Archive for the ‘Art Essay’ Category

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, Part One

IMPRESSIONISM, FASHION, AND MODERNITY

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Art Institute of Chicago

September 2012-September 2013

Part One: Fashion and Politics

Imagine if Impressionism existed today—not as a style but as content, indeed, if a certain content became an obsession—what would today’s Impressionism look like? What would today’s twenty-first century painters paint? They would paint fashion, from the clothes of Stella McCarthy to Alexander McQueen to Jason Wu and perhaps Vera Wang’s foray into Kohl’s or the latest frocks off the racks of Wal-Mart. In the wake of late twentieth century aesthetics and the definition of “serious” art with “serious” subject matter and “significant” spiritual content or compelling conceptual and philosophical investigations, it is hard to imagine a Manet or a Monet or a Morisot being taken seriously today. It seems absurd to think that we would consider fashion to somehow be the defining aspect of the new millennium. If we, of the twenty-first century were asked to make art of the compelling issues that move us or define us, what would we do? How would we proceed? It is doubtful that either class or clothing would be on the list of aspirations of any of today’s art makers in the so-called “fine arts.”

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Manet’s La Parisienne. 1875

When one puts Impressionism into the context of today and a comparison is made in terms of how artists should respond to their own time, then what the modern Realists, from artists to authors, considered to be “reality” seems quite odd in 2013. On one hand the traveling exhibition of Impressionism and fashion that sadly does not make it to the West Coast is a beautiful show that will dazzle the eyes of those lucky enough to see the paintings. But on the other hand, perhaps it is time to take this most popular and most familiar of styles—Impressionism—and make it “strange” again. Perhaps the public knows Impressionism best from the beloved landscapes but once the attention shifts from an examination of formal innovations—white ground, broken brushwork, bright light colors—to subject matter then the (male) fascination with fashion (and with women) emerges as a major theme, and a rather strange one.

Fashion as Modernité

Indeed, from Baudelaire to Zola, as the exhibition catalogue points out, Second Empire Paris defined “realty” as fashion trends in Paris. Surely fashion itself could not have suddenly become so compelling in the nineteenth century. Therefore fashion must have signified something else, but what? One of the essayists for the catalogue, Heidi Brevik-Zender explained that during the Second Empire fashion became a major theme not just in the visual but also in the literary arts,

…fashion is interwoven throughout the very fabric of the literary works of this era, forming a complex textual discourse through which writers examined profound social and cultural changes associated with the experience of living as modern citizens. To follow fashion chart styles, and chronicle fashion’s influences was to participate in modern society. Writing about fashion was thus a form of cultural critique, but one that doubled as a self-conscious expression of modernity itself.

Modernity was essentially an urban condition, specifically located in only a few places, London, Paris and perhaps New York. It would be fair to say that, whatever the aspirations of New York, modernity was a European phenomenon characterized by the new wealth of a new aristocracy and continuing class tensions and the lingering memories of a series of failed revolutions. Underlying modernité in Paris—and this point is rarely made by nineteenth century scholars—is the anachronism of the Second Empire in what was a supposedly “modern” time of iron and steel buildings and trains and the explosion of industrial manufacturing. To have an Emperor and Empress in the midst of the rising tide of democracy, to drag an “empire,” of all things, a holdover form ancient times, into a century hurling towards a future was an absurdity and a doomed one at that.

If the “modern” cannot be found in the form of government, then where is modernity to be located? To establish modernity upon the foundation of fashion seems, from the vantage point of one hundred fifty years later, an absurd gesture of despair, a feint designed to divert attention away from the very real social issues and turn the gaze towards the divertissements of the cultural ballet. When the Impressionists and the Realists are viewed, not in a political context, but in an artistic context, this group of Second Empire artists was not avant-garde or vanguard but are part of an ongoing trend that is part of a configuration of a new class of French citizens as consumers who are being compensated for another failed revolution. Instead of rights, the people are given commodities, the most visible of which was the fashions seen parading down the boulevards.

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Jean Béraud. The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877)

Keeping in mind that the span of the exhibition is the Second Empire and the decade of recovery after the Franco-Prussian War, the title overstresses Impressionism, since most of the Impressionists were in the very beginnings of their long careers. Most of the Impressionists moved away from fashion as a focus after the Franco-Prussian War and they played a relatively minor role in creating fashion as content for Realist art. However, the exhibition does foreground those artists who were veritable students of male and female clothing during the decades 1850-1860, such as James Tissot and Alfred Stevens who are finally coming into prominence as (neglected) Realists. Although they were friends and associates with the Parisian avant-garde, these Realists artists have been historically neglected mainly because their style was detailed and precise, more in line with the still-dominant Pre-Raphaelites. In addition, Jean Béraud, who was an associate of Degas, is also present with several of his scenes of fashionable streets, The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877) and his study of A Ball, a year later, a dazzling display of beautiful dresses with long trains. The contrast of the dark and practical clothes worn by the women on the street and the impractical garments of ostentatious display and the slight adjustments required of men to go from day to evening is telling for gender roles.

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Jean Béraud. A Ball. 1878

The exhibition provides is a portrait of a rather regressive age that expressed itself socially, politically, and culturally through as assertion that fashion is an art form. The most “modern” works of the nineteenth century after the French Revolution are not the faux antique mythological themes or the Napoléonic battle scenes but the portraits of the fashionably clad bourgeoisie. Ingres, of course, is the Great Precursor, who was riveted by the ornaments of early haute couture before the Second Empire. Charles Baudelaire, ever attentive to the strange or the bizarre, understood what the catalogue called the “mania” of Ingres for print and pattern and decoration that shrouded wealthy women in layers of class-consciousness. Although Manet was hardly a follower of Ingres in terms of style, he certainly resumed his concern for fashion. But there is a strong difference with how Ingres and Manet approached the mysteries of the female: Ingres was not just obsessive he was also often subtly contemptuous of pretentions of the nouveaux riche. Manet was aware of class but he understood female fashions not just as emanations of wealth but also of modernité or, as Baudelaire defined, that which was fleeting and ephemeral and changeable.

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Constantin Guys. The Entourage

Scholars of modern art have puzzled over why modernité had to be carried, if you will, on the body, clothed or unclothed, of the female. Modernité had to be urban, indicative of the large city, and could not be part of the countryside or the rural landscape or the small town. The nineteenth century was the century of large urban areas and the migration of the rural population away from farms and peasant life swelled the size of the city, forcing vast coping strategies to avoid another revolution and to accommodate the restive population. These necessary changes to the city were also changes to life itself. The famous Goncourt Brothers mourned the demise of Old Paris but the new generation accepted the Haussmannization of a Paris ordered and regulated by the boulevards of the new Empire. The exhibition suggests that the “modern” was about change. If you were young like the Impressionists, you were excited by the demolition and the department stores and the electric lights; and you would be caught up in unprecedented change and change was exemplified by fashion, which is inherently faddish.

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Constantin Guys. The Balcony

Indeed when one goes down a checklist of what kind of subject matter could be used to convey the “modern,” fashion emerges as the easiest candidate. Unlike the rebuilding of Paris, a work in progress for decades, fashion was a complete work of art that allowed the artist to present paintings that were art-about-art. The “art” of fashion was a particular type of art for a century undergoing the forced conversions of the Industrial Revolution. As the section on Edgar Degas’s fascination with millinery points out, much of dressmaking depended upon arduous handwork, done by women, with inherited skills that were centuries old. The only machines associated with the fashion “industry,” an oxymoron in this era, was the sewing machine, invented by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851.

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19th century sewing machine

Fashion and the Haute Bourgeois Male

Therefore, like the century itself, fashion was hybrid and Janus-faced, old and new, hand and machine made, available for middle and upper classes, from prêt-à-porter to haute couture; and in its hybridity and complexity, fashion exemplified all that was modern—the shift from old to new, caught in a moment of transformation. In Realist and Salon painting, fashion was a man’s game, seen through the eyes of men. The very small number of paintings by women featured in this exhibition testifies to the extent that women as artists were virtually excluded from the ranks of the great painters of women’s fashions. This relative absence of women as painters of fashions is paralleled by a similar lack of women who wrote realist novels of manners—a strange gap between Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. It is difficult to know if the absence of all but a few paintings by women—Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales—reflects the small number of female Realist artists or the difficulty of obtaining works by these artists for the exhibition. But it is clear that male artists were fascinated by women’s clothes, from underwear to outerwear, and that male critics were uninterested in and hostile to seeing male costumes in works of art.

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Men’s Fashions

For these artists and critics, “reality” was Paris and the life of the upper class male flâneur who was a spectator and participant in the metamorphosis of the century. Unlike women who merely wore the clothes, men could actually participate in a life of luxury and leisure and spectatorship. Women, as the catalogue points out, were confined and contained and watched for details of deportment. They were allowed to venture out of their abodes alone and could walk in the streets alone, a real ordeal, given their costumes, provided they “kept moving” and had shopping as their main goal. Clearly women were constructed as consumers and throughout the catalogue themes of desire emerge: desire is manufactured, desire for things—dresses, hats, gloves, fans—although artificial could be fulfilled simply by purchasing something, no matter how small—a piece of trimming, a new set of buttons.

Fashion as Class

And when one peruses this beautiful catalogue and its sumptuous illustrations, it is clear that it was easy to be diverted by the lure of shopping for these lovely clothes. Never have women’s clothes been so lovely or so huge or such a feast for the eyes or so uncomfortable or so complicated. Brigit Haase described the astonishing procedures for simply lifting a skirt made from “fourteen panels of cloth cut diagonally on one side:”

The considerable quantity of material could be gathered by the wearer according to her preference by means of an arrangement of strings. To this purpose, long, narrow ribbons—called tirettes (literally, “little pulls”) or pages—were attached to the skirt’s inside along all vertical seams; their upper ends were tied to buttons loosely fastened above small openings in front and back of the waistline. Pulling the buttons raised the skirt’s hem.

In contrast to the intricate machinery of female attire, the clothing of men of all classes simplified and became a “democratic” uniform that nevertheless worked to mark off one class from another.

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Charles Frederick Worth

Certainly after the failure of the Revolution of 1848, it was compensatory for men to compete over the cut of their redingote rather than over when to start the next uprising. Men disappeared into a dark uniform of “funeral” blackness, differentiated by tailoring details and accessories: the cane, the gloves, the collars and cuffs and the tall hat. No one wore clothes better than Édouard Manet who used his formal and elegant 1867 portrait (Édouard Manet) by Henri Fantin-Latour to convince his detractors of his moral worth.

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Henri Fantin-Latour’s portrait of Manet

Given that tastes for male beauty has changed so much since the nineteenth century, it is difficult for us to judge Manet’s handsomeness but, for the young artist, George Moore, there was no doubt. His reaction to Manet was nothing short of rapturous:

Although essentially Parisian by his birth and by his art, he had in his physiognomy and his manners something that made him resemble an Englishman. Perhaps it was his clothes—his outfits with their elegant cut—and his way of carrying himself! His way of carrying himself!…those square shoulders swinging from side to side when he crossed the room, and his slender waist, and that face, that nose, that mouth.

