Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Deal of the Art

The recent Khizr Khan mystery is unlikely to be resolved. The Virginia lawyer, who at the Democratic National Convention famously offered to send Trump his copy of the United States Constitution, was obliged to cancel an anti-fascist speaking engagement in Canada. The news reports conflict with each other, but the justification widely ascribed to Khan is that the U.S. government put his travel documents under review. Since so irregular a measure cannot realistically have been carried out, the real motive lies in the darkness behind. One might perhaps think in terms of intimidation.

Under fascism, every expression of criticism is affected by the possibility of retaliation through intimidation. We are in a pre-fascist situation, and a current phenomenon is the confrontation of the strong-arm threat simply by calling it out. While Khan may (as we suppose) set a valuable example of caution in the face of perceived danger, others judge that their best course is to offer provocation quite openly. This approach can only be effective if the provocation is wholly legitimate, for in the current circumstances the forces of fascism fear damage that legitimate opposition can inflict against them.

In Arizona, a billboard has been erected showing a shoulder-length photo of Trump, with large swastikas cleverly transformed into dollar signs on either side, and nuclear explosions occurring behind. The owner-artist, who has received threats, indicates that the billboard will remain standing for the duration of the Trump presidency. This is an extraordinary artistic statement. It concedes the transitory nature of the original physical medium, although the work can survive both through photography and through descriptions such as the present one. The artistic content includes protest, admonition, and appraisal. It is “big” art, yet through an extraordinary economy of expression it rejects the bombast of that genre. The variable of intimidation is peculiar to American art in the current situation, but the other themes, in particular the transitory nature of art using Trump as subject, emerge just as clearly in other countries.

A similar piece from the technical standpoint is now found in Vilnius. A mural shows Trump and Putin exchanging something more than the stylized European diplomatic kiss. The figures are superbly presented in Jugendstil. Clearly this work comments on the ongoing disclosures of Trump’s secret collaboration with the Russians both before and after his election, and on the threat that such secret ties may hold for Lithuania and the other Baltic states. The artist and the cafĂ© owner whose wall the mural now adorns sit in front of it for the photographer, exchanging what is presented as a lovers’ kiss, as in, one imagines, many similar incongruous scenes before this in European history. Again the photograph stands as the permanent record, since the mural itself cannot realistically survive, being too disturbing and distasteful and of too little utility.

The theme of ephemeral existence is exploited in a British piece of more modest dimensions. A Marlboro cigarette pack is given a hasty makeover. The Marlboro name is obliterated by expanding the red area of the packet, and a rough likeness of Trump emerges. A slightly altered health warning, “harms you and others around you,” comes sharply into focus. Here obviously is the message of rapid transformation to achieve art, and the admission – even hope – that the art will not physically survive, unless through photography and description. The theme of admonition is there: will the subject itself disappear, or will “reality as we know it” disappear instead? Heed the warning on the pack.

Returning once more to “big” art, our final piece for commentary is not art per se, since artistic purpose has no role in its creation. But no, that is not entirely the case. The scene is real and is shown in a photograph taken primarily to capture the “art” that exists within it. In Mumbai, an ordinary street with homeless sleeping on cardboard, and above them a billboard showing Trump sitting forward on a comfortable armchair in a luxurious setting, with the caption: “There is only one way to live. The Trump way.” It is an advertisement for a new Trump Tower hotel in Mumbai. The juxtaposition involves the grinding poverty of the street, the opulence of international business, and the persona of Trump as the messiah of self-interest. The artistic message is a causal one: the self-interest of a few often results in dire circumstances for many. Here the threat of intimidation is the customary one: the photographer risks ridicule that is commonly heaped on those promoting social progress, yet the scene is so poignant and rich with symbolic meaning that such ridicule can only backfire.

In each of these instances the art is a creation (or in the Mumbai case an inadvertent creation) that is intended to be transitory, but to which permanence is afforded through photography and possibly also through description. We have entered an age where “a picture paints a thousand words,” where very simple juxtapositions reach to the essence of the ailment. The creations even foresee their own passing. Yet the current situation is also deemed to be rapidly transforming – necessarily, in view of its appalling incongruity.

News articles discussing these works can be found here:

Arizona billboard

Vilnius mural

Marlboro packet

Mumbai street scene
[This post represents the first installment of Part Four, where the goal will be to shed light on the intersection between culture and ongoing history.]