One key to many of these works, particularly the figurative or representational ones, is that meaning is over-determined: the artist is trying to appear interesting or to be seen as saying something (in other words the desire for meaningful expression may be completely sincere, but maybe it isn’t quite as sincere as it wishes to portray) – deer heads in an upside down bathtub, dramatic staircases to nowhere. Self-portrait as clowns: clearly all the young (usually male) artists who continue to image themselves as clowns have never read Benjamin Buchloh’s critical analysis of this imago of the artist’s abject role of jester to the bourgeoisie, in his 1980 essay “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” where he writes:“The Harlequins, Pierrots, Bejazzos, and Pulcinelles invading the work of Picasso, Beckmann, Severini, Derain, and others in the early twenties […] can be identified as ciphers of an enforced regression. They serve as emblems for the melancholic infantilism of the avant-garde artist who has come to realize his historic failure. The clown functions as a social archetype of the artist as an essentially powerless, docile, and entertaining figure performing his acts of subversion and mockery from an undialectical fixation on utopian thought.”If they had, they would think twice … or would they? (think of Paul McCarthy’s imago of the artist as a disgusting clown and all the artists influenced by it).
What we are learning from the series of exposures of sexual assault and harassment by figures from Weinstein and other Hollywood directors I have never even heard of and now Knight Landesman at Artforum constitutes a veritable textbook of psychopathological deviance and perverse behavior put to the specific use of abusing and harassing women in the workplace.
I used to wonder if New York landlords all took the same course where they learned such typical techniques as how to go from cajoling a tenant with too good to be true promises to two seconds later seconds threatening your life if you didn’t accept their offer. Recurring patterns of the MO of the sexual predators we have had to spend time with this past month makes you wonder if they all go to such a school to learn these techniques and behaviors. Well yes, they do, the school is one with the biggest student body on the planet, one we all attend, that is, patriarchy. Women attend too, since birth. Though born to and brought up by women, such men don’t seem to have attended matriarchy school or the we are all human beings school.
For those of us who don’t practice this kind of abusive behavior or who are fortunate to have never encountered it to such a blatant degree as revealed in these cases, this news has itself been a school in all kinds of violent and psychologically humiliating methods. Further as a recent article about the newest class of abusers, Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin, points out, one is asked to believe that there is no relation between the political views held by these male gatekeepers of public opinion and their personal derogation of women:
What does it mean that these men — and so many others liked them — held the power to literally shape America’s political narrative? What does it mean, as New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister noted on Twitter, that the story of, say, Hillary Clinton’s public career was told by these sorts of men?
One does not need to dig very deep into Halperin and Wieseltier’s work to find echoes of their private behavior in their public comments. “For Leon, women fell on a spectrum ranging from Humorless Prig to Game Girl, based on how much of his sexual banter, innuendo, and advances she would put up with,” writes Cottle. It’s an observation that sheds considerable light on Wieseltier’s oft-expressed contempt for Clinton. In 2007, Wieseltier told the New York Times that she was “like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won’t stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.”
Art historian Anna Chave, among others, has made a related point about the women gatekeepers of art history, for example in her essay “Minimalism and Biography,” collected in the excellent anthology edited by feminist art historians Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism. Chave critiques the rhetoric of objectivity of minimalism by examining the personal relationships between the male heroes of the movement and their critical proponents: “In the radicalized 1960s, neo-Marxists, including partisans of Louis Althusser, elevated the categories of the material and the social over those of the individual or the subjective. For Marxists generally—as indeed for capitalism also—personal and expressive values have historically been derogated as secondary and tacitly, or otherwise, feminine, sine women have ordinarily been acculturated to assume their arenas as their proper domains…But in actuality, the leading Minimalists have been hardly less heroicized than prior members of the elite of art-historical canons. …Most of the critics who built their own reputations by building the reputations of artist in Minimalism’s inner and outer circles were friends and, at times, lovers or spouses or the same artists, a fact that is a matter of record on a piecemeal basis at best and thus is widely unknown outside the circles in question.” Same point in reverse.
The evening of October 10, 1991, I watched Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary committee confirmation hearings. Chronology of events on Wikipedia places her testimony on the 11th but my diary from the period indicates that on the evening of the 10th as I ate dinner watching the hearings I shoveled food into my mouth without thinking and got a fish bone stuck in my throat–I was so transfixed by what I hearing I forgot to chew my food. The next day Friday October 11, the diary reads “watched Anita Hill but realized mid-day I had to go to hospital, went to Eye & Nose etc (sic) hospital 14th street got fish bone out.
A lot more pubic hairs have been added to that coke can since.
Of all the disgusting and arcanely perverse things I have read in the past few weeks these will stand out:
Once they left, Sivan says Weinstein leaned in and tried to kiss her. Sivan rejected that attempt and told him she had a long-term boyfriend. Weinstein then said to Sivan, “Well, can you just stand there and shut up.”
At this point, Weinstein and Sivan were in a vestibule between the kitchen and bathrooms. The only way for Sivan to get away from Weinstein required her to get past him and go through the kitchen. Sivan says she was trapped by Weinstein’s body and was intimidated.
Weinstein then proceeded to expose himself to Sivan and began to masturbate. Sivan said she was deeply shocked by Weinstein’s behavior and was frozen and didn’t know what to do or say. The incident in the vestibule didn’t last long. Sivan says Weinstein ejaculated quickly into a potted plant that was in the vestibule and then proceeded to zip up his pants and they walked back into the kitchen.(Huffington Post)
She went for the door. He told her he couldn’t let her go unless he had sexual release. All she needed to do was pinch his nipples and look into his eyes and he would press himself against her and come in his pants. She felt she had no choice. And while it was happening, she tried to look away, but he grabbed her head and made her stare into his eyes.(LA Times)
“In one alleged instance, Landesman learned that Elisabeth McAvoy, who was in her 20s and an Artforum employee, was living with her sister and was told, according to the complaint, “that she should move out so that her sister could ‘come herself to sleep.’ ” (ARTnews)
“Do you want a walnut? Let me feed you walnuts.” (Artnet)
In its editorial today, “Will Harvey Weinstein’s Fall Finally Reform Men?” the Editorial Board of The New York Times declares that, “This may turn out to be the year when the tide finally turns on sexual harassment.” They point to all the positive statistics of women in the labor force that might suggest that. They don’t point to the recent election of a pussy-grabber and to the regressive views about women held by the Christian fascist who may replace him if necessary.
Here are some of my experiences with recent moments of awakening and public attention to sexual harassment.
Just about one year ago, right after the release of grab em by the pussy tape, author Kelly Oxford started a Twitter wave “Women: tweet me your first assaults.” If you’re on Twitter take a look back. Thousands of tweets an hour at one point. Add these to the #METOO wave which started about ten days ago. #METOO though compared to so many women I’ve just dealt with fairly minor gross and inappropriate behavior + insidiously subtle & annoying forms of sexual harassment—the greater toll has come from all the professional situations where the anger at my feminist views and critical writings or representations in my work would suddenly be revealed and I’d realize how that anger affected my career in ways I was usually oblivious to believe it or not.
In the midst of the wave of #MeToo posts on Facebook and Twitter in the past few days, “#MeToo was all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — over 500,000 times on Twitter and 12 million times on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone according to an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, I realized that I had kept a screen shot taken during a previous similar hashtag wave, #YesAllWomen. Does anyone even remember that? I didn’t even remember what caused that episode of sharing (Rebecca Solnit had to remind me that it was in the reaction to the Isla Vista shooting, the kid who set out to kill the prettiest sorority girls because no one wanted to have sex with him).
Did that hashtag make a difference? Will #MeToo make a difference? Did the revelations of how pervasive sexual harassment and abuse are stay in public consciousness or change anything? Asked and answered.
I chose a particular screen shot of #YesAllWomen because of the tweet at the top, “#YesAllWomen because how often does a man text his friend to say that he got home safe?” Many women are sharing stories of outright rape, gross abuse, repeated dangerous and humiliating encounters, as well as pervasive experience with the kind of slights that seems minor, that one brushes off, diminishing many of those experiences in one’s own mind to the point of drawing a blank, I think as a defense mechanism so that one can continue.
That one sentence about women calling their friends and their mothers and sisters to say that they got home safe is the closest to the experience shared by all women, and it is enough to indicate a societal and global issue. From the minute a girl is allowed to go from one place to another by herself, she is instilled with fear by caring fearful adults. That alone is sexual abuse. That alone is something that must be dealt with and negotiated with within oneself. That alone is a limitation on women’s ability to fully inhabit a public and even a private life. Not all women live with the same degree of fear, most women continue to trust, and that trust has been made clear as a mechanism in several of the stories about Landesman’s abusive behavior as a publisher of Artforum, but still, I think the fear is very deeply instilled at an early age. I think back to one aspect of my childhood in New York City: my mother would insist that I take a taxi home from my best friend’s house across the park, but then I would sit in the back seat with my hand practically on the door handle thinking about how to jump out of the car if the driver looked like he was going to veer from his course. Now that cars have locks controlled by the driver I have my phone at the ready. So not only was it ingrained in me from an early age that there were dangers, all children do have to learn that but girls in a special way, but even that what was supposed to keep me safe could also be a source of danger. That is the basic plot line of many horror movies with young women protagonists: the killer is in the house, call the police, the police is the killer.
The point is that all women since childhood have to deal with at the very least, that fear and the necessity for heightened awareness, limitations on one’s movements, and shame as the weight of the abuse falls on the women. I think back to a conference held at Hunter College in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill public hearings, one of the speakers, I think Amber Hollibaugh, said, every time she — Anita Hill, any woman—speaks her story of abuse, she IS sexuality, she IS the crime that was perpetrated on her…those weren’t the exact words, it’s a long time ago, but it rings true through to today, that when women do speak up, they get revictimized, even just by the act of speech, they embody the crime rather than the crime being embodied in the abuser—and yet if they don’t speak up no one thinks about it and the perpetrators go on and on without punishment.
And that is what is most disturbing and significant: for each woman who has had an encounter that ranges from violent crime to daily annoyment, there was a man who did it. Since I think that basically #YesAllWomen, that makes for a lot of men. So now we have #NOTALLMEN. But if it is 100% #Yes AllWomen then #whatpercentageofmen? So the problem seems to be in how masculinity is defined or more to the point, how over centuries patriarchy has defined woman as lesser.
I used as an epigraph to my first published writing, “Appropriated Sexuality,“ a few lines from a poem by Muriel Ruckeyser,
Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.
Because she is the source of life, she embodies the knowledge of death, and thus must be punished.
I first became radicalized and empowered by feminism when I was about nineteen. And here we are, with the hundreds of thousands of revelations of #YesAllWomen forgotten and not having brought about any change and #MeToo with us today. After all these revelations, and all these waves of feminism, and all these backlashes, a young woman still feels she has to say, oh OK feed me the damn walnut so I can get on with my work and keep my job.
There is no happy ending or solution to this rambling post just more hashtags because there are more abominations by the day.
For example last week (or was it last year, the current regime has made time a torment), General John Kelly waxed nostalgic about a past when “Women were sacred.” #Whenwerewomensacred? #Womenarenotsacredtheyarehuman #Ifwomenare“sacred”theyhavethegodlyrighttomakedecisionsabouttheirownbodies.Otherwisetheyareonly “sacred”as#broodmares #apologizeorresign
If the belief that women are not equal human beings is so deeply engrained in human civilization since the development of property rights, agriculture, and urban settlement, the battle to maintain and gain rights, parity and humanity is #endlessbattleforrights.
3. The women targets
The Consciousness raising sessions that were an intrinsic part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s took place within living memory (mine at least), a movie like 9 to 5 came out in 1980, representing both a flowering of Women’s Lib and marking the end of that social movement and the beginning of the backlash against it. But in the intervening years there was still a lot of popular culture and popular rhetoric about the empowerment of young women. The Anita Hill episode was seen as a turning point in terms of reawakening feminist activism particularly at the legal level. Institutions have guidelines, don’t they? And the understanding I’ve been given—by several mini-generations of “post-feminists” and feminists, as a “70s feminist with all the stereotypical negative associations of that historical era, is that several new generations of young women since the 70s didn’t take shit from anyone.
But alas, they do, and I am not sensing that they feel the presence of a sisterhood that would back them up publicly as opposed to privately. As all women do, they at the very least told women friends but the story most often stayed there. Instead of feeling empowered to say, fuck off you perv, their first reaction has been the time-honored one: they tried to be polite, politic, and manage the situation if manageable—the situation of Weinstein and Toback also involve physical intimidation and violence. In the case of dealing with someone like Landesman or Leon Weiseltier, some eventually spoke up to the powerful man, which took enormous courage. But those conversations remained private as well so the behavior would continue.
By the way I am not writing here about the situation of women working for minimum wage who feel powerless and terrorized. The news in recent weeks is about abuse taking place at the top of professions with many of the participants well-educated women.
Can we crowd source a guidebook of techniques to deal with these creeps, from physical self-defense training—which is not relevant to every one of the millions of situations women encounter daily around the world–I think of a friend’s inspired response once when working for an abusive editor at a major (non art publication)–it wasn’t exactly sexual abuse as I recall though it clearly had a gendered substructure, he would yell at her and put her down viciously. Versed in feminist performance art, one day leaving his office where she had been yet again been verbally berated, she spontaneously got down on her hands and knees to crawl back to her desk through the open office space occupied by co-workers. By overtly enacting the position he was putting her in, she apparently shocked him into at least a moderate change in his behavior.
Most women have endured a lot of abuse without bringing complaints or legal action, although I would think that most companies and institutions would have strict rules about sexual harassment, if only to prevent lawsuits. My institution regularly insists that everyone take an online training course on discrimination and sexual violence. But the women who got huge settlements from FOX seem to be the glaring exceptions from what must be a huge pool of women who have been similarly degraded and controlled, among whom some waited and went along with their tormentors for years before taking action.
This becomes particularly problematic when there are women in the power structure.
4. The Women of the Institution #politesse
This past week, I was interested first by the case of Artforum Michelle Kuo, who resigned after the public statement by the publishers of Artforum. I do not know her and know very little about her influence in changing the publication or of her as a boss—indeed whether being editor in chief was considered a directorial position. But I was struck by the fact that some women in the art world commended/defended her while I had been wondering how she could not have known what was going on, since the kind of behavior Landesman “allegedly” engaged in included a lot of stuff that cannot be hidden. Saying intrusive uncomfortable , sexually inappropriate things is not the kind of thing that such men hide, though they may hide some of the creepier more pervy and intimidating stuff from their colleagues, guys who say stuff are the sine qua non of a woman’s life. In fact I think a round of applause is due for all work situations where this kind of stuff just doesn’t happen because the people are just decent. So how in a company with a relatively small staff and office footprint from what I know, could she not know? Did she not have some responsibility for the hostile work environment? Was she herself a victim? Or was she too a victim of the larger situation, like so many highly educated professional women in the art world, who have a deeply engrained sense of politesse and perfection of which one premise is that you do not question the hierarchy?
5.The other women of the Institution #ValiantWomen
Yesterday after reading the statement from Artforum employees “Artforum staff Condemns Magazine’s Management of Allegations,” I scrutinized the masthead of both Artforum and Bookforum, highlighting the names of those who had signed this declaration, so that I could also distinguish who had not signed. I thought about what the role might be or what one might reasonably expect from some for the most prestigious writers who are published in Artforum, such as the Contributors Editors: among these are such noted art historians and critics Jan Avgikos, Daniel Birnbaum, Yve-Alain Bois, Germano Celant, Thomas Crow, Hans Ulrich Obrist, James Meyer, and Katie Siegel.*
These masthead notables do not work at the offices of Artforum and they are not to my knowledge actual employees of Artforum. I could be wrong about that, but I doubt if they have contracts or receive a regular salary for occasionally contributing a text and being listed as a contributing editor. Thus they could legitimately say that they didn’t have anything to do with that aspect of the institution. But, still, I wondered, do they have anything to say, do they play a role, might not their views or support be of interest.
I have published writing in Artforum. Nowhere near the masthead but still, fewer than six degrees of separation. My first encounters with Artforum in the role of an art writer go back to a moment of significance in feminism, at the end of the highly contentious and polemic 1980s, the era of the backlash, of Jesse Helms, of ACT-UP, The Guerrilla Girls. In 1989 I was approached by Jan Heller Levi, then an Associate Editor, to publish a review of Janet Kaplan’s wonderful book on a wonderful artist, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys. I knew Heller Levi through my work and circle of friends as the co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G. After that, over a short span of two years, I published a number of significant features including a feature about the Guerrilla Girls and a cover article on Ida Applebroog. When Levi left, I worked with Deborah Drier on a more general essay “You Can’t Leave Home Without It” about the concept of home. Heller Levi and Drier were both knowledgeable and sympathetic editors and for all these pieces I had memorable editorial sessions with Ida Panicelli, then the editor who commissioned the Applebroog and Guerrilla Girls pieces. I call that feminism from the top. Incidentally Landesman was already an Executive Publisher, but I had no contact with him whatsoever, and was oblivious to any hostile work environment issues during my few but intense editorial conferences where I learned about arguing for “if” and “they” and other fine points of writing.
Twenty-two years passed before a few interesting new writing assignments came my way, not about directly feminist themes, but with a sense that I was asked in part because of my reputation as a feminist artist and writer. In this second phase, by the way, no office visits, everything is done by email, everyone very professional. In many of my interactions with this particularly institution, I feel that I have benefited from the support of women–editors, artforum.com editors and writers, reviewers, whose support I appreciated and who are among the employees who did sign the letter yesterday.
Women can and do mediate the careers of other women, writers, artists, only inasmuch as they have an allegiance, a solidarity, an intellectual and emotional identification with a feminist politics but also only inasmuch as they themselves have power within the institution and they only have power in the institution to the degree that they are able to negotiate the power structure or buy into the patriarchal hierarchy without forgetting their “feminist ideals,” the curious term used in Artforum’s first public statement about the charges against Landesman (cf.Hyperallergic wrap up “A Week of Chaos at Artforum Magazine Following Sexual Harassment Allegations” for the update on this rapidly developing story). Thus they have to manage their own support of women. This is particularly true of institutions where the top positions are held by men, so that constant politesse and negotiation must be engaged in at all times, in order to focus on the work by women as much as the situation will allow, with the top billing going to men by patriarchal default.
Micol Hebron’s analysis of Artforum’s covers is useful, with only 18% percent of covers since the inception of the magazine representing work by women artists. Hebron updated her survey this week but the percentage had not changed since she first assembled the research in 2015.
Many women artists owe a tremendous amount to the dedication of these valiant women in the institution. I think research would prove that they are responsible for a majority of lines on many a woman artist’s CV, all the smaller shows in university museums, the essays in feminist and small publications, and the always carefully strategized opportunities in more significant institutions. These valiant women of the institution do as much as they can to be inclusive of women. As Jennifer Higgie always says in her Instagram project on women artists history, “#bowdown.” Institutions might change if these women in the arts were raised to a bigger level of responsibility, so that what they think is important, what they are aware of, what they bother to respect, might be given room at the top of the institution. I think this might help change the culture of these work places.
I highly recommend an anthology that was published a year after the Anita Hill testimony, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited and with an introduction by Toni Morrison.
It includes powerful essays in a range of modes from the legal to the poetic by authors including Homi K. Bhabha, Nell Irvin Painter, Andrew Ross, Manning Marable, Cornell West, and Patricia J. Williams. I’ll end this piece about a system of basic social inequity that, according to historian Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy goes back to the earliest development of human civilization, with the end of Patricia Williams’s text, “A Rare Case Study of Muleheadness and Men or How to Try an Unruly Black Witch, with Excerpts from the Heretical Testimony of Four Women, Known to be Hysterics, Speaking in Their Own Voices, as Translated for this Publication by Brothers Hatch, Simpson, DeConcini, and Specter.”
So perhaps it is truth that any woman who is not a witch shall simply refuse to burn when tied to the stake. And perhaps it is truth, after all is said and done, that masturbation really does make men go blind.
- This text was published Sunday, October 29. On November 1, Artnet.news reporter Rachel Corbett followed her initial coverage of the Artforum scandal with an update, “Hans Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit, and Other Artforum Contributors Condemn Publishers’ Handling of Harassment Scandal”‘ in which many but not all Contributing Editors composed their own letter of support of the Artforum staff.
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.
Note to subscribers: this clip can only be viewed in a browser, it will not play in an email program
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.