Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can Art Change the World? Maybe!

Lately, as anyone who follows this blog even cursorily will be aware, these days it is hard for me to hear the fifes and drums of positive change coming from anywhere. But yesterday I went to a weird sort of fiesta at the Roanoke Hotel with my friend Katherine Devine, in which 900 women of all sizes, ages, shapes, and hair colors had paid $50 to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Art Museum of Western Virginia celebrating "Women, Art, & Education." It was also the Ann Fralin Award event, a prize now offered annually to honor someone for her commitment to the arts, education, and community. This year the recipient was the well-known poet, activist, and educator, Nikki Giovanni, and we all sat down to a plate of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, salmon salad, and chicken slices with greens, in her honor.

Nikki had been allotted only ten minutes to speak, but managed nevertheless to have her signature impact anyway. She told us something about her state of mind when she sat down to compose the poem that she delivered to the convocation on campus the day after the Cho shooting at Virginia Tech, in which thirty students and faculty died.

She had been asked by the administration to help out at the convocation and do something to honor the dead. "Of course I'll do whatever I can," she thought to herself, "I have to, but I'd better write something down. Otherwise I'll just stand up there and cry, and that won't do." So she composed her phenomenal poem about grief and world suffering that would ultimately ricochet around the globe, and when she recited the final words "We are Virginia Tech. We are the Hokies, and we will prevail," something really uncanny happened. The shocked, grieving faces and bodies suddenly, synchronously, shifted direction and burst into wild exhilaration and communion, chanting and clapping as loud as they could, "Go Hokies!" A zombie crowd had in a few seconds transmogrified back into life again. I, who watched the proceedings on television from home, was witness to what can only be described as a miracle: the kind of radical energy shift only shamans accomplish when healing. I've never seen anything quite like it.

"Of course I had no idea of the impact it would have," Nikki explained, adding "but that, you see, is the power of poetry."

The power of art to change the world. Most surely it was a true moment when art did change the world, and I know, because I saw it happen with my own eyes.

"That's the power of PineSol, baby," mocks Virgil, trying as usual to stamp his droll personality on whatever I write. Today he is sporting his Jackson Pollock necktie, bought at the Guggenheim Museum gift store, proudly on his alligator chest. "Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've got art in my tummy," he sings to me, as he quickly turns back to his Basquiat jigsaw puzzle, the latter having been acquired recently from a trip to the Brooklyn Museum. He says he's going to hold an "Alligators for Art" luncheon in cyberspace to honor the Surrealists, the Jacobeans, and recondite graffiti artists. He wants me to wear my orangutan string jacket, the same one I wore years ago to Jasper's opening, and to be the keynote speaker. But I haven't seen hide nor hair of that jacket in years.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Proust Meets Jasper Johns

It is customary for the back page of Vanity Fair to be a questionnaire addressed to a celebrity. It's called "Proust Questionnaire." Usually I don't personally know the celebrity being questioned. However this time I did: Jasper Johns. Seeing him there, staring at the camera the way he always does if someone insists on taking his picture, wearing a red and green plaid shirt, reminded me that, for many years when I was young, and even into middle age, Jasper was the person in whose company I was always the happiest. I met him before he got famous, when I was only 18, and he was living on Pearl Street at the bottom of Manhattan, working as a salesclerk in a bookstore midtown, and, of course, painting. It was hard not to be drawn in by his luminous melancholy, the icicle wit, and outrageous laugh. I have never laughed as hard or as much with anyone.

The back-page questions tend to vary, but some are always the same, like "What or who is the greatest love of your life?" Inevitably people say "my spouse" or "my family" in answer to this particular question. Jasper's response was striking: "no one, no thing." Did he really mean it? Or was he being sarcastic? Always the conundrum with Jasper. I'll hazard that he really meant it.

Once I was visiting him for the weekend at his country house in upstate New York. He went outside late in the afternoon, gathered up a clump of ratty looking mushrooms from the base of a tree stump, and cooked them for dinner, together with a baked sweet potato. "That's dinner," he announced somewhat petulantly. Jasper just loves eating and is a great cook, and he was mad at me because earlier I had vetoed the purchase of a packet of pork chops when we were at the supermarket. So it is not really surprising that when "Proust" asked him "What is your most treasured possession?" he answered, "my refrigerator."

Another time, in France, we were hunting for mushrooms (morells) in the forest of Fontainebleau with our friend Teeny Duchamp and her daughter, Jackie. I was arm-in-arm with Jasper, who doggedly recited the whole of Edith Sitwell's "Facade" to me by heart, imitating perfectly her rapid falsetto voice and making me laugh so hard I could hardly stay on my feet.