Then as now, male clothing required a trim and slim body to wear with the appropriate panache. Figure flaws, short legs and large paunch, were hard to hide; and male fashion was best worn by young men with slim waists, long legs, and money. Frédéric Bazille’s Family Reunion (1867) exemplified the new style of portraiture, the ensemble, showed young and prosperous men and lovely and well-dressed women enjoying each other in an open-air setting. Although Bazillle foregrounds the women and their costumes, the men perform their upper middle class status. They pose casually and exude confidence: one seated male crosses one leg languidly over the other—a position forbidden to women, while the other males stand, almost at attention, showing off their white summer trousers and matching white vests and shirts, set off by the standard black frock coat.

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Frédéric Bazille. Family Reunion (1867)

Manet was the epitome of the haute bourgeoisie who had inherited the earth, money and power and social status. He would be one of the last of his class to venture into fine art and his Impressionist cohorts and outsider artists, such as Monet and Renoir could not keep up with the sartorial splendor of Bazille and Caillebotte, men of his own class. Bazille who died in the Franco-Prussian war did not live to fulfill the promise of his talent relied on his mother to buy his clothes. The catalogue points out that Monet and Renoir often used female models (wives and mistresses) to act out their social aspirations. Bazille’s portrait of Renoir (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1867) shows the young and uncertain artist in his bourgeois suit with somewhat baggy pants with his knees pulled up to his chest, in yet another pose of male freedom that would never be allowed to a woman, even a young girl. One could argue that a truly upper class male would never sit in such a posture that is so inelegant, so uncaring of the proper fit of the clothing.

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Bazille’s portrait of Renoir

Indeed upper class males have their own attitudes of privilege and poise and some of these paintings reveal the psychology of the unconscious advantages of their class. James Tissot’s The Circle of Rue Royale (1868) displays a group of men with prerogatives displaying themselves to each other on the neo-classical pavilion of the Gabriel balcony of the Jockey Club. Located in the Hôtel Scribe at this time, the Jockey Club was dedicated, as it said, to “the improvement of horse breeding in France. According to the Musée d’Orsay, the scene is set on “one of the balconies of the Hôtel de Coislin” and it should be noted that each languid aristocrat is a portrait of actual pedigreed males:  the Comte Alfred de la Tour-Maubourg (1834-1891) the Marquis Alfred du Lau d’Allemans (1833-1919), the Comte Étienne de Ganay (1833-1903), the Capitaine Coleraine Vansittart (1833-1886), the Marquis René de Miramon (1835-1882), the Comte Julien de Rochechouart  (1828-1897), the Baron Rodolphe Hottinguer (1835-1920), the Marquis Charles-Alexandre de Ganay  (1803-1881), the Baron Gaston de Saint-Maurice  (1831-1905), the Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834-1901), the Marquis Gaston de Galliffet (1830-1909), and Charles Haas (1833-1902).

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Tissot’s aristocrats at The Jockey Club

No one depicted this kind of rarified male better than Tissot, a French artist in exile, who lived and worked in London, the original home of the original Jockey Club and perfectly captured the aristocratic male at his apogee in the twilight of the nineteenth century. To my mind, the greatest portraits of the these decades are devoted, not to women, but to these peacock males: John Singer Sargent’s Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881) and most of all, Tissot’s portrait of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870). Alone amidst incongruous floral furniture, the British Captain of the Royal Horse Guards lounges at his ease, mustaches waxed and uptilted, cigarette at attention between his graceful fingers. To the eyes of an untutored American, Burnaby looks “French,” but “Fred,” as he was called, was decidedly English. In fact his mannered style, the epitome of male mannerism, was the very essence of all that was the British aristocracy at its peak and it was this aspect of all things English that wafted across the Chanel as “Anglomania.” The French aristocrats at the Jockey Club are echoes and copies of Burnaby, most of them without his adventurousness and bravery, as are their favorite sports from yachting to tennis to horseracing to the very concept of “sport” itself—all British exports.

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Tissot’s Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870)

No where is the difference between the authentic English gentleman and the authentic French gentleman seen better than in the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. In contrast to Burnaby’s misleadingly langurous long legged pose, Caillebotte’s well-to-do bourgeois males are causal and rather blunt. Like Mary Cassatt, he was able to capture the wealthy men au natural, in their habitat, in private moments. While most of his colleagues concentrated on female fashion, Gustave Caillebotte was concerned with male fashion and showed the world of the upper class male living in Haussmann’s new Paris in introspective luxury. These wealthy men seem idle and without purpose; they are rarely engaged in any meaningful activity and, in their pointless lives, seem to exemplify the alienation discussed by the catalogue. But Caillebotte was also careful to observe the lower class male.  At the Café (1880) shows that particular male, marked by class differences: the small bowler hat, the short casual coat, the floppy collar and tie, the hands shoved in the loose pants. His confidence, his ease in his surroundings, indicate a sense of upward social mobility, but he also wears his class-bound clothing with a certain resignation.

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Caillebotte’s Lower Class Male

Caillebotte’s men tend to be at once active and passive, often separated from friends and family, set apart as observers or choosing solitude as a defense mechanism against the crowds of the city. Alienation is a common sub-theme running throughout Impressionism like a stain of melancholia, apparent in the psychological distance between men and women in the painting of Degas and Manet. In Caillebotte’s The Pont de l’Éurope (1876) shows a range of classes, gender, and métier: the elegant upper class male, dressed for display, a middle class woman, bravely walking alone, a lower middle class male in the distance, and in the foreground, a worker in a loose blue smock. This lower class male in wears a loose fitting blue overshirt and small bowler hats, which allows him to do manual labor. In contrast, the upper class male, according to Balzac, supposedly wears “comfortable” clothes that allow for “movement,” but one suspects that the relative comfort of the wealthy man is in comparison to the culottes and the lace cuffs of the aristocrats of the previous century.

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Caillebotte’s The Pont de l’Éurope (1876)

But now that the very privileged were without the embroidered waistcoats, it was the top hat that truly marked the leisure class off from the laboring class, for the tall shiny funnel on the top of the male head made it impossible for him to bend over or move quickly. The tall black hat immobilized the male but set him apart, made him taller and grander, just as the volumes of clothing worn by his female counterpart kept her paralyzed and numb. Edgar Degas made the shiny tall black “top” hat dominate his males in Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1897-9) which is not about portraits at all, unless one is studying the way in which the male personality is submerged beneath the cylindrical marker. One could argue that the middle class male, now firmly situated in a position of dominance, is using a black and plain costume as a disguise. Aristocrats of the past revealed themselves as privileged and reveled in their position by celebrating through flamboyant and excessive clothing that advertised their uselessness. The bourgeois male, learning from the past, hid the fact that he was equally rich and equally powerful and equally privileged behind a uniform that to the untutored eye looked the same, identical from man to man. But to those who mattered—those who could know—relative power was announced through details, clearly visible to the discerning and educated eye but invisible to the “mob.”

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Degas’s Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1897-9)

The nineteenth century was a century of coming to terms with the eighteenth century and the explosions of revolutions towards its end. From 1789 to 1872 France had been in constant turmoil, punctuated with occasional decades of reconsideration. As with any revolution, or, in the case of France, several revolutions, there were winners and losers. In America, women and people of color—from slaves to Native Americans—were the losers, and everywhere middle class men of status and property were the winners. In France, the aristocrats or those who aped them were also the winners when the middle class males were preempted by being given a share of the power. After the frightening excesses of a series of upheavals, the upper and middle classes males in France could close ranks against the lower class males and women by keeping them from sharing in the political arena as long as possible. England, wary of the way the French had lurched from uprising to uprising, gradually gave up bits and pieces of privilege, a few laws here and a few rights there, to calm the agitation. Year by year the uprisings foretold by Karl Marx were forestalled by these grudging and necessary laws and by the rising tide of disposable commodities that would so distract that part of the citizenry who would remain excluded from the “democracies” of Europe—the female.

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Revolution of 1848

The second half of this review will focus on how fashion soothed the savage breast of the malcontented woman.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

 

Of Memorials and Memory: Martin Luther King Memorial

OF MEMORIALS AND MEMORY

The Martin Luther King Memorial

Washington, D. C.

Artists make our memories for us.  We tend not to think about this prodigious feat of collective historical construction but when we ask ourselves what is the first image that comes to mind about, say, Iwo Jima? We answer “The Iwo Jima Memorial.”  Not the wounding photographs published sixty years ago in Life Magazine but the huge cast bronze group of men, thirty-two feet tall, raising the American flag on Mount Surabachi.  The sculptor, Felix de Welton, is less well-known than the photographer Joe Rosenthal who staged the famous photograph upon which the Marine Corps War Memorial (1954) was based.

But, in recent times, we have been faced with challenges that have gone far beyond the traditional monuments or memorials.  The problem of the last forty years has been how to represent tragedy and to wring something redeeming from it.

Two recent memorials, dedicated within weeks of each other, demonstrate eloquently a lack of eloquence that conveys the delicate question that the artist must answer visually—how to touch the hearts and minds?  How to create a meaningful history? How to heal wounds?  On one hand we have what I consider a complete and colossal failure, painful to look at, and ill-conceived at its very heart, The Martin Luther King Memorial.  On the other hand, we have the National September 11 Memorial in the footprint of the World Trade Center in New York. This memorial was designed by architect Michael Arad, and this very different structure is far more successful, suited to the site and understated in its impact.

The Martin Luther King Memorial rears up out of the green tuft of the Mall, yet another blemish on what is becoming an overcrowded field cluttered with really bad works of public “art.”  The huge white sculpture of the Civil Rights leader emerges like a bad Michelangelo work (evoking an unfortunate memory of the Renaissance artist’s series of Slaves for the Tomb of Julius II).  King’s arms are crossed and he has a pouting unpleasant expression on his face.

The sculpture was based on a photograph by Bob Fitch in 1966.  This particular image was a strange choice, a passive pose for an active man. Fitch was summoned to King’s office when the preacher was enjoying a rare pause between appointments and had time to pose for some photographs.  He and his wife spent a great deal of time in Atlanta with the Kings, with his wife acting as Coretta King’s secretary.  It is clear that King was comfortable with Fitch, for his posture is relaxed and peaceful.  His folded arms are a gesture of relaxation and familiarity with an old friend.  No one asked Fitch’s permission to use (misuse) his original image, reverse it, and turn it into a cold totalitarian figure looming over the Mall.

