Author Archives: Mira

I love the Met, please don’t fuck it up

First: From the New York Times front page story Wednesday, March 3, 2017, “Met Chief Quits with Museum Facing Turmoil:” “Among the names often floated are Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; both are engaged in their own major building projects.” OH GOD NO!!!!

Second:

To: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Dear Met, Dear Board of the Met,

You are stewards of one of the best museums in the world, the excellence of its collection and the range of the collection make it unique certainly in the United States. You’ve mounted so many wonderful shows and managed to promote things that are fashionable and bring in huge crowds while also putting together tight small shows filled with revelations, presented with intelligence. In recent years one has walked through the halls filled with gratitude for the collection and for the impeccable condition of the museum. Please please don’t give up on this treasure or try to cheapen it, as so many institutions are doing. I’m sorry for Thomas Campbell, I gather he was not a very good manager or business man, I feel sorry for him because I’m sure he loves the institution where he was a curator for many years, but please don’t go for that awful managerial class of museum entrepreneurs like Govan or Lowry–MoMA may be rolling in dough and their temporary shows are often wonderful, the curators have great spirit, but its permanent collection has been effectively killed by the architecture and its acres of wasted public space are a shame for a formerly iconic institution.

I have spent my whole life since I could be trusted to go to school by myself, wandering the halls of the Met: as a teenager and to this day I will challenge myself to go in one random direction with the goal of getting lost and thereby discovering some treasure I have never seen before or haven’t seen for years, I go in sometimes to look at one work, I go to look at work from one culture one day and another culture another day, I go to be restored in my belief in art and in being an artist. I love the Met and I know so many other artists who do. Please please please don’t fuck it up by bringing the crass values of this terrible time in our nation’s history to bear on your decisions. Don’t lose faith in the treasure of which you are the stewards.

Sincerely,

Mira Schor

Artist, Writer, and Educator

 

One day after the election I went to the Met for an hour, I was extremely jumpy, in a deep state of unrest, I made a right turn on the second floor to a section I had not been in for many years, I ambled through, took some pictures, went to visit the painting I would most want to own from their collection, and left if not any less jumpy at least filled with the strength that I get from seeing art works from all periods of human history, each unequalled, each seeming to be as perfect as one would ever want a representation or an object to be, and yet that act of representation and making done over and over for millenia.

Another day, around the staircase:

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Run to See “I Am Not Your Negro”

When Raoul Peck‘s new film I Am Not Your Negro began, hardly a minute or two into it, I thought, Everyone in America must see this film, it must be shown in schools, it must be required viewing. I still think so, but as the film progressed I began to doubt if the film could reach racists of all stripes–those who would admit to being racists and those who don’t–who must be reached or we hope can be reached if the country is to move forward in the direction of justice. This doubt is not because the film isn’t good, rather it is because it is so good: it is formally complex and in that way rhetorically complex as well, although the line through is direct and radiantly clear, and it is an open question whether the kind of cinematic complexity of non-linear montage praised by Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard,and others for their ability to break into blind acceptance of political norms can function when popular news culture is so degraded.

I Am Not Your Negro is not a conventional documentary film by any means. It is a film essay using the words of James Baldwin to reflect upon the historical Civil Rights movement and the continued status of blacks in America, in which past (historical news footage and film clips taken from the history of popular culture since the beginning of recorded cinema) and present (violent and disturbing news coverage from Ferguson as well as lyrical footage of New York City and other landscapes from Baldwin’s narrative) fluidly intermingle. The narrative–established around an unfinished work in which Baldwin hoped to address the history of the Civil Rights movement, and more deeply the basis of our country in racism, through the lives and the deaths of three men, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., all major figures in the Civil Rights movement, all assassinated, all personal friends of James Baldwin–moves with a kind of forward motion, but the complexity of the montage creates a equally complex mirror for the citizen who must understand how she is implicated.

This little moment of doubt does not diminish my belief that this is a film that must be seen by everyone, powerful and beautiful. It is a treasure trove of  important historical footage: a TV talk show hosted by Kenneth B. Clark, with Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Baldwin himself, where Malcom X attacked King as an Uncle Tom; Baldwin speaking to a West Indian Group in London in 1969; the famed debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”, Baldwin’s notable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show; a TV morning news talk show on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963, including, in addition to James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston (yes!), and Joseph Mankiewicz–among other things we get a glimpse at how much serious discourse on important issues took place on network television in the 60s.


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At the center of the film is Baldwin himself, speaking. He is an intensely compelling figure, as eloquent at Shakespeare and as riveting a performer as the greatest actors in the history of film and theater, in what he says but also in how his intonations, the expressions of his face, his slight elegant body carry and amplify the power of his words. Each word rings like the bell of a Medieval Cathedral, crystal clear,  eloquent, passionate,  dismissive, razor-sharp, with a powerful use of a unique intonation and pauses that are living demonstrations of a brain sorting through complex and emotionally charged thought to find the most eloquent formulation possible, all from one of the most remarkable looking of men, a vivid expressive face, a slight small gay male body.

The script for the film is exclusively Baldwin’s own writing, taken from many sources, listed in the final credits for the film. I would love to have the script with all the sources clearly indicated. [I have not yet had a chance to see this book but it sounds like it is what I am wishing for.] This would be a uniquely useful teaching tool, to be able to show the movie and have an accompanying textbook of the script, annotated with historical context for each writing, with a timeline placing his literary and political writing into a historical timeline, something that the film does impressionistically and synecdotally, through an inspired usage of very diverse film clips.

Thinking of all the different clips and photos, it occurs to me that it may be important to say this film is the anti-Ken Burns: no offense to Burns’ signature style, but this blows through pan and scan. You never feel comforted by the formulaic.

The narration of Baldwin’s text is by Samuel L. Jackson. Since I have long been familiar with Baldwin’s own voice and intonations, it was at first a bit trying to hear his words read in a precise yet somewhat uniformly mournful tone by Jackson, a voice which pales in comparison to Baldwin’s powerful use of cadence and his entire physical affect, but the words are so true to our current situation that the narration is more powerful than the reader.

The film has so much to teach about race relations in the United States not just historically but today. In recent months some have been surprised to find that there are so many organized groups of Neo-Nazis all around the country, so it is revelatory, again, to see pictures of young white men in the South openly carrying swastikas in the 1950s and 60s. The film brings terrifying recent footage of militarized police presences together with the police violence of the 1950s and ’60s–the police weren’t as padded and militarized in their dress and equipment as now but they were just as violent–and the film also reminds us of just how violent a decade the 1960s was. This reminder is complex and troubling: on the one hand we survived that time period and during it, as a result of struggle and strategy, there was some distinct movement towards voting rights and opportunity, though at the time Baldwin, like Malcom X, warned against believing any of that was anything more than window dressing, that any of it truly addressed the underlying foundation of the country in racism, slavery, and oppression. Nevertheless, as someone who came of age in terms of political awareness during the ’60s and ’70s, there was still a governmental structure that eventually, under great pressure, grudgingly, responded. But then the doubt comes, which is affecting us all: is there anything left today in the halls of government and private power of that even grudging decency and respect for constitutional rights.

Looking at the archival footage of civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, including the actions of the children of Birmingham in 1963, you get a strong sense of the strength that comes from knowing who you are and what you are fighting for, and from carefully considered and organized education and training of all participants no matter their age, lifted by song and inspired by eloquent political and religious speech, including that of Baldwin himself, song and speech which resonate to this day.

I literally ran in the street to make the 4PM showing at the Film society of Lincoln Center yesterday. I advise you to run too. Everyone must see this film.

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J20 at the Whitney ARTISTS SPEAK OUT, Mira Schor, importance of art in politics

On Inauguration Day, I was honored to be asked to participate in J20 at the Whitney Museum ARTISTS SPEAK OUT, organized by Occupy Museums, along with many other artists, writers, and activists. It felt good to be there oat the beginning of what I think will prove to be one of the darkest periods in American history. I’m grateful to Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums and to Megan Heuer, Director of Public Programs and Public Engagement in the Whitney Museum Education Department, for inviting me to speak.

Please watch the other videos posted on YouTube if you look up J20 at the Whitney.

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“Circle” by Benny Andrews

The first time after September 11 that my friends and I met in Chelsea to see some exhibitions which had had the misfortune of having their opening scheduled for that day, we were ecstatic to see each other and to be out in our city. We were, however, repelled by much of the art that we saw. It had all been done before. It looked empty and now we needed not art world stuff, fluff, what my mother used to refer to contemptuously as “merchandise,” but substance, art that showed some awareness of the world we were now living in, one totally altered from the one we had thought we occupied September 10.

Now as I write we are on the eve of a calamity perhaps greater. But for some reason, in some cases with forethought or based on some quick planning, there have been some powerful artworks on view in New York during this election season, artworks that really address the political moment while providing models of how one can do it, that most difficult thing, make an artwork, particularly a two dimensional static one, drawing or painting, that has an acute political narrative and a powerful aesthetic presence. Notable among such shows have been Philip Guston’s “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”, including his “Poor Richard” and Phlebitis Series, Kerry James Marshal: Mastry at the Met Breuer, and Benny Andrews’ The Bicentennial Series at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), “Circle,” 1973. Oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120″ x 288″. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

I have wanted to write about one of these major paintings in Benny Andrews’ show, Circle, from 1972, since I first saw it earlier this fall. When I first saw it in November, even from far, from the narrow hall, I thought, oh, here is a masterpiece, a word I rarely use. I wanted to proclaim in writing, “there is a masterpiece on view in New York.” Circumstances intervened and now the painting is on view  for just a couple more days, extended through Saturday January 21.

Circle (1973) is one of a cycle of very large multiple canvas works Andrews completed the early 70s dealing with both racism and sexism done at an intersectional moment in American history when the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the Women’s Liberation movement reached a peak of visibility and even transformational effectiveness, as the nation approached its Bicentennial.  In 1969 Andrews, a New York based artist reared in rural Georgia, Korean War veteran, activist in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movement, undertook a major cycle of works, creating one major work per year for six years building up to the Bicentennial in 1976, each work emerging from dozens of smaller paintings and drawing studies.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006). “Circle” Study #32, 1972. India ink on paper 12″ x 18″, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Andrew’s project sprang from his concern that the African-American experience would not be included or addressed on its own terms, in its own voice, in the nation’s celebrations. Each work including Circle began with a few ideas, images, and memories, which Andrews worked through in dozens of drawings and smaller painting studies–a fact I note because often in recent years I encounter art students who think you can just do one thing, try an idea once, not realizing the kind of work that goes into working through ideas until you arrive at the most powerful form and thus also the most powerful metaphor.

Here was my first impression of the painting: Circle is a painting with collage elements of cloth, paper, and rope, on 12 linen canvases assembled to create one very large surface. At the center of the work a black man is crucified to a bed by real rope strung across the canvas. He is bound, naked except for underpants made of real stained rags, and his body is slit open with his bloody innards a split watermelon. The bed itself is a humble plain palette covered with blood stained mattress ticking. The crucified figure is held down by a circle of white women who hold the ropes tight, some scream, some are faceless, behind them their shadows are foreshortened into black silhouettes. The scene is framed by two older black women seated in rush chairs, impassively witnessing the lynching….Here is my second impression of the painting: A black man naked except for soiled underpants is tied to a bed at the center a large rectangular space, his body is slit open to reveal the inside of split watermelon, while a complex contraption above him is pulling three-dimensional watermelon like forms out of his gut. He is held down by real ropes held by a circle of mostly women and some men, encircled the figure, some very close to us the viewers, some farther back and above us in the picture plane. Each figure including the circle of torturers, the man, and even his bed cast black shadows, created by a light source that seems to come from our space in the gallery into the painting, implicating us in the circle. All the shadows fall away from us toward  the background, except for the man’s right hand which casts a claw like shadow in the reverse direction, reaching in effect towards us, the viewers.

When I first saw the work I interpreted some of what I saw in a manner that seemed narratively inconsistent: I read the two seated women in the foreground as black though that didn’t make sense, for what would two black women be doing seated impassively at a lynching? Yet it made some kind of sense to me, or I created sense: I saw them as tribal elders, archetypal matriarchs who had seen everything. One can build any interpretative narrative out of visual clues. Today the visual clues were the opposite: I felt that the circle of torturers including the two seated women all had to be white. I’m still not sure. In the gallery text on the exhibition, in the discussion on this particular work, it is noted that the images in this painting were interpreted in multiple ways, and that “in conversations with critics, Andrews stayed silent on the personal intent behind his symbolism.” Between common sense and instinct there is a range of possible interpretation. Either way these drawn, painted, and collaged, built up, seated female figures are powerful and eerie witnesses to a deeply disturbing event.

My description of the narrative does not really explain why I call this a masterpiece. Let me try to get at the core of it: the work is large and thus impressive because of that, but that would not be enough, there are lots of empty-headed large paintings around. So it is large and it depicts a powerful and disturbing event, it is in a line of history back to paintings depicting the martyrdom of Christian saints, the flaying of Peter, and of course scenes of the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Lamentation. But it takes place on a flat white ground, someplace that is very modernist in its flatness, and this place is a nowhere, bleached out of detail: only one exotic tree hints also at a biblical theme as a white woman hands some fruit to a white man who is clinging to the trunk of the tree. And it is not exactly a painting, as each figure and object that appears is composed from two dimensional and three dimensional elements. It is as sculptural as it is painterly.

The use of actual rope which we feel palpably as we look at the work–we see its texture and the shadows the rope casts on the surface–this binds up to the paintings as much as it binds the figure to his bed of suffering. Its reality enters our space and it implicates us.  The ropes do something else as well, they bind the painting, and they cross the lines created by the individual canvases that create the surface. The use of these 12 canvases to create one large work was in part the result of circumstance, the size of the artist’s studio could not accommodate one large work:

The idea of my new work is the expression of an individual, in this case, a black individual, in America, in the 70’s, using the Bicentennial as  focal point. throughout the work, I emphasize the history of this country over two hundred years. My new work forces me to position myself in that kind of arena. Though I don’t work on the idea of the spectacular, I did want to work on the challenge of bigness. I had to do the “big”work even though I had to do them small enough in sections, so they could get out of my door and down the staircase of the building.  So as I worked in my studio, I said I have to approach this honestly, and I made no attempt to hide or redesign the panels or the lines between them.

But that decision is part of what makes this such a brilliant addition to the grand tradition of painting: the lines of separation between the canvases undermine that tradition even as they build upon it and speak as an equal to it.

I think of this as a great American painting, because it depicts American history and emerges from the artist’s lived experience of Jim Crow in the South and institutional racism in the North. It should be as celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, or any song by Mahalia Jackson. But I think of it also in relation to the great tradition of Western painting, culminating as it once did in an installation in the Louvre of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It should have pride of place in a major American museum.

Now as ever there’s a lot of talk about the effectiveness of art in or as political activism, particular the old art of painting, which is seen as static, and also as compromised by its association with the history of both Christian and secular capitalist Western power. And it’s very rare that a work of “political” art has made a difference in a specific political situation. In fact often such a work is not even widely seen at the time.  Edouard Manet prudently didn’t exhibit his work, The Execution of Maximilian for several years because it would not have been safe to do, similarly James Ensor rolled up Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 and it wasn’t exhibited for thirty years and for all I know stowed it under his bed. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the rare works done in reaction to a current event that was known at the time it was done because of the fame of the artist.

And of course none of these works whether seen or not would have altered the course of history. Nevertheless when these works are seen at a later time, they hold within their visual and material decisions the power of the artist’s connection to the subject, which is power/powerlessness and injustice/justice. The works have a political effect: they give people courage, when they are seen, whether it is during the artist’s lifetime or a hundred years later. And speaking selfishly as an artist: the area where I feel the courage is not only the area of political activism, but as an artist That is, it is not only the subject, but the form, or it is the conjunction of the two, but if it were only the subject, it would most likely not have the effect of giving me courage, as an artist.

 

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