Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

October 8, 2008
Photo: courtesy Time Magazine

When I got an email on Monday with a video about John McCain’s complicity in the Savings and Loan crisis, it was like seeing a ghost. The Savings and Loan crisis? If you weren’t of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, chances are you never heard of it—and not because it was a small event. One of the biggest financial meltdowns this country has experienced, involving wrongdoing by Republican and Democratic congressmen alike and requiring a multi-billion dollar “bailout” comparable to the current one, the S & L crisis slipped through a black hole in history, never to be mentioned in the news nor brought up in political campaigns (ever hear of Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George W? I didn’t think so)—until now. I’ve always been acutely aware of its absence, because I was present at the exact moment the story died.

It was January, 1991, and I was working (as I occasionally still do) as a consultant at TIME. The magazine has a history of commissioning gallery artists to create its covers, and my job has been to match artist with subject—such as Christo, whose globe wrapped in plastic and twine, we commissioned for “The Planet of the Year” in 1989. This time it was the S & L crisis, and the story, which up to that point had never been the subject of a cover feature in a major news magazine, had been building for several years. When I asked the art director at the time, Rudy Hoglund, why this massive issue hadn’t yet been addressed in this way, he said, rightly or not, that he thought it was because it was almost too complicated to be adequately explained in a mere article. But now we were doing it, and I tapped New York artist Barton Benes, who had made many pieces with genuine paper money, to create the cover image: a gold-plated meat grinder with sheets of money going in one end and shredded money coming out the other. The headline was “It’s your money.”

Like all the artists we've worked with, Barton was thrilled at the opportunity, and as we sat going over the details in Rudy’s corner office on the 24th floor of the Time-Life Building, he asked, “Is there any reason this cover wouldn’t run?”—and Rudy, being somewhat facetious in order to underscore its importance, said, “Only if there’s a war.”

Well there was a war, and as U.S. forces bombed Baghdad, the cover of the next week’s issue featured the face of Saddam Hussein. The S & L story appeared in the back, as a three-part “Special Report: Crisis in Banking” in the Business section. Barton’s artwork was relegated to the storeroom, and after that it was as if the S & L debacle, which we’re probably still paying for, never happened.

No one has ever been able to convince me that the two incidents were not related.
October 3, 2008
In the olden days, people didn’t know much about events outside their particular village, and I think it’s too much to ask of the human brain to have to take in every horrific, or even semi-horrific thing that happens on the globe. Therefore it behooves us to moderate our intake of news carefully—especially a sensitive flower like me, and one who has a cold yet. So I gave a lot of thought to how I might keep up with last night’s debate while avoiding emotional overload. In the end I chose not to watch, but read the blow-by-blow blog posts on Daily Kos and when it was over called Deedee in Chicago, banking on the knowledge that we have agreed on absolutely everything since we were 14, to find out what we thought of it all. Having established its relative safety, this morning I watched it on my new iPhone over breakfast, and discovered that if the protagonists are teeny weeny, as they must be on an iPhone screen, current events are much more palatable. It helped, of course, that I already knew that Biden acquitted himself admirably, and that Palin, while proving that she could be coached for a debate, was still appalling (what was with all that winking? And “Joe Six-pack” is going to help solve the economic crisis? Was she trying for the alcoholic vote?) My favorite line of the evening, however, came not from the debaters but a commenter on Daily Kos, one Walt Starr, who wrote: “Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
September 17, 2008
I spent yesterday trying to write a blog post about art (art? what’s that?) when I, like everyone else, was obsessed with what Sarah Palin’s candidacy has revealed about this country. I’m wondering why (except for a mention in a column by Maureen Dowd, who happened to be in Alaska when it took place), the allegedly biggest protest rally in Alaskan history was not covered in the mainstream press. 1500 people showing up in Anchorage (pop.128,000) is, percentage-wise, like over 700,00 people gathering in New York City (pop. 8 million plus). The rally was totally grassroots, dreamed up by two women over coffee, and despite some rather extreme attempts at sabotage, succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. You can read about it here and here. I hope (if people find out about it--pass it on!) it will spur similar rallies in cities the press can’t ignore. I’m poised to go to Washington, and have been ruminating on possible acronyms such a movement could inspire, such as Feminist Women Against Palin, or FWAP!

Given Palin's supposed popularity rating in Alaska, it's also enlightening to read the editorials in The Anchorage Daily News: Questions for Palin and one suggesting that the "Governor takes executive privilege too far."

Meanwhile, cleaning and reorganizing my painting storage this summer rekindled my interest in making more “journal” paintings—a series I did for ten years where I noted, in oil paint on canvas, words and symbols that represented the emotions and events of my daily life. The paintings were born of frustration—with my painting (what was I doing and why was I doing it? who was I doing it for?) and with a life circumscribed by illness, work, and no time for a studio practice—even if I wanted one, which I wasn’t sure I did. Eight years before I had “dropped out” at a moment of success, made the decision not to show my work, and from then on when I did do something in the studio, I did my best to make it unsalable—by painting over old paintings or using those crappy pre-stretched canvases (a decision I regret, because I like those paintings now). I also gave much of it away. When I did my first journal painting, choosing to use personal details as content was also an act born of perversity—who would care? (And ten years after that, when the art world was awash in intimate minutiae, seemed like a good time to give the journal paintings up).

Forty Days, 1992, oil on canvas, 80" x 48"

My decision now to make another journal painting has turned out to be weirdly synchronistic. I started the first with an old painting, 80” x 48,” which I ruled off in two-inch segments so that each represented a day, and added up to the exactly 40 days (a Biblical number) between my birthday and Election Day, 1992—when Bill Clinton became president, winning out over George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot. In each two-inch strip I noted what I did that day (on my birthday the art director at TIME, for whom I was working, took me to lunch at the Palio Bar—those were the days!—and son Matt took me to see a private concert by Soul Asylum, remember them?) and I ended it with figures derived from the election polls. That was, of course, before cell phones, when the polls were pretty accurate. The numbers started out Clinton 57-Bush 37 and ended with Clinton 44-Perot 17-Bush 39, while Clinton won 43-17-37. This time there are 42 days between my birthday and the election so I have to reconfigure a bit. Also the polls are now wildly inaccurate—but at least it gives me something to do other than bite my nails.

August 31, 2008
I never did believe the story that there were legions of embittered Hillary supporters out there, poised to vote for McCain. In today’s Times, Frank Rich addresses media myths—“The disconnect between the reality of this campaign and how it is perceived and presented by the mainstream media is now a major part of the year’s story.” Rich doesn’t quite explain how these myths arise, but no doubt part of it has to do with the media’s need for conflict—so that even when there isn’t any, they have to make it up—and also with the “fair and balanced” bullshit that may have started out with the right intentions but has made it so that no one can be wholehearted about anything--and provided a platform for fringe groups (who may otherwise have been too small to be noticed) because reporters feel obliged to quote from the other side. And they continue to rely on poll results even though by now everyone knows (because the pollsters can only reach landlines and not cell phones) that the polls are no longer good indicators.

(And why, I wonder is hardly anyone mentioning the fact that Sarah Palin is under investigation for an ethics breach, or questioning the wisdom of a candidate who would choose a running mate under such circumstances?)

It looks as if the media is as confused as the Republicans as to what their role is in this new era. I was heartened to see that CNN’s straight coverage of the campaign won out over the other networks’ gabble of talking heads. It wasn’t just rhetoric when, in his acceptance speech, Obama said that it wasn’t about him. What the media hasn’t gotten yet, is that it’s not about them, either.
August 29, 2008
Did anyone else notice the subtle racism in the Times this morning? This was the blurb for, and a paragraph from, “The TV Watch: On the Small Screen, Intimacy and Welcome Silence for Obama’s Big Rally” by Alessandra Stanley:

Wearing a flag pin and a confident mien, Barack Obama looked like a presidential candidate accepting the nomination of the Democratic party.

Well, excuse me, but what else should he look like?

And then there was David Brooks’ infantile response to Obama's historic speech, which serves as an indication of Republican desperation. I can’t believe the Times actually prints this stuff. On a par with McCain’s Paris Hilton video, Brooks insults “a new generation of Americans, a generation that came of age amid iced chai and mocha strawberry Frappucinos, a generation with a historical memory that doesn’t extend past Coke Zero.” Brooks, who was once responsible for an inane rail against hipster parents, of all things, must be feeling the pain of encroaching old fartdom.
June 9, 2008
I wasn’t going to write about Hillary or elaborate on my Sex and the City “review” below (brevity, as well as cleanliness, is next to godliness in my book) until a friend forwarded me this Judith Warner blog post, and I realized that my credentials as a feminist were in question because I didn’t vote for Hillary and I liked “Sex and the City.”

Warner: Is it a coincidence that the bubbling idiocy of “Sex and the City,” the movie, exploded upon the cultural scene at the exact same time Hillary’s campaign imploded? Literally, of course, it is. Figuratively, I’m not so sure, And before I set off an avalanche of emails explaining why Hillary deserved to lose, I want to make one point clear: I am not talking about the outcome of her candidacy—mistakes were made, and she faced a formidable opponent in Barack Obama—but rather about the climate in which her campaign was conducted. The zeitgeist in which Hillary floundered and “Sex” is now flourishing.

Warner bolsters her view by providing a link to an inflammatory video montage of footage, mostly from Fox News, of both men and women making crude, stupid, sexist remarks. Believe me, I’m not saying that sexism has been eradicated. But isn’t this what we expect from Fox? And isn’t it more indicative of the right-wing mentality than bias among Democratic voters? Instead I agree with Ariana Huffington, who wrote about Clinton’s campaign as a “historic triumph” for women, and Gail Collins, in the Times, who reiterated the theme saying:

Nobody is ever again going to question whether it’s possible for a woman to go toe-to-toe with the toughest male candidate in a race for president of the United States. Or whether a woman could be strong enough to serve as commander-in-chief.

What surprised me about the campaign was not how endemic the sexism was, but how little gender had to do with it. Clinton lost, and only by a small margin, to a black man whose name is only one consonant away from one we associate with terrorism. She lost because Barack Obama ran a tighter campaign, showed the courage of his convictions, and was better at reading the mood of an electorate that was weary of polarizing politics. But in spite of that, I’m convinced that if Clinton hadn’t made the fatal mistake of voting for the Iraq war, she’d be the Democratic contender right now.

But back to Warner who goes after “Sex and the City” (not without a little male-bashing in her description of Charlotte’s husband as an “adoring troglodyte…so short, so bald”) and concludes:

“Sex and the City” is the perfect movie for our allegedly ever-so-promising post-feminist era, when “angry” is out and Restalyne is in, and virtually all our country’s most powerful women look younger now than they did 20 years ago. Oh lighten up, I can hear you say. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Earnestness is so unattractive in a woman.

Funny, I was going to say that. How did she know? Perhaps because inappropriate earnestness, the inability to get a joke, isn’t attractive in anyone. I mean—tell me if I’m missing something huge here—I thought “Sex and the City” was a satire. For all the talk of Labels with a capital L, those fantastical over-the-top clothes were designed by Patricia Field, whose boutique I remember from the East Village in the Eighties where she used outfit drag queens. And how can you take seriously a story in which the love interest is called Mr. Big? C’mon, is that not hilarious?

So, far from the paean to consumerism the hyper-serious commenters on Warner’s blog thought the film was (if many of them actually saw it, which I doubt), I got the opposite message—such as, don’t get so involved in your wedding plans that you forget about the guy. But the film could just have easily been about Forgiveness—there was a lot of that going on—and, of course, let’s not leave out Loyalty. And what how about how women in their forties and even—gasp!—fifties can hang out, be lusty, and have fun?

Then there’s Anthony Lane in The New Yorker who complains about, of all things, too much schmaltz. He also doesn’t understand how Miranda, a lawyer, can drop everything and to fly to Mexico to support her friend (hello, it’s a fantasy, all right, but hardly one that’s “posing as a slice of modern life” any more than Sasha Baron Cohen expected us to believe Borat was really from Kazakhstan). Lane gets into a twitch about the little dog who humps everything—and he’s right, it was awful, which is just what was so great about it. But why would a hetero guy over forty, who admits he “never was sure how funny the TV series was meant to be” take on the film in the first place? It seems Lane violated his maxim of “Whenever possible, see the film in the company of ordinary beings” and went to a critics’ screening, where he took notes on every instance of political incorrectness (he had to write fast). He should have seen it with some gay friends and instead of rushing home to transcribe those notes, spent the rest of the evening driving around with the top down, listening to the Scissor Sisters.