Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Classes + Myanmyar + Strike Over + Kehinde Wiley Busts

It's the first day of classes, and so far, so good! Such smart students, all of them are avid readers, and among the writers they listed as their favorites were Dostoyevsky, Ellison, Hemingway, Kerouac, Flaubert, Melville, Vonnegut, Murakami, and Salinger. Who teaching writing wouldn't want to start with such a baseline!

(That's me at right, in my office, in front of the Luis Luma painting and Ella Turenne's Neg Maron print.)

Congratulations to the 24 recent recipients of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowships! One is my colleague at the university, the rightly esteemed and remarkable fiction writer and poet Stuart Dybek; another is the New York-based artist Whitfield Lovell, who follows his partner Fred Wilson in receiving this honor (thanks for the h/t, Bernie); another is the blues musician Corey Harris; the playwright Lynn Nottage, whose Intimate Apparel received excellent reviews when it debuted several years ago; and vocalist Dawn Upshaw, best known for her work in opera and contemporary art song. Congratulations to them and to all the other recipients!

Ronaldo Wilson, one of the founders of the Black Took Collective, is the 2007 Cave Canem Prize Winner! Congratulations, Ronaldo! His prose-poetic manuscript, The Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, was selected by judge Claudia Rankine. Serena! F.I.E.R.C.E.ness, and I think it's fair to say that Cave Canem has shown how expansive its aesthetics are with this and last year's selection, of Dawn Lundy Martin's first book of poems! This year's runners up were R. Erica Doyle (!!!) and Nicole Terez Dutton. Congratulations to both of them too, so much fierceness in one year.

The protests in Myanmar, which I highlighted a few days ago, continue to gain international attention, especially now that the government's security forces have started to brutally suppress them. Again, I am impressed and moved by the courage of the Buddhist monks, held in the highest esteem by their society, to put their lives on the line to challenge the horrible, oppressive conditions and the military dictatorship that has imposed them in that country.

The US has propose new sanctions, but I keep hearing that China is the lone country that can put pressure on the ruling junta and its government, and supposedly China may have already done so, but after the defense forces attacked, shot and arrested a number of the monks yesterday, it's clear that China's input may have its limits, though perhaps harsher penalties, such as cutting off arms sales, political support, and other forms of cooperation may do the trick. But does China want to buttress pro-democracy efforts in a neighboring country when its own record is so horrible? Would it, and wouldn't that be telling its own people to try something according to the Tianenmen Square rallies and protests again, despite the country's economic successes? Would the business élite even support such a move, or are they too intimately linked these days to the Chinese government?

So what is to be done to help the people there? What can the rest of the world do? Will US sanctions have any effect at all?

I woke to the NPR news that the United Auto Workers (UAW) had called off its strike against General Motors (GM) because the two sides had reached a compromise during their all-night negotations. Supposedly the agreement hinges on GM creating a retirement health care benefits trust fund, to be administered by the UAW, that will relieve a huge financial burden from the carmaker's books. Hearing this I immediately thought that if we had single-payer, government financed, comprehensive, cradle-to-grave health care, there'd be no need for such a trust fund, and GM, thus relieved of one of its major competitive setbacks, would face having to produce better, more affordable, and more appealing cars. Note to Democrats: this is another gift horse staring you in the face. It also makes me wonder about the old pension system, which many corporations exploited for their own gain and little penalty, at the expense of retirees and US taxpayers. If GM had a real, well-invested, well-managed pension, this turn of events also would not have come to pass. But the world of pensions of old is gone; in fact, as we saw in 2004, we can never relax our vigilance about making sure that Social Security remains viable and properly funded. I'm glad, though, for the GM workers who were about to face a terrible hardship; at least for now they can sleep a little easier.

Yes, this isn't an original argument and it's so obvious it could be in a Bob Herbert column--I enjoy reading him, but you get my drift--but it looks like W will veto the SCHIP bill, which doesn't have a veto-proof majority in the House, because of the GOP, claiming that the $35 billion is too costly and that more American middle-class families will avail themselves of a public, government-funded program, and yet he's sent his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, up to Capital Hill to request $190 billion in additional funding for the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, if SCHIP fails to be funded, poor American children would be the first to suffer.

Gall, shamelessness and arrogance don't come close to describing this man and his government!

Senate Majority Reid vowed the other day not give in to more of Bush's shenanigans. I'll believe it when I see it, but as a Republican Senator suggested about SCHIP, the House should keep reintroducing the bill over and over, and forcing the president to veto it. Eventually enough Republicans will be embarrassed enough that rather than tethering themselves to his sinking ship, they'll join the Democrats to provide enough votes for an override vote. As for the war funding, tell the president absolutely NOT until the information and testimony the Democratic chairs have requested on a range of Iraq-related issues, such as the gross corruption, Blackwater's actions, the faulty equipment (this week brought the news that the infantry must contend with guns that frequently jam, unlike their opponents!), and so forth, are adequately addressed. And don't worry about the American people; we're quite aware of the scare tactics and demagoguery this administration is going to tuse.

Wiley PaintingKehinde Wiley's work, drawing as it does upon current artworld and critical-theoretical trends and discussions around appropriation, the archive, Black and popular cultural studies and performance, and sexuality and gender studies, has fascinated me since I first saw it, but also confounded me somewhat as well.

His paintings (at right, a photo I took of his "Saint Andrew," oil on canvas, 7'x8', 2006 when C and I went to his "Scenic" show at the Rona Hoffman Gallery in River East, in Chicago) are physically breathtaking, especially when viewed up close, and increasingly polished in terms of their technique, while also deeply suffused with an irony-edged eros, but I feel like he's found a socially and commercially viable strategy and keeps, well, exploiting it, a strategy that's meant to appeal, rather obviously, to the powers that be in the artworld, while please the Folks along the way.

His evidently and playfully ironic use of Eurocentric references, both as ground (composition, figuration, etc.) and in the titles--which I think of as falling in a long and broad lineage, but in a specifically queer way to Bob Thompson, for example, though Wiley is very interested in aspects of mimetic realism and expressionism, whereas Thompson, who wasn't gay, was far more grounded in abstraction and the emerging color-field school--underlines this so forcefully for me. Nothing unusual there, and he's well within the mainstream, both of the past and of today. But were he engaged in a more resistent form of détournement, say, or using classical Chinese models, for example, would his work, whose technical achievement is undeniable, be as celebrated? Would it be dismissed as Afro-Chinoiserie, or not discussed at all? (And what would that kind of work, a more complex and provocative anti-Afro-Orientalism, say, look like?) As I said, Wiley's not the only person, in visual arts or any other area of the arts, who's doing this, but I can't stop thinking about it when I consider his work. We all to some extent work with the terms set before us, but where does the limit lie? Is it unfair for me, an admirer of his work, to introduce these questions into the debate?

I'm still very drawn to his work, and so when I received a recent email from Cereal Art in Philadelphia about the availability of a new set of his busts, including his "After La Negresse, 1872," I had to check them out. I've never seen this in person, but they appear to replicate the formal and thematic concerns of the large paintings in this new form, which I think increases the layers of irony (cast marble and resin busts, all white, etc.) and humor--to what end? I don't think I have an answer, but I'm enjoying looking at them.

Cereal Art is selling them as a "special project" at $1400 a pop. What do you think?


  1. Knowing nothing more about the artist beyond what you wrote and showed here, I'm reminded of a discussion a while back with a friend who pointed out how reflexively hostile or suspicious (those who would be seen as) intelligent people have become readily accessible, uncomplicatedly beautiful works of art of all sorts. The painting and sculptures are lovely, and therefore we must, of course, "problematize their facile aesthetic," "resist and critique their pandering commericial appeal" ... how many more such phrases could I come up with, I wonder?

    Kai in NYC

  2. I have been a fan of Whitfield Lovell, for sometime now. His work is brilliant in every respect to me. Reading your post, I was happy to discover that he has a "partner." Now I am really interested in him. Your assesment of Kehinde Wiley has sparked my interest in his work.

  3. Kai, you could probably come up with quite a few. As you see, I'm not criticizing the beauty of the works--though I'm immediately put in mind of Wittgenstein's famous question, in his "Lectures on Aesthetics," about what "beautiful" means, or if it has any meaning, outside of specific social and aesthetic contexts, outside of the language game and forms of life in which the work is created--but rather what I see as the concept and strategy behind them. That appears to be fairly transparent, or is it just me?

    Bronzebuckaroo, yes Lovell's work is great, and yes, he's family. Have you see his partner Fred Wilson's work? It's mostly conceptual, and pretty amazing as well. I think I blogged about it a while ago. And if you go to the Hoffman gallery site, you can find lots of Wiley's work. is another good site to see his work.

  4. I HAD NO IDEA that Lovell and Wilson were partners (I had a suspicion that Fred was Family) He's been a Big Deal for those of us here since his reorganization of the Maryland Historical Society for the glorious "Mining the Museum" installation years ago. Fantastic!

    To do a vague tie in: Wilson placed three MHS busts of white historical figures opposite three empty columns where busts for Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (I believe) SHOULD have been, but of course none existed for them. Its great to see Wiley in a sense fill in these blanks

  5. I'm no art specialist but Wiley has worked the hell of the concept of marrying the "highbrow" devices and technique with the "lowbrow" subject matter. He makes the same statement over and over again. The beauty of his pieces are undeniable yet it feels as if he constructs art now when I felt that he initially created art. I spoke with him during his Studio Museum show and I imagined that he would appropriate artistic devices that were/are used solely for increasing the divide between high and low. His work now seems heavily commercial which is a road I never thought he would pursue.

  6. Anonymous, your characterization is right on. I think the desire for commercial success is inherent in being part of the contemporary global artworld, and Wiley is one of its stars. Brotha gotta keep them pix coming. I want to see what he comes up with next, though the sheer visual beauty of his works has definitely increased as he's developed technically.

  7. Very cool post. Excellent Blog. Have you Kehinde's Tapestry for Cerealart?