Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Performances Of State, Commerce, And Art

Ngugi, in his essay “Power in Performance,” discusses the performance of power by the state and the performance of power by the artist, and how they are often in direct conflict. On my way to my second visit to 2001, I found myself in a strange netherworld between the two.

Normally, Occam’s law of direct travel (the quickest route is the one most likely to be taken; an adaptation of Occam’s Razor) would have me getting off the N or R train at W 60th Street, literally within sight of the sculpture I was after. But for a second visit, I decided to shake things up, to listen to a little Robert Frost and take “The Road Not Taken.” In this case, the road not taken was not “the road less traveled by”; in fact, the road I was walking along was 5th Avenue, one of the world’s largest shopping districts.

5th Avenue proper extends the length of Manhattan, but the average American referring to 5th Avenue is referring to the strip of 5th Avenue through Midtown, which ends roughly at 60th Street (my destination). This is the 5th Avenue known for its pricey clothing stores. Window displays line the streets, aiming to draw in the unwary passersby into an abyss of merchandise.

I am not a materialist. I haven’t gone shopping for clothes since last year, and then I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to. But I have a personal vice: I enjoy watching television ads. Not all of them, of course: just the good ones. I will frequently turn to my roommate after certain ads and discuss to him why it was a well constructed work: sometimes I prize the simplicity, or a particularly striking moment. Television has the potential to be either art, entertainment, or commerce. Television ads, usually, fall fairly under the ‘commerce’ heading: thirty seconds of someone trying to sell you something. As a result, the average advertisement has the same effect on the watcher as a street vendor barking his goods—at best, ignored, and at worst, hated. Some ads, however, add in the entertainment element, drawing in the viewer with a joke and a punchline. A very precious few (most notably, of late, the viewer generated internet video ads for the Microsoft Zune) cross the threshold into being artistic. It is no small feat to sell a product, entertain, and be artistic in thirty seconds. Ad images on billboards have the same challenge. Perhaps it is a fascination with that often overlooked potential art space that led to Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement: to tell society that the barrier between artist-generated public art and commercial-generated public art is not as wide as one seems.

I’m standing on 5th Avenue now. For most of my way, I have tuned out the stores. Lifeless mannequins fill shop windows, bedecked in fashionable clothes that will never seem to look as good on you as they did on the mannequin. There is something mute, blank, and alienating about the mannequins—they try to appeal to the everyman, but the lack of identity portrayed by the blank-faced (or worse yet, headless) dolls lends a creepy post-industrial feeling to the streets. I don’t like to look at them. I wouldn’t have stopped, but one storefront has caught my eyes.

I had almost reached 2001, unenlightened by the eerie capitalism of 5th Avenue, but now I was confronted with one of 5th Ave’s newest stores, and one which looks like the future in many ways. It is the Apple Store. The store itself is not visible—consumers go downstairs, below 5th Ave, as though descending into its core. But what is visible above-ground is a huge glass cube broken up into individual panes. Despite its fairly straightforward design, its elegance and glasswork recall the cathedrals of the 1600s; it strikes the eye impressively and stands out from the buildings around it, from all of the buildings in Manhattan. In the middle, a large Apple Corp. logo is suspended, glowing white in the sunlight. It would not look any more impressive if it had been a cross.

Just across the street is 2001, a piece which Ngugi would call a performance of power by the artist, and General Sherman, a piece which Ngugi would call a performance of power by the state. What is so striking to me about the Apple Store, and its latticed window cathedral? It seems to be, to adapt Ngugi’s vocabulary somewhat, a performance of power by the corporation. In the way that television advertisements can be either artistic (breeding thought), entertaining (breeding contentment), or commercial (breeding desire), public performances can be by the artist (breeding thought), the state (breeding contentment), or the commercial (breeding desire).

And yet, can we truly say that all three of these spheres are separate? 2001 is built of space-age plastics, which were probably developed through the government research; it also relies on the production power of the corporation. The Apple Store shows the corporation as an artist; it is creating an aesthetically pleasing structure for only indirect benefit. It is attempting to benefit the passersby, and hopes that its benefit will be returned to it in the form of commerce.

As the Pop Art movement showed, or the development of the iPod, or countless other examples of the ways in which commerce becomes artistic, or art becomes commercial, or both intersect the realm of the government. In a democratic society, the interests of art, commerce, and governance are locked constantly in the give and take and negotiations that ensure that each reach the same public and provide their own unique benefits.

When we want to talk about art, mass culture, and politics, perhaps there is no more shining example than that infamous and well-worn example of poor Ché Guevara’s face, plastered on commercial t-shirts worldwide. Like the McDonald’s in Hanoi Square, the McDonald’s in Red Square, and the Starbucks that until recently was in the Forbidden Palace, the perverse irony of mass-produced images of Ché Guevara would seem at first to be the victory of Capitalism over Communism.

One of the reasons that many cite for Capitalism’s “victory” over Communism is that where Communism excludes other ideologies, Capitalism swallows them whole. China, the largest “communist” country still in existence, has long since eroded the communist underpinnings, to the point where it now lives in some economic nameless twilight between the capitalist market economy and the communist planned economy. At any rate, it has become the engine that powers America’s capitalist economy. The success of today’s most iconic American ventures, from Wal-Mart to McDonald’s, relies heavily on the cheap, mass-produced goods. Capitalism has always defeated its enemies through engagement; rather than destroying, we simply merge.

This victory is plain in the story of Ché Guevara’s t-shirt.

If we are to look at the powers of art, commercialism, and politics, it is clear that Ché’s shirt began in the realm of politics. Alberto Kordo, a loyal communist, took the photo of Ché at a memorial service of the La Coubre explosion, a ship of armaments that exploded while being unloaded (the Cuban government still alleges that this was a CIA plot). Kordo sent the photo, among others, to the editor of the paper he was on assignment for; it was returned to him. He cropped it (removing several intrusions) and decided to keep it. He distributed prints to guests and friends, for no charge—it was not, after all, a performance of commerce.

Kordo did not accept money for his photo, entitled Guerrillero Heroico. Neither did the first man to popularize it, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Feltrinelli had been issued the rights to publish Ché’s Bolivian Diary outside of Cuba, and asked Kordo if he had a fitting photograph to put on the cover. Kordo knew instantly which one to choose: he had always been proud of the expression he had captured on Ché’s face, of which he said that it’s “A kind of mystery. His personality comes through.” Here is the performance of the power of the artist, capturing as much of Ché’s life in a photograph as Ché’s diary did in the pages within. Indeed, photographer Giorgio Mondolfo said, “I was not even slightly interested in the author. I was only fifteen, and it was the picture that had drawn us - many for the first time - to gather in the streets, crying Che lives!

The artist stands, not for a political purpose, but to record the life of a man. But the man is political, and the artist represents that faithfully, with a bit of the ideal. There is the performance of politics. In Ché’s case, both the politics and the artistic representation meet because Ché has become politics personified. Without investigating Ché’s life deliberately, our instinctual reaction to Ché is political: his every movement and action is political. His face is not just angry, it is angry at the injustices against the poor; he is not just looking up, and he is David looking into the face of the Goliath of Capitalism.

It is this deeply accessible, deeply human, and idealized expression which attracted the attention of Jim Fitzpatrick, who created the original iconic poster from the Kordo photo. Like Kordo, Fitzpatrick’s original intention was to spread the image as much as possible, because he “felt this image had to come out, or he [Guevara] would not be commemorated otherwise, he would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity.” He wanted the image to “breed like rabbits” so he created thousands of prints and distributed them by hand to people in London.

The difference between Kordo and Fitzpatrick was the difference in format. Kordo was hand-printing from photographic negatives; Fitzpatrick was using a simplified version, which was highly compatible with silk-screen transfer printing. Silk-screen transfer was extremely popular in the 1960s, especially in the realm of t-shirt making. In other words, Fitzpatrick had created a version of the Kordo photo which was ready for mass-production: the great breakthrough of the 20th Century.

Here it is easy to see how capitalism came to consume the image of Ché; in the realm of Capitalism, ideas and images are property, just as any other. And since the creator (Kordo) was not in the realm of Capitalism, the image was presumed to be in the public domain. Thus, anyone could supply a copy without having to buy the intellectual property; and Ché, through being a political and heroic symbol, created the demand. By the time that Kordo’s heirs attempted to reassert their rights over the creation of copies (the true meaning of copy-right), it was 2005, and thus was too late: Capitalism had merged with Ché’s legacy.

This is why the photo of Ché is fascinating: it is a recurring cyclical layering of performances. Layer one is Ché himself, trapped in image: a political leader’s life, embodied by Ché’s image. Layer two is Kordo’s photo, the artistic expression of Ché’s life as arranged by Kordo—a performance of the artist’s power to create Ché’s legacy. Layer three is Fitzgerald’s mass-produced, inadvertently commoditization, which is both literally and metaphorically a reduction: it flattens him to a symbol which is easily exploited. Patrick Symmes put it best when he described it as “An easy emblem of meaningless and unthreatening rebellion, a queer blending of educated violence and disheveled nobility, like Gandhi with a gun or John Lennon singing 'Give Peace a Chance.'”

The real interest in this third layers is in its relationship with the first two: although the political and the artistic are in alignment, the commercial aspect of this newly commoditzed Ché stands in blatant disregard and utter contradiction of them. This creates dialectic, a dramatic tension. And of course, this creates a new, fourth, political layer of performance: the layer of Capitalism as having bought out a hapless Communism, and the short-sightedness of a young 60s generation of liberal idealist who rails against a system they are in fact a part of.

Perhaps a parallel example to this multi-layered Ché portrait (although less iconic and emotional) is the song by Cake entitled “Rock And Roll Lifestyle.” The lyrics, set over a contemporary rock song, ask, “How do you afford your rock and roll life style?” The first chorus targets a generation of entitled children who ‘rebel’ against their parents while still depending on their parents for their money, asking, “how much did you spend on your black leather jacket? / Is it you or your parents in this income tax bracket?” The next paragraph expands into the machine the children are rebelling against:

How much did you pay for the chunk of his guitar,

The one he ruthlessly smashed at the end of the show?

And how much will he pay for a brand new guitar,

One which he'll ruthlessly smash at the end of another show?

And how long will the workers keep building him new ones?

As long as their soda cans are red, white, and blue ones.

The cycle of repetition takes away the holiness of the act of rebellion, and the invocation of ‘red white and blue’ invokes both the American Flag (and the American political hegemony it represents) and also the (presumably) Pepsi cans (and the American economic hegemony). The song ends with the answer to these rhetorical questions

Excess ain't rebellion.

You're drinking what they're selling.

Your self-destruction doesn't hurt them.

Your chaos won't convert them.

They're so happy to rebuild it.

You'll never really kill it.

Indeed, the cycle of creation, consumption, destruction, and creation again reveals the futility of this so-called ‘rebellion.’ This is further complicated when you look at the artist who is distributing this song. Who are these musicians? Are they not selling this rock-and-roll lifestyle themselves? Do they not promote consumer goods?

In truth, the artist stands apart from a pro- or anti- consumer sentiment. In the United States, it is impossible for a performance to be entirely artistic without the performance also being a performance of commerce, because art is commercial here. And both of these performances are political. We walk through the world, attempting to isolate different performances into different categories. Most movie theaters are considered to contain performances of commerce; those that do not are called “art houses,” as though they are separate and distinct. We have art galleries, and we have trade shows, and we have memorials.

But the most potent performances live where these three intersect. To work our way back towards where this essay began: the Pop Art movement was an engaging attempt to bridge these three performances. There is a strictly utilitarian reason to bridge these three movements: because the intellectual, rigorous lens we apply to art is often not applied to performances in politics or performances in commerce. Andy Warhol wanted us to look at soup cans not with the eyes of a consumer, but with the eyes of an art critic—with an emphasis on the word critic. Critical. Using our critical facilities to dig deeper into the meanings and construction of each performance. In our contemporary life, our commercials and our political events are just as carefully crafted as pottery or theater; it behooves us, if we want not to be misled, to look at them critically the way we look at art.

