Something Else We Want

Nathan Hyland

Nathan Hyland

“The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at most can defend themselves if they are attacked. They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus.”
Sigmund Freud

“For Freud, all social relations, private and public alike, share a hidden Oedipal typicality which underlies their various manifestations.”
Jose Brunner

“A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked lovliness,
Actaeon like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.”

Shelley
“Adonais”

I suspect that the most virulent anti-Freudian rhetoric and opinion comes these days from younger white men. It seems not to matter much if their political position is to the left or right. This links to the over-all general sense I have of white panic having been dialed up a couple notches recently.

What are the implications for the reality that this month’s protests over Police murders is being driven largely by women of color, but more, by queer black women. Not entirely, certainly, but largely I think. There is a lot to unpack in this vis a vis gay white man culture, mainstream media, the Oedipul narrative (accepted or not) and in a sense of where aggression comes from in society. Stan Goff has written a good deal on white men and guns. I keep coming back to the sense I have these days of white male sickness.

But let me backtrack here. The logic of Oedipal theory foregrounds a primary anxiety born of that recognition in the infant that mother’s breast is not completely under his or her control. Is it correct that the infant’s next response is to want to devour the breast? To control through incorporation, bodily incorporation? This is, needless to say, a contested area in psychoanalysis. Is the breast separate from the mother? Is there an identity attached to the source of food, and pleasure? Is this impulse in the infant toward control? Is this is primary sort of ur-control instinct, or response? There are countless X-factors in theorizing about the inner life of infants. Melanie Klein, Winnicott, Jung even, and on through to Lacan.

Apostolos Georgiou

Apostolos Georgiou


Jose Brunner wrote: “the child’s recognition of the parents’ control over his needs and wishes also turns a possible loss of their love into a dreaded prospect. Since children fear to lose their parents’ love and the concomitant feeling of safety, the parents can, by granting or refusing affection at will, deploy their love as an instrument of domination and control.”

The need to be loved means what? For this seems to me a different thing than what the infant feels toward the breast, or later toward the source of that food and pleasure. The mother is loved, but that is not the same as saying (I don’t think, anyway) that we want to be loved throughout our lives. Yes, we want to be loved throughout our lives, and that is probably an expression of this very early imprint and association. And even if one accepts the Oedipal thinking in this, there is still a question of what we mean by *love* when it is spoken to the object of one’s love, or to anyone, really, once we are adults. For the infant, the dependency on both parents, and/or adults, becomes intimately linked with authority. And this is the (or one of) the crucial issues here. And perhaps it is *the* crucial issue. The child, as it gets slightly older finds its desire coalescing around an identification. The boy wants to be like the father, the girl like the mother. Just how gendered this identification is remains an interesting question. Meaning, does the boy or girl tend toward more identification or less, and are there qualitative differences in the fabric of these identifications for each gender.

Anton Henning

Anton Henning

The most contested area of the Oedipal narrative circles around what Freud called the *phallic stage*. For Freud, this meant all desire was for the mother. There was having a phallus or there was castration. I think it is relatively safe to say there are problems with this. Although they may not be quite what mainstream thinking believes. But I want to look at this question of love, more, and what is meant by desire and how this evolves in the child. The punishing father is a social construct. The desire for the mother is mixed in with trace elements built upon food and pleasure and safety. The punishing father is the force of restriction.

The idea of *love* is connected with sex. And then with an entire history of institutions built around property, women as property, virginity, disease, law, and probably, too, with immortality. But by adulthood the child has grown, physically matured, and introjected the authority of the Father, and in so doing formed what Freud called the super-ego. This is a complex topic, and no small reason for this complexity has to do with the qualities of authority that are taken in by the child to form this internal police force. Or court of the self. The fact is that the most authoritarian and physically brutish father can be a far less guilt producing parent than Mister Rogers or casper milktoast. In fact, the expression of power and domination is not necessarily the means to the most sadistic offspring. And this has to do with the myriad other ways the child’s ego is formed by society. At the age of five or so, according to Freud, the child’s sexual/erotic urges are sealed like court documents, and the conscious mind ‘forgets’ them. The erotic anxiety of identification (which includes both the desire to be like the father, but the understanding that one cannot be identical, nor is one allowed to do all the exact same things the father does). Now, once this material is repressed, the court documents hidden away, a host of other questions are introduced. And this is more what concerns me here.

Alfred Rethel, engraver. 1851. "Death as a Cutthroat" based on cholera outbreak in Paris during festival.

Alfred Rethel, engraver. 1851. “Death as a Cutthroat” based on cholera outbreak in Paris during festival.


The child has learned that desire is to be regulated. If authority looms as an antagonist to desire, then authority wins, but only by the incorporating of that authority into the subject, thereby, in a sense, conquering desire. This clearly is something less than efficient and produces all the many psychological maladies of modern existence. There is another issue hovering here, and that is the new father of the 21st century west is mediated by factors previous fathers were not. Or not as acutely. The father of my generation is one who grew up himself in a world without telephones, even. My son’s generation had fathers such as myself who grew up and reached adulthood before the computer was widely used. Before any digital technology. The classical bourgeois Father, authoritarian and punitive has been replaced, in the bourgeois West, by a far more passive/aggressive father. One who himself developed a more disfigured relationship to desire, and I suspect who has a less decisive repressive mechanism. In other words those court documents are less effectively sealed. But this might well be the exact opposite. For both might produce what I perceive today as the less authoritarian father, but the more sadistic and ‘affectless’ father.

This is a dissection of white male consciousness. Now, however much wants to accept or renounce Freud’s theories on the Oedipul narrative, there is a real question I think that resides in what I see as a sickness of white society, today. The very regressive ideas of conventional marriage and family are coupled to, at least in the U.S., an internalized patricide, resulting in an internalized acceptance of rules and order. In my experience I know very few men who escape the Oedipal implications of their relationship with the father. The last few generations, however, seem to have a less direct link to the Oedipal, or a more mediated one anyway, and their relationship to authority seems more influenced by a screen life of substitute authorities. That social change may now come from communities in which the traditional family structure is weighted more to the side of the Mother should probably not be surprising (although it is the function dynamic that matters, but more on that later). This is one of the motivations in the intensified demonizing of black and latino culture today, at the hands of white centered culture. White men in the U.S. today are fueled by an additional layer of resentment, and this seems to cut across all political divides, if not quite class divides. I think on a personal level I’ve never particularly felt part of white society. I have felt, if anything, a betrayal by white society. And this is where, perhaps, class resentments enter the discussion.

Charless Harbutt, photography.

Charless Harbutt, photography.


Freud saw the pleasure principle as transforming to the reality principle.

“The animal man becomes a human being only through a fundamental transformation of his nature, affecting not only the instinctual aims but also the instinctual “values” — that is, the principles that govern the attainment of the aims.”
Herbert Marcuse

The submission to authority is reproduced socially at all levels. In other words, phylogenetically, the Father is replaced by the sons as part of a clan, which has become various institutions of authority. The earliest is probably school. The primary experience of early schooling in the U.S. is submission to rules. The Principle is the Father. All institutional authority is social domination. The individual growing up under social domination will pass that domination on to the next generation. But this is never complete. The return of the repressed is where cultural expression finds importance. Hence, Adorno’s belief in the artwork writing the unconscious history of mankind. As Marcuse noted, “The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions.”But there is something occuring in 21st century society that seems an almost de-linking of the Oedipal narrative from later renunciations. The Father is now ‘only’ a symbol, and perhaps this part was always partly true, and a screen authority — in other words the cycle of enslavement and rebellion is mediated by the post modern order of domination, the structures of which are now so abstract and in which the individual so amnesiac, that the screen world of mass culture in the West has created a revisionist interior form. If Marcuse saw reason as a potential liberating force, what has happened is that unreason, the irrationality of modern wage drudgery, is almost an erasing of this primordial cycle. Marcuse saw a repressive modification of happiness. I think this was probably a great understatement, in fact. For the loss of memory has meant a loss of the abilities for inner life containing an emancipatory aspect. The practice of psychoanalysis has shifted toward an adjustment therapy, and this has meant a de-emphasizing of deep memory. Just make your life efficient. Adjust, conform, for happiness is conformity without those unpleasant eruptions of internal contradiction. Of course this really means a doubling down on the repressing of contradiction.

Linnaeus Tripe, photography. South India, late 19th century.

Linnaeus Tripe, photography. South India, late 19th century.


As Marcuse noted again, today the union of servitude and freedom has come to seem natural. Except that freedom is the deformed version of freedom to shop, freedom to conform within a very narrow set of parameters. There is in Freud a clear masculine bias, as Jose Brunner writes: “Moreover, the oedipal vision exhibits a distinct patriarchal bias, it reduces politics to an activity of fathers and sons, while relegating women to the role of passive objects of male desire.” And this is an underlying expression of the Post Ferguson movement today. It is gendered and it is racialized and it is class mediated. The ruthless hegemony of an instrumental logic, and the equally ruthless organization of institutional domination by a ruling class, a white male class in its essence, has meant that any dissent from within this status quo doesn’t even need demonizing for its appearance is automatically perceived as irrational and immature. This logic operates on a very deep level, at the core of psychic formation, and it extends to the very earliest social structures into which the child is thrown. The Spectacle now declares, over and over, the desire for peace, for equality, for a better environment, all the while working ceaselessly to enforce its opposite. In truth, there is a war against aesthetic discrimination today, for all aesthetic concerns are treated much like dissent, finally. As the society becomes ever more infantile, the public is encouraged to reject maturity as conformist. This is a core contradiction actually. The Ferguson protests operate at two levels, perhaps three. For the black community it is a means toward social change. For the affluent liberal class it is spectacle, and part of a manufacturing process of self and conscience, and has no real point beyond that. For the media it is an unruly child acting out.
Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero


But I want to go back to this notion of love. In the advanced West, meaning the U.S. but also much of Europe, there is a decided emphasis on individuality. Love is then an individual experience. The repressed adult is relating to a sexuality that is divorced from those impulses for gratification that the infant felt. This is an individual fetishistic and objectifying sexuality. It is sexual conquest, and it is uncoupled completely from community and Nature. The erotic is genital, and it is aggressive. Increasingly in the U.S. this is not even a gendered issue. Gratification is reified. Reich, Marcuse and others, Norman O. Brown, Ernest Becker, over fifty years ago, recognized that sexual sickness was being promoted as sexual freedom. As long as it stayed an individual skill, a scorecard, then it would not only be tolerated but marketed. The fact that a term such as *Trophy Wife* could even come into existence says a lot all by itself. The infant’s desire to control the breast, to understand the relationship with this source of nourishment, health, and pleasure was fraught with anxiety, and when that threshold seemed to occur around the age of five, the residue left to the child was mostly to do with anxiety. Desire was already alienated desire. That sexual urge became disconnected with reciprocity was no doubt the result of the avenues taken by repression. And this is what I think needs a re-thinking perhaps. Contemporary desire, for men anyway, is deeply attached to aggression, and to institutional authority. That may seem reductive or distorted or simplistic, and perhaps it is all three in some ways, but the anal sadistic spectacle described in the Torture Report suggests that I’m not totally mistaken. The torture report only solidifies what many already knew. There is a marked lack of remorse or doubt in the affluent classes with regard to the report. There is no teeth gnashing or hang wringing, or grief. There is barely suppressed satisfaction in Western power and its ability to dominate inferior races and culture.

“Nature does not know real pleasure, but only satisfaction of want. All pleasure is societal- in the unsublimated no less than
in the sublimated impulses. Pleasure originates in alienation.”

Adorno

Spencer Murphy, photography. From "Architects of War", arms trade show.

Spencer Murphy, photography. From “Architects of War”, arms trade show.

Hollywood’s application of heroism and virtue in the person of the torturer is another testament to a degraded Eros. The man or woman tied to a chair, seated, awaiting torture, or already bloody and abused, and the torturer pacing in front of this victim, is almost an iconic image now in film and TV. One could do a very interesting short film of just seconds from every such scene, strung together, as the montage of sexual sickness that is American sickness today. Such scenes are indistinguishable from scenes of copulation. What is the difference in Hollywood film? In fact, usually the torture scene is shot with more care and attention. But this is all self evident, really. The descent into cartoon level self parody is now simply tedious. In daily life, though, in the U.S. and I think the U.K., there is an increasing sense, in both the left and right, that making conversation a verbal contest, winning the argument, being right, is a new distorted form of libidinal release. On the internet, as I’ve said before, debate becomes cyber road rage. Snark is the only currency, and always, almost totally without exception, it is individually situated. It is ME ME ME ME. I am right, I am smarter than you, I am better than you (as Richard Seymour actually tweeted to me a while back) and I am the effective torturer, the prison guard to myself. This brings up several revisionist theories about the super-ego. For it is in the development of the super-ego, if you follow Freud, that this internalizing of patricide, this entire mental construct bent on effective repression, is clearly not just the pseudo psychological cop in our head. For this mental monitor is too close to the Id; that which it must restrict. Like the sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome, our super ego is constantly being seduced by the powers of the unconscious it is meant to guard. And conversely, the instinctual irrational falls for the guard, too. In one sense this is linked to the uncanny. It is all linked, of course. The figure of the artist, the exile, the scapegoat. The reason that culture, art, has a role in social change is exactly because, finally, all stories are crime stories about ourselves. I suspect a good part of the left, an old left anyway, will never quiet allow this truth. Art is linked to our real individuality, which is, of course communal. We are more individuals, more ourselves, when our desire is cooperative. When the Dionysian energy is expressed, it is not individualistic. The individual tortures. The collective cannot.
Anna Atkins. "Cyanotypes of British Algae.

Anna Atkins. “Cyanotypes of British Algae.

Throughout Greek tragedy there is recurring declaration of war as horror. In Shakespeare the horror drives individuals mad. The madness, though, speaks to the irrational in the individuals makeup. It stimulates a latent potential. The character of humanness is madness, and it is always a fight — thee fight– to stave off the looming insanity, and the insanity cannot be seen, or rather, cannot be recognized. In Shakespeare the failure of recognition runs throughout his work. In the best film noir, the narrative hangs on coincidence, on disguise, on paranoia. There is perhaps but one plot; a stranger enters.

We are strangers to ourselves, that was Freud’s message.

We are also all potentially mad. Delusional. The psychosis of the white ruling class, today, is one with the loss of deep memory. Without memory, it can be postulated, one cannot love. To unseal the sealed documents of childhood gratification, but also of rivalry and anxiety and symbolic cannibalism, must be the goal of the journey of maturation. There is, however, something very else in this discussion; and really, it is two things, but they overlap. One is the *way* we remember. The narratives we construct. And the second thing, and another area critics of Freud like to attack, and that is the Death Instinct.

Nietzsche was the thinker who most emphasized the corrupting aspect of the wrong kind of memory. What Marcuse noted, as well; that we remember duty and obligation, but not pleasure. However, this raises a question about the electronic mass culture today, where the remembering of obligation becomes, itself, eroticized. Or at least it is facsimile erotic. It is sexy to pick up the dry cleaning or get the groceries. The public is trained in a titillation of false memory, for that is partly what marketing does. I have always found the ‘recovered memories’ story, the travesty of justice and tragedy that resulted from the narrative of child molestation, the witch hunts that followed, to be of great symbolic importance. The American pre school child as victim. But also as confidant of the DA. A child adrift, unprotected, in a sea of predators was also starting to seem like an informant. There was something of a Cotton Mather feeling to this whole affair, a projection of that deep guilt of severe repression, both psychically and physically. McMartin Pre School as the cost of preventing children of earlier generations from masturbating.

Susanna Coffey

Susanna Coffey


The mass culture of today is one in which on a deeper level, the soul sickening details of the Torture Report are only the culmination of many morally bankrupt actions from white society, and a society of a particularly sadistic, sociopathic quality. For the unmooring of those previous links to Desire, however anxiety ridden, have resulted in an increasingly blank remorseless cruelty. The police seen in the Eric Garner murder, the police in LA at the Ramparts Division, those cops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; these men all share a particular nastiness, vengefulness, and spite. Going out their way to be worse than even the system encourages. It is a surplus sadism.

There is a tendency now, even in Psychoanalytic circles, to just sort of tip toe around the Oedipal structure and narrative. But I personally have a hard time not seeing it appear and re-appear throughout western culture, today. The entire idea of infant sexuality has been met with resistance by the Cotton Matheresque public. And as for absent fathers in 21st century households; this is another area of debate. For the Oedipul Theory to work, there needs to be a *Father*. If you don’t have one, you will go find one. And the process of ‘finding’ a father is likely to entail a primal Father of some sort.

Hans Memling

Hans Memling

The example of Joe Paterno, former head coach at Penn State is an example. ‘Papa Joe’ was THEE father, the supreme football coach and symbolic father. And more, Paterno was close to functioning as a primal father. The society needs, or thinks it needs, such stories of paternal strength, and the more absent the real father the more curious and distorted are the images of today’s necessary father. The metaphorical father, like Paterno, operates as part of the death instinct. Rather than destruction of the Oedipul narrative, there is a reinforcing of it when the symbolic father is one with aggression and servitude. Freud thought the father must create the prohibition of incestuous desire of the mother and inflict this on the child. Lacan thought the prohibition was directed at the Mother, not the child. As Paul Verhaeghe notes, the end of of Totem and Taboo is “…in the beginning is the deed.”The deed is parricide, and the foundation of patriarchy. I am less interested in defending Freud, or Lacan for that matter, than I am in what is truthful in these writings. And in what way one can glean something of the pathology of American society today. Freud never quite believed the Oedipal myth and kept revising it (most notably in the late writings such as Totem and Tabooand Moses and Monotheism). Freud also corrected one of the newly introduced stages to include a female Oedipal, and also a pre-Oedipul. The germane issue is though, the decisive factor that causes the confusion, is the appearance of the child. A child somatically premature, dependent on both parents, though attached to only the Mother. In both one starts with the Mother and in each we end with the Mother. The narratives of Western literature constantly reinterpret the fundamental laws of the family. It is possible the very act of writing, as historically formed, is one with patriarchy. Although it is hard to fully accept the Word is a gender issue. This is the Christian narrative as much as it is Judaic and Islamic. The Book, by the word comes the installing of authority as an organizing principle. Joan Riviere wrote; “We know too that aggressive, cruel and selfish impulses are closely bound up with pleasure and gratification, that there can be a fascination or an excitement accompanying gratification of these feelings.” Everyone in western society today must deal with this modified pleasure (Marcuse), for all competition is a fusing of aggression and satisfaction, and if not satisfaction, then guilt or remorse or frustration. To function in Capitalist society means, on some level, to master aggression. And that means dealing with the ambivalence of success. Divorce is a statement of personal failure, even if we know better. Losing your job is shameful, on some level. All disappointment stimulates aggression. And all of this is built into the character structure we have inherited. So the Oedipal story is, if nothing else, a tool for navigating a society that focuses much of its attention on the creation of conditions that frustrate, disappoint, and shame. Humiliation is the basic building block of Western culture.
Thomas Houseago

Thomas Houseago


Klein believes dependency to be a primary emotion for society, today. The infant is dependent on the breast. The Kleinian model connects the infant’s anxiety over dependence (and its triggering of aggression) with a first experience of something like *death*. Lacan and Klein both emphasize the infant’s recognition of absence…the breast is taken away. Loss and absence. Thus is born desire for what has gone missing. And need, and finally, love upon its return. Lacan though saw an additional fear; that opposite of absence, too much presence. Which, really, is about being used by this presence, and attendant loss of self determination. But love is intermixed with anxiety, for it might happen again. Truman Capote, in an early chapter of In Cold Blood, wrote of the collective anxiety and fear of that small Kansas town after the murders were made known. What if it happens again. This is why people create stories, narratives, to explain or organize these emotions. In case something happens again. And of course it always happens again. This is the motive ground for human behavior. Today, in the shadow of an official document of societal sadism, and in the outpouring of anger and grief in the aftermath of the Brown and Garner murders (and the hundred other instances of the same police lethality) there is a sense that the sickness of white America is now at its zenith. The majority of Americans, in recent polls, “approve” of torture *sometimes*. Class society enforces humiliation. One can start to feel the odd echos of the infant’s trauma in almost all details of social structure. Every single breath a servant takes he or she must control their own rage at the humiliation. For black communities under the boot heal of an inhuman and brutal occupying army — the police, and imagine the constant state of anxiety and rage. The embargo is lifted on Cuba, just in time for U.S. corporate vultures to sit waiting to pounce. Everywhere the United States has gone, only suffering follows. What is the character formation for such a people? One of the reasons that I believe art and culture matter is that without a serious expression of those things buried in us, our motives, our dream life, there is only the default setting of advertising and propaganda. Manipulation. The impulse to create is one of both making connections, metaphors, and one of discovering what cannot be seen or heard or felt. Freud saw ambition connected urethral eroticism. Abu Ghraib comes out of not just an Imperialist society of domination, it comes out of deep poison in the psyche. Ambition, guilt, rage, all the things that one must cover up. Bury. There is a reason for metaphors. To bury. Underground. Death. Every throne is a toilet seat (Norman O. Brown). The revolution is from below.
Sara Vanderbeek, photography.

Sara Vanderbeek, photography.


It is in the collective that one becomes who one is. The individual is a toxic fiction. Art is not advertising, for advertising is there to blind and deafen. It trains the customer to *not* see, not hear. Absence need not be anxiety. But anxiety is passed on, the parents feel inadequate. My father, my mother, I cannot replace them by becoming adult. I must remain a child. The Racism found in white America is buried, and it is on the surface. It is written on faces, it is reflected in people’s eyes. It is murderous and lethal. It is experienced as a deep need, a panic, a hysteria almost. Someone has to pay for my misery. I am not deserving of this failure, this lack of success, of respect. I am special. Those people, black people, they are to blame. Everyone knows they aren’t as dependable, everyone knows they are not as clean, they are impulsive, lazy, highly sexed, sweaty.

The collective is cooperation, not competition. The problem with this is that there is no corrective. Everyone gets a blue ribbon is not a solution. Competition is serious, and not competing is flaccid and stagnant. Winners are admired. Losers must be admired, too, but not for trying, but because losing is a form of suffering and suffering brings wisdom. The loser as shaman.

Reich’s paper on The Emotional Plague was mentioned in comments here recently. I will leave off with this quote from Reich:

“The individual afflicted with the emotional plague is not content to take a passive attitude–he is distinguished from the neurotic character by a more or less life-destructive social activity. His thinking is completely muddled by irrational concepts and governed almost exclusively by irrational emotions. In the neurotic character, thinking and acting do not coincide. This is not true of the plague-afflicted character. As in the genital character, his thinking is in complete agreement with his actions, but there is a significant difference, i.e., his conclusions are not the result of his thinking. They are always predetermined by his emotional affliction. In the person afflicted with the emotional plague, thinking does not, as in the rational individual, serve to help him arrive at a correct conclusion; on the contrary, it serves to confirm and rationalize a predetermined irrational conclusion. This is generally known as “prejudice,” but one fails to see that this prejudice has detrimental social effects on a large scale. It is universally disseminated and characterizes just about everything that is called “tradition.” It is intolerant, i.e., it does not countenance the rational thinking which could pull the ground out from under it. Hence, plague-afflicted thinking is not accessible to arguments. It has its own technique in its own sphere, its own “coherence,” so to speak, which impresses one as “logical.” In this way, it creates the impression of rationality, without in reality being rational.”

I Am Not I

Justin Fantl, photography. "Glacial Wash".

Justin Fantl, photography.
“Glacial Wash”.

“Every photograph which exists to perpetuate something becomes its grave and tombstone.”
Richard Hennessy

“Integrity is not only a moral condition, but a pictorial task.”
Michael Fried

“Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.”
Walter Benjamin

A discussion of abstraction in art is usually something one has with in-laws, or weird Uncles during the Holidays. It is usually a simple argument about how abstract art isn’t really art, and how anyone could do it, and how modern art in general is junk. Rarely are there serious discussions about abstraction as a history. But it’s a good discussion to have because it forces an articulation of concepts and judgments normally glossed over.

