Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Art Destruction

After Picasso's 1905 painting "The Actor" was torn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday when a woman tripped and fell into it, the Times has been compiling similar stories of art abuse.

Fine art insurance underwriter Robert Read told the Guardian in 2008, "The kind of incident where people fall across a cordon in a gallery is very unusual. Far more common is works being wrongly packed, dropped, or left on the tarmac when a plane gets diverted. If you left a painting out on the runway in Mumbai during monsoon season, for instance, you would have a problem."

All of this brings to mind the infamous incident at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in about 2000 when a weary man sat down on a $600,000 Ming Dynasty chair on display, apparently ignoring signs warning visitors not to touch the exhibits. He broke it. The rumor I heard at the time was that the man cried when he realized what he had done. As far as I know, he didn't get into any sort of trouble with the museum, and the chair was fixed.

Or another story about the British artist Damien Hirst, whose 2001 installation at London's Eyestorm Gallery was mistaken for trash from the show's opening and thrown away by the night janitor. Hirst apparently laughed it off -- the piece, valued at six figures, consisted of "half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette, an easel, a ladder, paintbrushes, candy wrappers and newspaper pages strewn about the floor." It was easy to recreate.

Here is a list of art accidents from the Times and other sources:
  1. 2006: Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino baron , put his elbow through a Picasso that he was about to sell for $100 million more than he paid for it--all in front of a small audience of friends that included Nora Ephron and Barbara Walters.

  2. 2004: A clear plastic trash bag filled with paper and cardboard is tossed from the Tate Britain by a cleaning crew. It was part of German artist Gustav Metzger's "Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art," a new version of a piece he did in 1960.

  3. 1980s: A Joseph Beuys piece consisting of a dirty bathtub is scoured clean by janitors.

  4. Artist Tracy Emin, in a string of bad luck, has two paintings in an Edinburgh gallery accidentally damaged by visitors in separate incidents, and then has another piece damaged by the staff of the National Galleries of Scotland.

  5. 2006: A 42-year-old man trips down some stairs at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England and crashes into three Qing Dynasty (17th century) vases worth about $800,000.
  6. The vases were reportedly repaired.

  7. 2000: Sotheby's, the auction house, puts a Lucian Freud drawing still in its packing box through a large shredder, thinking the box was empty. The drawing was worth $157,000.

  8. Rembrandt's huge 1642 painting "Night Watch" has been attacked at least three times since 1900. In 1975, a mentally ill man cut zig-zags in the painting. In 1990, another crazy person threw acid on it.

  9. 2001: A glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly valued at about $50,000 is broken during preparation for an evening event at the Victoria & Albert in London.

  10. Recently, an unnamed Upper East Side couple loses four Impressionist works when a housekeeper throws away packing crates (which turned out not to be empty) from a seasonal move from their Hamptons home.

  11. A Giorgio de Chirico painting called “Piazza d’Italia,” hanging in an apartment in the Netherlands, has a hole punched through it when a demolition on a neighboring building gets out of hand.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

iPhone Art

Portugal-born New York-based artist Jorge Colombo has been making sketches on his iPhone with an application called Brushes weekly for the New Yorker since mid-September last year. The idea for the series came after his June 1, 2009 cover for the magazine.

“I got a phone in the beginning of February, and I immediately got the program so I could entertain myself,” Colombo told the New Yorker. The artist, whose first contribution to the magazine appeared in 1994, said that the Brushes app lets him "paint" in the dark, and also work discreetly in public.

The process is captured with another app, Brushes Viewer, which records the creation of the painting without including the parts that are erased when the artist makes an error or changes.

And for good measure, here's one of the elevated section of the F and G trains in Brooklyn over the Gowanus Canal. This view shows the entrance to the Smith-9th Street Station.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Avatar Racist?

Some critics are seeing racist themes in James Cameron's dazzling new movie, Avatar.

The story, which is told more or less in its entirety through the trailers promoting the film, is simple: An alien race makes their home over a deposit of rare ore on a strange planet. Humans coming to mine the ore are looking for a way to displace the aliens. While scientists study the aliens by using hybrid alien-human bodies that humans control via electronic telepathy, mercenaries hired by the mining company prepare to force the aliens to leave. Our hero, a mercenary, gets the opportunity to control one of the alien hybrids. He falls in love with the aliens, their way of life, and one of their princesses. He turns on his mercenary bosses and he and the scientists that control the hybrid alien bodies, or avatars, revolt against the mining company and try to save the aliens from destruction. You can guess how it ends; it's Hollywood, so it really can't end any other way.

