Watergate, Irangate, Pizzagate. Political scandals and conspiracies abound with disturbing frequency of late and they often become legendary beyond the history books. Their intrusion into art, music and theater drags these plots through the filter of creative criticism and thrusts them back again into mainstream pop-culture in the form of t-shirts and viral memes. In the end, the result can serve to accentuate or obfuscate the underlying truths. The outcomes can help us learn and move past scandal or they can be a painful reminder of our failure to deal with them in the first place.
In the exhibition “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” The Met Breuer delivers a wide-ranging review of scandal inspired artworks from 1969-2016, an intriguing “archaeology of our troubled times.” Thirty artists present their own unique fact finding missions through photography, paintings, drawings and videos. Whether through Jenny Holzer’s infamous symbolic narrative, Hans Haacke’s weaponization of alternative facts or the truth telling of the Black Panthers Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, these artists show their disdain for the public corporatist propaganda machine and demonstrate their ability to battle corruption, bureaucracy, and the media with a touch of their own medicine.
Particularly compelling are the works of Trevor Paglen, whose mid-career survey last year at the National Portrait Gallery was an incredible show of force, shining a bright light on government secrecy within the hallowed halls of the very public institution dedicated to revering the Presidents and most powerful of lawmakers.
A lasting legacy of this exhibition, and perhaps its most urgent call to action, is that truth is not always self-evident. To move beyond scandal and conspiracy, we must look squarely at the competing visions of the past and future and attempt to learn from them in the present. If we do not, our museums, galleries and pop-culture will be filled with red M.A.G.A hats, yellow shocks of hair and “fake news” conspiracies for years to come – a scandalous prospect to say the least.
Two years ago, one of Project Art Lounge’s followers commented affectionately on the number of women artists who have been involved in this organization’s activities and events. This video gives testimony to why empowering women is not only important to the world of arts and culture, but to our society as a whole.
We have every reason to celebrate women after the recent mid-term elections in the US where some 100 women (nearly a third of the 323 women ever to serve the US house and senate) were elected. That’s a good step toward a more positive and forward looking future for America. After all, women brought us all into this world. Why wouldn’t we want them leading the way?
Since Project Art Lounge began in 2013, a majority of the artists we support have been women. Michele Schuff, Silvia Sinha, Kamila Najbrtová and Pola Dwurnik are among the artists featured in exhibitions and on www.projectartlounge.com.
The fact that these artists are women really didn’t matter in their choosing as much as the fact that they make great art. Since the 1970’s there has been a lot written about how the “western male viewpoint” in art history has largely ignored the careers of Great Women Artists. In the 1980’s, the Guerilla Girls broadened the discussion of gender bias to highlight how sexism and other forms of discrimination impact art, film and pop culture.
While female artists like Marina Abramovic, Diane Arbus, Tracey Emin and Nan Goldin have achieved considerable fame, only a handful of living women artists including Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman are recognized in the top-ranks of the art world according to Artnet’s Top-100 Living Artists. Despite considerable progress, the subject of sexism and sexual exploitation portrayed by female artists through their work reflect an ongoing reality that requires continued attention.
In a political year dominated by discussions about women and power, it’s worth reflecting on the contribution women artists have made to this important debate. Unlike their male counterparts who often brand themselves as pinnacles of individual strength, many of the strongest voices among female artists have emphasized strength through collaboration and collective action. At the forefront of the movement was the Fight Censorship Group created by artist Anita Steckel, which was as much about freedom of expression as it was about putting forth a feminist agenda.
Like the Fight Censorship Group and the Guerrilla Girls, new groups are keeping the conversation going. At a time where public discourse is increasingly dominated by social media, a refreshing example of real world collaboration is The Fainting Club, an “old boys network for women” founded by L.A. based artist Zoe Crosher. The Fainting Club brings together women artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and chefs to celebrate their contribution to creative diversity. One recent event references the seminal 1979 artwork “The Dinner Party” by artist Judy Chicago with partygoers participating in a wikipedia edit-a-thon to add 39 new names to our collective historical record.
At the end of the day, by celebrating women – whether consciously or not – Project Art Lounge is happy to support the vision and stories these artists have to share. Their legacy, like the contribution of all women in art, politics and other realms of public life is worthy of our support. In the months ahead, Project Art Lounge, which recently relocated to the New York area, will be creating new ways to connect artists, collectors and supporting institutions. Stay tuned and join the conversation.
Project Art Lounge is about art, not politics, though sometimes these worlds intertwine. Since some of the reaction to my last post “Je ne suis pas Charlie” has been critical, I think it necessary to add some context to that discussion and why I responded the way I did.
My post was motivated by three things: firstly, to stand *with* the artists at Charlie Hebdo in their support for freedom of expression without adopting the self absorbed claim “je suis Charlie”. The internet is full of narcissistic memes that cannot live up to the authenticity of artistic expression demonstrated by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Their courage is greater than mine and we must respect them by trying to understand their true intentions.
Secondly, to suggest that art is a point of departure – the beginning of a dialogue and not the end. In order to continue the conversations that Charlie Hebdo and others have promoted through their artwork, we must be mindful of differing points of view. NOTHING justifies the kind of violence that we saw this week. For something good to come of it, we must seek understanding and not division. Art can sometimes be provocative and divisive – and sometimes outright insulting. This doesn’t just apply to political cartoons depicting Islamic icons. Think about the reaction to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photos which offended so many Christians. In my view there is a time and a place for each of these discussions and as we take sides on the broader issues, we must try to understand what motivates dissent and do everything to keep the conversation going. It is where the conversation ends that violence begins.
Finally, it is my intention to highlight the valuable contribution of Lucille Clerc to this discussion. Her moving illustration reminds us that creative expression cannot be broken. Unfortunately, her work initially “went viral” under a fake Banksy profile, leading many to believe that her contribution was that of the famous graffiti artist. Does it matter? I think it does. Banksy is also great at highlighting social and political issues in his art, yet (unlike his French counterpart – see note Below) Banksy himself remains an elusive figure. Like Charlie Hebdo, Lucille Clerc has nothing to hide. Hers is an honest and open show of support and deserves to be known under her name. Unfortunately, the anonymity of the internet makes it difficult to know anyone’s true intentions – a fact that has unfortunately encouraged the spread of abusive propaganda.
For all the potential for art to shock and awe, its purpose is more powerful than that. Art can be an incredibly constructive force for change if it encourages a meaningful and sustainable conversation. That seemed a more salient message to me than the over-simplified affirmation “je suis Charlie” which only those closest to Charlie Hebdo can really fully grasp.
N.B. French street artist Blek Le Rat (nicknamed the French Banksy) condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and urged his fellow citizens in France not to react with more hate.
After New York graffiti artist Michael Stewart died in the hands of police in 1983, Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat famously said “It could have been me. It could have been me.” It was another case of an unarmed black man who died of a heart attack after being beaten by white police officers in the course of his arrest for what seems like a petty offense. Artists from Lou Reed to Keith Haring paid homage to Stewart as a victim of racial bias and brutality by the police. The officers were acquitted by an all white grand jury in 1985.
Everything happens for a reason. And I’m sure that everything always happens at the right time and in the right place. – Keith Haring
So what was the “reason” for the deaths of Michael Stewart, or Michael Brown, or Eric Garner? What was the reason for the police actions or the grand jury decisions? What does it say about racial relations in America when (young) black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white men? Have attitudes and behaviors really changed or is the “original sin” of racism in America still rampant?
On the surface, the the “face of crime” hasn’t changed much in recent years. As FBI statistics show, a decade ago 70% of all arrests were of white people, 27% black. In 2013 whites made up 69% of those arrested, while 28% were black. Yet, as the NAACP points out 1 mio. out of 2.3 mio. Americans incarcerated today (or 43%) are black. Among youth admitted to state prison, 58% are black. From beginning (arrest) to end (prison), the odds seem to be stacked against African Americans.
Criminal justice statistics, though, can’t begin to describe the problem of racial-bias adequately. As New York Time’s David Brooks points out, racial bias is not just a problem of the criminal justice system. Deeper issues of income inequality are at the center of a problem which marginalizes the poor and creates “class prejudice…based on visceral attitudes about competence.” Unlike the American dream world where anyone can make it if they just work hard enough, Brooks describes a world of the haves and have-nots which are increasingly detached and fearful of each other.
In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.” – David Brooks
So how is it that white graffiti artist Kenny Scharf can be arrested for spray painting in Brooklyn and come away unscathed while Michael Stewart winds up in a grave? Maybe art can help capture the meaning of the moment. At the very least, it can force us to focus squarely on the existence of a problem instead of ignoring its existence. Haring’s Michael Stewart – USA for Africa (image above) or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) are two specific reactions to the death of Michael Stewart. More broadly, the 2004 movie Crash by Paul Haggis depicts racial tensions and a mindset that exists within communities of color and in interactions with police, including the now frequently quoted situation of “driving while black.”
If you grow up in a white middle-class neighborhood, you learned that if you stay out of trouble and respect authority then nothing bad would happen even if you did have a run in with the law. Growing up in a black community, however, unfortunately means that you are more likely to come under the suspicious eye of the police. A white person’s drunken encounter with a police officer in the suburbs might lead to a night in jail and a day in court, but a disorderly encounter with the police in a black community might get you “taken down”, hurt or even killed.
These are the differences of circumstances and experience which can lead those like Basquiat to conclude “it could have been me,” while others lacking the same experience just ignore it, shaking their heads in disbelief. Be honest: raise your hand if you’ve ever seen racial prejudice in action but decided to look away.
There are no easy solutions. In an era of 24/7 social and mass media, having a calm and orderly national debate about racial relations is difficult enough. It’s going to take more than public gestures of solidarity by professional athletes going viral to make a difference. Both the media and politicians must go beyond the memes of the day and engage in true introspection and reconciliation. To begin with, it would help if leaders across the political spectrum would come together and acknowledge that historic grievances of the African American community are not a thing of the past or self-inflicted and that they still exist in very tangible ways today.
Protesters must be mindful of the long road ahead, stay peaceful and formulate a constructive agenda to affect change within their communities as well as in the officials and policies that affect them. Maybe then, can we all move beyond suspicion and hatefulness. In the book and movie “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe, the rebellious young character Colin never makes it to the finish line in a race toward reconciliation, stopping short in a moment of reflection about his victimized past. In the end he chooses loneliness and defiance rather than reconciling himself with authority. As understandable as that may be in light of personal experience, I have to believe that it is better in the spirit of Maya Angelou to rise above circumstance in search of a better future.