The most convenient starting point (and trust me, this leads somewhere, or at least I hope it does) is Matisse. This is sort of conventional wisdom; Matisse was sort of moving in the direction of decorative and away from impressionism. What is meant by decorative is worth a whole posting, honestly, but for now, the work Matisse did around 1906 was distinctly decorative.

Clement Greenberg wrote, in 1973,
“The word *decorative* is no longer used as freely as it once was in finding fault with works of pictorial art. Too much of the best art of our time was criticized, when first seen, for being too “decorative”. Matisse’s art in particular was criticized for that and it continued to be criticized for that. But if the word is now largely a discredited word, at least in its pejorative sense, it’s Matisse’s doing more than anyone else’s.”

John Gerrard. "Oil Stick Work" installation.

John Gerrard. “Oil Stick Work” installation.


By the 1940s, and especially in his late masterpiece The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, Matisse was not exactly even painting as it was normally concieved. The Church, which I have always loved, and on a personal level I think it incorporates something of a dream many have in youth, an eternal spring, or early summer. For it is not just the light, the white and bright blues, but it is the careless air, the nonchalance and almost insolence of his design that is so seductive — but the church was a work of decoration primarily. The nonchalance is, though, warm, the insolence sweet. It is irresistible, and of course location is irresistible as well. But, Matisse influenced Abstract Expressionism, and minimalism, both. I think Morris Louis must have felt very close the Chapelle, for example, but clearly Rothko did too, and later, Rothko would paint several triptychs for his own Church in Houston. Anyway, the decorative works of Matisse, and then also of the late Monet (a great influence on Barnett Newman) painting was inching into pure decoration, but also not. It was not just decoration, and the reasons for it not being *just* decoration are what is crucial here.
The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence . Design and painting by Henri Matisse. 1948

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence . Design and painting by Henri Matisse. 1948


If Adorno was right about society being ‘in’ the artwork, then that entails something of history. Jameson partly (largely?) defined post modernism a schizophrenic inability to separate the past from the present, and hence also an inability to posit the future, or *a* future. The schizophrenic part, of course, was Deleuze’s influence, but what was really being looked at was a loss of historical truth. A loss of history. And I think history is always both social, planetary, and personal. The societal and the personal are reflective of each other to some degree. What I choose to call the planetary is more the secret history of the world. The world of corporate culture, of mass electronic screen focused culture is one in which, I think, something regressive is taking place. I dont believe it is built into the technology, but I’m not sure. Certainly, however, the ways and the means of production, the forces of production, have stunted the audience’s ability to experience awe and wonder (for lack of better words).
Morris Louis

Morris Louis


Now, I find that this has a political dimension (or several) that is seen in how many in the West fail to process the idea of, as an example, the torture report. This is too closely linked to mass culture. And the real agony of being chained to a wall on tip toe, while having already broken bones in your foot — this does not register because in kitsch TV people can get kicked and punched and hit with a baseball bat and next scene appear only slightly bruised. One punch to the face, in reality, can break bones that never heal. A fractured supra orbital bone, or infraorbital margin, has happened to someone I know, or just a busted jaw, can damage nerves that never heal. Can have long term repercussions, such as headaches, loss of balance and other inner ear problems, nasal inflammation, and impaired vision. But one rarely sees that in TV. People are supernatural in their ability to recover. So torture has no resonance. We had Bush, a President who chuckled when Tammy Faye Tucker begged for her life, and there is Hillary Clinton, cackling at the idea of assassination. The idea of violence and torture has no resonance. So, I think this inability to experience art, and by extension nature, is additionally a loss of the mythic register of life. A failure to imagine the rapture of secrecy or the hidden. Walter Benjamin said Kafka was the last storyteller. This had to do with those levels of secrecy and hiddeness that narrative, good narrative, operates on. Again, the conditioning to expect the trivial stops the search for expanded meanings. The post modern mass culture obviously knows the word *history*, and people know what it means, but there is no sense of historical truth penetrating daily life today. People, the general modern public is addicted to the *now*. The present is emphasized because the present is when you shop, and also because the present can limit notions of future and past. I suspect the future is now more a risk assessment column in a spread sheet, its predictive, but its not a dream, Utopian, or even sensed in its relationship to the past. And this is where, in this light, that one can discuss artworks, and abstraction.
Alexander Archipenko, 1913

Alexander Archipenko, 1913


Adorno believed artworks were the unconscious writing of history. That through their detachment from the everyday, they sustained an autonomy and an isolation that resisted the mass forces of trivializing. This is why it is never easy to accommodate populism and aesthetic idealism. But as Hullot-Kenter writes; “…Adorno details the immediate object of aversion from which modern art and Schoenberg’s music withdrew. There he writes that just as abstract art was defensively motivated by its opposition to photography — the mechanical artwork — Schoenberg’s music developed in ‘antithesis to the extension of the culture industry into music’s own domain’.” As Hullot Kenter points out about Schoenberg, here was music you would never hear in an elevator. Now, it is worth noting that I don’t think its possible to discuss abstraction without also discussing photography. And I want to digress just a bit here, for I look at a lot of photography books, at a lot of portfolios, and over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that separating fine art photography from journalistic is impossible. Of course there are the far ends of each, but there is the larger meeting area where they overlap. This month Ive looked at maybe sixty photographers in some depth. Of those there are maybe, MAYBE five who are special. There were mostly new photographers. There is just something ineffable and very delicate in those five. There were good photographers I saw, professional, with great technique and knowledge and care, but that additionally rare and, I think, hidden or secret quest wasn’t there. Awoiska van der Molen has that nearly religious quality. Perhaps it is partly found more in landscape photography, I dont know. Sugimoto is my favorite photographer, who is living anyway. It is a different sort of hidden you find in Sugimoto. It is more linked to his mimetic re-looking — and that’s an odd sounding phrase and idea — but if one looks at Sugimoto’s landscapes, or seascapes, it is hard not to feel the probing eye of the photographer, but at the same time the quality of almost monastarial quiet and respect. Van der Molen, a much younger artist, is also quiet. She waits. She waits and hardly breathes and eventually things emerge from out of the dark. Jason Fantl’s color photographs of remote landscapes are surgically examining the materials, the feel the sense of space and time. For that is the history embedded in artworks. In photography there must be a sense of history, and almost always expressed by that awareness for time passing.
Simon Harsent, photography.

Simon Harsent, photography.


Simon Harsent’s book of photographs of icebergs is majestic and disquieting. The subject matter itself carries with it a foreboding and melancholy. There have been several photo essays on the arctic and icebergs, but none as good as Harsent’s. Kevin Cooley’s photos of Iceland and the arctic also carry that strange wounded beauty and it is perhaps our awareness of climate change that enhances this feeling of the temporal. Of places one naturally equates with the eternal, with time distanced from the present, but one now fragile and suddenly so impermanent. Joel Tettamnti, too, has some remarkable photographs of Greenland. But this is a particular anxiety being expressed, as climate change and industrial polluting of nature imposes an additional layer of meaning.

But there is another aspect of modern photography, and it has to do with how photography agitates that feeling in all of us of having missed something. This can be seen in the anxiety of people checking their e-mails every five minutes, of people looking around at trendy restaurants to see if anyone notable is there, too. But it is in photography in an acute way. In painting, as Richard Hennessy wrote, details do not break down. In photography they do. And here is yet another meeting point in this discussion between representational painting and abstraction. Hennessy’s remarkable essay from 1979 (Artforum, Vol.19, no.9) suggests that the allure of painting resides primarily in its touch, the fact that it is hand made. In a photograph one can compose but not construct (per Hennessy). The real issue though, raised in this essay, and which I have touched on before, is the decline in taste. That the educated classes today learn of art in the classroom. Today, more, on the laptop. The sense of scale experienced in Abstract Expressionism, for example, is lost. It is hard not to approach art as design if all you know of it is what you glean from the screen of a laptop. This problem is compounded by the ascension of advertising. The non stop production of image, photograph and film and TV. But I disagree with Hennessy on a several points, but with caution. The difficulty has to do with looking at the body of work from, say, Durer, or Goya, or Velasquez, and wonder at the impossibility of such expansiveness today. Or, even in literature, though this gets trickier. But the impossibility of tragedy today would seem a directly related topic. Now Hennessy uses the example of Rodin’s sculpture at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. There were (are?) photographs of some of the sculpture occupying the same room. The comparing and contrasting of the photos with the actual sculpture lands, finally, on the fact of the materiality of the sculpture. As Hennessy says, “It is here.” And that presence, that undeniable fact raises questions about the *not hereness* of screen culture.

Misha de Ridder, photography.

Misha de Ridder, photography.


Today, there is a sense of, indeed, schizophrenic space. Only it is, in urban areas, a militarized schizophrenia. And additionally, perhaps it is being processed increasingly in ways that mirror the autistic’s processing of place. But this also intensifies the class divisions in Western society. The access to such contemplation resides in the educated white audience. Here I will mention Irish artist John Gerrard’s Oil Stick installation. http://simonprestongallery.com/?gallery_exhibition=oil-stick-work

There are striking images in this piece, no question. But the *concept* is more than a little problematic. First off, the catalogue bothers to note that the farm worker is a ‘Mexican American’, for reasons unknown. So here again we have an elite class extracting labor, paid or not, without really addressing the implications of this contract. In any event, the labor is in the interests of extracting image which is to be shown at various galleries for an audience with time and money to view it. There is something perturbing in this. It is part of the class segragation at work again. The artist who hires interns or assistants to help with his or her project seem rarely to grasp for whom their work is being created. But more, to return to Durer or Rembrandt or whoever, there is a question of comprehensiveness in play. It is hard to imagine Durer writing out a conceptual explanation to accompany his painting or etching. As if somehow the materiality of the *thing* wasn’t enough, there was the fact that it would take *time* for the piece to be complete, and etc etc etc. Now photography is part of this question. The reason I value the photographers I value is that their work seems to approach this question from another direction. Contra Hennessy, there is something uniquely linked in the best photography to our sense of the irretrievable past. All photos suggest a temporal desire, a searching for the past, even if only momentarily past. That is what a photograph is, memento from the immediate past in a sense. Mass culture siphons off this desire to create kitsch anecdotes, vacation postcards and this has the effect of soothing the anxiety of amnesia. In this sense in the subjective is organized the nonidentity of the universal and particular (per Adorno) and it is given expression not as domination but as freedom, but this organization is what mass culture destroys, or is always working to tear down. So, all the manufactured images of mass commodity culture work at eroding the transformative potential of autonomous art. Or, in other words, the forces of capitalist production are always at work to prevent that subjective organization that authentic art creates. One of the negative influences of mass culture has been its granting permission for a fake populism to be embraced by left and right alike, for different reasons, but also for the same reason — it is simply easier.

Willem De Kooning

Willem De Kooning

Karl Lowith noted that in the 18th Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, Marx says the bourgeoise had passions without truth, and their truths without passion. There is a sense that he saw their world as one of constant repetitive borrowing and discarding, and the only development was the growth in tension that came out of each cycle of the same. *Indecision* was the defining element. I was struck this week with just far down the road of infantilizing and dullness today’s culture has traveled the last sixty years. A friend I know, a playwright, and a quite good one, wrote me to describe the process of application for this fellowship in theatre. She didn’t get it, there were a couple thousand entries. The finalists all had MFA’s, three of the four were white, all went to expensive universities and all had been workshopped at either Yale, Brown, Colombia or Harvard. Nothing of any quality has come out of this system for twenty five years. Nothing. This new professional class of artist is, like John Gerrard (who at least has, I believe, talent) looking at the world from the vantage point of their superiority. Kierkegaard saw the same culture Marx saw, but through his own Christian filter. And he clocked what he saw as Europe’s spiritual decline. Adorno’s first published work was on Kierkegaard. He wrote “…there is only an isolated subjectivity, surrounded by a dark otherness.” Another of Marx’s insights is that we are essentially acting not as ourselves, but as agents of ourselves. Everyone is manipulated or coerced by history, both collective and individual. One does something, say, pay a gas bill. That is coerced; you are tasked with the reality of the gas bill. Today, the accumulation of empty activity has grown, in fact has grown so far as to be almost the totality of waking life, and hence it has become the culture as well. If art and culture were once antagonists to social coercion, today art is the replica of social coercion. The most experimental *art* today actually IS social coercion. This is what Marina Abramovic has perfected as her brand. Of course there are artists making great work, and experimenting, but they largely remain on the margins. I don’t think ever before has there been such a clear divide between commercial entertainments, regardless if labeled as something else, and serious work.

Adorno in his early writing on Kierkegaard, but also again at the end of his life in his lecture notes, emphasized that these social necessities are in a sense what forms the borders or boundaries of what is called the ‘individual’. We are shaped, deep in our psyche, by the trauma of entering the world, and by this coercive socialization process. So, that *indecision* Marx noted was echoed in “Either/Or”. The spiritual decline was, in crude terms, exemplified by a gulf between ourselves as agents of ourselves, and ourselves as a subjectivity hidden and even secret.

Giorgio di Noto, photography/video. From Tunesia 2011, "The Arab Revolt".

Giorgio di Noto, photography/video. From Tunesia 2011, “The Arab Revolt”.


“The sphere of psychology in which we imagine that we are ourselves is also the sphere in which in a certain, obscure sense we are furthest from being ourselves. This is because we are performed by that being-for-others to the very core of our being.”
Adorno
Lecture 8, History and Freedom, 1964

The coercion of socialization, that performing of the role of yourself, which is necessitated by material conditions, is what captures the last corner of autonomous existence in the human. It is also the historical process at work. And a forgetting of history, a denial of this coercion, eliminates any chance for transformative consciousness. Put another way, today, mass culture, the hegemony of giant corporate electronic screen harvesting of attention is the last incursion of the last assault on being human, or more precisely, on the human capacity to mature into adulthood, and establish the preconditions for genuine awareness, of spiritual growth. Everything in this assault is advertised for its humaness, as help, and asks for conciliatory submission in the individual. The individual as audience. Mass audience. One is instructed to see this role as mass audience as actually the zenith of individuality — the public is told that this is what they ‘want’. So the last remaining corner of old growth consciousness is clear cut. And this is, honestly, for me, what the mass public psyche feels like today. The resistance to this is coming from those most exploited by these forces. And there is much to feel encouraged about in the protests this week coming from both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murders. But nobody escapes this psychic intrusion.

Reich’s term *emotional plague* (of which I was reminded in the last comment thread) is amazingly pertinent today. I knew an old Reichian, someone who had studied with a man who was an early student of Reichs’. I find myself referring back to our discussions probably more than anyone else in my life that I can remember. And often the idea of sexual fascism came up, of the emotional plague. Americans today are astoundingly angry. And this is part of what one can track in Hollywood film and TV. It is a nastiness, a pettiness, a selfish snarky bitter resentment that surfaces under guise of one abstraction or another. Adorno, in those great late lectures in 1964 and 65, writing about the colonizing of consciousness, said: “We are not dealing with arbitrary subjective processes that can be avoided as long as you have a modicum of insight, self confidence and critical spirit. A necessity rules here and you can count yourself lucky if you can keep your head above water long enough to recognize it and give it a name. But no none should imagine that he is immune to it or that a fortunate intellectual disposition can make him independent of such mechanisms.”

Kano Sansetu. Early 17th century, painted screens.

Kano Sansetu. Early 17th century, painted screens.


Adorno was speaking to his University students. I always read his lectures and am surprised at the enormous affection he has for these students, and warmth, and it so flies in the face of the popular conception of him. But then of course this is the time of the emotional plague. Adorno added in that lecture, as an afterthought to his class, for his topic was not social psychology, that if humans today were to be able to really grasp the extent to which they are imprinted by the Universal (the untruth that is the whole) they would likely not be able to bear it. Their self esteem and confidence being so severely crushed, would not be resilient enough to recover.

Today, the striving for profit among the ownership class, and the striving for survival among the working poor, yield the deformities of character Reich spoke of, and really that Freud wrote of as well. The peculiarity of 21st bourgeois character formation resides, I think, in this compulsion to both be meaningful and important historically — this deep identification with the Universal — and the refusal to grow up. The adult children of the West are, today, increasingly strident, hysterical, bitter, maladaptive to any procedure that includes cooperation and sharing. The infantile selfishness of American society is making it the most unpleasant place to live perhaps in the world. And that is not really an exaggeration.

Humberto Rivas, photography. 'Barcelona 1980'.

Humberto Rivas, photography. ‘Barcelona 1980′.


The coddled privilege of white people is true enough, but this same educated class suffers the deepest psychological impairments amid their relative comfort. This is what sublimation really entails, the sacrifice of a certain inwardness. Today, there has perhaps never been so many echos, the constant reiteration of some trope, some meme, some assumption or position that is granted acceptance because of clever advertising or propaganda. I cannot believe in the history of the world that any society has so had it’s citizens parrot each other to this degree. Once something is in the cycle, it must be iterated several billion times, in cyber space, at home, in public, anywhere until the perfect crystalized but empty symbol remains. But to bring this back to the history of abstraction.

That mass public taste today tends toward the infantile, the question of abstraction might seem beside the point. And perhaps in one way it is. The infantilized U.S. viewer, or audience, gravitates toward the cuddly, the fluffy, the inane. Telly Tubby art in a sense. Jeff Koons is more or less an example of this. In narrative, the current abysmal “Showtime” series The Affair (now predictably nominated for awards)is writing that, in its sentimentality and distance from reality, serves as a teddy bear might to a child. Comforting, real but not real. One holds it close and sees in it something wonderful about my family and friends, or in the case of The Affair, and not the teddy bear, about my class; it is quintessentially middle brow, but worse, it is this pretend gravitas that is, in reality, just the talismanic teddy bear of white superiority. Abstraction does have a history, and it is in that historical self awareness, that is, the artworks self awareness (in a sense) that the working out of the ultimate implications of what came before take place. Another way to say this, to look at Matisse is to examine the implications of his technique and touch. Of course it is easy to see why Matisse meant so much to DeKooning. And then why Monet meant so much to Newman. It is not simply technique though, it is social history too. The world is reconstructed emotionally by the artists touch. For Ruskin, a history of abstraction might be hard to imagine. For John Berger it might be far easier. And the same for Robert Hughes, and Donald Kuspit. If Arshile Gorky was working out his childhood exile he was doing it by way of Kandinsky. Still, for all the first generation Ab Ex painters there was certainly an awareness of a history of abstraction. And part of that was to reduce or eliminate references, quotes. I never believed this meant that so called ‘action painting’ was ever about action, OR surface. But it was about the renewal of the spiritual. By the time of the Chapelle, Matisse was no longer searching for technical answers, he was a sort of Zen priest who surveys the world, acceptingly, resignedly, but always sensually. Matisse was among the last of the genuinely unrepressed artists of the century. At least in his work. Summer ended, I think, at Vence.

Alia Malley, photography. 'Los Angeles'.

Alia Malley, photography. ‘Los Angeles’.


The cultural climate today is one that would rather laugh at the Whitney Biennial winners than to experience them. Of course, the Whitney winners are only there to BE sneered at. This isn’t serious work, this is marketing. It is the extraction of attention from a public increasingly hostile to culture and art in general. Without mock controversy there is fuck all to say about the crap usually put up at Whitney Biennial. If public opinion is not ridiculing the work, the Biennial has failed miserably. Those fellowships in theatre, as rigged as the Ferguson Grand Jury, that parse out monies to elite students at rich universities, working with *star* professors of theatre, are no different from any corrupt illegitimate institution. But the idea of Abstraction in painting is not the removal of a story, it is the expansion of it. The very existence of work that defies conventional historical quotes, or that conveniently tells the viewer the *concept* behind the work, is work whose lack of purpose is actually its autonomous unreconciled tension, the non identical Universal and particular. It is also work, at its best, that is a corrective to the emotional plague. It is the anti Puritan relfex.

A final note here. I wrote a piece that will appear at Truthout soon. It was about urban space, freeways, and in particular about Los Angeles freeways. This in light of the protests, and it touched on class divisions marked by this traffic arteries. As I was researching it I came across some photos by Alia Malley. I recognized immediately that they were of LA. I even knew pretty close where in LA. But what I liked was that this was an El Lay that I know, and its an LA that is never seen in Hollywood film or TV. It is the evocative spaces of the far east of the county, Irwindale to Fontana, and Duarte and beyond. These are the empty industrial spaces of a very neglected lumpen Los Angeles. I was born in St Joseph’s hospital in Burbank. I grew up in Los Angeles, in Hollywood actually. The space of Los Angeles, the hills, the deserts, the freeways are ingrained in my vision, and now being away, in the near arctic Norway, it is very powerful to see and so instantly access that imprint on me that are these images.

Alia Malley, photography. 'Los Angeles'.

Alia Malley, photography. ‘Los Angeles’.


We never forget the space of our birth. Of childhood. It always is retained in a secret location in our memory, sometimes not accessible even to ourselves. But this is always a conflicted memory trace, for these memories also are part of the mechanism that chains us to this unsolvable unreconciled idea of life, and is closely attached to mimesis. In one sense, it is directly linked. For *I* am *that*. The curve of those hills, right there. This is, however, an identification premised on a reductive psychology. But this is that coercion, for I am most myself in those photos, and I am also least myself. I am become most vulnerable at this moment to the ideology that created this entire model of experience. The past is what is always being broken with, if you read art critics and historians. What they mean usually is this is art that is NOT breaking with the past. For if it were, we would not be calling it art. The nostalgia for home is a profound myth for the 20th century, and the 21st. Forced migration, the exile, those who never return home. There is no more horrific image in contemporary life than Israeli settlers wantonly cutting down Palestinian olive trees. This they understood, the occupier knows this is how to destroy memory. The looting of the Baghdad museum was another example of removing even the possibility for memory, and then, logically, for culture. In the United States today, there is little memory. There is jingoism and the somnambulant screen culture of a constant now. The somnambulant texting as he sleep walks, while the state continues its practices of waterboarding and rectal feeding. Genuine art is a refuge (Adorno) of mimesis, and this refuge has unmistakable monastarial connotations, but this is almost an inner symbolic enactment (or vice versa) of some Thai and Japanese monasteries in which monks sat in rows facing each other, or sat in rows with their backs to the ‘other’. Either/Or.
Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.

Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.


Abstract art is not a Rorschach test. Nor gestalt. And this touches on the ways in which the artist works out his own logic of mimesis. Until mass culture today is eventually stripped down to allow a painstaking excavation of the ideology of Empire.

I find in U.S. society today a strange paradox as it relates to both culture and politics. The snide infantile narcissistic petulance co-exists with a sort of pseudo positivist need to agree, a compulsion for agreement. The result is this parroting of cliched agreement undercut with an equally hysterical need to be special, to hold special opinions, to own these opinions like one owns a new Mercedes or new Nike trainers. The approach to artworks tilts far toward a positioning of agreement, and this feels like the blowback of the unreconciled. Nobody escapes, but it would be a sign of transformative change to hear critical ideas that were not about ‘winning’ or owning. That were more about simply a kind of distrust. Western society needs far more distrust in the same way it needs a new ability to listen. The white population certainly needs to listen. To shut up, and listen to people of color, and to the poor. Listen to those that the media label losers. Just be quiet and listen. Distrust winning in all forms, but mostly, just listen.

Monochrome

"Gulf Shore Louisiana, 2007" Josef Hoflehner, photography.

“Gulf Shore Louisiana, 2007″ Josef Hoflehner, photography.

“When a couple of local people asked us where we were staying that evening we replied that we would just pull our car next to a park and catch some sleep. Horrified, our new friends told us bluntly that “The Los Angeles Police (LAPD) will pull you out of your car, kick the shit out of you and then arrest you.”
This grim assessment of the LAPD was corroborated in the wake of the 1992 LA riots by a local fifth-grade teacher who told historian Mike Davis that: “In the area where I work, the LAPD is a sadistic occupying army.”