The pose of Martin Luther King was transformed into something forbidding and off putting—a stand-offish stance that repels rather than attracts.  The folded arms ward off any approach—an impossible posture for a leader who gathered followers.  It is strange that the first African-American honored on the Mall, should be so glaringly white.  Chosen by the memorial committee from an international competition, the Chinese artist Lei Yixin was given King a very Asian look, as if King were Chinese or Mao was African-American.  Yixin stated,

“Dr. King’s vision is still living, in our minds; we still miss him, we still need him,” said Yixin through a translator, calling the sculpture the most important of his life, technically and emotionally. “I am trying to present Dr. King as ready to step out … this is King’s spirit, to judge people from their character, not race, color or background.”

Nice words but one can’t help wondering what David Hammons would have done with such an opportunity.

There is a clumsy literalness about the idea of King on the part of the uninspired artist that captures nothing of the history of King the minister, King the leader, King the martyr.  Adding to the illustrative quality to the experience is the very silly chunks, supposedly made from a white granite “mountain,” broken in two parts named, and one shudders at these names, the “Mountain of Despair” and the “Stone of Hope.”

King’s speech from which the phrase was taken is far more eloquent: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The preacher holds a copy of the speech in one of his hands, the speech read on that very Mall August 28, 1963. And if that is not enough there are fourteen other quotations from his speeches. According to other news source, the great poet, Maya Angelou objected the shortening of some of the fourteen quotes.  I must agree that it is nothing short of vandalism to tamper with someone’s writing, especially a speaker as powerful as Martin Luther King.

The quotation that Angelou disliked the most was originally, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

But the short version states simplistically, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Which immediately conjures up an image of King in a band uniform tossing a baton into the sky.  One wonders why this and other statements were shortened—budget costs?

The failure of this work is so great, in my opinion, that it makes the World War II Memorial—an artistic abjection that I have long thought to be a huge fascist monstrosity—look positively noble.  The problem is not that the artist is not American but that the artist is not imaginative or inspired.  In other words Mr. Yixin had a photograph but no concept.  Can you make art when you know nothing about your subject?  Can you create a successful memorial out of a concept?

For an answer, look no further than Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center of 1988.  She was in her twenties, she had never learned of the Civil Rights Movement, but Lin read one of King’s speeches with a quote taken from the Bible.  King paraphrased Amos 5:24 and said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

As Lin said later, “The minute I hit that quote I knew that the whole piece had to be about water,” Lin said. “I realized that I wanted to create a time line: a chronological listing of the Movement’s major events and its individual deaths, which together would show how people’s lives influenced history and how their deaths made things better.”

The architect made a powerful black circle engraved with the forty names of all those who had died in the cause of voting rights, including Martin Luther King in 1968.  Water streams over the surface of the smooth etched surface, healing the wounded hearts of those still waiting for justice.  In other words Maya Lin had a concept.

What kind of memorial would have been fitting for Martin Luther King?  King was a small man who led a big movement, a long march that continues today, and he agreed to join the Civil Rights Protests, knowing that once he did, he was dead man.  We forget today that for a black child going to school with white boys and girls in the 1950s was impossible—textbooks touched by a black child could not be touched by a white child: books were kept separate and unequal.  We forget today that for a black man to try to vote in the South in the 1960s was to invite the inevitable lynching.

Martin Luther King made integrated schools possible, made it safe for African-Americans to vote, made it possible for Barack Obama to become President. King gave his life, as did many others, so that American citizens could have American rights.  There was something knowing and innocent about King’s face: his eyes were set wide apart and his light brows made him look open and welcoming.  He was a man with a face that seemed to know what was coming.

King’s role model was Ghandi and we see the photograph of the Indian leader in the photograph by Bob Fitch.  Twenty years after Ghandi’s assassination, Martin Luther King, apostle of non-violent protest, was murdered.  I believe his memorials are everywhere and appeared spontaneously.

The Footprints he left Behind

The films of his Marches

The films of his Speeches

“I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

The famous photograph of his assassination

Joel Sternfeld’s photograph of the Lorraine Motel

The Testimony of his Followers

The Memories of his Family

What all of us have Learned from this Man

The Martin Luther King Gravesite, Atlanta

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Censorship Redeux: The Smithsonian and MOCA LA

SCOUNDREL TIME, AGAIN—CENSORSHIP RETURNS

Like the swallows return to Capistrano, censorship of art returns every time forces of morality feel emboldened or threatened.  Two decades ago, it was Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano who were the targets of right wing indignation.  In 1989, a threatened conservative faction was on its last legs and would be challenged by the Clinton phenomenon.  Attacking helpless artists who want to make art not headlines was an easy diversion, a feint that drew attention away from the very real economic problems the nation faced.  Today, two new victims have emerged under strikingly similar circumstances—a right wing threatened by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and an economic crisis of their own making.

The new attacks struck down the photographer, David Wojnarowicz, who died twenty years ago, and the political German street artist, Blu.  This time, one of the culprits was presumed to be open-minded, Jeffrey Deitch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In an unexpected act of apparent censorship, Deitch ordered Blu’s supposedly offensive mural to be whitewashed.  The other violator, the venerable Smithsonian Institution, was under the usual monetary pressure from the usual suspects, the Catholic, led by Bill Donohue and the upcoming Republican Leader of the House, John Boehner.  The Smithsonian removed Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly (1987) of ants crawling over a crucifix from an important exhibition on homosexual identity.  That fact that one museum was under political pressure and the other was not indicates that the issue of censorship needs to be looked at from another angle.  When and why does censorship of the arts occur?

Censored Video removed from exhibition

Smithsonian Institution’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Censors are never right.  History proves them wrong every time.

When the Corcoran refused to show the Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, the art world united in its condemnation, and the museum has never recovered from the stain on its honor and reputation.  Twenty-one years later, the Smithsonian, a federally funded institution like the Corcoran, was forced to sacrifice the integrity of art for financial survival.  And like the Corcoran, the solution of the Smithsonian is short term and is at the expense of moral and ethical principles.   If the art was good enough to have been selected, then it is worthy of being defended.  The decision by the Smithsonian was particularly strange, given the sea change in public opinion over gay men and women since the deaths of Mapplethorpe (1989) and Wojnarowicz (1992).

The other factor that adds to the ill-timed act of self-censorship is that the Catholic Church, a major actor in this new drama, has lost all credibility.  In today’s newspapers, December 18, there are two new stories—one about the Catholic Church sheltering a rapist and the in the other—a pedophiliac.  And that was today’s news, not the news of three or four years ago.  Where does the Church get off in objecting to the art of a man who has been dead for twenty years?  Dead, because conservative factions, including the Catholic Church, blamed the victims of AIDS rather than doing what Jesus Would Do—- help the sick and the helpless.

One can perhaps understand the Smithsonian, which was facing a Republican dominated Congress in the fall.  But the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that the decision to censor its own exhibition is, if nothing else, ironic and, worse, pointless.  But the whitewashing of the mural in Los Angeles is a strange act on the part of a purportedly open-minded director of a major museum.  According to the story, the German street artist, known as “Blu,” had worked with Jeffrey Deitch before and actually stayed with the director of the museum before he painted the mural. Given the checkered history of murals at the Geffen, it is hard to believe that Deitch did not ask Blu what his intentions were.

Money Draped Coffins

Censored Mural

Christopher Knight, who defended Deitch, stated that, the neighborhood where MOCA’s annex, The Geffen, is located is sensitive to art projects.  Knight pointed to problems with a mural painted by Barbara Kruger in 1989, that year of art censorship, as an example of art offending the Japanese-American community of Little Tokyo.  The Geffen is wedged between the Japanese-American National Museum and the “Go for Broke” War Memorial for the Japanese-American soldiers who died in World War II. [1]

Near the Japanese-American National Museum

MOCA was concerned for the feelings of the Japanese-American community, due to the proximity of the “Go For Broke” site.

Kruger’s first mural offended because it was a simple quotation of the Pledge of Allegiance.  For the community, the Pledge was movingly depicted by Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Japanese-American schoolchildren with their hands over their hearts.  These children would spend years with their parents in internment camps.  During war those years, Little Tokyo was emptied out and when the community returned, it was haunted by one of the worst violations of the Constitution in American history.  Kruger painted a new mural with theme of who had the right to speak, a powerful political statement in its own right, especially in that location.  That the community approved of the new mural indicates that Little Tokyo is perfectly capable of absorbing political discourse.

Who is Beyond the Law?

Barbara Kruger, artist, 1989

However, this time, the Japanese-American had no time to intervene with the painting of Blu’s mural. In “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” Knight made a good point that the community needs to be consulted about public art before it is placed in an environment, that is, like any site, fraught with politics and history.  For whatever reason, this very important step was overlooked and the director, acting quickly, arguably too quickly, had the mural painted over the day after it was finished.  [2]

process of painting

Blu’s mural

Censorship, in the Twenty-first Century, is a particular futile gesture.  Blu’s mural was extensively photographed, first, in its completed state and then, in its wiped out condition of destruction. Like Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, which is on YouTube, the images are easily obtained over the Internet. [3] The images of Blu’s mural are everywhere.  The offending mural showed rows of coffins, covered, not in the American flag, but in dollar bills.  Clearly, the artist was making a statement about America waging unpopular and illegal wars of choice for the sole purpose of making money for Halliburton and seizing Iraqi oil.

Who knows what the Japanese-American veterans and their descendants would have thought of the mural?  Maybe they would approve of the anti-war statement: lives should never be squandered (hence the $1 bills) for an unjust cause.  Lives are too precious and too priceless to be laid down for anything less than a fight for survival.  Perhaps using soldiers as pawns in political wars would not go down well with a group—the legendary 442nd—that was the most decorated—21 medals of Honor, the most wounded—9,486 Purple Hearts—and the most killed in the history of the American military.

If the feelings of the Japanese-American veterans were the Museum’s concern, then the view of the institution was not particularly nuanced.  There was a significant and vocal group of young men, interned in concentration camps, who took a principled stand against serving a country that took away the rights of its citizens.  One of those conscientious objectors was Frank Emi, wh0 died yesterday.  According to the obituary in The New York Times, he was joined in his stand against the United States government by three hundred protesters in ten camps.

All these men were tried and convicted of evading the draft. [4] Emi was sentenced to four years in prison and served eighteen months until President Truman acquired a conscience and granted the young men a pardon.  Called a traitor by those in the Japanese-American community who served, Emi explained,  “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice.”  The Japanese-American community is, like every other group in America, is diverse.  But surely they would agree with freedom of speech?

The argument that Deitch’s action was a misjudgment because he did not consult with the community first is not very convincing, because the community was not brought into the discussion either before or after the mural was painted.  Rather than opening the doors for a frank and honest discussion of wars and why they are fought, Deitch slammed the door with a unilateral decision.

Blu's Mural

Whitewashing the Mural

Writing in The Huffington Post, my friend, Mat Gleason, has stated that the Smithsonian censorship is not like that of MOCA, [5] citing the proximity of the “Go for Broke” site.

