Punk fashion a must from Paris to Chicago
Let’s play a game: SCA #Anarchy Themed Benefit or Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway show at Paris Fashion Week?
Guest Post: This essay is part of a series by David Carl
If I had created the City of my dream, the City that is not, never was and yet manifests itself with acuteness, smells and loud sounds, if I had created that City, I would not only have been moving in complete freedom and with an absolute sense of belonging but also, most importantly, I would have taken the audience into an alien but secretly familiar world.
-Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern
Barton Fink presents us with an opportunity to reconsider that most magical aspect of the cinema, mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène is nothing less than the visual world created by the filmmakers to tell us everything about the movie that is not conveyed by the dialogue, the story, the plot, the characters, and the acting. It is the physical setting of the movie, the very stuff of its visual being.
This is of central importance in any film, but in Barton Fink it is of particular interest because the world of the movie is such an unusual one. In most films mise-en-scène is created in the service of calling a particular world into existence. Often it is some version of the world we are already familiar with (either in our experience, our memory, or our imagination): for example, such and such a city in America in such and such a year. It may be a period piece: A suburb in the 1970’s, New York of the 1920’s, the Chicago of prohibition, the American West in the 1860’s, Europe during WWI, or Vietnam in 1969. Sometimes it is a fantasy world that has been created expressly for the movie: a science fiction landscape, perhaps on a spaceship or on another planet, or some fantasy version of our own world in the future. Mise-en-scène can be used to recreate the Wild West, the roaring 20’s, World War II, an alien invasion, the Zombie Apocalypse, the town we grew up in, an all-too-familiar office building, a typical American high-school, an apartment complex, a jungle, a desert, or an urban wasteland. Mise-en-scene creates a world, whether it is the lush, visually brilliant Britain of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the rainy Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.
Mise-en-scène tells us where we are. But the Coen brothers don’t need mise-en-scène to tell us where we are as we enter the world of Barton Fink because they use a title to do it instead: “New York, 1941”, even though everything about the setting would have conveyed the same information. But they’re reserving mise-en-scène for something else; let’s call it establishing a mood. What is this mood? What is “mood” in the movies? What else but how a movie makes us feel. Which, in the case of Barton Fink, is a very special kind of creepy; Poe would have called it an example of “the uncanny.”
Lets review the first 10 minutes of Barton Fink: The movie begins with the credits appearing against a background of gold textured wallpaper (we see later that it is the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle). Wallpaper is important in the movie. It’s a surface that hides another surface. The first cut takes us behind a surface, not of the wallpaper but of a stage. We’re behind the scenes, listening to the over-acted, over-written, overblown lines of a “common man” in Barton’s successful play:
“Dreamin’ again,” a woman says.
“Not anymore Lil. I’m awake now. Awake for the first time in years.”
The movie’s main themes are presented in the first few seconds: surfaces and what they conceal, actors and what they portray (or pretend to be), the tension between dreaming and being awake. The first shot, after the credits, is of something being lowered. We are descending, from the very first image, going down, figuratively, accompanying our characters on their descent into Hell.
These first few seconds also illustrate Barton’s illusions about his work as an artist. (Movies and the theatre are about creating illusions (not always illusions of reality), and Barton’s illusions are largely “in his mind.”) On stage and out of sight wildly improbable lines are delivered (“I see the choir and I know they’re dressed in rags, but we’re part of that choir”) by a character meant to represent a “common man” (although the voice sounds strikingly like John Turturro’s) while backstage a “real” common man works the ropes and pulleys that allow the fantasy to unfold. On the very line “we’re part of that choir” we get our first shot of a human figure in the movie, bent over and working, completely uninterested in, unengaged with, and detached from the lines being delivered ostensibly to give him, the “common man,” a dramatic voice in the world.
The shot of this man walking away behind Barton is of someone who couldn’t care less about the lies and fantasies of dramatic representation. A second stagehand sits nearby smoking a cigarette (beneath an eerily red-lit “NO SMOKING” sign) and reading a newspaper, equally uninterested in Barton’s paean to his fantasy version of “the common man.” This is all the visual evidence we need to see that the movie wants us to think of Barton’s play (and thus of Barton himself) as a pompous ruse (albeit a sincere one). A sincere ruse; that is: excellent raw material for Hollywood.
In the restaurant after the performance Barton says, “I can’t kid myself about my own work. A writer writes from his gut. His gut tells him what’s good.” But throughout the movie Barton does nothing but kid himself about his own work. He’s a bad writer who knows nothing about the people he wants to write about (ironically, since the implication is that he grew up with them in New York, and that his own background is working class). The Herald review of his paper says that his play is about people “whose brute struggle for existence cannot quite quell their desire for something higher”; but this describes not the people Barton thinks he is writing about, but rather his own relationship to writing. A relationship that will unfold for the rest of the movie not in New York, but in Hollywood, a place that thrives on the tension between appearances and reality, aspiration and ambition, honesty and hypocrisy. A magical place of fantasy mixed with ruthless pragmatic business sense. (What darkness supports the light?) At their first meeting Lipnick tells Barton, “The writer is king here at Capitol pictures. You don’t believe me: take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That’s what we think of the writer.” And he’s right: in Hollywood a writer, like anything else, is something you buy. Pay for it and it’s yours.
But Hollywood is not simply a false mistress who erects a tempting exterior over a corrupt interior. Instead, She turns out to be the harsh mistress capable of telling Barton the hard truths he has tried to hide and conceal himself from. Ironically, Hollywood is the most honest character in the whole movie; the character so expert at disguise that She not only sees through everyone else’s disguises, but forces them to face and acknowledge them as well. And virtually every character in Barton Fink is pretending to be someone or something he or she is not (Charlie is not “really” an insurance salesman, Lipnick is not a colonel in the U.S. army, Mayhew is not a great writer, Audrey is “not just Bill’s secretary”, and who, or what, the hell is “CHET!”, anyway?), which leads us to wonder, what is it that Barton appears to be but isn’t? A writer? An artist? Someone interested in “the common man”?
Hollywood is a wonderful paradox: no place is more devoted to creating magic, but no place is more merciless in reducing it to a commodity that can be bought and sold. Hollywood is also the land where appearances are what is real. Obscuring the dividing line between truth and fiction, fantasy and reality is the business of Hollywood. It’s a place where dreams (or nightmares) come true. Which means that the person who is the most duplicitous is, paradoxically, the most honest. (Lipnick tells Barton, “If I had been totally honest, I wouldn’t be within a mile of this pool unless I was cleaning it.”) Where does that leave Barton? Is he a real writer trying to pander his talent to the Hollywood beast? Or is he a hack who has to come to Hollywood to discover the truth about himself? What is truth in the movie? In the movies? In Hollywood? For any of us ever? What more do we want from a work of art than an opportunity to confront such puzzles concerning truth and fiction?
From the moment we cut from the final scene in New York to the opening scene in Los Angeles we accompany Barton into a new world, a world that has never existed outside the imaginations of the filmmakers. This is where mise-en-scène comes in. Superficially it looks like Hollywood in the 1940’s, but in fact the Coen brothers have created a vision of Hollywood all their own, where nothing is as it appears to be, reality and fantasy are hopelessly confused, and truth and fiction are so entwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. The Hotel Earle, with its pealing wallpaper that seems to reveal something like flesh underneath and that appears to ooze or bleed when Barton presses on it (penetrating this “skin” with the thumbtacks provided by “Chet!” seems to provoke the sexual noises Barton hears through the wall), is a literal embodiment of this vision of Hollywood.
Meta-portrayals of Hollywood as a city dedicated to ruthlessly profiting from creations of the human imagination are common. Hollywood, as we know from movies like Von Sternberg’s The Last Command, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Robert Altman’s The Player, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, is the place where fantasy and reality enter into the most bizarre of congresses. Nowhere else in American is the harsh reality of cutthroat business so seamlessly combined with the romantic luster of our dreams and fantasies. Hollywood is where people go to make their dreams come true, or, as in Barton’s case, to encounter their nightmares.
Barton does not so much enter the Hotel Earle as magically materialize in its lobby as a result of a gradual but stunning fade that, at 7 minutes and 44 seconds, for a split instant creates the image of Barton standing before a surging body of water that has flooded the hotel floor. It appears as if he has split the rock and emerged out of it to stand, suitcase and typewriter in hand, on the shores of a new land. As the water recedes, Barton begins to move forward through the hotel lobby. This is one of the most beautiful shots in the film. Barton backlit from the doors behind him, moving through a strangely empty (despite the many chairs) lobby of dusky browns and pinks that have a flesh-like character. This impression of the hotel lobby as something living is emphasized by the plants that give it a jungle-like feel. At first Barton is merely a silhouette moving through this strange new landscape.