Paul Ortiz,
The Anatomy of a Rebellion (Solidarity)

“…the social contract establishes corporate virtue as an asylum for individual sin, making a moral society out of immoral men; men whose natural inclination, according to Hobbes and Freud, is murder.”
Norman O. Brown

I was thinking about the artists I know personally. In this week of Grand Juries expressly vindicating, almost as a matter of formal announcement, a white supremacist vision for America. The artists I know range from officially non commercially successful, to moderately successful, to famous. I know painters and writers and theatre artists and even a dancer. Somehow, in this week in which black America has begun to find their collective voice and with them the poor in general, and the remaining few sane. But I don’t know if I see enough artists participating, but perhaps its early. Very few white people see this narrative for what it is; a white epic. This is the Epic story of America; slave trader, plantation owner, segregated and hierarchical. Black folk sat over there, white man sat here. There was always racist police in the U.S. In fact, they’re impossible to separate. Police=Racist. There is no police force, as we know it, if there were not clear racial hierarchies to enforce. No police without property, white people property, to protect. No better illustration of this than post Katrina New Orleans. What did the police do? Did they bring water to the dehydrated stuck on rooftops? No, they hurried to secure property from looting. American police have always done the same, and you can look at the LA/Watts riots (uprising or rebellion if you prefer — though I’m happy with the word RIOT…I have no bad associations with that word) of 1965. There was the Fred Hampton murder by Chicago police, and there was those cops beating on Rodney King, or there was Danzinger Bridge, or there were the ‘Rough Riders’ in Oakland in the 90s, and later Oscar Grant. There was Kimani Gray, and Assata Shakur, and there was Hurricane Carter, and going back to 1919, what James Weldon Johnson called *the red summer*, in which twenty cities had “race riots”; culminating in the summer conflict in Chicago. Worth noting that Irish immigrants were later named instigators for a good deal of the violence against blacks, and especially the Hamburg Athletic Club, among whose members was 17 year old future mayor Richard Daley. The narrative though, really, changed very little whether the city was Charleston, or Chicago, Oakland or St. Louis, Tulsa or Knoxville. The cosmetic decorations might change, but the storyline never varies.

Rosewood, Florida 1923, 'The Rosewood Massacre'

Rosewood, Florida 1923, ‘The Rosewood Massacre’

Today the mainstream media manufactures varieties of white supremacist stories to flatter white consumers. It provides ample ideological support for the idea that white’s are not the aggressors in race conflicts, that white’s need to help more, and donate more, and the proof of progress is in the White House, but never do they see that this a story of a lethal white society with it’s boot heal on the black population.

But this is also all rather obvious. And I mean, look, if this ISN’T obvious today, right now, then it is no doubt too late to learn. Eric Garner, a man who was a threat to nobody. On tape. Choked to death. By a white cop. How hard is it to process this storyline? Grand Jury doesn’t indict. So, given the obvious, I want to perhaps look at what I take to be a bit less obvious, and to do so is to delve into the ways in which I believe culture and art matter. Why they are socially radicalizing, potentially.

Fred Wilson. "Cabinetmaking" 1992.

Fred Wilson. “Cabinetmaking” 1992.


But let me return to the artists I know personally. Those I know who had integrity, and were driven by a seriousness about art, have suffered enormously. Quite literally most are insane. At least they are highly dysfunctional today. And that is because they have not been recognized. The degree to which radical voices are made invisible is extraordinary. Not being seen, literally, makes people crazy. It is an unforgiving culture for those in the arts if they have not gained significant recognition by the age of forty. And to be granted that recognition costs one his or her soul. And this raises questions about how society sees art and those who make art. There has been a tendency that runs alongside the commodification of culture and that is the professionalizing of art, and the less talked about hobby-fication of art. If you don’t make it, in art or anywhere else in this predatory system, and you create things, the psychological safeguard mechanism is to treat it as a hobby. George Bush paints, now. How many actors (movie stars) ended their days as hobby painters? Many many many. But these were celebrities: and they were dabbling, staying *creative*. If you were an auto mechanic and decided at age fifty to paint, you might be seen as troubled and your wife or husband might show real fear. And if you painted weird abstract art or made minimalist sculpture, you would be seen as in need of an intervention.

If you painted fluffy dogs, or landscapes…well, ok, still strange, but not dire. The point is that the second half of the 20th century has turned the very idea of an artist into a cliche.

Theordoros Stamos

Theordoros Stamos

The culture of the West, primarily in the U.S. and western Europe, the idea of a commitment to art, irrespective of financial success, is as obsolete as making buggy whips. Or learning to repair typewriters. Today you develop a brand. But this is obvious in a sense, and what is far less obvious is what has replaced the hole in society where artists used to be? The question is not where art used to be, for we still have art. But I am less sure we still have artists. Marx said there is a progressive and regressive side to everything. The regressive aspect to artists resides in the cult of genius, the petulance and primma dona like narcissism. This rise in the idea of a single creative genius is a large topic, but more or less it coincided with the development of the bourgeois burgher, the great businessman, who could buy a portrait, and in this was born today’s idea of individuality. The tortured genius, alone, driven in a search for revelation was the cultural myth applied to the arts. The erosion of this was only in the sense that revelation was abandoned and replaced with brand. What was lost was the sense of radicalism itself, and of conscience. For artists at their best entail a sense, or carry a sense of conscience along with them. Beethoven, Goya, Melville, Tolstoy, or Paul Celan, or even Shakespeare. The work then is unable to separate itself from the material world around it. The culture was defined by this expression, an expression that was oppositional. Even within the status quo, a certain understanding existed, often betrayed, but still, an understanding that the artist was apt to bite the hand that fed it. Material reality was confronted by the historical weight of the artist, and artwork. As Adorno said, “Their enchantment is disenchantment”.The artwork entailed a double character.

“It was plausible that socially progressive critics should have accused the program of *l’art pour l;art*, which has often been in league with political reaction, of promoting a fetish with the concept of a pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork.”
Adorno

Jean Antoine Watteau, "The Blunder", 1716.

Jean Antoine Watteau, “The Blunder”, 1716.


Artworks, Adorno goes on, posit something spiritual as being independent of the material conditions of production. The artist then, carries with him or herself a sense of guilt and failure, and it is this guilt of being a fetish that is shared by the audience, or viewer, for it is shared by everyone in a society of untruth — and this reaches toward the necessity of fetishes. For in this recognition of guilt, of failure, the artwork (and artist) stand in a dynamic tension with exchange value. Marx noted the fact that Milton’s poems made him little or no money, and to this could be added Moby Dick, a book so vilified by critics and readers that Melville considered never writing again. These works had no market value. No socially useful labor. Art was the hedge against utility, and rationalization.

This is one of the densest sections of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. And there is a crucial sentence here that I want to quote:

“Artworks that want to divest themselves of fetishism by real and extremely dubious political commitment regularly enmesh themselves in false consciousness as the result of inevitable and vainly praised simplification. In the shortsighted praxis to which they blindly subscribe, their own blindness is prolonged.”

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), FX. Kurt Sutter creator.

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), FX. Kurt Sutter creator.


This relates to, as Adorno says, the division of labor. The false perception that fetishism is only objectivation. In other words, the societal reception to the artwork is secondary to production of the artwork — interpretation or decipherment of the artwork is firstly an understanding of production, not the hierarchical assessment of its effects, message, or socially agreed upon meaning or appearance. Art is always mediated. If this is looked at in flash forward sixty years (since Adorno wrote) the mediation is complete now, and on a socially total scale. Adorno said that ‘every authentic artwork’ was revolutionary, at least internally. It is a schematic for internal change. Today, the tendency toward integration, by means of this absolute mediation, results in the erosion of what is radical in the artwork. Popularity can kill even the greatest work, and trivialize the artist.

“In the administered world neutralization is universal.”
Adorno

Laurenz Berges, photography.

Laurenz Berges, photography.


Neutralization emphasizes again the double character of art. The fact that abstract art is hung in the lobbies of multinational oil company headquarters suggests that what is being tacitly praised by Exxon or Mobil is the titillation of oppositional work which provides the owner with a certain access to that unconscious danger they so steadfastly repress. This is the conflicted area of art’s social role, again. Art is always going to be bad art if it’s intention is to form opinion (per Adorno). The society of domination loves nothing better than to bestow qualities of beauty and nobility upon the very people they terrorize and oppress.

“Real denunciation is probably only a capacity of form, which is overlooked by a social aesthetic that believes in themes.”
Adorno

This truth suggests the pointlessness of agit prop and protest art. It is destined for a bourgeois identification, but this fact is not unique to it, for the false consciousness of all overtly political art is shared by the reception one finds in ironic appreciation of George Bush’s fluffy dogs. There is today, it seems to me, a de facto partiality to all mimetic process. By which I mean, if we take narrative, in fiction, or in film or T.V., the ascension of genre, its spread to almost all corners of human discourse, has assaulted the previously assumed goal of coherence and completion. This partiality or fragmented expression encloses or contains the primary contradictions of Capital. This is why the critique that dismisses, for example, everything that contains violence as harmful, is itself hewing too closely to Puritanical censorship. This is not to say that the wholesale selling of non-stop violence is not a direct goal of a state bent on normalizing the violence it inflicts on its own population, or what the ruling class sees as a surplus population, but that this sort of complaint is simply far too simplistic, and is in formal agreement with the bourgeois structure of policing ideas.

Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya


Take for example the TV series Sons of Anarchy. It is easy to see the profligate excess in depictions of violence and sadism, to see its sexism and florid machismo. All this is true and undeniable. But, this is also perhaps the single show I can think of in which the lumpen class, the lowest rung of the working class in America, is honestly depicted. Is this is an accurate representation of biker gangs? Of course not. But after I believe season two, the addition of Kem Nunn as executive producer, and part time writer, signaled a sea change in the sensibility of the narratives and it did become, partially, an honest representation of minimum wage life. This became a show in which everyone, every single character (save the biker gang) was marked by the work they *have* to do, by the soul deadening monotony of wage slavery. The bikers themselves are the only characters (conspicuously) who flaunt their refusal to take day jobs. That is their perceived heroism in a sense. And they pay the societal price for it. This is a landscape of cheap apartments, cheaper bars, garages, discount furniture stores, and strip malls — all are dismal, suffocating and deteriorating. The racial prejudice is presented as self evident, as it is in society. Everyone is sacrificed because nobody has a choice. A world in which routine custody or prison terms is expected, an incorporated part of the system in which the poor must live. Corruption is systemic, and honor is carved out of the debris that is all that remains for the poor. Truck drivers, waitresses, porn actors and transgender hustlers are allowed moments of actual dignity. Nowhere else is class presented quite so clearly in mainstream product. There is also (and I’m sure this is Nunn’s influence) a tragic resignation to the entire arc of the show. It is surprisingly unsentimental. This is a comic book Sophocles in a sense. Lurid, excessive, and exhibitionistic, yes. But one should not discount the genuine awareness displayed on the subject of working class suffering. Nowhere does anyone *win* anything not utterly transient. I suspect those who grew up in this world, or on the edges of it, anyone who can spent time in prison or jail, will not, at least privately, find something resonant in the stories.
The Servant (1963). Joseph Losey, dr.

The Servant (1963). Joseph Losey, dr.


The point is that this is not the rabid fascistic political fantasy of Madame Secratary or States of Affair, or Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom. The content is here encloses a social truth, one in which there is no universalizing totalism, no generic bromides save perhaps the virtue of honor, however disfigured. This culture of scientific classification and ironic regressivness, a strange fragmenting of genre takes place in which the residue of all ‘Everyman Plays’ is being, perhaps even unintentionally, worked out. Trauerspiels on Harleys.

Now, this is a question of mediation. For the processes of neutralization that take place are today nearly total. If I had to select a film in the last three or four years that I think most highly of, it would be, probably, Mister John. And here it is important to discern the register in which the viewer is mimetically engaged with a film such as this, and the way in which one can tweeze apart something rare but diminished in Sons of Anarchy. It is a question of navigating the ineffabile and of stepping back from a bourgeois insistence on coherence on the part of the audience. Adorno, again, says in art ideology and truth cannot be so easily distinguished from each other. Today, even within ideology can be found grains of genuine negation. Mister John is so masterful in form, in execution, that mimesis is foregrounded and Utopian promise, even if necessarily broken eventually, is there as aesthetic awakening. In the FX television series, this is not so. One clings to an appreciation of something amid the larger fraud. It is a memory trace, a recognition of a contour that reminds us of something lost, but it also can only do this by an aesthetic action that negates from within the form. And this is discovered in the lobby of Exxon, and to what degree artworks survive that lobby and the implications of this survival. But this form, a corporate produced mainstream TV show, is now of such monumental hegemonic totalizing power that it remains an open question how diminished might be even these few grains.

Jean Antoine Watteau

Jean Antoine Watteau


Brian O’Connor in his essay on Adorno and epistemology says; “…the criterion can be adjusted if it seems no longer compatabile with the object” Experience contains a moment of nonidentical intimation of the specificity of the object. Or, a non-conceptual moment. This is really the place where one starts to talk about the spiritual in art. But it is always linked to a physical material concrete object. For without that concreteness, there is only new age mush. There is only conceptual games of intellect. And that is always reactionary. And this leads into why artists like David Lynch are so tiresome. The production of effects (the *weird* effect in his case) is regressive if not linked to the material world, and I think, by extension to history. Subjectivity is not a receptacle for data. It also does not just invent the world. The individual is making sense of the world and in that way is shaping some part of this experience of the object. The relevant aspect of this for aesthetics is linked up with ideology, and of course with mediation by a society of domination. The vast never ending 24 hour a day onslaught of image and narrative manufactured by a very few generators of information, has raised questions, as stated above, about how diminished cultural life has become. Society is *in* artworks and as such, today, is part of the apparatus of mystification. The shape of the artwork, internally, is reliant, most of time and maybe all of the time to the society in which it is produced. In other words, everything is dependent to some degree on the system of domination. And there is no escape. Its only which avenue one wants to travel. Or which is imposed at any particular moment. In art, in that which aspires in some fashion to negate the status quo, the forces of production are separated in a fashion from their previous role in domination. This becomes about how to unravel the reified commodity artwork, and to what extend obedience is understood, for everything in the marketplace, even if not intended for it, is in service to those who hold power. If the CIA tried to use Abstract Expressionism, it probably failed, but not entirely. Anti commercial art is often more compromised than that which accepts partial mediation (everything, again, is mediated) because (per Adorno) the antithesis is abstract and facile. In a Lynch, there is only the decorative fatuity of a valentine to social domination. But in the same way, agit prop or overtly radically political art is often betrayed by the philistinism of its form.

The very idea of beauty is now so threadbare and compromised that it exists only as Hallmark Greeting card kitsch. And here enters the comforting notion of irony. That velvet painting of Elvis is ironically amusing, maybe even by some pirouettes of logic subversive, but it’s also still a velvet painting of Elvis.

Rafal Milach, photography. "Black Sea".

Rafal Milach, photography. “Black Sea”.


Today, the installation or site specific art project, or conceptual (sic) project is a burlesque of sovereignty — for what it is selling is only a pre-shaped reception, complete with free extra attitude thrown in. The very definition of vulgarity is the artist’s insistence on novelty and originality. It is here, too, that genre has arrived in a transformed role. For genre now includes varieties of shopping experience, of marketing, and of its role in relationship to the hegemonic structures that grant visibility to mass product. The affirming of bad taste by mass product, the creation of permission to luxuriate in bad taste is now a stalwart marketing strategy.

The erasure of distance between high and low art has left genre to fill into void. There is really nothing regressive in seeing Shakespeare as a sit com. Not inherently. Not today. The problem is that this usually entails adapting the presentation of Shakespeare to a tradition of formula kitsch, and thereby validating the oppressive state of the audience. So the question of Sons of Anarchy revolves around whether the honesty found in a depiction of working class poverty and suffering is not simply reinforcing an acceptance of this suffering by layering it over with a mock heroism. I suspect this is certainly the case with any number of recent Hollywood films featuring celebrity movie stars slumming it as lumpen characters in cartoon versions of daily oppression. Where once the clown and servant (Losey’s film version of Pinter’s script for The Servant comes to mind) held a place as figures of liberation, today they are simply clowns and servants (Downton Abby). The sentimentality incrusted on comedic or romantic romps featuring Pygmalion like prostitutes or homeless men is the extreme bad faith of this dynamic. Part of this is the erasing of history in such characters. The centuries of sevitude and humiliation that is wiped away by the smile of a rich CEO (Prince) who promises a happy ever after future. In Shakespeare the nobility and royality are aware of there complicity, as are the soldiers or sheriffs in Cormac McCarthy, or Faulkner, or in the criminals of so many film noirs from the 40s. Today’s mass audience, predominately white and educated and reactionary, for film and TV and theatre is one in which contradiction is acute. They survey their cultural market shelf in search of the most flattering forms of titillation, or at least the most normalizing narrative reinforcing their privilege. The catastrophe of Capitalism can only be expressed in a form that echos that catastrophe in form, not in a message that says ‘capitalism is catastrophic’ while humming along in seamless ease. The liberal educated audience today is strikingly reactionary in fact.

Gordon Parks, photography. 1956

Gordon Parks, photography. 1956


The left seems more and more intent on self branding Puritanism, solidifying their hold of micro positions of cool. The buzz kill asceticism of many leftists is only thinly veiled authoritarianism. Attacking Russel Brand for who he dates, or for his good looks or something, rather than seriously examining the fact that his radicalism, however mediated (and god knows its mediated in the extreme) has reached tens of thousands more than those tiresome Trotskyists hawking their tiresome newspapers on street corners. Maybe working with a voice that reaches so many is just common sense. Noam Chomsky has a large stock portfolio, and Naomi Klein is reasonably affluent. This is not a race to the bottom.

So, there is then, running alongside this discussion the recent Ferguson protests, and now Eric Garner. And it is here that in the form of a black community pushed to the absolute brink of endurance, that serious voices of change can be found. For the sense of increasing blindness, or impaired vision, in the white society today, is seen reflected back at them by mainstream cultural product. The overwhelming mono-culture represented not just in news, but in entertainments and art (sic) has a mirror expression in the Grand Jury decisions, absolutely foreordained, in the cases of Michael Brown, and perhaps even more in Eric Garner. The absence of a narrative that actually existed on film in the case of Garner is suggestive of the absence of heterogeneity in all mainstream culture. Garner is invisible except as mannequin/plot point in the never ending saga of white surpremacy. The new story is the same story only told in ever flatter language, in a depthless arid prose and performed by ever more wooden voices; the voices of the both the kindergarten teacher and maitre’d. The district attorney speaking to the assumed superiority of the white audience, a gentlemen’s club wink, a self conscious exaggerated performance of patience at having to endure the bad manners of the crowd, voices of white guidance, and example. For even in the snide ironic narcissism of Lena Dunham or Bill Maher is found the barely hidden stern school marm that will punish after class. All entertainment now is white jingoism, but couched in a narrative sculpted from jailers bent on a bed count once curfew is called. This is entertainment 99% of the time today. And this saturation of sameness is akin today to mental illness. It is also self loathing. Perhaps one reason societies of relative sanity value culture is that atrophied imagination defaults to brutality.

Gaki Zoshi, Scroll of The Hungry Ghosts. Late 12th century. (detail) 日本語: 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし)

Gaki Zoshi, Scroll of The Hungry Ghosts. Late 12th century. (detail) 日本語: 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし)


And in a sense this leads me back to my thoughts about the artists I know. But also, two painters I somehow feel worth mentioning here. One was Theodoros Stamos. One of the younger Abstract Expressionists, Stamos had worked odd jobs, florist, hat blocker, and while studying on scholarship at the American Artists School, he visited Steiglitz’ American Place Gallary. This was a seminal moment for Stamos, as was meeting Ashile Gorky when Gorky came into a frame shop at which Stamos was working. Stamos was from a Greek born family, but was himself born in New York. He gravitated to the immigrant painters of the New York School, and his work was keenly influenced by Gorky and Still, as well as by Baziotes. Stamos traveled most of his life. He was a restless inquisitive man, and later became executor for his friend Mark Rothko’s estate. In between travels he taught for a couple years at Black Mountain College. The involvement with the Rothko estate was to doom his career and reputation, rather unfairly in retrospect. The details are well documented (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-grant/theodoros-stamos_b_1327696.html) and the shadow that hung over Stamos work never allowed him the recognition he no doubt deserved.
Stamos was a minor painter in that movement, but the best of the lesser artists to be sure (only Marca Relli looks as good). Looking at his work now, in comparison to Baziotes or Brooks or Jimmy Ernst, there is a tensile strength lacking in the others, as well as the influences of Asian aesthetics, a connection he cultivated, that provide something enigmatic. Never a great colorist, it was more in the sense of distance he provided the viewer, suggested to the viewer, the idea of something suppressed or restrained, something that eventually had to be relieved, but was out of view. He died dishonored in 1997. The reason to mention Stamos here is that his itinerant sensibility, his carelessness about commercial return, probably gave his late work a sense of fatalism that is very much worth revisiting. It is odd perhaps to link him to Jean Antoine Watteau, but I’ve always sort of loved Watteau, and found in him a similar fatalism. To love Watteau means to indulge in a sort of guilty pleasure. His quick brush strokes, his lack of formal gifts are compensated for by a wanton louche eroticism. It is always late summer in Watteau, at least for me. It is always afternoon, even when it’s not. Watteau died young at age 36. He was always frail and sickly, according to accounts, and maybe that is what gives his paintings such poignance. He is the forerunner for Fragonard, and probably others, at least in his creation of Rococo summer idylls, what has been labeled ‘fête galante’. The son of a roofer in the provinces, he rose to some renown at the Regency of the duc d’Orléans, in Paris society. But he was an outsider there, a thin somewhat timid man who learned to paint by being employed to paint copies of famous works by the likes of Rubens, to be sold to tourists. Watteau’s world is bittersweet and also fatalistic. Those summers are seductive but never seem realized somehow. They elicit regret in the viewer, a kind of melancholic nostalgia. It is in the work of such artists that one hears those usually unheard voices of history. They are hushed, perhaps, but not mute. Like Stamos, there was the promise of much more that was never realized. But to reach the level of promise is no small thing.
Theodoros Stamos

Theodoros Stamos


I find with the writers and painters I know, the theatre artists, that it is very hard to see oneself, after a certain age, as an artist. In this society, the parameters for acceptable success are very narrow. One is allowed to be an auto mechanic, one can do that for one’s entire life and be stamped as unimportant, but not deranged or dangerous. In the U.S. there is even a counterfeit kitsch heroism in certain proletarian jobs. Never actual dignity, for mostly the ruling class has a palpable loathing for the poor.

Many artists I know stop their creative work. They stop writing, stop painting, or they do it privately. The situating of an artwork today includes certain presumptions, certain pre-conditions. One is to have official sanction. A gallery or a residency at a theatre, or regular publications. Without that, your work cannot be seen even when it is seen.

Artworks are not the repository of the creator’s feelings or ideas, they are too altered by what Adorno called “the autonomous nexus of the artwork”. The mimetic process is itself creative in a sense, and it is in this meeting place that the viewer or listener or audience is allowed to lose his or her or their identity. Perhaps this is also, partly, what artists do in creating something. That mimetic process is an intrusive moment of objectivity. For this is the world with the screens pulled away, it is something that approaches an instant of non-mediation. One cannot escape, as an artist, the trauma of the social. In a society today, in the U.S. certainly, in which state authority is now wantonly fascistic, and stunningly sadistic, the possibility of *light* entertainment is feeling increasingly depraved. And this moral stain is not easily laundered, and witness the rise in pitch coming from the giant corporate manufacturers of pop culture. It is a kind of shrieking, that is coupled to a form so eroded and emotionally oxidized, that no amount of bought attention or marketing can make it digestible. Only the elite white class, a certain affluent ownership class now even pretends to normalcy. There is an increased awareness, even if the most prostituted of artists or audience that the fictions of the state are unreal. But hence the doubling down on these fictions. In that three a.m. insomniac gaze at the ceiling the voices of unrest are being heard, however. The last words of Eric Garner are heard. I cant breathe.

