Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

ONE MORE TIME—WHAT IS ART?

This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists. Indeed many street artists, such as JR, pride themselves on keeping a distance from the art market.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.

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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Censorship Redeux: The Smithsonian and MOCA LA

SCOUNDREL TIME, AGAIN—CENSORSHIP RETURNS

Art of the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2011

Like the swallows return to Capistrano, censorship of art returns every time forces of morality feel emboldened or threatened. Two decades ago, it was Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano who were the targets of right wing indignation. In 1989, a threatened conservative faction was on its last legs and would be challenged by the Clinton phenomenon. Attacking helpless artists who want to make art not headlines was an easy diversion, a feint that drew attention away from the very real economic problems the nation faced. Today, two new victims have emerged under strikingly similar circumstances—a right wing threatened by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and an economic crisis of their own making.

The new Conservative attacks struck down the photographer, David Wojnarowicz, who died twenty years ago, and the political German street artist, Blu. This time, one of the culprits was presumed to be open-minded, Jeffrey Deitch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In an unexpected act of apparent censorship, Deitch ordered Blu’s supposedly offensive mural to be whitewashed. The other violator, the venerable Smithsonian Institution, was under the usual monetary pressure from the usual suspects, the Catholic, led by Bill Donohue and the upcoming Republican Leader of the House, John Boehner. The Smithsonian Institution, dependent upon the federal government for funds, obediently removed Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly (1987) of ants crawling over a crucifix from an important exhibition on homosexual identity. That fact that one museum was under political pressure and the other was not indicates that the issue of censorship needs to be looked at from another angle. When and why does censorship of the arts occur?

Censored Video removed from exhibition

Smithsonian Institution’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Censors are never right. History proves them wrong every time.

When the Corcoran refused to show the Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, the art world united in its condemnation, and the museum has never recovered from the stain on its honor and reputation. Twenty-one years later, the Smithsonian, a federally funded institution like the Corcoran, was forced to sacrifice the integrity of art for financial survival. And like the Corcoran, the solution of the Smithsonian is short term and is at the expense of moral and ethical principles. If the art was good enough to have been selected, then it is worthy of being defended. The decision by the Smithsonian was particularly strange, given the sea change in public opinion over gay men and women since the deaths of Mapplethorpe (1989) and Wojnarowicz (1992).

The other factor that adds to the ill-timed act of self-censorship is that the Catholic Church, a major actor in this new drama, has lost all credibility. In today’s newspapers, December 18, there are two new stories—one about the Catholic Church sheltering a rapist and the in the other—a pedophiliac. And that was today’s news, not the news of three or four years ago. Where does the Church get off in objecting to the art of a man who has been dead for twenty years? Dead, because conservative factions, including the Catholic Church, blamed the victims of AIDS rather than doing what Jesus Would Do–help the sick and the helpless.

One can perhaps understand the Smithsonian, which was facing a Republican dominated Congress in the fall. But the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that the decision to censor its own exhibition is, if nothing else, ironic and, worse, pointless. But the whitewashing of the mural in Los Angeles is a strange act on the part of a purportedly open-minded director of a major museum. According to the story, the German street artist, known as “Blu,” had worked with Jeffrey Deitch before and actually stayed with the director of the museum before he painted the mural. Given the checkered history of murals at the Geffen–remember Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Questions) in 1989-90 and the ensuing controversy, it is hard to believe that Deitch did not ask Blu what his intentions were.

Money Draped Coffins

Censored Mural

Christopher Knight, who defended Deitch, stated that, the neighborhood where MOCA’s annex, The Geffen, is located, is sensitive to art projects. Knight pointed to problems with a mural painted by Barbara Kruger in 1989, that year of art censorship, as an example of art offending the Japanese-American community of Little Tokyo. The Geffen is wedged between the Japanese-American National Museum and the “Go for Broke” War Memorial for the Japanese-American soldiers who died in World War II. [1]

Near the Japanese-American National Museum

MOCA was concerned for the feelings of the Japanese-American community, due to the proximity of the “Go For Broke” site.

Kruger’s first mural offended because it was a simple quotation of the Pledge of Allegiance. For the community, the Pledge was movingly depicted by Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Japanese-American schoolchildren with their hands over their hearts. These children would spend years with their parents in internment camps. During war those years, Little Tokyo was emptied out and when the community returned, it was haunted by one of the worst violations of the Constitution in American history. Kruger painted a new mural with theme of who had the right to speak, a powerful political statement in its own right, especially in that location. That the community approved of the new mural indicates that Little Tokyo is perfectly capable of absorbing political discourse.

Who is Beyond the Law?

Barbara Kruger, artist, 1989

However, this time, the Japanese-American had no time to intervene with the painting of Blu’s mural. In “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” Knight made a good point that the community needs to be consulted about public art before it is placed in an environment, that is, like any site, fraught with politics and history. For whatever reason, this very important step was overlooked and the director, acting quickly, arguably too quickly, had the mural painted over the day after it was finished. [2]

process of painting

Blu’s mural

Censorship, in the Twenty-first Century, is a particular futile gesture. Blu’s mural was extensively photographed, first, in its completed state and then, in its wiped out condition of destruction. All images were immediately posted on the Internet where they will live forever. Like Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, which is on YouTube, the images are easily obtained over the Internet. [3] The images of Blu’s mural are everywhere. The offending mural showed rows of coffins, covered, not in the American flag, but in dollar bills, presumably making a comment about there recent military incursion into Iraq, a highly unpopular and undeclared “war.” Clearly, the artist was making a statement about America waging unpopular and illegal wars of choice for the sole purpose of making money for Halliburton and seizing Iraqi oil.

Who knows what the Japanese-American veterans and their descendants would have thought of the mural? Maybe they would approve of the anti-war statement: lives should never be squandered (hence the $1 bills) for an unjust cause. Lives are too precious and too priceless to be laid down for anything less than a fight for survival. Perhaps using soldiers as pawns in political wars would not go down well with a group—the legendary 442nd—that was the most decorated—21 medals of Honor, the most wounded—9,486 Purple Hearts—and the most killed in the history of the American military.

If the feelings of the Japanese-American veterans were the Museum’s concern, then the view of the institution was not particularly nuanced. There was a significant and vocal group of young men, interned in concentration camps, who took a principled stand against serving a country that took away the rights of its citizens. One of those conscientious objectors was Frank Emi, wh0 died yesterday. According to the obituary in The New York Times, he was joined in his stand against the United States government by three hundred protesters in ten camps.

All these men were tried and convicted of evading the draft. [4] Emi was sentenced to four years in prison and served eighteen months until President Truman acquired a conscience and granted the young men a pardon. Called a traitor by those in the Japanese-American community who served, Emi explained, “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice.” The Japanese-American community is, like every other group in America, is diverse. But surely they would agree with freedom of speech?

The argument that Deitch’s action was a misjudgment because he did not consult with the community first is not very convincing, because the community was not brought into the discussion either before or after the mural was painted. Rather than opening the doors for a frank and honest discussion of wars and why and where they are fought, Deitch slammed the door with a unilateral decision.

Blu's Mural

Whitewashing the Mural

Writing in The Huffington Post, my friend, Mat Gleason, has stated that the Smithsonian censorship is not like that of MOCA, [5] citing the proximity of the “Go for Broke” site.

But I beg to differ.

So did Peter Clothier in “Censorship: Coast to Coast,” in Huffington Post, December 17. In fact most observers of this fiasco agree: Censorship is censorship. No amount of whitewashing will undo what Deitch has done. [6] However, I will agree with Gleason that the two acts of censorships are different. The Smithsonian caved in to right wing politics to the habit conservatives have of latching on to a perceived “assault” on “family values” and attacking it. Usually, these people move on but leave behind in their wake very real and very lasting damage.

Undoubtedly it is the goal of the religious right to harm “elitist” institutions and that is all the more reason to stand up to the hysteria of such fanatics who would take away freedom of speech. It should be recalled that the heroes of 1989 are not Christina Orr-Carhall of the Corcoran but another friend, the late Ted Potter of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, and Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Both men stood up to their critics and survived with their honor intact.

And then there is the issue of Street Art itself. Did the censorship of Blu’s mural occur because the director was afraid that art would get dragged into politics? If so, he clearly does not understand street art. Street art is often political. Deitch invited unfortunate comparisons with Christine Sterling, who infamously whitewashed the Tropical America mural by David Siquerios in 1933, a year after it was painted.

Tropical America

Siqueiros Mural Restored

The irony is doubled with the Getty at this moment engaged in a years long restoration of the work, obscured for decades. Street Art is, by its very nature, an outsider art. The artists, many of whom practice in anonymity, represent the last of the avant-garde. Supposedly, the role of the contemporary artist is to challenge the public but most of the prominent contemporary artists have long since been co-opted by the Establishment.

Postmodern thinking asserts that the avant-garde is dead and that there can be nothing new in art, therefore, so what? But does the avant-garde, which merely means “forward movement” have to be about the new and the novel? Does the unfortunate fact of belatedness mean that an artist cannot confront a public or shock the art audience from its complacency? Like many observers of the current art world, I am appalled at the moribund state of the art world, which is doing the Same Old, Same Old, or to quote Jean-Michel Basquiat, “SAMO” or the “same old shit.”

Street artists seem to be the last of the Old Guard: the only artists willing to prod people into doing actual thinking. An excellent example of the artist as gadfly was on view the other day when an unnamed street artist put up a poster of Jeffrey Deitch as the Atollah. [7] The judgment of the street artist may be as harsh as the comparison but the poster begs the question is censorship ever justified?

poster

protest poster

Two very real problems have been raised by the actions of MOCA. Public art is always a negotiation between the world of art and the world of the public. If there is a gap between the art and the public, it is because the art world deliberately created that gulf called the “avant-garde.” Can any form of public art remain avant-garde or have the pretension of being thought provoking? The case history of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) would suggest that public art must always be an art of compromise. On both sides. In the case of MOCA’s actions, there seems to have been no negotiation, no discussion, and no compromise, just censorship. If the artist is to have any role in society as an individual with a unique mission, then is it not to stand tall for freedom of expression? Are not artists our first line of defense against those who would silence eloquent voices?

If the career of Bansky is any indication, street artists can slide into the mainstream and put themselves in danger of compromising their principles. Of all people, Shepherd Fairey has condoned the effacement (called the “buffing”) of the mural of Blu’s mural. After a brief flirtation with accommodation, Blu decided he was not happy with being censored. One wonders what will happen to the upcoming exhibition, Art in the Streets, this April—-how many artists will withdraw because of MOCA’s act of censorship? After a problematic overture to the exhibition, hopefully, Deitch can redeem himself this spring with another of those landmark shows that allowed MOCA to make its mark. MOCA’s 1989 exhibition, The Forest of Signs, provoked this powerful mural by Barbara Kruger. Its message still says it all:

Who is Free to Choose? Who is Beyond the Law? Who is Healed? Who is Housed? Who Speaks? Who is Silenced? Who Salutes the Longest? Who Prays Loudest? Who Dies First? Who Laughs Last?

Who indeed?

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

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


[1] Christopher Knight, “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” The Los Angeles Times, December 12, page 1, Section D

[2] Jori Finkel, “MOCA is Behind the Whitewash,” The Los Angeles Times, December 14, page 1, Section D

[3] The video is available on YouTube but there is cumbersome sign in system. The San Francisco Examiner has provided the video without strings—just click.

[4] Dennis Hevesi, “Frank Emi, Defiant World War II Internee, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, December 19, 2010, page 36.

[5] Mat Gleason, “MOCA Blu Street Art Whitewash is No Smithsonian-esque Censorship,” December 14, Huffington Post

[6] Edward Goldman: “American Museums: All Talk, No Walk,” in Huffington Post and Art Talk, KCRW

Jamie Roo and Steven Harrington, “Censorship: MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” reprinted as “Censorship! MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” in Huffington Post, December 15

[7] Deborah Vankin, “Taking a Swipe at MOCA, The Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2010, Section D, page 1.

Art in the Streets, MOCA, Los Angeles, Spring-Summer, 2011

ART AS WRITING

In the dark days of the late 1970s, New York City was at its lowest ebb. Although Jimmy Carter never uttered the word “malaise” in his infamous “Malaise Speech” (1979), the Big Apple was a psycho poster city for malaise. Infuriated by the benign neglect of the Nixon Administration after the golden age of the Civil Rights era, communities of color felt alienated and angry. At the very moment in time when Milton Glazer was designing his “I Love New York” campaign, graffiti was everywhere, crawling and climbing over all available surfaces.

Graffiti was an alien invasion of the Other, who had taken up weapons, cans of spray paint, and was attacking the city. No place was safe, unless of course it was the carefully guarded enclaves of the rich—or those very people who would, in the eighties, eagerly spend their surplus income to buy the art of the very invaders who had terrorized the populace. And now it has all come home to roost, graffiti art has been consecrated by time and space and has been elevated into “art” and enshrined and mummified in the confines of the museum, where its original intent can be muffled and its screams can go unheard. It is no coincidence that those who had been written off by society called themselves “writers.”

