Monday, November 17, 2014

"Banksy Does New York": Banksy and Hannah Arendt



The HBO documentary, “Banksy Does New York” reviews the anonymous British street artist’s month-long self-styled "residency" in New York where, in October of 2013, he generated a new work every day for a month, touching down in all five boroughs. In a brief segment of the film, I discuss the artist’s engagement with the writings of Hannah Arendt. The text is part of a lecture, “Banksy: Completed,” in which I follow his clues to reveal the philosophical origins of his work, given in the past year at University of Southern California/Fullerton, the Berkshire Museum, the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, UK and upcoming, Rochester Institute of Technology.
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For Day 29 of his unsanctioned sojourn in New York, Banksy repurposed an original artwork, an overwrought pastoral oil painting purchased for $50 from a thrift store. With his painted addition of a solitary Nazi officer seated in contemplation on a bench, the scene of an autumn forest by a river with snowy mountains in the distance is transformed from kitsch Americana to Caspar David Friedrich-esque German Romanticism, the falling yellow leaves now signifying the decline of the Nazi regime as well as a warning, perhaps, of our own social and political decline. Scrawling his signature under that of the original artist, Banksy, on his website (which existed only for the duration of the “residency”), entitled the work "The banality of the banality of evil, oil on oil on canvas, 2013," and described it as "a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store," with the intention that the proceeds go to the Brooklyn-based nonprofit that benefits homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. Housing Works auctioned it off and ultimately, after much bidding drama, netted at least $450,000.




On the Village Voice blog, writer Raillan Brooks no doubt Googled “the banality of evil” to discover that it was associated with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “theoretical reckoning of the Nazis' rise to power.” Brooks, concluded, however, that it more likely had “something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he's actually saying”—when it’s clearly the theme that underlies all his subversive enterprises.

A Report on the Banality of Evil is the subtitle of Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness account of the Nazi criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was accused of engineering the extermination of European Jews. Writing originally in The New Yorker, Arendt expressed shock that Eichmann did not come across as a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” a man whose thinking was so conventional that he spoke only in clichés. This led Arendt to develop her thesis that beyond Hitler’s vile nature, it was the mediocrity of his functionaries, their unwillingness to think for themselves while attempting to fulfill their mundane needs and individual ambitions—hence their banality—that enabled the Nazi atrocities. Therefore Banksy’s title has to do with the original painting being itself a cliché, the work of a painter who is trying to please others rather than thinking for himself, and by inserting the Nazi officer, Banksy is adding a symbol of banality to banality, with his “oil on oil.”

While being tried as a war criminal, Eichmann insisted on his innocence: he never killed anyone or ordered that anyone be killed, nor did he have a grudge against Jews. He was a man eager to get ahead and his job, which he fulfilled efficiently, was to arrange for the transportation of Jewish prisoners to death camps. To do otherwise, he explained on the stand, would be to break the law at the time, and he was not a law-breaker. Their destination was not his responsibility. Upon hearing his sentence of death, Eichmann said, “I am convinced in the depths of my heart that I am being sentenced for the deeds of others.”



This concept is at the heart of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel, The Reader, later made into a film. One of two main characters, Hanna, is being tried for war crime, but she’s not an officer, nothing like it, simply a guard who never considers the possibility that she could defy orders and unlock the burning church in which most of her prisoners die. Like Eichmann, what’s chilling about Hanna is her ordinariness; she’s just doing her job. Arendt suggests that evil is more accidental than intentional, less a result of ideology and conviction than a by-product of petty ambition and the drive for personal security.

Expanding on Arendt’s thesis was Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment that measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to inflict what they thought were electrical shocks on a hidden subject, an actor whose screams they could hear. Milgram concluded that, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.... (When) asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Commenting on this experiment, Banksy has noted, “Garments are symbols of authority and we have a powerful tendency to accept authority….Take the man out of the doctor's costume and his test subjects refuse to do it.”

Ironically, while railing against this failure of humans to question their environment, Banksy consciously uses it to his own ends. Not one to skulk around in a hoodie, as he appears in his 2011 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” one of his methods for avoiding detection is to look as official as possible.  To “turn invisible” he recommends a high-vis vest, hardhat, clipboard, and business cards—not to speak of three stories of scaffolding under a CCTV camera.


It is therefore significant that Banksy’s Nazi officer is not depicted as an ogre, but a lover of nature, which makes him all the more normal and therefore frightening. In that context, Banksy’s entire crusade can be seen as one against what Arendt called a “failure to think” or, in other words, mediocrity and banality in all its forms.

The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we're told, this is the only way we can be sure.
--Banksy, Wall and Piece.



Monday, June 16, 2014

Dirty Sugar: Kara Walker’s dubious alliance with Domino

Photo: Dennis Kardon © 2014

There’s much that disturbs me about Kara Walker’s much-lauded and wildly popular installation at Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Sugar refinery, but I’ll start with its undeniable beauty. Made of sparkling white sugar, this gigantic, crouching sphinx-like figure, with curves like a Brancusi, looms like a symbol of purity in the vast darkness and decay of the factory’s interior. The sweet smell is overwhelming, and the piece itself is intended to degrade over time; when I was there, skeletal dark lines were beginning to form between the polystyrene blocks that form the core of the sculpture. Conceptually and figuratively, it’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly fulfills part of nonprofit Creative Time’s original mission to ”support the creation of innovative, site-specific, socially engaged works in the public realm, especially in vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest…while pushing artists beyond their normal boundaries.” [See note below]

So why does its beauty upset me? Because the installations’ sheer gorgeousness and spectacle serve as a distraction from the insidious agenda that makes a mockery of another part of Creative Time’s mission, to “foster social progress.”  I have long felt that Walker’s workin which blacks are portrayed as passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual dramadoesn’t invalidate, but rather reinforces the stereotypes whites have imposed on blacks to justify racism, and is entirely dependent on the gratuitous titillation that violence and sex inevitably engender, regardless of the context—or the race of the person who perpetrates them. Walker’s sphinx conflates two familiar white parodies of black women: the big-assed, sexually available Jezebel, with her vulva hanging out for the taking, and her opposite, the maternal, large-breasted but desexualized Mammy, who sublimates her own needs to fulfill those of her white charges.

Whites are discouraged from criticizing black artists, but white critics, curators, and collectors are free to ratify work that enrages many black intellectuals, whose protests are then dismissed as attempts at censorship. That Walker’s work is celebrated, even tolerated, tells a lot about the racism that’s still subtly endemic in the art world; it’s hard to imagine a “genius grant” being awarded to an artist, no matter how Jewish, whose specialty was caricatures of big-nosed Jews sucking Nazi dick.

Vulgar photos taken by visitors posing with the “sphinx” are all over Instagram, and castigated online by writers who are upset that the artwork is not being shown proper respect. Derived from minstrel shows where whites in blackface lampooned blacks, the caricatures Walker appropriates were created with the specific intention of provoking ridicule. Should we then be surprised when they succeed?

Roberta Smith in the Times writes that Walker “evokes the history of the sugar trade, its dependence on slavery and slavery’s particular degradation of women, while also illuminating the plagues of obesity and diabetes that keep so many American dreams unfulfilled.” Yet it can also be said that Walker is providing massive advertising for Domino Sugar, which donated the 80 tons that make up the sculpture. As a sponsor, the familiar Domino logo is prominently featured on a wall at the site as well as Creative Time’s website, and a Google search for ‘“Kara Walker” Domino’ garners over 88,000 links. Statements that speak of “history,” along with the fact that Walker’s images are based nostalgically on our antebellum past, present a view of slavery that locates it dangerously outside the present capitalist global economy—when it is still very much part of it.

While Creative Time’s website includes a compelling essay written by the narrator of a documentary about the forced and child labor that constitute modern slavery, it doesn’t name the mega-corporation that owns Central Romano, the plantation on which it was filmed: Flo-Sun, of which Domino is its best-known subsidiary. If the people at Creative Time, along with Walker, have seen this film—as indeed they must have in their research—I wonder how they feel about the ironic possibility that Walker’s sculpture might have been enabled by slave labor.

Pepe and Alfy Fanjul, who run Flo-Sun, inherited the sugar empire from their Cuban father. Dubbed “the Koch brothers of Southern Florida,” they‘re said to be friends and neighbors of the Kochs who, in comparison with the sugar barons, look like Mother Theresa clones.

In the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls have been subject to repeated allegations of labor exploitation, particularly of undocumented Haitian migrant workers with little to no legal standing before Dominican government institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor includes sugar from the Dominican Republic—much of which comes from Fanjul-owned plantations or is imported to Fanjul-owned refineries—on its annual "List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor." Both a 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary [“The Price of Sugar,” narrated by Paul Newman, view here] and the 2007 film "The Sugar Babies," narrated by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat [author of the Creative Time essay] call attention to the working conditions of impoverished cane-cutters laboring at the Fanjuls' Central Romana. In the United States, meanwhile, opponents of U.S. agricultural subsidies and government protections have long criticized the Fanjuls for building their dominance in the domestic market on the backs of artificially inflated prices and the U.S. taxpayer…. more

Essential reading includes the 2001 Vanity Fair article, “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar,” which inspired the two documentaries, a CNN piece on how the Fanjuls could be the “First Family of Corporate Welfare,” and this on their strong-arm tactics with lawmakers, from Wikileaks.

You could spend days, as I did, reading about the moral and ethical transgressions of the Fanjuls, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does: In 2010, the Post’s Page Six reported that Pepe Fanjul’s executive assistant of 35 years is the ex-wife of former KKK leader David Duke, and the current wife of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard and member of the American Nazi Party. He now runs white-supremacist Web site StormFront.org. A company representative said, “While we may not agree with someone’s politics, we wouldn’t terminate them for that….We will not discriminate against anybody….”

One could also make an issue of the extensive advertising Walker is providing for another sponsor, Two Trees Management, owned by Creative Time board member Jed Walentas, who worked for Trump before taking over his father’s real estate business, and will have 1700 luxury apartments to sell in his massive waterfront development on the site (as well as 700 affordable units, the number bumped up under pressure from Mayor de Blasio). And then there’s the non-renewable polystyrene that went into this gigantic temporary work that, like Styrofoam, could take a million years to break down. However next to the question of how the 80 tons of Fanjul sugar were most likely sourced, these are mere quibbles.

So much for institutionalized protest—this is art packaged to look like radicalism while supporting capitalism at its worst.

Next: “Occupy!” (The Musical), brought to you by Citibank.

Photo: Carol Diehl (2014)
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Note:  I lifted this mission statement from Creative Time’s Wikipedia entry, well aware that it is not same statement that appears on their website. However having been Director of Public Relations (a somewhat hilarious title, given that I was the entire department) for Creative Time in the mid-80’s, when it was a pioneering organization and very true to its nonprofit status, these were the words used to promote it and feel best represent the inspired vision of founder Anita Contini.

Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Winter Hiatus

Just a note to say that I haven’t abandoned blogging, just taking a break after seven years and over 500 posts--and  saving myself for drawing and a bigger project, yet to be unveiled, that’s taking up all of my brain cells. Right now I’m happily ensconced in Los Angeles, soaking up the sun, doing kundalini yoga every day, and thriving in the relaxed atmosphere. I'll work on trying to miss New York, because I’ll be back soon enough.


Happy New Year!

Carol Diehl, 2013, ink and pencil on Bristol, 11 x 14.