’s article) were called hypocrites for refusing to show the Muhammed cartoons. Why would one show an image potentially offenseive to Christians, they asked, but not one potentially offensive to Muslims? The implication is that the publication either felt more sympathetic to Muslims, or felt more threatened by them.
I, myself, have never been shy about making potentially offensive artworks. As I discussed in last month’s “Chilling Me Softly,” I have had my work removed from exhibitions, several times, always for sexual content. At other times I’ve made work critical of religion. One piece, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tread the line neatly: my atheist friends chuckle at how silly it is, while I have also had creationists use the piece to illustrate a presentation on the teachings of Genesis! This was precisely what I wanted: a self-authorizing code, that Creationists would feel was a fair representation of their beliefs, while my secular audience would feel was biting satire at the expense of religion. (Personally, I just liked painting dinosaurs, and thought it was funny to not put belly buttons on Adam and Eve.)
In December, Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport hosted a Krampus-themed art exhibition, for which Stephanie Burke and I created a pair of murals. In one, Krampus sodomized Santa Claus. In the other, Krampus forced Jesus to fellate him. This second image, I could see, might be offensive to some Christians, but I never felt any fear that I’d lose friends (even from among my Christian friends) over it, to say nothing of an actual physical attack. As Dan Savage said in his excellent article on the topic, this tolerance of criticism is something modern Christians should be proud of. To this I would add that it is something modern Muslims should emulate if they truly wish to integrate (even if “salad bowl” style rather than “melting pot”) into contemporary, global society.
I have previously defended Muslims and Islam, mostly in Facebook discussions with my more conservative, anti-Islamist (as opposed to anti-Islamic) friends. I have argued that Islam isn’t necessarily a violent religion; that’s just how a few extremists interpret it. I’ve argued that in the text of the Koran itself, there’s neither more nor less violence than in the Christian Bible. (Especially the Old Testament. That thing reads like a Wes Craven screenplay.) And I still believe this. It’s meaningless to say, “Islam is a religion of peace” as though that is a simple statement of fact. It’s not a fact, either true or false. Rather, it’s a goal, an ideal, that we can work to bring about, by embracing and welcoming peaceful, moderate Muslims into global society, while dealing with Islamists the same way we deal with any other violent extremists.
Radical Islam poses an existential threat to the rest of the world, in just the same way that Soviet Socialism did in the latter half of the 20th Century, or that fascism did in the first half. Among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, 23% of the world’s population, representing the world’s fastest growing and second-largest (behind Christianity taken as a whole) religion, a relatively small minority could be classified as Islamists, believing that Islam should govern political and social, as well as personal, life. Just how small a minority depends on where you look, and on what issue: even Islamists are not a monolithic block. In some places, 10-15% seems to be a good estimate for the number of radicals within the Muslim population…but in Pakistan, for example, 82% of Muslims believe in stoning (to death) those who commit adultery (I wonder whether they would apply this to men as well as women), and 76% believe in the death penalty for those who leave Islam. These figures are similar in Egypt and Jordan, but much lower elsewhere.
The depictions of Muhammed in Charlie Hebdo were intentionally and specifically disrespectful (as are the the publication’s depictions of the prophets and practicioners of other faiths), but depictions of Muhammed have not always been so. There is nothing in the Quran that explicitly prohibits depictions of Muhammed; the prohibition is based on interpretations of the hadith, or collected sayings and actions of Muhammed. At times, some Islamic sects have allowed or produced images of Muhammed, with Shia and mystical sects typically doing so more often, with Sunni Islam being more consistently aniconic and iconoclastic. (Depictions of Allah or God are uniformly prohibtied, as they are in Judaism, in contrast to Christianity which has a long history of direct and venerated representations of the deity.)
The question of how consistently Islam has been opposed to depictions of Muhammed, though, may be a distraction from the issue of whether non-Muslims should feel obliged to follow a prohibition within Islam. This compliance is optional, voluntary, and based on respect for the beliefs of that faith, or fear (often disguised as respect) of the consequences of offending some of the violent, radical members of that faith. Even if violent radicals are a small minority of Muslims, it only takes one.
One of the objections to satirical depictions of Mohammed is that it’s a form of “punching down,” in that (in Europe) Muslims represent a “repressed minority.” But as the fastest-growing, and second-largest, religion in the world, the fact that for the time being Muslims are in the minority may be less significant than it seems. Many have compared characitures of Muslims to anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews, and I could see cases where a similar sort of racism could be at play. Which would not, of course, justify any sort of violence directed at those responsible.