So what about this could be racist? It's the same in many movies. A white man comes in and saves a primitive but more "spiritually enlightened" culture from his own people. As David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times recently, the "White Messiah" theme is central to Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai (2003) and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990), among many other movies.

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic," wrote Brooks. "It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades."

So why would Cameron use such a crude, predictable, even offensive plot? The conservative Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz (whose bitterly negative review called Avatar "among the dumbest movies I've ever seen") had a theory:
"The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar--with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe's adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool--at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people."
While Podhoretz's review had many of the earmarks of classic conservative cries against Hollywood liberalism ("Don't smear the profit motive!" admonished Ayn Rand in the 50s), he's spot-on about the pandering, after-thought plot.

No one, Podhoretz included, thinks the plot is the point; it's the effects. But let's take a closer look at these "White Messiah" plots.

Ironically, the White Messiah plot is a liberal device. It celebrates marginalized, colonized and "primitive" cultures, pitting them unfavorably against our more technologically and militarily sophisticated culture. They are weaker, but more in touch with the land. In American lore, they are the "Noble Savage," the Native American. They also represent the desire to leave modern society and get back to basics. They represent a respect for the environment even while they revel in a warrior's way of life.

To me, the "White Messiah" plotline is used by writers and directors of a liberal bent, like Cameron, to create a character that their audience (which they assume in America is predominantly white) can relate to instead of trying to create a sympathetic character from whatever colonized group the story focuses on. Through the white interloper, the audience learns about the colonized culture and, along with that interloper, begins to sympathize with them. Now, to highlight the cultural value of the colonized group, the writers have our hero become their champion. He doesn't merely fight for them, he saves them. Or at the very least, he sacrifices everything he can for them, firmly establishing their cultural and spiritual value by becoming one of them--as much as he can.

I don't believe that it is the writers' intention to appear racist. With a limited understanding of a different culture, and the burden of helping the dominant culture relate to the other, Hollywood has chosen to show us these groups through white eyes. It's a condescending cop out.

It reminds me of cultural critic Edward Said's charge that Napoleon's France stormed into Egypt and studied the culture so thoroughly that it owned it, and taught it about itself as a way to control it.

For a nice antidote to the "White Messiah" story, read Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American. Or see the 2002 film version starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. This nuanced tale effectively predicted the Vietnam War and America's place in it. The story, which was taken in part from Greene's experience as a reporter in Saigon, revolves around a British reporter (Michael Caine in the recent film), an American CIA agent (Brendan Fraser), and a Vietnamese woman in love with both of them (Do Thi Hai Yen). Greene's story criticizes the liberal American temptation to "rescue" Vietnam from both the French colonizers and Northern Communists.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Quote of the Day: Stanton A. Glantz

“This is like someone just put a bunch of plutonium in the water supply.”
That hysterical outburst is from Stanton A. Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. He is equating the appearance of a character who smokes cigarettes in the new blockbuster "Avatar" with an act of terrorism on our our infrastructure.

The character is a scientist named Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, who studies a tribe of 10-foot tall blue humanoids on the planet Pandora. In the movie, Augustine and others control hybrid alien bodies through a sort of transfer of consciousness, using a nervous system link.

James Cameron explained the character thus:
“She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.

“I don’t believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it’s O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers.”
Cameron told the Times that he doesn't support smoking as a habit, adding, "and neither, I believe, does ‘Avatar.’"

The attitude of Glantz and other anti-smoking crusaders is spastic. No, of course we shouldn't encourage smoking, but nor should we pretend it doesn't exist. Must every feature film be a battle ground for smoking? Do directors and producers have the responsibility to rewrite characters if they exhibit certain vices? Do these films change when such elements are removed? Ask the Mormons; they've censored Cameron's films before.

All of this reminds me of the zeal that removed the barely visible cigarette from the hand of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the children's book, "Goodnight Moon" on the jacket photo. It's just stupid.

It shows a disrespect for history, intellectual property, and art. It also shows an arrogance about indivdual causes, a need, so strong, to keep the world from smoking, that everyone must change their ways to accomodate it. Nevermind that some representations of smokers are either representations of reality or subtler character studies illustrating precisely your anti-smoking message.

Monday, January 04, 2010

How to Sound Smart, Part One

1. Alternative spellings will make you write smarter. Feces spelled faeces smells much smarter.

2. Alternative pronunciations will make you sound smarter. To every possible proper noun, emphasize the last syllable: Ralph Lauren, for instance, must become Ralph LaREN. Steven Seagal, a name that in lesser hands might be pronounced SEEgul, becomes SeGALL. Instantly more sophisticated.

The Press Junket and the Future of Journalism

Mike Albo, a freelance writer who penned the Critical Shopper column in the New York Times, was fired by the paper late last year for going on a press junket sponsored by Jet Blue (and others) to Jamaica. The catch was that Albo wasn't going there to write for the Times. Still, his agreement with the paper stipulated that he could not ever accept a free trip. After his firing was examined and re-examined all over the Web from groups as varied as Gawker and Daily Finance, Albo said this to Gawker today via e-mail:
"I am not embarrassed. I am more in awe, and also sad and disappointed that I am no longer writing the Critical Shopper column. I really enjoyed it...I especially loved giving talented, struggling designers and independent retailers well deserved attention. Despite all this, I only have good things to say about the staff and the editors there. Also the Times pays very efficiently. I have always been simultaneously obsessed and grossed out by our commercial culture: how media infiltrates our lives, how we are all becoming part-product, how branding imprints on the brain, how actresses in hollywood are now required to have faces that look like smooth flounders, how Underminers thrive like cockroaches within this system. Pretty much everything I write - monologues, plays, novels, comedy sketches, freelance articles - deals with these themes in some way. This experience has clarified a lot of suspicions I had about the bizarre and blurred Commercial Industrial Complex in which we live. I don't expect to stop writing about these subjects... On the contrary, if anything good has come out of this, it's that my comedo-critical faculties have been given a electric jolt of energy. My knives are sharpened."
While it may on the surface sound like Albo was wrong to take the trip and crazy to think he could get away with it, consider this from Gawker's Foster Kamer:
"The lesson, of course, being that travel stories can only be written to the Times standards when the Times foots the entire bill. In order to do that, the writer has to pay for the story upfront, and after, has to be compensated for expenses. Some problems, here:
1. Do you really think broke freelance writers can afford to do this?
2. Do you think a newspaper that is experiencing buyout after buyout or layoff after layoff can really afford to cover both expenses and a writer's fee?
3. Is it really in the best interests of the Times to fire good writers because they're sticking by rules made when publications could afford to cover writers' travel journalism expenses?
"The answer, for most freelancers in New York, and—going out on a limb, here—for the New York Times, in light of their recent money problems: no."
There are two illusions journalism students have about media that I'd like to shatter. First, that there is some separation between the editorial side of a magazine or newspaper and the advertising side. There are idealists out there, yes, but the truth is that neither print nor online versions of dailies and monthlies can survive without making some concessions to advertisers who, pinched by the recession, need incentives to pony up ad dollars. Not that there weren't major conflicts of interest before.

The second illusion is that writers make a reasonable living, and are immune to gifts, perks and schwag. Freelancers have always worked without benefits and now are often asked to write for cheap or free. Staff writers are told by those at the top of their companies that they may not accept free shit from any advertiser, story subject or potential story subject. But in many cases, particularly in the lower levels of consumer and trade magazines, staff writers are told by their immediate superiors to take what they can get, the message being, "We don't pay you enough, so enjoy it; just don't talk about it."

And then think about travel writing for a moment. How often do you think writers who review luxury hotels and exotic locales actually can afford to pay for those trips? How often would a newspaper or travel magazine (or any magazine that has a travel story in it) have a budget to pay for a writer's days-long stay in fancy hotels with meals at expensive restaurants? And how often do you read luxury travel stories that aren't glowingly positive? What must happen, more often than not, is that local chambers of commerce or tourism boards foot the bill, helped by hotels, resorts and other groups.

This is what's happening in the comfy parts journalism. Constant conflicts of interest, free gifts from the very groups that writers are assigned to scrutinize, and tacit bribes that aren't called bribes because the stakes are deemed to be too low. Now imagine what could happen when you combine the following:
1. Underpaid, overworked journalists;

2. Newspapers struggling for advertisers and owned by corporate interests or wealthy ideologues, losing money every year;

3. Stories about political and corporate corruption in which individuals and groups are paid off between tens of thousands and hundreds of millions of dollars to help ferry in or cover up deals worth much more.
And it all starts with the journalist who lives paycheck to paycheck, watching his or her college chums raking in salaries ten times as high in the corporate sector. Or is the weak link those ad-starved papers who are urged to bury or not pursue the tough stories?

There is no future of journalism. It isn't sustainable for writers or our democracy.

Labels: , ,

Site Meter