the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for August, 2007

A Pig in a Petticoat: Artists Paint Baghdad’s Blast Walls

Posted by gninja on August 13, 2007

With combined financing from the American military, the Iraqi Government, and aid organizations, artists have been commissioned to paint murals over the concrete blast walls that have carved up the topography of Baghdad.


(Above image from the NY Times. The BBC also has a slideshow of some photographs here.)

It happens that, in searching for some images for this post, I stumbled upon a blog that shares my point of view on these blast walls. Right down to the last paragraph on Banksy, I would just have been parroting this guy, so instead, I’ll direct traffic over to his post.

For the quick and dirty version, though, I’ll paraphrase my reaction: while art has been known to have a restorative effect on people, especially in war-torn environments and devastated areas, this beautification project has an entirely different effect and intention. It is a project sanctioned by an occupying force, aimed at mitigating the devastating impact of a hideous concrete wall running through a city. It prettifies the divisive nature of the wall with images OKed by those in charge. Those who want nothing more than a pacified and complacent populace.

For me, the most telling line in the NY Time’s article mentioned the origins of this project:

The idea grew out of a few informal daubings that appeared on barricades on the east bank of the river. It was picked up by American soldiers working with Iraqi neighborhood councils, and the program gained momentum.

Read: street artists who were using the wall for self expression had their own work usurped and reappropriated by the authorities.


(A blast wall with graffiti. Via PBS.)

What was once a forum for dissent is now an arena for compliance. Major Anthony Judge, quoted in the Time’s article sums it up best:

We decided that they needed to be painted so that the area didn’t look like a military base with all that concrete,” he said. “We wanted it to be something that people felt comfortable with, and proud of.”

No one should ever have to be comfortable with a concrete blast wall.

Posted in art, politics, street art, urban space | Leave a Comment »

The Intel Ad That Was Recently Pulled: From an Art Historian’s Perspective

Posted by gninja on August 11, 2007

In the words of art historian Albert Boime: art “helps shape ideas, define social attitudes, and fix stereotypes”; “images…serve as instruments of persuasion and control.”

It’s with these words in mind that I approach the Intel advertisement that was recently pulled:


The superficial idea the ad-men were attempting to communicate through this image is that the khaki-clad man is the employee or manager, and the sprinting men (actually, a single man replicated) represents the speed of the new intel core 2 duo processor. Smug, knowing employee, proud of his new computer. And a “processor” crouched and ready to zip away at the speed of lightning.

The ad was promptly pulled “after racial backlash“.

(As an aside, what the hell is a “racial backlash” anyway? Very strange choice of words.)

Trawling through some online chatter about the removal, I was disappointed to find the same kind of response over and over and over again.


The first response above was the most common kind I saw– accusing people of oversensitivity and rampant political correctness (a phrase which makes me want to gouge out my own eyes– since the 1990s, it’s been a key rhetorical tool of the Conservative Right, who fling the term at someone in order to halt any kind of reasonable debate. It sucker-punches a conversation about one issue into an immature squabble over semantics.)

The second response, though, was alo quite common in the forums. Contrary to what “VolleyJeff” intended with this remark, though, it brilliantly proves how accustomed Americans now are to image of superior whites and the subordinate Other. It has become utterly naturalized. And when I use the term “naturalized” I’m pointedly referring to its meaning in semiotics, or, as Daniel Chandler paraphrases from Roland Barthe’s essays in Image Music Text:

From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’.

Getting back to VolleyJeff’s response, then. Yes, absolutely, seeing such an image with the races of its characters reversed would raise questions and perhaps eyebrows. But not because the image as it is represents the natural order of things, but rather because we have become increasingly conditioned over the years to seeing whites in a position of superiority and blacks in a position of subordination. Images have played an important role in reinforcing this notion of racial disparity.


( Thomas Nast, “Slaves Being Emancipated”, 1863).

Note the white man in the center and the former slaves surrounding him. The white man in the foreground is the hero of the image, with the former slaves bowing their thanks to him.


Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, 1861.


A Confederate $10 note, 1861.

(I could go on with the images, but I think these suffice.)

No, the Intel ad is not inherently racist. But it absolutely becomes racist after centuries of images insisting upon the black man’s rightful place at the feet of the white man until it’s become so naturalized that we think those images represent a natural condition.