Thanksgiving 2014

Jean Honore Fragonard. "Aurora" 1755.

Jean Honore Fragonard.
“Aurora” 1755.

“A logic of displacement (or obsolescence) is conjoined with a broadening and diversifying of the processes and flows to which an individual becomes effectively linked. Any apparent technological novelty is also a qualitative dilation of one’s accommodation to and dependence on 24/7 routines; it is also part of an expansion in the number of points at which an individual is made into an application of new control systems and enterprises.”
Jonathan Crary

“Very early in my advertising career, it became clear to me that I was being paid to stop you from doing or thinking whatever else you might want to do or think, and instead get you to focus on the piece of information that was of interest to my client. All advertising is an attempt by one party to dominate the other.”
Jerry Mander

“Blondel describes cases of insanity where the patients seem incomprehensible to others as well as to themselves., where the doctor really has the impression of dealing with another mental structure.; he seeks the explanation for this in the impossible situation where these patients translate the data of their cenesthesia into the concepts of normal language. It is impossible for the physician, starting from the accounts of sick men, to understand the experience lived by the sick man, for what sick men express in ordinary concepts is not directly their experience by the interpretation of an experience for which they have been deprived of adequate concepts.”
Georges Canguilhem

I am more and more aware of just how manipulative American culture has become. Europe, the U.K. in particular, share some similarities, but it pales, really, in comparison with the U.S. Manipulation is a lie, and it is domination by means of that lie.

Today, 60 percent of Americans think Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy. Thirty percent of that sixty percent think others were involved. The leading guess (13%) was the Mafia, and right behind that was an unspecified part of the U.S. government. Forty percent of Americans dont think Oswald killed the President. These are curious numbers in a way, but what is more interesting in all this is that today more Americans (albeit a small number more) believe Oswald acted alone in the assassination than fifty years ago. In 1963 there was more skepticism. I think what is happening today is that the simple mechanism of ridicule, the uses of terms like conspiracy theory, and decades of TV propaganda has more shaped how people think than ever before. But its more than that, it is also the increased weight that shaming takes on in white middle class (sic) society today. Even in polls, notoriously unreliable in certain areas, this effect is probably significant. Cass Sunstein, the husband of Obama U.N. ghoul Samantha Power, is a good example of an architect of public trolling, tainting oppositional voices and dissent with calculated knee jerk smears. He oversaw regulation at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and wrote the book “Conspiracy Theories”.. Its interesting that Lance DeHaven Smith, in his book on the CIA, claims the term “conspiracy theory” was minted by Langley to shame and embarrass and discredit those who saw something wrong with the Book Depository story, circa 1963. Sunstein is a leading candidate for the Supreme Court, but also wrote a paper worth noting, in which he advocated *cognitive infiltration* of all potentially subversive groups in the U.S. Never mind this is illegal, firstly, but it is also rather Orwellian in construction. This is the sort of thinking that goes on in the corridors of power these days.

Elger Esser, photography. "Egypt 2011".

Elger Esser, photography.
“Egypt 2011″.


Now, my point here is that propaganda is effective. From the Kennedy assassination (by the way almost certainly some branch of the CIA in conjunction with various other off campus influences) to 9/11, there has been a creeping fear in many Americans to openly express doubt. I’m not sure which is more absurd by the way, Lee Harvey making that shot(s) or Saudis with box cutters, and the plane that disappeared as it supposedly hit the Pentagon. But even many leftists try to avoid what might potentially be labled “conspiracy theory”. Certainly 9/11 has cast a long shadow, but even in analysing that shadow, I hear surprisingly few voices taking note of the absurdity of the cover story. Same with the recent Boston Marathon (and leave it to Aaron Sorkin to come down favorable to the police on his staggeringly reactionary new show The Newsroom…but I digress). The Boston Marathon bombing narrative is full of anomalies. So much so, that it’s a bit like trying to piece together a really incoherent plot on a bad TV show. If reading it, one has to stop and just reach for the popcorn, and move on. It does not add up. But the propaganda machine (and Sorkin is part of that) is already shaping the story that people are meant to internalize on some level. But the key here is the shaming and ridicule. Calling people conspiracy theorist is akin to calling them genocide denier. That is the other smear du jour these days. Of course the fact that there are screeching nut cases like Alex Jones out there doesnt help in engaging with this master narrative. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to be associated with Jones — which leads me to suspect he’s actually a CIA plant (get Cass Sunstein on the phone….).

James Earl Ray, circa 1969

James Earl Ray, circa 1969

I happen to believe that actually a fair number of people in the U.S. today know full well that Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy. They know well that 9/11 as a narrative told by media makes no sense, and that things like building 7 or the plane & Pentagon story don’t hold up. They know that COINTELPRO was real, they know Gary Webb was right and they know Michael Hastings was almost certainly murdered. But they don’t say this stuff aloud very often. They know, often, of Freeway Rick Ross, they know Martin Luther King was assassinated, and not by James Earl Ray. They know that Iran Contra was hardly an isolated incident, and that in those corridors of power weasily little men like Cass Sunstein, and his wife Samantha Power, and Alberto Gonzalez and John Yoo, and Dave Addington, and Monica Goodling, and Eric Holder, and Victoria Nuland, and on and on keep each other’s company. They attend fundraisers for the museum or the new wing of the hospital or countless charities together. They summer (and usually use *summer* as a verb) in mostly the same places, and they know the same realtors, the same fund managers, they all come from about five different Universities. So, running through all this is an expensive education and connections. There is nothing special in any of these people. None of them. They are not the best and brightest. They are not the embodiment of some cosmic meritocracy; they are connected, schmooz skilled, and they are amendable to being bought, that is all. There is not an iota of moral integrity in that entire list, and I could expand that list considerably. They see the world, their social arena of the world, in terms of success and failure. Success is having a good paying job, a stock portfolio, a house in an accepted zip code, and eventually a wife or husband and children. And those children will be groomed for success in exactly the same way. Success is luxury amenities, vacations, but more than that it is a social ease that allows social climbing, it is influence. More than anything, in whatever way, it is influence. They believe they should, even if in small ways, shape the world. Big ways to shape the world is of course better.

But I want to link this sense of hyper manipulation with the state of the arts, and with culture. The structure of mass culture is predicated upon the same class divisions as Washington D.C., and Hollywood and New York are not greatly different from each other. It is important to look at the fact the what is often referred to as the *culture industry* (per Horkheimer and Adorno) was firstly a condemnation of the intellectual gatekeepers of society. Today, there has been a sort of shift that suggests an elitism in Adorno, and this is wrong. But its likely the result of defensiveness on the part of the very gatekeepers he was examining and criticizing. The mass entertainment industry likes to have audiences stupid, uneducated, and conformist. It is more profitable to make North Woods Law, or Judge Judy, than it is to make The Divide. Hence, perhaps the one actually non reactionary drama on TV last year was cancelled. The cheap easy to make reality based court shows have metastasized. If cultural production is aimed at furthering rote identification with products, with established values (authoritarianism), then demanding and difficult art is going to be banished.

Michael Hasting's car burning after crash.

Michael Hasting’s car burning after crash.

Today’s response, among University educated MFA students, when the culture industry is brought up, or any cultural criticism, is to retreat (without their even knowing it, I find) into realms of technological mystification. Art is spoken of, usually, as a sub heading. But more often its about the inward looking narcissism of the various subject positions and how they relate to a very narrow sort of oppression, or stigmatizing, or often, there is a sense of art as a self help tool in realizing *agency* (which I take to be synonymous with self determination). But the very last thing ever discussed is the spiritual, and the political. And of course these are the FIRST two things that *should* be discussed. Subjective confessional faux-critiques end up almost by their nature, being reactionary and supportive of this same idea of success. I read a good deal about young artists kept from *success* by this or that problem. The truth for young artists is that of creating an effective brand. Creating work that reproduces well in a glossy format, and most of all, knowing the right professors who can introduce you to the right galleries. But there is a paradox in this confessional or hyper subjective critical writing for at the same time this is a culture in which people are increasingly atomized and isolated. In which their very attention is a commodity, and in which social intercourse is becoming something experienced as menacing. The discomfort is adjusted, though, through identifications with group, and with a sort of new cyber-shopper tribalism.

Sergej Jensen

Sergej Jensen


Janet Malcolm wrote of psychoanalysis that is was like water poured through a sieve; “The moisture that remains on the surface of the mesh is the benefit of the analysis.” It is no accident that psychoanalysis, especially Freudian, is under siege these days. Part of the problem is what happened to the discipline when it arrived on North American shores. Its co-opting as a self help ego based adjustment procedure. But more than that, it is simply part of the whittling away of all things demanding. In psychoanalysis, one must be able to talk.

I bring this up because the power of stories is undiminished, only the number of real stories has shrunk.

Conrad Marca-Relli

Conrad Marca-Relli


The role of art is, in a sense, the opposite of manipulation. Its de-manipulating, and trying to heal the effects of manipulation. And the fact that many today would argue this, speaks to just how synonymous art and advertising have become.

“The whole notion of sanity may be an attempt to medicalize morality…Modern Western childhood has never recovered from, or been recovered from, the redemptive myths of Christianity. To be sane is to be saved.”
Adam Phillips

Today, children are targeted as soon as they can sit and stare at a screen. They are cued by advertisers in how to desire. After that they are manipulated about what to desire. But first they must learn *how* to want something. This is obviously too complex to really address properly in an abridged form; but the fact that primary narcissism being what it is, the child, the infant and toddler, certainly have a sensual relationship to the body of the mother. I think that what happens when childhood’s natural maturation (which is fucked up enough, frankly) gets interrupted by advertising, is that desire, that which is so directly joined with the breast, with food, and the touch of the mother, becomes deformed — and a new gap appears between the self and the process and expression of desiring. The filter is an ‘other’ who inserts advertising, coaching the child toward one or another satisfaction-giving commodity. Deep down I don’t doubt that the child senses this other, the new screen presence, the sound of stranger’s voices, as an intruder. Advertising as intruder.

Adrian Johnson quotes Alan Vanier (on Lacan):
“…’a third party is needed to name the image and thereby confer it on the subject… there has to be symbolic mediation if the subject is to assume this identification’. In other words, without some version of the Symbolic big Other—the example always given is the mother standing behind the young child, perhaps holding it up to the mirror, while saying ‘That’s you there!'”

Krass Clement, photography.

Krass Clement, photography.


However much wants to buy into Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is very interesting to read the mirror-phase, and then read Lacan on psychotics. For whatever happens when children begin to learn language, something of a rupture occurs between this new symbolic order and the child’s relationship to this new identity. Lacan (I paraphrase) said the psychotic is a prisoner to the literal. I suspect the culture of mass media, of the bombardment of information and data on people unprecedented in history, has severed the remaining links to nature and the physical world. At least those links that guided the imagination. In other words, the fact that people sleep less, and that life carries on twenty four hours a day, and often people never leave their screens to check on the weather or the stars (those places where one can even see the stars anymore) has meant that early childhood development occurs, in the advanced West, at least the more affluent classes, in ways that intensify that primary rupture; the rules of language and the symbolic are more fragile and the symbolic is mediated by technology — probably accounting for a culture without affect. The indifference to depictions of violence, the loss of compassion, all of this it would seem can be traced back to a society in which productive labor is less rational, more oppressed, and workers more anxious and insecure. The child is born into a society, now, where their parents are a generation already formed by screen image and narrative.

Jerry Mander wrote, in 2012, in Monthly Review:

“Ours is the first generation in history to have essentially moved its consciousness inside media, to have increasingly replaced direct contact with other people, other communities, other sources of knowledge, and the natural world —which is anyway getting harder and harder to find —with simulated, re-created, or edited versions of events and experiences.”

and then adds: “In many ways, television has become the culture, and by this, I do not mean so-called “popular culture,” which sounds somehow democratic. Television is not democratic. Viewers at home do not make television; they receive it. Television does not express culture; it expresses corporate culture.”

Ulrich Lamsfuss

Ulrich Lamsfuss


It expresses, additionally, the values of the white ruling class, and this is important to remember. And children sit in front of the TV, listening, not speaking, almost twice as much as they sit in conversation with their parents or friends.

Part of the role of irritating jingles is to stick in your brain so that a subconscious recognition occurs when you hear it again. Oh, there is that irritating chewing gum jingle again. Today, narratives, in comedy or drama, operate increasingly like commercials. Narratives don’t raise questions, because questions are not good for business. They are the wrong kind of disruptive. Narratives promote agreement by recycling the most basic group think bromides. But that’s not right, either. Its not really agreement, it doesn’t even reach the that cognitive level. They promote a kind of acceptance. And I suspect that that particular form of acceptance is far more reactive when challenged than is disagreeing with an argument. And this is, I think anyway, because it’s all operating on a semi-conscious level. It’s a deep sense of identification with the provider of the *acceptance*.

Those deep reservoirs of resentment and anger; some learned, some just the residue of our psychic development in this unequal and punitive Puritan society, all of that is coming to the surface now. With the Ferguson police execution of Michael Brown, with Trayvon Martin before him, with Kimani Grey and Oscar Grant, with increased home foreclosures, there is now a backdrop of social trauma domestically, as there had been during Viet Nam, and it is of course part of the larger U.S. footprint, Imperialist footprint, globally. So, things are going to come up. Memories, long buried, feelings long buried, and more than either, a long suppressed panic. The panic of abandonment, of being un-moored, un-tethered, of that childhood emotional catastrophe that everyone experiences in some way, and such panic as this leaves, or really, it causes an emotional hole in people. Being wrenched from primary narcissism and into a world with *others*. A world without community, without those just basic protections against this gnawing sense of being alone. That is why this is a society of morbid obesity, of anti depressants and mood elevators, and of an increasingly strident racism and bigotry. People shop for frozen micro-wave fish and chips, and corn syrup sodas and tainted factory farmed beef or chicken.

Brian Ulrich, photography.

Brian Ulrich, photography.

They shop for toxic carcinogenic plastic toys made by slaves in faraway lands, with darker skins or funny customs, and these toys are given to these prematurally overweight children to throw away and further pollute the planet. Then they gorge on white sugar and corn syrup and play surrogate war games with each other. Normal sexuality is repressed and adults usually beat it out their children because of their own fears of sexual desire. Pornography remains the second largest industry in the world behind defense. The largest consumers, statistically speaking, of pornography are conservative white men.

My son has two daughters. My grandaughters. They attend a progressive (sic) school in an upmarket very gentrified neighborhood of Los Angeles. The youngest is in pre-school. And when my son, her father, went to the Thanksgiving party he was shocked to see the kids in sort of arts & crafts “Indian” costumes as part of the ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ narrative in this celebration about Thanksgiving. When he sent an email to the school, suggesting some workshops about racism and tolerance (which is part of the work he does, in addition to anti death penalty lobbying), it was met with dismissive hostility. A subsequent meeting went even worse. The reason I mention this is because this is a rich white kids school, a liberal school. These are people who vote Democrat. They support same sex marriage, and think of themselves as progressive and very far from racist. Why this gigantic blind spot then? The entire selling of this holiday didnt happen until after WW1 really. And more, like many things, until after WW2. The original idea for this holiday belongs to Sara Josepha Hale (author, oddly, or not, of Mary Had a Little Lamb) who sold the idea to President Lincoln. Lincoln signed the Thanksgiving proclamation the same year the Civil War ended, and right before the mass hanging of 38 Dakota Indians for murder, in an uprising in Mankato, Minnesota. The starving tribe had attacked white settlers the summer before in the Santee Sioux uprising. Lincoln never executed a single confederate soldier. Not for anything. But then they were white. This was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

I digress…slightly.

Viet Cong . 1973. Photographer unknown.

Viet Cong . 1973. Photographer unknown.

The infiltration of mass culture means the infiltration of the ownership class, the values of white wealth. What is becoming interesting is the growth of this new service class, a specific service to the wealthy class, and with it, the internalizing of the values of the wealthy and an identification with the rich, a sense that the unattainable lifestyles of the rich and famous (sic) can at least be shared via mass media and culture, or by serving them. Reality shows with the not really wealthy celebrities of music and film is a sort of threadbare approximation of this longing, and it probably speaks to the success of shows like Downton Abby, a sort of valentine to the dignity of being a fucking servant. Its an odious program, actually, for there is never a hint that this idea of waiting hand and foot on the master might actually have pissed off the help a bit. Such shows might ask how revolutions take place exactly? If the Romanovs were so much fun, and the Bourbons and Ortenburgs and Spencers and Furstenbergs and the rest of the hereditary Royal Houses of Europe, one might wonder at why they aren’t still running things. The answer is of course, that in a sense they are, except for those inconvenient uprisings; but its almost like a counter transference at the level of peerage or something. The new rulers of the deep state are bankers and defense contractors but then, that old money and structure is still there, and still has extraordinary influence and power. I often wonder why in the world ‘Royal’ families still exist. Why do people go around calling themselves Baron or Marquis or Duchess, or Sir…and while Sir Paul McCartney and the like are parodies of this, something clearly stimulates an archaic node in the reptilian brain, in which trace memory currents are triggered. This is the ambivalence of hierarchical social formations.

Pan African Congress, 1919, Paris.

Pan African Congress, 1919, Paris.


The United States is the sole remaining Imperialist power. With that comes, trailing behind the flagrant militarism, a surplus of psychic wounds and pain and resentment. I doubt there has ever been a society so steeped in resentment as the U.S. If language is what keeps humans from the resentment free world of animals, then perhaps this is the tragic destiny of mankind. And the final reckoning is to be the forgetting of language, the forgetting of that which in a sense has been the origin of trauma. This is not to say I don’t believe people can live in joy and wonder, but that for that to happen one must remember and not forget. For one cannot forget the anxiety of death anyway. Freud saw renunciation of instinct as the basic sublimation of humans, and Lacan saw that renunciation as built into language itself. The repression of the death drive, for Freud, was the basis of civilization, but that repression returns, again and again. And it returns as aggression. Maybe all those nods to Royalty are, in fact, the submission to the father, and the father is in some way the gatekeeper of the symbolic. That is the Lacanian model, and it is interesting to look at Benjamin’s ideas on language, on the language that speaks itself (in a sense). For this is no doubt linked to all aesthetic production. However one modifies Freud, one is always going to be left with some sense of gap, of a distance we pursue, and that feels like the Ouroboros, for in a way we consume ourselves in this chase. The pursuit of something that we cant remember properly, which feels as if it has just left. Narrative I think works that way. Theatre is basically the chasing of what has just this instant left. The BBC has a very good mini series on right now, The Missing. Written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams (previously comedy writers, quite oddly) and directed by Tom Shankland (with John Nesbitt and Tchéky Karyo) it is the story of an unsolved child abduction. There is almost no violence depicted (well, very little) and no guns whatsoever. It is a disturbing narrative because it is about the chase after an absence. The son who has gone missing has left only a drawing on a wall. The French policeman (Karyo, who is just superb) says in an offhanded way, on the father’s return six years later, to the site of the abduction, “My wife told me to take up a hobby when I retired. I took up beekeeping. It has, perhaps, become something more”. No elaboration. The obvious damage to this provincial policeman is clear, and now he pursues something else. The mystery of the bees. Such narratives touch on the basic impossibility of existence. We cannot find what we search for, so why do we search?
The Missing (2014) BBC 1, Ted Shankland dr.

The Missing (2014), BBC 1, Ted Shankland dr.


There is nothing in this show that creates false tension. The narrative is told in flashback and flashforward, and in that space of the missing six years is the enigmatic hollow feeling of loss. It is a singularly haunting bit of television. But this is a hopeful sign I suppose, amid the general sadism of Empire, the constant sound of guns and screams. Here the pain is from characters who cannot fully articulate what they feel, for they cannot really understand their own motivations.

Thanksgiving is now simply another national day of shopping, the one that precedes Black Friday. There is a kind of stark visible insanity running through American society, now. Plenty of people scoff with snark at the lumpen masses storming the doors of Wal-Mart or Circuit City, but really, they have only switched to *hipper* versions of the same thing. Under the surface is desperation, and guilt and fear. And children now approach the holidays with acute anxiety. They sense the parental panic, the lack of money, they know, too, the fetishized class markers in all this gift giving. The holidays are now brutal ruthless national days of amnesia and denial. Even the rich are disfigured psychically by their money. Even when they have no anxiety about lack of money, they feel anxiety.

“Here, too, I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their
chests against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
“Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?”
“Hoarding and squandering wasted all their light
and brought them screaming to this brawl of wraiths.
You need no words of mine to grasp their plight.”

Dante (Ciardi trans.)

Nicolas Poussin, "Echo and Narcissus". 1629

Nicolas Poussin, “Echo and Narcissus”. 1629


One of the first things I noticed about ex-cons was that they almost all kept their shoes clean and polished. The rich don’t polish their shoes. They have a casual contempt for their expensive possessions. The rich have, what today might be *diagnosed* as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s really the flip side of the traditional anti-social personality. The true narcissist is, I find, one born into privilege. I have found, consistently, a higher self esteem among convicts than among the very rich. There are a host of contradictions in all this; those who inherit their money tend to be the most obsessive about keeping it, and, feel the most inadequate. This anxiety is compensated for by witholding of emotions, especially compassion. The rich show contempt for the poor, but this hatred is born of envy. I have never met a rich man (this is gendered to be sure) who didn’t feel anxiety about his masculinity. Being rich, contrary to Hollywood, is not sexy. Well, in fact, the truth of this does sneak into Hollywood film, but it’s usually sub-textual. The need for Hollywood stars to play *authentic* lower working class characters. The guy who is part of the kitchen staff, washing dishes is almost always sexier than the guy with the Gold Visa card. The dishwasher organizing secret union meetings is sexier, still. The very rich do not experience intimacy. They posses people. And they fear those they possess.

The white patriarchy shapes narratives, including Thanksgiving. The head of the family carving the Turkey. Wielding the symbolic knife. The sacrifice to the Gods, appeasement. But this is another empty anxiety filled ritual. The steroid filled monstrosity that is today’s industrial raised Turkey is fake. It’s not hunted. The sacrifice is hollow, for the only real sacrifice is human. Part of the transhistorical sense of war is that of sacrifice; but today the leaders do not engage in battle. Often the soldiers don’t either. The sacrifice has no signifier. It is the end game for planned industrial death, that which began in that form in WW1. Anonymous death. Factory raised chickens, millions, the unwanted ground into mush for dog food. The human version is napalmed, struck with depleted uranium, or just vaporized.

Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Tsesarevich.  Saloon car of Imperial train. Apprx. 1903.

Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Tsesarevich.
Saloon car of Imperial train. Apprx. 1903.


The Pilgrims stole and murdered the indigenous peoples of New England. They didn’t share, or see them as friends. They came to create wealth. They came to horde and dominate, accumulate property, and to rule. The shell of human society that is the United States today is the logical outcome of a system based on profit. Marx said Capital Accumulation was the generation of wealth in the form of *capital*; meaning capital was used to create profit and not for social uses; it was the further expansion of capital, and meant exchange value, not use value. Lenin saw the logic of this leading to rivalry between capitalist/Imperialist powers over the control of the periphery. The commodity form, in both use and exchange value is expressed by money. The capitalist is a sick man. The bourgeoisie are sick. It cannot be otherwise. Freud saw hoarding as a fixation at the anal stage. Money is shit.

Norman O. Brown said: “All currency is neurotic currency.”

Advertisement, American Apparel, 2013.

Advertisement, American Apparel, 2013.