But I beg to differ.

So did Peter Clothier in “Censorship: Coast to Coast,” in Huffington Post, December 17.  In fact most observers of this fiasco agree: Censorship is censorship. No amount of whitewashing will undo what Deitch has done.  [6] However, I will agree with Gleason that the two acts of censorships are different.  The Smithsonian caved in to right wing politics to the habit conservatives have of latching on to a perceived “assault” on “family values” and attacking it.  Usually, these people move on but leave behind in their wake very real and very lasting damage.

Undoubtedly it is the goal of the religious right to harm “elitist” institutions and that is all the more reason to stand up to the hysteria of such fanatics who would take away freedom of speech.   It should be recalled that the heroes of 1989 are not Christina Orr-Carhall of the Corcoran but the late Ted Potter of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts and Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Both men stood up to their critics and survived with their honor intact.

And then there is the issue of Street Art itself.  Did the censorship of Blu’s mural occur because the director was afraid that art would get dragged into politics?  If so, he clearly does not understand street art.   Street art is often political.   Deitch invited unfortunate comparisons with Christine Sterling, who infamously whitewashed the Tropical America mural by David Siquerios in 1933, a year after it was painted.

Tropical America

Siqueiros Mural Restored

The irony is doubled with the Getty at this moment engaged in a years long restoration of the work, obscured for decades.  Street Art is, by its very nature, an outsider art.  The artists, many of whom practice in anonymity, represent the last of the avant-garde.  Supposedly, the role of the contemporary artist is to challenge the public but most of the prominent contemporary artists have long since been co-opted by the Establishment.

Postmodern thinking asserts that the avant-garde is dead and that there can be nothing new in art, therefore, so what?  But does the avant-garde, which merely means “forward movement” have to be about the new and the novel? Does the unfortunate fact of belatedness mean that an artist cannot confront a public or shock the art audience from its complacency?  Like many observers of the current art world, I am appalled at the moribund state of the art world, which is doing the Same Old, Same Old, or to quote Jean-Michel Basquiat, “SAMO” or the “same old shit.”

Street artists seem to be the last of the Old Guard: the only artists willing to prod people into doing actual thinking.   An excellent example of the artist as gadfly was on view the other day when an unnamed street artist put up a poster of Jeffrey Deitch as the Atollah.  [7] The judgment of the street artist may be as harsh as the comparison but the poster begs the question is censorship ever justified?

poster

protest poster

Two very real problems have been raised by the actions of MOCA.  Public art is always a negotiation between the world of art and the world of the public.  If there is a gap between the art and the public, it is because the art world deliberately created that gulf called the “avant-garde.”  Can any form of public art remain avant-garde or have the pretension of being thought provoking?  The case history of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc would suggest that public art must always be an art of compromise.  On both sides.  In the case of MOCA’s actions, there seems to have been no negotiation, no discussion, and no compromise, just censorship.  If the artist is to have any role in society as an individual with a unique mission, then is it not to stand tall for freedom of expression?  Are not artists our first line of defense against those who would silence eloquent voices?

If the career of Bansky is any indication, street artists can slide into the mainstream and put themselves in danger of compromising their principles.  Of all people, Shepherd Fairey has condoned the effacement (called the “buffing”) of the mural of Blu’s mural.  After a brief flirtation with accommodation, Blu decided he was not happy with being censored.  One wonders what will happen to the upcoming exhibition, Art in the Streets, this April—-how many artists will withdraw because of MOCA’s act of censorship?  After a problematic overture to the exhibition, hopefully, Deitch can redeem himself this spring with another of those landmark shows that allowed MOCA to make its mark.  MOCA’s 1989 exhibition, The Forest of Signs, provoked this powerful mural by Barbara Kruger. Its message still says it all:

Who is Free to Choose?  Who is Beyond the Law?  Who is Healed?  Who is Housed?  Who Speaks? Who is Silenced? Who Salutes the Longest?  Who Prays Loudest?  Who Dies First?  Who Laughs Last?

Who indeed?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


[1] Christopher Knight, “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” The Los Angeles Times, December 12, page 1, Section D

[2] Jori Finkel, “MOCA is Behind the Whitewash,” The Los Angeles Times, December 14, page 1, Section D

[3] The video is available on YouTube but there is cumbersome sign in system.  The San Francisco Examiner has provided the video without strings—just click.

[4] Dennis Hevesi, “Frank Emi, Defiant World War II Internee, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, December 19, 2010, page 36.

[5] Mat Gleason, “MOCA Blu Street Art Whitewash is No Smithsonian-esque Censorship,” December 14, Huffington Post

[6] Edward Goldman: “American Museums: All Talk, No Walk,” in Huffington Post and Art Talk, KCRW

Jamie Roo and Steven Harrington, “Censorship: MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” reprinted as “Censorship! MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” in Huffington Post, December 15

[7] Deborah Vankin, “Taking a Swipe at MOCA, The Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2010, Section D, page 1.

California’s Little Red Schoolhouse: Higher E-Education on Line

THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION—WHETHER YOU WANT IT OR NOT:

VESTIGIAL THINKING/FUTURE THINKING

In the future—soon to be available for your grandchildren—there will be no classrooms.   The era of the Little Red Schoolhouse will be over.  As we watch the Budget Masters of the Educational Universe scramble for funds, we see them raise tuitions and cut back on enrollment—a truly antediluvian solution, for the flood has already occurred.   This Flood, our Deluge is called the “Depression,” characterized by lack of jobs, lack of homes, and subsequent lack of taxes to support public education at the college level.  This regressive action of raising tuition and lowering students seen on the part of California and other states can only be stopgap measure.  In the future, what the state will cut back and eliminate is the real prize, not the students, but the expensive luxury of having a faculty, fully laden with bennies—health and retirement and a bad attitude.   Do the math: faculty costs money, students bring in money.  If this were your budget, which item you would eliminate?  An expense or a source of income?  Strangely, the state has eliminated both the expense and the income and the students are being shortchanged.

Why are students, who really need to get out into the work force, being forced to compete for classes? Why are students asked to wait five or six years to graduate? College classes being cut, and inquiring minds want to know—why?  Because the faculty, even the part-time teachers and graduate students, are expensive, it is a simple short-term solution to eliminate people.  It is not the classes the university system in California is cutting, it is the faculty who are being eliminated and the effect of slashing the faculty is the cutting back of the number of classes.  Although the goal was to save money, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: cut the faculty, cut the classes, cut the students, cut the income.  Impossible as it seems, budget cuts can also result in a cut in income.

Is there a solution to this impossible problem the state has created for itself?  But wait, is what we see as a problem, cutting classes, really a solution in disguise.  Is the state is putting in action with a long range goal of getting ride of faculty on a permanent basis?  In the September 5th issue of The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Shea wrote about “The End of Tenure.” Shea discussed two recent books, Higher Education: How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We can do about It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia C. Dreifus and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities by Mark C. Taylor, whose writings on this subject I have been following.  Both authors question the effacy of tenured professors and what Taylor calls the “education bubble.” The fact is that university education is morally unsustainable.  It is simply immoral to ask either the students or the faculty to support or to countenance a system of tenure that privileges the few at the expense of the many.  It is untenable to put forward an ideal of education open to all, on one hand, while sustaining within the same system a hierarchical pyramid of exploitation of junior teachers.  Not only does building a structure based upon disrespect for the have-nots, the “part-timers,” on the part of the “haves,” the tenured members of the faculty have unfortunate ethical consequences, for as Shea remarked, “The labor system…is clearly unjust.”

But it is unlikely that the state of California cares whether or not young talent and new ideas are being crushed beneath the chariot wheels of the privileged faculty who, after years of expensive research paid for by taxpayers, will produce a book read by a dozen people (what Taylor calls “overspecialized research”.  The state is interested in eliminating an expensive luxury and that would be faculty, however privileged or exploited. So here is another question: How can it make any financial sense for every community college in the state of California to teach (re-teach) the same course in different classrooms at different times throughout the state?  Why should every California (University or State) campus offer the same requirements in endless multiples, semester after semester, year after year?  The result of such needless repetition visually is not unlike a mise-en-abyme, looking into an endless corridor of repetition and duplication of nearly identical courses.  In what universe does it make monetary sense to duplicate efforts on the part of many, many faculty members, to duplicate many, many classrooms, to build many, many physical plants, called campuses, to feed, house, shelter and support thousands of people for two, four, even ten years, counting graduate schools, when all these students could be taught in the realm beyond the campus—cyber space? Why contribute to pollution by building expensive physical plants for classrooms, which must be heated and cooled?  Why encourage students to drive to school, clogging freeways, expelling pollution?  In the past the answer would have been that student have to come to school, emphasis on “come” as in “get to” as in “arrive” as in “be there.”  But no more.  Technology has changed the tradition of “going away to college.”

The shift is already underway.  For at least a decade distance learning has been offered as an alternative or a substitute to on-campus learning.  Indeed, some professional schools are already all e-based.  Of course, these for-profit colleges have, in the eyes of academic snobs, given distance learning a bad name.  Tenured faculty in the University of California is solidly against the notion of teaching on line, but for all the wrong reasons.  It is true that e-education is the solution to the expense of huge campuses, bloated salaries of faculty and administration, exploitation of “lesser” teaching staff, damage to the environment caused by commuting.  It is also true that, whether they like it or not, the State will bring about learning via computers, slowly but surely.  The recent cutbacks in faculty will, like the last round of cutbacks in the 1990s, will be permanent.  With little fuss, more and more classes will be put on line.   It is well-known that many professors who desperately need the work have been developing on-line classes that are then the property of the institution which hired these people.  The professors get a (very) small salary for their services and the colleges get the money for as long as the class runs.  It should give the elite teachers some pause to realize that the classes of the future are being written by those they consider to “inferior” for tenure.

The objections of established faculty to distance learning are well taken, but for all the wrong reasons.  In an effort to reproduce the virtual effect of a virtual classroom and a virtual teacher, the set-up is for on line classes still that of the Little Red Schoolhouse, complete with the student, the textbook, and the teacher, lacking only the Little Red Apple.  Distance is the only difference.  The software for course management has tended to replicate the ideal or traditional classroom experience, valuing “class discussions” and “student participation,” recreating a “group of learners,” who must make an on-line appearance at a stipulated time.  The demand for student “presence” is intended to make sure that the students are actually “attending” the class. Ironically, there is no way of knowing if the “actual” student who is enrolled is “present,” or if a paid substitute is “taking” the entire class for a fee, while the “real” student is out having fun.  The “teacher” is present, making scheduled appearances, guiding and leading and teaching unseen students, but as those of us have taught these courses know, the time and effort expended by the virtual teacher explodes exponentially to the point that a cost-benefit analysis reveals that the costs to the teacher’s time greatly exceed any monetary benefits to the instructor.

