Sunday, April 13, 2014

In Conversation with Cedric Tai

Cedric Tai and me at Re:View Gallery (Photo: Michelle Perron).
Fellow Kresge Fellow (Visual Art '09) Cedric Tai has a show up at Re:View Gallery on Willis in Detroit.  The show is titled "We Need More ________!" and it's a real departure from Tai's previous work, which recently has consisted of abstract painting. The new show is much more concept toying with the idea of work and the condundrums of it as it relates to the art world. The artist is working on site during the exhibition's run.

Tai invited me to have a conversation on Friday, April 11, that wasn't the typical artist/moderator thing. In fact, he interviewed me about my long-time performance piece "Getting Over at the Office" (1987-2000). The conversation went other places as well. Below is a Soundcloud recording of the talk, which took place on the patio in front of the gallery. Below that are some video clips that capture part of the day.

I thank Cedric and also gallery director Simone DeSousa for the invite. It was a fun outing. I will be writing something about the performance piece for ∞ Mile in the near future. It will have images of some of the documentation and some links to other stuff. Stay tuned.

Cedric Tai, "We Need More _______!", continues at Re:View Gallery, 444 W. Willis, #112, Detroit, between Cass and Second, until Saturday, April 19. Call 313-833-9000 for information.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse": Mitch Cope at Popps Packing

Mitch Cope, Scrap-a-House, 2014. Archival ink jet print. (All images by Mitch Cope; courtesy of the artist.)
Artist and curator Mitch Cope is perhaps best known as one half, along with architect Gina Reichert of Design 99, a collaborative project situated at the intersection of art and design, whose work in the Detroit neighborhood known as Bangaltown has garnered international attention. Working with materials gathered as part of Design 99's neighborhood interventions, Cope has mounted a show of his own at Popps Packing that reflects upon the work he has been doing with Reichert over the past few years. And where the many projects of Design 99 focus on the ameliorative potential of design, i.e., the way in which it can be employed to solve a variety of problems, here Copes focuses more on the expressive aspects of art.

The exhibition consists of seven large-scale black-and-white photographs originally shot on 35mm negatives and digitally transferred.There are also two installation pieces, one of which included a video done under the auspices of Design 99.The photographs document the stockpiles of refuse that litter the neighborhood in which Cope and Reichert work and the installations use some of that material in their construction. The photographs assiduously document every bit of refuse appearing within the frame in the manner of an archeologist taking inventory of every shard of material culture uncovered at a dig site. (Example: Eddy's Pile, 2014: "1 shopping cart with vacuum parts, various Jeep car parts, 1 kid's push car, 3 black sofas, 1 cushy chair, 1 stool, 1 dresser, 2 baby mattresses, 1 playpen, assorted garbage, boys and girls clothing, various plastic bins, paperwork, miscellaneous VHS tapes, several yogurt cups, 1 TV.") The installations works are equally precise in their documenting of their components.
Steve's Pile, 2014. Archival ink jet print.
A conspicuous aspect of the photographs are the apparitions that appear above the junk in each. They evoke the spirits of long lost civilizations or perhaps the more recent traces of paranormal ectoplasm etched into Victorian-era photographs. In essence, they're avatars of the extinguished collective memories of the wasted lives that have been cast into the abyss, along with their dis-possessions, as part of capital's insatiable need for profit that for the better part of five decades has wreaked devastation on Detroit. One particularly haunting image is Ottoman, 2014, a lone piece of furniture sitting in the middle of the street at night with a faint ghost image in the background. The image is gritty with white spots scattered across the surface dropping out photographic detail, reminding me of the photographs Yosuke Yamahata took the day after the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, which registered the lingering presence of nuclear radiation in their reticulated emulsion. (Yamahata later died of cancer, likely from radiation poisoning.) Here the fallout is economic not military but palpable nonetheless.

The installations seemingly focus more directly on the physical artifact. Scrap-a-House Totem, 2014, set five interlocking shopping carts on end, reaching up to the ceiling, atop of which sat a charred recliner and a rocker held in place with a ratchet strap. The installation of a wing back chair set on linoleum flooring and truck tire for Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011, was actually constructed so as to provide a perch from which to view a 20-minute video documenting the retrieval of castoff mattresses from around the neighborhood and their installation on a dead pine tree spike in an exercise of repurposing the refuse of life into the refuge of art. 

In both instances, the reference to the totem is formal, a description of the stacking procedure. And yet at the same time it gestures toward a mythopoetic understanding of the totem that, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (who also gave us the useful concept of bricolage*) suggests, might serve to help make comprehensible the disconnect between the natural and the social worlds.  In this case, what one might see as the disconnect is the failed promise of the profit motive, the so-called invisible hand, and its ruinous effects as witnessed on the ground in Banglatown and elsewhere in Detroit.

Design 99, Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011. (5-minute excerpt of a 20-minute video.)

* The practice of bricolage by the avant-garde in the form of Cubist collage and the Dadaist readymade predates by several decades Levi-Strauss's use of the term in his 1962 book The Savage Mind. But Levi-Strauss's use of it in contrast to the concept of  the Engineer, in describing the difference between traditional practice and modern scientific thought, brought it into the lexicon of cultural studies where it has been retroactively applied.

"Mitchell Cope: Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse" is on view until Saturday March 27, 2014, at Popp's Packing, 12138 St. Aubin, Hamtramck.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Creative Class Rises Again

When first published in 2002, The Rise of the Creative Class quickly established its author Richard Florida as an urban policy and business management guru. The Rise of the Creative Class heralded the emergence of a new class of worker who promised to lead the economy, and along with it the rest of society, to unprecedented levels of prosperity. The creative class, according to Florida, included scientists, engineers, artists, designers, media producers, and others whose primary function is "to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content." They are abetted in this endeavor by a whole host of high-level information workers—doctors, lawyers, accountants, educators, and the like—who draw upon complex bodies of knowledge to solve difficult problems that require high degrees of autonomy. To mark a decade of influence, the book was re-released in 2012 in a substantially updated version, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, now out in paperback.

Based on statistical modeling of US Census information, demographic surveys, and economic data, Florida's theory holds that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of creative class workers tend to outperform other areas not so well endowed. Specifically, Florida's research zeros in on what he terms the "three T's" of economic development: technology, talent, and tolerance. The last indicator is based on the presence of so-called bohemians—musicians, writers, designers, and other arty types—and gays in a community. Together the three T's comprise the "creativity index" that measures a region's economic potential as a result of its supply of "creative capital."

The creative class thesis soon became the rationale behind a number of urban redevelopment projects, particularly in the Midwest where cities that were once paragons of America's productive might have struggled to find a place in the postindustrial economy. Municipal officials, corporate CEOs, foundation staff, and other policy wonks embraced the concept, citing Florida in their efforts to promote arts and culture districts and otherwise jump start their local creative economies. One such example was former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's 2003 Cool Cities initiative aimed at providing grants and other resources to the Rust Belt cities of Flint, Saginaw, and Detroit in hopes of bringing them back from near extinction.

As much as the book had its adherents among policymakers, it equally had its detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives decried the valorization of bohemian and "alternative" lifestyles while liberals denounced the apparent glossing over of the thorny issues of rising inequality and race. More academic readers questioned Florida's argument for its lack of precision it defining the composition of the creative class meaningfully and for his research methodology. Florida spends a good part of The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited responding to his critics.

Florida asserts that for the most part experience has borne him out. The regions he predicted to do well generally have done so even factoring in the financial upheavals of 2008. He further finds applicability of the creative class thesis in the global context as well. He leaves out any direct discussion of the critique by economist Ann Markusen whose competing concept of "creative placemaking" is more modest in its claims and seems to be more solidly grounded empirically. (Click here to download Markusen's white paper on creative placemaking written in collaboration with Ann Gadwa for the National Endowment for the Arts.) Although it should be acknowledged that the significance of place does factor highly in Florida's analysis but in a broader context. One area he does pay more attention to is inequality, adding a new section at the end devoted to the topic. However, even there he notes that he originally wanted a chapter on inequality in the earlier edition of the book but was dissuaded from it by his publisher who told him that the manuscript was already too long.

Florida has leveraged the creative class concept into big league consulting and punditry. His clients include Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, BMW, and Philips. He is in demand around the world as a speaker and is now a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine where he co-founded and edits The Atlantic Cities website. This is America, after all, where turning nothing into money is a time-honored tradition, so he can't be faulted for cashing in. Still, there is cause to circumspect about it all.

Florida's theory is actually a pretty grand thesis. And I'm convinced that most of those who claim to have adopted it, actually haven't read it or at least have misunderstood it. A big problem is that they don't seem to recognize what Florida freely acknowledges about statistical research, namely that correlation does not imply causation. In this case the presence of the creative class (a fuzzy concept to be sure) in a metropolitan area is associated with economic growth but may not in fact be the root cause of it. There may be what statisticians term intervening variables at work. Many proponents seem to have just picked up the "creative" buzzwords and run with them, often to perdition. By the same token, the critics likely haven't read Florida either; they're really criticizing the use the other people who haven't read him have made of his work.

In a nutshell, Florida is one-upping Karl Marx, casting the creative class as the rightful inheritors of the fruits of the Earth. The creative class is distinct from the service class, who occupy low level McJobs with virtually no upside potential, and the working class, whose prospects have been and continue to be in decline. Like Marx's proletariat, the creative class is currently a class in itself—a class having a common relation to the means of production—in need of evolving the collective consciousness of a class for itself—a class organized in pursuit of its own interests.

To help them accomplish that mission, Florida sets forth a "Creative Compact," a new and improved New Deal akin yet ostensibly superior to the social compact of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s that led to the last golden age of broadly experienced prosperity. Florida's compact calls for the "creatification" of everyone in order to unleash their greatest potential. This is achieved essentially by doing a lot of the things the old New Deal and its subsequent iterations portended to do, such as broadening access to educational opportunity, promoting diversity, strengthening the social safety net, reviving cities, etc., only more so.

The Creative Class, Revisited cites a lot of social science literature as part of its argument (Weber and Durkheim in addition to Marx, Mark Granovetter, Daniel Bell, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and others), but there's a big sociological question being left on the table, specifically the question of agency. Sociologically, agency is the capacity to act, individually or collectively, in accordance with one's will. It is typically juxtaposed to structure, the social patterns and institutions (i.e., customs, ideologies, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) that constrain that capacity. In Marx, structure is the capitalist system, which ties the capacity to act to one's position in relation to the means of production. Both capitalist and worker are constrained in different ways with different potential outcomes by the relentless drive for profit.

At several points in The Creative Class, Revisited, Florida references Fordism, the economic and social system of standardized industrial production, named for Henry Ford, that engendered broadly shared prosperity for a good part of the twentieth century. Fordism, in Florida's telling, was "dumb growth," growth that presumed more and more material output as de facto the best marker of prosperity. Fordism was a key driver of productivity in the Organizational Age, the age of large hierarchical bureaucracies and the conformist identities that were necessary to keep the system going. But that system neglected to account for such externalities as sustainability and personal self-actualization. For Florida, the death knell of the Fordist/Organizational Age was the Great Recession of 2008.

The creative economy by contrast is supposedly smart growth; what we lack is the proper metric by which to assess it. The Creativity Index is Florida's attempt to develop such a metric, which in addition to productivity takes into consideration happiness and well-being. (How it does that is unclear. Is having a high presence of bohemians and gays in one's community necessarily correlative to increased happiness and well-being?) But other than general references to globalization and the role of information within it, the structure under which the creative economy operates is left unstated.

In truth there have been a number of attempts to define the current structure going back several decades. Among the earliest is Michel Aglietta's theory of capitalist regulation, first published in France in 1976. Regulation theory is part of a broader analysis of contemporary capitalism gathered under the rubrics post-Fordism and neoliberalism. Prominent researchers include Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey, the Italian autonomists, and others too numerous to mention here. This structure indeed contrasts to the Fordist/Organizational regime in many of the ways Florida describes but it maintains relationships of power he doesn't examine.

The creative class is crucial to the post-Fordist system, but its agency within that structure is something many researchers would question. McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto, for example, similarly casts what Florida terms creatives (Wark calls them hackers) as a class in itself but counterposes it to a "vectoralist" class, a reconstituted capitalist elite so named for their control over the nodes and networks of information and thus capital flows. One of the vectoralist's primary tools for separating hacker-creatives from the fruits of their labor is the regime of intellectual property that induces producers to sign away their copyrights, patents, and trademarks for a fraction of their true value.

Then there's the case of the prosumer, the mash-up of producer and consumer roles under Web 2.0 whereby users of social media such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the like entertain themselves and their friends by creating and sharing content for free while being sold to advertisers for a profit that accrues to vectoralists like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Jack Dorsey, and their venture capitalist partners.

Finally, there's what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello term "the new spirit of capitalism," an economic and ideological order under which we get to work for little or no pay in return for the privilege of self-expression in the manner of the Romantic artist starving in the garret. (For an excellent critique of the business mantra "Do what you love; love what you do," see the essay "In the Name of Love" by Miya Tokumitsu in Jacobin.)

And all of this is as much potentially subject to outsourcing to lower-cost production zones in lesser-developed parts of the world as Fordist manufacturing jobs have been, as many members of the creative class have discovered as of late, much to their chagrin.

To his credit, Florida takes note of the precarious nature of creative class work. He calls for more security and greater equity at several points in the book and the Creative Compact is his blueprint for getting there. He expresses hope for the potential of a broadly shared prosperity with the concluding statement that "every single human is creative." Even the notion of the creative class as a class in need of developing a collective consciousness as a class for itself hints at the specter that haunts The Creative Class, Revisited, the specter of the commonwealth that continues to elude us.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hall Rant #2: Musing on The Monuments Men

I got another missive from Mike Hall the other day, this one prompted by his viewing of the film The Monuments Men (see the official trailer below). I haven't seen it yet and I have to say that a movie about a troupe of museum directors, curators, and art historians dedicated to retrieving stolen art from the Germans during World War II seems like hardly the material for a modern-day Hollywood blockbuster. (Although I do recall as a kid being caught up in the 1964 film The Train, which had a similar plot line.) Indeed, reviews of The Monuments Men have been less than stellar -- the film has a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 5.2 out of 10, even with its all-star cast. But leave it to Mike to find deeper meaning in the most facile of popular culture artifacts.

The Monuments Men official trailer (2103)


Well, here we go again.  Art vs. Pensions.  Only this time, Hollywood serendipitously gives us a fresh perspective.  More specifically, George Clooney just released a film suggesting that art may actually be a form of pension -- a pension fully funded by the human experience and which pays regular dividends by richly reminding all of us who we are.

Don't get me wrong.  The Monuments Men is not a great film.  It is full of historic inaccuracies and plenty of the usual Hollywood clich├ęs and tropes -- but it also stands as a timely reminder that works of art in a public trust have value because they have been persistently assigned worth by real communities of people admiring and relating to them over protracted periods of time. 

Two things occurred to me as I watched this movie.

First, I quickly thought that Michigan's Governor, his legislature and the Emergency Financial Manager he appointed to move the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy need to go see The Monuments Men before they utter anything else publically (or privately) about the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Second, I then concluded that Detroit's pensioners and the various individuals holding Detroit's debt obligations should also go screen this picture.  There is a message here worth bringing to the table in Detroit as the State, the Museum, the city, the banks and the "public" wrestle over the fate of the Institute and its collection.

Of course, by now, we know that the Institute's collection is not actually going to be liquidated in a bankruptcy proceeding.  We also think that the Governor and his agents are cleverly going to "spin the Museum off" from public ownership after extracting a tidy "settlement" fee from the foundations that have lined up to "save" the DIA collection.  But the matter of the public interest in the Institute and its trove remains a moot point in Michigan political circles -- and also within the Michigan arts community at large.

About a third of the way though his film, Clooney delivers a soliloquy in which he ruminates over the place of art in human history and within the lives of countries and cities around the world.  I found it interesting that Clooney's argument (probably penned by some team of Hollywood screen writers) was a clearer and more persuasive advocacy for the value of artistic gestures in the human experience than anything I have heard yet from any of Michigan's art professionals or arts advocates through the whole of the present DIA nightmare.  Maybe this is what you get when you strip art from school curriculums, identify it pejoratively as the domain of the 1%, and teach your children that it is an investment to be acquired only after they "make theirs" in the business/financial world.  Does it really take Hollywood to tell us that the emperors are naked?

I asked a friend why he thought The Monuments Men could cause such a stir on its release and yet slip so easily under the radar in the Detroit situation.  He quickly responded: "Two reasons.  The film has Nazis and George Clooney -- Detroit can't match that."  Really?  Does this tell us there probably won't be an Oscar nomination for Michigan's ongoing reality show?

Michael D. Hall
Hamtramck, MI
Feb 8, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

The New Art Examiner: A Critical Field of Dreams

I was recently invited by Buzz Spector to present a paper as part of his panel titled "Wide Eyed Reading: The Legacy of the New Art Examiner" at the College Art Association 2014 annual conference in Chicago. For those who don't know (primarily the youngsters), the New Art Examiner was published mainly out of Chicago from 1973 until June 2002. It is generally acknowledged to be the largest and most influential art magazine to have come out of the Midwest. The panel was prompted by the last year's publication by Northern Illinois University Press of the anthology The Essential New Art Examiner. In addition to Buzz and me, the panel included (in order of speaking) Richard Siegesmund currently of Northern Illinois University, Susan Snodgrass of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Paul Krainak of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and Duncan MacKenzie, co-founder of Bad at Sports. 

I've known Buzz for decades, due to the New Art Examiner, but also because he showed at Cantor/Lemberg Gallery in Birmingham, then at Revolution in Ferndale. I also reviewed his show at Cranbrook Museum for New Art Examiner (July/August 1998). Susan and Paul I had known for many years through their writing in the magazine but had never met in person. Although I am not included in the anthology, I was affiliated with the magazine from summer 1984 until its demise. Below is the text of my remarks. I have added hyperlinks to the text to provide some additional context. Also, I presented images of some of my articles along with select covers of the magazine. I've uploaded some of the covers and some of the articles in case anyone wants to read them.

The New Art Examiner: A Critical Field of Dreams
College Art Association, February 12, 2014 

Typical accounts of the New Art Examiner (1973-2002) rightly focus on its role in creating a critical discourse around and legitimacy for the art scene and artists of its home base Chicago. Tony Fitzpatrick, Kerry James Marshall, Wesley Kimler, Kay Rosen, Anne Wilson, and Inigo Mangolo-Ovalle are just a few of the names of those whose work appeared in its pages and who went on to gain larger recognition. And while they had local reputations starting in the 1960s, it can be argued that the Monster Roster, the Hairy Who, and especially Chicago Imagists, such as Ed Pashke, Roger Brown, and Barbara Rossi, garnered national and international attention by the coverage afforded them by the New Art Examiner.

Equally important was its role in expanding visual arts coverage in the whole of the Midwest and beyond with monthly exhibition reviews and features on artists working in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere. The magazine enabled critics, art historians, and other writers to explore topics outside the art centers of New York and Los Angeles, creating a record of activity that would have otherwise gone unnoticed (right.) These writers developed their writing skills, CVs, and reputations, in many cases leading to significant opportunities in arts journalism, academia, museum practice, arts advocacy, etc.  Some of those people are sitting on this panel, including me. Others include Janet Koplos, longtime Art in America editor and studio crafts historian, Jim Yood, also an advocate of studio craft and Artforum Chicago correspondent, Henry Giroux, one of the major voices of critical pedagogy, Eleanor Heartney, another Art in America senior staff member, Alice Thorsen, now art critic for the Kansas CityStar, Michelle Grabner, co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and there are many others we could name.

The magazine also provided a platform for writers with established reputations to publish material they likely would not have had an opportunity to get into print otherwise. Donald Kuspit wrote several cranky articles for New Art Examiner. Robert Hughes (below, left) also kvetched about art and money as did Paul Goldberger on postmodern architecture. On a positive note, Suzi Gablik published her ideas on reenchanting art in a precursor to the socially engaged practices that are so prevalent in the contemporary scene.

Following its original mission as an independent voice of the visual arts, the New Art Examiner also examined issues too often overlooked by the slick art publications coming out of New York. Special issues on studio craft (right) and self-taught and outsider art brought critical attention to forms of cultural production beyond of the conventions of so-called fine art. The magazine also confronted issues often swept under rug in the mainstream art press such as social class, politics, and economics. During the 1980s, the New Art Examiner took a direct stand on the culture wars being waged in Washington and around the country (see image above).

From a sociological perspective, the New Art Examiner constituted a structure for navigating what Pierre Bourdieu terms the field ofcultural production; it was an avenue for amassing social and cultural capital for the ideas under consideration, i.e., language as symbolic power, and the individuals and artifacts being written about, that is, symbolic capital -- prestige, honor, and attention -- that could sometimes be converted to economic capital in the case of artists or artworks that might become collectable, or the opportunities that might be afforded for career advancement for academics, would-be journalists, and the like. (The pay for writing was a pittance, of course, when it came at all; I only got paid two or three times over nearly 20 years of writing for the magazine and I doubt the total ever came to more than a hundred dollars.)

Within the pages of the New Art Examiner one finds the elements of Chicago School sociologist Howard S. Becker's concept of art worlds. Art is a form of collective action, Becker writes, dependent upon a division of labor in establishing what Bourdieu terms the "art habitus" and Becker terms "conventions," i.e., the social rules for categorizing types of art, creative practices, institutional frameworks, and the like; for mobilizing material, social, and cultural resources for production, distribution, and consumption of these things called works of art; concepts called aesthetic theories; and agents known as artists, critics, historians, curators, etc. The categories of integrated professionals, mavericks, folk, and naive artists all get their day in the New Art Examiner's archive.

A major piece of the primary research material of Midwestern art worlds in the last quarter of the twentieth century is contained in the volumes of the New Art Examiner, the surface of which is barely scratched in The Essential New Art Examiner anthology.

I'd like to add to the archive by offering myself as a case study. I began subscribing to the New Art Examiner in 1980 when it was still published in the tabloid format. It was the only publication I was aware of at the time that covered art being made in Michigan from a critical perspective as opposed to the journalistic reportage of Detroit's two daily newspapers, the Detroit News and Free Press. There was a short-lived art publication that had existed in Detroit for a couple of years in the mid-1970s that had gone defunct, and the New Art Examiner was a welcome presence to fill the void. Equally important was knowledge that there was a lot of art being made not that far away in Chicago, of course, but also Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Nashville, and elsewhere.

A couple of years later, the nonprofit Detroit Focus Gallery got a grant to start a publication of its own and I volunteered to be one of the original writers. The publication was a quarterly (and in truth given its missed deadlines "intermittently" might better describe it) and only 16 pages, so there wasn't much opportunity to engage in dialogue.

My first articles for the New Art Examiner were two short reviews published in the summer 1984. One of a group show of installation work presented by Detroit Focus Gallery was somewhat critical, while the other of a solo exhibition by printmaker Douglas Semivan, who is now chair of the Madonna University art department (and father of redoubtable photographer Lauren), was much more favorable. In retrospect, both hold up pretty well. Within a matter of months I found myself named a Michigan editor of the New Art Examiner and maintained my affiliation with the magazine pretty much until its demise in mid-2002.  From 1996 to 2000, I served as a contributing editor and at one point toward the end of that time had had conversations with Kathryn Hixson about coming on full-time as publisher as she was scrambling to reconstitute the magazine by moving it up market.

My affiliation with the New Art Examiner was important to establishing my identity as an art writer, helping me to develop the requisite habitus and amass social and cultural capital. Up until mid-2000, I was holding down a day job as a suit in financial services marketing, so the New Art Examiner gave me art world cred. By virtue of my position at the New Art Examiner I was contacted by Artnews to write reviews from Detroit in 1985. (It helped that the publisher of Artnews was a friend of then incoming Detroit Institute of Arts director Sam Sachs II. I had a bad interview experience with Sam not long after and the relationship with Artnews quickly soured. I also have to say that my writing was far too highfalutin for them.)

My book of New Art Examiner clips also helped open the door to becoming Detroit correspondent for Artforum in 1989. The editor of Artforum at that time was Charles Miller, who was familiar with my work from his time as editor of the Ohio-based Dialogue. Charlie had moved to New York after being denied tenure at The Ohio State University. He was tragically stricken with AIDS and had to leave the magazine in 1992 (he died not long after) and was replaced by Jack Bankowsky, who didn't have much interest in continuing coverage in Detroit, primarily because Artforum had a low subscription base and virtually no advertising coming out of the region. (That was corrected a little while back with University of Michigan History of Art Department Chair Matthew Biro now on the beat.)

Finally, the New Art Examiner clips constituted the bulk of the evidence I submitted for acceptance into the Liberal Studies MA program at the New School for Social Research after I decided in July 2000 to walk away from my corporate gig and pursue an encore career in the academy. The position I established primarily as a critic writing for the New Art Examiner was also instrumental in my getting hired as an adjunct at College for Creative Studies when I returned to Detroit in 2006, and I continue to work there today full-time as an administrator, having successfully transitioned into higher education.
The first feature I wrote (above) for the New Art Examiner was on the Detroit art scene, "Detroit: Art and Transmission," published in January 1987. Reacting against the expected role of local booster, I opened with the line, "Detroit is a hick town." I went on to reject the city's regnant school of urban expression in favor of a "lost generation" of conceptual and performance art. I've been a little more insightful on the Cass Corridor since then (see here, here, and here).

A piece I wrote (above) for the February/March 1992 issue commented on the fiscal woes of the Detroit Institute of Arts with the election of rightwing governor John Engler and subsequent slashing of state aid, which the museum had come to depend on. The article has recently regained relevance in that it charted out the options for the museum, a department of the beleaguered municipal government, predicting its likely privatization, which as a result of the rescue plan in the Detroit bankruptcy, appears to be in the offing.

It hasn't been all piss and vinegar, though.
In summer 1995, the New Art Examiner ran my essay on The Inlander Collection of Great Lakes Regional Painting (above) assembled by sculptor, critic, and folk expert Michael Hall and his spouse Pat Glascock. Featuring works by artists working in the Upper Midwest between the two World Wars, The Inlander Collection, named after a journal entry by CharlesBurchfield, was accessioned en masse a decade later into the Flint Institute of Arts, constituting a major portion of the museum's holdings in this area. As a student in Vera Zolberg's Museums and Society class at the New School, I documented the process by which the paintings of The Inlander Collection went from thrift store and tag sale castoff to museum quality art, using Becker's concepts as the theoretical foundation, with myself as a self-identified agent of art world change.

In the November-December 2001 issue, New Art Examiner published "Peter Williams's Black Humor" (below), a meditation on the deconstruction of minstrelsy in the work of the Detroit artist Peter Williams. The finishing touches of the essay where being put on literally as the smoke was still billowing across the East River from Ground Zero in the wake of September 11. Living in Brooklyn at the time with my Internet out and unable to get back into Manhattan to use the computers at the New School, I roamed up and down Court Street trying to locate a working fax machine to send the final edits back to Kathryn Hixson, living and breathing the in-press issue's theme of "Fear and Loathing."
The article ended up being cited and its thesis incorporated into the curator's entry for Peter in that spring's catalog for the Whitney Biennial. Peter Williams was the first Detroit-based artist to be included in a Whitney Biennial since the 1970s heyday of the Cass Corridor when Sam Wagstaff briefly served as the DIA's curator of contemporary art.

The members of this panel and other contributors to the New Art Examiner over the years could no doubt relate similar narratives.  With the current, severely diminished state of arts coverage in an age of media convergence and consolidation, it's important to ponder how such narratives might now be constructed. In the decade-plus since the New Art Examiner's demise, no other venue of its scope has arisen. In the past few years, Julie Myers, an art historian at Eastern Michigan University, has mounted two important exhibitions of Detroit art, one of pioneer African American artist Charles McGee and another on Detroit's first avant-garde, the Cass Corridor, featuring heavily documented catalogues that draw on primary sources, including the archives of the New Examiner. Where will historians 20 years hence go for documentation on Detroit and other regional art scenes?  The few reviews that get published in the back pages of Artforum and Art in America aren't enough (although it's good to see them back again), and most of them have had the lifeblood edited out of them.

In Chicago, Bad at Sports and Paul Klein's Art Letter are online sources, but they don't extend their reach geographically with the depth and consistency of the New Art Examiner. Hyperallergic and the Brooklyn Rail bring a refreshing independence to the art scene and make some gestures toward cosmopolitanism, but still have primarily a New York focus. In Detroit, the new online publication ∞ Mile is providing a much-needed platform for local artists and writers to consider what's happening in the D.

But these efforts, however well and good, don't even begin to address the larger issue of the state of art criticism in general. The in-your-face stance of the New Art Examiner is in pretty short supply these days. And this has deeper implications for the current moment.

In his study The Structural Transformation of the PublicSphere, German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas identifies the emergence of art and literary criticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a crucial element in the development of the civil society that underpins democratic consensus building. The ability to think critically, according to Habermas, was honed by the likes of literary critics and thinkers such as Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, Denis Diderot, Alexander Pope, and Immanuel Kant, which opened up a critical space for the political writings of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, and Mary Wollenstonecraft. One must seriously wonder what the prospects for democracy are without the habit of critical thinking, which the New Art Examiner, for one, espoused.

Update, February 17, 2014: At the CAA conference it was announced that Derek Guthrie and Diane Thodos have gotten together to relaunch the New Art Examiner, at this point online with plans to put out a print version. Click here to view the site.

Monday, January 6, 2014

To Be or Not to Be in Detroit City

Abandoned home in the Delray section of Detroit, an ethnic enclave on the city's southwest side whose current population is one-tenth its 1930s level (Photo: Notorious4life, public domain.)
For decades now, Detroit has been one of America’s most notorious clusterfucks. Once the nation’s fourth-largest city, its current population of just over 700,000 is less than 40 percent of its postwar peak of 1.8 million, and it’s predicted to fall even further. More than a third, over 124,000 parcels, of the city’s residential properties are either vacant or completely abandoned. Millions of square feet of commercial property lay empty and moldering. In some sections of town, nature has totally reclaimed its domain and now wildlife freely roam. The poverty rate of 35.5 percent is more than three times the national level, and at $25,193 the city's median household income is half the national average. The municipal government operates under the authority of a State-appointed Emergency Financial Manager. And on July 18, 2013, it became the largest US municipality to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Small wonder Detroit has been named "America's Most Miserable City" for 2013 by Forbes.

And yet, Detroit has also recently been perceived as a land of opportunity. Artists and other members of what Richard Florida terms the "Creative Class" are said to be hard at work, transforming the troubled city into a postindustrial Elysium, fueled in part by rock-bottom real estate prices and a seemingly unrestricted do-it-yourself social and political environment. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

A few years ago, erstwhile native son Mark Binelli, who grew up in Motown's suburbs and then moved to New York City to make good, currently as a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, returned to his hometown to take stock of the situation. The result was Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, now out in paperback.

Binelli surveys many of the usual suspects and familiar haunts that have been featured in the national and international media. He reports on the enduring and embittered polarization between the inner city and the suburbs, fought for decades on the battlegrounds of race and class. (Detroit is among America's most segregated cities.) He takes stock of the high crime rate, urban blight, and the virtual collapse of municipal services. He visits the abandoned factories and burned-out neighborhoods.

He also interviews various denizens of the post-Apocalyptic landscape who have dug in and plan to stick it out come what may. Many of these interviews exhibit what feminist literary theorist Lauren Berlant terms "cruel optimism," the continued hope for a return of the good old days that have been inexorably washed away by the shifting tides of global capitalism. Others, like the urban farmers, DIY art folk, community watch volunteers, and other postmodern bricoleurs, are content to make the most out of what they've got, however meagre. The former are in denial; the latter at least in recovery, though I'm not sure there's much to be more optimistic about when it comes to the long-term prospects. Along the way, Binelli reminisces about his youth growing up on the outskirts of the city with forays into it as a member of the family business and aspiring hipster. It's part Blade-Runner travelogue; part Gen-X memoir.

The history Binelli recounts is actually quite good. He makes effective use of some of the classic literature on Detroit, including Clarence Burton's history of the city's first two centuries, originally published in 1922, and Robert Conot's 1974 American Odyssey, which as Binelli notes has shamefully been out of print for nearly 30 years. And he has a way of compressing this research into some really well-turned phrases. He sums up in a few sentences the twisted collective memory of the city's demise in the wake of white flight as understood from one side of the racial divide. In writing about suburban white perceptions of Detroit's first black mayor Coleman A. Young, who left office 20 years ago and died in 1997, he observes:
[T]he wild, disproportionate hatred of Young by white suburbanites was telling in ways that had nothing to do with the mayor's alleged malfeasances. With hindsight, it's difficult to understand how he managed to become so fearsome, with his cotton-mouthed, almost courtly speaking style and jowly stuffed-animal features, the twinkle in his eye perpetually giving his game away. (Like Bill Clinton, he was the sort of politician who brought to the class struggle the same skills he'd developed for years in the ass struggle.) Even today, there's an unsettling fervency to the hatred of Young among certain white ex-Detroiters, who will tell you Coleman Young ruined this city with such venom it's impossible not to see Young as a proxy for every black Detroiter who walks the halls of their old high schools or sleeps in the bedrooms of their childhood homes. (original emphasis)
I got a personal kick out of reading Detroit City is the Place to Be because Binelli and I share some background, however serendipitous. As a longtime Detroiter myself, I know many of the subjects Binelli interviewed, especially in the arts and culture. We  grew up nearby one another in the working-class suburbs of the northeast side, both first-generation sons of Italian immigrants. My blue-eyed soul band, The Delray Blues, played a homecoming gig at the Catholic high school Binelli attended (although it was slightly before his time). My dad, a meat cutter, was a customer of Binelli's Uncle Dave, who owned a knife-sharpening business. In fact, my father still uses a carving knife he got from Dave Binelli decades ago; I cut my index finger deeply on it when I was a kid and still have the scar. In Detroit, there are only two degrees of separation, not the six made famous by the play and, of course, Kevin Bacon.

While the book for the most part is very well researched, there are a few factual errors that need to be corrected. Community activist, social theorist, and local legend Grace Lee Boggs got her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College in 1940, not Yale, which although it had allowed women to take certain graduate-level classes over the years didn't officially go co-ed until 1969. The vehicle fished from the water at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers as part of international art star (and Bjork partner) Matthew Barney's performance project KHU, based on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, wasn't the Pontiac Trans Am driven off the Belle Isle Bridge earlier in the piece but a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. (A third vehicle, a Ford Crown Victoria, was featured in the final act of the performance so that all the Big Three car makers could be represented. For my Brooklyn Rail review of Barney's performance, click here.) The reference to Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd with regard to the garish neon light installation on the exterior of the Motor City Casino is surely meant to be Dan Flavin. Those inaccuracies say more about the current state of copyediting than they do authorial oversight.

The book is great on reportage but falls short on providing insight into the larger context. That's not really Binelli's fault per se but rather a function of journalism in general. Journalism privileges the first-person testimonial above all. ("Who" is the first term in the journalist's mantra.) Structural analysis only comes in here and there if at all. ("Why" is the last of the five "W's". "How" is tacked onto the mantra as kind of an afterthought.) While Detroit City is the Place to Be excels at providing a street-level snapshot of the D in its latter-day manifestation, the topic still warrants more thoughtful consideration. Binelli does cite one of the best histories out there, Thomas Sugrue's award-winning Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, which sees the city's current travails as an outcome of race relations and the attendant housing and job discrimination that, among other things, helped foster disinvestment in the city and its ultimate abandonment by industry seeking to diminish union influence in no small measure by using race as its cover. (For more background on that strategy in American business history, see David R. Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.But to really understand how Detroit got to its present state, you need to know about the change from what's called the Fordist to the post-Fordist economy.

River Rouge tool and die works, 1941. (Photo: Library of Congress, public domain.)
Fordism, as the term implies, is named for auto pioneer Henry Ford. Founded on the productive capacity of mass manufacturing, the Fordist system pays high wages in return for high output, allowing workers to share in the rising tide of goods and services of the modern factory system. In the early days, it helped Ford increase productivity some ten times while reducing employee turnover and at the same time halving car prices, all the while enabling him to become one of the richest men in world history. It relies on vertical integration, the direct control of the mechanisms of value creation at every step. (Ford's River Rouge Plant saw raw materials -- iron ore, rubber, fabric, etc. -- come in at one end and completed Model A's come out the other. He owned every aspect of the process, including selling the waste material in the form of Kingsford Charcoal.) Ford hated the unions but eventually made peace with them as did the other major American automobile manufacturers. The period of what's known as High Fordism comes after the Second World War as a result of the Treaty of Detroit when unions agreed to halt annual strikes and give up certain bargaining rights in exchange for management's promise to provide secure employment, good wages, and benefits, including pensions. For decades, Detroit blue-collar workers enjoyed the highest living standards in the nation for their class.

Post-Fordism, by contrast, relies on flexible production and a disaggregated value chain, the ability of companies to shift work, and more importantly investment capital, around quickly in response to market opportunity. Technological innovations in information-processing and communications systems have enabled producers to manage operations in far-flung corners of the world in order to maximize profit under what we now call globalization. A response to the falling profit rates of Fordism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, post-Fordism relies on freeing capital from all restraints, including national borders and virtually anything else that might get in the way of making the most return on investment. If the colossal moving assembly lines of Henry Ford are the epitome of the system named for him, the representative environment of post-Fordism is the outsourced sweatshop and now the 24/7 work cycle. Part and parcel of the spread of the post-Fordist system has been the dismantling of its predecessor's Ground Zero, the city of Detroit.

The paperback edition of Detroit City is the Place to Be includes a new afterword written by the author in mid-2013 after the city filed for bankruptcy protection. Binelli moved back to the Big Apple after finishing the book and, one presumes, on to bigger and better things. Perhaps he found that Detroit city isn't the place to be after all, just the place to write about. No matter. The book is a pretty good read, especially if you know the backstory.
The long abandoned 3.5-million square foot Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, production site of one of America's premier automotive luxury brands, which went out of business in 1958. (Photo: Albert Duce. Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA 3.0.)

Update January 8, 2014: This post was revised to reflect Samuel Pope's note that completed Model T's were not produced at the Rouge Plant, only parts. The Rouge wasn't finished until 1928 at which point the Model T was no longer in production. The Model A was the first vehicle to be manufactured from raw materials to finished product at the Rouge. Thank you, Sam, for the correction.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Rescuing" the Detroit Institute of Arts (with a commentary by Michael Hall)

The Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo: Andrew Jameson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share  Alike 3.0)
The latest maneuver in the ongoing City of Detroit bankruptcy is the plan put forth by Court-appointed mediator Judge Gerald Rosen under which donors would put up $500 million to "rescue" the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose encyclopedic collection has been threatened by liquidation to satisfy creditors in what is the largest municipal Chapter 9 proceeding in US history. Under the plan, major foundations with a vested interest in culture and the city of Detroit, such as the Ford, Kresge, and John S. and James L. Knight Foundations, would pool funds to essentially ransom the museum from the mandate of Emergency Manager Kevin Orr to monetize the collection by any means necessary, including auctioning off masterworks by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso, and Van Gogh. The plan also calls for the DIA, currently a department of the City of Detroit government, to be "spun off" and reorganized as an independent nonprofit institution.

The plan is said to satisfy the quandary of "art vs. pensions," which has pitted local patrons of culture against current and future municipal retirees while conveniently leaving the interests of Wall Street investment bankers off the table. It also resolves a governance issue I identified some 20 years ago in a New Art Examiner article titled "DIA in Decline" (Feb./Mar. 1992:29-31), written at the time of another fiscal crisis for the museum when state funding was drastically cut after the election of ultra-conservative Republican John Engler as governor of Michigan. In the article, I charted two trajectories for the evolution of the museum's structure, regionalization or privatization. The former would have established regional taxation and oversight, recognizing the museum's place in the public culture of Southeast Michigan and beyond. The latter was said to facilitate, among other things, private fundraising efforts among the patron class who were and are based primarily in the affluent suburbs. I opined that regionalization was the more democratic option but thought that privatization would be the more likely outcome. Should the current plan succeed, the DIA will in effect enjoy the best of both worlds, a regional funding base for operations from the tax revenues of a recently adopted millage while securing control of the museum away from the municipal bureaucracy to which wealthy trustees had ceded jurisdiction after the First World War.

In response to the news of the plan initially floated by Judge Rosen, noted artist, critic, and curator Michael Hall, a longtime Detroit-area resident, issued the following statement:

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Michael Hall (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
In a nifty move right out of the Reagan Revolution playbook, the governor of Michigan and his hand picked bankruptcy fixer finally revealed their plan for monetizing the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The plan is brilliant in its simplicity and in its political nuance.

After months of hinting that the art in the museum was “on the table” for a liquidation that would generate cash to offset Detroit’s many debt obligations, the lords of the bankruptcy relented and “saved” the museum.  Their idea basically runs like this:  Art is worth money (they got an appraisal to prove it).  People who like art have money.  Thus, why not present the museum with a bill that would equate to the appraised value of its precious art and let the museum tap its rich friends across America for contributions that would pay the tab and keep the paintings on the Institute’s walls. 

How perfect!  How painless!  How noble! This is the ideal “public/private partnership” we are always hearing about!  In short, since elites like art and since the common working folk of the city are seeing their pensions cut, why not let the elites pony up for the city and the State in the interest of the “good of the many.”  State to the museum:  “You ‘Culture Vultures’ go have a bake sale - or whatever you need to do - and bring us back the ransom payment as specified.  Thank you.”

The Snyder/Orr plan is the perfect product of the anti-culture, anti-education, anti-intellectual tone of contemporary American political discourse. As an artist and an educator, I recognize (and fear) the messaging in the “museum rescue” scheme that has been put forward in Michigan.  My view of the plan contends that it is totally predicated on the belief that the public has no stake whatsoever in the art at the museum - or in the museum, itself, as a “public institution.”  This seems curious in light of the fact that the three counties surrounding the museum recently voted in favor of voluntarily taxing themselves to provide substantial, ongoing financial support for the Institute – support that had been systematically withdrawn by several decades of art-hostile governors and legislatures in the state capital.

The political embrace of the arts that fired the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1960s, has dramatically eroded and is presently at a new low. Reagan era antagonism toward public education and the arts now has a permanent face in our contemporary political conversation. “Culture” and the humanities have become the targets of a class envy that has been skillfully manipulated to fuel the anger component of the new American populism.  A business driven consumer culture does not need art and there is a concerted effort afoot to rile up Detroit’s public against it.  The drumbeat has been incessant: “Art or pensions – but you can’t have both!” 

So the idea of “spinning off” the museum to a rich elite that can pamper itself with luxuries and baubles in gold frames is a perfect fix for the Motor City.  Curiously, I don’t remember anybody suggesting that because Jay Leno is rich and likes cars, that he (instead of the government) should have bailed out G.M.  Oh, yes, I forgot, that was about “jobs.”

The question, “who needs Picasso?” remains unanswered in the newly revealed Detroit bankruptcy plan.  But one thing is sure, the governor and his team of practical problem solvers have sent a message that translates directly into: “Let them eat Dancing With The Stars!”

Michael D. Hall
Hamtramck, MI
Dec. 5, 2013

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Extricating the museum from the scorched-earth politics of the municipal bankruptcy proceeding is an incontrovertible benefit for the region and beyond, preserving an irreplaceable piece of cultural patrimony that has been more than 125 years in the making. What's lamentable, though, is how the city's commonwealth -- of which the museum is one component and public pensions are another, along with Belle Isle, public transit, the Water and Sewerage Department, etc. -- is being put on the table in service to the economic order David Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession." This process has been ongoing in Detroit for years -- the tens of thousands of single-family houses that have been abandoned in the city since the 1970s with the homeowners losing whatever equity they had being one of the most visible indicators. The progressive rolling back of governmental support for the museum, also starting in the '70s and continuing up to the passing of the tricounty millage, is additionally symptomatic. Using the language of venture capitalists, where operating units are "spun off" and fixed assets "monetized" in search of revenue generation, reveals the mindset at work. If the rescue plan succeeds and the museum can be saved, things will have worked out. Others at risk may not be so fortunate.

UPDATE -- DECEMBER 18, 2013: The last paragraph of this blog post, originally published on December 8, 2013, and republished on The Huffington Post, has been revised for clarity.