That Thanksgiving turkey that the patriarch will carve is the carving of a mask. The mask never changes. The mask of the patriarch is his curse, his fixed destiny. Wealth is sickness. It is shit. In mass culture today, the constant creation of artificial tension, of suspense, is just the masochist’s excitement and anticipation. The manipulations of mass culture, of advertising, are and have interrupted the dreams of childhood. They have created a psychic prison that is attached at the linguistic level. The child is born into language, but its a language that has lost meaning. The history of police abuse goes as far back as the founding of the Nation. Whether it’s Pinkerton cops, or private security today, or just city police ruthlessly controlling and murdering the poor, especially the black poor, the story has remained largely unchanged. The turkey is fat, deformed by genetically modified breeding, it has no taste, it is as useless as the Father who is clumsily carving it up. On TV is football, in which the healthiest young men of the poor collide in a physics of brain trauma, but which represents symbolic battle and war, a drama of, again, the rich sacrificing the poor. It is a surrogate heroism, and those tackles and cornerbacks will end up much like the holiday turkey. It is the Roman circus. Money is anality, filthy lucre, it is holding onto your own excrement. Royalty, Ceasars, Emporers, Generals and CEOs; the sacrifice is always based on hatred. Hatred for not finding others that desire you. Its possible to look at the practice of pre-nuptial agreements as a sort of epitaph for the toxicity of the ruling class. The lynching in Ferguson is the stain that marks the Holidays of 2014. It will not be the last stain.
Yves Klein. "Gold".

Yves Klein. “Gold”.

Nothing is Art

Grant Wood

Grant Wood

Imperialism is nothing other than the totality of the economic, political, and military means mobilized to produce the submission of the peripheries, today as yesterday.”
Samir Amin

“It was a street-show that had an ideology of conformity at its heart; to consumerism, commodified emotion and a shared experience of pre-chewed sentimentalised joylessness disguised with a perfect-toothed smile. Individually, the images are what they are. Photographers have to make a living. Collectively, this spittling drizzle of photographic normality and drab betrayed the fear, dishonesty and essential conservatism that lies at the heart of so much photography, art direction and buying; every one of these pictures was a lie. Not deep down a lie, but on the surface a lie… These are photographs that are numb, with no emotion, no opinion and no value.”
Colin Pantall
On Photographic Muzak

“The evaluation of audience desires, and the creation of content to meet those desires, has increasingly been ceded to machines and their algorithms. This has been done in an attempt to sand down some of the rough, unpredictable edges that in the past would nonetheless appear under the regime of commercial culture. Few cultural projects are now undertaken without seeking to model away all of the risk involved using the tools afforded by algorithms and the ability to quickly survey a large audience.”
Michael Pepi, William O’ Hara, and Dan Monaco

“Something of art has ended. The debate is not about the fact, but about its significance.”
J. M. Bernstein

There has been a reasonable amount of media coverage of the art auctions in New York this last month. Fifteen billion dollars changed hands. When you examine the work, what is most clear is that almost all of this stuff is branded. Roy Lichtenstein is a very effective brand, almost an ur-brand. Warhol, too, of course. But others, Alex Israel, or Richard Prince, as almost random examples, are mostly pure brand, too. Dead artists of course are in another class almost. Death is like re-branding. But the point is, amid this financial orgy of Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions and sales were terrific artworks. Still, the branding is what people remember, and the context in which an artwork, lets say a painting, is experienced is so mediated by Capital, by financialization, by marketing and art dealers that it leads to very contradictory and complex emotions. And one by-product of this is the inevitable snark of a generation for whom art is essentially business. This leads me to another thought, which has to do with the near absolute failure of today’s audience for art overall, but especially (not surprisingly) for film and TV, to escape the confines of their own self authorized amnesiac present. A present in which they gobble up stuff, issue empty edicts and opinions, and move along to consume more, shop more, and forget more. Snark youth, compulsive middle aged shopper, both are feeding at the same polluted trough.

Karen Borghouts, photography.

Karen Borghouts, photography.


So I will begin with a long digression. I happened to screen Kiss Me Deadly this week for some students. A friend of mine, Joe Nava wrote something about it, having watched it himself again. And what he said, which was very smart, reminded me of how empty and shallow are most discussions of film today. There are three films (I could probably find three others, in fact, but these work well for the purposes here) that share a common thread, and also are marked in very specific ways by the times in which they were made. Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) and Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967). But one has to go back further, I think, before talking about each film. Back at least to the 19th century novel. The expanded narratives of Dostoyevski, Melville, Flaubert, Eliot, Tolstoy, Conrad, Stendhal, Dickens, and Turgenev, were distillations of the bourgeois life, as well as negations of it, or partly so. By the 20th century perhaps only Kafka matters at all among novelists. If that’s even what he was. The avant garde(s) of the early 20th century had, almost of necessity, rejected this form, or least rejected and recuperated, and reinstated in partial ways, the idea of the novel. But mostly there were anti-novels. Bernhard and Broch, and Beckett and Genet and Burroughs and Rulfo. Brilliant, but difficult. And therein lies another topic…and more on that below. But film, photography, and radio were changing the ways people, the audience, engaged with artworks, with narrative in particular. And it was to film, I think, that the novel migrated. At the same time, there were massive forced migrations of humanity. Never before in history had so many people been driven from there homes. The front edge of this of course began with the slave trade that peaked a century and a half before. The figure of the exile looms very large by the end of WW1. And with the exile, an idea of homesickness. Of loneliness as well, and of place. Or rather, those without a home, without a place. The vast majority of forced migrations were of people without a voice, or at least not one heard in the European world — and by extension then, the U.S. But those unheard voices did rise up like a psychic ground water, and they became the ghosts that haunted the storytelling of the first world. In the movie industry, there were exile directors, German Jewish emigres mostly, who came to Hollywood steeped in a Vienesse psychoanalytic culture, with a Germanic sensibility and art history. Robert Siodmak was one of them, with his brother Curtis. Criss Cross, his best film (though Phantom Lady is close, as is the rarely screened File on Thelma Jordan), is about a man (Burt Lancaster) returning to his old neighborhood. As it happens, Bunker Hill in Los Angeles. It is 1949. The war has been over five years.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Don Siegal, dr.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Don Siegal, dr.

The film is told in flashback, as is appropriate for a film that is looking back at a world fast receding in the rear view mirror. The audience has no idea where Lancaster has been. There is a signature scene early on in which Lancaster shows up at his old favorite bar. He asks the bartender (Percy Helton, who as it happens played the mortuary director in Kiss Me Deadly six years later) where the old crowd is. The barkeep mockingly responds that it depends on what you mean by *old*. It is almost the echo of Ionesco or Beckett, the absurdist repetitions a reminder that images in that rear view mirror may not actually be as large as they look (sic). Kiss Me Deadly (also filmed in and around Bunker Hill) which is both noir, and part *A bomb* radioactive science fiction, was above all else an expression of McCarthy era paranoia. In a sense it is the perfect companion piece to Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When Meeker is finally told by the cop, Paul Stewart, that he has to listen to just three words; Los Alamos, Manhattan, and Trinity, Meeker says “I didn’t know” and Stewart repeats, again mockingly, “You didn’t know”. And that echo is there again. You didnt know. It is a mini HUAC hearing. But the world nostalgically re-imagined in Criss Cross is gone. Aldrich was a disowned banking heir, exiled to Hollywood. But his exile was built more on cynicism and a full frontal sense of lust and desire. In Point Blank (by now Bunker Hill had been destroyed), the scene that echos the first two Ive mentioned is one between Lee Marvin and Carroll O’Connor. Toward the end of the film, Marvin confronts the gangster to demand his money. O’Connor says, but there is no money, this is a corporation. We have reached nihilism.
Barnett Newman and unidentified woman in Newman's studio, 1958.

Barnett Newman and unidentified woman in Newman’s studio, 1958.

In each, the protagonist is a man out of time. A man who cannot read the signs in front of him. Lancaster dreams of a romantic past with his ex wife, Meeker’s Mike Hammer cannot follow the cold war plot, and Marvin, fresh from a decade in prison, cannot imagine a world where his money does not exist. Time has passed all of them. Their exile is both literal and figurative.

The sense of loss, of homesickness, is palpable in almost all of the classic noirs from the 40s. The figure of the private eye, though in truth perhaps only half — if that — of 1940s noirs featured P.I.s, was the Knight Errant, the seeker of truth. This also, of course, dissolved in the glare of the garish technicolor films of the mid 50s, and in the cynicism and gradual but inexorable drift to the political right of the society. The madness of the bourgeoisie was now starkly revealed.

Merijn Koelink, photography.

Merijn Koelink, photography.


Those 1950s B films, the so called *sun lit noirs* were the mannerist phase to the classic era of the forties. But there were other elements worth examining in narrative here. The literature of the mid 20th century, in English, began to exhibit some of the pathological denial of the society as a whole. The manufacturing of a Norman Rockwellian Ozzie & Harriet world, Queen for a Day and Father Knows Best and Dwight Eisenhower…and Joe McCarthy. Its all of a piece. The anti communist hysteria was the moral sickness of the society. The artist retreated to the avant garde more as refuge, and in painting the Marxist immigrants of the New York School (most anyway) looked to find the outer edges of form, but also of the spiritual. The retreat from Abstract Expressionism was into the strategic careerism of the mannerist mini movements that followed in reaction. It is becoming increasingly difficult, I think, to appreciate art. A visit to the Modern in New York means an hour of bombardment by image and noise during the travel to get there. The museum itself, like almost all museums today, is ever closer to a visit to a corporate headquarters where an amusement park has been built on the side for the rubes to visit. Audiences are treated as children, and increasingly they ARE children. The infantilization of the society is nearly complete. The sense of grandeur and taste, of sensitivity to color and tone, that one finds in Barnett Newman, for example, is hard to see anymore. Its there, but from all sides there is a caustic snide attitude. Leftists never tire, NEVER tire of pointing to the CIA’s brief and well documented minor pimping of the Ab Ex painting. Its like a secret handshake for leftists. There is some cool factor attached. For the right, everything is junk. Everything not military. Not patriotic. But for the majority of those in the U.S. and U.K. there is ever less interest given to *art*. There is a lot of interest in *entertainment* but not in art.

And the abandoning of art, as a practice, as an idea, is also an abandonment of..as J. M. Bernstein put it: “its function as a form of resistance, a reminder, a placeholder, for the claim of sensuous particularity, and so nature, against the claim of self authorizing mindedness.” There is, I continue to find, a numbing sense of mediocrity in western culture today. I know very few good teachers, because most who have any ideals or commitment, retire early. I know artists who have been destroyed, both mentally and spiritually. And I think this is because of the specific ways in which the Spectacle seeks out the most anodyne and empty and then goes on to promote that. The unexceptional is the ideal now, not the median. And the collective sense of raised consciousness that occurred in the sixties has been all but extinguished. From Malcolm to the Panthers, to Jackson Pollock, to Genet and Beckett, to that sense of film art that was being driven by European directors mostly: Pasolini, Antonioni, Fassbinder, and Godard, even to Bergman, or Losey, the mid century through to the mid 1970s, contained radical voices. It also contained working class voices. That is not true today. The corporatized scheme for education includes class segregation. Anyone who does not see the corruption and class prejudice in Academia just isn’t looking. And of course marketing, and Hollywood have intensified their message. A message that is flagrant and unalloyed in its fascist sentiments.

Jeff Silverthorne, photography.

Jeff Silverthorne, photography.


I suspect that if one systematically looked back, historically, at cultures all over the world, you would find that the role of the artist ended in some form of solitude and isolation. The community cannot really tolerate the artist for too long. He or she is the disrupting force of change, the reminder of personal trauma, and of both shame and guilt, as well as desire. But the artist must not seek other than isolation and exile. The older artist who is *not* shunned, in a sense, is the collaborator.

There is a sense in which even wildly successful and recognized artists will withdraw. This is the natural structural process, as well as the natural spiritual one.

The problem today is that aesthetic negation, and this relates to aesthetic autonomy; that which makes something aesthetic, and by comparison, everything it is not, as not aesthetic, is increasingly difficult to differentiate not because *everything* can or is art, but because NOTHING is art, and nothing can be art. Its not the inclusion of things, its the exclusion of possibility.

Mary Devens, photography. 1897.

Mary Devens, photography. 1897.

Any discussion of aesethic negation or autonomy can never be as simple as most art writers would like it to be. Even most philosophers (or theorists if thats the term they prefer). But it is safe to say that differentiation is increasingly complicated by not just by the obvious commodifying of most everything, and of a near total reification in society, but at least as much by the increasing distance of society from nature. My memory of the art world in the early 70s, in New York and L.A., was that people, artists and audience alike, spoke about theory. About ideas, not message. About form, not style or fashion. It was a given that if you wanted to create art, you were a radical. A communist or anarchist or just insane. You smoked, drank, took drugs, argued, had a lot of sex, with both or all genders, and you read. You read all the time. I remember running into people, writers, in book stores. I ran into painters, too and musicians. In book stores. But that is all gone. Most gone of all is the idea that audiences think.

Pepi and O’Hara and Monaco conclude their very cogent little essay this way:
“The complicity of the consumer in his own debasement is wholly on display in this state of affairs. New cultural mechanics simultaneously promise to reward our participation (“because you wanted it, we made it!”) and threaten us if we opt out (“we don’t want to make things that you don’t want to do, but how do we know what you want if you don’t participate?”). In the end, consumers are enjoined to do more work to create less substantial works that profit concentrations of capital in which they have no stake.”

This is the logic of conformity. It is the erecting of an idea of conformity as a virtue. And that conformity is joined at the hip to globalized Capital.

George Tooker

George Tooker


It is conformity of obedience, and a constant message of encouragement in one’s own domination. Many liberals, at least white liberals, will scoff at words like *domination*. How can I be dominated if I just bought a new iPhone? The fact is that shopping, online or off, is very close to the state religion in the U.S. Its acute in parts of Europe certainly, but nothing like the U.S. Perhaps that has to do with two things: Puritanism and Imperialism.

The new opportunism of the celebrity left (sic), those corporate employed crypto Imperialists (Laurie Penny, Molly Crabapple, Natasha Lennard, and really, Paul Mason, and Danny Gold, and all the rest who pimp for U.S. military solutions, and there are a host of others) have reached a zenith of bad faith, cynicism, and ethical turbidity, obfuscation, and just naked dishonesty, in this http://interactive.fusion.net/rise-up/index.html
The new marketing of revolution. Branded, capitalized, and very troubling. This is an extension, really, of what I wrote about last posting. The appropriating of human suffering, compiled by algorithms, market tested, and very effective mind control, finally. For the effects of these enterprises are to re-program expectations, and then bait and switch the narrative theme. Suddenly, the audience, the subject, is applauding and helping and assisting something quite different than the first advertising blitz promised. Keep your eye on the ball. Its three card monte for generation duh. For the record this is a Disney/ABC/Univision(right wing media folk who assisted the coup in Venezuela in 2004) project. Haim Saban is a lead shareholder, and a big supporter of Israeli policy. Isaac Lee Possin, a Colombian educated in Israel is the chief executive for Fusion. This is the corporate structure now creating politics as spectacle. Throw enough money around, enough swag, and enough contradiction, and repeat it ad infinitum, and eventually the audience fatigue stops critical thinking.

Rafael Solbes

Rafael Solbes

Now, one could go further in the perfidy of that group, but the point is that such projects are like psychic bottom trawling. All cognitive activity will tend to get swept into the attention nets, and then the bespoke algorithms and computing happens automatically, and soon everyone is everyone’s friend. Fusion or the NSA or Google or Verizon. Honestly, its all the same. Against this mental bottom trawling are the sparkling stars of corporate news outlets. And honestly, with very very very few exceptions, if the man is paying you, then you are the punk. There is no way around it. Now, everyone takes jobs that one hates. And its done to pay the rent and buy the kids food. But cop to it!

But back to art.

The moment Warhol and Lichtenstein created ‘Pop’ art, the entire issue of autonomy was raised and reconstituted the meaning of art. I dont actually think one can lump minimalism into this same basket, but the point here is that ideas about symbol and allegory changed. Or perhaps, more correctly, were erased. For now ‘anything’ was art and history was irrelevant. Critics could write about ‘the end of art’. Arthur Danto saw in Pop Art the impossibility of any longer distinguishing between an aesthetic object and an ordinary object. But this implies that cultural history was only about such distinctions. So, in another sense, this was a de-politicizing of art and culture. For Adorno was right, it was the spell cast by the artwork that mattered. And it was in Adorno’s critique of The Odyssey that he confronted a chthonic underside to storytelling, to myth, and to the role of, and formation of, culture and art. For in language itself, there was history (in fact Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger was predicated on what he saw as fraudulent pseudo magical interpretations of invented words). This was what Hegel, and then Marx, and then Benjamin and Adorno himself terms *Natural History*. And it is this cultural process of exhumation that modernist art (and probably medieval art in a different sense) were pursuing. And everything created must address this, even as the self must exhume its own process of becoming. This probably goes far beyond the issues I want to focus on, but it’s important to understand exactly what the Spectacle, the post-cultural moment of mass electronic screen culture has destroyed. Or is trying to destroy. For Heidegger, like Hegel (and Marx certainly saw this when he critiqued Hegel) is valorizing the *now*, the status quo, albeit a narrow Volkisch *now*. It is culmination. It is a claim to totality that is the fraud. In the three films mentioned above, each is echoing Homer, and each is finding a problematic, even nihilistic absence at the end of the journey. There is no, and can be no, culmination.

The Student of Prague (1913). Paul Wegener, Stellan Rye, Hanns Heinz Ewers directors.

The Student of Prague (1913). Paul Wegener, Stellan Rye, Hanns Heinz Ewers directors.


This absence though is the foundation for allegory. For Adorno, this was the history of subjectivity being played out again and again. And the claims to totality are the destruction of mimesis. In other words, the primordial mimetic identification (and here both Freud and Lacan are contributing factors) with rivalry, with aggression, must result in sublimation, and in forgetting. “Meaning is the ruins of Nature”, Hullot-Kentor.

“Art’s truth appears guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organized society…” Adorno.

Those who deny meaning in art, or claim an end to art, are justifying the instrumental logic of domination. Art’s purpose lies in its lack of purpose, for then the mystery and illusion achieve autonomy — the erasure of differentiation is the belief in an objectivity and truth of a society that dominates and pacifies and alienates. But yet, in which everything can be meaningful. In which everything IS meaningful. The presentation of advertising, Campbell’s soup cans, as art was actually a destruction of the object. All objects can be famous for fifteen minutes, and hence all objects are fungible. And if that is so, then a specificity of object is lost. Hans Sedlmayr in the 1920s said lifeless objects can acquire a face and gaze back at you. This is related to Von Kleist’s essay on marionettes. It is *ausdruck*, the gaze of the artwork, and it is found only in the non-fungible.

Alfred Leslie

Alfred Leslie


And the problem with this post historic art is that if objects are fungible, then so are people. The suffocating deadness found in *artists* like Koons or Marina Abramovic, speaks to this underlying sense of human disposibility.

Mimesis is a contested term in Adorno. And in Benjamin. For it means different things in different contexts. But none contradict the other. There is the primordial linkage to imitation, and there its secondary role in survival, and then there is the psychoanalytic form which is akin to projection. Andreas Huyssen actually laid out five distinct meanings of the word *mimesis* that he found in Adorno. But the last one is really Benjamin’s use or definition, and it has to do with Benjamin’s linguistic theory. And that would require an entire other post. The salient aspect of his theory is that there are several registers in which language has meaning. And the utterance of words is connected to the body, to a gestural knowledge, which again relies on the sensual as formative. The 1920s in Austria and Germany were keenly exploring ideas of how expression took on meaning, and Benjamin was one among many who grappled with this under the sway of Freudian theory and practice. The point though is mimesis is partly a sensual knowledge, and its practice provides extra-linguistic meaning to utterance. Benjamin wrote a good deal on film and photography during these years. For he sensed, rightly, that in film there was another sort of space, another sense of time, and more, a deep mediating of mimesis in the audience. For Benjamin saw two basic registers of language: one was instrumental, logical, the manipulation of signs and the other was as knowledge of mimesis. Benjamin saw mimesis, always, more closely aligned with similarity than did Adorno. In other words, language as sign, language as image (hieroglyphs) and language as a very particular kind of imitation of Nature. It is this last meaning that remains so difficult. But it is the one most relevant in an age of screen dominance. For in mass kitsch culture, in which the *now* is being reproduced ever more rapidly, constantly, there is no Nature returning our gaze.

Atul Dodiya

Atul Dodiya


Adorno wrote that art is a form of behavior. For that is mimesis, too. And even when utterly subjective, and perhaps it is always partly subjective in this sense, the mimetic engagement must have something with specificity to provide refuge (another words of Adorno’s). I suspect those memory traces of archaic mimesis have all but been eliminated today. The differences between not just an aesthetic object and a not aesthetic object matter, but between our memory and our separation or not from other people. The knowledge of the human is gained through mimetic processing. Without it, the culture increasingly functions in ways close to how autistics function. But more, when only a screen gazes back, that is no gaze at all.

“The survival of mimesis, the non-conceptual affinity of the subjectivity produced with its other…defines art as a form of knowledge…For that which mimetic behavior addresses is the telos of knowledge…art contemplates knowledge with what is excluded from knowledge…”
Adorno

This occurs in painting, in photography, and it occurs in narratives. On stage, in film, in novels, anywhere. It is the raison d’etre of art. Today, the instrumental straightjacket that binds all expression is also found in the endless pseudo scientific drivel one reads or hears in media. Dietary advice, or psychological bromides, or moral posturing is always baked in the ovens of mock science. It is not science, it is not even magic. But from this comes cultural expression that is equally banal and lifeless. Whatever else, there was life in Criss Cross, and before that, to visit again the German Expressionist cinema, is an almost shocking experience… for there is memory and dream, and gestural knowledge (The Student of Prague, The Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Shatten, et al). None of that exists in today’s corporate mass culture. Gone Girl or The Hunger Games possess no mimetic memory. They are literally distracting audiences from remembering…anything. The society is awash in sleight of hand intellectual games.

The tensions that are expressed in those three films I listed above, were from a sense that something was being lost. The best contemporary film seem always to be connected to a dream of retrieval. The worst contemporary film is comfortable with amnesia.

Ron Bladen

Ron Bladen


The idea of an end to art already resided in Duchamp, and later in Rodchenko. Except of course it doesn’t end. And it can’t end under the terms of these experiments. The theoretical gestures, the ready-mades, the black painting of Malevich, were finally pointless. It was not until Warhol, really, and Lichtenstein, that the focus shifted to the commodity. The problem with all of this is that in a sense, the mass culture of giant telecoms, Hollywood, and the pop music business, has moved the goal posts, so to speak. It isnt art that is destroyed, it’s the audience. It is the society of scale and proportion as aspects of a morality. Art isn’t dead, but probably the collective memory of Western culture is. Post modern ideas about the arbitrary sign or symbol, are in collusion with the residue of Hegelian/Heideggarian insistance on the whole. The whole being the totality of social experience, and argued as a form of self realization, self improvement, individuality, and … finally, progress. Call it something else, but hiding behind every piece of Jeff Koons junk is the wink and nudge of self congratulation. In the same way that film, that artform born of seaside amusements, and developed almost from the start as a business, is forever looking to pat it self on the back via gratuitous awards shows and constant media hype. This is called populist exactly because its the least populist artform in existence.

Art is self destructive. It is guided by impulses that are anti social, but only in so far as they question the status quo, because the status quo cannot survive history or memory. I doubt anyone would claim Kiss Me Deadly is exactly Shakespearean in scope or magnitude of emotion, but it survives viewing today because it refuses to deny it own destructive character. And within that declaration of defiance, even if subsumed by the film industry to a degree, are found the echos and traces of history, the understanding that you cant have gotten here without suffering, inequality, and madness. Only the most privileged claim sanity.

Stan Douglas, photography.

Stan Douglas, photography.


Painters like Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, are reducing an idea, on the one hand, but it is in their secret disposition, the enigmatic and hidden, that they are actually looking for plenitude. You cannot be enigmatic without being allegorical. Even the stripe of Newman reach toward the allegorical. I’d say it’s a good rule of thumb to distrust art that requires elaborate pre conditions for viewing it (or hearing it, etc). If you have to don headphones, or walk through a tunnel, then its probably just a sales pitch tricked out as socially relevant. Never trust social relevancy anyway, not in art. The importance of art lives in a mimetic memory, one that perhaps was once more active, but now is found in art. Why else bother? The deceit and ruthlessness of American society today, the inauthentic and counterfeit that exists in the non stop assault of advertising is only salved by reminders that being human doesn’t have to be a quest to become reptile, but that humaneness is the spiritual and psychological sacrifice that goes into genuine expression.

Voyeurs of Suffering

Hercules Seghers, early 1600s.

Hercules Seghers, early 1600s.

“Sixteen states saw their guard rolls double over the past decade {1990 to 2000} while most of them reduced overall public employment…state and county correctional adminstrations, taken together, have elevated themselves to the rank of third largest employer in the land, just behind Manpower Inc, and Wal Mart, and just ahead of General Motors…the U.S. carceral system now employs four times as many people as McDonalds and seven times more than IBM.”
Loic Waquant
Punishing the Poor

“It is no simple matter to determine the precise extent to which mass incarceration is exacerbating the deep socio-economic and related cultural and political traumas that already plague inner-city communities and help explain disproportionate Black “criminality,” arrest, and incarceration in the first place. Still, it is undeniable that the race to incarcerate is having a profoundly negative effect on Black communities. Equally undeniable is the fact that Black incarceration rates reflect deep racial bias in the criminal justice system and the broader society. Do the cheerleaders of “get tough” crime and sentencing policy really believe that African-Americans deserve to suffer so disproportionately at the hands of the criminal justice system? There is a vast literature showing that structural, institutional, and cultural racism and severe segregation by race and class are leading causes of inner-city crime. Another considerable body of literature shows that Blacks are victims of racial bias at every level of the criminal justice system‹from stop, frisk, and arrest to prosecution, sentencing, release, and execution.”
Paul Street

“[T]he British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world. The empire also did a good deal to encourage those things in countries which were outside its formal imperial domain but under its economic influence through the “imperialism of free trade.” Prima facie, therefore, there seems a plausible case that the empire enhanced global welfare–in other words, was a Good Thing.”
Niall Ferguson

I want to look at a piece Brad Evans wrote for L.A. Review of Books, about Jacques Ranciere’s recently translated book Figures of History. In which this piece by Alfredo Jarr is referenced.
http://alfredojaar.net/gutete/gutete.html

Here is a paragraph from Evans’ article (http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/facing-intolerable#) that starts with the famous Adorno quote on art after Auschwitz.

“…sometimes too easily drawn that the extermination is “unrepresentable” or “unshowable” — notions in which various heterogeneous arguments conveniently merge: the joint incapacity of real documents and fictional imitations to reflect the horror experienced; the ethical indecency of representing that horror; the modern dignity of art which is beyond representation and the indignity of art as an endeavor after Auschwitz.[iv]
Countering this problem of representing humanity’s negation, Rancière resurrects what is for many cultural theorists an all-too-familiar (if unresolved) debate:
So we have to revise Adorno’s famous phrase, according to which art is impossible after Auschwitz. The reverse is true: after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, art is the only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; because art alone thereby makes the human perceptible, felt.[v]
Rancière’s revision of the Adorno question should be taken seriously. Its purpose is to rethink the political function of art, and, in doing so, start the process that will allow us to reimagine a more artistic conception of the political that is not simply tied to perceptions of endangerment and the pure task of human survival.”

Larry Bell

Larry Bell


There is a second passage I want to quote,

” He {Ranciere} focuses in particular on Jaar’s installation ‘The Eyes of Gutete Emerita’, which demands that the spectator first read about Emerita’s experience of the Rwandan genocide before being confronted with the woman’s concentrated and framed stare. Rancière acknowledges how the inversion of the gaze, the forced witnessing of the eyes upon the most horrendous acts, demands an appreciation of the way in which the intolerable can be turned into a recognition of humanity. As Rancière writes, instead of showing the mutilated bodies, Jaar’s work “restores the powers of attention itself.”[vii] The art historian and renowned cultural theorist Griselda Pollock notes the same, adding that Jaar’s installation asks the question “Will you too remember her eyes — eyes that look at you forever but forever see murder?”[viii] Jolting us “from the kind of consumption of the image that makes images out of atrocity without inducing a political response,” The Eyes register the experience that others had been obliged to witness. It is this element that marks the singularity of his work in creating encounters for the viewers far away from the event that force them to recognize a gap that has been cut into a living persons life by proximity to atrocity, by the wound that is trauma: an event too shocking to be assimilated.”

Evans says rightly that violence should be intolerable. Given that mass culture is now constantly finding various ways to depict violence and sadism for pleasure, this is pertinent and isnt too far from what I was trying to write about last time. However, the Jaar piece is highly problematic. In fact its far worse than problematic It is introducing the consumption of third world violence, as a subject, as a theme, even if making a rather portentious point about NOT showing the violence. The audience is asked to project their conceits onto the ‘eyes’ of the victim. A black African woman. But first, first the audience is admonished to read a bit of description. Except the description is the U.S. state department version of events. Griselda Pollock asks will you remember her eyes? This is white paternalism, and its additionally puerile and sophistic. Again, positing the savage, the one who saw ONLY murder.

Here is Dan Glazebrook on Robin Philpot correcting the party line. http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/21/the-real-lesson-of-the-rwandan-tragedy/

and Keith Harmon Snow’s interview here http://www.corbettreport.com/interview-886-keith-harmon-snow-reveals-the-truth-about-the-rwandan-genocide/

Royal Engineers, officers, Sudan 1885.

Royal Engineers, officers, Sudan 1885.


Additionally, this artwork of Jaar’s is frought with colonial cliches. It is a fetishizing of Africans as victims, and the use of eyes is reminiscent of much Colonial writing. The eyes of the predator, bloodshot, out of control; the prose of Empire while in the colonies is rife with descriptions of the eyes of the natives. This is almost caricature. These eyes are not like any others because they have seen a special horror. Secondly, there is something deeply sentimentalizing about this. The woman, the mother, helpless, but now (!) assisted by a white artist. A man! Artist as white savoir, who also gets to wring his hands, brimming with white guilt. Its very troubling frankly that Ranciere used this example, and that Evans didn’t take note.

D’Jeli Clark quotes Paul Landau’s book on photography and Colonialism:

“Toward the end of the 19th century, just as racial ideologues accomodated their thinking to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, photography fully took over the reportorial work of painters like [William Holman] Hunt and began to allow great numbers of urban people to “see” Africans living far away. The invention of the half-tone grid-system put photos in newspapers and books in 1888, and began the “10¢ magazine revolution.” Pictures froze images of “primitive” people who were supposed to be disappearing in the path of the very universalizing and homogenizing forces in which viewers were safely enmeshed. David Livingstone’s instructions to his brother, a photographer, transpose William Holman Hunt’s ideas into the incipient scientific language of the day: he asked Charles Livingstone to “secure characteristic specimens of the various tribes … for the purposes of ethnology.” Unlike “exhibitions,” traveling shows, and museums, photography illustrated Africa primarily by means of iconic signs, not indexical ones; like mobile displays, photography transferred “the location of analysis” back to the comfort of the metropole. Photography greatly increased people “in-the-know”: postcards, magazines, white hunter’s books, illustrated travel stories all yielded their messages in urban livingrooms and studies. The trajectory from painting to mechanical reproduction traced the shift from public display to private viewing.”

Chintan Upadyay

Chintan Upadyay


Clark adds that the Western imagination always saw the colonial subject in a rear view mirror. Framed by a colonial narrative and staging. The Jaar piece is not only politically misinformed, it patronizes the Rwandan people as victims that the white man failed to save. It is sending the Native back to the metropole, yet again. As to violence, the real violence, as Keith Harmon Snow says, goes back to include a history of slavery and plunder. But this piece exoticizes the conflict, the violence is ‘special’, it took place in the heart of darkness after all, and the white man ‘turned his back’ and allowed it happen (never mind the white man assisted in creating said violence). That is because, presumably, only the white man can problem solve.

Now as to the question of the social or political and its relationship to art, I will turn to Adorno, not least because his quote is part of Ranciere’s argument. Adorno though never addressed directly the social role of art. Rather he wrote of the tensions within individual works of art. For him the work of art represents the totality of society. Adorno wrote; “All that artworks do or bring forth has its latent model in social production.” The difficulty with Ranciere’s approach to art and society (and which Evans addresses quite well, which I will get to) is exactly related to Adorno’s aesthetics (and that quote). Lambert Zuidervaart says that for Adorno, art is ‘de-fetishizing fetishes’. This leads to a very complex but important discussion of the autonomy of art, and what Adorno called its ‘truth content’. Autonomy is socially mediated, but remains the precondition for truth content. Art is meant, for Adorno, to challenge the status quo. It also, as Evans notes, implies something unrealized, better, or Utopian in human aspiration. The problem with Adorno’s ideas on autonomy is that social institutions, mass culture, electronic media, have all changed the cultural and social landscape over the last fifty years. The post modern culture now rejects any idea of an absolute need for autonomy, or for heterogeneity. Even the idea of the Culture Industry needs revising. Still, the idea of art’s social purpose is always going to distort and over simplify the truth of art. When Gottfreid Holnwein is quoted:

“The world has been purged of fairies, elves, witches, angels, enchanted castles and hidden treasures. Dreaming and fantasizing is nowadays considered a chemical imbalance in the brain of the child. For reasons of national security there are no realms of imagination anymore in which to escape — children are held in the merciless headlight of the adults level-headed, common-sense-madhouse: a world of stock-markets, war, rape, pollution, television-moronism, prozak [sic], prison-camps, miss universe-competitions, genetic engineering, child pornography, Ronald McDonalds, Paris Hilton and torture.”

This is indeed the state of mass culture, and Evans says, correctly:

“Helnwein shows how facing the intolerable is not simply about revealing the raw reality of injustice in the present. It’s about transgressing the limits of mediated suffering. Or as Rancière might explain, it reveals precisely “the critical project of art” as it “eliminates its own lie in order to speak truthfully about the lie and the violence of the society that produces it.”

Bahia, Brazil. 1860 apprx. Photographer unknown.

Bahia, Brazil. 1860 apprx. Photographer unknown.


The colonizing of consciousness by corporate interests and U.S. Imperialism though is highly complex, and the proof of that is in the problematic Jaar piece. And here one runs into the autonomy question. Institutional hegemony being what it is, the constant compulsive repetition of propaganda and jingoistic narratives and image are now feeding off themselves, and have created codes, or shorthand for imparting message and meaning. This is why the truth of the artwork is not found in its content but in its form, or rather that the form is the radicalizing precondition for the non-identical. On a slightly prosaic level, again, the form of the Jaar piece is deeply reactionary. It is related to an extraction of value from Africa. That value is embedded in how artworks are circulated, funded, and displayed. One cannot photograph Rwanda and then return that image to the former colonizer, the white advanced world, and not have been engaged in yet more exploitation. Even if the money is collected for charity, it is just further shaming. This is why the topic of violence cannot be a blanket term, and why complaints about exploding latex heads in zombie movies is the least of all problems. The violence of white superiority seen in the HBO show The Affair, a world of white problems made by a privileged friend of the Clintons, and produced by a major corporate purveyor of *entertainment*, is really a deeper form of psychic violence. The emphasis on the de sensitizing aspect of violence in entertainment is valid, but often couched in the most undialectical way, and often underscored with a certain Puritan distrust of art and culture. The violence theme becomes equated in this process with society’s licentiousness.
Gottfried Helnwein, "Disasters of War, 13".

Gottfried Helnwein, “Disasters of War, 13″.


Now it is interesting that the Helnwein artwork under discussion is perhaps among his least effective. I think Helnwein is a very important artist. But the blood soaked little girl (blond in point of fact) is too literal an image, one too familiar, and one the opposite of provocative. We’ve seen very similar images in Vogue. I think this is an issue I write about a good deal, and it has to do with the spatializing of mimetic engagement, but also with the questions Evans asks here, which I think are perhaps not the right questions and are wrong in a very particular way. One does not read such an image by asking questions, anyway. The viewer is not conducting that sort of interrogation. Take a different Helnwein painting; the Donald Duck image on a street in downtown L.A. This image is far more disruptive. The lurking menace of that street, the lack of pedestrians, the color that saturates the photo on which this work is built..and the image of the Walt Disney character, Donald Duck, is more involved in raising questions. It is not overtly about violence, yet the uncertainty of that image, the anxiety, is in the end more durable, and destabilizing than Disasters of War 13. The duck character is suddenly unfriendly. He still smiles, but it is the smile of a torturer, or thief. Worse, a politician. My lifetimes assumptions are interrupted at that moment, my childhood memories, my trust in a personal nostalgia, are all invoked; the meaning of kitsch, of mass culture, is being put on trial. But by whom? For what? A hot summer night, as the title implies, a looming Liquor store, in a low rent industrial area (actually I know that street in L.A., in the loft district and its no longer so low rent) invoke filmic associations. This is a film noir image. This is Edgar G. Ulmer or Siodmak. The tragic turns into the grotesque said Jan Kott. Here the cartoon commodity turns into a threat, a unsettling and contradictory image suddenly seen on his way to buy a bottle of Night Train. It is neither grotesque nor is it not; the well known warmth of a Disney character becomes suspect, to be distrusted suddenly.
Gottfried Helnwein. "In the Heat of the Night".

Gottfried Helnwein. “In the Heat of the Night”.


On the other hand, the bandaged little girl is teetering on the edge of bathos. It is close…not quite there….but close to maudlin. The idealized almost Victorian image of the girl, blond, dressed in white, with white make up, is an interesting image, and in the context of the entire ‘Disasters of War’ series, it is more effective. Helnwein serializes his works often, and it is usually from within those juxtapositions that the real effects of his image are found. As is, I think the dialectical movement within the piece is short circuited.

Evans summation is very good, and it cuts to the heart of I suspect everyone’s quibbles with Ranciere. I would argue that the central problem with discussions of art and politics is that art has no political purpose. It has political meaning. But its not meant to be propaganda. The social utility of art, its purpose lies exactly in its lack of purpose. There is where one finds its autonomy as well. And that is why, under the growing surveillance state, the more authoritarian mediation of daily life, such lack of purpose, or autonomy, is harder to find. The meaning, the PR, is *given* to the artwork before its made, almost. This is the real nightmare of the technological reproduction aspect of art; there is no fertile space left, psychically or literally for the making of art. Everything is commodified and reified, and everything made, even the most conceptual pieces, is appropriated instantly. And the possibility that appropriation takes place apriori might be the last frontier for the ‘brave new world’.

Sammy Baloji, photography. "Série Mémoire" (2006), Lubumbashi.

Sammy Baloji, photography. “Série Mémoire” (2006), Lubumbashi.


As to that Auschwitz quote. It may be that more people have written “that quote is misunderstood” than have actually misunderstood it. No other quote of Adorno’s comes close to the citings of this famous maxim. There is a better more relevant quote of Adorno’s.
“It is the lack of experience of the imagery of real art, partly substituted and parodied by the ready made stereotypes of the amusement industry, which is at least one of the formative elements of that cynicism that has finally transformed the Germans, Beethoven’s own people, into Hitler’s own people.” Adorno saw the collapse of education in Germany, and especially cultural and arts education, as a decisive element in the rise of National Socialism. As Hullot-Kentor points out, there were many Nazi SS officers who could play the violin, but that’s not the point. The hopes, Utopian dreams and desires of humanity, from religion to philosophy had morphed into aesthetic questions that seems threatened by the mass conflagration of World Wars 1 & 2. For Adorno, his last and ultimately unfinished book Aesthetic Theory is really about the possibility of art in the coming 21st century. The problem was that great art now had no audience. That cultural education had so collapsed that it was quite possibly too late for aesthetic concerns to rescue humankind. The cultured individual, civilized, humane, had disappeared.

Today, where once an idealized past was a foil for proving the destroyed present, there is the regrettable past (usually recent past) as proof our benevolent present. This is related to this discussion of a future pedagogy, which Evans raises quite rightly at the end of his article. Adorno, in his late work, had started to see style (and fashion, and novelty) as almost synonymous with domination. The constant production of the *new* is of course connected to mass production, but the cycle is now so accelerated that artworks (film especially perhaps) look dated almost as soon as they appear. Five years means a film looks old fashioned. This is because technical virtuosity has replaced form. Actual style is now just a new process, a new technical factor, a new version of the same. The new stimulates shopping. In other words, the genuinely *new* in art is that which ceases to imitate the marketing of consumer lines, the Spring line, the fall collection, the new and improved toothbrush. The relations of production don’t change much structurally, but the artwork must, as a first act, reveal the sameness under the mask of novelty. The aesthetic education will always be political. I don’t think one needs an aesthetics of the political. But I do think one needs a political reading of art, but not as message, but as history.

“Because artworks register and objectivate levels of experience that are fundamental to the relation to reality yet are almost always concealed by reification, aesthetic experience is socially as well as metaphysically compelling.”
Adorno

Santu Mofokeng, photography. Soweto, South Africa.

Santu Mofokeng, photography. Soweto, South Africa.

Today, mass culture, corporate culture, is enclosed within assumptions about entertainment, and it reflects the values of the corporate ownership class that makes it. It is repetitive, and yet predicated on ideas of novelty and originality. The role of popular culture today, though, has changed in another way. Where once popular forms of entertainment were simply a way to use up leisure time, or for distraction, today they are far more deeply intwined with morality, with behavioral attitudes (back to Adorno on style) and political opinion. But most of all they serve to instruct the individual, through the erasure of mimesis, and through repetition of its style codes, in psychological conformity. Never has a population so uniformly accepted propaganda. The last significant aspect of popular mass culture is the ways it silences radical voices. It disappears them. Either through hostile appropriation, through a hegemony of distribution, or through simple omission, which is really just the result of the first two.

Keita Seydou, photography. Mali, 1950s.

Keita Seydou, photography. Mali, 1950s.

The professionalization of art has had a hugely deleterious affect on culture. The endless MFA programs in various creative mediums, the exclusionary practices of Academia, where actual laws keep non accredited teachers from teaching. If you have no degree, even if a University *wanted* to hire you, often they couldn’t. Most university teaching is done now by adjuncts. And they live very economically precarious lives. Still, the domination of lay pedagogy by institutional instructors is rarely questioned. So, in the arts, the non accredited teacher is disadvantaged. Which means the ideological back drop is created for students by those at least more *responsible* to institutional norms. You see the problem here; and again, going back to The Bauhaus, almost none of the instructors had degrees. There was a freedom that no longer exists. So the question is not what would a new study of aesthetics and politics look like but who would teach it. And the only potential for such change is to tear down the elitist privilege and fixed hierarchies of accreditation.

A final note on African photography. I have mentioned this before, but in the light of the Jarr installation, its worth looking at Africa through African eyes. Keita Seydou was a photographer from Bamako, Mali. Born in 1921, he took a great many portraits in the 1940s and 50s in Mali. In a sense he was the African Disfarmer. Both men ran small streetfront shops and took pictures of everyday people, often on holiday, or for special occasions. Seydou took remarkably dry shots; austere almost. There is a quality of August Sander in his work as well. He is among my favorite photographers. But there are many others. Malik Sidibe, J.D. Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere, and Sammy Baloji, Depara, and Zanele Muholi, and South African Santu Mofokeng. There are great white African photographers as well, David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo. The point is that Africans make their own art.

Obiora Udechukwu

Obiora Udechukwu


I posted three images of work by Hercules Seghers, a printmaker and painter from the early 17th century. Rembrandt owned 8 paintings of Seghers, and only 12 overall survive today. Only 183 prints survive. Rembrandt modeled several of his own etchings on Seghers’ prints. Seghers is one of those geniuses who creates a small catalogue of a very specific vision of the world. Seghers work is, like a couple other artists from Holland in that era, surprisingly modern looking. There is a meticulous but never fussy discipline at work, and a boldness of compositional vision that one finds nowhere else in the early 1600s. In his own way Seghers reminds me of Pirinisi, the creator of worlds of infinite depth, from a vision that is unsually skewed from the norm of the period.
Hercules Seghers

Hercules Seghers

Seghers prints are his greatest work, though his paintings are very fine. The prints resemble aquatint, but that was a later invention. These were sugar-lift prints (or sugar-bite, or lift ground technique) and this was a process rarely bothered with at the time because it was deemed hardly worth the effort. The effects achieved by way of the granulated sugar were not deemed significant at the time. Today the prints bear the strangeness of both Seghers vision and his technique. They have an odd sense of negative space, of illusion almost between foreground and background. But it is finally the framing, the sense of space, that unusual inexplicable Segherian space. Then there is the color. Segher’s prints are oddly elusive in their impressions on the eye; ochre and blue, and earth brown and damp greens. There is a nice summary of his work from the British Musuem here http://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/HerculesSegers_painted-prints-introduction.pdf

Hercules Seghers

Hercules Seghers


There is another artist little known, really, who deserves mention. Adam Elsheimer, a 17th century German who is also connected to Rembrandt. Elsheimer was highly valued by Rembrandt’s tutor Peiter Lastman. Elsheimer is another of those remarkable minor figures who nonetheless exerted huge influence despite producing few works. Elsheimer died very young in his early thirties. A solitary depressive by all account, he, like Seghers, remains something of an enigma. There is actually not a great deal of biographical information on him, and of dubious reliability. He did certainly travel to Venice, and Rome. He may have studied there with an older German painter, Johann Rottenhammer. Elsheimer had two of Rottenhammer’s paintings among his belongings when he died. The older German specialized in cabinet paintings on copper. He knew the Flemish painter Brill, and both of them knew, in passing anyway, Rubens. Elsheimer converted to Catholicism, and married a Scottish/German woman while in Rome. After his death Rubens wrote; “one could have expected things from him that one has never seen before and never will see.”
Adam Elsheimer. "Maiden Chased by Satyrs".

Adam Elsheimer.
“Maiden Chased by Satyrs”.


He painted mostly on copper and on a small scale. His work is precise and strange, the subjects esoteric and the treatment is almost disorienting, really. He worked very slowly, and was in trouble often with his patrons.

Elsheimer and Seghers are both considered minor by virtue of their very small output. Neither were good businessmen and both led mostly solitary lives. Elsheimer did have an interest in science, and attended social gatherings at the Vatican botanical society for a time. It is interesting that both have a connection to Rembrandt, for it is Rembrandt more than any other painter of the 17th century who recuperated all that came before, synthesized it and produced something that completed what came before and initiated what came after. He invented the bourgeois individual as image much as Shakespeare did as mind. Western culture coalesced around the Dutch traders of the early 1700s, and the scale of ambition changed, the hubris of Capital, and the recognition of social hierarchy was part of the inner dialogue of people.

Adorno ends the section “Society” in Aesthetic Theory by asking a rhetorical question. “What would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering.” It is in the expression of art, that this suffering resides. It is the tension wrought by a denouncing of alienation and domination. But this is not found in becoming voyeurs to suffering. For that is is ideology, if we agree ideology is essentially false consciousness.

Adam Elsheimer.  "Saint Christopher Carrying Infant Christ".

Adam Elsheimer.
“Saint Christopher Carrying Infant Christ”.

The Same Story, But Cleaner

Anne Truitt

Anne Truitt

“In the late ’60s, Guy Debord—who was a situationalist—he looked again at the work of Edward Bernays, and saw that now what we called the media was starting to be joined by governments and by financial banking systems. And he called it the “integrated spectacle.” So we’re all living in this completely false reality that doesn’t really exist. The thing that’s so funny is that we’ve become the mouthpiece of this consumersism.”
Penny Arcade

“The sage, holding onto the left half of the tally
does not demand payment from others;
the person with potency {de} takes charge of the tally;
the person without potency looks to collecting on it.”

Lao Tzu

“On the other side there are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts — facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.”
Thomas Nagel

There was a moment, about half way through David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl when I started to ask myself why Fincher had chosen this material. Perhaps its an homage of sorts to Vertigo, but the question remained for me throughout. Nothing Fincher did suggested a desire to reach beyond the clever or derivitive. That sense of intellectual pillage seems to fascinate Fincher. One could argue, well, that’s what genre partly is, always. Maybe, maybe this is just borrowing from Brian DePalma, and Hitchcock, and from himself even, and maybe in a sense that is just post modern sampling. But I happened to watch Vertigo not so long ago, and there is something in that film that is linked to deeper questions of memory, and conformity, of how we rewrite our own histories. In Gone Girl there is none of that, there isnt much more than the working out of a puzzle. But this is not, probably, entirely the fault of Fincher. Or rather, he is an artist trained in another era, a director borrowing image and story from another world. An imaginary world.

Balthus

Balthus


Jacques Ranciere, in a new book on cinema, suggests three branches of approach to film: theory, politics, and art. The cinephile’s love of cinema is something I remember, and on a personal level was something I learned from my old departed friend Terry Ork. I think everyone probably had a conflicted relationship with Ork, but I have never learned as much from any single person as I did from him. The cinephile’s passion for film was linked to the idea of mise en scene, something very hard to define, but as Ranciere put it, something that inevitably led to a kind of wisdom. Mise en scene was that quality of establishing a relation to the world, that was expressed in that ineffable frame, and sequence. Certain directors seemed to have an innate ability to create a film vocabulary that allowed for a deeper engagement with the world, and with one’s own memory. Take Vertigo, for example; a film that has haunted and disrupted audiences since it was made. But why? Seeing it again I found myself just as transfixed as I had been the first time I saw it, and the ten times in between. There is something quite independent of the narrative (it seems) that triggers an emotional reverie. In some peculiar way, that I hope to transcribe here a bit, it has is a strange mythic rhythm and sense of image that seduces the viewer. It is a secret cinema.

“Cinema is also an ideological apparatus producing images that circulate in society and in which society recognizes its own stereotypes, it legends from the past and its imagined futures.”
Jacques Ranciere

Terry Ork

Terry Ork

There is something in great directors that is participating in the construction of our world. Mass culture, kitsch forms, do the same thing, but they create a world that doesn’t exist, but in another sense, of course, does. It is a shallow world of manipulation and deceit, but it advertises itself as transparent and progressive. Literature, all narrative, does this too, of course. Our world is still partly the world of Shakespeare and Dante, whether one ever read either. We think about ourselves, and not just the world, though those things cannot really be separated, based on the stories we are told and that we hear. Even the fragments of stories shape how we evaluate and organize our lives, how we come to think of ourselves. If in theatre there is the residue of the repetitions of rehearsal, of memorized text, then in film there is capturing of actors, often long dead. That dislocation of time is one of the most haunting qualities of cinema. I remember Ork, who I believe was born William Collins in San Diego, but went by William Terry, and William Drake, and finally Terry Ork …and wrote on film under the name Noah Forde. I remember Ork’s never trusting the too literary in film. He loved Bresson and Minnelli, Ophuls, and Nick Ray, and he translated himself many early Cahiers du Cinema pieces. I share these memories of Ork because it was a time when I first started to grasp the pull of film, of cinephilia, and we’d often go to three and four films a day. In private film clubs, in apartments or lofts and at theatres or museums. Nobody had real jobs, at least not the kind of jobs you had to show up to much. Ork was also a very respectable poet, but part of his character flaw was an inability to ever allow his work to be published. But it was a time when I learned to appreciate Bly and Bill Knott, and James Wright. And these influences helped shape, I think, how I came to view theatre and film.
Gone Girl (2014). David Fincher, dr.

Gone Girl (2014). David Fincher, dr.


Over the last forty years the cultural landscape has changed dramatically. Media consolidation is one factor, and the continuing ascension of marketing and PR. The world that has been constructed by mass culture is far more intractable, it is more homogenized, more white, more pro military and more pro Imperialist as well. Take a show like The Blacklist. An amusing enough genre piece with a very effective James Spader in the lead. But the most recent episode, as an example, features a Mossad agent fighting a nefarious Iranian terrorist cell. These are the paradigms of mass culture. And it would be easy to almost randomly select other network shows and find the same manufactured political model. Less obvious are the deeper implications of film as an art form. For in this approach are to be found deeper political meanings. Ranciere quotes Michael Mourlet: “Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world in accordance with our desires.”This is true, up to a point, but the more significant question is what shapes our desires. Fincher’s film is an expression of a shallowness of desire, and to compare it to Hitchcock is to feel, on a primal emotional level, a lost world of other desires.
The Bad and The Beautiful (1953). Vincent Minnelli, dr.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1953). Vincent Minnelli, dr.


The sense of film as mechanized Utopia has fallen away, and the bombardment of image, the circulating of image and mini-narratives, ad copy really, has now so saturated daily life that our perceptual processes are unavoidably linked to this machine, but it is an oppressive and intellectually debilitating machine now. Watching Minnelli’s The Bad and The Beautiful (1953) is to access another time. It is also a very early *meta* film. A film about the business of making films.

David Hall and Roger T. Ames have written several excellent books on Taoist thought and on Confucius. “It is the word picture as experienced by the celebrant of the poem and not (necessarily) the private experience of the poet, that constitutes the image. In fact, the most productive manner of discussing images is in terms of their communally experienceable character. Only such images are directly efficacious.” Thus, for example, the I Ching (Book of Changes) contains particularistic images, that are activated by a social memory based on traditions, rituals, practices and literature. As Hall and Ames put it, these images are ‘ritually protected’. In the West, at least since the Enlightenment anyway (but almost certainly in a different way, before) language has privileged the literal, the instrumental, the denotive. Metaphor is secondary, or parasitical (Ames and Hall), and this is worth noting here because of the extraordinary influence of screen image and more particularly of film and TV.

Lita Albuquerque

Lita Albuquerque


In the Minnelli, the quality of adulthood is a sort of background. The idea that making movies is for the immature. And yet the fictional producer Jonathan Shields seems to the world of 2014 remarkably adult. There is no snark. No sarcasm in the entire film. There is forgiveness, but not amnesia, at the end. And Minnelli was, of course, among the more elegant movers of the camera. It helps to have Kirk Douglas, when Fincher had Ben Affleck. The coiled sexual energy in Douglas is palpable, and like James Stewart, Douglas was able to get angry and take it to the extreme very quickly. That was the energy below the surface of Douglas. And it was in his body, and it spoke to something that relates to class. John Garfield had a walk that was not dissimilar. James Cagney, too, in a more exaggerated fashion. If sharks could walk, that is how they would walk. But there was never anything sadistic in Douglas’ eyes. He could portray a villain (Out of the Past for example) but there was never wanton cruelty in his eyes.

Now, there is another aspect to technique in film. Fincher is always cited as a technically masterful director. From one perspective he is, but from another, he is not. The quote from Lao Tzu at the top is a relatively obscure passage. But the short version is that *de* is short hand for authenticity. The man or woman in possession of *de*, the zhenren, is the one who is capable of having gone past mastery. He or she is master of the mastery. Hence, not in need of mastery. This idea runs very deep in Confucius and in Taoist thought. The zhenren, the authentic person, is transformative by virtue of having deferred to nature, and then incorporated nature. That deference is hard to translate, but it’s relational, and it negates by erasing the oppositional, through allowing it. It is actually very close to Adorno.

Ad Dekkers

Ad Dekkers


“A work of art that fails to become its own most enemy remains the imitation of the muteness of history.”
Robert Hullot-Kentor.

Kentor quotes Wallace Stevens: “Art must be a violence against the violence; but if this violence is to be more than violence, what history presents art with must be returned to it pacified in form as memory.” I believe that is a paraphrase, and partly Hullot-Kentor’s commentary, but the point is that negative dialectics demands that art be impossible, and that it destroy itself in a sense. That sense in which it destroys itself is in mimesis. This is that sense in the viewer or audience or reader of the artwork that feels a helplessness. For memory is humbling. The cheap techno violence of most modern cinema is not just de-sensitizing, for it is that also, but it is there to create a sense of class hierarchy, and the illusion of power. For this pop-violence is not violent, it is fun, it is stimulating, and it is therefore allowed to be ideological. Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Memorial is the distillation of all wars, of mass industrial scale murder. The passage downward, to the underworld reminds us we are journeying across a dead zone, a killing floor of the soul. This is the Tao of violence in a sense. One of the most exquisite moments in The Bad and The Beautiful is when Jonathan Shields plays the recording of the actress’ father reading a monologue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There is nothing in the least portentous in that scene. The father is dead, there is only his voice. Reading a scene about death and fleeting existence. In the violence of today’s Zombie films or war movies, there is only camouflaged plunder, there is an unmistakable echo of the domination of the surplus population today. For all of it, from The Walking Dead to Homeland, there is the camouflaged pillage of Globalization. The latent meaning lays there disguised as aliens or viruses or Muslim terrorists, or vampires or zombies, all of them operating in their own slightly different register, but all of them reproducing the essential violent dynamic of this society. A violence directed from the privileged few against the disempowered many.

Homeland, 2012 (Showtime).

Homeland, 2012 (Showtime).


The fundamental unreality of this pop-violence allows a distance from any particular violence, and in that unrealness lies the smug condescension of the ruling class, of white supremacist Imperialist thinking. The increasing casualness with which this violence is depicted also reflects the indifference of those in power to those without power. Shooting hoodie wearing black drug dealers is simply and actually quite obviously the drama of colonial murder. The mistakenly released super weaponized bio-agent is the reproduction of smallpox blankets handed to Native Americans. And so forth. The unrelenting lack of compassion or, especially, forgiveness in characters in mainstream TV and film is the posture of the overlord dealing with a runaway slave. The unreal level of revenge in husband and wife stories is, again, simply reproducing the guard on horseback watching over the chain gang. Take your pick.

“The gesture draws on a vernacular nominalism that amounts to a procedural dismissal of whatever aspect of an object might lay claim to the universal as the objects own autonomy; this is rejected as fraudulent and an injustice for presuming to acknowledge anything that could come between the object and those uses that might be made of it.”
Robert Hullot-Kentor
On Adorno’s aesthetics

So, the technical facility of a Fincher is one that only tells the same story, yet again. It is almost intentional (if unconscious) in its superficiality. When Rosamund Pike murders her billionaire boyfriend in Gone Girl, there is only set design, and choreography, but no real violence. Nobody is upset by that scene. Nobody. The facade violence then serves as the plaster for the shape of movement which is reproducing this familiar sub textual story of class placement and social hierarchies. It is plastering over a skeletal frame that leaves only the contours of domination. Without that sexualized titillating violence the architecture of oppression lears back at the viewer undisguised, a grimacing death’s head.

Donald Judd (1968).

Donald Judd (1968).


Of course there is also an ideological layer, the obvious one in which all Arabs are bad. So the Arab shooting the U.S. Marine is also, though, the plaster that allows a pattern recognition in which certain kinds of people are sacrificed to maintain order (power, property etc). The plantation owner becomes then, inversely, the Arab terrorist, and then they can easily reverse these roles in the next scene. For that violence is not real, it is carried out in sequences highly familiar, scored in the most familiar ways, and acted as if in an advertisement, a commercial. But in the end the raised fist is always the slave owner’s fist. Again, let me quote Hullot-Kentor on Adorno’s aesthetics: “By structure of law, we do not permit equality to be pursued except as a fulcrum of inequality.” So, since liberal *equality* still allows extreme privilege, homelessness, starvation, denied medical care, it therefore becomes the club with which to beat those not living up to this *equality* ideal. The white liberal has never forgotten that tolerance and equality were ideological weapons to protect his class interests. The mass cultural narrative is always telling stories of domination, even and especially if presented as stories of liberation.

The culture industry today, mass culture, hides its authoritarianism under masks with labels such as “human rights”, “equality”, and “anti violence” (or the Hollarback video etc). This is true, too, for celebrity left journalists from Penny to Danny Gold to VICE. All claims of barbarism (again, via Hullot-Kentor) or of brutal regimes, or of repression of rights, are always just echos of Lord Kitchner, of Empire, of King Leopold and the Raj. This structure and this grammar migrate easily enough to stories about Vampires or Zombies or super viruses. The entire Ebola narrative is one cooked up in some Hollywood office forty or sixty years ago. It is torn from the pages of Hollywood script labs, not biological warfare labs.

Andre Derain

Andre Derain


The idea of equality also is a structure of grammar and linguistics. And of instrumental thought. Yet, there is still another aspect buried in this; the expectation of a climax, a denouement, and a resolution. The financialized invisible, the economic underpinnings that allow for an elite group the ability to grasp or to *see* equality etc etc etc, also exists only in exchange value, spread sheets and ledgers and accessed by those ‘free’ enough to devote time to ‘self improvement’, to ‘working on themselves’. The bourgeois balanced checkbook is the model of restrained critique, fairness, reasonableness.

Adorno of course was fascinated with the disenchantment of society. Today, the news, the left and right paid journalists, all decry the evil of ISIS, the barbarity of Russia, and the ruthless dictators of the South America. Molly Crabapple can write a sentence that includes “…the brutal Maduro regime”. The white mask of smug superiority — and this is the same mask worn in narratives like Homeland, but also is the same plastered wall crack that provides white men in costumes (ideologically and aesthetically speaking) acting out The Walking Dead‘s fight for survival. Reducing mankind to the level of primitive, as is the narrative of all zombie or post apocolypse films and TV, is really an understanding that we ARE primitive, and that maybe we desire it. The problem with all science fiction evolutionary tales of super minds or AI stuff is that we are actually heading in the opposite direction. Capitalism and corporate science is not reaching for the stars (except literally to strip mine them) but rather enslaving and holding society back, reducing it to a primitive state of dependence for shelter, food, and warmth. Education is destroyed, so that sci fi future of brainiacs is only a few white brainiacs on private jets served by indentured slaves. Evolution for the few.

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Roger Corman, dr.

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Roger Corman, dr.


The West’s desire to conquer Nature is the antithetical stance of Taoism. The authentic person, the zhenren, dominates himself the better to defer to Nature, and merge with it in synthesis, and a mastery of mastery. The West’s idea of dominating nature starts with its acceptance of dominating man. In the false Missouri of Fincher’s Gone Girl, I was reminded of James Wright’s poem, Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry Ohio.

“In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.”

It is one of the greatest of American poems. This is everything that Gone Girl was not. It was not Vertigo, it was not Minnelli or Ray or Mizoguchi, or Bresson or Godard. It was another Puritan cleansing of meaning and depth, of deep emotions. Adorno saw the truth of artworks in their form, and saw in their form the transcription of the history of human suffering. Instead, today, in mass culture the form transcribes only the history of domination, from the pov of the dominator. This was the message of Pasolini’s Salo. Today form is, in mass culture, the stern schoolteacher, ruler in hand, and in this interrupted gesture (per Adorno and Benjamin both) lies the latent sadism of all its meanings. It is not the violence of exploding zombie heads that should trouble us, but the violence of colonial plunder and conquest expressed over and over and over as the screeching tires of a cop car chasing a “bad guy”, or the nicely turned out woman lawyer working as DA, or the avuncular Uncle who makes funny comments in the latest sit com: for the really emancipatory in art is found in that which formally removes these meanings, and strips away the plastered holes. Art must negate that which is the whole, for, per Adorno, the whole is untrue.

One of the greatest of all science fiction films is The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, directed by Roger Corman. The dialectic of defeat has never been more clearly revealed. It is a modern Book of Job, and still, a sort of meta narrative recounting the history of micro budget B films.

James Wright

James Wright

There is no Missouri in the Fincher. There is only suburbia as found in TV series for fifty years. This is the ‘not-Missouri’ you might find on Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best. Affleck is such a hopelessly lumpen presence that it drains all energy from the scenes, even if the potential existed. In the entire film there was only one, maybe twenty second sequence, that I thought was transcendent in anyway. Rosamund Pike staggers away from her motel, and wanders into a truck stop/gas station. She uses the pay phone. That’s it. It’s just remarkably shot, the sound editing (which is good, I have to say, for the entire film) is perfect, and the sense of the background trucks is simply hypnotizing. And, above all of that, something unnerving is taking place. Its unexpected, and it’s scary. Probably not an accident its a sequence without Affleck. The meaning is linked to the non-representational. It is only felt, fleetingly, as the truth of cinema. That is mise en scene. It comes out of an interruption of the mimetic subjective process, where something happens that can’t be processed in conventional terms.

For Adorno, the negative dialectic meant turning violence against itself. The domination of nature, or conquest of nature, was the pre-history in ourselves, those archaic traces of the irrational. And only in negating it can come reconciliation. In The Man With the X Ray Eyes, the future of science is a nightmare of seeing that we cannot stop.

Titan missile silos, decommissioned. Location undisclosed. US midwest.

Titan missile silos, decommissioned. Location undisclosed. US midwest.


There is a whole discussion to be had around the dismissing of Freud by a society ever more dependent on, and linked to, an artifical landscape whose signposts were written in televisionese. The giant telecoms with advanced algorithmic analysis and data mining via the ever more invasive spy system of US/NSA/corporate controls has removed the personal choice in how to create ‘desires’ and ‘needs’. It is inching toward a total domination of data, applied in a weird logic of instrumental thinking to the individual shopper. Machines operate independent of human judgement. This marketing research, for that is in a sense what it all is, is now applied to most cultural product. Certainly to most TV and film. The fact that it is deeply flawed hardly matters because all outcomes are wins for the corporation. So, watching David Fincher’s latest film I couldnt help but realize that in a sense Fincher was accessing the reality as it is experienced by millionaire directors, who work for billion dollar studios, where marketing is based, largely, in the same machine logic as facebook or the NSA. The flatness, the loss of affect, that seems to peep back at the viewer from Gone Girl is the world as Fincher experiences it. Or rather, the world as Fincher ‘doesn’t’ experience it.

“Another way to describe the artwork’s masking of truth is to say that, instead of having or containing the truth, the artwork ‘reflects’ the truth, so long as reflection is here understood as a mode of mimesis.”
Tom Huhn
Introduction to Adorno

James Ensor

James Ensor


As a sort of thought experiment, it’s worth looking at talented director, a Cronenberg, and examine his early work in comparison with his later much higher budgeted work. Cronenberg felt creatively exhausted around the time of Spider. Now he makes bloated literary adaptations with high brow pretensions, and free of anything like his individual stamp — assuming one believes he had one. Videodrome certainly still feels like something special, and maybe Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch even. How does this relate to his ever increasing budget? Or fame? I don’t know. And its hardly a worthy experiment in the terms I’m making it. But my point is that Fincher is still making Nike commercials, essentially. We live in a society in which language has been altered into consumer-speak. Terms like ‘the private sector’, or ‘corporate family’, or any of the military jargon applied by the US press secretary, culminating in ‘disposition matrix’. These Orwellian terms are appropriated for entertainment purposes. Now, how does this link to film art? I think it’s partly linked by how difficult it is to make films such The Bad and the Beautiful today. There is nothing that is not connected electronically, and yet superficially. Text messages, twitter, social media, and just cell phones themselves have created a constant never stopping surge of information that people process quickly, in emotionally limited ways. Disposable information. Space is in flux, place is fluid, and I increasingly suspect that this quality of being ‘plugged in’ has very high psychic costs.

Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins


It is worth remembering that Adorno’s criticism, in fact much of his writing, was not intended for the University. Benjamin as well, wrote for radio and newspapers. Peter Uwe Hohendahl points out that by 1959 Adorno was at a stage of acute disillusionment with the University, and the state of philosophy. He was aware of the shrinking sphere of public discourse of an intellectual or philosophical, or critical nature. The counter culture that appeared in the sixties was more complex than, I think, has been understood by many commentators. But in that interview with Penny Arcade, from which I pulled a quote at the top of this post, she reflects back on the Bohemia that existed in New York at that time. It existed in Los Angeles, too, and in San Francisco. It existed in London certainly, and in Paris. It does not exist in any of those cities now. There is no sense of an avant garde, and I find people in general to be very cynical about this topic, about the loss of an avant garde. The young tend to think nothing was really lost. And this is linked to the dissolving or end of modernism. The changing of New York, or at least Manhattan, from Bohemia to Mall took place over about twenty years. Certainly the New York of the 1970’s, when I lived in Chinatown and saw movies every day, is long gone. The post modern has come to feel increasingly like an advertisement for passivity. Mass culture feels increasingly like fascism. The forgetting of what radical aesthetic practice meant is costly, for in place of the avant garde one gets increasingly trivial comic books, or one gets David Fincher.

Artworks, and here we are talking more specifically about film, are not mimetically negating the world, or reality per se, but are negating the spell that is cast upon us. It is not reality but the spell — and this is crucial in understanding work that isn’t opposing this spell. This is a central tenant for Adorno, that the society of domination was in the process of destroying subjectivity. This is also where Adorno borrowed heavily from Freud; for he saw all artworks as illustrating the history of subjectivity. This is also why Ranciere saw the concept (if that’s what it is) of mise en scene as inevitably leading to a kind of wisdom. For the spell of reality, or the spell of an artwork, both exist only by the subject’s submission, or embrace, and this is the truth of mimesis. To express without reification, or in another sense, without objectification. But this expression is both fleeting, and historically mediated.

“The unity of the system derives from unreconcilable violence.”
Adorno

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard


Adorno believed that “legitimate works of art must without exception be socially undesired”. Now, the emigre psychoanalysts and artists who fled fascism, arrived on the cusp of McCarthyism, and their already well developed paranoia meant that they, at least superficially, tried to adjust and assimilate to life in the U.S. Psychoanalysis turned to adjustment, and artists looked to avoid overtly political statements. Even Minnelli, born in Michigan, was descended from Sicilian radicals and revolutionaries who were forced to flee Palermo after the uprising of 1848. The sense of exile ran deeply in all these emigre directors; Lang, Wilder, Siodmak, et al. The history of European culture and education was linked with oppression and flight. Tom Huhn makes a profoundly perceptive comment in his introductory essay on Adorno, when he makes mention of Freud’s aside that the history of civilization might be written using a chart that indicates the ever increasing use of soap. This also connects with Theweleit’s study of the German Freikorps; sexuality, fascism, moisture and dirt. Huhn adds that soap is the anti-mimetic, psychoanalytically speaking, and that Soap Operas were so called for a reason.

Syd Soloman

Syd Soloman


Soap then is a controlling mechanism for the psyche. And mimesis is stunted by the *too clean*. The point here is only that the work of these emigre directors, and their children (Minnelli) was mimetic in a sense that much later work was not. Mimesis is always in process, and must not stop for explanation, for that rigidity in form is, I think, akin to Reich’s ideas about repression and the rigidity of the body. The sensuality of Kirk Douglas vs the rigidity of Ben Affleck. The moist mise en scene of Minnelli and the dry and arid in Fincher. This is, no doubt, pushing this idea in a far too literal way, but it helps explain something of what has changed culturally over the last half century. The truth content of the artwork, to follow Adorno again, is reflected — and today, the unceasing production of kistch, and pop-violence, and reactionary work is reflecting back the already destroyed subjectivity of a culture of commodity fethishizing, conformity masked as individuality, and domination as freedom. The post modern expression, in mass culture, is repreating the same story, the same callus condescension and the same interrupted blow, the overlord poised to beat his servant while chatting to the cook.

Cannibalizing Culture

David Benjamin

David Benjamin

“These sacrifice zones of the corporate state are expanding. The recent shooting of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson revealed the insidious disease of white supremacy and how easily U.S. cities can turn into a military occupied police state. With unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers, the Obama administration continues to threaten press freedom and engage in extrajudicial killing through drone attacks for anyone who is on the receiving end of U.S. imperial foreign policy.
The world is quickly becoming one big open-air prison.”

Nozomi Hayase

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
Paulo Freire

“-What takes place- in a narrative is from the referential {reality} point of view literally nothing…”
Roland Barthes

“This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”
Thomas Jefferson
1813, on problem of ‘Indians’.

If you took the major institutional equity theatres in major American cities, or mid majors, say population of one million, or a million and a half (Rochester is, after all, a million, as is Birmingham…and neither are considered large metro areas) and you examined the new plays, new work produced at these theatres for the last twenty five years, I am willing to bet you that you cannot find a single work by a playwright who wasnt either a graduate of an MFA theatre arts or writing program (and maybe some were only Enlgish majors or Law), or at least *developed* in house at the theatre in question. In other words, I would guess there are no plays written by Mortuary workers, or truck drivers, or nurses or warehouse workers, or factory workers or kindergarten teachers or ranch hands. Not unless they have gone through the ideological cleansing of an MFA program. Rarely, however, does the working class hear its own voice on stage. But my sense of U.S. culture today is one of utter and absolute homogenization. The plays feature a white core perspective, and they feature an acceptable topical theme, or just pure sentimentalized kitsch that reinforces an identical ideology. They are plays of not amnesia, but of manufactured memory.

There are gifted playwrights out there, its just that they don’t get mainstrage productions anywhere. On occasion a few will make a second stage appearance. And this is a related problem, because theatres dont develop the radical voices, the unsual talent. They may occasionally provide a single second or third stage short run production. They never provide the promise of five years of productions, even small ones. I was fortunate enough to work at Padua. To know I had a home each year. That is nonexistent today. My first play was awful, but I’d like to think I improved. Young writers need that support. Just the knowledge they have a home. What they don’t need is dramaturgs rounding off the edges, sanitizing and shaping their work to conform to the acceptable pattern. I had a dramaturg tell me once I lacked conflict in a play. Now, maybe I did, I can’t say, but the idea was that somehow ALL plays had to contain a certain kind of conflict. But worse, its not the details, its the backdrop, the extant *idea* of a social reality in which we all live. Or should. And one must write in a way that respects that backdrop.

Syad Haider Raza

Syed Haider Raza

I have noticed several trends in mass cultural entertainment of late. And I sense something else at work in how certain film and TV projects fail. One trend is the manufacturing of the ordinary. It is, it seems, a necessary construct for white America. Their sanity demands this prop be kept in view. And millionaire Hollywood actors and actresses flock to play, oh, the role of an ordinary junior high school math teacher…in Maine, least diverse state in the country. There is something suffocating in this finely detailed blandness. Oh I am a millionaire but I wish I were a high school math teacher. In a country that now ranks near the top among advanced nations in child poverty, and for whom nearly a third of its population lives right at the poverty line. There are no such places as are imagined in these stories. But August Osage County, and now Olive Kittridge upcoming on HBO are the homogenizing of not just representation, but of history and of community. Once upon a time Theodore Dreiser and Faulkner, and Inge wrote tormented autopsies of the nightmarish claustrophobia of inbred small town America. You drive across the US and stop at a dozen small towns in Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia say, and what you find is unemployment, alcoholism, domestic abuse, bigotry and anger. Its curious how rarely unemployment finds its way into these *white ordinary* sagas so beloved by Hollywood. Or travel to the Reservations, to high plains tribes, what’s left of them, or to the southwestern deserts, and onto Navaho or Hopi land, and what you find is poverty, alcoholism and malnutrition, and government duplicitiy, even now. Or just stop in at the any of the prisons, federal or state. Allenwood, Walla Walla, Victorville, Lee, Big Sandy, Snake River up in Oregon, or Lompoc, Leavenworth or Terminal Island. The state’s super max joints like Pelican Bay and Florence ADX, or the crumbling Orleans Parish, or more crumbling San Quentin or Sing Sing, or the sinister Ely Nevada, which even years ago I remember having a rep as bad as those at Attica or Rikers or Soledad. Then a prisoner rotted to death at Ely, from untreated gangrene, and the public began to, sort of, demand a few small token reforms.

Picnic, by William Inge, original cast, Ralph Meeker, Paul Newman, Janice Rule.

Picnic, by William Inge, original Broadway cast 1953, Ralph Meeker, Paul Newman, Janice Rule.

All one has to do is listen to the scoring for Olive Kittridge, in the trailer out now, to feel the condescension and smugness of the project. This is white world of minor problems that are not really such big problems, after all. There are certain adjectives, when read in a review of a film, that mean one should flee and not look back (irascible is one, whimsical is another, and of course heart warming). This sickening sentimentality is, I am finding, now sutured to the fine cross hatch stitching of all things white, of a nostalgia for an imagined world that never never never existed. The entire thrust of this sort of narrative is to erase the tragic, to erase the actual suffering and despair of the poor today on the streets of America. To erase the history of genocide and slavery. But it is also, more, to fabricate an imaginary world as if it were real, and then allow it to provide a sort of backdrop for discussions about the real world. Again, there is nowhere in the United States like these towns. But its worth repeating that Maine is the least diverse state in the entire country. Fiftieth out of fifty.

Inge’s best play is probably Picnic. It is interesting to examine the interior worlds of Inge’s characters to those today found in Olive Kittridge or August Osage county. Or read An American Tragedy, or McTeague by Frank Norris.

Detroit House of Corrections, women's division. 1899

Detroit House of Corrections, women’s division. 1899

For even in the classic noir films of the 1940s, there was a fundamental probing of the corruption of institutional America. The kind and decent were preyed upon by the ruthless and sociopathic. A film such as High Sierra, where the protagonist is a criminal, “Mad Dog Roy Earle”, but a man, one haunted by his own actions, vulnerable and damaged, and almost tragic. The film investigates forgiveness, and sacrifice. The potency of such films comes from their basic distrust of society. Society is almost a malevolent force just out of frame. This was the world of Hammett and Chandler too, and of James Cain. But on another level, one can sense certain structural changes occurring in mainstream TV and film. In TV, the serialized narrative must manufacture reasons to stay on the air. Everything becomes a circling, a delaying of the story. Characters wait, and yet they don’t wait in an effort of unearthing new insight, they delay to see what Neilsen share they captured that week. The more prestige products — created as finite series (mini series) somehow often fall into this pattern, only because its so familiar. The Affair, the product of Sarah Treem, is so incalculably bad, so trite, so cringe inducing that its hard to find words for it. Never has the privileged world of WHITE ruling class ideology been so nakedly presented. The working class characters are treated as almost mentally damanged, and in possession of DNA scripted to exhibit lack of ‘couth, and in this case, even an ignorance of anal sex. Its all so strange and surreal, a show in which Dominic West’s eyes betray that caught in the headlight panic. How can I null this deal? Maybe I need a new agent.

High Sierra (1941), Raoul Walsh, dr.

High Sierra (1941), Raoul Walsh, dr.

I realized this week that the problem of much criticism of TV, from the new pseudo celebrity journalists of the pseudo left, is exactly consistent with this world. The last two postings I’ve touched on the absence of class analysis. It is simply a hole in the prevailing discourse. Look at the films this year that are being predicted as contenders for Best Picture. Never mind the utterly regressive and moronic insistence on this as a marker for anything, but in purely sociological terms, the list (as I read it in The Atlantic) was the following: Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Whiplash, Unbroken, Insteller, and An American Sniper.

Now I don’t want to take up too much time on this, for its all rather obvious. Linklater’s Boyhood is an unwatchable exercise in misogyny and, again, this pretend world of white ordinariness. The Imitation Game is a historical bio pic of Alan Turing with the execrable Benedict Cumberbatch, and not having seen it, its hard to know what really to expect. But its possible that it might be interesting. And its directed by Mortyn Tyldun, a Norwegian responsible for two vaguely interesting films in Norway. So I give it a pass, for now. Birdman is more solipsistic cannibalizing of the movie industry, and is really just more white neurosis. Whiplash is a feel good cliche set against elite white privileged education, and Unbroken is by Angelie Jolie, but nobody’s seen it yet. But I mean, what does one expect from the woman who shut down an entire African nation so she could have her baby in peace?Intersteller is the latest Chris Nolen exercise in meta-emptiness (also very white and set in outer space…strip mining Kubrick’s 2001), and finally Clint Eastwood’s An American Sniper. I’m not sure I need to really say anything more about that.

Walter Darby Bannard

Walter Darby Bannard


There is an interesting discussion to be had that revolves around the fact that there is a good deal of criticism of violence in film and TV. And indeed, the level and saturation of violence is astonishing. But the sentimental drivel that is August Osage County is rarely criticized in terms nearly as harsh. Why? Which does more harm to a culture; The Expendablesor August Osage County, for example? Im going with August Osage County. But perhaps they are inseparable — the coma inducing insulin short fall of August Osage County, and the thrum of gun shots, broken glass, screaming women (or men, less often) and bombs and aging men with too much cosmetic surgery. Is Hannibal worse than The Affair? No, no, I mean finally its not actually. Shakespeare was violent, so was Sophocles. But there was narrative, and video games, or violence porn like Saw, abolishes narrative. Its very important to make and identify these distinctions. For failing to do that starts to erase all art, to turn in the philistines that censor literature and want profanity labels on rap albums. There lurks the latent Puritan.

The reasons that even a show like Hannibal, which traffics in displays of forensic gore, is less destructive than August Osage County, is because at least in Hannibal, there is the innate dignity of narrative, of actors like Mads Mikkelsen or Lawrence Fishburne, who evince a sense of the passage of character from A to B. That human experience is given value through such performative mechanisms. In the saccharine dishonesty of August Osage County, the cliche driven familiarity, the dishonesty of the white ordinary again, or a propagandistic rural America, and of sickeningly syrupy acting — the end result is one of diminishment and insufficiency; that also serves to stigmatize those rural poor who can’t measure up to such representations.

Chiricahua Apaches. Carlisle Boarding school. 1900.

Chiricahua Apaches. Carlisle Boarding school. 1900.


It is hugely destructive to turn to an Osage County, or Olive Kittridge as a cure or tonic for Boardwalk Empire. There is violence and there is violence. One really should not over simplify the question of violence in film, TV, and theatre, or in literature. There is no such thing as some *violence* essence. It happens in narrative contexts, and it happens in the context of anticipation and marketing. I feel nothing but a kind of ulcerous pain internally, when I see Samantha Power interviewed…as a personal example. I feel literally nauseated at the sight of Netanyahu, or Eric Holder, or Antonin Scalia, and I feel a smouldering rage when I read the mannequin left self annointed celebrity scribes such as Molly Crabapple or Laurie Penny. These are the release valves, those who diffuse the anger of the under classes. If art matters, if it does shape the consciousness that is a pre-condition for social change and revolution, then blaming depictions of violence only has cogency if Osage County and the like are at the top of all lists.

Go to google and type in August Osage County trailer. I cant link it here, I just cant. Do the same for Olive Kittridge.

Artists Anonymous

Artists Anonymous


Remember that throughout U.S. history, the story of Native American genocide was ignored, buried, justified, and that even today a football team in the NFL refuses to change the name *Redskin* speaks to the absolute invisibility of this story. I mention this because that process of assimilation that the Native American was forced to endure. The boarding schools (Indian schools) like Carlisle in Pennsylvania, were in essence only exaggerated versions of what education for the poor has always been. As a sidebar on mascots, the Cleveland Indians baseball team is finally retiring the logo nicknamed *Chief Wahoo*, which is, in fact, a far more offensive image than even the Redskins logo. This is 2014, and sports franchises for multi million dollar teams (maybe billion) are still using blatantly racist imagery. Take a moment and ponder that.

wahooI dont have the same confidence in reforming education that many people I know have, and these are people I respect. But the fact that accreditation remains in place as a guiding principle is reason enough to be suspicious, but beyond that, the very idea of compulsory education has lost the thread of what was once its obvious raison d’etre.

What are schools supposed to be, in theory, doing? Turning out the well rounded humane compassionate tolerant and articulate individuals? The socially conscious erudite skilled and imaginative human? Nobody believes that, few even want that, if they’re being honest. Schools are there to squash creativity, condition students in the acceptance and naturalness of social hierarchies, and in obedience to wealth. Not to the powerful, really, but more to the wealthy. Wealth is its own virtue and with it comes power. There is a sense that all institutions are fully corrupt now. That resistance almost cannot really effectively begin within institutions. It may certainly migrate there, but one of the truths of an aesthetic resistance is that there needs to be a certain radical poetics, an interpretive radicalism, a return of focus to hermeneutical concerns. And the idea of a new attention to culture, to narrative, to image, to art seems important to me.

Andro Wekua

Andro Wekua


Take as an example the recent *Hollaback* video, which garnered something like 5 million viewings and elicited in the tens of thousands of comments where posted, was also critiqued for the underlying ideology of white supremacy that was its backdrop. This was an obvious case, but in one way it was encouraging that so many recognized the message. The message wasn’t ‘dont harass women'; the message was, white women are at risk from ghetto dwelling black and latino men. There is a sense I’ve been having lately that suggests the white pov, the foregrounded white storyline, the narratives of white problems in a white world are becoming more strident. More panicky. The Hollaback video is not about this white woman walking the streets of NYC. It is about this *white woman* walking the streets of NYC. She is not an everywoman. If she were, she would be many. There would be that shift of perspective from her specialness, to the fungible *woman*, harassed by men, and by men who would be edited to shift the focus from individual to social, from subjective to objective. The video would be about a system of patriarchal privilege that allows for the reinforcing of this privilege in acts of verbal stigmatizing and objectifying and humiliation. That men exert a tacit abusive power over all women. When the image is a particular white woman, with an implied class, and disproportionate numbers of abusive men are black or latino — the narrative elides into one of colonial space and dynamics. Its also serving as a pro-gentrification narrative.

There has been a change in what ideas of ‘topicality’ mean. Topicality is a word used in advertising and promotion, and mainstream criticism or reviewing and is code for self congratulatory. Topical means the theme will flatter the target audience. In theatre today, just as an example, look at Theresa Rebeck’s Zealot, given its world premiere at South Coast Rep in Southern California. Some critics *liked* it, many did not. I have not seen it. But how does such pablum reach the main stage of a major institutional theatre? This is an almost laughably bad sort of CNN version of middle eastern politics. And of course, at the center of the story are a pair of US and UK diplomats. It is seemingly impossible for playwrights today to recognize their own world vision is one borrowed from TV news and earlier films and western journalism. Why write this story? Rebeck is a TV hack and New York playwright with a pretty substantial reputation — but born of what? Quick name me a Theresa Rebeck play.
I cant.

"Indians Planting", engraving, Theodore de Bry, 1591

“Indians Planting”, engraving, Theodore de Bry, 1591


But worse is that this is the theatre of faux realism. The representational world as seen by affluent Americans. It is Orientalist and depicts a cartoon image of Islam. I don’t think that this is at all unfair to say. Compare to Genet’s The Screens of sixty years ago, or some of Peter Brook’s work, or even Paul Bowles. Or Margarite Duras. Bowles ‘was’ the white man expat who wrote explicitly about the tensions of white colonial thinking, the harm and the wounds of European erasure of the culture of the colonized. The alienated white tourist. Bowles also said that the Sahara was community. It was mythic too, he called it ‘being close to the absolute’. But he also noted in several interviews, that the desert changes you, but that it changed through an immersion in a kind of community long disappeared elsewhere. Today, in reading the LA Times review, for Rebeck, that community is replaced by western diplomats. The Muslim characters are seen through western eyes. The issues are one’s imagined by a paternalistic West. Making it ‘topical’ is to insert a faux feminist issue about veils. And the form resembles that of a TV mini series (of course Rebeck wrote for NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and Smash). Now, again, I haven’t seen this production, and perhaps it is wildly and singularly different from the other five or six plays I’ve read of Rebeck’s. But that disclaimer should be inserted here. And its certainly possible that every reviewer was missing some deeper point. But does anyone honestly think that a quick scan of the plot points doesn’t convey the truth of what I’m saying? And I’m not picking on Rebeck particularly. It is just that working class and underclass voices do not make appearances on big theatre stages in the United States anymore.
Reza Syed Haider (S.H. Raza)

Syed Haider Raza (S.H. Raza)


That today, a William Inge feels radical by comparison is rather remarkable. Clifford Odets dropped out of high school, and founded the Group Theatre. There were many University educated artists attached to the Group Theatre, but the sensibility of their work was left wing politically, and never concerned with ideas of the status quo. A different era, yes, and that’s rather the point. Many of those writers and directors and actors; Harold Clurman, John Garfield, John Randolph, Oscar Saul, Morris Carnovsky, Sandy Meisner, and Joe Bromberg, were later working, even if briefly, in Hollywood — most were children of immigrants, working class, many rose up through Yiddish Theatre, and the influence can be felt in those noir of the forties and fifties.

India Song (1975), Marguerite Duras, dr.

India Song (1975), Marguerite Duras, dr.

There is seemingly no escape from PR firms, and their reach extends deeply into the tissue of almost any topic. Everything is mediated by marketing. Malala is *handled* by a PR firm. Military action is fed to the public via a PR firm, or several PR firms. War crime tribunals are dealing with marketed materials half the time, and all policy decisions are shaped by Madison Avenue to some degree. The United States is now, in its daily operations a cartoon. But the deep state carries on regardless of the lurid and increasingly idiotic nature of the professed rulers and people of influence.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, from The New Yorker

“-Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.–
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.
Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

No?
It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

Maurizio Cattelan

Maurizio Cattelan


That a Supreme Court Justice believes in a literal Devil who is out doing mischief, should not be surprising. This is a long ways now from Thurgood Marshall, William O. Douglas, and William Bennett. From a certain perspective, the Warren court is to the government today as Melville is to Jonathan Safer Foer. I’m being glib, and a bit snarky myself, but the nepotism and insularity today in media, and fine arts, let alone Hollywood is actually pretty staggering. Being a slow learner it was only this week that I realized Laurie Simmons was the mother of Lena Dunham. Well, of course, and the father is the stupefyingly talentless Carroll Dunham. (go ahead, google his paintings). This is only worth noting because it is so common. A good many people will suggest that this is really not of much importance, or meaning, or that it is resentful on my part, or that, god knows… but the truth is that culture cannot finally survive this level of suffocating intellectual partisanship. That social networking and family connections, as well as just class, is now so nakedly rewarded ahead of actual talent is the result of forty years of direct attacks on art and artists. It is impossible to imagine The Group Theatre today. Culture is entertainment, occasionally with a *message*, but never threatening, never politically radical, never too serious and never too difficult. It is clever, and snide, and novel and usually loud and bright and narcissistic. It is usually always misogynistic. It conforms to a white world view, an Imperialist world view, and it is endlessly familiar, and solipsistic. It is the imaginary manufactured *ordinary* presented with a wink as *extraordinary*. This coy nod to the common folk is a feel good ploy by the ownership class. The truth is that today the cultural gatekeepers are an increasingly narrow and privileged class, most of whom regard culture as something of a hobby, but always with an eye to profit. Whether they even admit it to themselves, it is a province cleansed of the unruly or uncontollable, or subversive. Today film and theatre operate cannibalizing earlier versions, or earlier iconic works.
Edward Corbett

Edward Corbett


Take Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. It is sometimes to easy to forget just how influential this film was. How it has shaped several decades of how the public imagines outer space {sic} and created the stylistic template for all future science fiction. It was almost a new genre onto itself. I am not a gigantic Kubrick fan, but there is no question that his artistic integrity seems even larger now than during his lifetime. I suspect Tarkovsky’s difficulty with 2001, and his decision to make Solaris as a sort of critique of it, was a deeply felt instinct, and a correct one. For in ways unintended I think 2001 has become something that fused certain latent dreams in much of the collective US psyche, and whose style code has been appropriated by the military itself. The slightly kitsch elements in it, from the ape costumes to the acid flash back corridor, are now the stuff of countless cheesy sci fi films, but the more elegant elements, the neutered emotionless HAL voice and the equally emotionally withdrawn Keir Dullea, seemed to have infected the dream life of the two generations, or three. The genius of the film is really in the sense of meticulous care that went into it, and in the rhythm of the editing, the duration of each scene. It is a hugely formal film, but it is also ambitious and grand in design. Not as an expression of neurotic problems masquarading as myth (ala Terrence Malick), but a truly sort of relgio-mythic monolith in its own right. Its how I have always experienced the film, as Kubrick’s own totem making enterprise; the movie becomes as enigmatic and seamless as those monoliths themselves.
2001; A Space Odyssey (1968)...Stanley Kubrick, dr.

2001; A Space Odyssey (1968)…Stanley Kubrick, dr.


Kubrick’s intelligence is what separated him from his imitators. And that he recognized that unseen forces shaped the world, forces outside his own subjective concerns. And, honestly, I don’t think he ever made a film he should feel ashamed of or made for pure profit. But to lead this back to the homogenizing of culture today, I am willing to bet that one cannot find a space narrative made since 1970 that does not predicate its vision of space on the Kubrick. Kubrick may well have shaped how NASA imagines space.

The biggest problem though, for homogenized culture, and not entertainment — lets pretend we can separate them — is that it adheres to and draws from this fake reality. There is a curious contradiction at the heart of this *small town* realtiy ala Olive Kittridge, and that is that small town rural America is also the butt of endless jokes, and the location for slasher and psycho killer films. Countless numbers of them. *August; Texas Chain Saw County*. So there is this coy wink, this slight nudge, when the idealized small town depiction comes on. For deep down the manufacturers of these films hold such locations, the real versions, in contempt.

Raza Syed Haider

Syed Haider Raza (S.H. Raza)


Often I think it is just that seriousness scares today’s producer and public. I’ve posted three pieces by the now 92 year old Syed Raza Haider, originally from Madyha Pradesh, but longtime Paris resident. The devotional mathematics of Haider, the geometry that encases the void. When I look at Haider’s work I often think of Kubrick, perhaps oddly. I think of Kenneth Noland too. But I think bindu, the point of focus in a sacred geometry of Hindu philosophy, as well as the Kaballah, is expressed in a care for the single detail out of many. The geometrician at work, as Blake drew God, the builder of the Universe. For the artist, there must be a silence behind each sound, veils behind which secrets are to be found, or not. And in narrative there must be an ability to transcribe something of the tragic and suffering of the vulnerable.

I wanted to bring this discussion back to the topic of violence again.

“Violence in movies today is as peculiarly affecting these days as stupidity.” writes Timothy Bewes. And his discussion of it touches a bit on what I was writing above. He continues…“Fear of violence in postmodernity renders all action violent and all violence erotic.”

In a society of acute, and often immaterial control, of endless obfuscation and neutralizing of dissent; the expression and/or representation of violence feels a bit like that frozen moment, the Naked Lunch, the distillation of recognition of the super or meta enclosing of daily life. There is a line from Shakespeare and Marlowe through Dostoyevksy and Kafka and Melville, in which narrative cannot escape its own personal psychic trauma, and its relationship to legal state violence and domination. In narrative Ive called this ‘primal crime’. The lack of it, the substitution of neurotic bourgeois concerns of marriage or property or career feel oddly more damanging psychically and certainly eerie in that post modern way of suggesting ur-passivity. Walter Benjamin touched on this idea of legal violence, in his essay Critique of Violence. The appeal of violence, its erotic appeal, is not just the process of numb inducing repetition of the same, but also because its an expression of defiance to the regulatory state.

Waiting for Lefty (1935), by Clifford Odets. Group Theatre.

Waiting for Lefty (1935), by Clifford Odets. Group Theatre.


Violence that takes place, representationally, outside a state framework tends to be treated, narratively, as criminal. State violence is righteous and protective. Fear of the outside. Now, this is only one register, for in another way, there is a de-sensitizing assault of non stop images of violence and death and pain that are only expressions of pure titillation. But how does that work? How do images of violence get marketed? They are marketed in an overall strategy to instill fear and suspicion and distrust in people about other people. That is the actual dark side of the *individualizing* theme. It distracts from the real enemy which is the system of domination in place. Of capitalism.

Bewes cites Hegel, the ignoble or disrupted spirit, realizes the dialectical movement of true Spirit. Now, this was the Dostoyevskian Underground Man in a sense. There is much to dissect in all of this, but here my point is only that art is not real life. We tell each other stories not to reinforce equilibrium, but to tear it apart. Not all violence is the same, and without transgression, there is no radicalism at all.