Posted in advertising, art, barthes, semiotics | 2 Comments »

Guardian Art Critic Only Wants Confirmed Masterpieces on Show When He’s in Town

Posted by gninja on August 9, 2007


(The museum ideal for some.)

I just can’t get away from Rudolf Stingel lately.

Writing for the Guardian UK’s arts and architecture blog, Guy Dammann expresses his scorn for the Whitney’s use of too much gallery space devoted to new exhibitions. He complains that,

When at home, it tends to be temporary exhibitions that draw me through museum gates. In foreign cities, though, where the sense of novelty is more pervasive – and the words “new” or “just-opened” consequently lose their purchase – I prefer to stick with a museum’s permanent collection

Speaking of New York’s Whitney Museum, devoted to American art:

The shame, then, is all the greater when the museum gives over so much of its space to temporary exhibitions. Covering two of the five floors, the current exhibition on 60s psychedelia – The Summer of Love – is in itself at least well worth the ticket price. But further squeezing the permanent collection onto a single floor, the enormous space wasted on Rudolf Stingel is difficult to stomach.

So, in short, Dammann wants museums 1) to cater to tourists and 2) to afford only a sliver of space to new artists while reinforcing the already prominent reputations of the old (and new) masters.

Even his final concession is a bit strange:

Of course, the changes aren’t permanent, but the imbalance betrays some seriously skewed priorities. And there are ways round the issue, as the Guggenheim, just a few blocks a way, shows. As you explore its headline exhibition, The Shapes of Space which unfolds up Frank Lloyd Wright’s glorious, but amusingly canvas-unfriendly spiral ramp, you soon realise most of the works are drawn from its permanent collection.

He knows full well that the temporary exhibitions will soon pack up and leave town and that other pieces from the permanent collection will be back on the Whitney’s walls. Which leads me to believe Dammann just wants the Hoppers, de Koonings, and Pollocks out for his spin ’round New York, then once he’s gone we NYers are welcome to have all the temporary exhibitions we like. Lovely. What an adventurous art critic.

Moreover, the comparison made between the Guggenheim’s use of a temporary exhibition that works symbiotically with the permanent collection is a fatuous one, considering that the Shapes of Space is comprised of works from the permanent collection. This kind of exhibition– a thematic one that uses material already in the possession of the museum– is entirely different from the kind of exhibition which assembles works from exterior sources. Dammann’s analogy is made even worse by the fact that not only is the Guggenheim’s show about the artists’ conception of space but about their notion of the gallery space as well. The works presented are, by and large, dependent upon their presence among other works.

Ultimately, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to his complaint. If I were in Florence, I’d like to see the holdings from the Uffizi’s permanent collection. But I’m also aware that the summer season is the season for new exhibitions. Especially here in New York. As a professional arts writer, I’d be taking my summer vacation to see these new exhibitions and to write up reviews of them. I appreciate that Dammann did not respond well to Stingel’s show. But he would have done a lot better to review the show (poorly or otherwise) than to complain that it, for the period of a few months, impedes him from getting to see some Pollocks.

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums | Leave a Comment »

Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp

Posted by gninja on August 8, 2007


Very neat website devoted to the works of Duchamp. It’s a great illusration of the ways in which layout and flash animations have the potential to surpass textbooks as conveyers of information. At the very least, websites like this one are well suited to the study of art history.

Posted in art, new media | Leave a Comment »

New York’s Subways as (Forum for) Artvertising

Posted by gninja on August 4, 2007

I’m so sorry for the title of this post.  I can’t help myself.


(The Shuttle train from Grand Central to Times Square, recently done up by the Westin Hotel.)

At the New York Transit Museum right now  is an exhibition on “Squire Vickers and the Subway’s Modern Age“.  I’ve not yet been to the exhibition, but it’s nevertheless a good opportunity to talk about art and the subways again— especially since husband recommended we take the S to Times Square yesterday to see its new duds.  Very, very cool.


Not exactly the sort of work Vickers might have commissioned, or done himself:


Throughout the 103-year history of NYC’s subway system, though, there’s been a constant effort to beautify what gets millions of us from point A to B.  Whether its come from subway designers and architects themselves, like Vickers, or from street artists, as in the ’70s and ’80s, or from advertisers, as in this case, people don’t seem to want to have to stare at blankness for their commutes.  The embellishment certainly helps us avert our eyes from others, an unlimited source of tension on these streets.