The next cut lets us know we’re not to be confined to the point of view of characters in the movie. Now we are behind and above Barton, but too far above for this to be the pov of a human observer, and as the camera pulls back we rise even higher to take in the chandeliers. The light has changed and we can see the chairs and the plants more clearly. The colors stand out more brightly and Barton himself appears in more detail. The pattern of the carpet resembles the pattern of the gold wallpaper against which the credits appeared at the beginning of the movie.
A few more things to notice about the Hotel Earle:
—the symbolism throughout the film not so subtly suggests that the Hotel Earle is a kind of Hell (“Earle” and “Hell” are end rhymes).
—not just the fact that Chet emerges from below the floor (obvious symbolism), but the mottled color and texture of the trap door from which he emerges (carrying a shoe?)
—the overhead camera angle of the spinning hotel register Barton signs (a bird’s, or God’s, or Devil’s eye view?)
—the stains on the walls on either side of the elevator (the camera pans down though the motion should be up, to floor 6)
—the impossibly long corridor Barton walks down to arrive at his room
—the hotel’s slogan, “A day or a lifetime” (ominous overtones)
—the broken pencil tip (bad symbolism for a sexually lonely and creatively sterile writer)
—the long row of shoes outside the doors of what otherwise appear to be unoccupied rooms (in No Exit Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” but for Barton Hell may simply be himself and his solitude)
—the (according to Geisler, impossible) mosquito as bloodsucker; L.A. as the natural habitat of vampires (cf. Joss Whedon’s brilliant Buffy and Angel series)
In this movie, everything means something, which is as bad as saying that nothing means anything.
These early scenes establish the Hotel Earle as more than just a setting in the movie. It becomes an actual character, living and breathing, sweating, groaning; it acts and interacts with the other characters in the film—the hotel, like John Goodman’s character Charlie, is a living embodiment of Hollywood itself. (And Barton’s room is the creepiest room in the movies since The Shining’s Room 237 and Henry Spencer’s room in Eraserhead (whose hairdo Barton’s seems indebted to as well).)
At least this is one side of Hollywood—it would be pointless to try and identify which of the various settings (Lipnick’s office, the restaurant where Barton eats with Geisler, poolside at Lipnick’s home, the beach at the end of the film) is the “real” Hollywood, for that is precisely what Hollywood is in the movie: the absence of a single unchanging truth. Hollywood is all surface. Peel back the surface, as the Hotel Earle peels away is epidermal wallpaper, and what is beneath is not the truth, but just a sticky mess, waiting to be covered by an appearance which will stand in for the truth. And what is a movie that is surface all the way down “really” about, if not the very question of what it means for a movie to be “about” something in the first place?
Before ending I’d like to add a few thoughts about what Charlie and Lipnick have to do with all this, and with the question of “the life of the mind.” Charlie and Lipnick are doppelgangers, both for each other and for Hollywood. They do not “represent” or “symbolize” Hollywood; they embody it. They are large, dominating bodies. Bodies that embody, in different ways, what Barton calls “the life of the mind.”
Think of Charlie and Lipnick as different aspects of the “entertainment” industry: Lipnick, in his Janus-like alternations between submission (licking Barton’s shoe) and domination (firing and debasing Lou Breeze); Charlie in his peculiar relationship to make-believe and his own Janus-like embodiment of comedy and tragedy (the laughter-sobbing Barton hears through the wall (permeability of surfaces) representing both Thalia and Melpomene, the muses of comedy and tragedy respectively) and the friendly “guy next door” façade masking the “serial killer” interior). These ambiguities (submission/domination, laughter/sobbing, comedy/tragedy) find their way into the movie itself. Is Barton Fink a comedy, a horror movie, or a tragedy? Yes.
Lipnick tells Barton the only thing that matters is, “can you tell a story,” and Charlie repeatedly offers, “I could tell you stories,” but Barton can’t put these two sides of Hollywood together. He’s so caught up in the idea of his “work” that he can neither tell nor hear stories. He is both deaf and mute to the only thing Hollywood cares about: other people’s stories. He’s too busy trying to figure out his own.
Charlie says, when explaining his ear infection, “Can’t trade my head in for a new one,” and Barton agrees, adding “I guess you’re stuck with the one you got.” But later in the film the cotton in Charlie’s ear reappears in Barton’s (also symbolizing his deafness) and Charlie will literally give Barton a head, as if to suggest that, when it comes to the life of the mind, it’s always possible to get a new one. And it seems to work, since it is after Charlie gives Barton Audrey’s head that his writer’s block disappears and he begins to write (just as Audrey helped Bill Mayhew with his own writer’s block). The results, however, only reveal the kind of writer Barton “really” is.