But, in light of the growing role of radical Islam in many parts of the world, satire at the expense of the faith seems, to me at least, to be less of a “keep ’em down” sort of repression like the caracitures of Jews coming out of Germany in the 1930s, and more like the political cartoons criticising appeasement in the face of facism.
Muslims deserve the same respect as do members of any other religion: no more, no less. This means non-Muslims respecting their beliefs, not following them, any more so than respecting Catholics means going to mass, or respecting Hindus means giving up beef. Muslims have ever right to hold on to their own identities, religious as well as national and ethnic, as they integrate into global society. Indeed, the loss of their traditions would be tragic, as far too many indiginous peoples have found their cultures, their languages, and their religions extirpated by “progress” and Westernization. But becoming a part of a world that, for better or for worse, is becoming smaller and smaller, requires learning to get along, and that means learning, like any other religion, to take criticism and satire at the expense of one’s prophet, text, and beliefs.
We are all, I am sure, familiar with the concept of “the chilling effect,” by which legitimate forms of expression are discouraged by fear of consequences such as censorship, lawsuit, or arrest. The chilling effect is one of, if the the most, dangerous consequences of censorship in any field, and particularly in regard to art, because it shrinks the area in which our ideas compete for recognition, slowing intellectual progress. Here it is important to recognize most emphatically that it does not matter if an individual, censored idea was meritorious; you’ve got to get through a lot of bad ideas to get to a good one.
It had seemed that the culture wars were largely over. Mapplethorpe, the leader of the pack, has been safely canonized, and Serrano wasn’t far behind. Round two was the Chris Ofili dust up, but by that point, the war was over, and Rudy Giuliani was left looking like a senile old man telling the art world to get off his lawn.
If these names all seem familiar to you, you (or perhaps the artists) have the culture wars to thank. There is something of a silver lining to the cloud of censorship, what I’m inclined to term a “micro-privilege.” To censor you, they have to say your name. In a world where everybody’s fighting for attention, to have someone pay enough attention to you to bother censoring your work, or attempting to do so, is in itself a sort of miniature victory. We could debate how well Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Ofili would be known if not for their roles in the culture wars, but without a doubt it has only contributed to their reputations.
It mustn’t have been long after the first act of censorship that people started thinking that making one’s self a target for censorship could be an effective strategy for self-promotion. The generation that grew up in the 1980s must remember hearing, in hushed tones on the schoolyard, of a film called, “Faces of Death.” Like so many schoolyard rumors, it was the taboo nature of the film that formed the heart of its appeal. It was at times implied that it was illegal to possess, that it contained “snuff” footage of murders committed specifically to make the film, etc. These were untrue, but the film itself was promoted as being “Banned in 40+ Countries.” The effort at censorship was exaggerated, then recruited as an advertising slogan.
Back in 2010, Chicago-based performance artist Joseph Ravens was the center of a minor, local controversty (http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/this-guys-penis-is-a-work-of-art/Content?oid=1981925), pertaining to an issue of nudity in a storefront pop-up gallery. It was the kind of silly footnote that distracts from the work itself, as Joseph himself, I’m sure, would agree. Joseph and I have become friends and have worked together, and I take him at his word when he says that he never intended to create any controversy.
However, in the comments of the above-linked Reader article, one commenter posted a link to a film in which Ravens had appeared, entitled “Penis Demilo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm0Tbyig1NA). While the film was uploaded in 2010, and the copyright notice in the credits is to that year, it appears much older, perhaps late 1990s. The film was produced by the group Joy Farm, with whom Ravens has been working since 1993.
Ravens portrays an artist named Ennui, who has created a sculpture called Penis Demilo. The artwork was scheduled to be unveiled at the opening of Municipal Gallery. Protestors arrive (“I’m protesting about that filthy penis in there!”) and the decision is made to remove the piece. The protests, however, draw publicity, crowds of viewers arrive, and the gallery prepares to unveil the piece. A bomb threat is phoned in, and as the building is being evacuated, Ennui announces that, “If I cannot share my art with you, no one will ever see it” He topples the still-draped sculpture, which shatters into pieces and dust. Reporter Floss Mulligan reports, “Well, it looks as though he’s made the bold step into performance art.” The film concludes with a scene of Ennui paying the leader of the protestors and contracting them to protest again next month for his new piece, “Protein Smile.”
Cynics were quick to take Ravens’ participation in this film as evidence in support of the theory that the 2010 “dick in a window” controversy was itself a publicity stunt. Ravens himself told me that he had totally forgotten about the film, and I believe him. Instead, it seems to me the sort of coincidence that happens from time to time.
Perhaps I am sympathetic in this case because I have run into issues of censorship myself from time to time. In graduate school, one of my pieces was to be displayed in a window of the college’s gallery. A complaint followed, and the issue was put to the director of my graduate program, Grace Hartigan. I wasn’t present for the conversation, but according to several people present, she immediately agreed to remove the work. One of these friends called me, and so I was able to act pre-emptively. I dashed off a quick announcement, written in the voice of the college, announcing the need to censor the work. I covered the painting with a black sheet and hung the notice in front of it. Of course this made the college look bad, and the decision was made to remove the covering and allow the piece to be shown (accompanied by a denial of any attempt to censor the piece in the first place).
In an earlier incident, in undergrad at Humboldt State, an arguably more obscene piece was censored; my effort to drape the piece was in this case denied. Immediately upon my removing the piece, a friend purchased it, in part because of the controversy. The “Penis Demilo effect” was in play here. (My first experience with censorship occurred early in elemenary school; officials took my drawing of a man urinating as evidence that I was being molested by my parents, a totally false conclusion, and I had to spend a week in a foster home while the whole thing was sorted out.)
These issues, and in particular the Penis Demilo film, were on my mind as I watched the recent drama over The Interview play out. This was, apparently, a different case than the earlier fine art culture wars. Here, rather than alleged that a law was being broken or funds misused, Sony Pictures claimed to have been hacked, and then a threat was made that 9/11-type attacks would be directed at any theater showing the film. Major theater chains refused to show the film, a few indie theaters promised to show it as planned, then Sony pulled the release. Some theaters (the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, for example) planned to show Team America in its place, then Paramount refused to license the showings of that film. Obama chimed in, telling Americans to “go to the movies,” echoing Bush’s 9/11 admonition that Americans “go shopping.”
Ultimately, The Interview was shown as video-on-demand. I got together with my wife, my sister, and a few friends, and we paid our three bucks or whatever and watched the thing. It was exactly what it had appeared to be in the initial, pre-scandal previews: a lackluster bromance against a backdrop of North Korea’s tragically comical flaws. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it had its moments. It was no Team America, but it was no Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, either.
I’ve heard cynicism similar to that around Ravens’ performance scandal in regard to The Interview. Was it all a publicity stunt? North Korea itself denied involvement in the hacking, though the FBI concluded that they had been at least partially behind it (a conclusion widely debated by other experts), resulting in US sanctions against North Korean interests. North Korea’s denial is itself puzzling, considering their threats as long ago as June of last year, promising to treat the film’s release as “an act of war.”
Regardless of who was responsible for the cyber attack and theater threats (which may have been by the same party, or perhaps others), a lot of people seem (on Facebook, at least) to consider it now to be their patriotic duty to see The Interview. I certainly felt compelled to watch it. Would I have, otherwise? Probably. I go to the movies a lot, and I mean this as distinctly opposed to “looking at film.” I enjoy a good two-nour nepenthe pretty regularly. But I certainly felt more compelled to see The Interview after being told that there were people who didn’t want me to see it.
The cynics probably go too far, though, in suggesting that Sony, themselves, may have fabricated the threats in order to drum up publicity for the film. It doesn’t seem to make economic sense. Sure, they managed some $15 million in streaming profits in the first four days (plus just under $3 million from the few independent theaters which showed the film), but with a $44 million budget, Sony is far from breaking even. They would have done far better had they allowed the theatrical release to go ahead, and there’s no evidence that there was any reason, other than the threats, to cancel the release.
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, make balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
The same is true in the art world. If faculty, fearing for their jobs, refuse to support students in the face of threatened censorship by the University, those students will learn the lesson that some subjects cannot be discussed, some media can not be used, some ideas can not be expressed. This extends at every level of the scene, from a museum pulling a show due to criticism, or a coffee shop with a “no nudes” policy for the community artwork it allows on its walls. None of this is to say that only dirty work is worthwhile; indeed, shock is a well-worn strategy and much “offensive” work is in fact merely boring. But if we are to maintain an open forum for conversation, such works must be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits, or lack thereof, rather than being preemptively excluded from discussion for failing to meet a lowest-common-denominator standard of decency.