31 October 2006

Picturing Patriotism

I came across this image in a post byPaul Schmelzer at Off Center. It was created by Cameron Wittig to accompany an essay that Schmelzer wrote (and that I have as yet been unable to track down) on the "issues artists face when dealing with “political” subject matter." It was intended to capture "the difference between active citizenship and superficial patriotism."

"Flagging Patriotism" Photo © Cameron Wittig

While I like the image as a comment on the ways patriotism has been debased in the US since (at least) the period of the War in Vietnam, I have to object that Schmelzer & Wittig too quickly surrender the notion of patriotism to those who would construe it in narrow, uncritical ways. It is crucial to insist that patriots are not uncritical supporters of government policy, that they often object to such policy in the name of ideals, principals or commitments a government purports to serve but actually disregards or subverts, and that, consequently, dissent and criticism are patriotic activities.

PS: Added later that same day: Paul Schmelzer kindly directed me to the link for his provocative article.

The Uses of Photography: Instilling "Confidence in Corporate America"

Interior of packing house, ca. 1933. California Fruit Growers Exchange. (Photographer unknown )
This image is from the Industrial Life Photograph Collection at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School. A friend called my attention to their web page. Here is the introductory statement:

In the 1930s Harvard Business School colleagues Donald Davenport and Frank Ayres contacted leading businesses and requested photographs for classroom instruction—images Davenport hoped would “reveal the courage, industry and intelligence required of the American working man.” They amassed more than 2,100 photographs, from strangely beautiful views of men operating Midvale Steel’s 9,000-ton hydraulic press to women assembling tiny, delicate parts of Philco radios. Now students, and America’s aspiring corporate managers, had visual data to study “the human factor,” the interaction of worker and machine.

But the pictures were more than documentary records. They were the work of artists such as Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hine, and others, who produced highly stylized images meant to instill confidence in corporate America. Created in the years between the world wars, the Industrial Life Photograph Collection reveals the colliding—and sometimes competing—messages of art and industry, education and public relations, humanity and modernization."

It will seem clear to nearly anyone who has worked an industrial job that the images in this collection, while often striking, are more or less pure propaganda. While Davenport and Ayres may well have wanted to amass a set of images as a sort of encomium to "the American working man," a couple of things seem clear. First, they were interested in the individual worker and not "workers" as a collective entity, organized for economic and political struggle. Second, they were soliciting images from folks who had an interest in sanitizing work and working conditions. as the web page goes on to state: "Publicity departments responding to the Business Historical Society’s request for photographs typically sent a generous series of images that conveyed a persuasive story of corporate success."

This is an instance where photographs afford a poor substitute for actual experience. Instead of showing future business managers pictures of manual labor, the folks at Harvard Business School might have better served their charges by sending them off to work on the shop floor themselves.

30 October 2006

Pinochet - Haunting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al.

This is a picture of Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile, who has been placed under house arrest in Santiago on charges of murder and torture. Pinochet is 90 and may escape prosecution due to various medical maladies. The events in question occurred three decades ago following a US sanctioned coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. I trust the principals in the Bush Administration look at Pinochet as an omen, a foreshadowing of their own old age.


A Good War is Hard to Find

One evening last week I stopped at a local mega-bookstore to read for a while in between my office and the more or less constant prospect of domestic disharmony. It is a shame that these logo bookstores are among the only places to sit and read in this town; there are few decent coffee shops and none even vaguely on the route home from my office. At one point I got up and headed upstairs to see if there were new additions in the photography or philosophy sections (conveniently located adjacent to one another). On the way I spied an excellent new book by David Griffith A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press).

This is the sort of book I aspire to write. I couldn't write this book because, unlike Griffith, whose Catholicism informs his very personal reflections on American culture and politics, my own is very much lapsed, beaten out of me by the humiliations and hypocrisies of nine years in parochial schools.

Griffith is a writer and a teacher. On the evidence here, his students are very lucky to have him. He himself is deeply endebted to Southern writers Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and, especially, Flannery O'Connor. (Griffith's title is a reference to a story by O'Connor.) His writings here almost all have an autobiographical theme and almost all revolve around images of violence and particularly the images of torture from Abu Ghraib. His diagnosis of what led American servicemen and servicewomen to engage in torture and to photograph their crimes departs markedly from the moralism of Sontag for whom the bahavior reflects our pornographic culture. It departs even more from the sort of social psychological pronouncements about a few "bad apples" that we hear from apologists for Bush administration policy. Griffith inists that "moral and psychological interpretations of the scandal - usually in the service of ideology - fall short. There's another tragic, spiritual sense in which to understand the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib, a view formed by notions of innocence, sin and grace." He explores this alternative with considerable ethical insight. (I espsecially learned from his discussion of the grotesque.)

I find Griffith's stance in many ways persuasive, but also remain deeply skeptical. He repeatedly chastises Americans for mis-understanding or mis-interpreting what it means to inhabit a "Christian Nation." He at several points calls attention to the literal ignorance of American Chirstians, many of whom when questioned cannot, for instance, name the ten commandments. But I find this narrative of authentic Christianity despoiled by those who are inattentive to or ignorant of its teachings too easy. Here is Griffith: "Nations cannot be Christian, only individuals. And while it may be true that all those who believe in Christ are united in one body, they quickly find themselves at odds with one another, divided by those things that belong to Caesar." The problem for me is that the differences in political and social outlook among various sorts of American Christian cannot be attrbuted simply to the distractions of this world - as though there would not be differences in interpretation and doctrine absent such factors. Any cultural system (of which a religion is one variety) will be contested and contestable for all sorts of internal reasons. Such differences, it seems to me, invariably will play themselves out in politics.

Griffith's argument is thought provoking and he presents it in graceful prose and modest tone. Moreover the book is extremely well designed. Griffith collaborated with graphic designer Brett Yasko to produce a truly affecting volume. As I said, this is the kind of book I aspire to write.

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29 October 2006

Darfur/Darfur - Picturing Genocide, Compassion is Inappropriate

I want to call your attention to this new traveling exhibition Darfur/Darfur. It consists of works by photographers Lynsey Addario, Mark Brecke, Helene Caux, Ron Haviv, Paolo Pellegrin, Ryan Spencer Reed, Michal Safdie and Brian Steidle. It opened in mid-September at the James Cohan Gallery in NYC and is scheduled to travel to Charlottesville, Providence, Washington, Rochester, and Nashville in upcoming months.
Three girls search for firewood near a displaced persons camp. © Ron Haviv-VII / Courtesy of Darfur/Darfur.

© Brian Steidle

You can get a quick glimpse of recent events in a report on the exhibition by Suzanne Charlé "Capturing Compassion," on The Nation web page. I also recommend "Watching Genocide, Doing Nothing" by Eric Reeves in the Fall issue of Dissent as well as the reports by Human Rights Watch. The problem, of course, is that while the genocide is generating a humanitarian crisis, its causes are fundamentally political. So compassion is off the mark. What is required is concerted political action and Americans, at least, seem entirely unwilling or unable to undertake action in this case.


28 October 2006

Just in Time for Holiday Giving: New Tom Waits

I have always liked Tom Waits. Indeed, Mule Variations (1999) is one of my very favorite records. It came out at a particularly appropriate time for me and what self-respecting political theorist can pass up an album that quotes Hobbes?

So I was quite pleased when I heard a bit ago that Waits is releasing a new three CD "album" entitled "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards" on November 20th. It contains 54 songs, 30 new originals, way more than enough to warm one's heart through the entire holiday season. You can read an interview with Waits in The Guardian today.

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26 October 2006

Reconsiderations of Iraq

Norman Geras, a very smart political theorist whose work I have always respected, was an early, stalwart defender of the Iraq war. He has recently (10/15) written reconsidering his poition. You can find his comments here. Geras basically suggests that in hindsight supporting the invasion clearly was a mistake. He nonetheless seems to think that matters were much less clear ex ante. I guess I don't quite buy the caveat. When a bunch of right wingers (which Geras, by the way, is not) say "Trust Us, there are really good reasons to do as we suggest." there is good reason to be suspicious. Geras and others who supported the war early on simply were not distrustful enough of a crowd that had given ample evidence that their motives were suspect and strategy (such as it was) deficient. Moreover, what lessons have we learned about large powers invading developing countries? The record is not good. I am not writing to say "Told You So!" but to suggest that progressive thinkers really need to watch who they ally themselves with and actually look dispassionately at the historical record. Geras and others did not like Saddam Hussein. Neither did I. But the crowd urging that we invade Iraq was intimately tied up with the crowd that installed Hussein and propped him up for so long. So why would you find them credible?

PS: On Bush's "news" conference. Simply jettisoning rhetoric ("We are no longer saying 'stay the course,' we're 'flexible'!) is just talk. He never offered a single change in strategy or tactics, never said how he would be accountable for the fiasco, never .... well, you get the point. This is 'stay the course!' without the label.


24 October 2006

SUV Follies - Rearview Cameras

The single worst automobile I ever owned was a Ford Explorer. I got rid of it before the loan was paid off for various reasons, most prominently was that it was a completely unsafe gas hog. Since that time, automakers have been putting SUVs on steroids and they've gotten humongous. Research suggests that the social, economic, and environmental consequences of this preoccupation with size have been uniformly negative. And it is not driven by market demand but instead largely by the vast sums automakers spend lots to manuipulate market demand by aiming their products at the most fearful and agreessive among us.

One common - yes, common - consequence of the way more and more Biffs and Buffys drive bigger and bigger SUVs is that they tend to back over their offspring. A story in yesterday's New York Times cites studies suggesting that "every week two children are killed in the United States when a car backs over them," often in private driveways. This is because the "blind spot" behind the big vehicles often is cavernous and Buffy simply cannot see little Biff, Jr. as she throws the car into reverse. As the author of the Times story reports: "Indeed, tests by Consumers Union which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, confirm that the blind zone behind minivans and S.U.V.’s ranges from 12 feet to a whopping 69 feet — enough to conceal my daughter’s entire nursery school class." The ressponse - surely we wouldn't want to opt for smaller, more fuel efficient, safer vehicles! - is to install video cameras and montiors so that Biff and Buffy can see what is behind them.

How does this relate to politics? Well, there are the dmoestic social, economic and environmental problems to which SUV's contribute. And there is also the fact that we are highly dependent on oil supplies in the Middle East - leading us to launch to hypocritical wars with some dictators and engage in hypcritical obeisance to others. Other than that, it doesn't really relate at all.

21 October 2006


Here is an announcement for a forum at the Hungarian Cultural Center in NYC this Tuesday night (24 October). The organizers aim to commemorate the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and to explore how it persists in memory and ideology (hence the title!). Several days ago I posted about how memory of that event became ideologized in a recent story in The New York Times.

I added this image today (23 October) because it is the second part of the display about which I posted earlier. It occupies the billboard around the corner in Times Square (Broadway & 50th Street in Manhattan) as you can see at left. The HCC page offers the following statement of its aims: "We hope that the Times Square billboard campaign promotes dialogue and inquiry around a sometimes forgotten but nonetheless important historic occurrence." It is interesting to compare the notion of freedom implicit in the title of the HCC campaign "Re-imagine Freedom" which echoes Hannah Arendt for whom freedom consists in the capacity to act together in public with the "negative" conception of freedom commonly embraced by Americans who wish mostly to be left alone to pursue their own projects and aims.


Exhibition: "In the Face of History"

As I mentioned in a post several days ago, there is a new exhibition in London entitled "In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century". There is review of the show by Blake Morrison in The Guardian today. It reads in part:

"Writers and artists have always veered between these contrasting versions of history. On the one hand, it is argued, history is about global events - war, conflict, famine, terrorism, mass movements of people around the planet - and to record history means being in the front line, at crisis point, bearing witness to violent change. On the other hand, there are those who see history as the slow march of time, with most of us largely untouched by political turmoil, since our lives consist of what human life has always consisted of: birth, work, procreation, friendship and play. One view values journalistic reportage, the other the eternal verities. One view is happening, the other un-happening. One is epitomised by the feverishness of Auden's 'Spain' ('Yesterday the classic lecture / On the origin of Mankind. But today the struggle'), the other by the placidity of his "Musée Des Beaux Arts" (apocalyptic events happening while "someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"); or by Thomas Hardy in a poem of 1915: 'Only thin smoke without flame / From the heaps of couch-grass; / Yet this will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass.'

What's striking about In the Face of History, a new exhibition of 20th-century photographs at the Barbican, London, is the way it marshals images from both camps. "

The review is especially interesting for the way Morrison treats the images included in the exhibition by Henryk Ross of the Lodz Ghetto during WWII. Unfortunately, Rochester is a long way from London!

20 October 2006

On the Political Economy of Art in the U.S.

There are two books that I have purchased lately that look promising, even if I have only skimmed them so far. The first is by historian Michael Kammen, entitled Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (Knopf, 2006).

The second is by (libertarian) economist Tyler Cowen, entitled Good & Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding (Princeton UP, 2006). [In his spare timem Cowen is one-half of the blooging staff at Marginal Revolution.]

From what I can tell, Kammen essentially tries to remain non-commital about essentially contested events, while Cowen strongly endorses a non-commital system of arts funding, namely indirect subsidies that do not seek to determine official criteria for what counts as "good" in the aesthetic domain. You can find a review of the pair of books - "Whose Art is it Anyway?" by Peter Palgens - in The Nation (12 October 2006).

Losing the War: Don't Blame the Photographs

Well, by all accounts, including the U.S. military's and the Bush administration's, the war seems to be going dismally. Nearly 75 US service men and women dead since 1 October. And reports of innumerable Iraqi dead streaming in on. not a daily, but an hourly basis.

The right-wingers in the US who perpetrated this fraud have no one to blame but themselves. They started the war and then screwed things up again and again. The invsaion of Iraq was a strategic blunder, rationalized by multiple lies, and compounded by many policy/tactical mis-steps. The right will no doubt seek some way to spin this looming defeat as the fault of those who oppsed the boondoggle. But remember that the Democrats were almost entirely supine regarding the war - either because they believed administration lies or didn't have the backbone to say they disbelieved them. John Kerry should be kicking himself for not having actually run a real campaign against the BushCo foreign policy. His failure to do so ought to disqualify him from any future opportunities to run for national office.

And, of course, the mainstream press (at least in the US) gave the administration a free pass too. Yet, here we have headlines in the Allied press: "We've lost battle for Baghdad, US admits. President concedes war may be at turning point. Mounting death toll brings comparison with Vietnam" . And here is the Domestic press: "U.S. Says Violence in Baghdad Rises, Foiling Campaign".

For those who are repeating the incantation "Stay the Course!", I recommend this slideshow. Of course, in the story from The Guardian, administration spokesman Tony Snow had this to say: "The president was making a point that he's made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States."

The time-honored strategy of blaming the messenger is at work again. (You'll remember the initial adminsitration response to the Abu Ghraib torture photographs.) Mr. Snow might consider the possibility that if there were positive results (from the administration's perspective) to photograph, the press might well be circulating such images. (Remember the staged downing of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad back when victory seemed assured?) The problem is not the pictures but the reality they depict. And that reality is purely the responsoibility of Mr. Snow's boss and his minions. Snow also assures us that the POTUS is still resolute: "The important thing to remember is that the president is determined it's not going to happen with Iraq, because you have a president who is determined to win." Unfortunately, I do not find that terribly confidence inspiring since such single-minded determination (otherwise known as ideological fervor) is what got us into this mess in the first place.

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19 October 2006

Jerome Liebling

“The spirit of photography is ultimately a concern with a way of seeing and encountering the world. For me, it is a combination of visual aesthetics and social action.” — Jerome Liebling

Union Square, New York City, 1948 - © Jerome Liebling

A Tribute was held this evening at the Museum of Television & Radio (NYC) in honor of photographer Jerome Liebling. The New York Times ran a story about the event today. I had not been familiar with his work which (as the quotation above would suggest) seems to be standard documentary style. Of the images I have been able to find on-line, I especially like the one here. It seems to be among the few where Liebling departs from standard individual frontal shots.

Liebling evidently had a major influence on a whole generation of filmmakers. The Times story is more about one of these students, Ken Burns, than it is about Leibling himself. I find Burns more or less insufferable and blame him for collaborating with the sanctimonious Wynton Marsalis on a neoconservative narrative of Jazz a few years back.

The Minnesota Center for Photography also hung a retrospective of Liebling's work last spring. Liebling taught photography and film at the University of Minnesota for 20 years. He then taught at Hampshire College until 1990, where he founded a program in film and photography. Hampshire named its film/photography/video center after Liebling in 2004. Burns was among Liebling's students at Hampshire. You can find some of Liebling's pictures here and a brief, recent interview with him here and a more dated one here.


18 October 2006

Conceptions of Mind and How We Might Remember this War

In a short essay on the uses of photography in creating a radical basis for collective memory - by contextualizing images of the Iraq war and circulating them on the internet, - Julian Stallabrass ["Not in Our Name." Art Monthly #293 (February 2006) p. 1-4] makes the following remarks.

" In the late 60s and early 70s, photographic images of the Vietnam War played an important part in shifting opinion against the conflict, in the US and elsewhere. ... Yet how are such images remembered, and what does their remembrance mean in the present?

In much art writing, a reflex Freudianism governs what passes for the analysis of memory. It is ignorant of or wishes away the thorough theoretical and scientific discrediting of psychoanalysis, and the 20 years or so of extraordinary research on the brain that has not merely proven its faults but has offered a complex, unexpected and fertile alternative. Some of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, notably repression, which have become so worn with use that they are now taken as commonsense, have remarkably little relation to what is known about how minds work. The art world's model of the mind remains stuck in the past, as does the aspect of its radicalism that has such faith in the power of culture, that it is happy to fix the superstructure and let the base look after itself."

The rest of the essay is pretty interesting. But it seems to me that Stallabrass is laying down a real challenge, not only to theorists whole insist on embracing a vaguely Freaudian view of mind, but also to those like himself (and me, if perhaps for different reasons) who have real doubts that such a conception is plausible. How do we make a connection between a vision of the mind and how it works and our theoretical accounts of how photographs can be used to capture imagination or sustain memory in what inevitably will be partial and contested ways?

PS: Stallabrass is senior lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, London. He is author of art Incorporated (OUP 2004) and of a terrific essay on Salgado and fine art photojournalism in the New Left Review (1997).


17 October 2006

Discovering Emmy Andriesse

I saw this commentary in The Guardian this afternoon. I am completely unfamiliar with Andriesse and had difficulty finding a copy on the web of the image Rawsthorn describes.
But it sounds like it will be well worthwhile to track down her work. Andriesse seems to have been a courageous and creative woman.

A Secret history
A new exhibition of Emmy Andriesse's work is a compelling visual documentary of occupied Amsterdam.

Alice Rawsthorn
Tuesday October 17, 2006
The Guardian

Not one of the shoes has laces, and the soles are worn into raggedy slithers. Torn socks slump around the boys' ankles, and one boy's knees bear the telltale lumps of having been badly set after an accident: Emmy Andriesse's image of boys' legs dangling over broken shards of concrete bears the hallmarks of 1940s avant garde documentary photography. Beautifully composed with striking use of light and shade, it aestheticises the subjects without flinching from their pain. Formally seductive though her portrayal of the bruises, tattered clothing and fractured concrete are, Andriesse leaves us with no doubt as to the severity of the poverty and brutality that caused them.

Read as a study of wartime poverty, the image is compelling, as are the other photographs taken by Andriesse of daily life in Amsterdam during its "winter of hunger" in 1944-45. Yet unlike other documentary photographers noted for their sensitive portrayals of oppression and deprivation, such as Lee Miller's of wartime Europe, Andriesse was more than an observer. As a Jew, she was a participant in - and victim of - the brutality and persecution of occupied Amsterdam during the second world war.

Born in 1914, Andriesse studied on what was considered to be the radical advertising course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague from 1933 to 1937. There she was encouraged to experiment with the formal possibilities of photography, and with its political role as a documentary medium. After graduating, she became a fashion photographer for Dutch newspapers and continued these assignments in the early years of the war until, as a Jew, she was forbidden to work and, in 1943, forced to go into hiding.

It was only after obtaining forged papers that Andriesse was able to photograph again, working with the Underground Camera group of documentary photographers. Even then she had to work in secrecy, often at grave personal risk, sometimes snatching images from her doorstep of life on the street outside. The precariousness of her situation is reflected in their intensity.

After the war Andriesse worked as a fashion photographer and portraitist until her death from cancer in 1953. (Sadly, like so many women who had worked with great courage in wartime, she may have had no choice but to work in a more conventionally feminine field.) Yet in her "winter of hunger" photographs of the boys' tangled legs, a uniformed gravedigger, and children huddling for warmth, Andriesse showed people playing the roles that history had dealt them with dignity and humanity.

Emmy Andriesse's work is part of "In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century." 13 October 2006 - 28 January 2007, Barbican Art Gallery, London. The other photographers included in the exhibition are Eugene Atget, Brassai, Robert Doisneau, Ed van der Elsken, Seiichi Furuya, Jitka Hanzlová, Craigie Horsfield, Sune Jonsson, Viktor Kolár', André Kertész, Chris Killip, Boris Mikhailov, Anders Petersen, Henryk Ross, Inta Ruka, Michael Schmidt, Annelies Štrba, Christer Strömholm, Josef Sudek, Wolfgang Tillmans, S. I. Witkiewicz.

You can find more of Andriesse's work here and here and here.

16 October 2006

World Food Day: Picturing Hungry Children

Here is a slideshow from The Guardian meant to prompt readers/viewers to think about chronic hunger. I have to say that this strikes me a singularly ineffective. More images of starving babies, espeically brown or black or yellow babies in exotic locales, is unlikely to convey the scope of the tragedy. Such images are unlikely to prompt the large scale political initiatives needed to address the problem. The Guardian sends us to the page for the UN World Food Program in order to promote understanding of the aggregate situation. But the images they present do literally nothing to address the problem at that level.

15 October 2006

Baghdad is a Very Long Way From Budapest: Fabricating Fantasies at The New York Times

I started reading a story in today's New York Times because of the politics-photography intersection. The billboard shown here is being displayed (for a mere $100,000 paid by the Hungarian Cultural Center) in Times Square to commemoriate the October 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Unfortunately, I had to stop in disbelief several times at the sheer murkiness of the reasoning on display in the article. The author, Roger Cohen, first plays up the BushCo party line that not only is the "war on terror" analogous to the Cold War against communism, but that, in some as yet undisclosed way, the Iraq invasion has something to do with the war on terror. Both steps in that reasoning are, to be polite, strained. (Unless, of course, one were to mention that the invasion has provided a focal point for the recruiting efforts of terrorist groups. Cohen does not take that step.) Nonetheless here is Cohen: " The Hungarian events are far away, but are they? Once again, in Middle Eastern guise, the United States confronts issues of containment or rollback, of moral principle or pragmatic caution, of liberty or stability."

The hook for the story is that the fellow depicted on the billboard - standing to the left of the Soviet tank - now lives in NYC and, coincidently, looked up to discover himself in the photograph, taken fifty years ago. And, of course, it was a complete surprise since he never even knew the picture existed. That is indeed an interesting hook - the vagaries of history and all that. Too bad Cohen didn't resist the urge to exploit it as a further prop in his fantasy story. The man's son, it turns out, currently is serving with the US Army in Iraq. Predictably enough, Cohen cannot pass up the opportunity to quote from the soldier's letter home, written on Septemeber 11 and describing how the events of that day in 2001 changed his life. Of course, there has never been any plausible case made for a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks either. So why this letter home is germane to the story is purely a link on Mr. Cohen's mind.

According to The Times Cohen is a columnist for The International Herald Tribune. It seems to me that he is an accomplished fiction writer. Perhaps, if he is looking for a new job he can check with the Bush administration, since he seems to inhabit the same fantasitc world as they.

All this is not to say that there are no connections between Budapest 1956 and our current disaster in Baghdad. This unattributed photo of Hungarians surrounding a toppled statue of Stalin accompanies The Times story.

This event clearly provided part of the inspiration for a staged re-enactment in Baghdad in April 2003. In this AP photo, for example, we see Iraqi crowds trying to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein. Ultimately, you will recall, they required American military asasistance to bring the tyrant's likeness down.

For an incisive, short analysis of this latter photo-op I recommend David Levi Strauss "Media Watch: Fallen Image" Aperture (172) Fall 2003, page 10. As Levi Strauss points out, the images of Hussein's statue being pulled down work partly because they draw resonance from prior photographs like the one from Budapest. And, in that sense, they don't so much tell us the truth, as "represent what we wish to be true." If only - we wish! - the Irag improglio were black and white like the Cold War (or, as we can imagine it to be when we surpress the iconvenient fact that Hungarians revolted with tagic results in part because we, the US, falsely led them to believe that we would actively support them). Unfortunaately it is not. In fact, the resemblence between these images brings to mind Marx's quip that while Hegel noted how historical events repeat themselves, he forgot to add that that they tyically appear first as tragedy and then as farce.

Having said all of that, is it possible that the billboard pictured above is a standing indictment of US foreign policy? Is it possible that the Hungarians are sending a message that we ought not to use distant populations as props for our own geo-political ambitions or projects?

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13 October 2006

The Nobel Prize for ....

Bangladeshi Economist Muhammad Yunus has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for conceiving and implementating the practice of "micro-credit" through the Grameen Bank which he founded in 1976. You can read the announcement from the Nobel Foundation here. It reads, in part, that the Prize Committee "has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006, divided into two equal parts, to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights."

Micro-credit, as the name implies involves making very small, often wholly unsecured loans to individuals for purposes of establishing commercial enterprises. It turns out that the recipients of credit though the bank are overwhelmingly women. It also turns out that the repayment rates for loans through the bank is roughly 98%. This explains why Yunus did not receive the Prize for Economics - he is far too concerned with peace, gender equality, democracy and human rights for that! Moreover, the fundemental premises of micro credit are not obviously compatible with the theoretical micro-foundations of economic theory insofar as the lending practices of the bank are based in large measure on trust and the working of social norms. “We have no guarantee, no references, no legal instrument, and still it works — it defies all the conventional wisdom,” Dr. Yunus told Fortune magazine in a recent interview. So much the worse for conventional wisdom. This is not to say that micro credit is a panacea, or that the informal social processes on which it relies are wholly unobjectionable, but it does strongly suggest that development programs can rely on a range of possible mechanisms. And it also suggests that it is necessary to establish legal and political arrangements to offset potential side-effects of changing gender relations.

[The quotation comes from the story in The New York Times as does the photograph above - © Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters. The image depicts Muhammad Yunus and his wife Afrozi speaking to reporters in Dhaka, Bangladesh.]


12 October 2006

Enthusiasms (3): Billy Bang

A short while ago the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual list of fellows. Among the recipients was jazz violinist Regina Carter. The Foundation cited Carter for "marrying conservatory training with a broad range of eclectic influences to invent a modern repertoire for the violin in contemporary and improvisational music." When I read this, I was, to say the least, a bit surprised. Without wishing to in any way call into question Regina Carter's talent or hard work or creativity, this citation is simply false, at least insofar as it attributes considerably more "invention" to Ms. Carter than she herself surely would claim.

There is, after all, a venerable lineage of violinists in jazz, including such old timers as Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. And, of course, Ray Nance played violin sometimes for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. One might complain that such traditional contributions do not really fall within the catergory of "contemporary and improvisational music." But even there, one might point to Leory Jenkins as well as the fellow whom this post actually is about - Billy Bang.

I had listened to Billy Bang occasionally but started to pay more attention over the course of several years because he appeared fairly regularly at shows put on here in Rochester at The Bop Shop. In particular, he appeared a couple of times with the wonderful percussionist Kahil El'Zabar. You can hear their collaboration on Spirits Entering (Delmark 2001)

Bang has been a stalwart on the avant garde jazz scene for decades. More recently, he has received great press (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] ) for two recordings that represent a personal reckoning with his experience as an infantryman in Vietnam. Both records, Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005) were recorded for the Montreal-based Justin Time label.

Most of the musicians on both discs are also Vietnam veterans. And on the second recording, Bang also collaborates with a Vietnamese vocalist and musician.

You can find an extended interview (2003) with Bill Bang here. He lacks the conservatory training that Regina Carter and others have received. But he is a truly wonderful, creative musician. I had the pleasure of hearing him play once again this evening. I urge you to catch him if you have a chance; there is a schedule of his larger upcoming shows on the web page I link to above. In the show tonight Bang and his excellent quartet played mainly compositions from the Vietnam records, but he also played others from a forthcoming CD on the TUM label. On one number in particular - "At Play In The Fields Of The Lord" - he performed a solo that left little doubt that, like jazz itself, the effort to "invent" a repertoire for jazz violin is a collective undertaking.


PS: Added 10/13/06 - I forgot to mention that the other members of Bang's current quartet are Andrew Bemkey (piano), Todd Nicholson (bass), Newman Taylor Baker (drums).

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11 October 2006

Anna and Aïna: An Independent Press and Its Vicissitudes

I want to mention two stories from Open Democracy [1] [2] that are related in multiple ways. Both have to do with the difficulties of establishing a free press in circumstances that are hardly democratic. And they concern countries that share a tragic history - Russia and Afghanistan.

The first report concerns the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya last Saturday in Moscow. It is nearly certain that this murder was a a contract killing, retribution for Politkovskaya's critical reporting in Novaya Gazeta on a variety of powerful political and economic and criminal interests.

The second story actually is an interview with Iranian photographer Reza regading his efforts to help establish an independent press in Afghanistan through an NGO called Aina. The organization offers training in photography, journalism, and film-making it also supports publishing and community radio ventures. It is especially active among and on behalf or Afghani women. You can learn more about Reza and find examples of his photography at the web page for his photo agnecy Webistan. Accouring to the Aina web site the organization is experiencing financial difficulties - send them a check.

10 October 2006

Annie & Susan - "a love story."

It sems like the photographic "event" this fall is the appearance of Annie Leibovitz's A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 (Random House) and the exhibition of the same work at the Brooklyn Museum starting later this month. You can find stories in The New York Times and The Guardian [ and Open Democracy].

Leibovitz is a truly talented photographer (I am certain she will be relieved finally to hear my assessment!). The images in this book make that quite clear. One major focus of this work is Leibovitz's personal life and particularly her relationship with Susan Sontag. As Leibovitz recently said in an interview for The Times, “With Susan it was a love story.” The other evening I had the chance to look through the new book and it is clear from the pictures of Sontag that Leibovitz includes that that statement really captures their life together. It is in many ways incredibly touching. Despite the complaints to which the press acconts allude, I admire Leibovitz for publishing the book.

I am surprised to find myself saying that because, despite her many intellectual and political virtues, more often than not I found Sontag's views on photograpahy maddeningly wrongheaded. I have said as much in a previous post and at much greater length in one of the papers I've posted in the sidebar here. Moreover, I don't much like many of Leibovitz's photographic preoccupations. For instance, as The Guardian correspondent says in setting up her story: "She [Leibovitz] is not long returned from her most recent, hugely publicised shoot of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their baby at their ranch in Colorado." To say that I could not care less would be charitable.

So here is where things get a bit dicey. My qualms begin with Sontag's essay "A Photograph is Not an Opinion, Or Is It?," originally written as a sort of introduction for Leibovitz's Women (Random House), which I first read in Sontag's collection of essays Where the Stress Falls (FSG, 2001). At that point I (being a bumpkin from the provinces) didn't know that Sontag and Leibovitz in fact were sharing a life. And I couldn't figure for the life of me why Sontag was so effusive. I plan to go back and re-read the essay and look again at the pictures. Perhaps I can better see the affinities that escaped me last time. I'm not so sure.

Why? In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag criticizes Sebastiao Salgado's Migrations project for being "complicit, if inadvertantly, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph," namely one of anonymous suffering. I think this complaint is completely off base, but will not rehearse my reasons here. What I found astonishing when I first read it is that Sontag, herself clearly, if perhaps inadvertantly, a beneficiary of the "cult of celebrity," could level such a charge against others, let alone Salgado. What I find even more astonishing is that she could accuse anyone of complicity in that cult of celebrity while at the same time singing the praises of Leibovitz who has made her career by contributing - not at all "inadvertantly" - to precisely the celebration of celebrity that Sontag apparently found so distasteful. I guess maybe astonishing is not the proper word. This, however, is not the proper place to say what I really think. It might distract from the love story.

[Thanks fo Peter Loewen for prompting me on this post.]

PS: ADDED 10/11/06. It seems that there is a bit too much preoccupation with just what sort of relationship Sontag & Leibovitz actually had. In The Guardian story we are told: "In public at least, they never referred to themselves as a couple. "Words like 'companion' and 'partner' were not in our vocabulary," Leibovitz says. "We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still 'friend'."" The problem is that with celebrity comes the familiar sort of People titillation with such matters. It is the cost of extraordinary privilege I suppose. I think that this is a love story and a touching one. It is a wonderful tale of emotional and intellectual connection. So, while it may seem ironic for me to say this having spent time writing about it, everyone should leave the two women alone.

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08 October 2006

Watching the World Change

This afternoon I picked up what I think will be an interesting and useful book Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by David Friend. You can find a brief blurb on the book at the FSG site. But Friend also is keeping a blog here to discuss reactions to the book. I think that that sort of interactive response is admirable.

I have not even begun to read the book, but simply skimming it and looking at some of the images Friend discusses, a couple of things popped out at me. The first is that among the images he reproduces is the one I posted a couple weeks back on the 9/11 anniversary. As it turns out (and as is mentioned in the column I linked to in my post) this image has sort of disappeared because editors think it too difficult to see. I find that it brings home the tragedy and terror of 9/11 in a visceral way. I imagine myself falling.

Second, I also noticed this passage: "The terrorists' motive was so warped, their method so pyrotechnic, the result so profoundly painful that the horror literally had to be seen, and seen again, to be believed. So inconceivable was the event that viewers doubted not their television screens, but their eyes. ... People with cameras understood immediately: only rendering this act visually would confirm its reality; only images, not words, would suffice."

Here, Friend could be channelling Susan Sontag or Walter Lippmann, both of whom, as I noted recently, make a more general claim for the relationship between photographic images and credibility. What is it about photography or about belief that sustains this relation?

I look forward to reading the book and will no doubt offer some more systematic reactions when I've done so.

PS: Some portion of the proceeds from the book will go "to the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund and to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma."

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07 October 2006

Lies Upon Lies: Keith Olbermann Calls Bush Out

Here is Keith Olbermann, former sports announcer for ESPN turned news analyst at MSNBC, directly addressing Bush. He stresses Bush's repeated dissembling and fabrications in a context where not only do we have evidence that the administration is increasiingly out of touch with reality, but Bush himself has publically preached tolerance and reconciliation. Olbermann aparently was prompted by the tale of lies Bush has been spreading at various stops on a political fund-raising tour across the southwestern states.

Here are some excerpts:

"Why has the ferocity of your venom against the Democrats now exceeded the ferocity of your venom against the terrorists?

Why have you chosen to go down in history as the president who made things up?

In less than one month you have gone from a flawed call to unity to this clarion call to hatred of Americans, by Americans.

If this is not simply the most shameless example of the rhetoric of political hackery, then it would have to be the cry of a leader crumbling under the weight of his own lies."

And Again:

"And here we are, the fabric of our Constitution being unraveled, ...

Habeus corpus neutered; the rights of self-defense now as malleable and impermanent as clay; a president stifling all critics by every means available and, when he runs out of those, by simply lying about what they said or felt."

And again:

"Mr. President, these new lies go to the heart of what it is that you truly wish to preserve. It is not our freedom, nor our country--your actions against the Constitution give irrefutable proof of that.

You want to preserve a political party's power. And obviously you'll sell this country out, to do it.

These are lies about the Democrats -- piled atop lies about Iraq -- which were piled atop lies about your preparations for al Qaida.

To you, perhaps, they feel like the weight of a million centuries -- as crushing, as immovable.
They are not.

If you add more lies to them, you cannot free yourself, and us, from them. But if you stop -- if you stop fabricating quotes, and building straw-men, and inspiring those around you to do the same -- you may yet liberate yourself and this nation.

Please, sir, do not throw this country's principles away because your lies have made it such that you can no longer differentiate between the terrorists and the critics."

This, I think, is truly astounding and overdue. You can find the transcript and video on Alternet.

06 October 2006


There is a certain delicious quality to the predicament that the Republicans find themselves in these days. That said, a number of things strike me as salient about the Foley matter.

(1) The Congressman engaged in completely inappropriate behavior. Being a drunk or having been molested as a child, even if they are not simply claims fabricated to divert attention and responsibility, are not excuses. His interactions with a sixteen year old are not that same as Clinton's (also unacceptable) relationship with a 22 year old intern (Monica) as many apologists on the right insist. But a 16 year old is not exactly a child either as many opportunistic leftists seem to think. Sendng inappropriate cyber messages is not the same thing as haivng physical contact with a young child. (I write as the father of two teenage sons.) How to sort all that out is a problem, but it is getting run together in much of the discussion. It is crucial to find out, and be clear about, precisely what was going on.

(2) The Republican leadership in Congress, if it is established that they knew about all this and did nothing, are much the same as Catholic Bishops who moved pedophilic priests around from parish to parish without taking steps to protect young parishoners. In other words, the leadership should be investigated and held accountable too. And should any Democrats get swept up in this (was the minority leadership wholly unaware of Foley's behavior?) they should be held accountable as well. So, following on point one, how about an independent counsel? Then we could get to actual poltical matters in the weeks leading up to the election.

(3) The right-wing pundits and politicians who are focusing on the way this story emerged instead of on what Foley and his fellow partisans have been up to are sniveling hypocrites. This latest affair simply highlights that well-known quality.

(4) As is typical, Katha Pollitt has cut through the cant and hyperbole and hypocrisy surrounding the Foley affair. She has a column in The Nation entitled "Foley's IMbroglio" in which she comments on the way the press and the Democrats have gleefully embraced this latest sideshow instead of actually addressing problems of war and the economy and political corruption. The premise for the press and politicos seems to be that the voting public simply doessn't care abaout such matters. Pollitt concludes:

"Financial corruption like the Abramoff affair is complicated and boring, but everyone understands sexual shenanigans. Perhaps, but are the voters really so brain-dead? Is there no point trying to whip them up into a frenzy about some outrage that actually matters? Like, oh, Bush's refusal to declassify the full National Intelligence Estimate documenting how the Iraq War has created more terrorists. Or Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent--so much so that Senator Frist said he wants to put them in the government. Have we given up on habeas corpus, just voted away with the help of twelve Democratic Senators and twelve House Dems, including Sherrod Brown, often praised in this magazine? It would be interesting if someone mentioned the record Foley compiled on the rare occasions when he zipped up his pants and went to work--like his support for that stupid 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, and for denying public education to illegal immigrant children. Now that's what I call child molestation.

It shows you how hapless and shallow the Democrats are that they find so little electoral joy in a principled coherent challenge to Republican rule. Instead, we get tactical theatrics over whatever comes down the pike: last month gas prices, this week Foley. I see why the Democrats feel they have to do it: They're too compromised, the contests are too close and the discourse has been dumbed down for so long, it takes something simple and splashy to get people's attention. But it doesn't say much for the party--or for the rest of us, either. "

I agree.

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05 October 2006

Dissent Is Patriotic

I am not familiar with the music of either Darryl Worley or John Mayer. I don't intend to rush out to find it. They are, however, the protagonists in a story from The New York Times (5 October 06) entitled "Two Views of the War, Both Short on Swagger" where you can find he following opening hook:

"Right now two songs about war are climbing radio station playlists. And on the surface they seem pretty predictable. The country singer Darryl Worley, who is known for his patriotism, is singing about a brave veteran. And the singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer, who has been critical of the war in Iraq, is singing about opposition to the war."

In this passage the correspondent for The Times, Kelefa Sanneh unreflectively allows the right to set the agenda. Why not simply say that Worley is pro-war and Mayer against it? Being pro-war makes Worley naive and gullible but it surely does not make him patriotic, any more than being anti-war makes Mayer unpatriotic. The editors of the paper have no business allowing this sort of thing to appear in print.


David Levi Strauss on Magic & Images

"Photographs have a kind of authority over imagination to-day which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable." (Walter Lippmann, 1922)

At some point in On Photography Sontag invokes this passage from Lippmann approvingly. Neither writer, however, (nor any other with which I am familar) actually suggests why this is the case, why photographs have credibility for modern men and women. David Levi Strauss is writing a book entitled Images and Belief that apparently addresses that crucial question. Last night I stumbled on this new essay by Levi Strauss last night. In it he suggests how his argment will proceed. I think his work is always worth reading, hence this post.

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04 October 2006


Leon Golub. "This Could Be You" (2002).

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03 October 2006

Victory Celebration

I noticed this sad item in today's New York Times:

In Bill’s Fine Print, Millions to Celebrate Victory

[...] "Tucked away in fine print in the military spending bill for this past year was a lump sum of $20 million to pay for a celebration in the nation’s capital “for commemoration of success” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the money was not spent.

Now Congressional Republicans are saying, in effect, maybe next year. A paragraph written into spending legislation and approved by the Senate and House allows the $20 million to be rolled over into 2007.

The original legislation empowered the president to designate 'a day of celebration' to commemorate the success of the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to 'issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe that day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.'" [...]

Perhaps someone ought to tell the newly resurgent Taliban and the various Sunni insurgents and Shii'a death squads that the celebration is ready to commence. Perhaps they will lay down arms and join the festivities.

Art as Social Action: Mark Rothko

This is a portrait of the painter Mark Rothko in his New York studio, circa 1953, taken by Henry Elkan.

I do not know much about Rothko personally or politically, but I do like his paintings. That probably makes me the median visitor to nearly any museum that shows his work! In any case, I picked up a copy of his The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art (Yale UP, 2004) and have been dipping into it over the past several days. One passage I discovered strikes me as telling:

"Art is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does.

It might be said that its use as a form of action is dependent upon the numbers which it effects. ... Needless to say this sort of measure will lead one to the most absurd conclusions. ... How far a single impulse can extend in its effect is unpredictable. One minute stimulus can be more far-reaching, can effect the course of society more significantly in a single minute than a thousand other stimuli - whose effect is more obvious - might over a hundred years."

This view resonates in two ways. Most obviously it seems correct to think about art generally and photography in particular in terms of its effects, its consequences, whether those be intimate or expansive. Second, it also seems right not to prejudge what those effects might be. Here I am reminded of the argument Rebecca Solnit makes in her Hope in the Dark (Nation Books, 2004) regarding the unforeseeable effects political or artistic interventions might have across time and distance. This is something about which I've posted before [here] in discussing some remarks Alfredo Jaar made about the consequences his work may or may not have had. The perspective that Rothko and Solnit seem to share counsels patience and hope (not naive optimism) in the face of seeming failure and irrelevance. I must say it is a view I find difficult to fully embrace. But it is one I would like to find persuasive. So, I leave you with one striking example of Rothko's social action.


PS: Added 10/4/06. Lest you misunderstand, Rothko was writing in the early 1940s (this ms. was "lost" for many years) and makes the statements I note in the context of a defense of artists who might be accused of "escapism." He is defending artistic freedom not suggesting that we should endorse didactic criteria for assessing artists or their work. His point is simply that no matter how "abstract" or "personal" artistic work might appear, it is still social action insofar as it is an intervention in the world that potentially has effects.

So, how then, does this square with my criticism of Nikki Lee in my post yesterday? Well, it seems to me that she is using common preoccupations with social identity as no more than a ruse to present herself in a sort of exhibitionist way; in effect she is saying "look at me!", "look at the things I can do!", "aren't I clever!?!" In the end, I really don't find that sort of self-absorption terribly interesting, especially since she is displaying her cleverness by making it seem as though she is concerned about something else. Without the pretense she is probably not especially clever or interesting. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the trend seems to be toward more explicit preoccupation with Nikki rather than with the broader issues she is exploiting.

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Nikki S. Lee - Identity Politics?

Well, I had seen some of Nikki S. Lee's work from various "projects" in which she is photograpahed, having assiduously taken on one after another social/cultural identity. And while I thought some of it was thought provoking and humorous, I was not all that enthusiastic. It seemed a bit derivative of Cindy Sherman, even though the latter tends to be concerned with various personas rather than more widely shared identitites. Here is a sampling from Nikki Lee's projects:

Hip Hop Project (2001)

Hispanic Project (2000)

Seniors Projecct (1999)

Skateboarders Project (2000)

In addition to these projects, Lee also did several more that portrayed her as a member of punk, yuppie, and lesbian subcultures. I must say that I like her subsequent project "Parts" much more; there she appears in one or another venue with a man who is (mostly) cropped out of the photograph. These seem to suggest that male partners are more or less wholly contingent to a woman's identity. Here are a couple of examples, both from 2003:

In yesterday's New York Times there is a story about Lee and her latest project - a documentary of her "real" life - due to be shown this week at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. This suggests to me that Lee is more like Sherman than not. Her work seems to be about her not about identity and its politics.

[All Images © Nikki S. Lee]

02 October 2006

"Plastic Fantastic"

I've added a link in the sidebar to this story in today's Guardian identifying 20 of the best independent music shops in Britain. Since any such list will predictably generate dissent the paper also started a thread on their culturevulture blog where readers can augment the story with suggestions of their own.

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01 October 2006

Williams and Dewey on the News

I came across this apparently quite well-known passage from the concluding lines of "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (Book I) by William Carlos Williams on a recent visit to Alfredo Jaar's web site:

"It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

Last evening, while re-reading Dewey, I discovered this intersecting observation:

"Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation."