Friday, August 31, 2007

Analyzing Your Own Culture's Films

This is unbearable! I am going to sound very elitist, but perhaps this is simply pro bono work on my part in teaching everyday-Americans critical theory. On the other hand, maybe I'm just suffering from an extended reverse culture shock.

The problem I see is that the American analysis of their own films ends short of real analysis. In general, this type of person cannot consider the attitudes the film is trying to legitimize, cannot consider the messages and concepts the film is trying make acceptable. And they cannot consider the present political context. America is currently at war in Iraq. A film that seeks to reassert the innocence of the American military situation, through Peal Harbor-style provocations, seeks in some way to justify the American recourse to military action, or legitimize an attitude of acceptance surrounding the issue. This is, in my opinion, largely a subconscious act on behalf of the director, editors and producers. But not only is the recourse to militarism justified in the film, but also in the real world, because the viewers accepted the action and innocence of the mission. But Americans are hideous when they say things like, "No, a film is just a film, and there's nothing that deep about it."

But (
to use the analogy of another user) for the few who "analyze things too much" and do see the world in a larger, more complex way, we often make the mistake of stepping into a local city council meeting and arguing geopolitics. Way over their heads.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Homeland Security and FEMA meeting

As the debate about the Virginia Tech incompetence rages over today's anticipated press report, my university held a small seminar for rapid response forces in higher education. My involvement was purely technical, since I offer support through our media technology office. But by chance I happened to sit down next to a bureaucrat from the regional FEMA education branch in Western Washington, which puts money into higher education using "Homeland Security dollars," she explained. I asked her questions about her position and what it means for higher education. She replied vaguely that it's a way for our institutions of higher education to remain safe. I asked about her own education and found out she graduated from the School of Homeland Security in Maryland.


It was a moment of austere political dichotomy. Readiness, our homeland, and students. Readiness and our homeland, our homeland and students. Students and readiness.

Just a few concepts. Readiness and concepts.

"September is national Readiness month."

The seminar itself was alarmist in tone. Aside from simply preparing our university for Virginia Tech-style incidents, which is -- admittedly -- a real possibility, Homeland Security's presence outlined a culture of fear that is being developed in our midst. Since the seminar was initiated by the Tacoma Police Department, a department that has had several recent run-ins with liberal university students, myself included (watch the "Film is Not a Crime" video), I was suspicious that part of the motivation for the initiation has to do with a creating animosity between students and staff, maybe subconsciously, to break a close bond that exists at our university. Prosecuting students for civilly disobedient activity, which failed in the months after the Port of Tacoma protests and arrests, would be easier if the university distrusted its students and did not support them in their actions. If there is no community, there is no trust, and therefore brave political dissidents are isolated criminals without a proper context.

Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of having a Homeland Security presence on campus. Perhaps the seminar is completely well-intentioned. But I reserve my doubts. The multimedia of the seminar included instructional video clips from the FEMA website regarding subjects along the lines of 'preparing your university for an attack'. The difference between FEMA and Homeland Security seems a bit blurred these days. If FEMA is covering terrorism and school shooters, what is Homeland Security doing? The same things, of course, even hurricanes and tornados. At a Homeland Security satellite website launched just before the Iraq War,, which strives to inculcate a culture of "preparedness", one of the first announcements that garnered widespread public attention was one by Tom Ridge in which he stated that in the case of a chemical attack, citizens should use duct tape and plastic sheeting to build a homemade bunker, or "sheltering in place" to protect themselves. As a result, the sales of duct tape skyrocketed. That same culture of fear and "preparedness" for the unexpected still exists today. If you're interested, the various preparedness websites and their satellites offer training in readying your kids, readying your businesses, and readying "America".

As I struggle to understand what "Homeland Security dollars in higher education" means for the student-in-the-street, I can't help but think of the Saudi Arabian students who were supposed to attend our university this year. Thirty Saudi students were scheduled to attend classes this Fall, and unfortunately, a nebulous higher education force prevented this from happening. Even important university staff members, like the University Chaplain, are not supposed to know why.

What is proper prevention?

This seminar impressed upon me that it is largely a matter of surveillance, suspicion, and a common "readiness" language between bureaucracies. For example, if the police were to arrive at our university and give us the code, "Infinite Justice", we are supposed to know that this means they are in charge for the day. Or maybe for the rest of the week. Yet upon reflection, doesn't 'proper prevention' have much more to do with community-building than it does with surveillance and suspicion? I think this is true of all criminal problems, and this underlying reason is why it seems that a "readiness" or "preparedness" consciousness on my campus would have a counter-productive impact on our community and education experience. But security bureaucrats seem to be getting their way in many other areas of influence. Imagine if we all soon understood the readiness-speak of their institutions by second-nature.

Astral America

For me there is no truth of the American mainstream militaristic film. I ask of Americans who enjoy these films only that they be Americans who enjoy these films. I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original. Very basically, I'm tired of Americans who do not understand the immanence of ideology in their own media. The Internet Movie Database has a tendency to do that. A film is simply one piece of a larger American ideological superstructure. But no film, no musical genre, no artist, or director can ever be the entirety of an ideological attitude. IMDB users have unrealistic expectations for anything they think you're labeling as a "propaganda film". Hardly anybody is in the business of making "propaganda films" these days. Most propagandists work in documentary making, for example Michael Moore. I think the modern documentary is truly the last vestige of traditional propaganda.