Charlie tells Barton that he’s in the business of selling peace of mind. In response, Barton speaks of what he calls “the life of the mind” (“I got to tell you, the life of the mind, there’s no roadmap for that territory.”). At one point Lou tells Barton, “Right now, the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” After seeing Audrey’s body, Charlie tells Barton, “We gotta keep our heads.”
“Look upon me, I’ll show you the life of the mind,” Charlie shouts as he rampages down the hallway. But he’s talking to Barton, or to us, not to the cops (one of whom is already dead). What is it Charlie wants to show us?
Is the movie an imaginary voyage (like Dante’s) into a literary hell? What is the “life of the mind” if not the life we lead in our imaginations, the life fueled by the products of Hollywood, which feed our imaginations, though whether to nourish them or enervate them may depend on what it is we’re digesting. The life of the mind is about death and violence and man’s journey into the depths of Hell. Barton doesn’t seem to realize (yet) that there’s no “common man” who doesn’t carry his own Hell around with him. No vision of Hell that isn’t derived from the dark imagination of the poet that dwells in each of us.
Charlie calls Barton, whose aspiration is to turn the suffering of the common man into art, a “tourist with a typewriter,” but when Barton leaves the burning hotel he carries with him his script and the box, not the typewriter he arrived with.
The box has replaced the typewriter. What’s in it (besides Audrey’s head)?
Charlie: “It’s just a lot of personal stuff, but I don’t want to drag it with me, and I’d like to think it’s in good hands. Funny huh, when everything that’s important to a guy, everything he wants to keep from a lifetime, and he can fit it into a little box like that.”
Barton: “It’s more than I’ve got.”
Charlie tells him it will help him finish his script, but overcoming his writer’s block is not the same as being able to write well (since what he writes appears to be the worst kind of self-plagiarism: a repetition of something that was a cliché to begin with). After gaining from his encounter with the police a pretty good idea of what’s in the box, he holds it up to his own head, as if trying it on for size. Earlier he told Charlie, “My job is to plumb the depths,” and he says to Mayhew, “writing comes from a great inner pain” (In response Bill speaks of wanting to rip his head off; a desire Charlie will help him accomplish later in the film); but by the end of the film Barton seems to have learned that even “great inner pain” isn’t enough to make him a good writer. It just makes him a human being. Earlier he had asked Audrey, “What don’t I understand?” Perhaps this is it?
At the end of the film Barton has been sentenced (damned?) by Lipnick, “You’re under contract, you’re gonna stay that way. Anything you write is gonna be the property of Capitol pictures and Capitol pictures is not going to produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little.”
Barton’s writing has been reduced to “property.” So much for the life of the mind. Like Charlie, he has to get into the business of selling “peace of mind”—Lipnick tells him, “they [the audience] don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul” (it’s not that kind of “wresting movie”). (Akira Kurosawa wrote a wrestling movie before launching his career as a director, and his directorial debut was with a movie about a Judo fighter.) Where does that leave him, or us, at the end of the film? Are we finally damned, or only left with a more honest sense of the real challenges (obstacles, temptations, and hazards) that stand between us and the “life of the mind”?
When Barton meets the girl from the picture in his room he asks her, “Are you in pictures?” And she says, “Don’t be silly.” But she is a picture. She asks him, “What’s in the box?” and he says, “I don’t know.” “Isn’t it yours,” she asks, and again he says, “I don’t know.” What doesn’t he know? The movie ends as it began, the same music playing as the credits roll against the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle. Is Barton’s “I don’t know” a note of agnostic despair, or the first faint rays of dawning awareness?
David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.
Let’s play a game: SCA #Anarchy Themed Benefit or Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway show at Paris Fashion Week?
Did some big movie thingy happen last night? Whatever. The real thing we’ve been waiting for is finally here: The Whitney Biennial plus Armory double punch. Chicago is about to be quieter than a John Cage performance and emptier than Detriot as the Midwesterners gear up for their big moment at the WB this week. Nevermind this list of 21 art events in March, the action’s happening in NYC.
In the tradition of William Siertua’s 2012 Whitney Houston Biennial at Murdertown in Logan Square, another posthumous tribute biennial is set to take place at Julius Caesar in Chicago. Painter and pedagog, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is the only artist to appear in both the 2014 Whitney and 2012 Whitney Houston Biennials, but MZH and co-2014 “participant” Diego Leclery are absent from the 2014 WHB at the space they formerly ran together. Opening March 16th, the Julius Caesar edition of the Whitney Houston Biennial features those artists who assist and collaborate with Whitney Biennial artists.
Not to be one-uped by Chicago, NYC is countering with their own “everywoman” Whitney Houston Biennial in Dumbo, and raises with the last ever Brucennial, which we hear is also a ladies only exhibition. Looks like women, or at least nods to them, are big in the forecast in 2014.
At least those of us back home in Chicago can take some solace in the fact that the VIP opening is shaping up to be the equivalent of a really good Ren opening. No shade though, WTT? couldn’t be more stoked for the 17 or so Chiagoans in the Biennal. We’re especially curious to see what cool dad Diego Leclery cooks up, and who doesn’t love a good Elijah Burgher occult dropcloth? Oh and did we mention that you should also totes go gawk at B@S’s own Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland doing interviews at Volta?
We’ll be here waiting on the couch until y’all get back.
The West Loop felt anything but “regional” at Deanna Lawson’s and Derrick Adams’ opening at RHG last Friday night. Hour d’erves were passed and the galleries were filled with well suited-up New York banker looking cats. Posh attendees, including artist Mickalene Thomas (both artists first appeared at Hoffman’s in Thomas’ exhibition tête-à-tête in 2012) and Bomb Mag editor, Betsy Sussler, (who both flew in for the affair) swirled around the charasmatic and stylish Lawson and Adams, who were just as striking as the work. Blurring the lines between the two, Adams showed up to the exhibition in a herringbone suit and camoflague print button-up that matched the patterns in the trees of his large scale collage works.
The main gallery was devoted to Deanna Lawson’s nothing if not sumptuous large format photographs. The most arresting piece in the show is arguably Mickey & Friends <3, 2013, a commanding horizontal photograph of unclad women embracing in front of a Mickey Mouse mural. Mickey licentiously glances over at them. The three nude ladies posing in unison in front of a red velvet curtain was a close second. Lawson even manages to make a simple pink blanket on a red bench look steamy.
In the front two rooms of RGH, Derrick Adams’ large collages merged the architectural with the psychological. Adams constructed his own “Borough” of homes from elementary school fence decorations, Restoration Hardware catalog furniture, and camoflague pattern trees. Figures are incorporated into the doll houses through fashion mag cutouts, sewing patterns and art historical fragments. Further underscording the metaphorical dimension of the homes are the miniature versions of portraits from Adams’ Deconstruction Worker series hanging on the walls of his own doll houses. The exhibiton is capped by an actual doll house in the front gallery window construced from silhouettes in Adams’ distinctive style.
Rhona’s been killing it on the freshness tip lately. The Lawson and Adams exhibitions are on view until April 5th.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery is located at 118 N Peoria St #1A.
If you work anywhere near the Cultural Center you owe it to yourself to visit for Wired Fridays. We caught footwork master Deejay Earl two Fridays ago and it was pretty much life changing. The “study room” area on the first floor turns into a club with most eclectic midday crowd you’ve ever seen. Best people watching ever, old ladies, footworkers, tourists, you name it. Earl took the bizarre scene in stride and his set was on point.
Case of the Vase. Art never makes the headlines unless it’s something bogus like that whole Ai Wei Wei fiasco at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. Be still my Facebook stream. At least this one thoughtful meditation by Ben Mauk on the medias overblown reaction to the case almost makes up for it. Mauk’s mention of Damien Hirst’s hundred million dollar monstrosity also reminds us of Rachel Cohen’s fascinating piece for Believer Magazine on the relationship between bankers and artists throughout the ages. Overlap much?
Really though? If you do happen to find yourself in big ol’ New York City trying to fit in at Whitney Biennial Fashion Week, you might want to stock up on ADIDAS pants and slip on sandals with socks. Just remember one thing: no one out-normals Chicago. We’re not even really gonna get into it but this article pretty much sums up our feelings on the norm-non-matter.
[Social] Practice makes perfect at CAA. Obvi must read Jason Foumberg’s Scene + Herd for Artforum. That Dieter Roelstraete photo is beyond.
#Your an idiot. Can’t help it, I really feel that “really annoying—while at the same time making you kind of half smile every time you read it” thing.
There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lt. Cmdr. Data expresses to the rest of the crew his puzzlement at the human fascination with “old things.” The crew were probably trying to save some ancient ruins or encountering a relic from the past (probably a shoutout to the original series, like the wreck of the old Enterprise or something). It is, if you think about it, an odd notion. Why is something made a thousand years more interesting than something made yesterday? (With the penchant for clever, punny titles of panel sessions at CAA, if there hasn’t yet been, there will almost certainly eventually be, an art history panel called “Lascaux to Last Week,” probably about contemporary cave paintings or appropriating ancient imagery.) [Note: Apparently it's a book. I thought I'd heard that somewhere. http://www.percontra.net/archive/3lascauxtolastweek.htm]
Art History has had a couple of moments in the spotlight recently. The College Art Association conference just took place in Chicago, and for those in studio art fields who attend, it’s maybe more exposure to art history than we get, unless we actively seek it out, during the rest of the year. (The conference has a history of some animosity between the two disciplines; from what I’ve gathered it was more art history focused in the past, and in recent years studio art has been taking over, affecting everything from the book and trade fair to the location of the conference itself.)
The CAA conference isn’t universally loved, or even respected, by visual artists. My friend and colleague, painter Steve Amos, posted to Facebook: “Beware of the foul smell emanating from the South Loop; the pile of bullshit known as the College Art Association conference is in town.” (Posted February 14th to Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steveamos/posts/10151952963102919?stream_ref=10.)
I didn’t ask Steve what he meant or why he felt that way, but I’ve heard the sentiment echoed among many of my friends, and may have said something along those lines myself, in a moment of frustration. Some of the hate may come from a frustration with the job market, and a treating of the conference as synonymous with the Career Services aspect thereof. The Interview Hall and Candidate Center are certainly geared towards job seekers. I know some people who have gotten jobs through interviews at CAA, and others who have gotten interviews. Personally, I’ve never been interviewed at CAA, though their career services have helped me in other ways: almost every job for which I’ve applied was listed on CAA (other listing sites include Higher Ed Jobs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Academic Keys), and their mock interviews and packet reviews helped me prepare for the application and interview process for my current position. (Since August of 2013 I’ve been teaching full time at Northern Arizona University.)
Another recent spotlight on art history was the film Monuments Men, in which some art experts get drafted into WWII to “tell our boys what they can and can’t blow up.” It was a true story (an interview with one of the surviving, original Monuments Men was featured recently on NPR), and a lot of masterpieces in European collections survive today only because of these men. (Others, such as an Italian monastery, were bombed out of supposed military necessity.) My friend and colleague, Chicago artist Renee Prisble, asked on Facebook (via Twitter), “Where were ‘The Monuments Men’ when we invaded Iraq?” (Posted to Facebook January 27th, via Twitter: https://www.facebook.com/reneeprisble/posts/10203102149818529?stream_ref=10.)
It’s a fair question, one that was asked plenty at the time (or, rather, immediately after the looting of the museum), although mostly among the NPR set (myself included). There’s an image, I can still see it, of the facade of the museum sporting a hole created by a round from the cannon of a main battle tank. In this case the Americans clearly caused the damage by invading, even though it was primarily locals who did the looting (as opposed to the WWII example, in which invading Nazis themselves were the looters).
Two years earlier, just before 9/11, in the summer of 2001, the Taliban had used rockets and explosives to destroy the Baniyam Buddhas of Afghanistan, a resurgence of the age-old iconoclastic prohibition. Iconoclasm is based on Mosiac law (i.e. the Old Testament generally, and specifically the Ten Commandments), and thus is common to the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, although within each faith sects vary widely in how literally they interpret this. Islamic Fundamentalism is among the most vehement, its leaders sometimes issuing death threats against people who depict Mohammed. The Taliban followed in this tradition when they chose to destroy the pair of 6th Century monumental sculptures of the Buddha, carved into a cliff face. (Mosaic law can be interpreted as instructing its followers not to make any representational imagery whatsoever, or more narrowly not to represent prophets and deities; in this case it was extended to destroying ancient monuments made my followers of another religion.)
The tragedy of this destruction is central to answering Data’s question: why was it such a big deal? Merely because the statues were old? Or because they were a symbol of a faith different than that of their destroyers, and we in the West have a live-and-let-live, relativist attitude? I don’t have the answer to this, but certainly our fascination with old things, as well as our respect for other cultures, is central to the role of art history.
It would be disingenuous to treat art history as totally synonymous with preservation. Certainly conservation, preservation, and repatriation of lost or stolen works is a role that requires the asssistance of an art historian. But the bread and butter of art history is study and interpretation. I described it in my own prediction for what I’d see at the College Art Association conference: “A bunch of new stuff is going to get queered, painting isn’t dead after all, and there’s going to be a hell of a lot of viewing things through the lenses of other things.”
