(Dis)harmony of Difference
Project Art Lounge has highlighted the work of many women artists over the years. We didn’t do so because they were women. We did so because something in their work inspired us to look closer. It matters to us who these artists are, of course, and we let their art speak for them. Sometimes we’re lucky to be able to interact with the artists directly. We add context and commentary from our own background and experience. That is us talking, not them. This is how we learn – through dialogue and connection.
Whether the artists we interact with are women, men, black, white, Asian, gay, straight or none-of-the-above, we’ve tried to support artists of all backgrounds without putting labels on them. But TRUTH be told, many cultural institutions have fallen short. A 2019 study found that artists in 18 major US museums are 85% white and 87% male. So while women artists are and will be a continued focus of ours, we too have fallen short and must do better in other ways to draw our circle wider going forward.
In this hyper-political moment, memes and slogans are being thrown about with abandon. Labels are being worn like a badge of honor or with blind allegiance, sometimes void of any true understanding for the underlying cause. Project Art Lounge believes that #BlackLivesMatter. They do, and it’s a shame that even needs to be said. More importantly, it needs to be demonstrated through changes in attitude. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the Museum presented Kamasi Washington’s sumptuous music and video installation, “Harmony of Difference” from the album “Truth” posted at the top of this page, an invitation to slow down, look (and listen) more deeply, and to think about the true meaning of “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity”. At that time, we confessed with sincere humility that we, like all Americans need to own a “shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy.” Acknowledging that truth is a necessary starting point for dialogue and action.
So as we wrap up this post with some observations about the limits of one white man’s experience in the art world, we invite you to listen to Kamasi Washington’s Truth and consider the true meaning of harmony, difference and equitable justice to you.
A young follower confessed to me, “In the current environment I don’t know what to say for fear of saying the wrong thing, so I don’t say anything at all.” But then he realized that silence isn’t a solution either, telling me “if I don’t say anything, others will condemn me as well.” It was a message of frustration and grief, and one that echoed the call to action during the 1980 AIDS epidemic: silence = death.
So I suggested the young man keep reading, listening and learning. Eventually the right words and actions would come to him. I told him that just as he was struggling to join the conversation, people in the black community are also tired of explaining their experiences with racism. I could have pointed to the arts as another form of self-expression, where it still holds true that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
In the documentary accompanying the exhibition Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, Richter describes painting as a “secretive business,” a means of expression for someone “not suited for the public” or “a bit cowardly” about speaking their mind. He describes the painter’s studio as a safe place for “someone who wouldn’t speak out in public, but then goes for it here in secret.” To be sure, there are plenty of artists who put it all out there, who engage with and even provoke public criticism to get a message across. Think about the Dana Schutz Controversy or Kara Walker’s shadow art, or Marina Abramovic’s performance art. Actually, Kara Walker’s art shouldn’t be controversial at all, since her work simply tells the truth about slavery and the African-American experience, which should have been taught to every American in grade school.
What Gerhard Richter expresses in his work, in a quiet, more reserved and perhaps privileged tone, is also a truthful telling of his own experience, that of a political refugee fleeing from East Germany to the West, never to see his family again. In an interview shown in the documentary, Richter talks about the artist’s responsibility toward “personal morality.” But he also acknowledges that artists are not alone in their work. They’re “automatically part of society.” Many of Richter’s abstract paintings are based on photographs. As Richter tells it, “the photos create a world, but I don’t know what’s happening outside of the Frame.” That’s an honest admission of doubt – of the limits to individual experience, which shape one’s world view. It’s also a call to action regarding the need to pursue truth beyond the limitations of that experience.
Richter grew up in the Eastern part of Germany in an area that changed hands between Germany and Poland during the upheavals of World War II. He was a young man at the height of Nazi indoctrination, too young to fight, but old enough to be “haunted, like many of his German contemporaries, by memories and associations from the Third Reich”. He escaped to West Germany two months before the Berlin wall was built. As a political refugee he wasn’t able to return “home” until 1987. His parents were long gone. These, too, are experiences outside the four corners of Richter’s painting, which have influenced his work to be sure. With all the fame of a leading contemporary artist, Richter is also a symbol of white privilege. In a 2016 interview he expressed criticism of immigrants and used derogatory language that can only be explained as the prejudice of an old white man afraid of his own future and out of touch with the “Zeitgeist” that contemporary art portends to embody.
Richter never claimed to be an authority on multiculturalism, or the harmony of difference, but he stepped into a dialogue and spoke out. About painting, Richter says “To talk about painting is not only difficult, but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words, what words are capable of expressing.” Maybe he should have let his paintings continue to do the talking, but now we have a more complete picture of him, if only to educate ourselves about our own personal morality and bias.
In the documentary Richter describes an “astonishing” picture hanging in his Atelier: “it’s fascinating how peaceful it looks, how normal. When you look closely they’re having a nice little chat. But this is the commando that was forced to burn corpses.” It was a photograph of dead bodies awaiting cremation at Birkenau Concentration Camp from 1944. “I can’t explain it. It’s crazy…it hasn’t let me go since.” Rather than express his thoughts in words, Richter often conceals reality under thick layers of paint, scraped away, giving the viewer only a hint of what’s going on beneath the surface. That is the strength of his resolve – to uncover parts of our shared experience, while obscuring them at the same time. Perhaps he’s just muddying the water. At the DIA Foundation in Beacon, NY, Richter gives his process a new twist, inviting the viewer to see their own reflection on the glossy surface of his “6 Gray Mirrors”.
If Richter is muddying the water with his famous gray hues, then at least he gives viewers a chance to see themselves in the process – in the depths of his own introspection. In doing so, Richter may be offering a call-to-action after all. Take a good long look at yourself. Pause before you speak and think before you act. Just as Richter found his calling to paint, we must now find our path forward, while never forgetting the limits to our own experience.
