Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Photographing the Eighties

GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE GERMANS

New Topographics refers to more than a visual tradition in photography. New Topographics examines a mindset that is distinctly Western: marking, mapping, conquest, enclosure, and control. Land and territory has always been surveyed and catalogued in order to own and possess it. From the eighteenth century, people have been categorized and later photographed for the same purposes: put under surveillance, framed by the camera and captured for the purposes of classification. The first victims of this clinical gaze, as Michel Foucault expressed it, were the insane and those who had no power in the society. The first use of the “mug shot” took place after the uprising of the Commune in Paris in 1871, when the Communards were identified from the group photographs taken during their brief moment of glory. They were rounded up and executed.

The use of photography as a tool of surveillance had different implications and consequences,depending upon the time and place. In the early twentieth century, the obsessive interest in photographing people was driven by the desire to sort out and understand the teeming masses in urban settings and to catalogue the rural populations before they disappeared into modernization. Photography became a tool of industrial classification and identification that in Germany recorded the abrupt shift to a mechanized society. Photographers such as Albert Renger-Patsch carefully documented the new machine age and August Sander began an encyclopedic enterprise, a monumental project of photographing all the types of Germans in the 1920s.

The documentary projects of these photographers was interrupted by the Nazis and by the Second World War and it was to this “objectivity” of the past that post-war photographers in Germany returned. New Topographics photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, teachers at the Dusseldorf Academy, took up the task of their German predecessor, August Sander, who was still working on his project of depicting Germans when Hitler was elected to office. Once Hitler failed to find the blue-eyed, blond-haired “Aryans” in Sander’s vast catalogue, the dictator put an end to the artist’s project. In their “Topologies” projects, the Bechers took up the idea of documenting “types” but looked for types of industrial enterprises and their buildings: water towers, blast furnaces, storage silos, cooling towers and so on.

These old structures have an aging sculptural beauty, a rectilinear geometry characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The environmental contexts are often bleached out and the buildings stand alone, usually photographed from the same point of view and from the same distance. The simple and elegant black and white prints are displayed in grids which create a visual rhythm and an instant repetition which makes the viewer reconsider these old structures which are suddenly beautiful. Indeed the bare beauty of these structures, so similar and so different, is an ethical one and the “precision”of the Bechers’ dedication to finding and photographing these (somewhat nostalgic) buildings is considered by some to be a moral act of truth to counter the poison of the Nazi past.

These teachers in Dusseldorf and inspired many of their students to follow in their footsteps, including Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, and later Andreas Gursky (called collectively “Sruthsky”) photographed places and people (usually) in color. For Thomas Ruff, born post-war, the photographing of people did not have the political charge it did for his parents’ generation and he began to shoot his friends in the traditional “mug shot” style. Wearing ordinary everyday clothing, the subjects gazed impassively into the lens of Ruff’s camera. These full frontal faces are in strong colors, color that becomes more impactful when the photographs are greatly enlarged and dominate the viewer.

However, it must be pointed out that photographing people in Germany cannot avoid being an act in the shadow of the Nazi past. In a 2011 interview with Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker, Struth revealed that the Holocaust had a major impact on his work. His mother was with the Hitler Youth and his father fought with the Wehrmacht but they seemed reluctant to come to terms with the cause they had served. “If you want to know what formed me, this is the big thing: the culture of guilt that I was born into and that surrounded me in my childhood.” According the Malcolm, Sturth understand his work to be a kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”).

Like Ruff, Struth photographed people, but he did so in two ways. First, he photographed families with the same impassivity employed by Ruff. The family, (mostly heterosexual) is photographed in its natural habitat, a living room or a kitchen or a back yard, and the husband, wife, children, sometimes grandparents, stare intently into the camera. For the most part, like the friends and associates of Ruff, these are middle class families, casually displaying a fair degree of affluence. That said, Struth does not repeat the typologies of his artistic mentors, nor does he attempt to classify or document. Like Ruff, Struth redefined photographic portraiture, removing it from the traditional realm of self-fashioning and situating it in the category of documentation.

However, Struth became famous and immediately accepted, not because of his cityscapes or his family portraits but because of his enormously popular photographs of people in museums. Struth traveled to the major museums, most of them in Europe, and watched the pilgrims pausing reverently before the major works of art, usually paintings. He managed to capture the interactions between the people in the museum and the people in the paintings, often finding astonishing parallels between poses and postures and even clothing of the tourists and the painted characters.

In contrast, Gursky and Höfer are not interested in people. Andreas Gursky, like Candida Höfer, photographs places and structures and like Höfer, if people are involved, they are subsumed into the formal digital manipulations of the photographer. It is typical of these German photographers that their work is frontal, the people stare at the viewer, the buildings confront the spectators. There is a coolness and detachment in these works; photography without the heat and commentary of many of the American photographers. According to Höfer, who moves back and forth between digital and analog photography,

I photograph in public and semi-public spaces that date from various epochs. These are spaces available to everyone. They are places where you can meet and communicate, where you can share or receive knowledge, where you can relax and recover.

Both Gursky and Höfer photograph in brilliant color and the influence of the Bechers can be seen in the underlying grid structure seen in their large prints. Neither Gursky nor Höfer deal with people. Höfer photographs things or to be more precise, the interiors of buildings and their collections of objects, bereft of people. Gursky photographs places, from a silvery stretch of the Rhine River banded in pristine green strips to a panoramic view of Giza to the Tokyo stock exchange. Gursky’s photograph, Rhein II, of the River sold in 2011 for $4.3 million, one of the highest prices for a photograph ever recorded.

