Photo credit: The Block Museum of Art
On Feb. 7th I had the privilege of participating in a public program organized by the Block Museum (Northwestern University) as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the sixties looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” For Roszak, Blake had embodied modern society’s self-destructive hyper-rationality in the figure of Urizen, the
William Blake – Ancient of Days
personification of abstract law, order, and reason – seen measuring the universe with a compass in the iconic Ancient of Days. In a seminar on Blake, poet Allen Ginsberg claimed the “triumph of Urizonic mentality is the “neutron bomb.” As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “A madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason. He’s someone who has lost everything except his reason.” Urizen, for Roszak and Allen Ginsberg, prefigured the kind of insane “reason” Kubrick satirized in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Blakean Bruce Conner in his Bombhead (2002).
John Murphy in front of Ivan Albright’s ‘And Man Created God In His Own Image’ (1930/31)
On January 26 I enjoyed workshopping a paper on the enigmatic and provocative Chicago painter Ivan Albright (1897-1983) as part of the Newberry Library’s seminar on American Art and Visual Culture. The seminar took place at the Art Institute of Chicago, so we were able to bring some Albrights out of storage to look at them in all their gruesome glory, including And Man Created God In His Own Image (1930/31). Here’s my abstract for the paper, titled “Flesh: Ivan Albright’s Weird, Ugly Realism”:
When avant-garde French painter Jean Dubuffet visited Chicago in 1951, there was one artist he wanted to meet: Ivan Albright. By 1951, Albright had established a reputation as one of American modernism’s most inscrutable and independent artists, a “master of the macabre” best known for his painstakingly executed paintings of morbid subjects: decaying bodies, rotting doors, and funereal still lifes. “There are few pictures as alarming as those of Albright,” said Dubuffet; Albright had abolished totally “what were our canons of beauty,” and swept away “all the criteria of order.” Dubuffet, a champion of art brut (raw art), recognized in Albright a kindred spirit, an antihumanist who employed Old Master techniques in order to undermine the most cherished beliefs and values of Western civilization. Drawing on archival research and unpublished source material (including Albright’s fifty notebooks housed at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries), I argue that Albright, who seemed to have few contemporaries as a painter, is more productively understood as an antihumanist philosopher investigating the “aesthetics of ugliness” and the flat ontologies of humans and objects. Albright’s paintings offer a disturbing parody of empiricism—his obsessively detailed transcription of the visible world (it could take him up to ten years to finish a painting) result in unmooring objects from their apparent stability and opening up fissures in the ground of reality. The “horror” of Albright’s paintings, I conclude, owes less to their ostensible ugliness or morbidity than to this profoundly unsettling sense that an unfathomable reality lurks beneath the phenomenal world.
New York Times art critic Holland Cotter has selected William Blake in the Age of Aquarius as one of the best art books of 2017. Stephen Eisenman’s essay for the catalog is a rich monograph unto-itself, detailing the ways artists in the decades after WWII discovered in William Blake an intellectual and artistic hero who challenged established views about war, sex, religion, law and nature. The great WJT Mitchell closes the catalog with a brief but trenchant reflection on how Blake might “help us see the madness of our own times with a new clarity.” My contribution to the catalog, “Building Golgonooza in the Age of Aquarius,” considers Blake’s influence on utopian communalism in the 60s and 70s, particularly his vision of Golgonooza as an eternal “city of art” to which all creative laborers contribute. The exhibition is currently up at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL) through spring 2018.
I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary academic conference in San Francisco, “Revisiting the Summer of Love, rethinking the counterculture,” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” Co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement and the California Historical Society, the conference offered a compelling “history-from-below” focused more on grassroots community organizing and coalition-building than the usual suspects (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, et al). The editors of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture gave me the opportunity to reflect on the conference and offer some summary/synthesis. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:
The season has passed into myth: San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love,” a sybaritic outpouring of song, sex, dance, poetry, and drugs when tens-of-thousands of young people flooded into the Haight-Ashbury district in search of a hippie utopia. That winter the Human Be-In marked a “gathering of the tribes” in Golden Gate Park: Allen Ginsberg chanted, the Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack, the Diggers distributed free food, and Timothy Leary enjoined the crowd to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” By then the North Beach beat bohemia had flowered into the Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic subculture, with musicians, poets, and artists living semi-communally in rundown Victorian houses. The “San Francisco Five” designed iconic acid rock posters for performances by the likes of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore. The Monterey Pop Festival made legends out of then relatively unknown performers, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Fifty years later, another “gathering of the tribes” convened in San Francisco – nearly 175 scholars, students, archivists, activists, and counterculture veterans – to make sense of what had happened half-a-century earlier. Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement partnered with the California Historical Society to present “Revisiting the Summer of Love, Rethinking the Counterculture,” an interdisciplinary academic conference with the stated goal of “celebrating and reexamining the Summer of Love and its associated events, contexts, and implications.” Director of the Center, Dan Lewis, outlined some of the ambitions for the conference in his introductory remarks. He hoped that participants would model new methods and approaches to a period too often caricatured in pop culture or dismissed in academic circles. He issued, in effect, an institutional mandate for universities to get serious about the counterculture, to “reset the agenda,” in his words. In his plenary address, historian Michael J. Kramer (Northwestern University) suggested a methodology drawn from the counterculture itself: a “kaleidoscopic” openness to history as multifaceted, open-ended, and variegated, oscillating psychedelically between micro- and macrocosmic perspectives.
Here’s a link to the review.
Grayson Perry – Alan Measles and Claire Visit the Rust Belt (one side), 2017
The New York Review of Books has a nice review of a recent exhibition of work by English artist Grayson Perry at the Serpent Galleries — “Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!” Perry, an irreverent iconoclast of English art (he won the Turner Prize in 2003), is probably known as much for his cross-dressing and cheeky wit as for his clever ceramic vases. He belongs to the Arts and Crafts tradition of using decorative art as a subversive strategy; his vases, tapestries, woodcuts, and banners blur the lines between high and low culture, fine art and trade-union propaganda.
In an article for London Times back in 2006, “Let the Artisans Craft Our Future,” Perry made his commitment to an artisanal utopian vision clear: “Maybe I am being sentimental and nostalgic about horny-handed men in leather aprons wielding a spokeshave, but I think that there is a place for the commissioned one-off handmade object in our future because, as we know, the future has to be green…Handmade is often a byword for pricey, and local means unadventurous or lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down, when we can’t just drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table, designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America, for the price of a round of drinks?”
From the review:
“The deepest appeal [of Perry’s art] lies in the combination of original concepts and craftsmanship. Perry makes his own pots, but most of his art is collaborative and he’s the first to acknowledge the astounding skill of the foundry workers and tapestry weavers involved. He returns constantly, too, to the people’s art, the folk art of Africa, or of Ruritania and Lithuania, the junk creations of outsider artists—like a totemic Alan Measles made from pebbles and sea-shore debris—and to the banners, and the bikes and sheds and graffiti, of “ordinary people.” It’s here, in showing that craft is also “art,” and that it belongs to us all, even more than in his overt political statements, that Perry is truly democratic and profoundly “popular.”
I’ve done some research and writing on once-popular but now obscure economist, Henry George (particularly his influence on Arts and Crafts colony, Rose Valley). I wrote a short article for the Craftsman newsletter about William Morris’s revealing transition from George fan to harsh critic. But I was resigned to the fact that George’s bestselling 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, is now largely gathering dust on library bookshelves.
George might be having a brief reappearance in the spotlight, however, thanks to a Vanity Fair article discussing George’s relevance to new forms of “unproductive capitalism” such as the finance industry. It’s an intriguing argument. George posited the theory of unearned increment: Land was once held in common, the shared property of all, but over time fewer and fewer people owned land. For these land monopolists, speculating on the ever-increasing value of real estate, “labor” consisted entirely of collecting higher and higher rent, or “unearned increment.” Workers who did not own land had only their own labor to sell. As rents increased, small businesses could no longer afford to lease real estate. That left industrial corporations and conglomerates with the power to monopolize available land.
George’s solution had the advantage of elegant simplicity: only one tax (his famous “Single Tax”) would be necessary to level the playing field. Land (not the means of production) would become the common property of the state. If the government imposed a single tax on unearned increment, the burden would be on the landowners to make their land productive, to produce wealth enough to offset the single tax and still make a profit. Equal access to land would enable laborers to become self-sufficient while employers (land owning capitalists) would have to raise wages to meet the demand for maximizing land value.
What does this have to do with Silicon Valley? Author Michael Kinsley provocatively draws a comparison between “unearned increment” and new finance industries where money begets money:
You’ve got to think of “land” as a metaphor for all unproductive forms of capitalism. Much of the financial industry, for example: hedge funds, private equity, I.P.O.’s and I.R.A.’s. Some might defend finance as an industry that makes the making of what other industries make more efficient. But when you read that Goldman Sachs is getting some enormous fee for fuck-all or that two companies are merging that unmerged a few years ago and will unmerge again in a few years, you gotta wonder.
Take a look at the Forbes 400 list. The No. 1 slot has been occupied for many years by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. As it happens, Microsoft and Gates are a notable exception: Gates grew rich the traditional way, producing real products that people were willing to pay for. But, as Forbes admits, 93 of the Forbes 400 made their money by just playing with money: “All together this group is worth a combined $491 billion—20% of the Forbes 400’s total $2.4 trillion net worth.”
See the rest of the article here…
I contributed a short essay about ornery and trailblazing lithographer / mountaineer / painter, Bolton Brown, to the the latest issue of Art in Print. Here’s the first paragraph:
Bolton Coit Brown (1864–1936) liked to set himself seemingly insurmountable physical and artistic challenges. Best known today as the collaborating printer of George Bellows’s (1882–1925) great lithographs of the 1920s, Brown was also an accomplished mountaineer and a serious artist in his own right. He made several coveted “first ascents” in the Sierra Nevada in the 1890s, and played a key role in the founding of the Arts and Crafts community of Byrdcliffe, in Woodstock, New York, in 1902. In 1913 one of his paintings (now lost) was included in the Armory Show; and in the 1910s, when he was over 50, he revived the languishing fine art of lithography in the United States.
Check out the rest of the essay here.
Over at Bardolatry my mom has a vivid review of Almeida theater’s production of Richard III starring the brilliant Ralph Fiennes (best known for playing Voldemort from the Harry Potter films). Fiennes has racked up an impressive list of villains on stage and screen: Amon Goethe (Schindler’s List), Voldemort, and now Shakespeare’s most wickedly charismatic villain (well, maybe a close second to Iago…), Richard III.
One night this spring, my eldest daughter and I stayed up half the night, US West Coast time, to snag tickets the moment they went on sale for this production. Knowing that the theatre was small and the stars big, we figured tickets would go fast. We even bought a membership in the Almeida so we could book a week early.
Two hours and untold server crashes later, we got ’em. At an incredibly affordable price, membership included.
And I’m delighted to report that our efforts were far from wasted. The Shakespearean highlight of our 2016 England trip
during this, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, was easily our attendance at this fantastic, frightful, ferocious, and occasionally funny production, directed by Rupert Goold
and starring Ralph Fiennes
and Vanessa Redgrave
Read the rest of the review here…