Art History entered the spotlight on a national level very specifically a few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama, speaking at General Electric’s Waukesha Gas Engines, said to the audience that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree…Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need.” The audience chuckled along, and applauded at the end. But not everybody was amused. While there is no evidence that America’s art history majors are going to start abandoning Obama in droves, he did manage to draw some backlash from the College Art Association’s director Linda Downs, who issued the following statement in response:
The College Art Association has great respect for President Obama’s initiative to provide all qualified students with an education that can lead to gainful employment. We support all measures that he, Congress, State Legislatures, and colleges and universities can do to increase the opportunities for higher education.
However, when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating, or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking, and creative problem solving offered by the humanities. It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities.
Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where skills and creating thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts. (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/watch-obama-slights-art-history-majors/)
It’s no surprise that the organization defends its own. But Obama’s remarks have some chilling implications far beyond the validity of an art history degree. Would Obama want his own children to go to a trade school to become skilled in a blue collar trade? Or is class segregation acceptable, with one definition of success for some, and another for others? The idea that an education in the humanities is a luxury implies…comedian Louis C.K. said it very well. Talking about Technical High School, he said, “That’s where dreams are narrowed down. We tell our children you can do anything you want, their whole lives. You can do anything. But at this place, we take kids that are like fifteen years old, they’re young, and we tell them, ‘You can do eight things.’”
Maybe in some communities this beats the alternative. Sure, being a welder beats being a drug dealer. (Well…I know some drug dealers who would disagree. Oh, don’t give me that look. That ‘friend’ you buy your weed and coke from is a drug dealer. But I mean, on the street level, it’s pretty high risk.) But it’s totally antithetical to our ideals of hope, ambition, social mobility, and whatever is left of the American Dream, if that was ever really a thing.
John Adams said, according to Fred Shapiro’s The Yale Book of Quotations), “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”
I’ve frequently heard this quotation used to argue, broadly, that times of scarcity or hardship are not the time to study the humanities. The quotation comes from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail Adams…on May 12, 1780. Over 230 years ago. Do the math. Okay, I’ll help:
John and Abigail had six children, over a ten year span. Three were daughters, of whom one was stillborn and another died before her second birthday. A third daughter lived long enough to give birth to four children, none of whom seem to have accomplished enough to merit a Wikipedia entry. John and Abigail also had three sons. Charles studied law before dying of alcoholism at the age of 30. Thomas also studied law (though apparently without much success), also struggled with alcoholism, and died deeply in debt (after fathering seven children). It’s hard to imagine John and Abigail even being able to claim with a straight face that they didn’t have a favorite child in John Quincy Adams. Instead of math and philosophy, he studied classics and practiced law before going into politics like his father.
John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa had three sons (and a daughter, who were still pretty much treated as footnotes back then). Their first two, George and John, were trainwrecks on the level of their uncles Charles and Thomas, dying (one of suicide) in early adulthood. Their third, also named Charles, did somewhat better, carrying on the family tradition of diplomacy and politics. A fine pursuit, certainly making his father proud, but not the study of “Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine” which the original John Adams had said he envisioned for his own grandchildren. (In turn, Charles Francis Adams, with Abigail Brown Brooks, fathered seven children, none of whom, so far as I could find, turned out to be painters, poets, musicians, or anything of the kind.)
The first John Adams was a soldier so that his children could be scientists and his grandchildren could be artists. But none of them were. They were all diplomats, military officers, lawyers, and politicians. I don’t know who their descendents today are. Google it if you’re curious. But I doubt there are many blue collar workers among them. Wealth is, after all, inherited, unless it’s squandered by some suicidal alcoholic like some of the Adams kids. I wonder, though, whether, twelve generations later, any of John Adams’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren are painters, poets, musicians, architects, sculptors, weavers, or ceramicists. And I wonder what he would say to hear our President essentially tell today’s parents (well, the poor ones) that they shouldn’t share the dream he had for his own descendants.
Welcome to a new monthly series, titled What You Should Have Noticed, in which I, Steve Ruiz, attempt to sum up the big and salient stories, articles, and arguments from the last four weeks.
The College Art Association held its annual conference this month in Chicago. In addition to the expected crowds of star-eyed interviewees, hoping for that holy grail of decent employment in line with their education, qualification, and experience (but ready accept whatever is available), the conference saw several important speeches, such as Jessica Stockholder’s keynote address, a bewildering array of simultaneous workshops, presentations, and poster-board sessions. Highlights include The Myth of Participation and the Growing Realities of Critical Exchange, which you can read about in Tara Plath’s review at The Seen; and Exhibiting Socially Engaged Art: A Chicago Case Study, mentioned in a write up by Jason Foumberg for Artforum. You can also review the conference’s awards here.
The children of Chicago’s elites will have a new place to learn about theater, music, and the visual arts, as cultural power-couple George Lucas and Mellody Hobson plan to donate $25 million to the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School. This last bump completes the funding process for the Gordon Parks Arts Hall, named for photographer and director Gordon Parks. (The couple also plans to donate an equal amount to Chicago’s After School Matters, easing this author’s class concerns.) You can read the tribune article here, or the school’s press release for more. For buzz, check out the artist’s renderings for the new building, which (tragically? neatly?) blend steel and glass with the Lab school’s existing neo-gothic limestone.
The art dealer Hudson, director of Feature, Inc., suddenly passed away this month at the age of 63. The gallery has held many ties with Chicago’s art community since its founding in 1984; it currently represents Richard Rezac, Todd Chilton, and Nathaniel Robinson. Hudson is remembered in an article written here, in GalleristNY, as well as in the New York Times, Artspace, and Art in America.
In 1971, Seth Siegelaub drafted a contract for artists with provisions to protect their financial interests and intellectual rights. The contract was as much a conceptual gesture as a piece of legal writing, and the Artist’s Contract went on to join the canon of art-documents from the 20th century’s most heated decades. Ever since, any conversation about art and law has included the subject of the droit de suite, or an artist’s rights to the profits from the resale of their works – particularly at auction, where prices can soar far beyond what an artist made from an initial private or gallery sale. This month, US Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Ed Markey (D-MA) joined with representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to draft and introduce The American Royalties, Too (ART) Act of 2014, a bill designed to guarantee artist’s a 7% royalty on works sold at auction for more than $10,000. You can read Hyperallergic’s coverage here.
Of course, the main activity this month has been related to the Whitney Biennial. While we still have a few days before the Whitney opens for private and public view on March 7th, the rumble of rumor and whisper has already been rising for weeks here in Chicago. Most recently, the New York Times has published its 2014 Guide to the Whitney Biennial, as well as featuring Anthony Elms in the article, Choose the Artists, Ignore the Critics. Meanwhile, Artnet discusses the Biennial with Elms and Michelle Grabner, in their article, Curating the Whitney Biennial is Not a Fair and Equitable Process. The local conversation is all about Chicago’s seventeen artists represented in the sprawling exhibition – Elijah Burgher! Carol Jackson! Marc Fischer! Dawood Bay! Catherine Sullivan! Pedro Vélez! – and the effect such an exhibition may have on our fair city’s art scene. We’ll check back next month to see how much of a coup this all actually turned out to be.
And that’s all from me, and for February. I’ll keep a closer ear to the ground next month, and you can be sure if there’s something worth noticing, I’ll take care to share it here.
Steve Ruiz is an artist and writer living in Chicago. He received his MFA from The University of Chicago in 2013, currently writes for Daily Serving, and administrates the Chicago visual arts calendar, The Visualist.
Work by Chris Bradley, Sarah & Joseph Belknap, Max Henry Boudman, Veronica Bruce, Holly Cahill, C. C. Ann Chen, Laura Davis, Jovencio de la Paz, Alexandria Eregbu, Karolina Gnatowski, Jacob C. Hammes, Michelle Ann Harris, Cameron Harvey, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Victoria Martinez, Bobbi Meier, Andrew Nordyke, Dan Paz and Michael Alan Kloss.
The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
Work by Ade Hogue, Alex Fuller, Andy Detskas, Anne Benjamin, Brad VEtter, Brian Pelsoh, Brian Steckel, Chris Fritton, Craig Malmrose, Dan Elliott, Derek Crowe, Drew Tyndell, Edwin Jager, Franklyn, Gautam Rao, Jack Muldowney, Jen Farrell, Jeremy DeBor, Jim Moran, Jinhwan Kim, John Pobojewski, Kim Knoll, Kyle Letendre, Lisa Beth Robinson, Magdelena Wistuba, Mary Bruno, Matt Wizinsky, Megan Deal, Megan Pryce, Mike McQuade, Richard Zeid, Rick Valicenti, Shawna X, Stephanie Carpenter, Timothy Alamillo, Todd King, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, Whit Nelson and William Boor.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception Friday, 6:30-11pm.
Work by Mia Capodilupo, Tulika Ladsariya, Matt Martin, Marissa Neuman, Kasia Ozga, Katherine Perryman, Daniel Schmid and Ruby Thorkelson.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.
Work by Dru Hardy, Mary Lou Novak and Kristina Smith.
Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.