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October 29, 2008

Isn't it Pretty to Think So?

Early in the pretentious-yet-informative art history documentary The Rape of Europa, an interviewee poses the "age-old argument: Which is of more value, a work of art or a human life?"

The film covers the destruction of symbolic architecture during World War II, and the celebration of fascist art and theft of "non-degenerate" European art by the Nazis. Much of the looted art, including the Mona Lisa, was hidden away in Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle; some was stashed in a salt mine, some was horded privately by higher- ups in Hitler's organization. The actions taken 60+ years ago obviously had an impact on the cultural history of Europe at the time, but this is also (like any element of that war) a contemporary subject.

Just last year, paintings by Corot, Pissaro, Monet and Sisley were found in a bank vault which had been rented by Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer and the former head of the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the bureaucracy tasked with stealing art from European Jews and from galleries and museums. This is contemporary also in that any effort at destroying a cultural history, or at controlling cultural interpretation, is integral to the waging of war...the looting of the National Museum of Iraq being one recent example.

But the life/art issue still flummoxes. A former infantry officer interviewed for the film says of the Nazi plunder: "All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed on the surface of the earth. How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps I couldn't understand then and I can't understand it today."

We know from history which humans the Nazis considered less than human. But what was considered worthwhile art by the Nazis, and what was degenerate? What symbolized best the ideals of a conquering nation? What memories were worth preserving? And what, in the end, was worth knowing?

The Nazi idealization of symmetry and order in architecture and political symbolism is obvious. Judging by the art stolen by the ERR, the preference for ordered representations of beauty, particularly a certain physical human beauty, was also strong. Goodness and rightness were implied in the beautiful, and the art worth stealing represented to the Nazis a pinnacle of human expression.

In the late 1930's, philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called "Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian" in which he praises Fuchs (a Socialist writer who died in 1940) for getting around the over-idealization of art. Benjamin wrote that Fuchs understood "the products of art and science owe their existence not merely to the effort of the great geniuses who created them, but also, in one degree or another, to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." A collective-history view of creativity which sort of spoils the symbolic "worth" of the art plundered by the Nazis...and also, in essence, redirects the question about art versus human life.

In Errol Morris' recent film Standard Operating Procedure, a staffer at Abu Ghraib prison wonders aloud more than once just why she took the photographs of prisoners being "softened up". She could identify in herself that she knew something was wrong, but resigned herself to being a participant observer, using her digital camera as the substitute for her conscience. Yet by taking those photographs, those documents of culture and barbarism, she created art that truly symbolized the ideals of a conquering nation.

October 9, 2008

Tongues of Marble

During this week's debate between Senators McCain and Obama, McCain mentioned that Herbert Hoover was the last president to raise taxes in a time of national strife. I thought the mention was odd in and of itself, but odder still (for me at least) was that I had just spent some time exploring the exhibition "To Choose Freedom: Soviet Dissidents and Their Supporters", which is housed at the conservative Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus.

"To Choose Freedom" presents photographs, letters, essays, and publications by (and some video interviews with) Soviet dissidents who had been imprisoned after expressing their views on democratizing the Soviet Union. All content in the exhibition was drawn from the Hoover Institution archives, and consequently all content in the exhibition connected to the meta-theme of "We at the Hoover hate evil Communism and really really love free market Capitalism. Bigtime."

On view in the exhibition space was a mesmerizing 1977 video of William Buckley, Jr. interviewing dissident Vladimir Bukovskii. Joining Buckley as "examiner" was Andrew Knight, then editor of the neocon guide to life, The Economist. Vladimir Bukovskii was a student activist who protested about and famously argued in court for recognition of basic civil rights in the Soviet Union in the late 60's. He was sent to Lubyanka prison and then on to a mental hospital/prison for 12 years, where he was tortured. Upon his release (post-Helsinki Accords), Bukovskii went west.

During the interview/debate, Bukovskii was complimented by Buckley on his skill with the English language, and Buckley also condescendingly reassured Bukovskii that he was doing a great job. Then, Buckley asked Bukovskii whether the former prisoner's view of America (that full flower of happy free Capitalism!) was "quixotic." When Bukovskii seemed stumped by this word, Buckley's eyes grew large and he leaned forward slightly, instantly engaged by the limitations of his guest. Or perhaps Buckley was making a pass?

Anyway, Knight later chimed in to ask/confirm whether Bukovskii was or ever had been a Communist, and to ask just how much Bukovskii admired Capitalism.

Sure.

Posted throughout the exhibition were large-type definitions of words and ideas the Hoover Institution deemed pertinent to the "struggle against the Soviet Union's 70-year reign", including Hannah Arendt's view of totalitarianism as a system that attempts to control the private behavior and innermost beliefs of an individual, directing one's personal decisions, including how one raises one's children, and who one can marry. There is a ballot initiative in California right now about that, actually.

The exhibition taught me much I did not know about the Soviet Union post-Stalin, and as Joe Biden recently repeated, past is prologue. But both the exhibition and this week's Presidential debate also raised a number of questions in my mind - - not the least of which was, do conservative thinkers even have the capacity for self-reflection?

After being drenched in this sweat lodge of conservatism, I wandered across campus to the Cantor Arts Center to air out, and spent some time looking at the Rodin sculptures. But on this day all I saw in his gorgeous sculptures were Soviet prisoners in gulags being verbally beaten to death by the hypocrisy of conservatives who said torture was an "evil" only unfree nations engage in. So I retreated to the contemporary section of Stanford's mini-temple of art, and attended to Jean Arp's 1942 sculpture "Silence". One could view "Silence" as an act of force, a tongue which turned to marble after being removed from its owner...but Arp said he really intended it as a beautiful reminder of the clarity- and contemplation-inducing silence that the world is rapidly losing.

October 2, 2008

Getting Out of the Corner through Painting

So, when the world around you seems to be filled with claims of the certitude of 'moral knowledge' and you are left with cranky old Bertrand Russell as solace, what is a creative person to do?

If my 'function' as an artist is to stay open, to interpret and contextualize my world through what I make with my hands and tools, and yet the voices of authority in that world push always for finality, for certainty, in each conversation...then I have to paint myself out of the corner.

Creating new work is about dwelling in uncertainty. It is also about being willing to be led along by a shifting balance of chance, imagination, and confidence in an aesthetic sensibility. I don't plan what I paint, it emerges; I reflect and I feel and I push paint and compositions emerge. And I don't have moral knowledge of anything at all, least of all the role or source of this creative output.

Painting can be quite painful; working through something in my mind and making it comprehensible on canvas is often painful emotionally, mentally, sometimes physically. Thinking about painting "Why He Fled" sort of hurts and gives me release, too. I undertook that painting while trying to dwell in the mind of someone who claims his identity through an act of violence, and thinking about what a luxury it is, in a sense, to not be him. What I am not, how others may be, what I can't know, how things make sense and then don't, how time changes absolutes -- that is where I live, where any artist lives, I think. At my core, I am fascinated by 'moral knowledge' as an essential self-defining need, and am fascinated too by non-belief.

When I am not frustrated or spent, I can try to imagine what it must feel like to be the other, to live in faith. And that imagining is a creative act, an interpretation, the beginning of a painting, what keeps me alive.

October 1, 2008

Painted into a Corner

Recently, a man traveling on the same train with me tried to convince me, as we sped past the strange glow of northern New Jersey, that determining once and for all when life begins is the most important political issue of our time. He spoke passionately about how the law of the land must be consistently applied, and the hateful murderers of pregnant women should be charged with two crimes, since in his (Christian) view two lives were lost. He also talked at length about the Illinois "Born Alive" bill, and the growing threat of hospitals not caring for aborted fetuses who survive the process.

Years ago Michael Dukakis was famously asked in a debate about what his response would be if his wife were raped; Katie Couric just asked Sarah Palin about her (Christian) stand on abortion via a question about a girl being raped by the girl's own father. Palin replied, in her way, that she was unequivocally pro-life. In South Dakota, State Senator Bill Napoli said in 2006 that his support of SD's anti-abortion bill was solid, but he allowed for one (Christian) exception: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Passionate arguments about virgins and rape and incest? About what moment life begins? This is what matters right now?

Richard Rorty's book Philosophy and Social Hope contains a chapter called "Religion as Conversation-stopper" where he discusses, among other things, the distinction between 'moral knowledge' and 'moral beliefs'. Palin, Napoli, and my train companion give examples in conversation of their moral knowledge, sourced from Christianity. But Rorty points out that moral knowledge can't really be clearly or consistently sourced, in the manner one would source a quote or content for a story in a newspaper. Moreover, he points out that the "test of a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path to private perfection"...which often means de-emphasizing religion in public arguments, precisely for the sake of protecting the freedom to believe what one will.

But Rorty's best point in the chapter comes at its conclusion. Here, in response to the argument that "religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs", Rorty points out that self-identity based on Enlightenment ideology results in a life of meaning for that person, just as Christian theology offers a life of meaning to its adherents, but atheists are tagged with spiritual shallowness...which leads then to the question of "why a speaker's depth of spirituality is more relevant to her participation in public debate that her hobby or her hair color."

Apt, considering everything is up for public debate at the moment, particularly candidates' depth of spirituality and commitment to 'moral knowledge'. And lipstick color. I recall a devoutly Catholic friend saying to me once, "I don't get how you have morals since you don't have faith." She also was annoyed that she could not "put her finger on me" and say in one phrase what exactly I was. Other than human, I guess. And one can see her same annoyance writ large in an election year.

When I am exhausted by the subject, or when stuck across the aisle from it on Amtrak, in my mind I move right beyond Rorty's coherent pragmatism. After hearing many people who devoutly believe in their religion unavoidably come around (in public conversation no less!) to rants about virginity, rape, abortion and incest, I wind up agreeing with cranky old Bertrand Russell: "The three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to those passions, providing they run in certain channels."