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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Masterpieces and Social Change

Posted by gninja on January 11, 2008

There’s an interesting post over at the Design Observer on Ernst Bettler. In brief:

In the late 1950s, Bettler was asked to design a series of posters to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfäfferli+Huber. Aware of reports that P+H had been involved in testing prisoners in German concentration camps less than 15 years before, he hesitated, and then decided to accept the commission. “I had the feeling I could do some real damage,” he said later.

And indeed he did. He created four posters featuring dramatic, angular black and white portraits juxtaposed with sans serif typography. Alone, each poster was an elegant example of international style design. Together, however, a different message emerged, for it turned out the abstract compositions in the posters contained hidden letters…Hung side by side on the streets, they spelled out N-A-Z-I. A public outcry followed, and within six weeks the company was ruined.

The ‘A’ portion of the campaign:


The post goes on to explain that Bettler’s legend was more myth than fact, as discovered by Andy Crewdson. Nevertheless, it brings up a good topic for discussion.

Regardless of the era in which it was created, I always ask myself to what extent the art I’m studying or researching at any given time was formative or symptomatic. Am I researching art as document or generative force? The answer is rarely one or the other, and the extent to which it is either varies from work to work. But the following question is an important one to ask: as agents of social change, how effective are”masterpieces”? I don’t mean art in general, but specifically those works we refer to as masterpieces. The term itself is a complicated one to define. But, no matter which definition one uses, a masterpiece is in some respect (if not primarily) unique. According to the Grove Dictionary of Art:

Term with three main meanings, successively of diminishing precision: (a) a test-piece of work submitted to a craft organization as qualification for entry as a master (e.g. ‘Hans submitted his masterpiece to the guild in 1473’); (b) a work considered an artist’s best and/or most representatively central (e.g. ‘Hans’s masterpiece is surely the Passion cycle in Berlin’); (c) simply a work considered very good and/or canonical, either absolutely (‘Hans’s Passion cycle is a masterpiece’) or in some particular respect (‘a masterpiece of colour’)… A further complication of definition is that the various western European synonyms—particularly the French chef d’oeuvre, Italian capolavoro, German Meisterstück and Hauptwerk—have had different histories and still have different nuances.

Considering I teach a course entitled “Masterpieces of Western Art”, I think I should explore the term in depth at some later point. For now, though, I’m addressing meanings 2 and 3 as they relate to social change.

My question is: if an object is unique, what are the means by which it can create a reaction large, important, active enough that it causes social change? What has to happen? Does it have to exist in a society where reproduction (photographic, digital, analogue) and dissemination are possible and common? Does it have to participate in the daily life of the community (e.g. the very visible Parthenon)? Does only one person–albeit an influential one–have to see the piece?

We (as in art historians) look at masterpieces so often and assume they resonate, and I wonder how these unique works intersect with the daily concerns of the people who see them. Perhaps, more than any other objects we observe, it is the masterpieces that are symptomatic and emblematic; and the art and everything else that comprises visual culture (Visual Culture? I don’t know if “we” capitalize it yet) that’s formative. Maybe what we use to define a masterpiece is its encapsulation of definitive and culturally-specific values. Values that are worked out and reinforced in art that is far less masterful and far more ordinary.

I really need to read Walter Cahn’s book already.

So, is (graphic) design a more effective agent of social change than a masterpiece? I have no idea. It’s not really a question meant as googlefight material. My point is that I would like to know how a masterpiece–something with an original circulation far narrower than that of a national ad campaign or popular font–can supersede its literal singularity to become something formative and galvanizing.

Posted in art, art history, politics | Leave a Comment »

Review of “Newsroom 1986 – 2000”: What Is Roberta Smith Going on About?

Posted by gninja on October 20, 2007

At the Mary Boone Gallery now is an exhibition that sounds, well, very good.  In Newsroom: 1986 – 2000, artist Aleksandra Mir turns the gallery into her own newsdesk, churning out on a daily basis repurposed headlines and spreads that showed up in local papers from the above-mentioned years.


In the words of Mir herself:

News becomes history as soon as it is reported. What fascinates me in talking about history is the paradoxical movement backwards while obviously propelling ahead with a story into the future. The 15-year time period covered in this show is of a recent past, a past that still unites many New Yorkers in recognition of a city at once familiar and long gone.

The NYC tabloids New York Daily News and New York Post serve as practical tools that unite the population around shared joys and fears; they help spread the city’s gossip and form its identity. Whether one buys them or not, a glance at the headlines while passing by a deli or waiting for a bus is enough to be connected to the diverse masses that make up their readership. Never mind if what is reported is mostly disaster or scandal. In retrospect, news before 9/11/2001 makes this megalopolis look like a quaint town full of petty crooks, with this accident or that occasional murder resulting in the loss of a single life. A rape in Central Park and a love triangle on Long Island were the two longest running news stories of New York in the 15 years leading up to the end of the millennium.  

By remediating these printed works as hand-crafted images, Mir imbues the original with the heavily (and heavily-apparent) subjective that is often so ignored by readers of the original.  Everything about the process and product of Mir’s work serves to accentuate what is the true method of newsmaking, allowing its hypermediation here to serve as the primary commentary on it and indictment against it.

And, yet, this all seems to be beyond critic Roberta Smith’s point of tolerance:

I’m all for artistic license, but this may be may be taking a few too many liberties with our memories, or, failing that, the front-page form. After “Money,” Ms. Mir hopes to show series on food poisoning and on AIDS and then end the exhibition next Saturday on a high note: sports triumphs.

Oh, good, I’m glad to see that the leading art critic for the NY Times is “all for artistic license.”  So pleased she fulfilled that prerequisite.  And it doesn’t seem to be a mite unusual at all that a woman writing for a newspaper might feel threatened by a critique on the medium through which she speaks.

Horror!  Gasp!  Scandal!


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

Speaking of Iran…

Posted by gninja on September 25, 2007

(Picasso, Painter and Model, 1927, Oil on Canvas, 214 cm x 200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art)

Some newspapers just have a better sense of nuance than others.

If you can get past the first page, the LA Times has published a rather thoughtful article on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and their cache of masterpieces in the basement (though still on internet display).

The article provides a contrast to the pages printed throughout the country yesterday during Ahmahdinejad’s visit to NY.  Most importantly, the reporter draws attention to presence of the paintings in the basement vault, and not in the hands of foreign collectors and museums.  Why not sell them?  Have a vanities bonfire?

While the US media (and the current administration) paint broad slap-dash strokes over an entire country, equating it and its leader, there’s obviously a diversity of opinion that’s not being rendered.  But it’s hard to hard to have an enemy that exhibits more than one dimension.

I’d hate to think of what people in other countries might say about me, were they to cull the AP so selectively:

White Supremacist Backlash Builds over Jena Case

Don’t Tase Me Bro

Iraq’s Soldiers of Fortune

Why Did Fox Censor Sally Field’s Emmy Speech?

Censor Kathy Griffin 

Those are just from the last week and a half.

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

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 »

Photo Op: White House Unveils New Press Room

Posted by gninja on July 11, 2007

I realize this is more of a BAGnewsNotes kind of post, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my NY Times rant on.  This was their web page over-the-fold image for the unveiling of the new press room (polishing brass on the Titanic, aren’t they over there at the White House, eh?):

The photo selected by a NY Times staffer is of some lady vacuuming, while an aide (or whatever kind of be-suited guy looks on, latte in hand).  I can’t decide whether this is sheer brilliance or just stupid.  If it’s the former, it portrays the current administration as a wealthy white man’s club, where African-American ladies keep things tidy.  Fair’s fair: since W wants to liken himself to our founding fathers, then this is an apt image for the role he so wants to play.  It also begs the question: where is the guy (or Snow) anyway?  Is there now, along with the new door that obstructs reporters’ view of people coming into the room, a policy against photographs while Bush is present?  I don’t know.

In any case, I’m not so sure that the individual who chose to put up this photo had these things in mind.  Or if s/he did whether the messages I think it conveys would be read by most people checking in over at the website.  People rarely linger too much over news photos, much less pick out things they communicate.  Which is why I think every kid should be taught art history in school.  Shame there’re no multiple choice tests for it, otherwise No Child Left Behind would definitely make sure it was standard curriculum material.

Did I mention BAGnewsNotes?  Go see BAGnewsNotes.

Posted in journalism, photography, politics | 1 Comment »

Sarkozy and Le Jogging: What Would Barthes Do?

Posted by gninja on July 6, 2007


I love, love, love this story. It’s been around in the French media for a while now, but the IHT brought it to my attention. Apparently, in France, “le jogging” is associated with right wing politics, a sense of egomaniacal self-interest and individualism, characteristics associated with Americanism. (Hey, don’t blame the French– just ask Adam Smith.) Sarkozy has made a show of his ritual jogs, inviting the media to analogize his exercise regimen with his prescription for French reform.

What I love, love, love about the treatment of le jogging du Sarkozy is that it throws into high relief the very French treatment of images. France is, after all, the country of Roland Barthes. Barthes is among my favorite semioticians because he — in an extraordinarily (and I do mean that) accessible way– took the quotidian, things we take for granted, and attempted to explain the messages they plugged into our heads. The images we see, for example, in ads are not hidden symbols that are difficult to decipher, but rather components of our culturally informed experience that retain numerous associations we’d have a hard time ignoring. One of Barthes’ most famous essays, “Wine and Milk” gets at that. Cultural semiotics is different from standard visual analysis with with a socio-cultural bent because it understands that certain things (e.g. milk) have associations that, while certainly not a priori, get carried along with it into no-matter-which context.


The image of the jogging politician has received much comment among French journalists and cultural commentators. Pretty incisive comment getting at all the messages this one, seemingly (at least to an American audience) innocuous and unremarkable act conveys. It’s not just a president running for his health, or even to promote good health– it has a host of associations.

Which, of course, can be weighted one way or another, depending upon which image gets used.


It’s not too far off from what our own president does, no? There’s been no shortage of news items on our ersatz cowboy at work. I’m not so sure the commentary on this side’s been all that insightful, though. Mostly just mentioning it as something he does while on his record long vacations.

Posted in barthes, politics, semiotics | 1 Comment »