Enduring the Shutdown
In the n-th week of the corona shutdown, you finally get around to the projects that have been pushed aside and neglected for too long. Organizing papers and photo albums, cleaning out the files and updating the blogs that have been left unattended. Reaching out to friends you haven’t seen or heard from in a while. Sorry about that.
It’s also a good time to quiet the mind and think. That’s not easy when you are constantly inundated with emails, phone calls and invitations to zoom. Your inbox is probably full of newsletters pitching the latest virtual museum or gallery visit, online concerts and livestream events. No doubt these are all enticing opportunities in their own right:
Nightly Met Opera Streams (for free!)
Friday Night Whitney Screens – Video Art from Emerging Artists
Lunchtime Playlists and Home Ballet Workshops from the Lincoln Center
At a time when you have too much time on your hands, it’s easy to fall prey to the never ending drum of attention seekers. After all, that’s who we are. So when you are finished with this blog post, that video stream, the online art class, take some time to listen to your own inner voice. Tune out the distractions and find the space and time to quiet your mind. Picture your favorite place, or artwork, or character from the book you are reading in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes and let the images take you on a journey. Enjoy that moment. When you open your eyes, you may find that the space around you just got a little bit bigger, your world a little better and your patience a little bit greater.
When you return to the world full of distraction, it’s worth remembering as well that the artists whose creation we enjoy are living through their own challenging times. With museums and galleries closed, exhibitions cancelled and creative energy confined to the four walls of a studio, artists need our continued encouragement and support. If you saw an artwork you liked on your last gallery tour, reach out to the gallery or artist and let them know you are interested. Buy art if you can. Support artists in other ways as well. Let them know you care. In the weeks ahead, Project Art Lounge will be thinking of new ways to support artists. That is our passion and mission.
Take an Artist to Lunch
Dean was a humorous, good natured man. He was a humble person, full of kindness. Most of all, he was a generous soul, sharing an endless supply of wisdom and curiosity. In his final wishes he asked not for flowers on his grave, but to give generously to the Library for the Blind and to the local bus drivers, who shuttled him to town when he could no longer drive himself. And if those causes strike a chord, Dean and his wife suggest an alternative: “Simply invite a friend to lunch!” That’s Dean, friends would say.
Sharing lunch and a conversation is more than passing idle time before continuing on with the day’s routine. It’s about making something meaningful out of the ordinary. Dean knew this to be true. Extraordinary ideas come from the musings of ordinary people doing ordinary things – just ask the startup entrepreneurs who made their first plans over pizza and a beer. Or think about the great works of artists and musicians, conceived in European cafes and brasseries. Whether in business or artistry, the valuable time in-between spurts of productivity is worthy of appreciation.
The myth of the starving artist is unfortunately no myth at all. Forced to choose between art supplies and dinner, many artists are fueled by creativity alone. Hardship or adversity can have the unintended consequence of nurturing greatness, but so can affordable studio space, good food and the occasional glass of wine among friends.
History books and travel guides from Key West to Paris are full of stories about intimate artist haunts, where painters, writers and philosophers gathered to converse with one another. Except for the occasional patron or benefactor (watch the film about famed art addict Peggy Guggenheim here), these were places of artistic retreat, not social inclusion.
It is time that we cast our net of curiosity wider, including people in our lives who think differently, creatively, inspiringly. Whether it’s a new neighbor, a colleague you met at the corporate offsite, or a person standing next to you in the check-out line, our lives are impacted by them. For better (a helping hand) or for worse (someone just standing in the way), your perspective will likely be shaped by unknown souls who surround you. It is far too human to look away and focus only on selfish needs and wants, but wouldn’t it be nice to just say “hi, how are you?” or even better, “can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
The artistic practice of Lee Mingwei is steeped in conversation and reflection about connections between strangers. In 2014, a solo exhibition of Mingwei’s relational art was on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. It included a version of his “Living Room” project originally conceived for the Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In both editions, visitors were invited to spend time in a living room created by Mingwei, reflecting about objects in their lives and sharing their meaning with others. Strangers were even invited to host an afternoon in the living room, sharing their own stories with museum visitors. The point wasn’t to entertain or to celebrate the objects on display, but to create a sense of connection, an opportunity to reflect and learn about oneself through the rather ordinary act of human interaction.
In the spirit of that simple goal, and in honor of what would be Dean’s 90th birthday, Project Art Lounge is embarking on a bold new project, the “Take an Artist to Lunch” project. We’ll even throw in a few questions as ice breakers. To keep it genuine, there won’t be a film crew or microphones to ruin your appetite, just an opportunity to learn about one another and, hopefully, about oneself in the process.
Our hope is that what begins with a rather ordinary experience at the lunch counter, will provide inspiration and a sense of connectedness going forward. For details and information on how to participate, please respond below, indicating your city and whether you are an artist or would like to be a guest host.*
*Thank you for your interest in participating – the “Take an Artist to Lunch” project. Registration is finished for now. We’ll be back soon with more opportunities to support artists. Nothing stops you from reaching out to or hosting an artists in your community.
So please continue your support!
Make Art Great Again
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.
WOW, you are awesome!
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 2018 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?
UPDATE: Project Art Lounge Supports Women Artists
With museums and galleries closed, exhibitions cancelled and creative energy confined to the four walls of an apartment or studio where the rent is due, it’s time to remember the art and artists that bring joy to our lives. Artists need our continued encouragement during these challenging times. If you want to support Women Artists … or all artists, you can start by donating an artist inspired face mask to someone in need. Proceeds support non-profit programs for artists.
Not for the faint-hearted.
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.
Je suis Charlie?
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.
An Honest Show of Hands
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.