Colonialism dies hard

Restitution of stolen artifacts is a hot topic these days and many museums have heeded the call by doing the right thing and returning antiquities acquired under doubtful circumstances to their rightful country of origin. German cultural institutions seem to be leading the way but one notable exception and holdout to restitution is the British Museum who insists they have more merit in retaining these pieces than the countries clamoring for their return. This they claim in spite of having had thieves among their personnel who have secretly and routinely stolen items from the collection and sold them for a pittance on ebay. Who says English arrogance died with their imperialism? Notable objects in stubborn resistance to the granting of restitution by the British museum are the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Greece and the Benin bronzes from the Edo region of what is now Nigeria. Greece continues to insist the Elgin marbles be returned even as English authorities maintain they were legally obtained from Ottoman occupiers. Nigerian authorities have dedicated a museum to their Benin bronzes, which were widely scattered among many mainly European museums. To complicate matters in their favor, British authorities point to legislative acts of ‘Heritage’ and ‘British Museum’ that prevent the transfer of (looted) cultural heritage from the UK. But what could they fear? It is morally repugnant to selfishly maintain control over foreign cultural objects that were essentially stolen from their host countries and English authorities must acknowledge this. It is time for the public to rise and protest the unacceptable imperial attitude of their government and cultural institutions to call for the peaceful and permanent transfer of these objects to their rightful origins.

The Artbots start to take over

About four years ago I was part of a pioneering group that typed text to create pictures using a catalog of images and textures. It was a clumsy and tedious process that produced strikingly similar work and ultimately held my interest for only a short time. But technology moves fast. The past year has seen a proliferation of sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image programs that will blow your mind and make you worry about the future of artists. Illustrators and graphic artists may as well surrender their aspirations or learn to code. Online programs such as Stable Diffusion, Dall-e 2, Wombo, Pixray, Canva, Starryai and others create art out of words better than any stable of Chinese slave artists I have ever tried to liberate. Any style, any topic – the variety and sophistication of the art is incredible. These are no longer just simple art filters (Texture, ‘Watercolor’, Pixelate etc.) included in popular graphics programs like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Draw and ‘mapped’ over personal images or photographs… these are full art styles applied to an image derived solely from a written description. Nor are they popular app filters like Pixma, Toonme, or Deep Art Effects, that need you to provide a base photograph or image to apply their styles – just words will do. Much has been made of a prize won by an AI-generated ‘photograph’ this past August in Texas but the distinction between human and computer creativity has never been thinner, and more examples are bound to arise – that is if they are revealed, because there is little to distinguish one from the other. Of course these text-to-image programs rely (like my prior experience) on a database of visual images created in the past by human artists – but the variety derived from this trove is unique to the text proposed and the genesis of the image is generally hidden from the author. Technology has their bots recycling old art but seems incapable of creating new movements or aesthetics like groups of artists have in the past. Of course nowadays many artists cycle between past styles and ‘appropriate’ images from other artists with impunity – and in doing so erase acceptance of the same from artificial intelligence. It seems contemporary art is presently stuck in a vicious circle of refinement and regurgitation. Meanwhile, the bots match our most famous examples in the visual arts… and from the fringes wear down and corrupt the inspiration of emerging artists and any originality they can dream of inventing.

Non-plagiarists vs Warhol’s legacy

Artists are lining up on each side of an upcoming October Supreme Court ruling brought on by the Warhol Foundation’s appeal of a lower court ruling barring it from using images without substantially changing them. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA), and the US Copyright office are among groups opposing the Warhol Foundation. A ruling in favor of Warhol would diminish the work of any photographer who values their work and puts it in the public realm, making it fair game for lazy artists like Warhol, Barbara Kruger (who lent her name to the Warhol side), Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, among others, who constantly plagiarize images in their work and call it their own with minimal if any changes. If these artists (Warhol rest in peace) want to use a published image in their art without significantly changing it, why shouldn’t they pay the original artist/photographer for the privilege? Or conversely, why not go take your own damn photograph(s) to use? Warhol was never a good draftsman – but he was excellent at pissing on his pieces. His most recognized work such as Marilyn, Elvis, and Mao use photographs, apparently taken by others and used without permission. This is an issue originating in the 20th century with photography but modern society has made it even more easy, through means of the internet, to find and use any image put out for view in the world. It must be noted however that only the most shameless artists plagiarize these works without changing them or seeking permission for them. Many of them are in that modern wing of art that denies showing the ‘artist’s hand’ in works of art – movement famously promoted by Warhol and his ‘factory’. Successful contemporary artists especially should not be given a pass on adopting images without costs. A ruling in favor of the Warhol Foundation will only promote plagiarists as they exploit less successful artists with impunity. Artists prone to using ‘factories’ and ‘assistants’ will find that industrial production of art is not so easy when you have to personally develop all your images. It is not too much to ask for these capitalist artists to sacrifice ease of production for ethical support. BTW there are already laws in most countries that logically migrate published images into the public realm after due time – this case seems to only apply to contemporary images under authorship of current persons. The Copyright office and the photographer groups are correct to oppose this outrageous over-reach by greedy artist-plagiarists and their legacy foundations.

Cuban-American Dichotomies

Two dueling versions of the art world were in plain view recently, specially for Cuban-Americans. In Florida on the one hand, we saw the spectacle of Art Basel Miami Beach 2021 (along with NADA and various other satellite shows) and in Havana the 14th Biennial – all in the midst of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant – as if anybody cared. In the southern heart of American capitalism, huge crowds of ultra-rich investors descended upon the stalls of the 1% selected galleries to scoop up commodified goods sometimes recognized as artwork by other narratives. The haul was in the billions of dollars for mostly blue-chip artists and galleries. Meanwhile, back in arch-nemesis Havana, the communist overlords trying to soften their image by using art as political propaganda had their every-other-year efforts to promote local artists ‘salir por la culeta’, or backfire spectacularly as selected citizens declined to participate or protested the exhibit due to the government’s suppression and jailing of other dissident artists. Miami saw the likes of pop stars Leonard DiCaprio and Adam Levine, casino mogul Steve Wynn, and many other VIP’s entertained with exclusive sessions where they could select their visual investments prior to the common hoards. In Havana, hundreds signed an open letter calling for a boycott that included the likes of Robert Storr (isn’t he just a critic living comfortably in the US?) while another letter from Human Rights advocacy groups including Meryl Streep called for the Cuban government to “…stop its unrelenting abuses against artists…”. As was to be expected, nobody signed any letters objecting to the commodification and institutionalism of the affair in Miami but rather gave tacit approval to the money orgy it represented. There were also no letters from artists calling for an end to the obscene ‘sanctions’ imposed by the USA on Cuba for over 60 years. Miami was awash in celebrities and publicity – it was the greatest of successes – while Havana was ignored or criticized and kicked down some more notches in the global art hierarchy. Somehow the balance doesn’t seem quite right in this equation of the art world between the two centers of Cuban American culture. Attribute these diverse attitudes to obvious regional economic and political inequality. Cuban artists in Miami were marginalized per usual while Cuban American artists in Havana were non existent. Most of this can be rationalized as a result of the highly politicized polarity of the two cities but shouldn’t art be held above that? In any case, the art world proves once again to be as disgusting as usual in its real manifestation on both sides of the Caribbean.

Hunter Biden Blows

Here we go again with celebrity artists taking over headlines with misguided incursions into the art scene. This time it’s controversial son of President Joe Biden, Robert Hunter Biden. Like George Dubya Bush before him, Hunter is banking on politics and his father’s name to sell artwork on the side – when he’s not too busy pretending to be a lawyer, lobbyist or hedge fund manager which are all part of his past resume. You would think he was already satisfied and proficient at taking rich people’s money. The images are not particularly captivating, as they are the expected product of a quintessential ‘process art’. Hunter blows on alcohol inks for the sfumato effect they lend themselves to or layers them in drops that naturally form color circles. Yes, Hunter Biden blows! I wouldn’t be surprised if he is high when he makes the art since he has a reputation for alcohol and drug addiction in addition to abusing his family lineage. Then, because he is the son of the president, he is granted prestigious gallery shows and prices in the tens of thousands for his efforts. And you thought only Trump and his acolytes were quality scam artists! This particular scam even garnered a puff piece by no less than the New York Times where Hunter is portrayed as a ‘sensitive’ artist living in Hollywood while they ignore writing about real native artists. It seems the art world has devolved into a game of networking and connections rather than any talent or training apparent and this is just another symptom of that malady. Hunter Biden is constantly trying to parlay his lack of experience or expertise into high paying positions – as in Ukraine or China. He should have really quit his dalliance before joining the art world. Go back to drooling over nude dancers Hunter Biden and thanks for your part in debasing the art world!

Pandemics and Artists

So it’s been about seven months of Covid-19 now and most things seem about the same as when it started. Artists are programmed to focus exclusively and get lost in their work to the point where everything else disappears so going to the studio and making art at the exclusion of everything else doesn’t seem to have altered many routines at all. Same for the isolation – I believe most artists are naturally reclusive people and loners at heart so mandatory lockdowns don’t seem to deviate so far from the norm. That’s for the practice of art… as for the business of art things aren’t so normal or good. Virtual gallery shows are just not the occasion for social interaction that real exhibits are and Zoom meetings don’t hold a candle to in-person receptions. Most physical exhibits have been cancelled and showing your work in public is a struggle due to restrictions on gatherings and social distancing. Even when they open, galleries are not holding openings or seeing the same amount of traffic since most people are not going out as much – and those that do are making it brief and avoiding other people. I think most artists are beginning to miss the excuse of receptions to gather with other people to discuss life and art. In fact even regular gatherings among friends are now minuscule, cast as suspect and liable to infection so how can you relax and enjoy them? Covid just sucks – and its effects seem to grow longer with time past in this limbo. How strange to miss so many of those ordinary things we took for granted – meeting with friends, going to restaurants and art openings or sporting events. How long until we get back to what was once normal life? Seems like it will be forever at this point – at least six months. All you can say is stay safe and keep making art.

Miami Art Basel Brutality

The news out of Art Basel Miami would seem to be all economic and not controversial if you were to only depend on art sites like Artnet or Hyperallergic. But the most significant story ignored by these sites was covered by The Guardian at this link – The report covers censorship of a mural for the fair by Brazilian artist Panmela Castro depicting an instance of police brutality in Rio de Janeiro. Local Miami police only “complained” about the mural’s content before, according to the report, managers of the ‘Aria 21’ parking section of Art Basel immediately ordered it be painted over, allegedly in order to not “jeopardize good relations with police”. In our times of political tyranny, police militarization, and the Black Lives Matter movement it is imperative that such complicit oppression and suppression of art by police groups instead be denounced and amplified in attention to the public. Especially when the art in question is only being critical of illegal practices and policies involving police in order to correct them. It is not right that an original police crime of brutalization in another country be compounded by local police censorship. It stands to reason that Miami police sympathize and imitate the brutal tactics depicted and so do not want them idolized and immortalized in a local public mural. Shame on Aria 21 and Miami Art Basel for not supporting political art and surrendering to pressure from police. This is not what an Art Fair should stand for, but it is past time to recognize Miami Art Basel for the base commercial venture it really is and not the cultural icon it aspires to be. Real Art is increasing the already great distance from such events when Art Fairs sanction censorship such as this.

This Whitney Biennial is not a Gas

Protests directed at Whitney Museum co-chair Warren Kanders finally led to his resignation and that of his wife who was also involved in some museum committees. It was about time. There is no room for artists to surrender their principles to profiteering warmongers, arms manufacturers, or criminals who capitalize on abusing people or nature. Shame on the few artists who resisted the call to boycott this version of the Whitney Biennial in a year of protests. In particular I was shocked by the cowardice shown by Puerto Rican artist Nibia Pastrana Santiago who was apparently herself gassed by Kanders’ chemicals during legitimate non violent protests aimed at governor Ricardo Rosello on the island. According to Hyperallergic, Nibia said “My work is not something that can be uninstalled, the work in itself is my body in action…”. What nonsense and pathetic rationalization! Just say you’re opposed and won’t show sister! Find some valentia and quit making excuses to not join your principled exhibitors and remain in a tainted exhibit. Maybe you will find a way to just remove your ‘body’ from these soiled spectacles if you ever find some real art identity. And shame on all the other artists who for one reason or another preferred the prestige and exposure of the show to taking a moral stand against the corruption of museum philanthropists. It is past time that artists take a stand against those who seek the prestige and affirmation of the art world through museum boards while they exploit and abuse human rights and decent standards. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a trend, now more frequently visible through organizations like ‘Decolonize This Place’, who deserve credit for leading the protest against the Whitney’s complicity with “…death, disaster, and destruction” and raised consciousness among the artists selected. Maybe next time such efforts will be joined by present art-cowards like Santiago who missed their chance to stand against hidden artworld creeps.

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Teaching artists to fish

I have never been a fan of formal teaching of studio art in art schools although I went through at least seven years of it. Mentoring has a place in the course a trajectory in art but learning old master techniques or aesthetics seems like a futile exercise in imitation and nostalgia. That is why it does not surprise me that Art Schools in this country are generally suffering from lack of students and teaching focus. It seems the smaller institutions are closing or merging in large numbers. We saw this in the DC area with the unfortunate 2015 merging of the Corcoran School of Art into George Washington University. Here is a link to a recent article about this in… Even though I find instruction of art futile, I believe the environment of art school is invaluable experience given the proximity to other artists, ideas, history and techniques. According to the article, it seems like about a fifth of the art schools in the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) have faced an operating crisis in the last few years even though the top schools have seen a moderate (2.4%) increase in enrollment. This statistic however excludes schools that have closed or merged. One of the comments in the article promotes the idea of art schools training artists in tangent disciplines as ‘creatives’. It seems to me like this completely defeats the purpose of an art school – may as well teach artists to fish. Most if not all students of art are well aware of the sacrifice necessary and of the lack of options available in the real job market after graduation with an art degree. Most do not see only a future of gallery representation or teaching. Yet I believe most students would agree the experience is worthwhile as long as the focus is exclusive to art and not some lame version of a ‘normal’ education. Intense immersion in an art environment is the real value of art school and art teachers should stop worrying about their students finding gainful employment post graduation… both the anxiety and the prospects do not compare favorably to the realities.

ARCO Madrid censors Art

Following on the Spanish government’s violent crackdown on citizens in Catalunya for peacefully daring to exercise their right to vote and decide their own future, Rajoy’s authoritarian minions follow up with censoring artworks that bring to light the government’s violation of civil rights. In an unprecedented move, an exhibit by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, created for Spain’s largest art fair ARCO Madrid 2018, was removed by the gallery Helga de Alvear apparently intimidated by the fair’s organizers IFEMA in deference and fear of Spanish authorities that cannot admit to jailing political prisoners. The exhibit apparently showed photographs of various Catalan political leaders (faces pixelated) who are held indefinitely in Spanish prisons since the referendum of October 2017, some in spite of being legitimately re-elected in elections last December (called by Madrid in hopes of squashing independence). Here is a link to the article in La Vanguardia: The return to Franco-esque fascist policies in what was once an exemplary democracy in southern Europe shows the dangers of fanatical nationalism that should provide ample warning to supporters of Brexit in the UK and Trumpism in the US. The situation in Catalunya grows more ugly with time and Catalans show no signs of backing down from their desire to separate from Spain. Who can blame them with the anti-democratic behavior of Spanish leaders and courts? Madrid continues to insist the minority of citizens in the region have more authority than the majority regional government while threatening legally elected representatives with prison just for voicing the opinions of their constituents working to make Catalunya autonomous and independent. No wonder many of these politicians are fleeing the new Spanish inquisition and asking for asylum in other countries of the European Union. In light of such serious consequences a frivolous censorship of art truly pales but it is still a sorry commentary on the trajectory of oppression when it extends into the cultural realm. The artist Sierra noted, “If Spain is not a dictatorship, it certainly looks like one.” Amen and OLE. The artwork was purchased by Tatxo Benet, of Spanish telecommunications company Mediapro, who promised to exhibit the work elsewhere. For her part, the mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena, boycotted the opening of the fair in protest for the artwork’s removal.