'Films that tell a story' are into doing something much more subtle. But it works quite well at giving us attitudes we like, attitudes we think fits with our lives, an outlook we find acceptable, and even giving examples of things we ought to find acceptable, etc.

Films unintentionally put up a smokescreen, or a facade, which says this film is not to be taken "seriously". I can only say to this that 1940s Looney Toons shows, with all their acerbic propaganda and definitive purpose, appear to say it is not meant to be taken "seriously" either. Yet we watch these now and immediate understand them as serious propaganda.
While the films are simply reflecting American ideology, it is also insulating their own propaganda. It is a form of cultural communication, the culture talking to itself. And understood this way, it is propaganda, yet not Leni Riefenstahl style. It's a subconscious reflection.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

American War Ideology: Transformers

If we define 'totalitarian regimes' as those which exercise propagandistic control over the values and interests of the ruled, then by this definition most Americans are living under a totalitarian regime. The 2007 film Transformers does not fall short of a militaristic call-to-arms. The conjuring up of post-911 imagery and the clearly modernist plot-purity of good vs. evil aligns this film with the goals of American military generals and Republican politicians. I watched the film in the Netherlands, and it seemed everyone in the audience noticed the film was radiating American military fantasies from the screen into the cineplex. The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation. It even included a clear recruitment message (which seemed ironic while watching it in a foriegn country)--near the end the glorified American soldier, Josh Duhamel, turns to the main character, a sloppy teenager played by Shia LaBeouf, and says, "You're a soldier now...." A sappy orchestral chord fills the theater, as we apparently are to feel included in the act of 'becoming a US soldier' and compelled to join the Army Rangers to help the Autobots destroy the Decepticons in a galactic showdown with American accomplishment at the centerpiece.

America is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naive about films like this. In fact, some of us know films like these are simply part of the militaristic education in America: of learning obedience to our patriarchal authorities, of developing a taste for military 'action', and the constant reassertment and justification of the American military mission on the geopolitical scene. But back in the States, no other American seems to notice the film's pungent ideological consequences. The users on IMDB who dislike the film can only point to plot flaws or technical mistakes, or a general distaste for CGI graphics. Others point out that it simply wasn't violent enough. When our culture is as inundated as it is, there really is no desire to adopt a critical stance on films that represent our own ideology. And in fact most don't notice. It may be that the truth of America can only be seen from outside the fishbowl, since only there will you discover the perfect immanence and simulation of these values. Americans, for our part, have no sense of simulation. We are simulation in its most immanent state, and have no language to describe it, since we are an isolated model that communicates mostly with itself.

As a result, just as Optimus Prime observed that humans were violent creatures, Americans are also the ideal material for an analysis of culturally-encouraged violence against other cultures. No more and no less than primitive societies were analyzed in their day. The same mythical and analytical excitement that made us look toward those societies today impels outsiders to look in the direction of America. With the same interest and the same prejudices.

A New War Campaign Room

According to recent memos on TPM, the Pentagon will soon create a special room for doling out information on Iraq to the public, as 24-hour daily "Iraq Communication Desk", as they're calling it.

"The Pentagon dismissed suggestions that the communications desk will be a message machine or a propaganda tool, and instead said it is being set up to gather and distribute information from eight time zones away in a more efficient and timely manner."

That said, this is not the first domestic propaganda wing set up by this administration's Pentagon. And Bill Clinton's "Rapid Response" committee in '92, to answer reporter's questions before the President had to, was hardly any different. As the war become less "winnable" in Iraq, the White House is moving to set up a rapid response Communication Desk to answer all the inquisitive reporters' questions about progress in Iraq.

Global Climate for Capitalism

The Canadian blogger from Fruits of Our Labor, quotes Marc Brodine in an article from Political Affairs magazine as making this sort of argument:

That is why we are burning all this carbon to produce lots and lots of commodities that capitalists think they can sell profitably, whether that’s actual goods like plastic bags or little toys, or the gas that we put in our car, or use for chemical processes like making plastic for example. So capitalism is part of the cause, and we have to change our economic system, because it is directly linked to why we have these problems.

Yet capitalism is the only economic system that has cared about the environment historically. No other industrialized economic system has had the level of awareness about the environment as capitalism has in a liberal democracy. Socialism does not work based on epistemological problems pointed out by F.A. Hayek and problems in pricing 'communication' pointed out by Ludwig von Mises. Yet socialism seeks to raise our awareness of living in a community together. If capitalists become enlightened, like for example Paul Hawken and other CEOs, and governments would cease subsidizing harmful industries like, oh I don't know -- the housing market! -- then perhaps the real capitalist enterprise will surface and start to balance things out. We're destroying the environment with consumerism, which is largely a product of fast economic growth, marked by wild changes in supplies due to labor and investment. Once populations become stable, and labor markets slow down, our ecological footprints will be less dramatic, and we can build the sorts of societies the John Stuart Mill talks about in Principles of Political Economy

The Currency Crisis in Zimbabwe

Currency crises have been a recurrent feature of the international economy ever since gold and silver coins were replaced by paper; currency crises played a large role in the economic turmoil of the interwar period, in the breakup of Bretton Woods, and in the early stages of the Latin American debt crises of the 1980s.

The latest of these crises is happening in Zimbabwe, but this has been no secret for several years. About four out of five people are estimated to be out of work--at least as far as the official numbers are concerned. 3,000 Zimbabwean refugees are crossing into neighboring countries, especially South Africa. Zimbabwe's currency has soared to 5,000% inflation this year, implying that a loaf of bread is 50 times more expensive today than it was a year ago. Wages are not keeping pace with rising costs, which are fueled by the rapid money velocity that ends up in store-owners' hands once wage-earners are paid. Goods are valued much more than money, which is ever decreasing in value.

Zimbabweans are paying for goods with more stable currencies, such as the US dollar, wherever possible. People exporting and importing goods do so on the black market, since a sizable piece of foreign currency exchanged at the official rate has to be kept in account which the government can use to feed its meed for foreign exchange. However, if the Mugabe government would stop printing currency, or implement a stable commodity-backed currency system, the crisis would end soon.

The key cause of this crisis is unusual. It's not linked to speculative attacks from foreign investors, or self-fulfilling currency crisis prophecies. The problem can be traced back to Robert Mugabe's land reform program. Even after Zimbabwe gained independence in 1979 most the of the country's productive farmland remained in the hands of whites, and through the 1990s the government worked to shift ownership to native Zimbabweans.

Robert Mugabe's government revealed in 1999 its plans to seize land without compensation. As hundreds of farms were taken over, production and export of grains and tobacco collapsed. The government also spent large amounts of money on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The result was a food crisis. For exchange earnings began to fall, both from agriculture and tourism, amid violence surrounding the land reform program.

Always with currency crises politics is heavily invovled. Robert Mugabe's government deny that land reform had anything to do with the "economic meltdown." Instead they blame the West in general and the UK specifically (the former colonial power) for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe. In fact, the sanctions were placed on government leaders who took economic aid from Britain and other donors into their own pockets. The sanctions were not placed on the Zimbabwe economy as a whole.

The government has done several things to curb this. All except the proper response to a currency crisis. It placed limits on foreign currency movements, which only scare foreign investors from wanting any involvement in the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. It revalued the Zimbabwe Dollar, which is essentially re-pegging it to another unstable value. It then introduced vouchers instead of banknotes, which is essentially a banknote in the end. Most recently, it has imposed strict price controls, in an effort to force the right prices into the economy. Thousands of businesspeople are now being arrested for making profits on goods that are believed to be much cheaper than the price sold at. (It's always the business class that is to blame!) Meanwhile, the government is still trying to "indigenize" foreign-owned businesses by making sure black Zimbabweans have majority control.

To boot, Robert Mugabe plans to print more dollars if government project require it. Yet hyperinflation affects all commodities, raw materials, and wages. And printing only makes the value of money across the board less valuable. Businesses cannot operate at the prices the government is requiring them, by law, to produce at. So people are hoarding what commodities they can find, which also increases inflationary pressure.

If the government of Zimbabwe does not shift policy soon, it is inevitable it will lead to a complete collapse of the economy and the government by the end of the year.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Dominant Themes and Discourses

Sex, enemies and America.

Sex and enemies, enemies and America. America and sex.

A few concepts. Sex and concepts.

"The American Way."

Everything is destined to reappear as conservatism. Telephone conversations as telephone recordings, al-Qaeda as the political scenario, library records as evidence, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things only seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny. You wonder whether the world itself isn't just here to serve as the American guest in some other world.

When the only sense of security is created by collateral damage, the only beauty by the American way, the only opinion by way of the opinion poll.... and now, with the invocation of political utility, we are encouraged to protect our nation by torturing and squeezing out elements of 'the other' in our midst.

The New Centrism of American Foreign Policy

Hilary Clinton might be portrayed as a communist on talk radio in Kansas, but set her alongside France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's David Cameron or any other supposed European "conservative", and on virtually every significant issue Clinton is the more right-wing. She also mentions God more often than the average European bishop. As for foreign policy, the main Democratic candidates are equally staunch in their support of Israel. None of them has ruled out attacking Iran. Barak Obama might take a shot at Pakistan. And few of them want to cede power to multilateral organizations.

Americans seem in general to be less-trusting of government in this generation. Forty years ago Americans revolted against a left elite encircling them with the Great Society welfare state. In this generation we have had to endure a right-wing version of a kind of Secure Society. In democracies political revolutions usually become obvious only in retrospect. In 1968, with America stuck in another bruising war, few liberals saw Richard Nixon's southern strategy as part of a long-term turn to the right. All that was clear then was that most Americans urgently wanted a change of direction. That is also true of this generation.

The US Legacy in Panama

In September, 72 year-old Manuel Noriega will be extradited to France from a US prison to serve out a sentence for money-laundering obtained in absentia by the French government. Noriega was once a close Latin American ally for Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior. He was employed by the CIA in the mid-70s until as late as 1987 as a collaborater who helped undermine the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua. In 1986 the US was found guilty of "unlawful use of force" by the ICJ for its support of the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. But the relationship between Washington and Noriega quickly fell apart. The US agreed to transfer the strategic Panama Canal in the hands of the Panaman government in 1977, but then regained control in 1989 after invading the country in order to oust the military dictator, which was then Manuel Noriega. Several things had gone wrong before this point: Noriega claimed that the parliamentary elections were invalid after the opposition had won the majority. He then declared a "state of war" in the face of death threats from Washington. The US invaded in a military coup known as Operation Just Cause and ended up killing 4,000 Panaman civilians in the process. 18 American military combatants were killed.

The Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for a withdrawal of US troops. The OAS Charter, to which the US is a signatory and therefore must obey under the supremacy clause of the constitution, specifically prohibits member states from invading other member states for any reason. To spite this, Bush Senior named the invasion Just Cause. The US, the UK, and France vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condeming the invasion. One of the reasons given for the invasion was to reestablish democracy in Panama, but this was widely viewed with suspicion in Latin America. The United States had long been perceived as simply carrying out its own strategic and economic interests in the region, and this was certainly true of Panama, whose canal connects the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Control of the canal is vital to US interests, Indeed, after the invasion the US reestablished dozens of military and naval bases along the canal. Unable to hold onto the canal indefinitely according to an earlier treaty, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, the US was forced to give the canal back to the Panaman government in 1999.

Since then, the US military presence has disappeared from Panama, and so has Panama's military presence disappeared. It is one of two Latin American countries (the other being Costa Rica) which have abolished its military. The country polices itself with military-like police units, however. Panama's largely service-based economy survives on the Colon Free Trade Agreement, home to some 2,000 companies, and is the second largest FTA in the world. An FTA with the US was reached in late 2006. After 15,000 Panaman citizens were displaced in 1989 during the invasion, it should leave little doubt as to why 40% of the population is still currently living below the poverty line. After half a century of US control over the canal, Panama once again has control over the strategic waterway. Although its economic activity is affected largely by events elsewhere in Latin America, such as crises in Mexico, perhaps now since the American presence is only visible through trade vessels Panama will see a resurgence in trade and prosperity.

Art Will Save Our City

Much of social realism simply tells the story of capitalist oppression of the masses. If it is reacting to something it is the capitalist modes of art such as the Romantic exaggerations of individual identity and court-style paintings of imperial leaders. The hungry people, begging the bourgoissie for food, are romanticized instead. There is no place for them in the ancien regime of the capitalists. Death can come for them at any time, and they are thus revolutionaries. There is only one way to push forward, and that is to take revolutionary control of the polis, and let a dictatorship of the proletariat reign:

The images in this video are from my own observations in Chemnitz, Germany, which is one of the few places in the post-DDR region that maintains large, public social realist sculptures, including a gigantic head of Karl Marx with quotations from the Communist Manifesto behind it on the plattenbau. Some of the most disturbing images are from what was the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, including depictions of men being gunned down, (and yet we have no clear idea what the reason behind it is.) 1919 was a fairly smooth revolution, although the Mensheviks and the White Russians (supported later by the allies) increasingly clashed with the regime as time wore on. So one begins to wonder whether the images of soldiers are communist revolutionary party members, or oppressive capitalist imperialists. Hints that they are actually the communist vanguard are revealed in the way that one soldier is pressing his boot into a man's head. They appear to be protecting the sick or the poor. But there is a contradiction, since as art they are decidedly menacing figures, and obviously meant to strike a bit of terror in the onlooker.

One of the slogans in German reads, "The Party has a thousand eyes." And this clue leaves no doubt that it was a form of terrorism. Public art as perpetual terror, reminders of the regime's capability. Lenin believed that all Soviet art forms should “expose crimes of capitalism and praise socialism...created to inspire readers and viewers to stand up for the revolution”. He introduced an experimentation period to discover what the new nation's art form would be, if it needed an art form at all. Headed by Stalin in 1932, the central committee of the communist party developed the Union of Soviet Writers. This organization endorsed the newly elected ideology of social realism. By 1934 all other independent art groups were abolished, making it near impossible for someone not involved in the Union of Soviet Writers to get work published. Any literary piece or painting that didn’t endorse the ideology of social realism was censored and/or banned.

An example of Communist ideology represented in Chemnitz are the larger-than-life-size Adam and Eve figures which stand proudly, as if to say human nature is not what the capitalists have believed. The Communist view of human nature is that people are by nature benevolent, or at least can be forced to be benevolent, and that we possess a certain social awareness previously unrecognized under capitalist regimes. Adam and Eve are unashamed by their nakedness, and are not depicted in Drurer's style -- that is, with leaves covering their genitalia.

One of the last images in the video is a bit of graffiti on giant head of Karl Marx which reads, "Make love not war." The political subconscious of post-DDR Germany is largely something like this. The youth, skateboarding around the figure of Marx, are seemingly unaware of Marx's bulky presence in the nearby park. They have a n aloofness from the past, and they are usually the only ones bold enough to hang around the big statue, as if to say it doesn't really bother them, that big head of his. They have a much higher conviction that wars and violence are unwanted, unnecessary things. Fashion is something they have a command of, and so is popular culture. Yet social realities for them is still the same as ever: ex.g. that hungry people will starve unless society will feed them. And so there is a feeling of collective action, of collective responsibility for this sort of thing. And still, just as their fashion individuates them, they feel responsible for their own actions. While enjoying the freedom to choose their own lifestyles, they recognize the goals of the great social utopianisms, and work towards them in roundabout, semi-capitalist ways.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Terrorism NIE is counter-intuitive

Every year the US intelligence community releases a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on several nations, including Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The 2007 NIE on Terrorism reports several items which are counter-intuitive for the Bush Administration. One of those findings is that Iraq has strengthened al-Qaeda, which will seek to "leverage the contacts and capabilities" gained in the war.

"We assess that al-Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland."

Further, al-Qaeda's association with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) helps to "energize the broader Sunni extremist community" and "recruit and indoctrinate operatives". This isn't the first time a negative NIE has been released, however. In 2003 the NIE on Iraq reported there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the Bush Administration failed to trust the report. And in fact, George Tenet, Director of the CIA at the time, was urged to mend the document to be compatible with the Administration's goals of invading Iraq. This has all surfaced in recent months. The Bush Doctrine which was published in a text called the "National Security Strategy of the United States" held that unilateral action was both possible and justified and that the United States should embrace opportunities for democracy and security offered by its position as the sole world superpower. The policy rejects deterrence and containment as legitimate policy tools and principles of US foreign policy because, it is argued, terrorists cannot be deterred in the same was states can. As the document says, the "United States has, and intends to keep, military strength beyond challenge."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cheney's View of Torture

Last October Dick Cheney was interviewed on North Dakota's WDAY radio station. Iraq was being destroyed in the increase of roadside bombs, and the Republican Party was about the voted out of the House. So what did the interviewer ask him?

"Mr. Vice-President, I know you're fond of pheasant hunting in South Dakota, but there's some great bird hunting in North Dakota. Is this going to be the year you come up and do a little bird hunting in North Dakota?"

Cheney: "Well, I don't know...."

Decisive information. The interviewer did, however, eventually turn the discussion to terrorism and torture in secret prisons, and where to draw the brightline on interrogation practices.

"Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

Cheney: "It's a no-brainer for me."

The person who for months rejected the title of "vice-president of torture" found himself agreeing on air that the use of waterboarding -- the Medieval technique of holding a prisoner underwater to the point of drowning, to try to break his will -- was a "no-brainer."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An Area in Which to Act

American abstract expressionists, such as American artist Jackson Pollock (right) and Dutch artist William de Kooning, have long been outspoken in their views that painting is an area or a space within which to simply come to terms with the act of creation. Indeed, there is something ironically self-proclaimed as "objective" about this so-called abstract expressionist style, or "action-painting" (tachisme) as it is sometimes called. In a move towards greater objectivity, Pollock rejected the traditional easel and moved his work to the floor, where he met the resistance of the hard surface.

"On the floor I am more at ease," Jackson said. "I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

Objective? Something here sounds suspiciously like the modernist urge toward objective purity, and as we postmoderns know, this simply cannot be achieved.

For Clement Greenberg, the greatest art critic of the 20th Century, the physicalness of the paintings (with their clotted and oil-soaked surfaces) was the tool to understanding them as documents of the artists' existential struggles. The spontaneous activity of the artist revealed something personal about his psychology and unconscious struggles. The paint was dripped onto the canvas, as if to say it doesn't matter where things land anymore. In Jackson Pollock's work you can sometimes find cigarette butts. Smoking a cigarette for Pollock must have been an unconscious urge, an addiction, that led him to drop them somewhere on the canvas. Of course, something about that seems very coordinated. One can imagine Pollock tossing the cigarrette over his shoulder, and only moments later turning around anxiously to see if it landed on the canvas.

Hardly spontaneous!

'Spontaneous' isn't the right word to describe the action painters. Jackson in fact is supposed to have had an idea of what the piece was to end up as. Granted only the artist understands when the artwork is 'finished', yet isn't to have an idea of what you are planning to do the opposite of spontaneity? The place in which to act spontaneously suddenly becomes a place in which you plan to act spontaneously, and thus defeating the purpose.

The tide soon turned against abstract expressionism, and in the 60s there was a revolt against their sensibility, called "Post-Painterly Abstraction" which favored openness and clarity over dense painterly surfaces of abstract expressionism. The density of the action painters was seen as not so spontaneous, and much more like a kind of dwelling. Post-Painterly Abstraction was soon emulated by Minimalism, Hard-edge Painting, Lyrical Abstraction and Color Field Painting. The avant-garde shifted from the false "objectivity" of Pollock toward an even more "objective" geometric precision and socio-political theatricality, commentary and observation.

American painting was declared "dead" by various critics, like the American minimalist Donald Judd, who cited three-dimensional, volumetric objects as the embodiment of "visual truth". The anodized aluminum sculpture on the right is an untitled work by Judd. Pictorial illusionism as it had appeared in painting--which is flat and merely depicts space, was described as "deceptive" and "outdated". Yet as California remained the creative center for developments such as hard-edge painting, American painting seemed far from "dead". The places in which artists acted, painted, or sculpted, went back to being formal places of creative study. Creative spaces for Jackson Pollock had been hard floors, mainly. The new backlash creative spaces were places to build strong visual truths, and hard-edge geometric boxes of purity.

This makes sense from a perspectivist point of view. Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil that he had his own truths that the weak people of the planet simply could not obtain. They were his truths, they were stronger truths, and some would never know them or come to understand them. The truths Nietzsche expounded might not even have been meant for anyone living at the time of his writing, which he assumes is true. The geometric truths of minimalist sculpturs are true in the same way. They are bold, unprecedented, and undeniably austere. "American painting" is certainly not dead at the time of Judd's writing, but the statement is profoundly prophetic. It is a weak and dying-off movement. American painting will undoubtedly be taken over by stronger, more pictorially bold forms of art, such as minimalist-veined sculpture and mixed-media.

The era of being falsely spontaneous and objective about one's activities is out, and the era of the self-conscious construction of subjective truth is in. Long live the truths of minimalism!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dirty Amsterdam

Pencil of light, don’t leave

I made a short film about you

It’s called "Dirty Hostel"

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Still Life, with Casserole"

Such are some of the bizarre titles of still lifes in the Hamburg KunstHalle. In the old Academic system, the highest form of painting consisted of images of historical, Biblical or mythological significance, with still life subjects relegated to the very lowest order of artistic recognition. But once the impressionists and post-impressionists emphasized design over subject matter, however, the hierarchy was shattered. Van Gogh's Sunflowers are probably some of the best known still lifes. Cezanne also invented some geometrical versions of still life spatial organization.

All this seemed to make way for Picasso and the cubists, who painted things that look like still life collages. For example, Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, left). Who can deny it? Georgia O'Keefe's still lifes (nasty, in my opinion) are within the same vein, and so are the photographs of Edward Weston. Indeed, even Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans can be traced directly back to the 18th Century still lifes. Then the photorealism of the 70s fused the message of pop-art with the image of the commodity, like Warhol, but incorporated the old trompe l'oeil (trick of the eye) of the old masters. For example, like making a painting look like a bunch of paper scraps hanging on a wall. That was Edward Collier's invention. Some of the new works even paint on the frames, to make it look like the painting is coming out of the picture, or "Escaping Criticism", as one is cleverly titled.

One feminist, Audrey Flack, has used this technique to portray feminist color schemes, for example in her Marilyn Vanitas (1977, right). The whole business of painting still lifes is good for historians to laud over and discover the precious objects of the past. Especially for church historians in their search for religious subjects and artifacts. But they're all pretty boring. The have no "gravitas" like the other genres. All, that is, except the Vanitas still lifes, which project the idea that all is futility, all is meaningless, all is useless, for in the end we're all dead. The Dutch arists often painted skulls on top of a pile of books. This was exactly what King Solomon was saying in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "Vanitum vanitatum omnia vanitas". Rotten fruits (and casseroles) remind us that everything decays, everything ages. And bubbles are brief shots of air which are our short lives and sudden burstings into death. Smoke: hell. The hourglass: our short lives. In contrast to this, the silly Baroque kunstlers painted natural substances like rocks, or hot dogs. Or casseroles.

So every time I stand in front of an Jan van Eyck painting I basically get bored (or simply hungry, was not that the point?) and move away. Eyck is the kind of artist you buy cheaky calenders of and hang up in your crafts room (if you're a 40 year-old house wife) and don't want to reflect on your life.

Le Voyage de Balloon Rouge (2007)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the film's director, was present at the Metropolis film house in Hamburg for the premiere of his film tonight. But he received no applause at the end. This Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon style love-story film was a disappointment. In fact it was not a film, "just a scenario," based loosely of a short 70s French film by the same title. The red balloon is China. It's also the main characters, who struggle to get their lives together. But too many drawn out scenes with mortorcycles or text-messaging with silly bathroom conversations turned this creative idea into a slow-paced faux French film.

I had high expectations since Hou's films have been awarded prizes from prestigious international festivals such as the Venice Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival and the Nantes Three Continents Festival. This is the first Hou film I've seen, but he must be good if he was voted "Director of the Decade" for the 1990s in a poll of American and international critics put together by The Village Voice and Film Comment. Hou's films rarely show outside film festival circuits. And despite such acclaim, his work in Le Voyage de Balloon Rouge is probably receiving more praise than it should. For those with a certain relationship with the director it might be offensive to suggest it was a bad film. So here's why: the actors were lifeless and nearly fearful of the camera. It was tirelessly drawn out and boring. It was painfully austere. The drama was sparse. I was sure whether to laugh or fall asleep. A thought quickly passed that I was watching a badly-scripted student film.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Cindy Sherman Now!

Most gallery art isn't quite what I'm looking for. In fact it's never exactly what I was hoping it would be. Except I was unexpectedly surprised by the work of Cindy Sherman at the Martin Gröpius Gallery in Berlin (a fascinating place itself). Her art is something that left an impression on my thinking for hours. Her pictures are unsettling, and the poke at the heart of American feminist issues, such as media portrayal. All of her early pictures show a frightened young woman, for example, clenching a newspaper article and lying on a kitchen floor, as if about to cry. Or "B-grade" women who are applying to be some kind of actress, and someone hasn't told them they simply aren't good enough yet. They're ugly. They're American. They have big aspirations. She focuses on the people of low art who in turn fetishize the unattainable ideal of high art.

On the other hand, women in Rear Screen Projections look fashionable enough, and there's even something erotic about them. Except you wouldn't say these pictures are erotic: they never strike you as such. In fact all these women have something much more in common. They're all acted out by the same person: Cindy herself. This is what amazes me--this ability to change places, to change roles and characters. She is at once a clown with buck teeth, and in another still she is an ominous blonde on a bicycle. She's the face of the distressed woman in top-down society. And yet not always a woman. There's nothing constant about her, destroying any possibility of there being anything "real" about her. The idea that every photograph is taken of someone named Cindy Sherman is irrelevant. They're all completely different people.

Her work has something of theatrical twist to it. It's photography as if were for film still production. Cindy is also very fashion conscious and woman-conscious. Her Sex Pictures evokes feelings of a voyeurist, except it isn't quite doing that because the artist is inviting us in to see how wretched things really are. Horror Pictures explores the deeply psychological link about women in 80s horror film that drove groups of feminists to write flurries of essays on "the last girl" or the screaminig ingenue.

I would say Sherman's work most closely resembles Rembrandt's. Recall the painting where Rembrandt messed up the head of the lady while the man is enjoying his tall glass of beer. This reminds me of Sherman's work. Rembrandt was a theatrical painter. He also pointed out vices in human behavior. Such as in , for example, gluttony. Sherman points to the same things. She points out vices in women, in feminine behavior, that we presume is linked to something that a man has done. Perhaps women have done it to themselves at the same time. For example, being fashion-conscious is something Sherman appears to attack. And yet much of her own inspiration comes from shopping, she's said. She's feeding her ideas with the things she's opposed to. Another example is female vulnerability. In each picture the female is vulnerable. But how many men, when they look on a vulnerable blonde woman, arouse masculine urges to "protect", "save" and "comfort"? Which of these men really wants the women not to feel vulnerable? Psychologically, they want the woman to feel insecure, and secretly they want to be the ones to whisk her away and comfort her, and then have a dominating form of sex, undoubtedly.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Fernsehenturm

No doubt the tallest
Walter Umbrecht's last erection
Quick! The Pope will see!

Revolt of the Aficionados (especially Claude Monet)

Is Monet's art optimistic? The aficionados at the Neues National Gallerie in Berlin (pictured left) the aficionados seem to think so. The en plen-air style has such a silly effect on people in galleries. It is faux-idyllic adornment for them. Every woman, mother, and little girl walks by the light-colored oil paints and smiles to themselves, reassured that Monet's art makes everything beautiful for them. Simply, their "beauty" is dishonest. They would hang the prints up in summer garden houses so they're bourgeois neighbors can chat about it over tea. Monet, that is, amongst their pastel swans, their ornamental pine cones and nasty Thomas Kincades. How revolting!

Of course, they loved the summerly "Etes" (on the right). The smiley-faced critics would use words like "humorless" to describe some of the other works in the Neues Gallery. In fact I heard them say in Prague that Picasso was incomprehensible! And then they walked off with smug grin on their faces. I like those incomprehensible works, for what it's worth. Perhaps even you, Monet, are incomprehensible at times. But this whole business about smiling unrepentantly at art I don't understand. Perhaps because I find nothing to smile about Monet's art. To me the impressions (or, "little blobs of spit" as one critic said) appear like bouts of insanity over a sad, almost blase, fleeting moment. So the smiling gesture is completely obscene to me. My little gallery notebook is chalk-full of comments about the paintings, and many of the meanest ones are directed toward the faux-aficionados who think smiling at art is required of them. Honestly, it isn't a fail-safe response to anything in a gallery. When they saw Otto Dix's "War" in Dresden--a very bizarre Guernica-like depiction of the barbarism of war--they cringed and nearly left the gallery. Canadian women are the worst. (Political isolation also becomes artistic isolation.) This lady in the pink parapet smiles at everything in the Neues Gallery so absurdly, the kind of look unparenting women give to whiny children while the parent's are trying to shush them up. Hodling her dainty audio-guide in hand, she will be sure to get a well-rounded chorus of "appropriate responses" to fill her head.

I might even tag this blog "absurd gestures toward art". (But then, to be fair, I would need to also list the antithetical "appropriate gestures toward art" as well.) I think to be always smiling at a thing you hardly understand seems more like a code of conduct for a cast of circus clowns. After seeing many cheery "Frauen Kopf"s in galleries I don't think I feel the urge to smile back at them. Not at this point. Maybe when I've seen over a hundred, then perhaps I will have developed a well-established relationship, enough at least, to smile back in a non-retarded way.

Brezhnev & Honecker

The East Side Gallery in East Berlin is probably the largest and everlasting open art gallery in the world. Immediately after the fall of the wall, international artists came to Berlin to paint the wall with murals and artistic encouragements. A popular one reads, "No more wars. No more walls. A united world." But the most widely known of these are the figures of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker holding each other and kissing (pictured right). Perhaps less known is the fact that the kiss was originally a mistake; in a hurry to perform the formality and get it over with, one of them aimed at the wrong cheek, and this resulted in an unintended lipsmacking socialist spectacle. One thing is certain--that it came to represent the absurdity of Communist ideology.

Brezhnev, although anti-Stalinist while Krushchev was in power, was pro-Stalinist once he came into power himself. Stalin was then mentioned positively as Brezhnev began reversing Krushchev's policies and started to wield his own repressive cultural policies. When he criticized the Czech leadership as "revisionist" and "anti-Soviet" for liberalizing its politics in 1968, he was met with the student Prague Spring uprising. The Breshnev Doctrine was essentially that the Soviet Union had the right to interfere with the politics of satellite nations to "safeguard socialism". The Helsinki Final Act treaty, a complete failure for the Western countries, legitimized Soviet repression in the satellite countries. All the Western states received in return was the Soviet promise that human rights would be respected in the Soviet sphere of influence. Yet almost as soon as Brezhnev became Chairman of the Communist Party, and the Supreme Soviet of the Union, an economic-slowdown ensued. Dissidents were routinely arrested. Ironically, Brezhnev referred to this as the "Period as Developed Socialism". In fact, the Constitution used to read, "The developed Socialist society is a natural, logical stage on the road to Communism."

And in 1961, it was Erich Honecker who was responsible for building the Berlin Wall. After a power struggle, he replaced Walter Ulbricht as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Honecker developed a program of "consumer socialism" which used capitalism to boost the performance of the GDR economy. But once Leipzig was protesting every Monday, and the wall soon fell, Honecker was sought after for war crimes and deaths of 192 East Berliners who died escaping to the West.

To depict these two ferocious leaders as being not only in political and ideological union but sexual union as well, successfully illustrates how secrecy and illegitimacy flourished in the Soviet system. It means that something sexual, the mother of all secrets, was taking place behind the scenes, and it hints at much more. For Berliners, to see these two stooges of Socialist power in their region kissing must have been liberating. Emulations and spin-offs of the original work began to surface soon afterward. For example, there is another popular depiction of the Honecker and Brezhnev kissing while a car is crashing through the wall. This seems to suggest that the two leaders are so wrapped up in their own secrets that neither of them is paying attention to where the car is headed, and it ends up crashing through the "anti-fascist protective barrier" into West Germany. Struggling to contain the secrets of Soviet power, the nation crashes itself into Western sphere of influence and thus exposes all its secrets.

No Ideology in Film, Says Museum

Otherwise a spectacular museum, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen (pictured obscurely on the left) in Berlin suggests that some films do not contain any ideological messages. Especially earlier films, it claims, such as those starring or directed by Asta Nielsen, a popular Danish actress who starred in many silent German films during the 1910s and 1920s. She's hailed as the "first international movie star". Yet it seems that all through out film history, the even the figure of the woman (in all its various forms) is idolized and encoded with secret ideological messages. The androgenous Marlene Dietrich, another German actress, was impossible for men to understand. Confident Dietrich also had explicitly anti-Nazi political goals. In a very unobscure way, how can she avoid being ideological in that sense, a simply political sense? Ms. Nielsen was not only a woman acting as various women in political-social situations, she also had a political statement to make as well.

The museum doesn't mention this oddly enough. Ms. Nielsen (pictured right) was approached by the Ministry of Propaganda and asked to promote the Nazi regime through film. She thus fled to Denmark in defiance. An original document in the museum quotes Ms. Nielsen later in her life as saying that she believes in her own genius. She says that she could do anything she wanted, anything a man could do. Hell, she says, I can even "read and write". Her films are mostly like circus-style cabaret from the early, early 20th Century. That's how most films started out too: as imitations and renactments of the circus; mainly for those who weren't wealthy enough to actually attend them. So already her films are participating in a new sort of "circus for the working class masses", and so on.

The circus at any rate is chalk-full of ideological statements. Everything from encoding the legitimacy of animal captivity to human triumphalism, and on that point, reinforcing the many barbarisms of our species. Nielsen's films reflect this circus mentality undoubtedly. The films also reflects her nearly proletarian outlook, almost as if she were a "tramp" in one of Chaplin's films. She lived most of her childhood in extreme poverty. She thus reflects in all her films her own auteuristic, class-conscious personality. Her own ideas and emotions, from her perspective. These are encoded through the use of film, easily. Perhaps the museum wanted to avoid the rather alarming thesis that everything is ideology. But I think it is, even the smallest overlooked things. And I think even the earliest films, those of Asta Nielsen, embed that core ideological fascet of film that persists today.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rodin's "Thinker"

The real version in Berlin is much smaller than I expected.

The real figure is nothing more than a surging flow of dread, or at least constipation. He doesn't know which leg to put his hand on. I kept asking myself whether Rodin's piece was really thinking or whether he was contemplating suicide. The way his body is twisted into such an unnatural knot, with all his muscles pulling themselves apart, nostrils distended and lips compressed, fist clenched and toes gripping at nothing--considering this--it seems impossible that he has the ability to think naturally, logically. He is rather on the verge of making some sort of life-threatening decision. Perhaps the first and most immediate philosophical question, as Camus said: whether to continue living or to discontinue living from this point on.