Bob Schwartz

Category: Art

Surrealism: An Appropriate Response to Now

Sometime during the news today, the word surreal came to mind. Again.

Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist art movement in the 1920s, defined it this way:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

I think that now and then I may be turning to surrealist art and literature—not to explain things, just because it seems like an appropriate response to now. To things that turn up in the news, for example.

Anyway, surrealism may find its way into these posts once in a while. A work of art, a bit of literature.

Above you will see Juan Miro’s Potato (1928). When you recognize that as possibly/certainly a potato/the potato/no potato/one potato/many potatoes/the idea of potato, you will be on your way to understanding what is going on. In the news, for example. Probably better than me.

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Patti Smith

This weekend I experienced Patti Smith performing her iconic first album Horses (1975), along with other songs. She’s been on tour with this for a while, so you can read plenty of reviews elsewhere, as you can read about the significance of Horses and Patti Smith in the evolution of modern pop music.

If this was going to be a review, I’d mention her gifts as a writer, poet, musician, performer, woman, and human being, and how her infectious energy and presence aren’t just wondrous for an artist who is now 70—it’s wondrous for anybody.

I’d mention how awesomely cool she is, write about her on-stage patter. Some of it planned (after the first songs of the album, she showed the album jacket and explained that she had just performed Side A, and now we were going to flip to Side B, put it on the turntable, put the arm down, put the needle in the groove). Some of it spontaneous (a fan threw a T-shirt on stage, which she thought was a Jerry Seinfeld shirt, leading her to wonder why anyone would do that, tell her only Jerry Seinfeld personal story, and then realize that without her glasses on, she hadn’t seen that it was a picture of Jerry Garcia, leading her to tell her only personal story about Garcia, which was funny.)

But this isn’t a review. I just want to say that it was one of the best concerts I have ever been to and I’ve been to plenty of great ones. Here’s why:

Patti Smith is authentic, committed, open-hearted, honest, gentle, wild, loving and fierce. When you add that to her talent, it is totally inspiring. Still thinking about it days later inspiring. Not that most of us are or can be quite that talented, or as authentic, committed, open-hearted, honest, gentle, wild, loving or fierce, but that we can aspire to be all that. And when we aspire, we can be artists too.

Patti Smith also believes, performs and preaches the power of rock and roll, not a gospel as current as it once was, but no less true. At the end of the concert, she strapped on her electric guitar, and played some crazy, Hendrix-style riffs, wailing to heaven. And then she held up her guitar: This is a weapon, she said, a weapon of love.

Advertising as Insurgent Art: Reverse for Kindness

reverse-for-kindness

I recently posted about Poetry as Insurgent Art. Now I want to add advertising to that.

There are going to be a number of Super Bowl ads this weekend that take indirect but clear aim at current events, including anit-immigrant sentiment and the Muslim travel ban. It now appears that one of the world’s biggest ad agencies, Leo Burnett, is joining the cause. Adweek reports:

Leo Burnett has a simple message of solidarity to share with people impacted by the U.S. travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries. Beginning today, when you visit the Leo Burnett website you’ll be redirected to a new site, BurnettLeo.com  http://burnettleo.com/  .

A video on the new site explains that while English is read from left to right, Arabic is read from right to left. Regardless of how we read something, the advertising agency wants people to know that it stands in support of everyone and cares deeply about the values of humanity, bravery and kindness.

Paris 1968: A Popular Movement That Almost Toppled a Government

Paris '68

One of the most remarkable popular uprisings of the 1960s—possibly of the modern era—started in Paris in May 1968. It would ignite and inspire the entire nation, lead to a national general strike, and almost bring down the French government of Charles de Gaulle. It also captured the imagination of the world.

The movement did die down after a few months. But it left an indelible mark on the way cultural, social and political movements can combine and be conducted. In his Foreword to When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The Events of May 1968, Douglas Kellner writes:

In the historical memory of the Left, the Events of May ’68 in France have attained mythic proportion. The student uprising, workers’ strikes and factory occupations that erupted during a brief but explosive period in 1968 instilled fear in the hearts of ruling powers everywhere. They inspired those in revolt everywhere with the faith that social upheaval is possible and that spontaneous insurgency can overcome the force of circumstances. For an all-too-brief moment, imagination seized power, the impossible was demanded, and poetry and spontaneity ruled the streets.

Of course, the revolutionary energies of the May Events were soon exhausted, order was restored, and since then the significance of May ’68 has been passionately debated. Did the uprising reveal the exhaustion and bankruptcy of the existing political system and parties, or the immaturity and undisciplined anarchy of the forces in revolt? Did the Events indicate the possibility of fundamental change, or prove that the established system can absorb all forms of opposition and contestation? Did May ’68 signal the autonomy of cultural and social revolution, or demonstrate once again that the old economic and political forces still control the system and can resist all change?…

May ’68 demonstrates as well that spontaneous action can erupt quickly and surprisingly, that it can provide alternatives to standard politics, and that a new politics is practical and necessary. The initial inability of established Left political parties and unions to support the students and workers suggests the irrelevancy of politics as usual and the need to go outside of ordinary political channels and institutions to spark significant contestation and change. The Events also suggest the primacy of social and cultural revolution, of the need to change individuals, social relations, and culture as a prelude to political and systemic transformation. The total nature of the rebellion reflects the totalizing domination of the system which must itself be transformed if significant change is to take place….

For a brief moment, the spirit of 1968 appeared to promise fundamental change in France and in other places throughout the world. To counter historical forgetting, to keep memory and hope alive let us now rethink and relive these experiences, find connections with our contemporary situation, and strive to create our own alternative modes of thought and action.

One vital legacy of May 1968 are the posters, graffiti and poetry of the movement. A gallery of posters can be found here. About these posters, Justin McGuirk of the Guardian writes:

While their fellow students engaged in pitched battles with the police and millions of workers went on general strike, students at the École des Beaux Arts in 1968 occupied the printing studios and converted them into the uprising’s very own propaganda machine. Many of the resulting posters have become icons of political design.

Be young, shut up

Be young and shut up (Charles de Gaulle silencing a protester)

We are all undesirables

We are all undesirables

We are the power

We are the power

Poetry As Insurgent Art

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti is celebrated as a poet, as founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and as a pioneer publisher of cutting-edge poets of the 1950s and 1960s (sometimes identified as Beat poets), most famously Allen Ginsberg. Ever a cultural and social activist, Ferlinghetti published in 2007 a tiny book called Poetry as Insurgent Art:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….

Woody Guthrie, godfather of modern protest music, was another artist who believed in the insurgent power of poetry and song. In 1941, he wrote and peformed Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues. He followed that by adorning his guitar with this now iconic message, beloved by musical radicals everywhere: THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.

So the question arises for every creator. Can a poem be an instrument of insurgency? Can a guitar and song actually talk Hitler’s head off and kill fascists?

The targets of reactionary politics and authoritarian rule are your body, your mind and your heart. When any of the three are damaged, thoughtful and sincere resistance and progress are more difficult. When all three are healthy and vital and hopeful, all is possible. Ferlinghetti’s poetry and Guthrie’s fascist killing guitar and thousands of other creations can inspire and embolden us to sing and believe and wisely strategize together, like a chorus, like an army. If we listen and act.

The Art of Eva Roberts

Later When Stars Opened

The paintings of Eva Roberts are now being shown on the Saatchi Art website. Some are there already, and more are reportedly on the way.

Others have written insightfully about this extraordinary art (Peter Frank: “Roberts’ practice harks back before abstract expressionism to the abstract painting of a century ago, a painting driven by and infused with spiritual and metaphorical content….The soul of Eva Roberts’ paintings, then, is a twinned unity, proffering the yin of pure form and the yang of the recognizable.”).

The best way to begin experiencing these paintings is not to read about them but to visit and look. Look and look again.

Four Freedoms Passover

Four Freedoms - Norman Rockwell

Passover is coming. The first seder meal will be held on the evening of Friday, April 22. Even for non-observant Jews, this holiday is frequently a time for participation. One estimate says that 80% of Jews attend some sort of seder.

This year I suggest we go way back for a Passover theme. Back to FDR’s Four Freedoms from 1941.

The overall order of the seder (“seder” actually means order) has been standardized for centuries—the blessings, the rituals, the symbolic food and drink, the songs, and most of all, the recitation of the events of the exodus from Egypt. But the text and the form and the meaning have been subject to remixing, some of it pretty adventurous.

In the modern era, the freedom embedded in Passover has been extended to all sorts of concerns. During the time of the civil rights movement, the obvious connection was made between ancient and modern oppression, and the struggle to end that oppression.

In 1969 Rabbi Arthur Waskow created a Freedom Seder, making this connection more direct. He explains:

One of my earliest and warmest memories is that of my father reciting the Dayenu, the chant of rebellion, liberation, travail, and the creation of a new law that is the story of Passover. One of my latest and warmest memories is that of working with my wife and children to make of our own Passover Seder something that would speak to our deep concerns about our selves and our world.

Our efforts became sharper and more urgent in 1968, when the Passover came one bare week after the murder of Martin Luther King, the April uprising of black Washington against the blank-eyed pyramid-builders of our own time, and the military occupation of our city. Who in
those days could forget that the prophet King had remembered Moses?– had spoken of how he had been to the mountain-top, had seen the promised land, but might never enter. … And then we realized that in 1969, the third night of Passover, April 4, would be the first anniversary of King’s death.

Since then, Passover has become the platform for seders centered around all kinds of affliction, oppression, aspiration and freedom. Women. LGBT. Poverty. Peace. The Earth. And so on.

One example of this concerns a new tradition that is widely practiced. The seder plate contains a number of foods symbolizing the story of the Egyptian captivity and the fight for freedom. Susannah Heschel conceived of one more thing to add:

So how was it that the orange found its place on the seder plate as a Passover symbol of feminism and women’s rights?

Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel and a scholar in her own right, says that at the height of the Jewish feminist movement of the 1980s, she was inspired by the abundant new customs expressing women’s viewpoints and experiences and started placing an orange on the seder plate.

At an early point in the seder, she asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community. She encouraged each guest to spit out the seeds in their orange segment to reject homophobia and hatred. The orange suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when everyone in our community is a contributing and active member of Jewish life. (From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah, JewishBoston.com)

On January 6, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an historic State of the Union Address. The world was increasingly gripped by brutal tyranny. On top of that, America was still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. And it seemed almost impossible for the U.S. to stay out of the global fight for freedom.

In the address, FDR summarized what freedom meant—and why we would fight for it, here and abroad. That statement became known as the Four Freedoms–Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Some will point out the hypocrisies and ironies of the statement. At that point in American history, millions were not free and were under attack because of their race, religion, and economic circumstances. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the final call for disarmament and the final phrase “crash of a bomb” ultimately faced the reality of a horrific war and an unthinkable bomb to end it.

But as a goal and aspiration, the Four Freedoms still ring out. Maybe we can ring them this Passover.

The posters above are by Norman Rockwell. Maybe more famous than FDR’s speech are the propaganda posters that Rockwell painted based on the Four Freedoms. As with the speech, some complain that Rockwell’s America was over-idealized and far too white. Probably so, and the images themselves may look quaint and, from today’s perspective, backward looking.

To counter that, following are a couple of works from Ben Shahn, an illustrator who was contemporary with Rockwell, artistically his equal, culturally his opposite:

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Russia on September 12, 1898 to Joshua Hessel and Gittel (Lieberman) Shahn and died on March 14, 1969. A Jewish-born artist, muralist, social activist, photographer and teacher, he is best known for his works of Social realism…From May to June of 1933, Shahn served as an assistant to Diego Rivera while the artist executed the infamous Rockefeller Center mural. By circulating a petition among the workers to keep the mural on display, Shahn played an important role in fanning the controversy.

Among his many famous works, in 1930 Shahn created a series of watercolor drawings for a Passover Haggadah. In 1965 these drawings were incorporated into a complete haggadah. Here, in an illustration called The Bread of Affliction, the hand of God leads the people out Egypt:

Bread of Affliction 2 - Ben Shahn

And here is a bit of Shahn’s later work, part of a series of union posters urging people to register and vote:

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Happy Passover! Let freedom ring!

Celestial Gallery

Celestial Gallery 2

See correction below.

Celestial Gallery is simply the most astonishing visual book I own.

Words are not even close, but here is the publisher’s description:

Boldly reinterpreting the age-old Tibetan and Nepalese art form known as Thangka, Celestial Gallery offers beautifully detailed representations of mandalas, or celestial spheres. Simply gazing upon the mandalas is meant to inspire in the viewer a heightened state of intention and clarity. Master painter Romio Shrestha and his team of artisan monks have created postmodern versions of these enlightened Buddha realms from hand-ground malachite, lapis, marigolds, and other rare substances. Painted at times with a mere three hairs from the tail of a cat, these multifaceted scenes of otherworldly deities are rich with hauntingly powerful detail. Depictions of White Tara, Green Tara, the Medicine Buddha, and many other celestial beings invite and inspire meditation and reflection.

Really, those words are not even close.

Celestial Gallery 1

Two things about the book:

1. It is big, 24 in. x 18 in. So you will be looking at it on a table or on the floor.

Correction: No. The edition I own is the magnificent size mentioned. The edition linked to in the post is a shelf-sized version that is still big and beautiful, just not that big. Still way worth the price.

2. It costs less than $20 on Amazon. So take out a $20 bill, if you are fortunate enough to have one to spare. Stare at the picture of Andrew Jackson for a while. Turn it over and stare at the picture of the White House for a while. Then look at the tiny pictures from the book in this post. Then think of them really big and bright and beautiful. Then buy the book.

A Visual Vacation in Fun and Relevant History: WPA Posters

WPA - Shall the Artist Survive

In case you think that government has no positive role to play in our lives, society or culture, especially in times of national stress, please have a look at the WPA posters from 1936 to 1943.

The Library of Congress has the largest collection:

The Work Projects Administration (WPA) Poster Collection consists of 907 posters produced from 1936 to 1943 by various branches of the WPA. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to exist, the Library of Congress’s collection of more than 900 is the largest. The posters were designed to publicize exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, with the strongest representation from California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The results of one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts, the posters were added to the Library’s holdings in the 1940s.

Here is a description of the WPA:

Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.

Under the direction of Harry Hopkins, an enthusiastic ex-social worker who had come from modest means, the WPA would spend more than $11 million in employment relief before it was canceled in 1943. The work relief program was more expensive than direct relief payments, but worth the added cost, Hopkins believed. “Give a man a dole,” he observed, “and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit”….

When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since.

It would be lovely to include dozens of the posters here. Instead, here are just a few more. Please visit and enjoy the entire collection.

WPA - Yellowstone

WPA - Mural Studies

WPA - Letter Writing

WPA - Music Project

WPA - Lack of Funds

Shepard Fairey: The Art of Political Revolution

Shepard Fairey - Bernie Sanders Concert

Not many people had heard of the artist Shepard Fairey (“Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989”) until he created the Obama “Hope” poster, one of the most famous pieces of art in modern American politics.

Since then, he has been spending his time creating, exhibiting and selling all sorts of provocative and eminently viewable art/propaganda on the beneficial edge of society, politics and culture.

He created the poster above for today’s Bernie Sanders benefit concert in Los Angeles. For those who haven’t looked for a while, or don’t know Shepard’s work, here is a sampling:

End Corruption

Make Art Not War

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