Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Groan.... (or a Quick Fisking of Gil Vicente)

I don't actually disagree with Brazilian artist Gil Vicente on the censorship question. I find very few instances where I agree that artwork shouldn't be exhibited just because it upsets someone or might be the justification an entirely otherwise unbalanced person uses as their defense of a crime they later commit. No, I groaned when I read about Vincente's drawings of him assassinating world leaders (presented at the current Sao Paulo Art Biennial) because the politics of the work are so lame.

Here are a few of the images (from artinfo.com via flickr):

As I've noted frequently here, most political art not only sucks, it can barely aspire to sucking. This is a classic example of why I feel that way. More than the over-simplistic sensationalism of the central idea, it's the artist's complete inability to intelligently articulate why he made this work that makes me cringe. As Vicente explained to the London's Telegraph:
"Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favour to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?" he said.
I wouldn't normally even think to fisk an artist's work. I generally feel most artwork transcends the insistence on logic that is the foundation of fisking (and in this instance too, I'm not so concerned with Vicente's drawings as his defense of them), but he has willingly stepped into the political arena and opened himself up to the debate. So let's have at it. Let's have a look at his argument.

I'll begin with his last statement: "Why don't people in power and in the elite die?"

You'd have to live under a rock to truly believe there's a shortage of political assassinations in the world. In the United States alone, not counting lesser political figures than the President, the numbers are sobering:

The U.S. has lost four (4) presidents to assassination:

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
  2. James A. Garfield (1881)
  3. William McKinley (1901)
  4. John F. Kennedy (1963).

But this is not the whole story, even restricting ourselves to U.S. presidents. The list of failed assassination attempts on sitting presidents is much longer.

  1. Andrew Jackson (1835)
  2. Abraham Lincoln (1861)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–a month before his inauguration!)
  5. Harry S. Truman (1950)
  6. John F. Kennedy (1960, 1961, in addition to the successful assassination in 1963)
  7. Richard Nixon (1974)
  8. Gerald R. Ford (2 attempts in Sept. 1975)
  9. Jimmy Carter (1979)
  10. Ronald Reagan (1981)
  11. Bill Clinton (2 attempts in 1994)
  12. George W. Bush (Feb. 2001, Sept. 11, 2001, 2005)
Around the world, and throughout human history people in power and the elite have died, nearly constantly, because another person or group felt they had cause to take justice into their own hands.

Being purely Machiavellian about it, one could easily conclude that because political assassination has been a near constant throughout history, that assassination does not work. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't lead to any significant or long-term decrease in corruption. It's a flawed political policy.

But that's the least of Vicente's logic problems here. He begins his rather contemptuous response to his critics with this statement:
Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favour to kill them, understand?
Now I'll be the first to admit you can draw a line between certain policy decisions by most world leaders to the unnecessary deaths of people they're supposed to be serving or those in other countries they have sway over, and I'm all for holding leaders who make illegal or immoral decisions responsible for their actions. And I'm sure, if pressed (unless he's truly unhinged), Vincente would argue that he is hoping to simply start a dialog about such issues with his sensationalist drawings. However, the oversimplification of his statement of the problem (let alone his solution) invites an oversimplified response, rather than the sort of sophisticated response which a more nuanced statement of the problem might invite. Or, as one would hope his ultimate goal truly is, might actually improve political accountability and checks and balances. Instead his vigilante-based response only serves to shut down, rather than open up, any meaningful dialog.

What bugs me most about art like this is what I suspect its real motive is. Convinced as I am that Vincente must know his work won't open up a serious dialog about political corruption or the possible ways to curb it, he must be aware that the only thing left to talk about in response to it is himself...the artist. Which, again, I suspect is the goal here. Not that narcissism isn't the motivation behind most political efforts, mind you.... Corruption and accountability are far more serious issues than Vicente's sophomoric work gives anyone meaningful insights into.

Labels: political art


Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Where I'm troubled by such sensationalist references are when Glenn Beck, Shawn Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and ilk use their platform to subtly and sometimes not so subtly call for violence.
Gil Vicente's work (as shown in the image) is showing himself holding the gun, not someone else.
Maybe using the images for viewer participated target practice would be too far, but these are people who have power over many peoples lives and who DO have blood on their hands (though Queen Elizabeth? I don't know, I'd replace her with Cheney).

Removing this work is censorship.

9/28/2010 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll bet a stack of unmarked bills that the author of the first comment can't back up the assertion--to wit: Limbaugh and Beck have called for violence. Talk is cheap. Using the same standard my guess is that he'd never include President Obama--not that I'm making the case that he should.

9/28/2010 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

Actually I enjoy this work. I reject the artist's comments as irrelevant -- I agree that didactic work is inherently problematic as "art" -- and I also ignore any possible narcissism. Is there really any other stance that an artist -- by necessity a self-promoter -- can take?

I think it's quite provocative, in and of itself, to think about murdering a public figure, in whom different people have differing degrees of trust or revulsion. When I saw this work for the first time (only the other day), I found myself simultaneously drawn to the idea, and repulsed by it. Which I think means the images succeed.

I also found it fascinating that he chose a diversity of "victim," tho I suppose the breadth of that diversity is arguable. It's de-rigueur that right-wing politicians and capitalists are the subjects of adolescent murder fantasies -- yawn -- but Mandela was a bit of a twist.

And even in the case of the conservative "victims," I still think that something about the images moved me. Perhaps I was impressed by the guts it took for the artist to put his face on the gun, as it were? Not sure. All I know is that something moved me -- I who consider the artist's attempt at coherent political philosophy foolish if not completely absurd -- and I'm prepared to say as much.

In contrast, I found Sinead O'Connor's now-famous anti-pope protest silly, all those years ago (and if my increasingly swiss-cheesy memory isn't faulty, I think I actually witnessed that moment live on TV, when it occurred), but something affected me about this one. I don't know. Maybe I'll feel differently after my coffee tomorrow.

To be clear: I make no statement as to the quality of the art-making. They look like good drawings from the images I've seen, but I obviously haven't seen them at their original scale, so that's the best I can say. I'm only responding to say that I think these works are provocative and interesting *despite* any political meaning the artist attempts to invest them in.

9/28/2010 06:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Glasson said...

Why is this work even worthy of discussion? It panders to the simpletons who believe that a bullet in the head of any world leader will actually change anything. Perhaps the artist should revisit the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which resulted in the death of millions of people, and for what? A new world order? Didn't happen. How about a little historical perspective. Being an artist doesn't mean you abrogate your need to be educated. Art as impotence is not enough.

9/28/2010 08:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

@Mr. 6:08 Anonymous

A. You are anonymous I am not, so what value should anyone take in your dare? links below.

B. Limbaugh: (Please have patience and wait for the end statement by Limbaugh):
(keep in mind I did not make these videos, I only found them in a brief search, but these are his words)
Also in relation to the above:

C. Glenn Beck:
(Listen all the way through.)
This one I call fear mongering about a little known treatise:

D. Can you find any reference President Obama makes to causing violence against the above slimy people? If anything I think he has used kidgloves with Republicans and their outspoken clowns while going out of his way to make peace.

9/28/2010 10:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bernard, Thanks for taking the time to look these up. I suspect we'll disagree about these actually calling for violence as opposed to wishing for the defeat of political opponents.
1. The first clip contained a report of spitting and the use of the N word. Subsequent investigation has proven this false. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0428/Why-tea-party-defenders-won-t-let-N-word-claims-rest
Rush calls for wiping out (as in defeat--his word) political opponents.
2.Operation Chaos was an attempt to skew the Democratic primary by getting Republicans and others to vote for Hillary. It did not advocate violence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rush_Limbaugh_Show#Operation_Chaos
3. Riots in Denver. Rush didn't advocate violence. "Now, I am not inspiring or inciting riots. I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming of riots in Denver," he said mimicking the holiday tune. http://www.denverpost.com/ci_9043850#ixzz10tIoFYBn Interestingly there was near rioting at the Republican convention in St. Paul, but not at Limbaugh's behest. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2008/09/rnc-protests.html
4. Beck's blood suckers and driving a stake through them. Beck uses, perhaps inappropriately, the vampire meme to express a desire for a political outcome. No actual stakes and hearts were subject to this metaphorical over-reach.
5. Beck calls for the suicide of climate scientists--hari kari specifically. Again, it was meant for humorous purposes to highlight mistakes attributed to scientists in one of the IPCC reports. How exactly would he go about ordering a suicide? Here it is in context. http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/36153/

9/29/2010 01:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

As much as I concur with you on this Ed, the artist has embodied accidentally or with unconscious subtlety, the current Vogue of being able to "project" ourselves into the media of the times, becoming actors in a "fantasy" role. Where anyone can become a bobble head toy, or a plush toy, or a cartoon character (a la Nintendo's new Mii Studio software or such) or a yet to be released cable pay feature where you can become a supporting character in a movie flic by being digitally painted onto the digital armature of the character, or where you become the game character in video action games.

Augmented reality has pushed us from a bond of emphathy with fictional characters, to now controlling their actions and reactions, to probably seeing ourselves as being that character. Fantasy writ real or just more explicit?

This artist's work touches on this, though it doesn't bring it to the fore (that would likely mean allowing every viewer to see themselves as the killer I guess)

Just to say that although the exhibit does appear unresolved, it might actually touch upon a critical and relatively unexplored theme. The cult of the celebrity morphed into a cult of the assumed celebrity. Will we still know how to distinguish who we are and aspire to be (or fear to be) , versus an augmented projection turned reality?

Maybe that's what is disappointing with the show, it doesn't go as far as it could ...

9/29/2010 06:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

D. Can you find any reference President Obama makes to causing violence against the above slimy people? If anything I think he has used kidgloves with Republicans and their outspoken clowns while going out of his way to make peace.

As I said, I'm not in favor of such a case, but others may want to note the proliferation of drone attacks on 'innocent' Pakistani's as fodder for the artist's portfolio.

9/29/2010 04:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Back @ANON 6:08/1/4:33

On your last comment, in some sense, I agree. I feel disenheartened that President Obama is using attack drones, and I've heard that those types of attack have been stepped up.

However, it is not directly related to my question about whether President Obama ever makes reference to causing violence against the above slimy people (slimy=specifically G. Beck and Limbaugh). Whereas Limbaugh has directly and undeniably stated he wants President Obama to fail and G. Beck openly calls President Obama a racist.

We are parsing words at this point, and I will acknowledge that my use of the phrase "call for violence" was not the best choice of words. Is wanting someone to stab their own self a call for violence? It is a violent act if it were carried out, but it does not involve a violent perpetrator (unless G. Beck's influence could be considered mind-control and the victim was powerless to resist, then perhaps, and then it would not be a "call" because he would be the perpetrator himself). Limbaugh was wishing for "Riots in the Streets", so he was not calling for them directly (though, in my defense I did start with the adjectives "sensationalist" and "subtle" and not so "subtle"..." so I did contextualize my statement.

My bigger point was that certain commentators (who happen to be right wing) each have an audience (likely overlapping) of millions and daily barrages of double-speak, fear-mongering, and inaccuracies go out all time suggesting that what "they" see as inept political leaders should be changed. The way that change can happen they are sometimes dark, cloudy and vague about, be it through humor or verbalizing their wishes.

A visual artist drawing himself holding a gun at high-profile political figures bothers me less than sensationalist political commentators indoctrinating an audience to their own fascist worldview.

9/30/2010 12:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

And Back @ANON 6:08/1/4:33

I want to add one other thought regarding the spitting and use of the N-word:
I don't feel that the link you included resolves the issue.
Ever read a "A Passage to India"? or atleast a core part of the book regarding a tragic event that was in dispute?
There may well be (or so my crazy theory goes) a point in what we call reality where uncertain situations are at such a high level of possibility and confusion that the truth of what really happened is nearly if not impossible to decipher. A quantum type of situation in which the expectations and assumptions on both sides are ramped up to such a degree that an innocent event of sputtering is called spitting or an act of defiant spitting is doubted in its intention and acquiesced to be sputtering and words that are possibly on some tongues meant to inflame are withheld or are uttered.
As far as I am concerned that is what happened, and it shows that racism is there just beneath the surface. When it comes to passing a judgement on any particular person, that is difficult and maybe the best that can be hoped for is a desire for peace and a willingness to continue to communicate.
I don't know if that's too vague or not, but as I mention above it's my crazy theory, and it certainly should not be used in most cases but only when the matter is completely unresolvable.

9/30/2010 01:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with your assessment and my gut reaction is to dismiss the work, it has people talking, which is more than I can say about a lot of art. More importantly, in explaining why the artwork appears to fail, or succeed, it provokes considered reflection on the issues presented; reflection that leads to a better understanding of the complexity of what the artist is suggesting (as you proved with your response.)

The outrage of, it's not that simple!, forces the viewer to consider why it's not that simple.

That defense could be used to justify a lot of bad art, but the artist's remarks remind me of Frank Stella and his desire to get home and watch television. I'm hoping that, like Stella, he's being intentionally frustrating in his explanation to provoke something in us.

10/01/2010 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I will acknowledge that my use of the phrase "call for violence" was not the best choice of words."

That was my only point. Everything else is still in play.

10/04/2010 01:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Back @ Anon,

violence inspired by G. Beck

10/11/2010 09:51:00 PM  

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