Monday, June 15, 2009

a postcard

The other day I got a post card in the mail from SAM (Seattle Art Museum) promoting an upcoming exhibit of two collections that will run June 24 into early fall. One collection is "Remembrance" featuring the work Andrew Wyeth, the late American Realist painter (1917-2009) and the other is "Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78," a collection of Abstract pieces by various artists who sought to challenge the conventions of the painting medium.

I'm sorry, and a little embarrassed, to say I that am not familiar with the work of Andrew Wyeth. I have come to learn that he was a popular 20th C. American Realist who died in January of this year and whose work was known for its sepia, muted brown, blue and green New England scenes, seascapes and people. His work is considered by critics as "Regionalist" for its selection of these colors and subjects, by which they mean boring, unoriginal, quaint and drab. Others find true genius and beauty in his work, suggesting Wyeth's work possesses a surprising complexity; what at first seems simplistic is merely constrained genius and talent. Noting that the artist restricted himself to painting subjects in his native New England and refused to use oil (opting for what some would say is the more difficult medium of water and the unusual medium of egg tempera), they suggest the artist's creative genius lay in the fact that he conveyed emotional richness and complexity within self-imposed creative constraints. To remove those constraints would have altered and depreciated the essence of his art.

"Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78" on the other hand, is essentially about throwing off all artistic constraints. We learn from the blurb on SAM's website that this art was produced as a part of a phenomenon "that occurred in all parts of the world, and the exhibition documents why artists felt compelled to shoot, rip, tear, burn, erase, nail, unzip and deconstruct painting in order to usher in a new way of thinking." Yes, you read right: rip, tear, burn, erase...

If the picture on the promotional post card is any indication (a depiction of an artist painting his own face, literally), the exhibit will be eye opening, if nothing else. I tend not to favor the deconstructive impetus (and that's putting it euphemistically), but I am eager to learn of the movement's history, particularly its end. In my experience deconstructive movements are short lived since they must leech off a positive affirmation. What happens when there's nothing more to deconstruct (to rip, tear, burn, erase...)? Was the movement's "negative" purpose achieved in some way that has altered art? Hmmm. Maybe this would describe how the much-awarded-lauded-gifted Andrew Wyeth is regarded in some critical circles to be an illustrator rather than a true artist? He didin't rip, tear, burn, erase...anything.

At any rate, viewing these collections together will be interesting, to say the least. Not only are the two exhibits contemporaneous, and therefore comparing them is not chronologically contrived, but most things about the exhibits directly counter one another, from mode, to purpose to medium, to message/s. Although I have my pre-understandings of what I will and will not enjoy from art in general and this exhibit in specific, I'm willing to be suprised. We'll see.

Monday, June 1, 2009

smiley faced fascism

I just finished a book by Jonah Goldberg entitled Liberal Fascism. The book reads like a response to current economic and political developments, such as government bailouts of private companies and entire industries, government takeovers of car companies, the passing of huge economic stimulus bills, the accumulation of massive debt to foreign lenders, and the like. But it's not a response to any of those things. The book has been out in hardcover format for about a year now, and tomorrow will hit stores in paperback. So it is not only timely and chilling, but also a prescient read on our current American context.

Jonah argues that the American form of Fascism, what he calls "smiley faced Fascism," is a very real, if less violent, form of Fascism than that found in, say, Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy. But Fascism, Jonah argues, nonetheless pervades our culture, and has for years. To illustrate, he gives a working definition of the word Fascism (because apparently we use it variously and often wrongly), and then he the walks through the various chapters of American history that have been particularly fascistic. His explication is revealing; the result frightening.

The book is heavy on argument and for good reason; Jonah knows that Americans have a natural antipathy to Fascism and a great deal of assumptions about the topic. It is necessary and good, then, that his case is cogently argued, skillfully researched and accessibly written. He understands that our assumptions on the topic are so deeply rooted that readers will think he's a bit crazy and a little mean. His task of convincing us is a huge one.

Here is a paraphrased sampling of the kinds of "arguments" I personally had with the book:

"Wasn't fascism a brief, extremely conservative period during 'The McCarthy years' or (some would argue) during the years of George Bush?"
No, Fascism in America didn't start or end with Bush, or even McCarthy for that matter. It has been around since before FDR. American style Fascism has little to do with classic Liberalism or even Conservativism, but instead has its roots in early 20th C. Progressivism. Progressives tend toward the Democratic side of the political aisle but the Republican Party has its share, as well. "Wasn't fascism primarily a European development, one that we snuffed out in WW11?" Fascism was indeed a driving ideology in Germany and Italy during WW11, but many Americans--from politicians to actors to housewives--admired aspects of Fascism (particularly those centered "Il Duce") decades before the war, and only denounced it after the world discovered concentration camps. "C'mon, isn't Fascism about jackboots, violent nationalism and genocidal racism?" Again, the most widely recognized forms of Fascism, such as those in Italy and Germany were extremely violent and obviously coercive, but American Fascism is "friendly," more American, if you will. No jackboots, stormtroopers or genocidal racial nationalism here. But Fascism IS here, as is evident in the bullying politics of the 1920s, the massive "New Deal" project of the 1930s (complete with exploitation of the Great Depression) the reinterpretation of the 1950s as culturally oppressive, and the riots and domestic terrorism of the 1960s. (Jonah does not comment on the current political and social situations, as again, his book was published before the 2008 presidential election). "How could Fascism be prevalent in current American life and the general public not fight or at least acknowledge it?" Mostly we see Fascism played out here in seemingly reasonable, culturally accepted ways such as in: the imposition of political correctness in public life, the teaching of revisionist histories and literature in schools and universities, the use of "white guilt" to promote minority groups, the proliferation of anti-American propaganda in Hollywood, the exploitation of fear regarding the climate, the imposition of racial quotas in the workplace, and the control of populations via eugenics and abortion--just to name a handful of examples.

The above is just a taste of what Liberal Fascism has to offer. There is much to be mined (and argued over!) in this book. It has recently become a bestseller, and for good reason. It's a must-read for anyone with an interest in intellectual and cultural history--not to mention a concern for America's future.

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