Nevertheless, though, I still felt bad about taking so well to the Westin’s ad campaign.  I thoroughly enjoyed riding in a subway carriage all dressed up as an Alpine Scene, but knowing that it was just another tactic to sell me something made me feel bad about it.  And yet, it’s not that far from Rudolf Stingel’s ‘Plan B‘, an installation of carpeting in Grand Central’s main terminal, in 2004:


Both the ad campaign and Stingel’s art have the same effect of alienating the daily commute from its natural character, either through domesticating it (imagine yourself walking through Grand Central with carpeted floors– just the absence of clicking heels alone would be eerie) or through likening it to a form of tourism or vacationing.

And yet, and yet the whole thing is changed when I know one of those installations’ primary purpose is to sell me something.

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, new york | Leave a Comment »

Not Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria: Autograph, Allograph, Again

Posted by gninja on August 3, 2007


(No longer part of the Van Gogh oeuvre. Head of a Man at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia.)

The NGV announced today that they would accept the findings of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and no longer ascribe Head of a Man to Vincent Van Gogh.

I do find it amusing that the newspaper went with the headline, “NGV’s ‘Van Gogh’ a Fake”, as if the artist, a contemporary of Van Gogh, had been a forger intent on deceiving audiences and buyers. Of course, we have no idea whether such was the case. We certainly have no confession from a 19th century Robert Thwaites, so it isn’t exactly fair play to call Head of a Man a ‘fake.’

Regardless, the article brought me back to thinking about Nelson Goodman (as I had been doing in my previous post) and, in general, art history’s relationship to attribution and forgeries. Possibly needless to say, art historians have always been fixated on attribution, whether such-and-such an artist created such-and-such a work. If nothing else, it lent (lends?) the discipline the scientific appearance it strove to attain from its institutionalized beginning in 1870s Germany. As, most notably, with Morelli and others, art historians collected data and ‘evidence’, compiling lists of traits and styles so as to categorize the history of the world’s art into neat and tidy schools and periods.

So, of course, in this Linnaean system getting it ‘right’ and being able to pin works to individuals and specific dates was vital to the establishment of an accepted and credible discipline.

By the 1970s and 1980s, when art history was going through a lot of changes (very energizing to the field), this kind of connoisseurship and even antiquarianism came into question. Or, at the very least, art historians no longer took for granted the importance of a work’s originality and endeavored to locate the reasons for, in a word, caring.

Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art tackled the question of the allograph and the autograph, which led to a series of debates on the differing values (monetary and otherwise) of an original and a forgery which cannot be told apart by the naked eye. Goodman argues that, even if we cannot tell the difference between the two, the knowledge that one is a forgery and one is an original produces an aesthetic difference which then alters our perception of the works.

I love the response of Thomas Kulka to this argument, in his article, “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries” (Leonardo, 1982). He calls Goodman a snob. Heh. However, beyond that, Kulka makes the insightful point that works may be judged on the basis of art-historical value and aesthetic value. While the former judges a piece of art based on its production during a precise moment in time and its effect on later history (and relationship to prior history) the latter bases its judgment purely on the aesthetic quality of the work. So, while the original and forgery may have equal aesthetic values, their art-historical values are vastly different. This argument is clear enough and by no means hard to arrive at. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good case: some works are good because of their artistic value, and other works are good because they extended beyond their frames and contemporary contexts to affect people and history.

Yet Kulka met with criticism. Goodman didn’t respond too well (Leonardo, 1982), nor did Jacques Mandelbrojt (Leonardo, 1983). Their responses insisted on the importance of authenticity, which must be discerned in the aesthetic quality of the piece.

It’s an old guard view because at risk in this argument is the reputation of the field and its foundation in the sciences. Art historians, by and large, cannot stand being told that there is no way to ‘prove’ their arguments. So they have to revert to science and scientific method. It’s all silly and has a rather immature attachment to historical positivism.


Returning to the NGV and their not-Van-Gogh. I’m happy that they’re still going to display the painting– it’s a confident move that declares the directors are not exclusively concerned with headlining names but also with the works themselves. But, as with my final statement in my post about Robert Thwaites, the work itself now gains currency and importance just from the debates its sparked regarding forgeries, originals, and attribution. All of which should be included somehow in the presentation of the piece. Let the audience know what they’re viewing, the recent debates about it, and push them to form their own opinions about the significance of authenticity. That’d make for a great exhibition.

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, portrait, semiotics | 1 Comment »