For these post-war German photographers, a place or a person is a collection of conceptual squares that severely and strictly organize their images with have a heightened formality, perfect shapes, unreal colors, pristine lighting. The use of digital manipulation is particularly noteworthy in the work of Gursky who has taken photography into another realm of creativity. The use of the photographic unit as the basis for painterly intensification allows Gursky to place his huge prints in between billboards and landscape paintings, begging the question: what is a photographer in the twenty-first century—an artist who appropriates photographic means to create something else or a photographer who turns a photograph into a concept or a meditation upon the meaning of photography? The question is an open one.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Photographing the Seventies: Rephotographing

PHOTOGRAPHY AS CONCEPT

The leading edges of Postmodernism were architecture and photography and film, all of which moved away from Modernism in the sixties. By the eighties, the shifts seen in these mediums would be characterized as “Postmodernism.” For a variety of complex reasons, the arts in general agreed that one era had ended and that the direction into the future was unclear. Postmodernism can be thought of as a pause to reflect upon the roots of Modernism. Therefore, the decades of the seventies and eighties were decades of art about art. These photographs required a new mode of viewing, not of appreciation for beauty or even of interest, but a way of seeing from the past as commentary.

Photography in the seventies was about photography, or to be more precise about mass media and the “image world.” Because photography was less tied to the art markets and were thrust more into the reality of the everyday, the photographers were more nimble and could move more quickly with the times. Clearly photography was impacted not only by political movements and the movies but also by Conceptual Art in fine arts. By conceptual photography, one means, to put it simply, photography about photography. Conceptual photography cannot be understood unless the viewer knows the point of reference.

By the seventies, the fact that photography became conceptual as is evidenced by the return to the original grounds of American landscape photography: nineteenth century America before it was modernized. These photographers focused, for the most part, on the West, the trope for “America” and the exploration and conquest of the “wilderness” that had to be “tamed” and “won.” It is important to place these photographic projects in a larger intellectual context of cultural critique. During the seventies and eighties the received narratives were being interrogated and American “history” was in the process of being rewritten.

For American photographers the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free. The question is—what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces? The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? what is landscape in a post-atomic society? With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West, or sometimes going into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

By the mid-seventies, these photographic explorations were well underway. In front of the cameras was an altered landscape and behind the camera was a long history of using landscape to craft an identity for the new nation. The photographers referenced their precursors, Thomas Cole, George Innes, Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Moran. These artists were also relying on the viewer’s knowledge of the famous photographs of earlier photographers who photographed beautiful scenery beautifully: Ansel Adams and Edmund Weston. The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition of 1975 at the George Eastman House showed the new photographers of the new “man-altered landscape,” such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. This show officially launched the new and critical reinvestigation of an old tradition.

Adams and Baltz presented small black and white images that were as beautiful and as crisp as those of Ansel Adams. However, these images completely lack the rhetoric and the idealism of Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). Adams showed, not the purple mountains majesty, but the mundane barren suburbs of Denver. Baltz showed, not the pristine wilderness of Utah but the destructive building of Park City for a ski resort. Without rhetoric these photographs can be seen as protests against the mass media production of anachronistic images of sublime landscapes of places that no longer exist. Although these images of the sublime can be found in advertising and films, the reality is quite different.

The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West. “I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there’s no emotional content,” Lewis Baltz said. But it is hard to look at his row of pictures of Park City, Utah where the land is abused and raped, its resources exploited in the service of a ski resort for the very rich. This disconcerting lack of center of interest is echoed in the work of Robert Adams, which is also a non-“landscape” landscape, that is, un/pictures/que, raising the question of why was this ordinary place photographed at all? As John Szarkowski, stated, “Adam’s pictures are so civilized, temperate, and exact, eschewing hyperbole, theatrical gestures, moral postures, andespressivo effects generally, that some viewers might find them dull.”

Impacted by the new environmental movement, American Topographics was one of the major photographic attitudes of 1970s, concentrating on measurement of change with an eye to conservation and ecology. Turning away from “America the Beautiful” and reviewing the altered environment with a self-conscious and sophisticated point of view, “Topographics” also implies a newly dead and deadpan look at the world. This new survey is one of the destruction brought about by the arrogance of the Enlightenment and science–a Postmodern “Course of the Empire,” a re-visioning of Thomas Cole two centuries later.

In America, photographers also looked at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the environment. the rethinking and re-en-visioning of the land continued with the work of the “Rephotographic Survey Project,” initiated by Ellen Manchester, Mark Klett, and Jo Anne Verberg in the summer of 1977. This fascinating project was one of several re-photographic projects, which produced new photographs of old scenes made famous by nineteenth century photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan. Each photograph by a Re-Photographer was made from the exact camera and lens positions, replicating time of day and point of view of, for example, William Henry Jackson. The Re-Photographs show the impact of time and civilization upon what was once untouched wilderness.

Like the New Topographics approach, the RPS was an attempt to both mark the passage of time and to measure and record the effects of the human being upon the landscape. But beyond the obvious changes, such as telephone lines or new trees, for these photographs of the 1970s echo the grim disillusionment of the period, following the assassinations of the Kennedys and King and the disruptions of the Viet Nam war. The 1970s is a period of withdrawal and disbelief, partly due to the cultural realization that “reality” lies and that photographic media is a propaganda medium. Photography begins to employ the “photograph” ironically and painfully, dismantling its links to fine art and beauty and to idealism and hope. To follow in the footsteps of the early landscape photographers is to follow in the footsteps of American cultural imperialism, to no longer be innocent.

The “landscape” is now suburbia, photographed laconically, in color, by William Eggelston or with an etched acidity in black and white by Lewis Baltz. They follow in the footsteps of Arbus, as well, taking up her quest for the odd and the strange in the midst the normal and everyday, simply by framing and photographing this newly-made world of prefabricated landscape. Adams and Baltz focused on suburban settlements isolated in wide territories and Peter Goin, Richard Misrach and John Pfahl photographed nuclear test sites in the West, still radioactive. These are the Sacrifice Zones.

It is amazing but true, more atomic and hydrogen bombs have been dropped on American and territories than anywhere else. Perhaps because politicians on the east coast did not understand the scenery of the west, these territories were thought to be wastelands of little use. For decades, Nevada was bombed constantly and there are vast stretches in the west that are uninhabitable and will be dangerous for hundreds of years to come. The images of these blasted lands, scored and scarred by weapons, are a shocking counterpart to the west found by Andrew Russell. Here is a strange and almost unreal beauty and teach the viewer to look again and to see this blasted landscape as having its own unexpected sublimity–the terror of John Pfahl’s nuclear plants shining in the rising sun, pumping out suspicious steam, the horror of Peter Goin’s nuclear testing grounds of polluted soil, the shame of Richard Misrach’s killing fields of dead livestock, put to death by nuclear poisons.

Once we raise the issue of what is considered worthy of being photographed and why, the viewer then realizes to what extent the photographers of the New Topographics Movement challenged assumptions about “landscape” and “scenery.” The young photographers looked backward and examined the results of “progress” without the idealism and myth making of their predecessors. They were analytic and critical, re-seeing and re-looking at the American landscape of their own time.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part Two

WHAT ROBERT FRANK SAW

Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans who, in the late 1930’s had produced The American Photographs, Robert Frank found the humble and forgotten America. But where Evans, the sophisticated and urbane New Englander, had located American Quaint and Picturesque, aestheticizing even dire poverty with his rectilinear formalism, Frank found a new America of post-war prosperity, poverty, power and alienation. He found an America socially divided and stratified into a caste system. He found an American hooked on cheap, easy entertainment, on fast foods and cheap thrills. And this was an America, because it was just coming into being, was in process of being invented, that had never been photographed.

“I was absolutely free,” Frank said later, “just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.” But one traveled at one’s own peril in the land of the free. He was arrested in Arkansas, Frank was jailed for hours, simply because he was a “foreigner.” At a time when the South was on the defensive, Frank took his life in his hand, perhaps unknowingly at first, when he photographed African-Americans as the second-class citizens they were. In Mississippi, his life was threatened. We can only wonder how the xenophobia and racism registered on a Holocaust survivor and a Jew, who probably had no idea that being Jewish in the South was only a bit less dangerous than being Black. He later related,

What a lonely time it can be in America, what a tough country it is…I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated. It was surprising to me. But it didn’t make me hate America. It made me understand how people can be.

While the old generation was angered at the obvious political content of the book, the new generation saw in Frank’s work a new direction for the photography of “realism.” Photojournalism was in decline, slated to fall to television news, and the days of the big picture magazines, Life and Look were numbered. Frank had no use for photojournalism’s phony realism, which organized images into a neat narration; life was rarely neat. According to the recent catalogue, Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” by Sarah Greenough, the American critics were not impressed: “A slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions”—“A Degradation of a Nation!”—“a sad poem for sick people.”

Frank’s approach to his subjects was ambiguous. He was neither intimate nor empathic with his subjects, like Dorothea Lange, nor was he distanced, like an anthropologist, like Walker Evans. Frank was both present and absent. He seemed to glide through an environment, discretely, without interacting. Famously he used a small hand-held 35 mm camera, and used it like a notebook, quickly taking sketches or the overlooked and the unnoticed. Out of what must have been a vast warehouse of impressions, Frank seems to have found a series of “found” fragments that must have coalesced into a complete impression of the margins of America.

The fifties was a very dark period in America. Although disguised by the new television situation and domestic comedies, and smothered by a blanket of compensatory materialism, there was the dark threat of a new and lingering total war, the Cold War. There were many thoughtful Americans who looked beyond the affluence and were concerned that the population was being distracted from serious changes with serious consequences. With the Cold War always hovering in the background, Frank’s American flags (he photographed several) were not revered or even iconic.

The very first photograph in the book was the bottom piece of a flag, stretched across a brick wall blocking the windows, obscuring the people inside the building—a fragment of a flag and the theme for the book. The dead center of this photograph is the brick wall between the two windows. The viewer is blocked at every turn. The photograph of a trolley in New Orleans shows the same open/closed, grid composition that neatly and powerfully showed whites in the front and blacks in the back of the bus. And here is where we might begin to understand the true content of Frank’s work: this photograph is not about its mild-mannered title, Trolley—New Orleans, but segregation in defiance of a Supreme Court Order.