In the past, such an investment in teaching for the beginning educator would pay off in a full time job.  But these jobs are in the process of being eliminated in favor of asking part time people to put in many more hour than they would in a “real” classroom.  The result is that many veteran teachers simply opt out of these rudimentary and sentimental cyber Little Red Schoolhouse classrooms, leaving the field to those willing or inexperienced enough to be unable to say “no.”  Because these cyber classrooms and course management systems are modeled on a web replication of a real classroom experience, their scope is deliberately limited to only what the individual teacher can handle.  In other words, the hours put in by the teacher is expanded but not his or her pay and not the number of students and  not the amount of money coming in to the school.

Already the teachers working on line are lowering the amount of education the students gets for the sake of their own survival. “Lectures,” for example, mandatory in a “real” classroom, have been eliminated on line. It is impossible to replicate the sheer amount of information given in a classroom lecture in an on-line situation.  In the virtual world, the students need only read the text and answer questions, engage in virtual discussions, and take tests based upon the book’s content.  Even without attempting to provide lectures as posts for the students to read as supplements or explanations of the textbook, the burden of caring for individual students, instead of presiding over a group, is overwhelming to the teacher.   Little is gained by the student, by the teacher, or by the school through continuing these old-fashioned methods in a format that is antithetical to the Little Red Schoolhouse.  One of the great virtues of distance education could be the sheer lack of the classroom.  In cyberspace, the student can progress at his or her own speed and finish a course in, say, a week and be done with it. And indeed, this is exactly how the for-profit colleges allow students to work.  But in the traditional colleges, the experience is drawn out over a semester because of sentimentality and nostalgia.  The professor who used to be able to leave the classroom and leave the students behind is now “on call,” like a country doctor, to the students, all times of the day and every day.

The current course management practices in distance learning insist upon in-class or on-campus methods of teaching that prevent a serious examination of the possibilities of cyber learning.  The only element provided on line by distance learning is distance or an alternative to attending a class on campus.  But Blackboard, Moodle, E-Luminate—all of these course management systems, no matter how nostalgically they are constructed—have the technological seeds for expansion in scope.  Indeed, the only factor holding back the capacity of the virtual classroom and its student enrollment is the lack of faculty willing, qualified, and trained for distance learning.  The only way to increase the numbers of students in a virtual classroom is to have the class taught by a team of collaborating teachers, a rather clumsy solution. At this point, we are stuck with two problems: the limitations of the teachers and the limitations of the time, a semester or a quarter, in which the courses are taught.  How are these problems to be solved?

Let’s start with scuttling the old model of the Little Red Schoolhouse.  We shall see that when the limitations of the Little Red Schoolhouse are eliminated, then all of its traditional elements will be wiped away—except for the one determining reason for the Schoolhouse: the students. If you eliminate the limitations of the virtual “classroom,” you can have unlimited students. Once you expand the scope of learning, not teaching, then the Little Red Schoolhouse dissolves. Since “teaching” such a course, to thousands and thousands of students, will be impossible for any one human being, the professor will also have to be dispensed with.  The result is the replacement of the faculty with course management systems, the campus for cyber-space: a good financial trade off for the state, and a vast increase in the number of student served and a consequent flood of pure profit revenue.  We are imagining Life After Faculty.

What would education look like?  Let us being by eliminating “education.” After all, we just eliminated the faculty.  We must rename “education.”  How would such a transformation work?  If this theoretically unlimited classroom is where distance learning is headed then Step One will be the development of canned courses. That is, the many duplicated courses in say, Survey of Western Art I, throughout the state will morph into THE COURSE, THE STANDARD COURSE for a particular subject. The personalized course, “brought to life” by an inspirational teacher who sparks the dullest pupil’s brain will vanish.  Traditional courses taught by individual teachers in his or her own way with his or her individual expertise will be replaced by THE COURSE, developed by a team of educators and experts.  Because the aging tenured faculty will not want to be left out of the inevitable process, the “educators” will be the soon-to-be retired specialists in a field, such as art history, who will, as a committee, write the course content, assignments, requirements and tests.  The “experts” will be technical advisors, who will set up the course materials, making them suitable for computer learning.

Cyber learning will necessarily be different and will take into account—unlike vestigial courses offered in today’s vestigial classrooms—the fact that the students are NOT in a classroom, are NOT learning through listening or through teacher demonstration or, in the case of art history, pointing at the object.  The students will NOT be limited in time by a traditional semester or quarter system, which will also be eliminated.  The students will NOT be in contact with a teacher or with one another. They will not be “on campus” at all.  The Second Step will obviously be the complete elimination of the faculty.  Thousands of individuals in all academic fields will be, as the British say, “redundant.”  No longer necessary.  It is possible that the elimination will take place through attrition: the Old Ones will be the educators on THE COURSE committee and the Young Ones will simple fall out of graduate school, as young seedlings fall on barren ground.  The Young Ones will have neither a course nor a campus to sink their roots into.  More on the fate of the Young Ones later.  As the Old Ones are retired, willingly or unwillingly, all of their particular courses will be replaced by   STANDARD CANNED COURSES, virtually provided, without individual teachers guiding and directing discussions and learning. Gone will be “real” classrooms with their uncomfortable desks, their chalkboards and white boards, their power point presentations, the Blue Books, their hierarchies of the Smart and the Dumb, and the presence of the all-knowing authority figure.

If on campus classrooms are eliminated and the students stay home, the impact upon the university and college campuses will be enormous.  Campuses will shrink to labs and administrative buildings, and even these buildings will be few in number, serviced by a small parking garage and perhaps a nice cafeteria.  The rest of the campus might become a verdant park, including playing fields for college sports.  The Administration of Higher Learning, now mainly computerized registration, will become increasingly centralized, with Deans and Chairs and Provosts, and the like, will become unnecessary relics. Along with the faculty, they will be discarded.   Administration will be mostly financial officers and tech personnel, for “staff” will shrink in numbers, although unlike the professors, the staff, like Cher, will not disappear.

Let us return to the impact of course management systems and the disappearance of the teacher upon education.  Step Three will be the re-definition of “education.” Many sentimental and nostalgic people have already recoiled from this picture of the future in instinctive horror, picturing the end of the college campus with their academic groves, the swath of green, the quad, crisscrossed by connective paths, the brick buildings, ivy climbing up the elderly walls, the book-laden students walking in clusters, scurrying to class, talking to friends, making connections, mating for life, with autumn leaves drifting down in anticipation of the first football weekend, leading to a solemn graduation ceremony, a rite of passage, a ceremony that requires medieval robes, complete with cowls and mortar boards, perched jauntily upon heads old and young….How could we let all this tradition go?

The answer is very easily and very quickly in the face of a faster and cheaper and more efficient alternative.  In the case of the automobile it was the people who made the choice: we gave away our horse, we turned our barn into a garage, the blacksmith became the auto mechanic, and we all learned how to drive motorized vehicles.  In the case of what we sentimentally call “education,” we will have little choice; we will not make the decisions.  The Budget Masters can and will make the decisions for us.  Finances and demographics will dictate the future.  Once software that is suitable for mass education without teachers is developed, there will be no turning back. Why maintain thousands of teachers and thousands of classrooms when all of these expensive physical entities can be eliminated?  Why maintain the verdant campuses and ivy covered halls if no one is at home?  Campuses with students will no longer make financial sense—in a very few years.

So what will cyber-education look like?  Without discussing the fate of college football and other sports, education will become mass dissemination of units of linked information.   So “education” will be replaced by “dissemination,” and “knowledge” will become “information.”  Thinking—one of the traditional academic goals and by-products of education—will become a SKILL SET to be learned or, shall we say, consumed and applied.  Courses traditionally have combined content and critical thinking and developmental and evaluative practices of reason.  Cyber courses will be split between the disseminating of information, which must be mastered, and the instruction of analytical skills, which must be learned.  Students will not be encouraged to critique, say, the economic system, but will learn of a variety of economic systems throughout time and will receive training in critical evaluation in an unconnected course.  The student may or may not apply any of the analytical or critical skill sets to any of the information gained.  What use the student makes of the courses taken is up to the student and his or her needs and inclinations.

Let us imagine the California college experience of the future.  The Community College system, now a centralized entity, will provide basic foundational two-year classes.  The California State University system, similarly constructed, will provide the third and fourth year required courses. The University of California system will provide specialized high-level courses for the various majors. In fact, over time, these levels could simply become all one University System, eliminating the now unnecessary separations. To the extent that separate campuses retain their names or still exist, these greatly reduced local sites will be used solely for the majors that need lab work—such as the arts, music and dance, and the sciences and sports.  Because most sciences can be done on line, we can envision campus life consisting of two dominant groups, the artists and the jocks.  Everyone else will stay home.

Where will “home” be?  Anywhere and everywhere.  Anyone can take these courses from any location.  All you have to do is pay.  Gone is the admissions process, except for the jocks, which need to try out and be selected for aptitude and athletic talent.  Admissions to a specific university traditionally have served two purposes: one is frankly elitist and the other is practical.  Elitist hierarchies have been created: certain University of California campuses are considered “better” than others because the students are “better” because their entry grades are higher.  The University of California campuses are, in turn, valued over their Cinderella sisters, the California State system for the same reasons.  The Community Colleges are used by all and scorned by everyone.  Practical limitations of campus space have resulted in limitations on enrollment, leading to selective admissions of more or less qualified students: the “best” go to Cal Berkeley and the “worst” go to a community college. The professors are paid accordingly, rewarded accordingly, and worked accordingly.

A professor at a UC School will teach three or four classes a year and will be paid three times more—at least—than their Cal State counterpart who must teach eight classes a year. A community college teacher will also have four classes a semester, but unlike his or her higher-up counterpart s/he will have no graduate assistant to help with research or grading. As one goes down the hierarchy, the workload and the inequality increases and the salary decreases, based upon the assumption that some professors are “better” than others and must therefore must be treated in a more privileged manner and that some students are “worse” than others and deserve a supposedly lower quality education.  All of us who have been through the UC system, taking the occasional Community College class, know that one can have an amazing teacher there in the “lower depths” and have a simply terrible teacher at the University.

But because the vestiges of that unjust hierarchy will undoubtedly remain, it will be the university professors who will probably survive, as the “educators,” inventing THE COURSE, putting the other teachers out of a job.  That said, the students would benefit the most from the elimination of this ancient architecture of privilege.  With admissions based upon campus space no longer necessary, the game will change.  The goal is no longer to pass on privilege from family to family, from social class to social class. The idea is now to educate the whole population.  Everyone starts at the same level and everyone finishes at the same level.  Excellence is now based solely upon how well one does in the courses.  There will be no hierarchies among campuses; there will be only one degree from one university.  Everyone else simply buys a course—pays for the information—on the open market.  The trick is that the purchaser “owns” the course only when the course is completed.  Initially what you pay for is the right to “inhabit” the class.  Think of buying a home: you provide a down payment, but you do not “own” the house you inhabit until you complete your obligations, that is, make your payments in full, paying off your mortgage.

Students will be allowed to “inhabit” a course for a limited period of time, say two years.  If the requirements are not completed in two years, then the class is “foreclosed” and the student needs to repurchase or move on to a more suitable course.  The student may get out of the course at any time, but no money will be refunded after a certain length of time. Because students must pay monthly “rent,” the course will cost more for those who take longer to finish. Think in terms of insurance payments on your home or fees on your condominium.  The course can be a cheap or as expensive as the student allows or can manage.  Certainly the smarter and more prepared students will finish faster and cheaper than those who have less aptitude or time, but the former group has always been advantaged over the latter group.  Some buyers may never put together a degree; some may purchase particular courses for specific purposes; others will obtain a university degree.  The revenue stream coming to the State will be large—because the student pool has enormously increased—-and will be continuous—because humans, by their very nature, will procrastinate on their courses and pay “rent” for months or even years.

Without any admission requirements, the student body, with the aid of translator widgets, will be international.  So what are the students buying?  The students are buying, not education, but access to information.  Unlike “education,” now a quaint practice in quotation marks, information will not come from textbooks, written by authority figures, will not be personal, ideological, or value-based.  Information will be disseminated with low literary levels—almost like bullet points.  But the lines of basic facts will be laced with links to documents of all kinds, from primary to commentary, all available and ever hyper-expanding for the students to peruse.  One of the arguments, made for decades, as to why women and people of color are excluded from course such as history and literature is that a full and complete portrayal of the role of African Americans in the history of the United States would take up too much time in the traditional three-hour class in a traditional semester.

There are only so many classroom hours available and the need to teach of the accomplishments, however dubious, of the white male must take precedent.  A single semester or a single year is insufficient to include Virginia Woolf or Georgia O’Keeffe in a course in literature or art.  Although the demand for the inclusion of women and people of color has resulted in the insertion of tokens here and there, American education has been traditionally Eurocentric, white and male.  One of the problems, a very real one, is the training of individual teachers who are forced to (over) specialize.  A professor of English literature will have concentrated on Chaucer and will be required by her university to publish or perish in a specific and narrow area of his or her field and is discouraged from developing other fields of concentration, such as contemporary Anglo-Indian authors.  In cyber space there are no such limitations—not the teacher’s time, not the teacher’s knowledge.  In the cyber world there are only links that propel the student into the endless pleasures of hyperspace.

Students will be required to learn the history of the United States as the histories—plural—of the genders and ethnicities of America.  The result will be “histories” written by experts found by links to articles or books: no one teacher is expected to attempt to cover all the materials.  The students will be given the benefits of many scholars in the field.  Information will be theoretically limitless.  There will be no professor in the classroom explaining why Langston Hughes cannot be taught because Ted Hughes is more important than Sylvia Plath and so on.  Authority is gone, guidance is extinct, mentors are absent, and as are the idiosyncratic and unqualified and abusive professors who try to impose their wills upon helpless students.  The student is the “activated learning agent” who browses and chooses what lines of information to follow, evaluate and develop.  Assignments and tests provide the only direction.

Somewhere in the cyber background are computerized evaluations of the students’ homework materials or perhaps vestiges of professors, now nameless survivors of the college and university system, who are given the tasks of writing assignments and tests and making sure the computer programs take note of the correct “key words.”  Of course, one can do an assignment over and over until the desired grade is obtained, and, ideally, one can learn through re-doing.  Some few of these students will be attracted to the possibility of endless learning and limitless information gathering.  Those will be the future scholars who may actually come into personal contact with others of their kind in a specialized area of the University system called “graduate school,” but there is no need to enter a campus.  Graduate school can be as “virtual” as undergraduate “education.” For those who remember the tyrannical and politicized and competitive atmosphere of graduate school, the simple pleasure of pursing a train of thought in solitary splendor in cyber archives will be quite sufficient.    Indeed graduate school will shrink back to its original dimensions: a place for professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and architects, and a place for those with the income and leisure time to concentrate on a field of study for a decade or more.

Once there are no jobs at universities at the end of graduate school, students will move on to other professions, leaving behind only the dedicated learners, the one who truly care about what we used to call “knowledge.”  They, the solitary, the few, will be entrusted with the task of creating new information by synthesizing a vast array of floating data and documentation.  But their task will be fundamentally different from current scholars who have the pretense of “originality.”  These postmodern writers will be the true bricoleurs, or should we say, bricoleurs who will admit to the fact: they do not create; they assemble units of usable information for the students to consume and assimilate.  Instead of being limited to “publication” in “peer reviewed” professional “journals” or university supported “presses,” the new cyber scholar simply posts his or her writing on his or her website.  Interested readers can find this work and can make contact with the writer to ask for additional information, to exchange thoughts and resources and so on.

People who wish to be this new kind of scholar can develop their own specializations within scholarly territories that are now “unguarded” and open because “gatekeepers” can no longer function.  Information is now everywhere, free for the taking. True, we all have memories of that special professor who mentored and encouraged us but they will continue to exist in cyber space.  In cyber space, no close-minded professor can tell the cowed graduate student what s/he should or should not read, what s/he should or should not believe. Authority has almost no meaning on line.  The information “market” determines what it needs and takes it.  Just as “education” has become redefined, professor eliminated, the “student body” also becomes a sentimental artifact of the past.

This elimination of one of the major means of socialization of young people (and old people) will probably be only an extension of what will be happening in the workplace, with more and more people working from home.  The trade-off is losing an incompetent or tyrannical professor or boss and gaining autonomy and independence and success based upon merit rather than favoritism or looks or privilege.  The losses must be considered and constitute a real problem: money is saved, revenues are increased, the population is more efficiently informed and trained, but human contact is drastically altered.  Perhaps the germ of human socialization in the future is already upon us: sites like Match.com provide hook-ups for dating, but there is no reason why there could not be similar sites for college students who will meet on line and create social group.  Although Facebook was set up so that linked students could study for an art history exam, this social network is not specifically directed towards students.  Perhaps one can envision as a positive possibility to increase of one’s circle of acquaintances being anywhere in the world.  People are resourceful in their desire to be together.  They will find a way to create new kinds of communities.  We can call this phenomenon “global info-cation.”

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Michael West: The Artist was a Woman

MICHAEL WEST: PAINTINGS FROM THE FORTIES TO THE EIGHTIES

ART RESOURCE GROUP

Newport Beach

June 5 – September 25, 2010

The Fifties.  According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist.  For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times.  The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead.  The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.”  Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist.  Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era.  Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants.  Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation.  Females could create only through motherhood.  Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three.  Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons.  This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism.  Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.

Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School.   Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague.  As a result, her art remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976.  She bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991.  The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler.  Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg.  Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative.  Finally, in the Twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.

It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world.  Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work.  West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art.  Her original name was “Corrine” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor.  Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light.  Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter.  As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of  her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over.  An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.

A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, but she chose to become a painter.  Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression, much less go to New York. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York.  In 1932, West was joined by artist, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson, and future gallery owner, Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition.  Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students.  Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later.  Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism.  Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter.  The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.

Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists.  Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism.  Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other.  Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock.  Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint.  The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students.  When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality.   Offended,  Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”

Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock.  Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women.  In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work.  What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky.  Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist.  In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”

This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career.  Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky.  Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.

Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard.  A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time.  The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent.  What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history.  Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York and the rest found themselves in Los Angeles.  The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York, sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery, Art of This Century.  For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky.  Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example.  West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life.  Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day.  How could Cubism become abstract?  Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted.  It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter.  In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead.  The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.

The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948.  The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties.  Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s.  What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect.  With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes.  Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas.  The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism.  But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.

Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight.  In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties.  By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty.  There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art.  American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art.  Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom.  However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.

Politics was removed from art.  This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda.  It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art.  In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art.  Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism.  American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department.  Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.”  An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism.   For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’  Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,

….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time.  Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area.  Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.

Not every observer was so sanguine.  By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee.  It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York.  This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war.  In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:

Rebel March 1948

Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing –
Money — genius –
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying –
Dismantled — disarmed –
the artist in society —suffocates –

During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing.  The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission.  This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology.  Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.

After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground.  Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction.  De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952.  West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy.  The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West.  The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era.  The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties.  What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions.  West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens.  Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time.  A Coke bottle green.   This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962.  As West wrote,

The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)

The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953.  In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell.  West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg.   Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists.  The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women.  By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce…

Rosenberg continued,

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.

So by the time of The Stable Gallery show, it was already too late for women.  Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history.  The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized.  Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters.  Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events.  The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.”  The independent  male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.

Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic.  Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.”   In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts.  Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles.  As “wives” and “mothers,”  they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent.   This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.

It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School.  By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years.  Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada.  She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.

In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock.  He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art.  Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism.  Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks.  Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.

West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale.  She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface.  The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms.  The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials.  Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out.  In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.

The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style.  Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body.   As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life.  The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear.  At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.

West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through.  The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage.  Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom.  Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on.  Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.

Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact.  Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.

The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books?  The answer, as was indicated, is two fold.  First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops.  Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.

The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage.  Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object.  All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism.  Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism.  The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers.   In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor.  The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.

Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman.  Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties.  But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology.  The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female.  Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons.  In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,

A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.

Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon.  The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female.  It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists.  Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Bibliography

Ashton, Dore, The New York School. A Cultural Reckoning, 1973

Belgrad, Daniel, The Culture of Spontaneity.  Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading, 1975

Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence 1973

Frascina, Francis, ed., Pollock and After.  The Critical Debate, 1985

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.  Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, 1983

Lewis, David, “Michael West: More than Gorky’s Muse,” in Michael West.  Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 2010

McNamara, Chris, “By Any Name,” in Michael West.  Painter-Poet, n.d.

Olds, Kirsten, “The New Mysticism in Art,” in The 1950s Paintings of Michael West, n.d.

Pollock, Lindsay, The Girl with the Gallery. Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, 2006

Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, 1959

Sandler, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting, 1970

Spender, Matthew, ed., Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof. A Life in Letters and Documents, 2009

WHAT IS ARTISTIC SUCCESS? ROGER KUNTZ

WHAT IS ARTISTIC SUCCESS?

Why Some Artists are Obscure: The Curious Case of Roger Kuntz

Last spring of 2009, the Laguna Beach Art Museum held a retrospective for a little known but aptly named, artist, Roger Kuntz (sounds like kunst, “art” in German).  Since I teach a course in contemporary art in California, called “California Dreaming,” I was intrigued.  I had never heard of this man.  According to the museum, Kuntz, who died young in 1975 of skin cancer was once an up and coming, promising artist, named in Life Magazine as one of the top five artists in California in 1962 and was part of the California Pop scene. Kuntz was featured in the Los Angeles art magazine, Artforum in 1963 as a local art star.  He made all the right moves.  And then, five years later, he took a wrong turn and got lost and twelve years later he was dead.

Often, these retrospectives of the forgotten artist show the viewer someone who was unjustly overlooked by history, but the Kunzt exhibition showed two things: first, Kuntz was justifiably overlooked and second his career was a tragedy of missed timing and bad choices.  For that reason, the exhibition was a fascinating one, raising the question of how one artist becomes successful and another does not.  Success is more than random chance.  Success is a matter of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right audience.  Success is recognizing the moment and seizing it.

Roger Kuntz was right on target in the early Sixties, painting the concrete landscape of Los Angeles as a noir terrain of freeway with its engineered and programmed twists and turns and abrupt signage that replaced the free exploration and human communication.  Begun on a national scale in the late 1959s, the California freeway was a relatively new subject in the art world.  The artist was sensitive to the alienation that such transportation conveniences would bring to the population. And yes, today we fly along the asphalt in our private pods, isolated from our fellow human beings.  The editor of Artforum, John Coplans understood Kuntz as a “Pop” artist, because the graduate of the Claremont Colleges painted the vernacular Pop culture of Southern California.

But Kuntz presented a dark vision of Los Angeles straight out of Raymond Chandler.  In the early Sixties, the dark city painted by Kunst was a direct rebuke to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan and cherry acceptance of the City of Angels or Richard Diebenkorn’s hard edged, sky blue Ocean Park series.  And then, in 1968, Kuntz went off course.  When I walked into next room and into the next phase of his career, I said out loud, “Oh, something happened to him.”  Suddenly his terrain changed from public to private, from contemporary to historical.  Kuntz began painting nude women, or the same nude woman, over and over, usually in bathroom settings.  Like many painters, he was really a drawer, someone who was better with line than color, and his choice of color for these paintings was too strong and too bright and too harsh.  One could not help but compare Kuntz to Edgar Degas or to Pierre Bonnard, his obvious role models, but he lacked to obsessive voyeurism of these artists.  There was a feeling that the paintings reflected his personal life and in a not very interesting way.

And yes, the next stage of his career placed him far away from the other artists in Los Angeles, those boys of the Ferus Gallery.  He drifted to Laguna Beach where he proceeded to continue to paint his life in his beach home in a series of small works that are the kind that (unjustly) give the city a bad name for art.  I hate the word “cringe worthy,” but I must use the phrase here.  On the lower level of the museum, it only got worse.  Kuntz’s last works raised the question of what kind of subject matter is appropriate to art?  I am not referring to the controversial of the 1980s, the kind that faced censorship and caused controversy, but to something more basic—-should an artist ever paint a blimp and if so under what circumstances?  Should an artist ever paint the astronauts visiting the moon, and if so, under what circumstances?  At this point in his career, Roger Kuntz was painting the Goodyear blimp, while Billy Al Bengston had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968.  Ed Ruscha was the featured artist in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1970.  Roger Kuntz was painting the moon landing.  He was not a bad painter.  He simply selected his subjects badly.  He followed his personal life with his art, but his ordinary life was like all our lives: uninteresting.  The Ferus Gallery artists also led uninteresting lives, like most successful artists, but they were intelligent enough to make art about their own times, not their own lives.  It is a rare artist who can make great art about his or her private obsessions.  It takes a great eye for culture to turn the vernacular environment to art.  Roger Kuntz had a career shaped like a downward trajectory.  If I compared it to the freeway, I would say he abruptly exited, made all the wrong moves, and reached a dead end.  Art is all about the ability to make the right choices.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

I SEE DEAD PEOPLE: ELVIS, MICHAEL AND DIANA

I SEE DEAD PEOPLE:

Elvis, Michael, and Diana

When Elvis died, ABC News reported on the Panama Canal. On August 16, 1977, Elvis was not “news.”  Today, no one can recall what—if anything—was going on at the Canal that was so “newsworthy.”  Today, everyone knows what he or she was doing when they heard the news that Elvis had left the building. I was on the road, driving to California to go to college.  I passed through Memphis the day after the funeral of the King.  For some reason celebrities tend to die in groups or clumps.  Take for example, the sad situation during the summer of 2009. Taking a break from the spectacle of health care wars, Americans were preoccupied with ritual mourning.  Within one week in June, many celebrities have died: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Billy Mays.  Suddenly we were all joined in collective mourning for people we did not know, were not friends with, may never have seen in person, and yet, we grieved for them and felt the loss of their presence keenly.

All of these people were artists, or at least they were “personalities;” but they were also “family.”   They came into our homes for decades and suddenly they are gone. We thought we knew them.  We gave ourselves the right to gossip about them and to discuss their private lives as though they were our best friends forever. Setting aside the particular abilities it takes to be a “second banana,” discussed by people far more eloquent than myself, and the talent it takes to sell the strange and unsellable, I am more interested in the deaths of individuals who touch us deeply and make us cry, like Michael Jackson and Princess Di.  Full disclosure, I still have an old video of my personal taping of her funeral.  Billy Jean is one of my favorite songs.  I am well aware of the truths of these people, the unseemly and undignified details of their sad lives.  But what interests me is why are we so impacted by their tragic and untimely deaths? Or is it their lives that are so resonate to us?

I always admired Michael Jackson.  He struck me as someone who was blessed with a minor talent and parlayed it into major stardom.  Most artists have only a minor talent, few are born with major talent, except for Picasso, who some call a “genius.”  But genius is not something you are born with.  Genius is something you make. Michael Jackson was a good singer and a talented dancer who created genius through his work.  His greatness was that he became someone else, transcending his sad lost childhood of abuse. Michael Jackson became the “Gloved One.”  Although Madonna (another genius) made Jackson’s crotch-grabbing seem tame, the downfall of Michael Jackson came when he revealed who he really was.  What we loved was the persona and the performer of Thriller and the transformative music and dance of Beat It. The dark side was clearly evident, made even more explicit in his video performances, but his darkness came across as an artificial mask.

Michael Jackson’s performances were true works of genius, the result of years of creative endeavor.  We were riveted.  We sang his songs, we danced his dances (or tried), and generations of music fans all over the world adopted him, forgiving him of all his manifold sins.  The tragedy of Michael Jackson is that we did not want him to be real.  The other tragedy of Michael Jackson is that he did not want to be real.  Already a success, a creative genius, he wanted to be something else, and on this long journey he drifted down a strange road.  Alas, he is dead and we shall never know how he would have wanted his story to end.  His story was his art.

What Princess Di and the Gloved One share is that they are makeovers or should I say, they were made-ups?  We projected our fantasies upon them; we made them up. But they also transformed themselves.  In Thriller, Michael Jackson literally danced with his demons and all lthe other dancers were in costume.  What separates the Moonwalker from the Princess, I believe, is that Jackson sought, unwisely, to try to make himself more real than real. Unsatisfied with the “self” created by the Jackson Five, he attempted to fabricate a new identity that was completely his own.  How else could all that bizarre plastic surgery be explained?   The sad outcome was that he lost himself.

In contrast, Princess Diana was always in costume and, unlike Jackson, she was careful about not showing herself.  She never broke with the Princess role, even when she was ousted as the Princess.  Diana understood that she was the costume.  Perhaps because women are socialized to always be on display and to perform a masquerade, it was easier for her to conflate the artificial with the real.  This is what women do: we lose ourselves in the disguise.  We become the masquerade.  The irony of her story is that she was miscast in a story tale of a well-born Cinderella who married a very unwilling prince.  Like all women, she was sold on romance novels of love and happiness ever after.  Like all women, she could hardly think beyond the most beautiful wedding dress in the world, the ride in the golden coach, the handsome (well, plain) prince in a splendid uniform by her side. What could be better?

Once I had watched the wedding of the century on television and copied her hairstyle, I lost interest in the trials and tribulations of the tragic princess, forlorn and unloved. And then she died.  To my surprise, I was grief stricken and sadden by the death of someone so full of courage.  A work of art had died.  As women, we are each our own greatest work of art.  Any woman who loses touch with herself as a public persona loses her identity and her self-esteem.  Contrary to theorists who insist that men lead public lives and women live private lives, the opposite is true.  Men lead very active clandestine and protected private lives, while women are always on public display, being watched and being judged.  Diana knew the secret—that femininity was a masquerade and she used this fact to her advantage.  Charles made a tactical error.   Her husband indulged himself in a private love affair.  Far from being a sympathetic character—the poor man was forced to marry a woman he did not love—-the Prince lost control of his story and was revealed as a betrayer of his young wife and the helpless mother of his children who had sacrificed her youth for the Crown.

Far shrewder than the forces of Majesty, Diana honed her public image, carefully choosing each costume for maximum advantage.  The rest of her life can be told in a series of photographs: the famous “John Travolta Dress” that allowed her to upstage the Prince, the red skirt with the purple jacket she wore at the monument to love, the Taj Mahal, telegraphing the end of her love story, the quasi-military outfit in the mine fields, and finally the one-piece swimsuit on Dodi Fayed’s yacht. We read her life through her costumes and saw that she was brave and courageous and insistent upon continuing her role as “Princess.”  She was the most eligible woman in the world who unfortunately had terrible taste in men, but we were convinced that someday her Prince Would Come.  He never did, but she was more fortunate than Elvis or MJ. Diana died young and beautiful at the peak of her powers. The masquerade was never allowed to slip.  Beautiful, even in death, she created herself.  Diana was her own best work of art.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

THE DEATH OF A MUSEUM: THE DEMISE OF THE CLAREMONT MUSEUM

THE DEATH OF A MUSEUM

Claremont Museum of Art

Claremont, California

How does a museum die?  Slowly circling the drain or suddenly closing at an opening?  The Claremont Museum of Art died on the spot, closed at the opening of the last exhibit, the victim of credit card bills and overarching ambitions. The name of the exhibition?  “The Ten Pound Ape.”  More like the 800 pound gorilla in the room—-no money.  A few years ago, in Artscene, I wrote about the opening of the Museum in a repurposed fruit-packing factory in the heart of Claremont’s charming downtown.  In 2007 the new director had dreams of the museum being a “destination” for art lovers on their way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and points East.  Just as people will drive miles to an amazing restaurant, he claimed,  the audience for contemporary art would trek to the small college town.  Despite the notorious reluctance of Angeleos to venture down the notorious 10 Freeway to the eastern most parts of their county, the idea of being a destination museum was not entirely unfounded.  Claremont, a place I have often referred to as “the town that time forgot,” has a group of colleges, a few graduate schools, arts and crafts houses, shady tree-lined streets, a feel of the Fifties, and a thriving arts community.  The Claremont Colleges hosted as students and professors, Chris Burden, James Turrell, Paul Soldner, Kim Dingle, Karl Benjamin, Roland Reiss, and Pitzer College has established a politically engaged art gallery.  With such a strong history in painting, installation art, performance art and ceramics, including a ceramic museum, Claremont would seem to be a great place for a destination museum.

But it was not to be.  Founded during the days of financial hubris, or better known as the era of doing too much with too little money, the Claremont Museum of Art began with only two million dollars.  Perhaps more money would materialize: there were promises of money in the future.  But for the present, the dream was simply greater than the amount of money on hand. Running a museum is an expensive business.  In order to be a destination museum, the institution needs to show destination-worthy works.  Such art is expensive, to rent, to mount, and to ship.  Staff has to be paid; rent comes due.  The exhibitions mounted were interesting but not exactly destination worthy.  However, the museum was starting—correctly—with its base and was generous to the local art community.  Many supportive artists donated their works to the substantial permanent collection. Everyone tried. There was simply wasn’t enough money to give the museum enough time to build a reputation.  A challenge grant was not met and the museum lost their last chance to stay alive.  At the end the city of Claremont paid the last month’s rent: $9000. But such a generous donation could do little but stave off the end.  The owners of the building simply could not afford to donate such an expensive space to the community, and by January of 2010 the museum was gone.  There was no fault, no malfeasance, just naïvité and inexperience.   Two million dollars are gone, jobs were lost and the collection is now housed in the basement of the American Museum of Ceramics in Pomona.  For some the dream lives on, but, meanwhile, this is how a museum dies.  Rest in peace Claremont Museum of Art.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009)

THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009)

The story of how the world-famous Barnes Collection was moved from its long-time home in Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia is told in tones of indignation as a vast conspiracy of moneyed interests who “stole” the art in the name of the people.  The Art of the Steal has a couple of lessons to teach.  First, if you want to convince people of your perspective, present only one side, and second, if you are asked to present your side—the other side—give an account of yourself, otherwise your silence will indict you.  I have no doubt the people who fought to keep the Collection in its original site were as well-meaning as they were passionate, but their insistence presences hide the fact that many people was simply not present.  The absence of many important art world figures who surely have opinions about this “steal” is notable and explained away as not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Pew Foundation, presented as one of the thieving parties.  Still the silence of art historians and curators who specialize in Modernist art or in Impressionism is strange.  Not one Cézanne scholar, not one Matisse specialist, not one specialist from other museums which specialize in modern art was presented in this film.

As interesting as this film is, it is also profoundly manipulative and uneven and disjointed.  The Art of the Steal begins with a statement made by Alfred Barnes himself, stating that his purpose is to “attack” the art establishment.  Not that there was much to attack.  The Museum of Modern Art was not in existence when the Barnes Foundation was established in 1922.  The interest in Modernist art in America was small and confined mostly to a couple of groups in New York City, with Walter and Louise Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz as the centers.  Alfred Barnes was able to amass the huge collection of French art, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, because the French didn’t like these movements either.  The avant-garde dealers in Paris had learned to depend upon American collections, who, since the days of the Impressionists, had been happy to buy anything “French.”  Duncan Phillips, whose home in Washington D. C., is a case in point.  Incidentally his art filled home is now a museum, just like the original intent of Barnes and his collection.

But to stick to the point and try to understand why Barnes went on the “attack: when Barnes showed his collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was mercilessly “attacked.”  Barnes must have been either naïve or self-destructive to not foresee that the conservatives of a conservative town would not understand his art.  Back in Paris, the public was just getting its first glimpse of the collages of Braque and Picasso from the sequestered collection of their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.  The Parisian artists were horrified at the mere sight of revolutionary multi-media work when the collection, including collages, was auctioned off.  Even Barnes did not like Cubism, so it is inconceivable that he did not expect an art public that still worshipped Thomas Eakins to reject the Impressionists.

Barnes may have been an insightful collector, but he overdid it in his collecting of Renoir—almost 200 Renoirs and less than a half dozen Monets?—and, as a result, the collection is more a personal response to modern art and less a historical overview.   But more of Barnes and art  history later.  According to the film, he was so distraught over the reception of his collection, he withdrew his art from the ignorant and provincial art world and sequestered it in a carefully constructed private museum.  Barnes lacked the courage of his convictions and was not as brave as the artists he collected.  His retreat had a cowardly air about it and the atmosphere of being hostile to the public and to the established art world surrounded the collection.

The construction of the Foundation and its disposition in his later wills was built on a foundation of spleen.  The entire idea of secreting the art was to keep it from the public.  All information about the collection was as controlled as the access. Only those who were willing to be taught by Barnes himself were allowed in.  By the time I was in graduate school, Barnes was long dead and the fearsome Violette de Mazia guarded the Foundation.  The inaccessibility of the famous paintings was legendary.  One needed special permission, almost impossible to obtain, to study the collection.

Art historians exchanged war stories of their adventures, of trying and failing to see the fabled art.   One such urban legend involved two of the most famous people in the world: Alfred Einstein, the physicist, and Erwin Panofsky, a Renaissance scholar.  Both men were German refugees at Princeton, but Einstein the scientist, as The Art of the Steal points out, was a friend of Barnes.  Panofsky, however, was only a revered art historian and did not count.  He begged Einstein to get him inside the Barnes Collection so he could see the art.  The only solution Einstein could come up with was to smuggle Panofsky, disguised as his chauffeur, through the gates of the estate.  Innocently, Einstein asked Barnes if his “driver” could have lunch in the kitchen while he was waiting for his “boss” to visit the famous collector.  Barnes agreed, not knowing he was allowing an art historian to enter his domain.  Panofsky sneaked around the rooms, gazed upon the legendary art and then drove Einstein back to Princeton.

The story may be apocryphal but it is indicative of the reputation of “The Barnes,” as the collection was known.  The film insists that the goal of the collector was to teach, but, in fact, teachers of art history were not allowed to have color photographs of the art in the collection.  There is a legend of an art historian who managed to take a bad color photo of one of the Matisses, possibly Bonheur de Vivre, but the collection could literally not be taught in an art history class.  There were no images and no reliable eye witness testimony.

All of that secrecy changed when it was discovered that the building was in bad shape and that the art as suffering from mold and mildew.  The Art of the Steal does not mention that the main problem with the art was the non-archival way in which it was displayed—on burlap-covered walls.  Much is made of how the collection is shown in a home-like setting, but Barnes did not know how to conserve art.  Burlap was used, for example, in Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291, but below the painting rail, not where the art was hung.  Take an old house, a damp climate, and moist walls covered with a fabric that collected all kinds of bacteria and mold, now combine those conditions with paintings on canvas pressed against the burlap and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

The paintings were in actual danger and The National Gallery in Washington, D. C. restored them.  In return, the Gallery was the first place to exhibit selected paintings from the Collection so that the broader public could see them.   Excitement in the art history world was great.  In the summer of 1992 the Chicago Tribune announced that the Barnes Collection was “freed.” At last the famous paintings could be seen! And in color!  I was in awe of Bonheur de Vivre—-those wonderful pinks and yellows.  There is a great deal to be said of a pristine collection that has not been handled, for the art that I saw was in perfect condition.  But the art was not shown in the way that Barnes had designed his installation.  The Art of the Steal implied that the new building in Philadelphia will recreate the original design of how Barnes hung the paintings, salon style.

The concept that ruled the installation is problematic today: Barnes dispersed African masks and other sculptural works and Native American blankets among the Modernist paintings to point to the connections between tribal art and modern art. Today we would called this arrangement colonialism or eurocentricism. Although in 1905, artists thought nothing of appropriating tribal art (they called it “primitive” art) as the inspiration for their own work, today such acts are considered politically suspect, or, as Robert Hughes called it, “cultural imperialism.”  In making the tribal connection, Barnes was certainly correct, for certain artists, such as Matisse and Modigliani, who were directly inspired by tribal artifacts; but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew nothing of African art.

Ever since the Primitivism and Modern Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, the formalist comparison between modern and tribal art has been discredited.  Today we flinch at the term “primitivism.”  Certainly European artists at the beginning of the 20th century used African art to infuse modernist painting and sculpture with something new and “exotic,” but for a contemporary museum to be complicit with cultural requisitioning, unless the historical context is fully explained, is unthinkable today.  The question of whether or not the colonialist approach as followed by Barnes for the installation of his art will be replicated remains a question.

The film does not discuss the link between the collection and African art, even though the fact that Barnes left his collection to a black university—Lincoln University—is staring them in the face.  Also passed over rather lightly is the fact that a group of rich white people stand accused of stealing a valuable ($25 billion and counting) art collection, which was whisked away from poor black people who were too ignorant to know what they owned.  Complicating matters are the black men who were complicit in transferring the property of Lincoln University—the Barnes Collection—over to the city of Philadelphia.  No one seemed to feel any ethical qualms of violating the terms of a will or show any particular interest in helping the now-impoverished school.

In the art world, Richard Glanton was a well-known villain, not because he managed to pry the paintings from the dubious burlap walls of the Foundation, but because he mismanaged the money and left the Foundation in apparently dire straits.  Whatever money the Foundation made from the tours of the Collection, the profit was apparently handed over to lawyers who had to defend “The Barnes” from neighbors who were rightfully resentful of the steady stream of art lovers coming to pay homage to the paintings.  As anyone who watched the battle between another private museum, The Getty, and another powerful and wealthy public community, Brentwood, can tell you, the museum will lose.  The Art of the Steal interviews some of the Merion-dwellers, who wisely told their side of the story, and it is clear that these were people with deep pockets. When the neighbors eventually relented, it was too late and Glanton had put the Foundation in a vulnerable place, ripe for the picking.

Despite the rear-guard and last minute efforts of the last of the die-hard supporters of the wishes of Alfred Barnes, the Collection will be housed in a new building and will be open to the public in 2012.  Barnes set up his Foundation nearly one hundred years ago, when it may have made sense to try to teach a ignorant public about modern art, albeit in small and exclusionary groups.  But one hundred years later, the public loves Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Matisse, et al.  One can imagine that the mean old man would be delighted that so many people love his art so much.  He would say, “I told you so.”  He would have the last laugh.  Much of made of how his will was slowly dismantled and written off, but the times that inspired the writing of such a mean-spirited document are in the past.

In its own time the Barnes Collection was an anachronism, an enlarged version of the secret cabinet of a Renaissance prince, who opened the doors only to the select few.  Presumably, the French Revolution ended the private and exclusive nature of art and museums became public.  Salon exhibitions were open to the people.  Artists learned to take public criticism and to enjoy public adulation.  We came to believe that art was for the public; that culture belonged to the people.  While The Art of the Steal exposed political chicanery and suggested collusion between political power and money, but we learned nothing new, expect that Barnes made his money from a cure for venereal disease and that these profits, well-deserved, no doubt, were used to buy art.  Art, power and money have always been cultural triplets.  At least the politicians and the power mongers are giving the art to the public, or should I say, they have “stolen” the art only to give it away…to us.   Thank you.  I am planning my trip to Philadelphia.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger