Don’t Look Beyond: Scorsese on Dylan

There’s been surprisingly little written about Martin Scosese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home .  David Jaffe over at Slate begins his review by suggesting the ways Scosese may have been compromised by the PBS project.

This documentary comes complete with a Starbucks tie-in, an Apple logo, and a celebrity director’s credit. That director is Martin Scorsese, who has surely coveted access to this footage—donated by D.A. Pennebaker, Murray Lerner, and others—having already shot Dylan as the pièce de résistance to his documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz. But before you get too excited about this crossroads meeting, viewer, beware: This project was co-produced by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. Scorsese was brought in well after Rosen had already conducted the interviews and approved the material.

Jaffe is grateful nonetheless, in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and Dylan’s more than politically incorrect statements.  One expects a PG rating for “viewers like you”.

But this is more than a PBS-sanitized nonfiction film about one of the defining figures of our time.  It is a failure of the documentary form, capitulating, as it does, to the constraints of the authorized version.

Imagine the same film made, say, by Errol Morris.  First off, the interviews would not have been prefabricated by Dylan and his staff, an approach that minimizes the possibility of cutting through the facade and exposing contradictions behind the delicately composed image of “the man without a past”. Nor would we have the quick cuts away from the singer just when his unguarded backstage behavior starts to be revealing. Recall those long, awkward scenes in Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back when, for example, Dylan indulges in an unmerciful send up of a young backstage visitor, or responds to a professional journalist with an endless series of irritable (and, perhaps, justifiable) retorts and obstacles. As the camera refuses to turn away from its subject and maintains its unblinking gaze, one eventually gets a clear sense of the complexity of the situation and the forces shaping Dylan’s experience.  As this happens, the unofficial truths begin to emerge.

(To be continued…)

Occupation: Dreamland

I saw Occupation: Dreamland yesterday afternoon at Cinema Village.  OD is a non-fiction film by Ian Olds and Garrett Scott which documents the activities of the young Army recruits of the 82nd Airborne’s Alpha Company, 1/505, 2nd Platoon stationed in Fallujah during the winter of 2004.  The film has gotten a fair amount of attention, all of it well-deserved. (More links below.)

The film takes a non-judgmental look at the attitudes of the men (no women in this platoon) who find themselves caught up in “the fog of war”, not quite knowing why they’re there, what if any rationale lies behind their orders, and what can possibly be accomplished either in Fallujah or Iraq generally.  All they have to go on is that they’re to “maintain security” and establish good relations with the Iraqis.  But even the clarity of this modest goal is undermined as a company commander instructs the soldiers, ”Back yourself up and think about what, exactly, we’re securing. We’re securing ourselves. So what, exactly, are we protecting? I don’t know.”

Listening to the soldiers talk about why they enlisted and how they feel about their tour of duty in Iraq, you can sense the confusion of young, working class guys who either weren’t interested in or ready for college, were uncertain about their futures, and saw the Army as something to do “in the meantime”.  Many of them assumed it would be a relatively easy and risk-free way to get an education.  If nothing else, it would jumpstart the next phase of their lives.  In most cases they had not thought through the implications of military service or what their tour of duty in the Army might bring.  In short, they were definitely not prepared for this.

One wonders how well they’ll be prepared to return to “normal” life when they return from the war.  The 82nd had been stationed in Afganistan prior to their being sent to Fallujah.  Many had enlisted for only two years — the Army was desperately trying to keep them in for four.

After the credits rolled, there were eight of us left in the small theater.  A young man in a white t-shirt and blue jeans stood up and announced, “I’m in the 82nd division, if you have any questions, maybe I can answer them.”  He made no attempt to convince us of the value of the war.  Rather, we talked about his own uncertainties and what it was like to be in Afganistan and Iraq.  He was clearly unhappy about the situation there, said he wish we’d never gone in, and admitted that morale among the soldiers was very low.  He was not pleased with the heavy-handed tactics of the Marines who relieved the 82nd later that year. “I can’t see any way we’ll be out of there for another five or six years”, he said.  “The only hope is to turn the other cheek and not shoot back when fired upon. You have to just keep trying to help the people over there.”

I wondered why he made the unsolicited offer to speak with us. Was it out of a sense of duty, to help us understand what’s going on there from the soldier’s point of view? Or was it a way of making sense of his own experience?  Some of both, I expect.

What we did not hear was reference to the recent Human Rights Watch report on the routine beating and mistreatment of prisoners by members of the 82nd division prior to April 2004.

Three U.S. army personnel—two sergeants and a captain—describe routine, severe beatings of prisoners and other cruel and inhumane treatment…. The soldiers also described abuses they witnessed or participated in at another base in Iraq and during earlier deployments in Afghanistan.

According to the soldiers’ accounts, U.S. personnel abused detainees as part of the military interrogation process or merely to “relieve stress.” In numerous cases, they said that abuse was specifically ordered by Military Intelligence personnel before interrogations, and that superior officers within and outside of Military Intelligence knew about the widespread abuse. The accounts show that abuses resulted from civilian and military failures of leadership and confusion about interrogation standards and the application of the Geneva Conventions. They contradict claims by the Bush administration that detainee abuses by U.S. forces abroad have been infrequent, exceptional and unrelated to policy. [Human Rights Watch]

For more on Occupation: Dreamland see:

Leonard Lopate’s interview with the filmmakers.
Stuart Klawans, The Nation (review)
Jeanette Catsoulis, NYTimes (review)
Joshua Land, Village Voice (review)
Ty Burr, Boston Globe (review)

Photo compliments of the official website: Occupation: Dreamland

Disambiguate Before September Ends

It’s certainly gratifying to see an article in the New York Times by Sarah Boxer reviewing an appropriation and political intervention by independent vlogger Zadi at Karmagrrrl. Zadi’s Quicktime video reframes Green Day’s tune (Wake Me Up When September Ends) as a comment on the devastation resulting from hurricane Katrina and the inability of the U.S. government to protect and care for its own citizens.

While Green Day may have intended their song as a comment on the war in Iraq, the inherent ambiguity of the lyrics leaves it open to a wide range of interpretations. The Katrina disaster, as Boxer points out, seems a more comfortable and compelling fit than Sam Bayer’s emotionally predictable video [or here] showing two young lovers separated by the war.  The subtle editing of video and audio footage gathered by Zadi is both moving and suggestive. It sends a clear message without being in any way heavy-handed or preachy. The final (unattributed line) from the President’s mother, Barbara Bush, is chilling.

After “What Comes After?”

Update: Following up on the LMCC conference, What Comes After, Caryn James has a review of a related exhibition, A Knock at the Door, and her own reflections on the politics of art in the aftermath of 9/11, in today’s NYTimes.

James points out that

while the "A Knock at the Door …" is clearly more political than its
organizers say – questioning the Patriot Act is inherently anti-Bush –
there is nothing apolitical surrounding the arts at ground zero
anymore, from victims’ family groups that are lobbying against the
International Freedom Center to Gov. George E. Pataki’s announcement in
June that he wants an "absolute guarantee" that art at the site will
not offend 9/11 families. Art in a straitjacket is no art at all. In
this politicized atmosphere, "A Knock at the Door …" lands like a
rejoinder to the governor, even though it was in the works before he
made that comment.

In the months (and years?) ahead, it will be too easy for discussions about art and memory to get hopelessly mired in, and limited to, the issue of who has the "right" or authority to speak in the wake of trauma, violence, human suffering and loss. Note the small print disclaimer on the LMCC website:

LMCC lost its World Trade Center home and the life of an artist on 9/11. We are very sensitive to the traumas of violence and terrorism. LMCC will not include any work of art in the "A Knock at the Door" exhibition that could in any way endanger the public. There will be no hazardous devices on display. The point of "A Knock at the Door" is to explore the relationships between artists and authority in the post 9/11 world, not to create risk or condone violence.

These are serious issues — not to be dismissed or ignored.  But what appears to be missing in the current literature and in the conference proceedings is more attention to the ways art and literature can bring us into a more productive exploration of the experiences, feelings, and insights of others, not as self-indulgent immersion, but as a way of extending empathy while allowing for some measure of critical analysis that might lead to a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of violence.

What Comes After?

This weekend’s conference, organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, with the optimistic title, What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery (An International Summit), brought together numerous scholars, artists, and activists from across the world to talk about the artistic response to traumatic experience and loss in the aftermath of violence. 

In spite of the statement posted to the conference website by Tom Healy — intended, perhaps, to address the controversy surrounding "inappropriate art" generally, and LMCC’s expansion of the theme of recovery on the weekend of the anniversary of "9/11" in particular —  the organizers did not focus on New York City.  It avoided what conference curator Radhika Subramaniam, in her opening remarks on Friday morning, referred to as the "parochialism and narcissism" of the local (and limited) framing of the events of 9/11/2001.  Instead, the emphasis was extended to include the role creative forms of art have played (and are playing) in places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Iraq, and Palestine.

Consider the list of seminar questions raised:

Design of Recovery — What are the political and aesthetic challenges of rebuilding after disaster? How do architects and planners balance utilitarian, economic and technological issues against those of environment, cultural heritage and local practice?

Afterword: Language of Recovery — What are the demands placed on language and writing by disaster? How does writing after catastrophe work as advocacy, witness, mirror, mourning, elegy or indictment?

Arts of Emergency — How are artists provoked by the mechanisms of destruction and terror? How does photography, painting and performance intervene to restore face and voice, expose the erasures of history and demand recognition?

Revenge, Reparation, Reconciliation — How can artistic media be used by formerly hostile groups to reconcile opposing points of view, recognize divergent historical narratives and promote trust? What cultural strategies do advocates, jurists and activists employ to effect accountability and foster healing?

Remembrance, Repitition, Residue
— What is the relationship of memory and forgetting to the recovery of daily life after trauma? How are the arts of memory—museums, memorials, archives—sentinels of the future?

Arts of Possibility — Can cultural and symbolic forms help to imagine a future while remembering the past and mourning loss? Can artistic strategies serve as antidotes to revenge, sorrow and despair to restore hope, encourage safety, and return the promise of tomorrow?

One can see even from this brief summary of themes that the conference was thoughtfully and courageously organized.  It has brought together a committed and important group of people whose lives are devoted to addressing these questions and to putting their insights into action. 

Unfortunately, the on-site attendance was disappointing. Ironically, Duma Kumalo, a speaker from Johannesburg, mentioned that the meager turnout was similar to so many of the truth and reconciliation hearings he attended back home in South Africa. There were also numerous mistakes made in communicating the details of the times and places of various events, problems making speakers audible to members of the audience, etc. (Sarah Hromack was hoping
the conference would include consideration of the Katrina disaster in
the South.  I did not attend, nor have I listened to, all of the
sessions.  But from what I could tell, Katrina was mentioned only in
passing — often as a point of reference for the ongoing inadequacy in
handling disaster by government institutions.)

One can only hope that the limitations of the on-site proceedings of What Comes After will be overcome and more than compensated for by creative use of the materials made available on the website and through the many productive discussions to follow in communities, cafes, pubs, and classrooms around the world.  But we can also help by contributing our own thoughts and efforts to the task of recognizing, remembering, and coming to terms with the causes and effects of violence, wherever they occur.

Resisting Color Photography

Elizabeth Olson comments (in a New York Times article today) on an exhibition opening this week at the Library of Congress, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943.  The exhibition is "[c]ulled from a collection of little-known color images made by photographers from the federal Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the prints bring alive everyday rural life between 1939 and 1943."

The images were made "by about a dozen photographers to document the Depression’s effects on rural America and to rally support for government relief efforts".  So the function of these images was clearly documentary (historical) and political.

According to Olson, the photos have been in the collection of the LoC since 1946, but have "received little attention".

What struck me as odd was a remark made by the curator, Beverly Brannan: "There were questions for years about whether color photography was truly art," she said. "They were not taken as seriously as black-and-white images." In the context of the Times article, this appears to be offered as an explanation for not exhibiting these photographs.

It’s well-known that the status of color photography as art was contested for years.  "Elder statesmen of photography such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen initially described color photographs as lurid and vulgar, while others associated them unfavorably with commercial photography, amateur snapshots, or popular movies." (See the introduction to the current exhibition of color photography at the Philadelphia Museum, Mavericks of Color Photography from the Collection July 30 – November 27, 2005.)

But it seems to me that the artistic (and, by implication, aesthetic) status of an image is distinct from its historical value. Does the LoC really make such aesthetic judgments in choosing objects for an exhibition? Does anxiety over the status of photography vis a vis "the fine arts" extend to the LoC?

Context and the Ambiguity of Images

In a recent post that draws on the writings of Susan Sontag, Sarah Hromack creates a somewhat larger context for thinking about the contemporary use of images by professionals and amateurs.  Her post includes a link to the article by Aaron Kinney about the controversial representations of flood victims in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Kinney article is informative and provides a far more nuanced discussion of the relation of captions to images than one finds in the many blog posts related to this story.

There’s also a rich and comprehensive online research project on the history, practice, and ethical responsibilities of photojournalists on the Imaging Famine website and in a related Guardian exhibition which closes on 9 Sep 05.

Kuspit on the Emergence of Computer-Mediated Art

Donald Kuspit’s recent essay at artnet, “The Matrix of Sensations”, argues for an historical development from mimesis (analog representation grounded in the object) to sensation (art grounded in digital codes). The progression begins with Manet and the impressionists, goes through post-impressionism, early and high modern abstraction, and culminates in postmodern computer-mediated art.

The status and significance of the image changes in postmodern digital art: the image becomes a secondary manifestation — a material epiphenomen, as it were — of the abstract code, which becomes the primary vehicle of creativity. Before, the creation of material images was the primary goal of visual art, and the immaterial code that guided the process was regarded as secondary. Now, the creation of the code — more broadly, the concept — becomes the primary creative act. The image no longer exists in its own right, but now exists only to make the invisible code visible, whatever the material medium.

The transformation from objective representation to code, Kuspit notes, is neither complete nor widely accepted.  But it marks a clear and logical path shaped, in part, by scientific theories and technology in the 20th century.

The response to Kuspit’s article has been swift and, in some cases, passionate.  Lou Gagnon dismisses Kuspit’s claims for the artistic value of “digital art” and the “creativity of code” due to their lacking an essential haptic dimension.  While his concerns are important, he overlooks crucial nuances in Kuspit’s approach when he claims that

We can relate to haptic records because we share a tactile world, because we make mistakes and we incorporate or work around them. We need that tactile feedback. I can take all the digital images that I can store of my children and all of them combined will pale in comparison to the fleeting power of holding their hand, smelling their hair and thumbing through their drawings.

Kuspit’s argument turns not simply on the distinction between our objective and tactile world of experience, on the one hand, and images, on the other. Rather, Kuspit is more concerned about our naively assuming the veridicality of perception and representation and having these assumptions called into question by the compelling, coherent, and often contradictory proliferation of digital forms arising out of this “matrix of sensations” — a questioning that leads to “a new experience of the real”. Gagnon’s point, that an artist’s creative response is shaped by their embodied experience, is true but trivial.  The more interesting questions have to do with the unexplored, or poorly understood, possibilities of experience and, to what extent, if any, computer-mediated art opens up those possibilities.

Tom Moody also points to an apparent disparity between Kuspit’s arguments (most of which he agrees with) and the examples (which fall short of Moody’s expectations.)

I think more is needed by way of both argument and example.  It’s not clear to me, on first reading and to cite just one example, how the link between the electronic pixelated image and sensation give rise to a radically new kind of experience.  Having just seen Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (incorporating both analog and digital), I’m wondering how the use of digital processes in recording and editing the cinematic image “makes the invisible code visible”, what that could possibly mean, or why it matters.

It’s also curious that there’s no mention of Lev Manovich, noted for arguing (some years ago) that code and software form the basis for avant-garde art, and how Kuspit’s views coincide with, or depart from, Manovich’s.  (The only “new media” reference is Christiane Paul’s recent book, Digital Art.)

Crashing the Discourse with Judd and Bochner

In his review of the republication of Donald Judd’s collected writings (Artforum, Summer 2005), Mel Bochner offers some interesting asides on contemporary art and artists — much of it familiar; all of it relevant.

In spite of the "pluralism" of critical practices and market forces at work today — glossed by Bochner with the phrase "the trough is big enough for all the hogs" — something is missing.

One can hear it in all the verbal hand-wringing about the state of contemporary art. Is it only nostalgia for the "good old days," or does so much that is being done now lack either passion or purpose? The old guys…may have been cranky, but at least we went at it tooth and nail, as if our lives depended on it. Something real was at stake.

And in the ’60s and ’70s Judd was at the center of it.

As a working artist facing the challenge of present-tense conditions, Judd was uniquely able to judge how others were dealing with similar problems and sources. What made his reviews exciting to read was that he wrote with the immediacy of a war correspondent. By sending home dispatches from the front lines of contemporary art, he became that most valuable of literary companions: someone worth arguing with.

It’s precisely that sense of engagement and commitment that Bochner claims is missing today and I agree.  Of course, there was also a certain measure of narcissism and self-promotion that motivated artists to write in the ’60s and early ’70s.  Judd, for example, was not only defending what he found "worthy" in the work of other artists, but contributing to an emerging climate, coming out of a response to Greenberg’s dogmatic formalism, the tyranny of Ab Ex, the banality of Pop Art, and the flaccid criticism of Thomas Hess’s Art News poets, toward a new configuration more conducive to the reception of his own work. 

Judd’s self-interest is a given — a necessary price and one worth paying if, in addition, you can count on direct and unpretentious access to an artist grappling with his thoughts as he works through an encounter with both the art of the past and with the most significant work and issues of the day.

If Judd were writing today, would he be blogging?  Perhaps.  But I’m not sure it would be the best venue for him.  His tough-minded responses could easily turn into the sort of embarrassing, pugnacious rants the unedited free-for-all our blogosphere seems to encourage.  Nor would he be inclined to engage with the ephemeral and superficial art-gossip columnists that seem to proliferate on the web.  So what’s the relevance of Judd today?

Judd’s critical practice, if we can call it that, was not separable from his work as an artist.  It was a sustained, thoughtful, passionate, and serious attempt to crash the discourse on art and bring it closer to the lived experience of seeing, assessing, and creating visual and visceral responses to the world around us.  If nothing else remained, that in itself would be reason enough to remember Judd.

The Artist’s Judgment

In a brief but suggestive State of the Art column in the new Frieze magazine, "Can We Really Suspend the Power of Judgement?", critic Jan Verwoert raises questions about the expectations, interests, and effects in play when one writes about a work of art.  Alternately assuming the position of artist or critic, he expresses reticence about the making of clear and definitive judgments.  Commenting on A Visit to the Louvre, a recent film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Verwoert relates that, in the voice-over, the narrator speaks "with the passion of someone who has an intimate understanding of painting, but also with the pride and competitive élan of an artist who, through a series of rigorous assessments, sets out her own position in relation to other artists by dividing them into genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents."  We learn later that the narrator is not speaking in her own voice, but reciting the words of Cezanne.  (The text is taken from the artist’s writings.  The artists and works to which Cezanne is responding are not indicated in the Frieze essay.)

Now Verwoert observes that "[t]he power of the words lies in the passion behind the artist’s verdicts", but the critic is torn between the opposing positions of speaking with authority and conviction, on the one hand, and withholding judgment, on the other.  "The conventional ritual of praise and rejection…limits art criticism to a tiresome Oedipal game in which a paternal pat on the back or an indignant slap in the face are the only gestures available. To relinquish authority thus actually means gaining the freedom to think and speak differently."  But, in the end, Verwoert asserts that "remaining undecided is precisely what you cannot do as a critic".  "The trick", he concludes, "…is to refrain from symbolically claiming the position of power that in practice is already assigned to you. That is what scruples are about."

Verwoert’s main concern is the way contemporary art criticism runs the risk, wittingly or otherwise, of promoting the market interests of collectors and the compromises faced by museums and galleries in exhibiting and acquiring new works or art.  Much of what he says about the leverage of wealthy collectors — or, should I say, investors — is both true and important.  But what is lost in his analysis is the crucial distinction between the voice, values, and interests of the artist vis-à-vis those of the critic.  As an artist who writes about art, my concern is to avoid conflating the two in order to better understand and articulate the unique perspective offered by the artist qua artist who responds from an inevitably interested position.

There are many differences between the artist and the critic.  One of these has to do with the challenge presented by the work one confronts in a gallery, museum, classroom, or studio.  While the critic may be presented with puzzles, obscurities, apparent inadequacies in the work, the artist sees these and more.  The work is, in some sense, always seen in relation to the artist’s own practice, and very often in the same medium.

What is it about this work that intrigues me?  Why is it a painting rather than a wall drawing or a photograph?  How was it done?  These are elementary questions, I admit.  And they’re not unique to the artist.  What is unique is the personal way in which I find myself responding to those questions.  While clearly oversimplifying matters, I have to say that at a very basic level my concern is how the work I encounter directly affects what I do and how I think about the work I’ve made.  What are my affinities with this artist?  What interests do we share?  Are there things here I can use?  What’s wrong with the piece?  What would I have done differently, and why?  No matter how inspired and impressed I am with a work, there’s almost always something that’s not quite right about it.  Too much empty space.  Too didactic.  Too derivative.  Not enough paint.  The color is too harsh in places.  There’s not enough attention given to the support, or the way it’s mounted on the wall, floor, or pedestal.  It’s constructed in too cavalier and haphazard a manner.  There’s not enough concern for the integrity of the work as an object.  It engages important issues, but in too heavy-handed a way.  While one work is too explicit and painfully sincere, the next is too opaque, convoluted, or austere.

Now, of course, the art critic will often respond with precisely the same language.  The difference is in the way the words are felt and what’s at stake.  For while the critic attempts to open the reader up to the work, to enliven one’s perceptions, to reveal the work’s possible meanings and significance (or lack thereof), the artist is compelled to accept or reject the work as part of an ongoing negotiation of his or her own identity as an artist and everything that represents.

There are, of course, numerous exceptions and not everyone’s experience is the same.  But I can say with a fair degree of confidence, on the basis of conversations over many years with other artists in galleries, studios, classrooms, and bars, that artists see themselves and their work, first and foremost, in the context of other artists and other works of art.  This has little to do with markets, donors, collectors, or curators.  They’re all outsiders from the artist’s perspective.  The only ones who really matter, in a life or death sense, are other artists.  That’s why they tend to be divided into "genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents".

Here, as simply one example taken at random, are revealing and passionately partisan remarks made by Camille Pissarro to his son Lucien about "the schemer" Gauguin:

Paris, April 20, 1881

I am sending you…a review which contains an article on Gauguin by [Albert] Aurier.  You will observe how tenuous is the logic of this litterateur.  According to him, what in the last instance can be dispensed with in a work of art is drawing or painting; only ideas are essential, and those can be indicated by a few symbols.  Now I will grant that art is as he says, except that "the few symbols" have to be drawn, after all; moreover, it is also necessary to express ideas in terms of color, hence you have to have sensation in order to have ideas…. This gentleman seems to think we are imbeciles!

The Japanese practiced this art as did the Chinese, and their symbols are wonderfully natural, but then they were not Catholics, and Gauguin is a Catholic. I do not criticize Gauguin [in his Jacob and the Angel] for having painted a rose background, nor do I object to the two struggling fighters and the Breton peasants in the foreground; what I dislike is that he copped these elements from the Japanese, the Byzantine painters, and others.  I criticize him for not applying his synthesis to our modern philosophy, which is absolutely social, anti-authoritarian, and anti-mystical.  That is where the problem becomes serious.  This is a step backwards; Gauguin is not a seer, he is a schemer who has sensed that the bourgeoisie is moving to the right, recoiling before the great idea of solidarity which sprouts among the people — an instinctive idea, but fecund, the only idea that is permissible!  The symbolists also take this line!  What do you think?  And they must be fought like a disease!

[From Artists on Art, Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, eds., New York: Pantheon, 1972, 317f.]