In Vanity Fair, Proust asks Jasper: "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?" His answer: "my inability to sing or dance." Yow! me too, although I've had pretensions in both directions, but never together at the same time.

Questioner: "What is it that you most dislike?" Answer: "seeing fish with silver skins marinating in cream." Another thing I know for sure Jasper disliked was a jacket I owned many years ago, when I lived in London. Once, he was visiting me there in 1978 for his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and I put on my prized purple and blue wool string jacket to accompany him to the opening. He took one look at me and rolled his eyes. Then, his face wreathed in smiles, he told me I looked like an orangutan.

Other people got an even worse dose of icicle wit. A friend in those days, Eddie Schlossberg (who later married Caroline Kennedy) once told Jasper that he loved him. "That's your problem," came the terse answer, and the eyes rolled again. Although to me all those years Jasper was the most attractive, amusing, and dearest friend anyone could ever have, I knew better than to ever say the words out loud.

Vanity Fair question: "What is your current state of mind?" Jasper's response: "something like very slow panic." Me, too. Boy, can I relate!

Meanwhile Virgil, my alligator muse, has noticed me scribbling on my notepad in cyberspace and sashays over. "I really enjoyed your last piece about that libertine artist with a sweet tooth for dead animals," he says, referring to my previous blog about Damien Hirst. "Now I have a question for you, so just pretend for a minute that I'm Vanity Fair. "If you knew you had to hit the road, what would you hit it with?"

Truth is, I've never been any good at questionnaires, and I have no intention of getting sucked in to this one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Non-Redemptive Power of Art

As I quietly watch the world unravel from my mountainside perch in southwest Virginia, one question keeps coming up for me: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Things may be falling apart, as the poet said, mere anarchy unleashed as far as the eye can see, the center no longer holding, but the art market carries on oblivious, lunging ever forward with kangaroo speed. Way back in the 1500’s, Nostradamus predicted that only Ibiza will survive the Apocalypse, but clearly he was wrong. The way things go now, the art market will also be left standing, side by side with Ibiza.

In a spring sale at Sotheby's, a painting by Mark Rothko went for $72 million. But even that mind-altering sum isn't the half of it. A 2007 sculpture by English artist Damien Hirst, titled (ironically?) "For the Love of God,"-- an 18th-century skull, cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 diamonds which cost about $20 million to produce--was sold to an investment consortium for $100 million. A projected two-year tour of major museums around the world will further augment the sculpture's value, making it resalable later for an even larger sum. Incidentally, coincidentally, the artist is part of the investment consortium.

If I let go into the movement of my own consciousness, something about this miscreant icon suggests the ultimate folly of our times. Perhaps the artist meant to create a kind of luxurious stink bomb, thrown at what Navajos call "the glittering world," admittedly a world on its last legs. Or, perhaps he was taking a pot shot at the corpse of Susan Sontag, who once stated that "There is no culture without a standard of altruism, of regard for others." For in Hirst's universe, altruism and regard for others most surely does not include animals.

Take the case of the decaying tiger shark, floating in a tank of 224 gallons of formaldehyde. It is one of Hirst's most well known works, called "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." After 14 years in that glass tank, defying gravity, the tiger shark was disintegrating. Last year, five men and one woman donned hazmat suits, black rubber gloves, and breathing masks, and in the abandoned airplane hangar that serves as one of Hirst's studios, set about removing the defunct shark and replacing it with a new one, 13 feet long.

The original shark had been caught and killed by a fisherman in Australia, explicitly for Hirst in 1991. But eventually decomposition occurred, because the shark's insides had not been properly injected with formaldehyde to preserve it. So its skin grew wrinkled; the solution in the tank grew murky. Various patchwork efforts at restoration failed to work.

Enter one of those hedge-fund managers now turned collector, billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who bought the work from the English collector Charles Saatchi, paying $8 million for the ailing work. At that point, Hirst decided he needed to replace the shark, and Cohen offered to pay for it. Another unsuspecting tiger shark was killed and then dispatched from Australia in a specially built 20-foot freezer that took almost two months to arrive.

Now artists and conservators argue about whether the replacement can have the same status as the original. Nobody debates the fate of the sharks which gave up their lives for the sake of art. It still stuns.

Hirst is the winner of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, which he received in 1995 for a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in a series of vitrines, called "Mother and Child Divided." "I've also tried to do a Pieta with cows," he once told a critic in the New York Times. Some of his canvases are covered with real flies and butterflies. His studio is filled with freezers stuffed with dead animals, acquired mostly from taxidermists. If a prize ever existed for the most unecological artist on the planet, Hirst would surely win that one as well.

All this suggests a new kind of bone-eroding art with radioactive potential, of a different order from the kind we used to know and love. Hirst's glass-and-steel medicine cabinets filled with rows of colored pills lined up on shelves sold for $7.4 million at Christie's in New York last spring, and a similar version went for $19.2 million in London a month later. His "spot" paintings of colored circles, of which he has done nearly a thousand, sell for more than $1 million to the new cadre of hedge-fund collectors, who can sell them a month later for double the price. All this has been tabulated, measured, and proved, in a way that sets hearts pounding in the art world.

In a recent New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins of New York art dealer and cultural impresario Jeffrey Deitch, himself a collector to be reckoned with and definitely nobody's fool, Deitch manages to capture in just a few comments something of the preposterousness of the scene over which he presides like an anointed prophet: "More than any artist, Damien has used the art market as a medium. You could dismiss this as over-the-top commercial, but he's achieved a lot of cultural influence and power by using the art market so cleverly. He's using the power of the money to enhance the impact of his imagery and his art."

Let me ask my question one more time: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Years ago I used to wonder and struggle and write with a different question in mind: what does it really mean to be a "successful" artist working in the world today? And is the image that comes to mind one we can support and believe in? In today's world, that question is obsolete. Now the lucky artist who understands how wealth can manufacture more wealth will earn him, like Gatsby, the epithet "Great."

Damien Hirst flits through our culture like a bad angel, zealously playing his fiddle while Rome is burning. It may be that every crumbling empire needs to have its own Nero. Someone virtuosic in artistic endeavors and chariot racing, someone who always wins and does not tolerate any rivals. The image above is by digital artist Simone Paterson, entitled "Hirst As Nero."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Beyond the Climate Crisis" by Eileen Crist

"If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star."

Excerpted from "A Ritual to Read to Each Other, by William Stafford

Some of my thinking on plunder in the previous post has been expanded and inspired by an article I've read, written by a good friend of mine, Eileen Crist, who teaches Environmental Studies at Virginia Tech. I thought this essay was so lucid I asked if I could summarize some of her ideas on the blog. She said yes, so here goes.

Now that climate change has been transformed from a hypothesis into a fact and become a focus of urgent, worst-case scenarios with the potential for large-scale societal collapse, it gets star-billing as "the most urgent environmental problem of our time," "more dangerous than anything we have ever faced."

My friend argues that framing climate change in such a manner merits being challenged; for one thing because it implies that the solutions are those that directly address the problem and therefore lie in the realm of improved technologies and global treaties. Second, it detracts attention from other predicaments by claiming the limelight for itself, marginalizing other facets such as species extinction, which unlike climate change, is not perceived as a direct threat or survival risk to humans.

By focusing on climate change, Eileen argues, the root causes of the ecological crisis as a whole go unaddressed: i.e. "destructive patterns of production, trade, extraction, land-use, waste proliferation, and consumption, coupled with population." Climate change, Eileen feels, is not the root problem. The root problem is "a sprawling civilization that is destroying the biosphere." But this part goes unquestioned and unexamined.

"Industrial-consumer civilization," she writes, "has entrenched a form of life that admits virtually no limits to its expansiveness with, and perceived entitlement to, the entire planet. But questioning this civilization is by and large side-stepped in climate change discourse, with its single-minded quest for a global warming techo-fix."

Her point: techno-fixes attempt to deal with symptoms, while leaving unmolested the forms of social organization that are causing the crisis. And here's the kicker: climate change is then viewed as a danger to the "culprit," namely, our way of life. We end up trying to save the very thing that is causing our demise. We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Global warming, she says, is delivering its blow on an already profoundly wounded natural world. It is more a mirror than a driver.

Then there are the apocalyptic narratives of climate change that align neatly with prophetic claims in the Old and New Testaments, and have merged with religious fundamentalist visions of rising seas, raging wildfires, and rampant disease. In certain circles, climate change may even be encouraged as hastening the "Rapture," which of course has nothing to say about the suffering of nonhuman species.

Bottom line, according to Eileen, is that we are unwilling to question or limit consumer society, or to give up our sense of entitlement to, and assumption of dominance over, nature.

Eileen does not accept that the momentum of present trends is inevitable. She is, to her eternal credit, much less fatalistic than I am. In fact, she warns against fatalism, as being a mindset that fosters compliance to the very trends it deplores, by a kind of looping action (read self-fulfilling prophesy). Fatalism, she concludes, may even be the most potent form of ideology in existence, because it discourages deep questioning and dismisses the possibility of revolutionary action. And it allows consumer society to be taken as a given.

I may be fatalistic, but I can't be accused of refusing to question deeply. Thanks, Eileen, for a wonderful paper.

Eileen's paper is titled "Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse" and is scheduled to be published in Telos, a social-theory magazine, December 2007.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Short History of Plunder

Blogging, as I do, mostly without any fixed agenda, often leads me to unexpected subjects and insights, usually forecast by a certain tingly buzz of recognition and the sense that "vectors are converging here." What seems to have emerged for my scrutiny currently is the topic of plunder, stories of which have curiously festooned my week. So I checked out the Thesaurus before writing this, which offered up, among others, the following related items:

vb. liquidate, wipe off the map, steal, pilfer, ransack, strip, plunder, ravage, ruin, wantonly destroy, exterminate.

Pick any one of these, or lump all of them together; what you will find inevitably is a human propensity that has been lurking around and unfolding exponentially across the globe ever since, well, well before the cows came home. Obviously we are all aware, these days, of the wanton destruction of nature: whole species wiped off the map, mountain tops stripped for their coal, forests plundered for their timber, rivers ransacked for their fish. More recently, our current government has ravaged an entire country to gain long-term access to its oil. But this week I was quick to note a peculiar conjunction of parallel themes from the past, revealing something about human nature across centuries of civilization that makes it seem as if one of our chief talents has always been for ravaging, ransacking, looting, and plundering--in short, helping ourselves to what does not belong to us.

This week I saw an eye-opening movie about the rape, not of nature, but of culture. It is called "The Rape of Europa," a documentary about the Nazi's obsession with art (made by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen), with actual footage filmed during WWII. Everyone knows about the Holocaust, and Hitler's cold-blooded extermination of six million Jews, for reasons the rest of us mere mortals will never understand. But I, for one, did not know that when Hitler's army marched into France and occupied it, one of the first things they did was to empty the Louvre of all of its treasures in a massive ransack. They STOLE all the art, removed it from the walls, and took it out of the country. Some works were destroyed for being "degenerate," and the rest was forwarded by rail and truck to secret underground bunkers in Germany. Similar ransacks were performed by the Nazis on other major museums and private collections in Europe. The plan, had it worked out, was to construct the biggest museum in the world in the German town of Kirk, ultimately to be billed as "Hitler's Legacy."

"Should I recount all the lawless and brutal acts of white men upon the Coast you should think that those who visited it had lost the usual attributes of humanity, and such indeed seems to be the fact." I read this sentence the next morning, in a book called "The Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant. The comment was made by a veteran fur trader of the 18th century from Massachusetts, William Sturgis, who was relating his experiences in the sea otter trade which flourished for about a century along the Pacific Coast of North America.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of Newfoundland, were first visited by Captain Cook in 1778, when he stepped ashore to find logs in order to repair his two damaged ships. There he discovered the extremely soft pelts of the sea otter, worn by the native inhabitants, the Haida Indians.

In 1785 the first trading mission arrived, looking for massive timbers and plentiful sea otters and friendly natives, having read Cook's account of his third and final voyage, published the year before. The demand for sea otter pelts, more desirable even than ermine or mink, led to boom times for all, a sort of "rapacious festival of unrestrained capitalism," with huge profits of 1,800 percent on a par with gold, oil, or drugs. There was profiteering on both sides. The Haida pursued this poor creature to the brink of extinction, so eager were they to get their hands on the traders' technical marvels, which included firearms, along with other things like chisels, nails, copper pots, scissors, mirrors, blankets, and rum .

"The first expeditions," wrote Sturgis, who had lost a brother to the Haida,"were entrusted of desperate fortunes, lawless and reckless...[who] indulged every brutal propensity without the slightest restraint...[and] would have shot an Indian for his garment of sea otter skins with as little compunction as he would have killed the animal from whom the skins were originally taken." What began as an orchestrated protocol of dining and gift-giving soon degenerated into armed encounters, often ending in extremes of slaughter between the Indians and the very same traders who had sold them their weapons. The sea otters, meanwhile, became extinct. "This helped to set the tone for every extractive industry that has come after," according to the author, Vaillant.

Make no mistake, we are a predatory species. Our preemptive president is but one example in a long, insatiable history of hemorrhage and plunder--no better and no worse, perhaps, than any of the others. Since there is no way to ransack, ravage, and steal, and do it gracefully, and since it has been happening across the ages, we may just have to accustom ourselves to the eeriness of it all.

"It's no use getting the moral jitters," says Virgil, the tip of whose large alligator tail is switching electrically. "Sometimes life is just a bitter bargain. Your little history may be terminally unpleasant, but which do you think is more likely to change its spots: a giddy, swaggering, saw-toothed capitalism, a turbaned ayatollah, or a pouncing leopard?"