In photograph after photograph, the same ambiguity ruled. Frank never said, he simply showed, held up a mirror to Americans. The camera’s focus was clear, the composition was centered and gridded but the content, the topic, the very raison d’être of the image was in doubt. It was the jukebox, the drive-in movie, discovered or captured, “found” by Frank’s 35 mm camera on the run, created new pop icons before Americans were aware of their new gods. Frank, impressed by the grainy film of Italian avant-garde cinema, filmed on the cheap by the Neo-Realist directors, shot his images with available light, black and white film with a 35mm camera.

Frank was a member of a small group of contrarians who disapproved of America’s materialism, the Beatniks. The introduction to The Americans was written by the Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957). The dissidents were sensitive to the dark side of America in the first decade of the Cold War. According to Krouac, Frank “sucked a sad poem out of America.” The black and white images symbolized despair and hope, but the old guard saw only sarcasm and satire. Who, after all, would photograph a tattered American flag? Who would photograph a juke box? Who would photograph a rodeo? The subjects captured by Frank were new and common at the same time, popular culture, and vernacular scenes. Jonathan Day, in Robert Frank’s “The Americans:” The Art of Documentary, quoted Frank, writing to his parents, “America is an interesting country but there is a lot here that I do not like and I would never accept. I am trying to show this in my photos.”

The small camera with its wide-angle lenses caught America off guard, candidly, capturing the ambiguity and the quirky off centeredness of “real” unarranged life. The images were unfamiliar, the people were unknown, the brutally candid and coldly impersonal stance was unsettling to the readers who were asked to put aside familiar aesthetic readings for this new definition of photography.Frank also created a new vocabulary for the photographers who followed him; as for Frank himself, he photographed only rarely after that. There was nothing more left to say.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part One

ROBERT FRANK

AND THE NEW PHOTOGRAPHIC VOCABULARY

After Robert Frank, contemporary photography was never the same. In the middle of the twentieth century, photography was redefined by one book, The Americans, published in 1958 in France as Les Américains, and in America in 1960: fifty years ago. Before this book of carefully themed and arranged images of America, photography was roughly divided between “art” and “popular” photography, including commercial and documentary forms. Art photography, like commercial photography, was “straight photography,” meaning that the photograph was not manipulated. What Robert Frank achieved was the creation of a space in-between art and commerce, called “vernacular” photography.

As the terms suggest, “art” photography concerned itself with that which was photographed beautifully and made into beautiful prints, while “commercial” photography was used for advertising and “documentary” photography was employed for record making. A Swiss emigrant, Frank “documented” America in an “artful” fashion, separating art from documentary photography. The result was “vernacular photography” in which the every day, the ordinary was photographed with seeming casualness but with striking formal finesse. Akin to the vernacular glance of Robert Raushchenberg’s paintings, Frank’s photography ignored beauty in favor of the quotidian, looking at sights that were present but unnoticed.

Funded by a Guggenheim grant, the seminal book, The Americans, was supposed to be about America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, as his grant application stated, “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” Accustomed to being admired by Europeans, the American audience for Frank’s 1955 journey across the United States no doubt expected an homage to the Land of the Free. The photographer took 767 rolls of film and returned back to New York with some 27,000 photographs. After a year and half of sorting through the possibilities, Frank selected eighty-three images. Traditionally, photographers showed their art in galleries but Frank went a different route with a book, a format that allowed him to arrange the sequences into themes and to set up a formal rhythm was the reader/viewer turned each page.

In his penetrating 1986 illustrated essay, “Robert Frank: Dissecting the American Image,” Jno Cook explained,

The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.” The anatomical form has a clear parallel in literature, and had been approached with the encyclopedic presentations of Walker Evans and August Sander. But Prank went further by taking The Americans to me expansive experience of a playful admixture of public and private, by bringing the emotional stance in direct contact with an acceptance of the commonplace, and especially by amassing endless qualifications on themes — the bewildering and dislocating, yet stylized, organization of the sequences, as in the free use of parody, incessant punning and occasional moralizing. The display of an intimate knowledge of contemporary photography, both European and America, turned out with a lively ironic wit, and set amid an overwhelming barrage of images from the American experience, presented a style which cautioned against jumping to conclusions and argued against an exploration of its meaning in any terms. This is a modernist argument; it is existential, ad visually it implies the surreal.

Because it operated like a book, The Americans could be “read” as much as much as it could be seen. Although , taken on a Guggenheim grant awarded in 1955, Frank’s photographs were not published in America until 1958 and were reviled and criticized by all but young photographers. The version of America from the perspective of a Swiss tourist was a socio-economic critique. The “America” captured by this moody photographer was not the “America” of spacious skies and purple mountains majesty. Frank’s America was not a scenic America but a nation composed of people who seemed alienated from each other. The question is how is one to account for this abrupt change in mood and approach that altered the definition of “America” from a land of scenic wonders to a culture on the edge of change?

Frank was a Holocaust survivor. Being Jewish, his live was saved because he grew up in neutral Switzerland. On the other sides of the borders of the surrounded nation was certain death in the territories controlled by Hitler. After the Second World War, Frank left Switzerland, never to return, and emigrated to New York in 1947. Isolated during the war, Swiss photographers still followed the old-fashioned approach to the beautiful print beautifully composed and lit. In contrast, America had developed a documentary and journalistic style that was direct, confrontational, quick to grasp a “picture.” But, oddly enough, Frank’s first job in America was as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and the demands of fashion photography are very formal; but he was given a chance to travel, apparently he became interested in studying his adopted nation.

We do not know, and may never know, the full range of the photographs Frank took for his Guggenheim Grant. All we have is the eighty-three selections. Because the photographer is famously taciturn, we are uncertain as to his lack of starry eyed idealism. But during the mid-fifties, the “Americans” displayed to the public were largely white and middle class and were apparently living in traditional suburbs. Frank presented a wide range of “Americans,” many of whom were sub-cultures, such as the transvestites, others were people of color, black and brown. The only precedent for a white photographer to publish images of lower class people of color was an artist like Helen Levitt, a street photographer, who worked in Harlem.

From looking at the photographs produced by Frank, especially those he took in Europe during these formative years, it is clear that he was careful about him artistic mentors. He rejected the easy thrill of Henri Cartier-Breson’s “decisive moment,” the journalistic reportage approach of Margaret Bourke-White, but his deep interest in Eugène Atget fed into the innate formalism of his youth. Frank always favored the centered composition of Atget, a point of view that never looked composed or arranged and always appeared to be spontaneous. Atget photographed the edges of Paris, the small but telling details, gathered together. Atget’s approach to Paris was analytic, studying Paris by increments. In contrast, Frank’s American mentor was Walker Evans who had used a late view finder camera and photographed everything, animate and inanimate from dead center, a summing up synthetic approach. But, according to Weston Naef, curator of photography at the Getty, there is a bright line from Atget to Evans to Frank.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“White” Art

Finding White Art

There is an interesting painting by the (white male) artist, Mark Tansey, White on White (1986), featuring an unexpected encounter between a Bedouin tribe and a band of Eskimos. At the edges of a sandstorm and a snowstorm is a white out, a reference to a famous 1913 painting by Kasimir Malevich. But the concept of a “white out” could equally apply to the whiteness of the art seen in art galleries and in museums and in auction houses. The whiteness of art is stressed (put under stress) when the occasional artist of color enters the purity of the white cubes, usually reserved for whitened art. The reason for the white out of art of color by the tiny brush loaded with “white out” is the survival of the atavistic belief that “white is right.”

So now there is the question—what is white art? This question only brings up another question, what is not white art? Art institutions, which were established in America in the nineteenth century, displayed only art by white people about white people. Some artists actually included people of color in their works but almost always in contrast to whites in a way to call attention to the differences of “white” and “color.” Of course, there were artists of color, but their art would never be seen in museums. If people of color appeared in museums, it would be as characters playing proscribed roles in white art, such as the paintings of boxing by George Bellows.

A famous example of a white photographer “constructing” Otherness was Edward Curtis, who photographed the West and its people. We can assume Curtis meant well had good intentions, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was a man of his own time intent on depicting the Other in terms of white assumptions. His extensive project, documenting Native-Americans, could be seen as part of a cultural effort to establish “difference” to justify white American dominance. The indigenous culture of Native Americans was being actively wiped out and suppressed by the whites, and, yet, those same white comforted themselves with a growing industry of images of the “Vanishing American” and the romance of the Wild West before it was “tamed.”

Curtis was later accused of tainting his supposedly “documentary” photographs by dressing up his subjects in clothes they no longer wore and by asking them to act out rituals they no longer conducted. The impact of the resulting images was to give a white audience the illusion that the Native Americans were frozen outside of historical time, untouched by the wars of extermination that had reduced their numbers and had incarcerated them on reservations. The ideology of whiteness had a very real purpose—that of alleviating collective guilt by making the misdeeds of the white invisible.

There seems to be a vacancy of reciprocity: when faced with the possibility of a choice, just as women artists rarely represent the male, people of color rarely represented white people. Robert Duncanson, an African-American artist, avoided the problem of the reversal of power by painting landscape paintings. One of the exceptions is a painting of Uncle Tom and Little Eva in which the young girl is standing, clad in white, her whiteness shining like a flame while the older man, dark and passive and seated, fixed his attention on her. Duncanson conformed to the expectations of his white audience and white patrons in this painting but a little white girl holds the hand of a black man in a careful act of subversion, smuggled in under the pious cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On the other hand, white artists throughout the history of European and American art represented Africans, and the history of these depictions is laid out in the late Albert Boime’s The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century in 1990, the same year as a groundbreaking exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940 with a catalogue by the late Guy McElroy and Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. which showed works of art by both races, black and white, representing African-Americans.

There is very little art historical research or analysis of what should be called “white art.” But it is possible to put forward a few thoughts. First, it could be said that any group of artists that is all white produces “white art.” An example of an all white group producing “white art” might be the Abstract Expressionists whose main artistic message that they were making “humanistic” art. On the surface such claims might seem noble and laudable, but, against a backdrop of racism, the term “human” has racist connotations in America. Only whites were designated as “human,” having the right to vote and the right to be artists.

(Male) artists in the Fifties, if they were white, probably never considered that they were enjoying the “unearned privileges” of whiteness. They probably never wondered why they were all white, much less why none of their group was black. They probably all took for granted their privileges as white males: only they could be artists and only they were entitled to speak as humans to humanity. Pop Art would be another example of “white art,” not just because all the artists were white, not just because the Black artists of the Sixties were ghettoized, but also because Pop Art and popular culture were about an affluent white culture of consumption.

Few art history texts take into account that the pop culture upon which the art was based was for, by, and about whites and was almost completely unavailable to African Americans. This society of abundance, swamped by commodities, was created by a federal government that deliberately shifted funding to white middle class groups and deliberately excluded through a maze of laws and regulations, communities of color from these benefits. Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of comic books are written about in terms of his use of “low art,” but the fact that the comic books he appropriated were all about white subjects.

Andy Warhol’s portraits were all of white pop icons, and no blacks appeared until Jean-Michel Basquiat and the painter’s mother. But on the other hand, Warhol was the only artist of his day who referred to the Civil Rights Movement in his series on Birmingham race riots. Pop Art was, like Abstract Expressionism, considered to be “American” and yet it ignored the multicultural reality that made up the United States. Art followed the ideology of the larger culture by defining “American” as “white.” Pop Art shared with Minimal Art a prevailing characteristic of American art during the Sixties: a determined refusal to face topical events and current politics.

“Fine Art” claimed transcendence from the real world and yet it actively excluded certain people as “artists.” Part of the desired “transcendence” was the lack of political content in high art, but the effect was one of a secondary exclusion of people of color. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and in the midst of the Viet Nam War, both major stories involving people of color, art was supposedly neutral and abstract. While one could state with correctness that Minimal Art was totally abstract and could not be expected to address political issues, it was convenient that in a time of social turmoil that art remained non-representational and non-confrontational and thus marketable.

Even when representation came back in with Photorealism, for example, figurative art was overwhelmingly white in content. When painting “returned” after being exiled by Conceptual Art, whites dominated the field of painting. Here and there, a few women crept in around the edges and pushed their way in, but most of the artists were as white and male as the Abstract Expressionists. The content and the characters of representational art were all white as the artists did what artists always do; they painted what they knew.

The only artist of color to be found in the eighties was Jean-Michel Basquiat and some of the graffiti artists, all of whom were destroyed, one way or the other, by a white system that used them, consumed their art and discarded them when the craze for street art had passed. White artists, in contrast, could count on careers that could be developed and nurtured over time. The art world might move on past white artists such as David Salle and Eric Fischl, but those same white artists became “blue chip” artists in the maturity of their careers. It would be inconceivable for the art world to “discard” or to “use up” white artists.

The imagery of both Salle and Fischl could be termed as “white art” because their content was white. Salle appropriated imagery from white culture, from pornography to fine arts, with no reference to any black imagery. Fischl, a white man from a Long Island suburb, painted scenes of middle class white suburban life, again excluding blacks, who, of course, lived elsewhere, in ghettos. But all artists are ego-centric, concentrating on their own visions which are often personal. Should anyone require any artist to make art about all races equally? Of course not, but the question of “white art” raises another question: that of representation.

While white painters, sculptors, and other fine artists usually paint what they know—their own culture—photographers, usually white, often depict people of color as part of a documentary project. And when a white photographer photographs a person of color, dynamics of power and racial construction come into play. Only certain groups of people have the power to represent and that group is usually white and male. From the very invention of photography, photographic imagery was used to document and catalogue the Other put under surveillance by the white lens.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer Art” and Lesbians

Girls Night Out

As was explained earlier, after the Witch Hunts of the seventeenth century, women who were single, independent, and sometimes lesbian were able to function with more freedom from legal persecution than their male counterparts. So great was the imperative to marry and reproduce in the nineteenth century, men who were “straight” and did not wed were looked upon with suspicion for not doing their reproductive duty. Women, if they were single and presumably virtuous, were excused from such complains and were allowed to form female based households. However, due to an expansion of economic and social opportunities for women, lesbians, openly identified as such, are more a product of the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The Great War ended the nineteenth century and along with it, the complex network of moral, religious and social restrictions that had restrained the lives of women. After the slaughter on the battlefields, it was impossible to take authorities seriously and this was especially true of male authority figures who had led millions to their futile deaths. With many women left without male protectors and on their own, the females of the post-war period cut their hair and skirts short, discarded underwear, took up smoking and drinking and fast dancing, and drove cars and sped away from their old lives. Some of these women came together as lesbian couples and entered into the intellectual worlds of art and literature as new voices for the newly liberated society.

Described in Tirza True Latimer’s book, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Paris was a center for artistic lesbians, led by the famous couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas and Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. Confining herself to a discrete black, white and gray palette, Brooks painted restrained portraits of the lesbian community in Paris during the 1920s. Her early works, like White Azelas of 1910 are related to Art Nouveau but by the post-war decade, Brooks had found her own linear style. Sometimes, as with The Black Cap from 1907 there are earth tones in her paintings but her self portrait, with her flat black hat and sharp edged white shirt that is more common. As explained in Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and and Romaine Brooks, Brooks, a fragile personality, hinged her life on that of her flamboyant companion and leader of a glittering salon and, for a brief period, painted the inhabitants of a privileged world.

Bonnie Zimmerman wrote in Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, long, a city fascinated by lesbians, that Paris was, from the nineteenth century, a place of refuge for communities of women who would not be allowed to live anywhere else in such freedom. The only other city that offered such opportunities was post-war Berlin. This brief period of cultural freedom in France, during which women could still not vote, was cut short by the Second World War and the writings and art of these talented lesbians, the “Sapphos” and the “Amazons” were marginalized. Not until the women’s movement of the 1970s did this remarkable community with the writers such as Radclyffe Hall and painters such as Romaine Brooks and photographer Claude Cahun were recovered. The portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge who appropriated male attire from the monocle to the cravat to the trousers to the stern expression seems to trenchantly sum up a brave and forward looking women who were far ahead of the their time.

The portraits of Romaine Brooks were the visual equivalents of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness. Today these sharp-dressed women, such as Peter, A Young English Girl, in their masculinized attire would be right at home in any fashion magazine. Another fifty years would have to pass before self-identified “lesbian artists” would be visible in the art world again. Although there are many lesbian artists, most women prefer to exist simply as “artists,” but there are those, such as Nicole Eisenman who have explicitedly lesbian content. Eisenman’s work ranges beyond lesbian content and is often a commentary on contemporary life in all its mindless absurdities and there is no doubt with its confrontational political content (lesbian or not) would not be well-received outside of the narrow art worlds of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and the international art fairs.

Eisenman is never precious about there art and is well-known for her bravura murals which she paints inside galleries and then paints them out when the show is over. Some of these murals comment, in the best Postmodern fashion, upon the history of art, especially art made by men. Other murals are amusingly anti-male and rather brutal in their assessment of the male of the species. In one series, Eisenman imagines a girl scout troop which has kidnapped a scout master from the boy scouts and have lashed him to a stake and used him as kindling for their campfire. Later in the series, the girls use penises for weenies in a weenie roast. Like her Los Angeles counterpart, Kim Dingle, Eisenman imagines an all female world, teaming with colorful and often violent inhabitants, on the move without men.

Dingle, who prefers to not be identified or limited as a “lesbian artist,” has created a world of wild girls, little girls in white dresses, a danger to society and to themselves. Free from adults and male authority figures these little girls live in the wild, like feral children. One of the veteran women artists who identified herself as a lesbian is Harmony Hammond who wrote a book on Lesbian Art in America published in 2000. On the cover is a photograph of Catherine Opie, a Los Angeles artist who produced a body of work on “butch” lesbian culture. Hammond was a stalwart of the feminist movement and became famous for her sculptures which features bonds and bindings, referring to the strictures on women and their lives.

Opie, a very intelligent artist from Cal Arts, showed a shocking side of lesbian life: one of tattoos, piercings, and cutting. There is a domestic side of Opie, who lives in a “transitional neighborhood” near USC with her partner and their children that has emerged in her later work with themes quite at odds with her earlier work which was equal to Mapplethorpe in its explicit portrait of homosexual life. When you go to her name on the internet, you will find a “report images” link for offensiveness. Opie who is a “leatherdyke” combines domesticity with transgression, showing herself as a lesbian and a devoted mother and a denizen of an underground of sado-masochism. Like many homosexuals, Opie was radicalized by the AIDS crisis as victims were “marked” by society and shunned.

The idea of “marking” as a form of “identity,” which categorized some people as untouchable is literalized by Opie through the tattooing and scarification of her own body in her photographs. Although it is this sometimes shocking subject matter that made her reputation, most of her work is a study of urban landscapes and suburban settings and the people who live quiet lives in America. The distance between Opie and Brooks is now a hundred years and the LGBT community has become more visible, more vocal and more politically active. But, as with Brooks and her lesbian community in Paris, the lesbian and gay communities are archipelagos, surrounded by an often uncomprehending America. Even in the twenty-first century, it still does not seem possible for men and women of whatever sexual inclination to simple produce “art,” without an adjective or a label.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Gay Art

The Many Shades of Gay

As the previous posts pointed out, many artists who were gay were caught up in attempts from various forces, both political and religious, to censor art. Confused and angered that art would be attacked in a land of free speech, the American art world directed its protests towards the red herring of censorship. Many gay artists were able to make gay-themed art with little or no interference, so it would seem that the incitement for censorship was not necessarily homosexual content but displays of Otherness in sites where the larger public could see this diversity. There are undoubtedly sincere individuals who honestly believe for moral and/or religious reasons that homosexuality is against their religion and their rights to their beliefs are protected by the Constitution.

However, the so-called “Culture Wars” begin when personal beliefs enter into the domain of “free speech” and the freedom to pursue happiness. Art was and still is on the front lines of those Culture Wars, and because art is public, it is always in the line of fire from those who want to remove anything they (personally) consider “offensive” from public view. The more precise problem of art censorship was a political one: people making statements through art that were not welcomed by other people. While the art world ignores the conservative culture, the conservative segments of American society are very concerned about the world of visual arts.

The censorship of gay art is less about the art and more about the “gay:” homosexuals were and are, legally in many states, second-class citizens, denied the rights enjoyed by “straight” people. Any threat coming from politicalized art to that “moral” order would be met with resistance, suggesting that the goals of conservative movements is political control and silencing of voices that presented another point of view. In other words, one can ask, is the issue one of the censorship of art or the domination of a minority? The art that has been targeted for censorship has been the kind of art that seems easy to read and that is susceptible to misinterpretation from those who refuse to inform themselves on the content.

Perhaps the level of difficulty in understanding homosexual art explains why some artists, whose work is more layered or subtle, are ignored by the religious and moral authorities. Other self-identified “queer” artists include David McDermott and Peter McGough who were among the earliest queer artists to emerge as a working couple. In order to understand McDermott and McGough, who did activist art on the margins, one has to understand the entire history of photography and a particular era in English history and numerous cultural references from the past. Like old photographs and early movies, their photographs are tinted in old fashioned tones, blues, lavenders and grays.

The pair are best known as photographers and in 1994, the pair did a photo book, The History of Photography, in which they rephotographed and restaged genres of photographs from the nineteenth century. Many of these images depicted the art couple, dressed up in period clothes and posing as a typical Victorian or Edwardian married couple. The pair lived in New York City on Avenue C and recreated a Victorian way of life in their apartment and used the fussy décor for their photography. To pose as a contented couple from the era of Oscar Wilde in the time of AIDS was a very political position, but the conceptual works of McDermott and McGough were subtle and visually not shocking, well within the intellectual realm and out of reach of the conservatives.

McDermott and McGough were part of a growing coterie of artists who were “out of the closet.” By the 1990s, “coming out” was a major narrative for queer people and many, like McDermott and McGough came out loud and proud. The couple was associated with other gay artists in the East Village scene in Manhattan during the 1980s, such as Keith Haring who worked hard to raise AIDS awareness. Keith Haring began as a “street artist” with Jean-Michel Basquiat, staking out the subway tunnels as his territory. The walls of the waiting areas of the stations had bulletin boards reserved for advertisements.

While waiting for new advertisements, the boards were covered with black paper and Haring would draw his signature line drawings with white chalk on the paper. Films of his fugitive invasions of the subway territory show an assured hand swiftly creating complex line drawings populated with humans and animals. Like Basquiat, Haring made his debut in the word of fine art in the late eighties and found fame and fortune with a wide range of works that included paintings, murals and graphic arts. When the AIDS epidemic swept the art world, Haring and other artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, worked hard to educate people, men and women, to the dangers of careless sex.

It was, in fact, this drawing of the “radiant baby” that inspired art critic, René Richard’s groundbreaking article, The Radiant Child, which focused on Haring and mentioned Basquiat in passing. Richard’s inspiration for the title of the article was Haring’s Radiant Baby, a child, drawn in outline, on his/her hands and knees, was surrounded by rays of light. Unlike Basquiat who quickly left his public persona as “Samo” behind, Haring’s career was largely devoted to public art and dedicated to the art education of children. Haring, like many of his colleagues, was diagnosed with AIDS and established a foundation for AIDS awareness before he died in 1990.

Although he outlived Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz also turned his attention to the decimation caused by AIDS in the arts community. Like Goldin, Wojnarowicz chronicled the dying moments of the victims of the disease in his art. Part of the East Village crowd, he lived long enough to witness the destructive assault on the arts by politicians in Washington, D. C. who called certain kinds of art “pornography.” He actually sued and won against a Mississippi-based group that had misrepresented his art as pornography. Wonjnarowicz was a writer and a visual artist and many of his images combined image and text. The artist produced four bodies of writings and just before his death in 1992, he did a series of readings for the benefit of a program for needle exchange (sharing needles among drug users was a major factor in the spread of AIDS).

The veterans of gay art would certainly be Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore), a British couple who began in the late sixties as conceptual artists, working collaboratively. They became famous in 1969 doing their signature performance piece, Singing Sculpture, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Dressed in neat gray suits with their faces bronzed like sculptures, the two initiated their art practice of putting themselves, their faces and bodies and their lives and their English heritage at the center of their art. But these artists also did text and image graphics, using the grid format, which resembled stained glass windows for cathedrals, the Medieval way of telling stories and teaching moral and ethical truths. The audience has watched the duo age over the past forty years from innocent young men to wise old men (still in the same suits) who have made profound comments on the alienating world of their time. As they explained,

Our subject matter is the world. It is pain. Pain. Just to hear the world turning is pain, isn’t it? Totally, every day, every second. Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human person, the complexity of life.

Because of the small number of people any one performance could reach, they began to make films, such as, The Nature Of Our Looking (edition 4), 1970, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (edition 25), 1972, In The Bush (edition 25), 1972, and Portrait Of The Artists As Young Men(edition 25), 1972. As the pair became more famous, films about them proliferated: The Red Sculpture 1975, The World of Gilbert and George (1981), Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture (1991), Gilbert and George: Daytripping (1992), Gilbert & George , The South Bank Show (1997) and The Fundamental Gilbert and George (1997) and No Surrender of 2oo7.

Although Conceptual Art tended to be non-political, the couple made art that was pointed and activist, perhaps due to the growing politicization of the gay community. It has been noted that Gay Liberation was an American movement, but that this movement spread world wide, having the effect of “Americanizing” gay men everywhere. When the AIDS epidemic began, the art of Gilbert and George, like that of many gay artists, began to focus on queer subject matter. Being British, these artists were not subjected to the criticisms of the American right wing. Gilbert and George use the phrase “Art for All” to describe their art and work in a single and unchanging format for their two dimensional work: a grid which is imposed over their images. Now well-dressed and well-mannered middle-aged British gentlemen, the couple had a show at the DeYoung in San Francisco, winter of 2008, the same year as the film With Gilbert and George, directed by Julian Cole.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.

This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.

One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.

From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.

But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.

By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.

Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”

Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:

The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.

David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.

Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One

WHAT IS “HOMOSEXUAL ART?”

Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]