Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2023 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize is not an open competition which anyone can apply to, like the BP Portrait Award or the Royal Academy Summer exhibition. The exact opposite: the curators choose just four finalists from what they consider to have been the best photographic exhibitions staged by individual photographers, in Europe, in the previous 12 months. To be precise, the stated aim of the prize is to ‘reward artists and their projects considered to have made the most significant contribution to photography over the previous 12 months.’

Therefore, if you visit the Photographers’ Gallery in the next few weeks you will find four rooms, each devoted to an in-depth display of work by just four international shortlisted artists. In alphabetical order these are Bieke Depoorter, Samuel Fosso, Arthur Jafa and Frida Orupabo. The winner of the prize was announced on 11 May and got a tidy sum of £30,000 (the other three entrants got £5,000 each). Who was the lucky winner? I’ll tell you at the end of this review.

I’m going to address the photographers in the order you actually encounter them in the gallery, rather than alphabetically.

1. Frida Orupabo

Frida Orupabo (born 1986) is a Norwegian of Nigerian heritage i.e. Black. She began posting photo collages on Instagram in the mid-2010s, cutting and pasting together images of Black bodies using historical and archive material; then in 2017 she took her approach into the real world (i.e. not just on a screen), creating the large collages you see here. All this led up to the exhibition which brought her to the curators’ attention, which was titled ‘I’ve seen a million pictures of my face and still have no idea’, which was held at the Photomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, February to May 2022.

Installation view of Frida Orupabo at the Photographers’ Gallery

I immediately liked the results – very big, frameless, freestanding works which are more like sculptures hanging on walls than traditional photos. As far as I could tell, none of them had titles. Orupabo’s being Black and being a woman i.e. pressing contemporary art’s two big buttons of race and gender, sends the curators into a tizzy of artspeak:

The sculptural collages and digital works of Frida Orupabo are multi-layered formations, exploring questions of race, sexuality and identity. Orupabo, a Norwegian Nigerian artist and sociologist, grounds her inquiry in her own experience of cultural belonging. Utilising visual material circulating online, spanning colonial-era photographs and ethnographic relics to contemporary imagery, Orupabo’s hand-wrought works re-arrange and re-make the archive. The resulting images take the shape of fragmented Black, mostly female-bodied, figures.

These figures, first dislocated, are reassembled layer by layer in a complex and poetic manoeuvre that simultaneously denounces one-dimensional depictions of Black lives. Her collaged cutouts hold our gaze and invite various readings of the stories and lives of the people depicted, many of whom are entirely absent from the archives. In this way Orupabo invites a consideration of how photography significantly contributes to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence.

Turning by Frida Orupabo (2021) © Frida Orupabo Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin, Stockholm, Mexico City

Does photography ‘significantly contribute to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’? Isn’t that like saying books ‘significantly contribute to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’ or laws ‘significantly contribute to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’? Surely any technology can ‘significantly contribute to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’ if that’s how the people wielding it want to use it. Probably guns contributed quite a bit ‘to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’, probably quite a bit more than photography. In fact photographs of the atrocities carried out by the authorities in the Belgian Congo did as much to disgrace and discredit that authority, as the kind of photographs the curators have in mind, the kind used to measure and categorise the Indigenous peoples, did to define and control them. Photography is just a technology. I can be used for good or evil. Writing that ‘photography significantly contributes to the formation and perpetuation of colonial power relations and violence’ is just art school boilerplate, modish rhetoric, smart-sounding swank (definition: ‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others).

Anyway, as so often, the curators’ obsession with the twin shibboleths of race and gender blind them to the specificity of the actual art in front of them. Two things struck me. One was the way the deliberate crudeness of the artefacts is intentional: heads are pasted onto bodies at anatomically impossible angles, a pair of legs are completely separated from a body. She is highlighting the utter dysjunctive effect of her collages, their complete artificiality, and that reminded me of Dada, of the deliberately unsmooth, jagged photocollages of George Grosz or John Heartfield from 100 years ago.

Installation view of Frida Orupabo at the Photographers’ Gallery

But something not at all hinted at in the curators’ commentary is the horror tropes. In the top photo you can see that the loosely female figures are, from left to right, 1) attended by two sort of flying rabbit demons; 2) sitting on a monster’s head; 3) is shaped like a mermaid; and 4) in the most striking image, is a human head cut and pasted onto the body of a bat. A whole lot of stuff is going on here, but what strikes me is the invocation of imagery of Gothic tales and horror stories; it’s the stuff of Goya nightmares. What? Why? In this respect she reminds me of the way Kara Walker’s silhouettes of Black people in ante-Bellum Deep South morph into nightmare, monster images.

Installation view of Frida Orupabo at the Photographers’ Gallery

Anyway, it was the sheer weirdness of these big collages which grabbed me, not their alleged commentary on colonialist this, that or the other, and so I’ll tell you straightaway that, for the uncanny unexpected weirdness of her images, Orupabo was my favourite of the four artists: I wanted her to win.

2. Bieke Depoorter

Bieke Depoorter was born in 1986 in Belgium. She was selected for this prize on the basis of a 2022 exhibition titled ‘A Chance Encounter’, staged at C/O Berlin from April to September 2022. The display here consists of two parts, titled ‘Michael’ and ‘Agata’. Apparently:

In ‘Agata’, a first meeting [with Agata Kay] in a Parisian strip-club in 2017 evolves with complex tension into an intricate, changing narrative. The project explores questions of collaboration, the limits of a creative friendship, performance, boundaries and authorship.

I couldn’t find ‘Agata’. Possibly it amounted to one framed photo of a pink room, and maybe a collage of movie posters on one wall, but these weren’t labelled so I wasn’t sure. Going back to reread the introductory wall label more carefully I realised that the subject of Depoorter’s photos, the stripper Agata, eventually asked Depoorter to suspend their relationship and asked that all record of the photos, conversations and letters involved in it be erased. Maybe the Agata project is the absence of any materials about the Agata project. OK. That has a pleasing 1970s conceptual art feel about it.

But the reason I wasn’t too sad about not finding ‘Agata’ is because it was completely dwarfed by the other project displayed here, ‘Michael’. This is an epic, dense, absorbing and deeply unsettling work.

in 2015 Depoorter met a middle-aged, confused man named Michael on the streets of Portland, Oregon, USA. They got talking and Michael took her to his apartment which turned out to be covered from floor to ceiling with scrapbook-style cut-outs from magazines, books, newspapers, school reports, journals and diaries and all manner of bric-abrac.

Michael at home, Portland, Oregon, May 2015 by Bieke Depoorter, © Bieke Depoorter/Magnum Photos. Courtesy the artist

As a result of this encounter Michael gave Depoorter three suitcases containing a trove of his personal items, sketchbooks and essays which she, for unexplained reasons, accepted. Then, presumably, she departed Portland, for the wall label explains that, at some point later on, she tried to contact him again and failed. When she flew back to Portland to find him she discovered his flat rented to someone else and  that Michael had vanished, leaving no trace.

At which point Depoorter commenced what appears to have been months if not years of effort to track him down, the start of an obsessive quest to find Michael and to understand his life. As far as the labels tell us, to this day she still hasn’t found him, but along the way she has created the two big things which this darkened room is filled with. One is the way all the walls are even more covered in detritus and scraps of every kind than Michael’s apartment was, the records and ephemera of her hunt which Depoorter has acquired over the past 6 or 7 years.

Installation view of Michael by Bieke Depoorter at the Photographers’ Gallery

Post-its festoon multiple layers of documents and diaries and journals and magazine photos and contact sheets. Arrows connect different pieces of evidence. It’s exactly like the room of the crazed serial killer which the cops eventually break into in all those American psycho movies. She calls it ‘The investigation room’ and what we see here is just a fragment of the materials she’s accumulated in her obsessive, endless search. She has supplemented Michael’s own collection of ephemera with her own. The two sets of detritus are intimately interwoven. But spooky though this is, it isn’t the main thing: the main thing is the film.

Installation view of ‘Michael’ by Bieke Depoorter at the Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a 31-minute-long film detailing Depoorter’s obsessive quest so far. There are no moving segments. It consists entirely of still photos, so it’s by way of being a slideshow of places she’s been to and people she’s interviewed as she delves deeper into Michael’s life and past, her words and those of the interviewees appearing as captions on the screen.

So, in the sequence I watched, Depoorter spoke to some people who were at high school with Michael, who described his intense upbringing by nice but weird Mormons. We see stills of Michael’s high school yearbook with jagged, uneven hand-written notes scrawled across it. It has lots of overtones of serial killer movie, except Michael is no killer, just an oddball Depoorter bumped into and became slowly obsessed with.

If all this sounds weird (and it definitely is) after just a few minutes I found the pace and determination of Depoorter’s narrative drawing me into the film. Michael may have been just an insignificant nobody and yet, in Depoorter’s powerful telling, the memories of childhood friends and schoolmates become weirdly compelling. I realised I was being drawn into Depoorter’s own obsession. It’s contagious!

The curators comment that this work interrogates:

the complex ethical relationship and boundaries…between the photographer and their subject [and] questions the role and responsibilities of the photographer, the possibility or impossibility of truth in representation and grapples with personal and professional boundaries.

No doubt. But something deeper and weirder was also at work here. I was quite relieved to break away from the film and step back out into the light airy gallery space.

3. Samuel Fosso

Samuel Fosso was born in 1962 in Kumba, Cameroon. He was selected for the prize on the basis his exhibition ‘Samuel Fosso’ at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, from November 2021 to March 2022.

Since the mid-1970s Fosso has dedicated his artistic practice to self-portraits and performative photography. In vulgar language, he dresses up and photographs himself. At the tender age of 13 he set up a Studio Photo Nationale in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Alongside commercial work, Fosso began a series of self-portraits, and has carried on to the present day, hence a nickname he picked up along the way, ‘the man of a thousand faces’.

Autoportrait by Samuel Fosso, from the series 70s Lifestyle (1976) © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy of the artist and JM Patras, Paris

More recently Fosso has created a series titled ‘African Spirits’ in which he dressed up as – and recreated famous photographs featuring – Black celebrities such as (the ones on display here) radical activist Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Haile Selassie and Tommie Smith, one of the African Americans who gave the Black Power clenched fist salute from the podium of the 1968 Olympics.

Installation view of ‘African Spirits’ by Samuel Fosso at the Photographers’ Gallery. Can you name all 6 of these famous Black figures?

According to the curators:

Playing the role of key historical figures and social archetypes in front of the camera, Fosso embodies a powerful way of existing in the world, and a vivid demonstration of photography’s role in the construction of myths.

There’s also a pair of huge colour photos of himself dressed as soldiers from the First and Second World Wars, tribute to the many African and Black soldiers who fought in those wars (see my blog post, Congolese soldiers in the world wars).

Compared to the previous two displays, photocollage sculptures and a weirdly compelling documentary film, Fosso’s exhibits – classic framed photographs – seemed, well, kind of obvious, kind of quaint.

4. Arthur Jafa

Arthur Jafa was born in 1960, Tupelo, Mississippi, USA. He is an artist and filmmaker. What is an American doing in an exhibition supposedly restricted to exhibitions in Europe?

Well, one answer is that art curators can’t stop themselves promoting the Great Yoonited States of America: after all, Depoorter’s  ‘Michael’ project is about an American and entirely set in America and half of Fosso’s African Spirits are American. And now we have an actual American photographer. Three out of the four displays are heavily or entirely American.

Why do British curators love American art?

What can you do against the endless tide of American art and artists being promoted by British art curators and adding to the vast sea of American culture which floods all our channels? If Britain’s art curators are so hell-bent on promoting American culture and American values at every opportunity, all I can do is register my feeble protest and point out that there are, in fact, other countries in the world apart from America. Quite a few, actually.

Why do we rarely or never hear about them? Because America is easy, that’s why. American art comes pre-packaged with 1) fluent, articulate artists who are great in interviews 2) innumerable American critics who bubble over with rhetoric about race and gender and 3) political and cultural ‘issues’ which we all already know too much about about because they flood our TV, radio, movies, documentaries, newsfeeds, twitter and all the other American-run social media.

When an American artist gives an interview saying they’re addressing issues of #metoo or Black Lives Matter,everybody immediately knows what they’re talking about and nods in concerned sympathy because we’ve already seen and heard and read hundreds and hundreds of news items and newspaper stories and magazine features and documentaries interviews and tweets about just these ‘issues’.

American art is like McDonalds art. It’s smooth, pre-packaged, ready to consume, processed, pre-masticated, baby food. Just add water and you’re good to go. Compare and contrast the problems you’d encounter with the language barrier and with explaining all the little-known historical and cultural references if you tried to stage an exhibition of contemporary, say, Indonesian or Peruvian art. But another African American artist yakking about slavery or the institutional racism of American society – piece of cake, child’s play, no brainer, no mental effort required, just the appropriate amount of liberal sympathy.

Arthur Jafa

Anyway, Jafa is here despite not being European because his exhibition, ‘Live Evil’, was shown at Arles in the South of France i.e. a European venue, from April to November 2022.

There’s a video of an extended interview with Jafa. He’s very angry about racism, in America, Europe, everywhere. In the bit I watched he quoted Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. In a modern art gallery you’re never far away from the 1960s. My eyes glazed over because I have heard scores of Black artists complaining about racism in America and read hundreds of articles about racism in America. Black Lives Matter posters hang in the windows of concerned students round where I live.

The stories of Uyghurs Muslims locked up and tortured in Xinjiang, of the people dying and displaced in Yemen or Syria, of the 920,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, now as I write and you read? Are these packing the walls of the Barbican, Tate Modern, the Royal Academy, the Photographers’ Gallery? No. Silence. Nada. Their stories will never be told. They might as well not exist. But another American artist doing another show about how racist America is? Take your pick.

One last obvious point about the ubiquity of American artists: America is rich. It has the wealth to support a huge class of artists who, if they play their cards right, can become very wealthy, successful, appear in all the right magazines, and generally enjoy a great lifestyle. Makes me feel a bit sick when artists from the richest country in the world complain about their suffering and oppression. Go and live in Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Afghanistan for a month then fly back to your air-conditioned studio in LA and tell me about the suffering of ‘your people’.

Anyway, according to the curators, Jafa’s work is another ‘extended meditation on the issues of race and the Black experience’. Just like Frida Orupabo’s display, then. I’d swear there are other ethnicities in the world apart from Black and White. There are quite a lot of Indians and not a few Chinese, for a start. But not in Curatorworld. Black, Black and more Black, preferably American Black, is the only experience, the only voice, the only art we are going to be shown. I’m not saying ‘the Black experience’ is not a thing to investigate. I’m just saying that maybe it’s not the only story in the entire world to be aware of, to listen to.

Anyway, to quote the curators:

Drawing from a rich collection of images, film footage and music, Arthur Jafa uncompromisingly articulates Black experience, providing us with an exercise in visual literacy, confronting us with a new Black aesthetic which avoids fixed hierarchies and linear storytelling

There are just six works in Jafa’s display, six very large photos. First, maybe a word of explanation about the tile. ‘Live Evil’ is the name of a Miles Davis album, released in 1971, a live recording of a concert performed in December 1970 in Washington DC. After the epoch-making ‘Bitches Brew’ of 1969, Miles was working with a large group of almost entirely electric instruments, producing a strange voodoo swamp sound, mashing up heavy funk grooves with Jimi Hendrix guitar, and his own trumpet heavily electronically distorted. During this period Miles cultivated a dark and brooding image. He revelled in the nickname ‘the Prince of Darkness’, in fact he released an album titled ‘The Prince of Darkness’ in 1971, same years as ‘Live Evil’. Anyway, ‘Live Evil’, which sounds like this:

Miles Davis (1926 to 1991) was without doubt one of the great musical artists, composers and performers of the twentieth century. In the show he is featured in a diptych (‘any object with two flat plates which form a pair’) alongside the godfather of the Delta Blues, acoustic guitarist and singer Robert Johnson (1911 to 1938), which looks like this:

Bloods II by Arthur Jafa (2020) © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Johnson died young leaving only 20 or so recordings behind which have, nonetheless, become legendary and inspired all the blues guitarists of the 1940s and since. Dying young, Johnson left a legend or urban myth about himself which is that, in order to play so amazingly, he had sold his soul to the Devil. This legend was fostered by tracks with titles like ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ or ‘Hellhound on my trail’:

So what does Jafa’s juxtaposition of these two Black musical icons tell us? Well for a start, they both made smoking look cool. To consider their music, although only about 40 years separate the photos (1930 to 1970) they seem musically and technologically galaxies apart. Then again, maybe they’re linked by the common thread of their devilish reputations, hellhounds and princes of darkness. Finally, maybe it’s simpler than that: Robert and Miles were both outstanding musicians, embodiments of Black excellence.

Across the room is another, bigger and more dramatic juxtaposition:

‘Mickey Mouse was a Scorpio’ by Arthur Jafa (2016) © Arthur Jafa. ). Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise

On the face of it, this is a straight contrast between an image of innocence and one of scary threat. Yet some other visitors I got talking to explained to me that they’re both images of identity masquerade: apparently, the earliest iterations of Mickey were based on white entertainers who’d blacked up as minstrels; while the figure on the right is actually a white actor who has blacked up using scary voodoo imagery (I assume this photo was shot on a film set but I can’t find out which one. Do you know?). They’re both lies, or deceptions, or multi-layered images of Blackness. Is that it?

This article explains that Jafa’s work:

tackles the complexity of African-American cultural identity, as defined by an existential paradox that places the Black subject ‘in essential intimacy with death’, as Saidiya Hartman explains in Jafa’s documentary ‘Dreams are Colder than Death’ (2013).

The endlessness of American pop culture

I liked the clarity of these dyptychs and also the fact that they were much deeper than they first appeared to be. The trouble, though, with popular culture, especially American popular culture, is that it is endless. Like the Bible, you can find a passage or quotes to prove anything you want to. I can cut and paste Homer Simpson next to Superman and straightaway I’m making important statements about masculinity, or something. Given such a vast sea of pop ephemera it would be hard to splice together two random elements and not find yourself raising interesting cultural or semiotic issues.

American culture combines technological wizardry with super-refined commercial strategising. Look at the Marvel Comic Universe movies, which are spectacular viewing, rank as the highest-grossing film series of all time, having netted over $29.1 billion, and have a mental age of around 9.

And American artists are trapped within this culture, condemned to try and imbue meretricious trash with meaning – and Black American artists are doubly trapped, trapped in a sea of Americana from which they (apparently, if someone like Jafa is to be believed) feel profoundly alienated. So I understand Jafa when he says that Black American artists are they trying to create narratives of Blackness which will help them navigate the bottomless dumpster of American pop culture, and the complex matrix of racist laws, assumptions and culture. I assimilate this kind of message because I’ve heard it hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It comes pre-packaged and ready to consume.

Anyway, the puzzling thing about the Arthur Jafa display is that the use of these two sly juxtapositions is not his only trick – only two of the six items use it; the other four items are single images and far more varied, not to say troubling.

One is a treated image of the Black singer of a rock band (HR of Bad Brains) jumping about onstage, which left me cold, having spent too much of my teenage year paying attention to images of rock performers to be impressed by one more.

But in a completely different tone from everything else, one entire wall is taken up with an enormous photo of what appears to be a room somewhere in Rwanda, empty of people, but filled with washing lines (?) from which hang the clothes and rags of people hacked to pieces in the terrible genocide.

Installation view of Arthur Jafa at the Photographers’ Gallery

Is this part of ‘the Black experience’? Or the African experience? Or the human experience? It was certainly part of this generation of Rwandans’ experience. Does it directly impact anyone who wasn’t there? If so, why more so than the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust or – the most disastrous civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion in China in which at least 20 million perished (which I’ve just been reading about at the new exhibition at the British Museum)? Or the Great Leap Forward, 1958 to 1962, in which anything up to 50 million Chinese starved to death? Or, during my lifetime, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea in which up to 2 million people, a quarter of the population, were murdered or starved to death, 1975 to 1978?

I carry the images and histories of all these atrocities in my head, which not only gives me a very dim view of human nature, but also appears to be where I differ from someone like Jafa, because I don’t categorise these atrocities by the skin colour of the victims. They’re all human to me, each one an individual who suffered more than I can imagine, died in misery and terror, mounting up to a vast weight of guilt on the conscience of mankind. The collected atrocities of mankind don’t respect colour or ethnicity, which is why I find the foregrounding or privileging of some massacres or genocides over others morally repugnant.

Anyway, back to Jafa. The last piece in his display is a partial sculpture, a kind of bas-relief hanging on the wall of the whip-scarred back of a Black slave, a very potent image of man’s grotesque inhumanity to man or the atrocities of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Ex-Slave Gordon 1863 by Arthur Jafa (2017) © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Photo by the author

I get it, the Black slave trade was a very, very bad thing and generations of white exploiters captured, bought, transported and treated their African slaves with unbearable savagery and brutality. But I happen to have just finished reading Robert Hughes’s epic history of transportation to Australia, The Fatal Shore, and it is packed to overflowing with the unspeakably sadistic treatment meted out to the transported white convicts, especially in the penal colonies of Port Moresby and Norfolk Island. For even slight misdemeanours like looking at an overseer the wrong way, a convict could get three hundred lashes till bystanders could see their spine and ribs through the remains of their butchered back and the bystanders had to pick gobbets of raw human flesh off their clothes. Hughes repeats descriptions of British or Irish convicts who were whipped to death. So this, for me, is the image of a whipped human.

Most of human history is an abattoir. To limit notions of suffering and injustice to just one ethnicity or to one group or one class seems to me historically and morally questionable. It’s a form of boasting – my grievance is bigger than your grievance. It’s very much part of the grievance and victim culture which America has perfected and exported to the rest of the developed world.

But billions have suffered abominably, in every continent, at the hands of all races. The génocidaires in Rwanda weren’t white. The killers in Cambodia weren’t white. The people who implemented the Great Leap forward weren’t white. The murderers of 1.5 million Armenians weren’t white. The administrators of the gulags weren’t Western imperialists.

If these seem disproportionately enormous ideas for a photography exhibition that’s because Jafa is aiming to trigger big ideas about history. It’s just that I happen to be, maybe, more knowledgeable about the history of atrocity than the average gallery goer and so my frame of reference is wider, maybe, than he intends. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve read more widely about atrocities throughout history than is good for anyone, and so this powerful object triggers a wider, deeper historical response than he was, maybe, expecting.

I’m reading Emma Sky’s book about Iraq. She mentions General David Petraeus raising Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue in conversation. This was written about the siege of Melos in 416 BC, part of the wider the Peloponnesian War. When the Athenians finally took the city of Melos they executed the entire male population and enslaved all the women and children. My year of reading Roman history and literature drummed into me that slavery was a universal institution throughout the ancient world, that the civilisations of ancient Athens, Rome and Egypt entirely depended on it and that the huge slave population was subjected to terrible, awful lives of unending labour and liable to whipping, cutting, maiming and torture for the slightest infraction.

That’s what I know, that’s what an image like this triggers; not the suffering of one particular group, but the universal horror of human history.

Jafa summary

Anyway, back from these vast horizons to a small room in Soho containing half a dozen artworks by Arthur Jafa. The conclusion from this small display seems to be that Jafa has at least two modes of operation, one consisting of the canny juxtaposition of images from popular culture, an astute form of curating and darkling satire; the other mode, flat-out horrific memorials of ‘the Black experience’.

This latter is, as you can imagine, catnip to modern white curators, driven by the bottomless resource of white bourgeois guilt:

By placing one resonant cultural artefact next to another Jafa references and questions the universal and specific articulations of Black experience. Eschewing a linear narrative, Jafa organises his material through formal and affective associations, linking his images through visual resemblance or thematic resonance. In this way Jafa aspires to an art that harnesses ‘the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.’

That’s from the press release. On the introductory wall label the curators say:

Embracing slippage and dissonance Jafa creates art that is as fluid and multidimensional as Blackness itself.

‘…as fluid and multidimensional as Blackness itself.’ What I took from the four exhibits on show here is that ‘Blackness’ as an artistic, critical and curatorial concept is indeed so fluid and multidimensional that artists, critics and curators can say almost anything about it and sound convincing. It lends power and a sense of urgency and relevance to even the most anodyne exhibition. It adds the spice of the ‘radical’ to a medium which all curators are uneasily aware is overwhelmingly white and bourgeois. Along with Gender it is a power word and, more than that, a kind of ideological matrix or discursive machine, which will continue to generate works and words, art and discourse, with ever-proliferating effect, for the foreseeable future.

From one perspective, ‘the Black experience’ as an art category is not so much the product of Black people’s actual experiences (which I imagine are very varied and complex) as it is of the liberal guilt of the White art establishment.

Who won?

Who do you think should have won the prize? It was won by Samuel Fosso, ‘the man of a thousand faces’. Why? Shoair Mavlian, the (White, obvz) Director of The Photographers’ Gallery and Chair of the Jury said that Fosso’s:

‘sustained exploration of self-portraiture uses a traditional, studio-based approach steeped in history, while at the same time his work remains relevant and addresses contemporary political issues of today with humour and authenticity. His work has created an extraordinary platform for Black voices and artists throughout his career.’

It’s a difficult choice but I think I liked Frida Orupabo’s weird, Gothic photomontages more than Fosso’s dressing up; and, although I’ve just given him a hard time, actually the clarity and design of Arthur Jafa’s diptychs have stayed with me days later, but then that’s American art for you, as slick and efficient as a Spielberg movie.

Who would you have given the prize to?


Related links

Atrocity reviews

More Photographers’ Gallery reviews

Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again, after:

British art curators can’t get enough American art. And the 1960s again, after:

The 1960s is art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’, which all exhibition curators love to use about all their exhibitions, actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on.

The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Betye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution – I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – managed to extract from it.


Related links

More Tate Modern reviews

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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