Let us take, for instance, one of the greats of Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein’s format is that of the comic-book drawing. The comic-book format is most interesting because it evokes the simplicity of childhood, and the straightforwardness with which youth views the world. But there is always something faintly wrong to the adult eye in viewing his works. Take for instance, Drowning Girl. A girl, surrounded by water, eyes closed, streaming with tears, and she is thinking: “I Don’t Care! I’d Rather Sink—Than Call Brad For Help!” It calls to mind the many helpless, emotive women in the comic books, who often need strong males to help them. As a child, this is all fantasy, and we don’t think too much about it. Her peevishness will cost her life if she doesn’t get over it. It is almost surreally stubborn. And yet in a comic book, such things happen, in order to create the dramatic set-ups the child enjoys—whether they are meant to be identifying with the girl, or identifying with the hero about to rescue the girl.

Another one, entitled, Whaam! features an American pilot destroying another plane in a dogfight. The exploding plane makes the familiar comic-book noise, Whaam! and the pilot narrates in poetic language: "I pressed the fire control... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky..." This painting is adapted from a 1962 issue of DC Comics' All-American Men of War. In 1962, the Vietnam War had only just begun, and the tide of public opinion hadn’t truly turned against it yet—although the Bay of Pigs invasion just the year before should have chastened America that its foreign policy interference was too much.

This panel is so striking because the violence it portrays is perfectly glorified. And yet, somehow, hung in an art gallery, it seems perverse. What was okay in a children’s comic book (“boys will be boys”?) does not seem right in an art hall. Why is that? One explanation will be in the way we hold performances of commerce to a different standard than the way we hold performances of art. The comic book is marketed to boys: they like hitting things, and they like girls (even if they don’t know it yet). We don’t expect DC Comics to take into account the harsh realities of war or misogyny: they’re just making comic books. It’s “just entertainment.” On the other hand, an artist has attempted to transform this into a performance of art. In that, he has taken that glorification of violence or female helplessness to a new level: a level which is uncomfortably high. Does the artist actually ennoble those things? Is this glorification ironic? Without knowing the artist’s state of mind, we can see a performance of art which dialectically opposes the intent of the performance of commerce, but we can also see a sickening possibility that somehow we have turned violence into an art form.

So here I am, standing between General Sherman, the Apple Store, and 2001. What I have discovered, during my intellectual ramblings along 5th Avenue, along the road Ché’s face traveled, and along the path charted by Pop Art is that the three different modalities of public performance (art, commerce, state) are most interesting when they are in conversation with one another. These three prove that axiom to me deeply.

Firstly, there is 2001. The sculpture is very aesthetically pleasing, and I certainly like to look at it, but it bores my brain. I hate to be that honest, but it really does. It’s a ball, and although I have explored ideas of child’s play and child’s thinking, I do not find it actually very informative about the world we live in and the world we interact in. As a performance of art to the exclusion of commerce and state, it has reached the aesthetic dream: art for art’s sake.

Then, there is General Sherman. It is a grand performance by state. Not just any state, as a matter of fact, but the United States in 1903. The gaudy display of gold, the literal realism of the style, the religiosity of the Archangel guiding Sherman’s path, and of course the presence of the bloody war criminal Sherman anchor General Sherman inartistically into a moment in the past which I would prefer to reject. Sherman’s burning March to the Sea may have been in the cause of anti-slavery or in the cause of defending the Constitution, but the brutality of his acts and the brutality of his campaign against Native Americans is beyond glorification. A performance of the state is anchored in its moment of conception.

Lastly, there is the Apple Store. It may be a pinnacle of art and commerce merging, but of course, the Apple Corporation would like you to think that Apple Corporation is the pinnacle of art and commerce merging. In actuality, Apple is a designer company, charging a premium for its products in return for a sleek, beautiful design aesthetic. It may be pretty to see once, but the demographic which enjoys the Apple Store’s architecture the most are the homeless who gather around its poorly insulated glass frame at night, hoping for warmth and inadvertently casting an awkward negative spell over this idealized capitalist dream.

I leave the square, and take Occam’s Direct Line of Travel (also known as the R Train) back to my home.

No comments: