Why The Arnautoff Compromise is Right for Right Now (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 8/16/19). Sequel to previous piece in July 31 East Bay Express (scroll down)..

Victor Arnautoff, Self-Portrait, 1950 or 1951 (location unknown). HR 9490 was Cold War internal-security act.

Play It Down

The recent controversy over Victor Arnautoff’s Depression-era murals at George Washington High School has attracted national attention. The progressive artist’s dignified depiction of black slaves and the now-infamous “dead Indian” (cited by generations of ‘unwoke’ GWHS white kids) excited criticism from minority kids, parents, and activists who feel that the murals demean them and glorify patriarchy and genocide. Their arguments swayed the school board into its unanimous decision to whitewash the murals—to “paint it down” in the words of the iconoclasts, prompting writers from Time to National Review to opine on the curious, only-in-SF case. A similar controversy that erupted in the late 1960s was settled by a compromise: the creation of a pro-minority mural by the young artist Dewey Crumpler, who supported the Arnautoff mural then and still does, now.

The seemingly peremptory decision to delete the mural galvanized massive support from art-lovers and historians, who signed petitions and decried the folly of uninformed censorship. The preservationists argue that the murals should become a central part of the teaching of history and culture. Almost all GWHS alumni support the mural, including actor Danny Glover and Crumpler. After reading Robert W. Cherny’s excellent biography of Arnautoff, I wrote “The Shame of the Mural Censors: Why Art and History Matter” (East Bay Express, July 31, 2019, now online).

In the face of this widespread opposition (75% of San Franciscans oppose censorship), the school board moderated its decision, and now proposes, to its credit, covering up the offensive parts, non-destructively. While I support the preservationist argument for using the murals for education, I believe that this compromise is the best possible solution to what seems a perpetually thorny issue. When I attended the latest school board meeting, on August 13, the passion of the POC kids and parents was emotional and palpable, and surprisingly affecting (despite some dramatic posturing). Many of the anti-muralists asked, with only slight rhetorical exaggeration, “Why do we have to fight this again? We ‘ve been fighting it for fifty years,” echoing Jennifer Wilson’s article, “Black People Don’t Need Murals to Remember Injustice,” in The Nation. That the mural opponents consider the mural advocates—largely older, and white, but with many exceptions—to be patronizing and even patriarchal is unfortunate, but understandable, given the centuries of abuse, exploitation and marginalization that continue today with abhorrent racial attacks, verbal and physical, by whites fearful of losing power and status. With further demographic change (i.e., the browning of America and the political ascendancy of non-racist millennials), might the whole issue eventually lose its toxic charge, making the mural safe to regard as a historical document? Stay tuned. But in the meantime, mural proponents should be wary of overplaying their (our) hand, demanding ‘informed’ acquiescence from the mural opponents, which can seem too much like enforcing silent prayer in the Church of Great White Father One.

The compromise of temporarily covering the painful parts resolves the difficulty for now. Neither side gets a total victory; neither gets a total defeat. I now believe, after observing its proceedings, that the school board, which I had earlier mocked for truckling to PC fashion, made its ill-informed decision in good faith. It has learned not to make snap judgments. The mural opponents and advocates have learned that art and history are complicated and fraught, and that simple solutions are illusory, and, the more radical, the more imperfect and flawed. The controversy, which made San Francisco look ridiculous in the national media for several months, has proven that dialogue and compromise, the touchstones of democracy can work, even in an era dominated by tribal passions and prejudices; by the ‘fake news” president’s assertions that “What you see isn’t happening” and his lawyer’s Zen maxim, “The truth isn’t truth”; the degradation of politics into spectacle and theater driven by distractions and disinfotainment (disinformation plus entertainment); and the historical and cultural amnesia of much of the electorate. It has been, in the words of one constitutional scholar and community activist, a “teachable moment.” 

That we are now an anti-intelllectual culture does not bode well for the future. I refer the intellectually curious to Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s article from The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” from September 2015, its title probably alluding to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which advanced a similar thesis: that doctrinaire political correctness is no substitute for engagement with history, and that critical thinking skills are not just being unthinkingly critical of the professoriate’s designated bogeymen and -women. Democracy is a process as well as an ideal. If the American experiment in self-governance is to survive, if the human world is to continue, we must get informed, choose our battles wisely, and eschew whenever possible ideological showboating, however holy and eternal the cause. Play it down, people.

John Vanderlyn, The Death of Jane McCrea, 1804



6 responses
Thanks, DeWitt. The ramp-up of rhetoric on this is scary - those on the side of complaining about the mural being branded "snowflakes" and "identity politics hustlers" and those on the preservation side being labeled white nationalists in the the angry petition posted on Color of Change. Ouch. It's supercharged polarization in the age of Trump, no nuance or middle ground matters, no inconvenient facts allowed. Well, I support the middle ground espoused in this essay. Destroying art is a very slippery slope. I support the passion of the opponents, but I stand with the cultural workers of the world who have had their murals whitewashed, their prints burned, and their sculptures smashed in the name of corrective cleansing. Cover up portions (in a reversible manner), but please don't paint it down.
Thanks, Lincoln! I’m with you. It;s time to put this behind us until the country is run sanely again.
Yari Ostovany Exhibition at Joyce Gordon Gallery, Oakland, CA Review by DeWitt Cheng Yari Ortovany, “Peregrine 26,” 2018, oil on canvas, 30 x 30” In 1935, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a review of the 1932 novel “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” by Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali, a kind of spiritual detective story outlining the quest of a young Indian law student for enlightenment. At the end of his arduous travels amid the lowest castes, he “perceives some mitigation in this infamy: a tenderness, an exaltation, a silence in one of the abhorrent men,” and deduces that a faint diminution of the darkness is the distant reflection of “a man from whom this clarity emanates.” The novel, as was often the case with Borges, is a fantasy, but the notion of the spiritual quest may be due for a revival after the current false messiah has faded from the scene. Yari Ostovany, an Iranian-American painter who has lived in the Bay Area since the early 1990s, sees his practice as “a personal journey of exploration through the alchemy of paint, color, light, texture and the poetics of space.” He regards himself as an heir to the Abstract Expressionists and the artists of the Persian and Taoist/Zen traditions. Ostovany’s lush atmospheric abstractions — in a sunset palette of red, gold, ocher, purple and black — are “representation[s] of “psychic state[s]” in which “forms and marks become metaphors for a transcendent reality,” and resplendent with Lux Aeterna, “self-generating light,” a spiritual illumination from within, akin to the intuited luminous face of Borges’ Al-Mu’tasim. The twenty oil paintings that comprise “Fragments of Poetry and Silence” were inspired by John Berger’s poem, “Dreams.” Most of the smaller works on panel were completed during this pandemic year (so productive for many artists), but a few of the larger works date back to 2016 and 2017. Ostovany’s literary/poetic/musical interests are reflected in the titles, which cite as influences Bach, Haydn (whose 1798 late mass, “Missa in Angustiis” [Mass for Troubled Times], seems urgently relevant in our quasi-Napoleonic era), T.S. Eliot, Wiliam Carlos Williams and the Sufi poets Rumi and Farid ud-din Attar. Attar’s 1177 poem, “The Conference of the Birds,” traces the tortuous quest of the birds of the world for their king, the Simorgh. At the end of the poem, purified by suffering, the thirty survivors realize that they themselves are that king: si morgh means, in Persian, literally, thirty birds. (Borges was taken with this story, too, featuring it in his omnium-gatherum “Book of Imaginary Beings.”) As intriguing as the back stories are, they are not needed for an appreciation of the paintings, which are sumptuous orchestrations of form and color. Ostovany harmonizes thick and thin glazes, and varied applications of paint, including scumbled brushwork, sprayed paint, and rivulet curtains of thinned paint descending from all four edges. The artist creates a linear orthogonal structure stabilizing the vaporous and evanescent forms of his painterly landscapes: metaphoric clouds, sunbursts, torrents and bonfires. “Chelleneshin 6” and “Chelleneshin 43” are medium-sized vertical-format oils on canvas with the same volcanic palette of reds, oranges and ochers kept in place by dripped-paint grids. The word in Persian means “forty days sitting,” referring to a period of forty days and nights (remember your Bible) spent in retreat and meditation. Both “Conference of the Birds 68” and “69” introduce a horizon that reads like landscapes of sand and sky — as well as inner visions of the spiritual desert overflown by Attar’s bird-pilgrims. “Peregrine 7”and “The Education of Icarus” introduce jagged black vertical streaks that suggest both the plumage of falcons (peregrine = pilgrim) and the singed wax wings of the heedless son of Daedalus. “The Alchemist IV,” “The Bodhi Tree 2” (referring to the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment), “The Oracle VII” and “The Third Script” are other standout works. “The Third Script” references how the 13th century Sufi sage and dervish Shams-e-Tabrizi referred to himself: a script that no one can read, but which a very few may be able to discern.
The Oakland Art Scene: In Place Commentary by DeWitt Cheng Cheryl and David Calleri, “Ladder,” 2020, pinhole photograph, archival pigment print, 8 x 8”. Courtesy of Vessel Gallery, Oakland Nearly nine months into the self-isolation imposed by the pandemic, everyone is ready — some of us, irrationally so — for a return to normalcy and social interaction. The election of the Biden-Harris ticket augurs well for reality-based government policies, but we cannot defy the realities of public health, either, no matter how much we may want to believe in radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas’ concern for grandma’s last Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. We mask up and soldier on, looking forward to the vaccines that we anticipate are coming next year. With the prospective, gradual return to social mobility, I thought that now might be a good time to take stock of part of the Bay Area art scene. As a critic who has covered that scene for years, although in absentia during The Great Sabbatical, I wondered how the East Bay gallerists in Oakland and Berkeley were faring, now that receptions and walk-in traffic have been largely supplanted by online exhibitions and Zoom talks. Oakland will be receiving new press attention come January, as Kamala Harris, born in Oakland in 1964 to a mixed-race family, will become the first woman, the first Asian-American and the first Black to serve as vice-president. Though she is technically a boomer (just), she symbolizes the emergence of a younger, liberal, energetic (nice sneakers!) post-race Millennial demographic in U.S. politics. I sent out an e-mail query; what emerged from the responses was a little surprising. I had expected a certain amount of “tales of woe and intrigue,” to quote Click and Clack, but the gallerists were matter-of-fact about the challenges of the pandemic, and upbeat about returning to normal, armed with new skills in online marketing. It has not been a picnic, of course, but neither have the problems been insurmountable. Jean Durant, President of the Oakland Art Murmur Board of Directors, points out that, while the local eviction moratorium and local grants for artists, small businesses and nonprofits helped to a certain extent, PPP funds were not available to her all-volunteer organization, necessitating increased fund-raising efforts. OAM has promoted online virtual art events on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; informed the public that protocol-compliant gallery-going is safe and rejuvenating; encouraging consumers to think and buy local (“Buy Local Buy Art”); and collaborating with other institutions to promote local artists adversely affected by the shutdown. While the carnivalesque First Friday crowds are no longer joyfully swarming the Uptown streets, exhibitions continue, now assisted by digital innovations. TaVee Lee at Transmission Gallery has opened an artist’s showroom, featuring small rotating groups of work by different artists that can be purchased immediately, without waiting for the shows to end; she has also added handmade artisan jewelry and accessories, much of it made in Oakland. Lee adds, “Almost without fail, those who have come into the gallery have emphasized the uplifting satisfaction and pleasure of viewing real art in a real space … Like Transmission Gallery, Gearbox [Gallery, downstairs] has had nearly as many in-person visitors during regular gallery hours as before the pandemic ...” Kathleen King of Mercury Twenty Gallery, who has also successfully initiated online art sales, concurs on the value of the real art-going experience as “a good COVID-era activity” for art fans afflicted with cabin fever. Lonnie Lee was forced to close her popular Vessel Gallery by pandemic regulations shortly after it reopened last year, after a one-year post-eviction hiatus. Vessel has gone online as well, with an “Art is Essential” series of online exhibitions that has generated new interest, attendance, and sales. She notes: “An online art exhibition can remain online for as long as you post it. So a show can go on for years!” Look for a new online show by local sculptor Evan Holm whose canceled spring show will re-emerge, slightly adapted for an online audience. Two galleries that had already been marketing heavily online have continued business smoothly during the shutdown. Danielle Fox at Slate Contemporary: “We have always gotten most of our business from internet and website marketing, as well as through word-of-mouth and old-fashioned networking ... [W]e market online, and people then e-mail us to find out more about the artwork and eventually make an appointment to see it in person at the gallery, or we bring it to them to see in their home ... Covid has not actually disrupted it at all.” Katrina Traywick of Traywick Contemporary has a similar story: “We were largely operating by appointment before, and were offering special access by video or Facetime to out-of-town clients ever since we started doing national art fairs. Zoom has brought a whole new level of online outreach ... mostly around programs like artist talks. Our attendance for these Zoom events has often been double or triple in-person attendance for similar events here in our space.” Contrary to the negativity that still permeates American culture to an extent, the East Bay art scene seems to be handling the challenges of the pandemic with creativity and grace. The last word goes to Art Murmur’s Durant: “It is common to hear the word ‘resilience’ used in reference to Oakland. We are resilient, and scrappy, and passionate about our home. We love our artists and we know that Oakland is the heart of creativity in the Bay Area … The only way to come through this tough time is for arts organizations to come together, collaborate, share resources, share ideas. Make something new.”
VisualArtSource.com , June 5, 2021 JOHN PATRICK McKENZIE and WARD SCHUMACHER A Field of Words Jack Fischer Gallery Visual art employing words walks a tightrope between the visual and verbal realms once thought to be apportioned to the right and left, or intuitive and logical, sides of the brain. This theory is nicely traced in Leonard Shlain’s 1996 The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which interprets human history in terms of male linear logic (the alphabet) and female intuition/imagination (the goddess), and remains readable and fascinating, even if the science has proven to be more complicated. In looking at word art, similarly, we may regard them in two mutually exclusive ways: as pattern or calligraphy, or, even asemic (non-literal) faux writing, in the Dada mode, beautiful-nonsense graphomania with a hint of satire about the limits of speech and writing; or we can imbibe the word or text, relegating the painting to a mere placard or sign, with the visual element insignificant: Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” In A Field of Words, John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher demonstrate that word art can be both verbally and visually evocative, with the viewer’s activated eye and mind engaging multiple points of view. The field-of-words metaphor suggests both the cascades of glowing, scrolling text, the Matrix coding beneath sensorial, blue-pill reality; the featureless color mists of 1950s-1960s Color Field Painting; and the orderly inscription of the soil with parallel furrows for agriculture, and thus culture. McKenzie’s marker drawings on a variety of objects—paper, scavenged window frames, and glass bricks—have a graffiti energy reminiscent of Basquiat, but without that painter’s figurative imagery. The irregular rows of hand-printed phrases and sentences suggest the magical charging of objects by spells and invocations. In a drawing from 2008-9, 1980, the artist writes simple subtraction problems that seemingly solve for unknown people’s ages: 1980 - 950 = 30, 1974 - 1962 = 12, etc. The artist’s tall, narrow numerals suggest op-art stripe patterns, with the blackened closed loops of certain numbers (0, 6, 8, 9) evoking computer-countable ballots and tests. Joyce DeWitt likes pink high heels, in white marker on black paper, suggesting a schoolroom blackboard, records banal or obvious celebrity information on actresses (Joyce DeWitt, Susanne Somers, Florence Henderson, Sarah Purcell) and musicians (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney), including whether they are “still alive.” (Why not 2014 - 1933 = 81, for On Kawara, creator of the 1978 painting, I Am Still Alive?) Equally cryptic are the random, stream-of-consciousness inscriptions on five wooden and aluminum window frames and glass panes and on three glass bricks, where the writing is so profuse, complicated with shadows and reflections, as to be almost illegible. Words emerge here and there—e.g., radio, toilet, Swoosie Kurtz, taco shell, future generations—but the staccato markings suggest syncopated music scores or player-piano scrolls rather than script, an urgent profusion of mystifying words and phrases: Dada glossolalia. If McKenzie employs writing less for literal meaning than to claim esthetic territory from non-art reality, Schumacher builds densely layered acrylic paintings on canvas of text, stenciled in black capital letters over gray and ocher backgrounds. The lettering is not clean and crisp, however, but deliberately imperfect, with blotches where the painting leaked under the stencil, and the texts layered in different colors, out of register, like Warhol screenprints, creating shadows or ghost images. The bleeding effect of the ’ink’ recurs in Schumacher’s works on paper, made on paint thickened with wheat paste, and bound in books, several of which are on display by request. The lengthy texts recount the artist’s dreams and memories, “some fact and some fiction,” so the paintings serve as a kind of diary — perhaps of a fictional avatar escaped from an Eric Fischl painting. Russian Consonants (2020) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue on the fascinating oddments of Russian language and history, including Tsarskoe Selo, skoptski, Bolsheviki, and the lecherous mad monk, Rasputin. Horse, With Peonies (2020) recounts (with blocks of text reversed to white on black, as if poorly redacted) a dream of Freudian and Oedipal horror mixed with humor that is concluded by a mysterious equine visitor. Drawing Dirty (2021) introduces two young sisters who tempt the boy narrator with glimpses of nakedness and of dirty drawings for which he is unjustly condemned. Last but not least is I Need Do Nothing (2005), an eight-panel painting two feet tall by sixteen wide, with the walking-meditation mantra repeated endlessly, like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” in The Shining, but with more rewarding results. Peruse the sides of these eight panels—there were originally ten—and you will note that the writing continues perfectly along the sides — although, presumably, not the back. Remember Jasper Johns’ stenciled words going off one edge of the canvas and continuing on the other side, as if the painting had been peeled from a cylinder. Schumaker’s love of ‘overall’ abstract painting, i.e., without traditional figure or ground, as practiced by Pollock, Rothko and Kline, combines with his dreams, memories and reflections in these humorous, mysterious, semi-fictional artifacts, or manuscripts, or handmade faded newspaper clippings. :
Art Films “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the new artworld satire and /horror film, seems the film for the moment, given how nutty, if not quite murderous, the art world seems, at times. I have not seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, even if the online and print chatter so far has been mixed. As the topic of art-world films has come up, however, I thought I would recommend a few films worth watching, films that I have chosen to see more than once. I do not make this statement lightly, as I consider many films worth watching once, but not twice or more. And some films are interesting in some ways—the subject or plot, especially if reality-based, and even the special effects—but annoying in others, e.g., glacially slow pacing, painfully bad dialogue or acting, and nonsensical storylines. I am sure that many of you watch, as I do, prepared to Fast Forward, in the immortal words of the Colonel Sanders character in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. There aren’t enough good satires on the art world, alas, so I am including some biopics and documentaries. Some of these are available online. Best satire: —Untitled (2009), a spritely, buoyant satire of the New York art scene, manages to be both wryly amusing about the vagaries of artistic and commercial survival, about The Work We Have Chosen (to quote Hyman Roth in Goidfather 2), and, curiously, warm-hearted about its cast of artistic characters, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, perhaps because its writer/director, Jonathan Parker, had previously been active in the contemporary music scene. I had the good fortune to attend its premiere in San Francisco in an art audience that loved the jokes, especially its sendups of the more twee variety of conceptual art. Best artists-only nonfiction-based dramas: —Final Portrait, director Stanley Tucci’s valentine to the so-called existentialist sculptor/painter Alberto Giacometti, traces the laborious making (and Sisyphean unmaking) of a portrait of an American critic James Lord, whose book detailing the ordeal-by-sitting was the basis of the screenplay. Art civilians may find the film as tedious as watching paint dry, as one innocent film critic complained, but art cognoscenti will find Geoffrey Rush’s comic-anguish turn close to perfect, and the film’s recreation of the famous dusty Avenue Hipployte-Flandrin studio is remarkable, and even museum-worthy on its own. I reviewed the movie for VAS (use search box); it’s also reprinted at https://artopticon.us (scroll down to April 2018). —Edvard Munch is Peter Watkins’ 1974 portrait of the Norwegian Expressionist artist as a young man adrift in the fin-de-siècle bohemian circles of Christiania (Oslo). This sober examination will be slow going, indeed, for many viewers, and depressing to some, with its flashbacks to scene of family trauma that were depicted in now-famous paintings, but it’s a fascinating look at how the free-love counterculture made (and maybe unmade, partially) the young, sensitive “doomed” painter—who went on to live an improbably long and productive life. —Vincent: The life and Death of Van Gogh (1987), written and directed by Paul Cox, takes (if I remember aright) a first-person-camera look at the life of the Dutch visionary, with a voiceover narration taken from the artist’s letters to his supportive art-dealer brother, Theo, read by the actor John Hurt, whose gravel-and-velvet voice seems just right. (The camera-as-protagonist idea has been used before, to my knowledge: once in a Dick Powell noir, and once at the beguiling beginning of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Also check out Andy Serkis’s spooky-mad Vincent—almost horror-movie-worthy— in Simon Schama’s series, The Power of Art. (Alan Corduner’s Mark Rothko in that series is also a bravura performance.) Best general-audience documentaries: —The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen makes terrific use of videotaped footage of the young graffiti artist, entrepreneur and gay activist, finding his way in New York in his teens and twenties, before the scourge of AIDS. I found it extremely touching, and its use of found footage extraordinary; if only large VHS cameras had been around to record, say the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and The Ecstasy, however, still serves us —as does that other masscult biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. —Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006) is a six-hour, A-to-Z documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series by Ric Burns on the bewigged icon of affectless cool and prophet of media-based art. The artist’s ascent from small-town Pennsylvania to a career in commercial illustration and later to the heights of New York’s art world is fascinating, even if it was the filmmaker Emile de’Antonio who persuaded the artist to paint Coke bottles and other consumer products of desire in a flat, uninflected style, not in juicy, romantic Abstract Expressionese. —The Cool School (2008), Morgan Neville’s enthralling look at the origins of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene in the 1960s, focusing on the radical Ferus Gallery, and featuring interviews with many of the artists, critics, and dealers, including Edward Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Walter Hopps, and Irving Blum, with his limos, yachts, and eye-candy escorts. I am certain that I have unintentionally omitted some good movies, even some I may have watched twice (but not three times). Ed Harris as Pollock, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, Timothy Spall as Turner come to mind for Honorable Mentions. And then there are the fictional artists: Alec Guinness’s and Robert Newton’s obsessed eccentrics in The Horse’s Mouth and Odd Man Out, respectively. Art is long, and life is short.