In an earlier article on the censorship of the BLU mural, I criticized the curator of Art in the Streets, Jeffrey Deitch, for whitewashing the very kind of art he was attempting to promote and support. In a subsequent preview of Art in the Streets, I wrote for Artscene, I critiqued the very concept of putting street art in a museum. And I take back none of what I have written. But I will be the first to say that the exhibition itself is a dazzling fun ride, full of great art, and a real success for Deitch. The exhibition has been consistently well attended and the broad public—all ages, all ethnicities—seem to love the show and must be spreading the good news through word of mouth. The lines outside the Geffen go on forever, as people wait patiently to get in.

While there is good news and bad news about Art in the Streets, I would like to sort out some terminology for the sake of clarity, however momentary. Let’s draw a distinction between “graffiti” and “street art,” based on the intentions of the makers, which are very different. “Graffiti” tends to be tagging, an aggressive mark making by disenfranchised people (mostly males) in spaces that are supposedly “public.” On one level the tags are signatures, relatives of the palm prints of the cave dwellers and on another level the need to not just paint but to deface surfaces comes from an entirely different place. Tag bombs explode and disperse like shrapnel, cutting into the social contract that teaches respect for public spaces.

Graffiti is not merely stating, “Kilroy was here,” a conquering code employed by American G. I.s during their triumphal march over Europe during the Second World War. Yes, graffiti is a gesture of conquest, a visual take-over of territory, but graffiti is so much more.

Graffiti is a sign of complete and utter separation from the larger society and a signal that there is no investment in its values. Graffiti is a social protest, an indication that the rules and laws have no meaning to the man with the can, to the boy who randomly sprays a park bench, because they have been left out, left behind, and abandoned. Graffiti is a means of taking ownership, as if signing a property deed, and becomes, by default, a way of redistributing that which is designated as private to those who have nothing. To those inscribed within the cordon sanitaire of a slum, territory is everything: your street, your block—that is your world to defend. You mark your terrain.

Graffiti is a cry of rage and pain and the larger society correctly sensed danger, but instead of taking the warning to heart, the knee jerk reaction of the establishment was to strike back and to wage war—not at the poverty and the hopelessness that generated the practice—but at the young people who had lost all hope. All signifiers of social defiance and class interrogation coming from the disenfranchised were wiped out. The goal of the mainstream society was to whitewash the cultural condemnation from those who were not authorized to speak.

Out of this urban counter culture came artists who made “street art” and that is what this exhibition offers: art. Lady Pink is a case in point. She is seen in a photograph, post-tag, sitting in a subway car alive and crawling with graffiti, but it is 1982, and she was able to slip into the art world during that brief period when the art doors of exclusivity cracked open a bit.

Street art is not graffiti; graffiti is not street art. Street art evolves out of graffiti when artists realized that walls and halls and underpasses and overpasses, streets and sidewalks could be utilized as surfaces of expression. Most of these artists were “outsider” artists, so named because they were of the wrong color or wrong socio-economic strata to be “insider,” i.e. white and middle class. These “outsiders,” better termed “artistic outlaws,” were alienated from art school philosophies and could care less about the unwritten rules that governed the art world.

These artists just wanted to make art.

This may seem like a simple statement of fact, but think of the extremes these artists went through to put their art in the streets. They risked life and limb; they risked arrest and a criminal record. The larger community considered what they were doing as “vandalism” and a violation of the sanctity of public property, which is untouchable. We have become so accustomed to art being incarcerated inside of museums that we are stunned when art appears to walk among us. During the Renaissance, public art was everywhere. True it was used as propaganda, to educate the public of the viewpoint of the dominant class, but art was allowed outside and was expected to communicate.

Street art is an attempt to speak out, to speak up on the part of a large segment of society that had been written off. The dominant culture could see only art where it wasn’t supposed to be—the galleries and the museums—a younger and hipper audience saw themselves and their lives. But street art, unlike raw visceral graffiti, had pretensions to “art.” Despite the non-art materials and the non-art settings, street art displayed some disconcerting markers of “art.” Many of the artists were self-taught, informally but rigorously trained, sharing their practices as if in a Renaissance workshop, honing their techniques and skills under arduous circumstances. An art lover or a fellow artist could immediately see a firm grasp of the basics: color harmony, hue distribution, composition, facility with line, personal style and inventiveness. Street art was at once a collective style and an expression of the unique individual signature, recognizable by all.

If we go back to the time during which graffiti and street art was developing, the late 70s and early 80s was a time when the separation between art and life was near complete. The sudden insertion of “art” into “life” was shocking, because street art mocked the conventional definition of art. For art to be “art” an object had to be special, designated as “art” via a process of legitimation. Street art was totally illegitimate, totally unconsecrated, and totally out of bounds. But it was alive, living and breathing, an art that had content and meaning that came from outside the art world, far away from the middle class norms, and its energy attracted ever-hungry consumers of cultural juices—dealers and gallery owners. One of them was Jeffrey Deitch.

And the rest is history.

Good News

The good news about the exhibition is that Deitch has brought together a large number of artists and a large number of examples of “street art” into one viewing space. Although some of the works of art are more interesting that others, the overall quality is very high, from the orange crush ice cream truck of our very own beloved “Mister Cartoon” to the ironic skateboarding videos of Spike Jonze. Seeing all the art with the attention it deserves is a two-day job. I spent most of the day at the museum and took a lunch break at what is probably the only Chinese restaurant in Little Tokyo and still didn’t make it to the second floor. The average viewer will get an idea of the range and scope of a vital underground world of art making, even if the museum can do little more than present a tiny sliver of an intense and on-going activity.

When Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the art scene at the height of the Age of Greed in the art world, the white art writers, art dealers and the art audience tended to think of him as some kind of unschooled and untamed “primitive,” but today we know better. Basquiat was an art educated middle class artist who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of African-Americans and who had the temerity to teach his buyers the narrative of people of color. The fact that he came of the group SAMO explains the fact that his paintings were actually writings, social commentaries that were illustrated. But Basquiat seemed to be a fairly intuitive painter and created spontaneously.

I had assumed that other street artists were equally spontaneous, but I was wrong, wrong about Basquiat and wrong about street artists. Most of the street artists escaped the insatiable maw that was the art world during the 1980s, the demand that put Basquiat on an art-making treadmill disguised mass production as “spontaneity.”

That insight came to me when I realized that street artists planned their productions in advance, sketching out their designs, mapping out the colors. They had a game plan. They had to be organized. Painting under duress, they had not time to stop and figure out what might happen next. Street artists plotted their grandes machines as carefully as the academic artists of the nineteenth century.

STASH invented the “training pad,” or a sketchbook that featured carefully drawn railway cars, drawn from the side, so that the artists could compose the art that would be put up on the train. Train art must be executed hurriedly and the speed of the train allows any mistakes to simply zoom by. We owe a great deal to the dedication of Henry Chalfant who documented these rolling museums, packed with art that was soon to be destroyed. “Art, DAZE wrote in a true Duchampian spirit, “is anything you can get away with.” In the exhibition catalogue, Lee Quinones (creator of Howard the Duck), spoke of the Fabulous 5 Crew who painted “the first whole-train masterpieces that ran complete—ten cars, painted top to bottom, end to end.” And yet, somehow the combination of graffiti, street art, train art all came together and was called “The Wild Style,” writing on the move. And as the training pad below, designed for a German steel train, indicates, street art went global.

Bad News

Street art became an international art form for young artists, paralleling the Documentas and Biannuals for the old people. The closer street art comes to graffiti and tagging, the closer it remains to social protest. The more street artists adapt their art to conventional canvases, the further away it moves from it roots. Through an act of appropriation by the very people against whom it once fought, street art becomes tamed, captive, a toothless form of entertainment. “Art” became a trap for street art and many of the “real” street artists were famously exploited and used up and spit out by the art world of the eighties. However, some of the so-called street artists, Basquiat, Scharf, Haring, were artists-in-waiting, exploiting street culture of the East Village, waiting to be noticed by the Big Money Crowd. And so street art became Street Art and began to engender its own history, from the Times Square Show to the FUN Club to Bischofberger.

For people who want some idea of the chronology of street art or of the cultural differences among the makers or of the various manifestation of outlaw art, this exhibition will not serve you well. The installation is a deliberate cacophony, mimicking the horror vaccui that is characteristic of street art. The need of the street artist to cover all available surfaces with graphics is mirrored in the jam-packed walls and floor space in a deliberate refusal to reduce a social performative activity into isolated works of art carefully placed at eye level. Rap makes only an occasional appearance. Break dancing? Couldn’t find any. Streetwear? Not present. Perhaps because he understood that street art was an example of a larger cultural expression, so widespread and so varied, that any traditional installation would be impossible, Deitch limited his exhibition to the visual arts.

The catalogue provides a timeline and a separation of the various cultures that contributed to underground art. Numerous essays state that the visuals arts and the performing arts and the musical arts—Blondie’s Raptureall intermixed and impacted each other. But, if intermingling is the case, it is merely stated, not demonstrated through connections except in the catalogue texts. This book, otherwise an excellent reference, is equally brief on the social and economic factors that are at the heart of street art. Once again, brief assertive statements are made, but the ugly environment from which these artists emerged is a mere colorful backdrop.

Good News and Bad News

What impressed me most about the art was the level of craft and effort put into the individual paintings by artists who know how to take a utilitarian can of spray paint and transform this tool into a major and important art medium. There is an intersection between popular boy culture—comic books and graphic novels and video games—with an almost obsessive preoccupation with craft and skill. The art is marked by patience, dedication, concentration and serious intention. Street Art is a phenomenon its practitioners believe in enough to make art without guarantees, without any rewards beyond peer approval.

On the east coast the obsession with craft was demanded the materials themselves; on the west coast, the concern with surface was labeled “finish fetish” and came out of the car culture. And here lies one of my pet peeves with the show—the lack of distinctions that obliterate differences among the artists. New York does not have a car culture; New York has a train culture, and this very public culture allows artists to, as Los Angeles artist WISK stated, “to crush New York in a second…” The car culture of Los Angeles allowed art, sealed beneath candy flake finishes, to roll through the streets but the authorities took a dim view of such a confrontational display from barrio people. Although the need for cultural expression comes from the same place, painting trains with Kry-lon is a very different activity from the eighty odd coats it takes turn a “finish” into a “fetish.” And “heaven” in Los Angeles is not a train yard in Brooklyn.

Just as an airbrush is different from a spray gun, skateboarding culture differs from break dancing and comes from an entirely different cultural impulse and from different locales. I understand that street artists like to think of both as “performance art,” but, with all due respects, the divergences between a sport and a dance form need further discussion. Although distinguishing among the many aspects of street culture may be at odds with the intentions of the director, the Geffen is sufficiently large to allow for separations and for examinations of how and why the artistic expressions of the various subcultures diverge and blend. Somehow it feels wrong to have Mister Cartoon adjacent to a huge installation by twin brothers, Os Gemeos, from Sao Paulo. Equally disturbing is the near silence on the connection between prison tattoo art and cholo graffiti, although there are many examples of tattoo art offered in the museum.

Of course, there is little for the girl in all of us in this exhibition. Several female street artists are represented and are written about in the catalogue, but overall the show is all-boy and all male. Street art comes out of a macho culture that objectifies women and excludes them from as many collective cultural activities as possible. But that is also a description of the mainstream art world where women are still woefully underrepresented. To be a street artist when one is a woman is to be doubly courageous. Miss Van would have to brave a very male-dominated culture—France—and go out into a public sector—the streets, where women are not supposed to go—and engage in a dangerous, clandestine activity that usually takes place at night, in the dark, when women are supposed to be home, otherwise they are assumed to be prostitutes. Of course, today, Miss Van has evolved into an easel artist who mimics the look of street art. One can only hope that there will be more Lady Pinks, more Miss Vans, and more Swoons who will follow the example of Jenny Holzer, the original girl street artist.

There are far too many artists who were absent or underrepresented. In contrast to the large section for Shepard Fairey, there is not much Banksy. The absence of BLU and JR, the minor presence of INVADER is too bad and these artists are missed. I could find only one Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf’s main contribution is a truly wonderful car decorated with dinosaurs. In addition to a rather indifferently painted car, there is a memorial room dedicated to Keith Haring’s subway drawings. Although the late RAMMELLZEE is well represented, another street art veteran, Fab 5 Freddy, had more part to play in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Gone but not forgotten, however, is his immortal ode to Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

I am not sure, either from the exhibition or the catalogue, exactly what the exhibition intends to do—-to present a history of street art or to present examples of different kinds of street art. If one is going to do an exhibition on street art and exclude Chicano Mural art, then an explanation of some kind is necessary. While I do not agree with Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times that ASCO”s assault on the Los Angeles Museum of Art is an example of street art, mural art is part of the larger tradition of public art in Los Angeles. Either way, the show falls short: beyond a time line, the actual development of a specific history is not engaged and the collection of artists feels arbitrary. The erased mural by BLU that appeared for twenty-four hours before Deitch ordered its removal was pictured in the catalogue, taking up a two page spread at the back: no explanation, no excuses.

Given the vast scope of Art in the Streets, there is no way the exhibition can please everyone’s expectations. One must take the show at face value; accept it on its own terms, as ambiguous as its intentions are. There is a faint whiff of classism at the Geffen, just as there was the smell of sexism at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” as if the white male art world has graciously gathered together all the art of the Other within easy reach and has thrown all available examples into a large space. As with the now infamous Whitney Biannual of 1993, there is a feeling of “now you’ve had your turn” so we can move on. I hope the audience takes away something more meaningful from the exhibition: that artists are everywhere, that art is a universal impulse, that no art forms should be shut out or disparaged in a culture that supposedly celebrates freedom of speech, even for corporations.

There is something profound about the ephemeral nature of street art, which was often effaced and erased by hostile authorities. This acceptance of being struck out and written over is not a theoretical stance, such as that taken by performance artists in the seventies who wanted to eliminate object-based art-making, but an understanding of being in an untenable social position—outside the mainstream. In the face of such unthinking disrespect and deliberate defacement, there is something tragically fatalistic about street artists who put some much time and effort into a work of art that might or might not be documented, that would almost certainly be destroyed, and that was made for an audience who might or might not appreciate it.

Not authorized as artists, outside the institutional framework of the art world, these young men and women made art because they needed to make art. They were not doing classroom assignments for a grade, they were making art because they had to; they made art because they needed to. Innocent of academic aesthetic ideas and free of theories of what “art” is, the street artists used every available and unavailable surface to make art about their immediate cultures, labeled “sub” because their lives took place off stage. In some ways, street art is the purest form of art making—art-for-art’s sake—whether you want it or not.

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

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

[email protected]

Ending Modernism: Introduction to Postmodern Theory

POSTMODERN THEORY

Introduction: Modernism and Post-Modernism

Deeply marked by the idealism of the Second World War, Americans woke slowly to the changed landscape where idealism was impossible. The era of endless fear and war without end had dawned. The only way it could be borne was that this war be fought somewhere else. The importance of importing Euro-American nationalistic antagonisms to the Asian and African continents cannot be overestimated, for the Cold War provided a theatrical drama for political posturing while the audiences could recover at their leisure from the wounds they had inflicted upon themselves. For Americans, these little disfiguring wars were played out on television, but for those who actually participated, the pain and death were quite real. Colonialism continued, empires lived on, relics of a bygone time. On one hand, the former colonialists could relish, with a certain sly malice, the post-colonial difficulties of heretofore stable governments–India and many African states–after colonial masters exited. But, on the other hand Euro-American economic interests could and had to be protected in the name of freedom and democracy in nations fortunately enough to be favored in terms of valuable natural resources.

After the misadventure of Viet Nam, America would not intervene unless the territory had something to offer. Otherwise the “Free World” would look the other way from genocide and massacres and famine and internecine wars. The rise of what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” drew the Soviet Union into an economic race of guns and butter that the communist nation could not win. By 1989, the Cold War was over and the “Evil Empire” collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Europe fractured into ethnicities that attempted to exterminate each other in the wake of the Fall. Left behind were the weapons of the Cold War: countless nuclear weapons capable of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD that spelled the end of rational modernism and the dissolution of the promise of the Enlightenment. It is interesting to note that the seemingly endless stand-off between good (capitalism) and evil (communism), strangely based in economic systems, masked with pseudo morality the larger moral failings of the Second World War.

Postmodernism is often considered to be a time of lost idealism, lost faith, and, most of all Loss of Mastery. This “post” period also coincides with the end of the old military industrial technology and the beginning of a cheap and seemingly unstoppable information technology. At best the new computer-based technology makes information available everywhere and makes present and future Iron Curtains useless in the long run, suggesting a future of human self-determination. At worst, the same technology promises to enlarge the gap between the rich and the poor, between developed and developing nations, between those who can afford the precious commodity of information and those who cannot. Information technology privileges the cultures that own and control it and that can thus spread it globally, at the expense of local ethnicities and identities. Information technology also privileges the mind and the talents of the intellect, suggesting that age-old requirements of race and gender will become irrelevant and that globalization will also mean human pluralism. The interesting question is how those in power will manipulate a volatile and unprecedented event–the Internet–to remain in power..and they will, setting the stage of another conflict between individual self-assertion and uncontrollable government control.

Within this historical context, Post-Modernism seemed to punctuate the end of yet another long century that was on the brink of the Information Age. Postmodernism was thought of as the contemplation of the end of the Industrial Era in economics, the end of Enlightenment in philosophy, the end of world empires in politics. From the perspective of a historian of art, these ends of centuries are often characterized by periods of sheer academicism and artistic ennui and a critical waiting for some kind of aesthetic Messiah, like Jacques Louis David or Vincent van Gogh. Post-Modernism, then, could have also been the End of Modernism, awaiting what’s next. Like the Post-Modernists, French aristocrats, indulged themselves in idle amusements at the end of another century, lived unwittingly just prior to an event, a state of mind, a way of life, that would be called the Modern or the Enlightenment. It is apt that it was the French Revolution which ended their century and their way of life began the Modern era, because this Revolution, like Modernism, sought to end all history, to erase the past, to efface all tradition, all heritage, and all values. As Ihab Hassen wrote in “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” in 1987, “The word postmodernism sounds not only awkward, uncouth; it evokes what it wishes to surpass or suppress, modernism itself. The term thus contains its enemy within..”

Now that we are well into the 21st century, it is possible to view Postmodernism as a brief period, lasting about twenty years that is now best known as a changing of the guard in the visual arts. For the generation of Jackson Pollock, the canvas was an existential arena of self-creation and self-expression, a place where art–act–and the artist could become one in a transcendent moment of being and creation. For Pollock’s generation, the key words would be authenticity and personality. The work of art was unique because the personality and the touch of the artist was unique, his or her signature that authenticated the work itself. This high-minded hope, later called the “pathetic fallacy” (the notion that one can read the emotions of another emphatically through art is a fallacy), was swamped by the onslaught of pre-given, pre-digested, pre-created, and pre-conditioned media images. In his 1986 essay “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” the postmodern theorist Andreas Hysseun stressed the importance of separating modernist art from “low culture:”

Modernist literature since Flaubert is a persistent exploration of and encounter with language. Modernist painting since Manet is an equally persistent elaboration of the medium itself: the flatness of the canvas, the structuring of notation, paint and brushwork, the problem of the frame. The major premise of the modernist art work is the rejection of all classical systems of representation, the effacement of “content,” the erasure of subjectivity and authorial voice, the repudiation of likeness and verisimilitude, the exorcism of any demand for realism of whatever kind. Only by fortifying its boundaries, by maintaining its purity and autonomy, and by avoiding any contamination with mass culture and with the signifying systems of everyday life can the art work maintain its adversary stance: adversary to the bourgeois culture of everyday life as well as adversary to mass culture and entertainment which are seen as the primary forms of bourgeois cultural articulation.

The fall of Modernist singularity and the rise of a self-referential culture starts with the coming of age of the Baby Boomers in the sixties. The star of Pop Art, Andy Warhol did not bother to create himself through the existential process of art making, instead he presented/displayed himself as an “art star,” as a cultural icon, as a media darling. Warhol, once the most successful commercial artists in America, understood the power of advertising and the significance of the image very well. He understood that art was a commodity to be bought and sold and that the commodity would be read as ‘art” if it was made by an “artist”. With some difficulty, Warhol remade himself in the image of his own time, created the aura of “artist” by fitting himself into the prevailing art movement, Pop Art. He crafted an image of the eccentric and colorful artist, a celebrity among celebrities. Warhol is an artist equally, if not more important, than Pollock, for like Pollock, he and his art came to exemplify his time. As Huyssen argued in “Mapping the Postmodern,”

..the revolt of the against that version of modernism which had been domesticated in the 1960s was never a rejection of modernism per se, but rather a revolt against that version of modernism which had been domesticated in the 1950s, become part of the liberal-conservative consensus of the times, and which had been been turned into a propaganda weapon in the cultural-political arsenal of Cold War anti-communism. The modernism against which artists rebelled was no longer opposed a dominant class and its world view, not has it maintained its programmatic purity from contamination by the culture industry. In other words, the revolt, the revolt sprang precisely from the success of modernism, from the fact that in the united States, as in West Germany and France, for that matter, modernism had been perverted into a form of affirmative culture.

Pollock may be the American artist who “broke through” the European hegemony of the arts, but he was also the last of his kind, an artist of the old school, concerned with craft, creation, process, and expression in the naïve belief that genuine creativity was possible. If Pollock was the Last Modernist, then Warhol is one of the first Postmodernists, for he frankly abandoned the pretense of originality and made a career out of appropriating the ready-made images already available commercial culture. The importance of Warhol lies, not in the fact that he introduced objects/signs from everyday life or popular culture into the art world, but that he did so in such a way as to both replicate the technology of multiplicity and to reproduce art “like a machine.” Warhol immersed himself in the media world and at the same time provided cogent if elusive commentary on his environment. His encyclopedic art seemed to assert that ee are all canned and packaged; and our role models and idols are all also canned and packaged.

image002

Andy Warhol Shopping

Representation, after Warhol, could only mean re-presenation: to show again that which has already been manufactured according to pre-given specifications. And this re-presentation, therefore, can never be original. Re-presentation, because of the every-where-ness of media technology can only be an artistic re-action, never an existential act, only an artistic critique, never an artistic creation. That was the condition of the artist in a postmodern technological society in which images are provided for consumers. From the postmodern perspective, the artist can no longer create images, the artist can only respond–belatedly–or philosophize or ponder what it means to live in an image world. This realization that “originality” was but a myth is the foundation of Postmodernism. Postmodernism was built upon the un-building of the innocence of Modernism, and, like the art of Warhol, was entirely reflective of the disillusionment of the Sixties and Seventies in the face of revelations of racism and sexism in America and the involvement of the Land of the Free in a war that proved to be largely political—Vietnam—and the fall of Presidents into disgrace and national shame.

In the visual and performing arts, Modernism was also a Revolution, a new beginning and a new awareness of being in a new place that ironically always had to be re-placed by yet another new, another now, until regeneration could no longer take place and exhaustion–Post-Modernism–reigned. If the decade of the Sixties can be seen in retrospect as the dawn of the breakdown of the hegemony of Modernism, and the decade of the Seventies as the puritanical revolt against physical attraction in art, then the decade of the Eighties seemed to be at the end of all things. Painting was declared dead and was condemned to endlessly copy or comment upon itself. Sculpture had expanded beyond itself and had left the gallery only to return as installation. Photography became the leading Postmodern art form because of its inquisitive ability to both question and expose the limits and transgressions of Representation. The aspirations of Modernism, its high moral tone, its very spirituality was confined to art-dealer nostalgia and put to shame by Postmodern irony.

Art–now a commodity to be bought and sold like a stock or a bond–was reduced to desperate discourse, parading bravado shorn of originality. Art copied. Art replicated. Art looted–pillaged–plundered history, like a frantic army, devouring its own past in its ignorance of the future, scorching its own earth. Above all else, art, haunted by the economic boom and the economic bust, was relegated to the status of decoration in the name of tasteful investment that killed the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988. The death of Basquiat was a marker that suggested that the art world was no longer based upon its supposed “human values” but had, instead, entered into a global market where commodities circulated endlessly in an impersonal system of exchange. By the end of the eighties, Postmodernism was a global and Western phenomena: the European version of Postmodernism and the American version of Postmodernism had become absorbed into a larger culture, driven by the forces of capitalism. Cultural distinctions, like the use of elephant dung by the British artist, Chris Offili, could easily be taken over and become part of the mainstream and marketed to collectors as the latest “Sensation” in global art.

Although Postmodernism was a product of the times, the movement, when viewed in the simple terms of art world credos, was another look at the blind spots of Modernism. One of those lacunae was the art of Marcel Duchamp whose art co-existed with Modernist art and yet was its silent underground. More than a Dadaist “anti-art,” the postmodern portents of Duchamp were an anti-reading of Modernism. Known to day as the “Father of Postmodernism,” Duchamp undermined the foundations of Modernism: eliminating the independent and inventive artist who “made” unique “objects,” and subverted the doxa of “original” art made by a sanctified “creator.” His ideas were not understood in their own time and were mi-translated in the Postmodern period, but he predicted the unraveling of a system of art based upon the impossible and imaginary edifice of art elevated above the real world, floating pure and free of the market and financial interest. Whether one argues that Duchamp “fathered” postmodernism because he laid the groundwork for the revolt against Modernism or because his once-alien ideas fell on ground fertilized by Fluxus and other post-war impulses, it can be said today that Duchamp’s greatest success was in drawing the line between representation and concept. The arts of the Postmodern and the 21st century would fall on the side of the concept.

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

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

[email protected]

 

“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.

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

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African American Artists, Part Two

THE EIGHTIES AND BLACK ART

All artists of color are faced with the question of whether or not to assert their ethnic identity in their art or to simply make art without ethnicity. The white world expects Chicanos to make only murals, for example, and expects Blacks to deal with African-American subject matter. Many artists struggle against being forced into ethnic categories while others simply transcend their ethnicity.

Many people do not know that Martin Puryear is an African-American artist. His sculptures do not appear to have any particular ethnicity or African narratives. But appearances are deceiving. Puryear is an internationally trained artist who served in the Peace Corps and found himself in West Africa, in the nation of Sierra Leone. West Africa faces outward to Europe and America and was a convenient jumping off site for slave trade. The ancestors of many African Americans began their journey into generational slavery in Sierra Leone.

Puryear was inspired by the craft objects and craft techniques of the people of the nation. His sculptures are essentially greatly enlarged and abstracted versions of African objects, dislocated from their source and function, but still evocative of another culture. Audiences in the know who arrive at the Getty Museum of Art in Brentwood recognize the huge wire scoop-like sculpture on the plaza as being derived from the culture of Sierra Leone. Visitors who do not know Puryear’s African references think that the installation is another abstract work of art. One of Puryear’s most obvious African references is his 36 foot Ladder to Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was an interesting and problematic character in Black history.

Unlike W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, who were militant-minded when it came to Black rights, Washington was believed in accommodating the white desire to be separate from Blacks. He believed in “gradualism,” that is, African-Americans would gradually be given rights as the whites saw fit. Called an “Uncle Tom” by many African-Americans, Washington, in the mind of whites was a “model Negro” and was even invited to dine at the White House, for an evening with the President.

Washington was part of the Black “culture of waiting:” Blacks were always being told to “wait” for equality, because it was “too soon” to gain their rights as citizens. And yet, Puryear’s ladder stretches upward, striving to reach its goal. The shape of the ladder in not straight but meandering, indicating the slow path to equal rights, and the bottom of the ladder is wider than the top which is very narrow, giving the impression of a ladder to the starts, disappearing in the distance of African-American achievement.

Perhaps the best-known African-American artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was of Hatiian-Puerto-Rican heritage. After a tragic and disturbed childhood on the streets of New York, Basquiat became a graffiti artist and a colorful part of the Eighties East Village scene, with his crown-like short dreads. He was known by his signature, “Samo,” meaning “Same old Shit,” referring to the drugs he took. Basquiat was one of a small group of ambitious artists who had their eyes on the prize: New York galleries. Despite his reputation as a street artist, Basquiat was actually from a well-educated, middle-class family of professionals, and he was determined to become a fine artist.

Basquiat was lucky enough to be a painter at a time when painting was making a comeback and the art world was looking for new talent. Along with fellow graffiti artists, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, Basquiat made sure his art was on the walls near the gallery scene and he was eventually “discovered” by art dealers who promoted him and his career. Basquiat was as much a writer and poet as a painter and most of his paintings are covered with writing. What did he write about? Basquiat was unusual for Black artists at that time, in that he made the Black Male the protagonist of his work. Rarely do women appear in his works, most of which celebrate African-American heroes, jazz great Charlie Parker, boxers, Floyd Patterson and Mohammad Ali, and the famous blues musician, Robert Johnson.

Well-educated and knowledgable about Black history, Basquiat told tales of slave uprisings and Black resistance. However, one wonders if any of his white buyers ever bothered to read the texts of his paintings. The texts criticized and castigated whites and made fun of white liberals, but the paintings sold very well, making Basquiat a wealthy and successful man while still in his twenties. He painted in Armani suits, which he then threw away. He partied with the likes of Andy Warhol and Julian Schnable. He was young, beautiful, black, and rich. The rest of the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a cautionary tale of a man who was exploited for his talents and for his ability to earn money for his dealers who worked him “like a slave.” Sensitive, high strung and aware of his designation as a colorful “primitive” with “natural” talent, Basquiat retreated deeper into drugs and (white) women (including Madonna), until his death from a drug overdose. He was twenty-seven years old.

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The Beats, Art and Literature

BEAT CULTURE

1950s

Most cultural movements are large-scale shifts in thinking due to a collective action on the part of many people. Beat Culture is unusual in that the concept of what it meant to be a Beat was based upon the writings and activities of a very few people who had an extraordinary impact upon America. Despite their small numbers, the original Beats tapped into something beneath the surface of American society in the 1950s, giving voice to unspoken feelings. The term “beat” comes from black culture and from jazz. However, “beat” does not refer to a musical beat, but to the way those who were black in America felt: “beat.” “Beat” means “beat down,” “beaten up by life,” down and depressed, in a state of despair.

When a black person said, “I am beat,” s/he was making a profound statement, not of fatigue, but of alienation and of hopelessness. Whites, in the segregated Fifties, would come into contact with blacks on the musical scene, coming to black jazz clubs to listen to the music. To whites, outsiders and spectators of a culture they could hardly understand, blacks were the ultimate “cool” cats, possessing an impressive machismo that whites could only admire. The coolness of the “hep cats” was copied by the whites to the extent that the famous author, Norman Mailer, wrote an essay in 1957 called, “The White Negro” about wanna-be coolness.

White men wanted to be as cool as black men because the black culture seemed to offer a freedom from the conformity of the Fifties. Whites did not realize that the “freedom” from behavioral rules was the result of enforced segregation and exclusion from the larger mainstream society. But the reason for the cool freedom was not important to the white admirers of black culture. What the Beats wanted was freedom from the Fifties. Writer Gore Vidal once characterized the Fifties as “the worst decade in the history of the world.” If one was gay, like Vidal, the Fifties was catastrophic, and the only place society offered to someone who was “queer” was in the closet. Being gay was grounds for dismissal from jobs and many gay men “passed” into straight society through marriage and children.

The plight of gays and lesbians who were forced to live a stunted and inauthentic existence was an extreme version of the life society demanded you live. There were few choices in that decade, but the proscribed lifestyle was possible only for middle class whites. Thanks to huge government programs, the white middle class prospered in suburbs, in a single-family home with a white picket fence, with a husband and wife, two children, a dog, a cat, a station wagon. After a horrible Depression and a frightening war, suburbia and a lawn to mow seemed like paradise, but with paradise came a price. Many people felt that their options were too limited and strained against the conformity and the conservative, even retrograde, attitudes of the Eisenhower years.

The Beats were those who rebelled against the complacency and the materialism that marked the years that Eisenhower was the President. There were two Beat centers, New York and San Francisco, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. The attraction for the Beats was the Jazz scene and black musicians had migrated to the West Coast where they hoped they would find less hostility. In his book Art After 1940, Jonathan Fineberg writes as though the Beats and the Neo-Dada artists were part of the same culture in New York. They actually were not.

The only thing these two groups had in common was that both the Beat and the Neo-Dada figures were part of the New York underground. There is little evidence that the groups had any impact upon each other’s art. They would have known of each other but their differences would have kept them apart. The Neo-Dada artists were underground because they were not yet accepted into the mainstream, an event that happened in 1958 when Leo Castelli debuted Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in his gallery. The artists’ time in the underground ended.

The term “Beat” would have been applied to them long after the fact and not during the Fifties. The Beats were not visual artists, but literary artists and were few in number. The Beats never wanted to be part of the mainstream, never sought success or acceptance. The main “leaders” were a novelist, Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road (published 1957) and Allen Ginsberg, a poet who wrote Howl. The two had met at Columbia University where neither fit in. Kerouac was a nonconformist and Ginsberg was gay. Although the University recognized their gifts, these rebels could not be absorbed into a formal system. The third member of the literary trio was William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, published in 1959. But the first of the three to achieve literary notoriety was Ginsberg, who debuted his famous poem Howl in San Francisco in 1955.

Fineberg stresses the New York art world and completely leaves out the significance of the West Coast. This kind of neglect is common for East Coast art historians, but in the case of the Beat culture, leaving out the importance of San Francisco leaves a large blank space. The visual artist who had the most connection with the literary Beats was a photographer, Robert Frank, who published his seminal, The Americans (1958). Jack Kerouac wrote the preface for Frank’s book, which became the most famous book of photography of the Twentieth Century. Frank took a road trip across America, photographing the country from his perspective as a Swiss expatriate and was in San Francisco for the first reading of Howl.

Howl is a great American poem—an updating of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. At the time, it was considered “obscene,” but today, like all Beat literature, it is considered a “classic” and is part of the American literary canon. Ginsberg read his poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco to shouts of “Go!” from Kerouac. Also present was local poet, Michael McClure, who introduced Ginsberg, and Los Angeles artist, Wallace Berman, a Beat artist from L. A., who had far closer ties to the New York Beats than did the artists in New York itself. Most publishers would refuse to publish a poem with “dirty words,” but one brave publisher and bookstore operator dared.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the famous City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, published the poem and was promptly tried for obscenity in 1957. Defended by the ACLU, Ferlinghetti was allowed to publish the book and continued his career as a poet and as a defender of civil liberties, including the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Once a place of scandal, City Lights Bookstore is located at the corner of Broadway and Kerouac Alley, one of several streets in San Francisco named after writers, including via Ferlinghetti.

Ironically, the year that Howl got the seal of approval, one of the attendees at the reading, Wallace Berman, was also accused of obscenity for a show he did at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Tried and convicted and humiliated, Berman left Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco, a more open-minded town where he lived for years before returning to L. A. where he died in 1970.

The year Howl was published, On the Road appeared. Kerouac had written the autobiographical novel from a road trip he took in the 1940s. Although the book claimed to be about one journey, it was actually composed of three separate trips. He was accompanied on the primary road trip by Neal Cassady. The Beat movement was all male with a few women on the fringes. As a result of the sexual repression of the Fifties, the sexual torments and yearnings of the confused men are present in this book. Written in 1951 on twelve-foot strips of paper, linked into a one hundred twenty foot scroll, the novel was finally published, with name changes, to instant success.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs followed. With a keen ear for the language of drug culture, Burroughs tapped into the lingo and introduced white American readers to key terms, still in use today. Burroughs had much experience with drugs, having operated a marijuana farm in Texas, and with death, having accidentally shot his wife to death. One of the most interesting terms to come from the novel was the name of a dildo, “Steely Dan,” taken up twenty years as the name for a famous avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll group, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The real underground Beat artists were the artists in San Francisco scene, such as Bruce Connor, Jay de Feo and her husband, Wally Hedrick, and in the Los Angeles scene, such as Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. The movement of the Beat artists in San Francisco’s North Beach evolved into the “funk”’ movement in the next two decades.

These Beat writers of the Fifties awoke something in American readers, who, despite the quietude of the decade, apparently yearned to hear dissident voices. Beats became famous and were renamed when the Soviet Union launched a tiny satellite named “Sputnik” in 1957. Americans were alarmed, to say the least, and reacted by getting into the space race and by reinforcing math in school curriculums. Beats were renamed “Beatniks,” perhaps to make them appear less threatening. Mainstream Americans were horrified at the attire of male Beatniks: beards, black clothing, and sandals.

In order to absorb this dire invasion from the coffee houses, Hollywood invented its own tame Beatnik, “Maynard G. Krebs,” a character on a television show. But an unknown group of young teenage musicians took the Beats as role models. Wearing long hair, another establishment no-no, and black leather jackets, the leader of the band decided their new name would be the BEATles. It is often said that the Beats inspired the Counter-Culture movement, but the connection seems to be questionable.

Certainly the Beats served as an inspiration for the Sixties youth culture. But the original Beats were social critics did not want to be part of the mainstream culture; however, they were not social dropouts. Kerouac scorned the hippies and disapproved of their “turn on” and “tune out” attitudes. The counter-culture was politically active and the Beats preferred to stay outside of the political realm. That said, Ginsberg was one of the first Americans to take LSD and Burroughs was a part of the East Village Scene in the Eighties that included Jean-Michel Basquiat who was a great admirer of the old druggie. For a black, being “beat” meant being alienated for racial reasons, for a white being “beat” meant being alienated for social reasons. Beatniks were literary artists who refused to enter the establishment and, despite their success, were never part of the mainstream. Unlike the artists of the New York underground, they stayed underground, anti-heroes to the counter-culture, even today.

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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Podcast: Postmodernism and the Other

Postmodernism, Multiculturalism and Globalism

Postmodern art is the first art to be—not global—but international. But the concept of a global or transnational art was proceeded by an acknowledgement of The Other through Multiculturalism. This podcast examines the ideas of colonialism, imperialism and post-colonial theory as manifested through art of the Postmodern period.

 

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

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 46 Painting 12: The Impact of Art by Women

New Voices in Painting

Although the sixties is usually thought of as the decade of Civil Rights, the final expression of equality was the Women’s Movement of the seventies. The art world, which had attempted to ignore the prevailing political events was suddenly confronted with a large and unhappy constituency, artists who had been excluded from the art world on the basis of gender and color. Feminist art and art by women and the art of people of color challenged the exclusionary territory of painting, which had been an “all boys’ club” for decades. The result of the influx of new ideas and new points of view would be more open field for new possibilities in painting.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline