Saturday, June 13, 2015

Minding the Gap of "The Great Divide"

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the anti-austerity protests in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere around the world, economic inequality has emerged as one of the more hotly debated issues in the public sphere. One of the more prominent voices in the discussion is economist Joseph Stiglitz, whose May 2011 Vanity Fair article "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" provided the rallying cry of what became a global social movement. That essay and others that have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and other publications over the last few years are collected in Stiglitz's latest contribution to the debate, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them. The book follows up on his previous bestseller The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future in which Stiglitz examines the forces, market and political, that have contributed to America becoming the most unequal of the world's advanced countries.

Like that earlier book, The Great Divide argues that inequality is not the natural result of market efficiency but instead is due to "rent seeking" on the part of economic elites who have gained control of income-producing resources that have enabled them to become richer and richerer not by creating any new wealth but by greatly increasing their share of the wealth that already exists. An example Stiglitz cites several times in the book is Big Pharma, which makes minor adjustments in prescription drug formulas in order to keep them from becoming generic, thereby keeping prices high. Another example are the entertainment industry conglomerates, which for the most part have succeeded in extending copyright monopolies far beyond a work's original creation in order to reap economic rewards without  contributing much new to the marketplace of cultural production. At the same time, marginal tax rates on top incomes have dramatically decreased, from 50 percent in 1980 to 39.6 percent today with rates on capital gains and dividends, the sources where the wealthy derive most of their income, slashed even further to 15 percent. This has allowed the top 1 percent of earners to rake in some 95 percent of the nation's pretax income growth since the Great Recession of 2008 whereas the incomes of the vast majority of Americans have barely budged. This not only stifles growth and opportunity for the broad swath of people and by extension society overall, but has serious political implications for the democratic system as well, especially evident in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

A 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Stiglitz is recognized for his contributions to what is known as information economics, in particular the idea that markets are as a rule inefficient—contrary to the claims of neoclassicists—based on unequal access to information between buyer and seller. (The circulation of "lemons" in the used-car market is a prime example of "information asymmetry" whereby the seller knows more about the commodity being sold than the buyer and therefore has a comparative advantage in negotiating the price.) He is also a recipient of the John Bates Clark medal, which some consider more prestigious than the Nobel. He is a former Chief Economist of the World Bank and ex-Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. Current Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Janet Yellen is one of his doctoral students. Hardly a rogue economist, he is also a staunch critic of free-market fundamentalism (the notion that any interference with market processes diminishes their effectiveness), especially as it pertains to policies of neoliberalism, both domestic and international.

Stiglitz at Forum Invest FINANCE 2009 (CC-BY-AA 3.0)
As a compendium of articles written over a period of several years, there is a lot of repetition in the individual entries, oftentimes down to the same phrases. That is a bit distracting but it doesn't necessarily diminsh from the larger point being made. And to be sure, it cannot be repeated enough that our current travails are due to the malfeasance of certain vested interests (read: the uber-rich and their lackeys) who have handsomely rewarded themselves at the expense of everyone else and have for the most part escaped bearing any responsibility for what they have wrought. As the aforementioned Vanity Fair essay maintains, the 1 percent have rigged the system for their own benefit and to hell with the rest of us, in no small measure by buying up whatever political influence they have needed along the way. The examples include bailing out the money-center banks and their CEOs who engaged in predatory lending while allowing their unsuspecting borrowers to flounder in underwater mortgages and lose their homes to foreclosure, and making whole hedge fund investors—who given their supposed financial acumen and sophisticated economic forecasting tools surely knew the risks they were taking—while allowing pensioners to lose their life savings in imploding 401k valuations.

Stiglitz is essentially a Keynesian, and as such, sees a role for public-sector intervention into the economy during times of weak demand, such as the one many persuasively argue we are currently in. Stiglitz does not call for the end of capitalism as we know it, as Naomi Klein pretty much does in This Changes Everything. Rather, he calls for a mixture wonkish tweaks—increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy, tighter regulation of financial services, greater public investment in infrastructure, education, and technology, plus campaign finance reform—to mediate the deleterious effects of what he terms "ersatz capitalism" (which is a funny concept in that elsewhere in the book Stiglitz claims that there are no inherent laws of capitalism, so then how does one decide what constitutes the "inauthentic" kind?).

(Photo: Vince Carducci)
The more radical of Stiglitz's progeny within the 99 percent are not likely to be optimistic about the effects of these prescriptions, seeing them at best as whistling past the graveyard. And I must confess to being among the discontented. Although I concede that Stiglitz's remedies have a better chance than Thomas Piketty's call for a global wealth tax, if only because enacting something within the confines of a nation-state seems perhaps more feasible, if extremely unlikely given the current political environment, than transcending international borders into the realm where capital rules unrestrained.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Memoriam: James Adley (1931-2015)

James Adley, 1995.  (Photo: © Patrick T. Power. Used by permission.)

Last month, my undergrad painting instructor and mentor James Adley died at age 83. As I wrote four years ago in my blogpost on his 2011 show at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, which I co-curated with Robert Schefman, I first met Jim at Michigan State in the early 1970s. A student of Clyfford Still, he was the first true artist I got to know up close and personal.

My first visit to Jim's studio, which at the time was in an upstairs loft in downtown Williamston, completely blew me away, as he unrolled canvas after canvas, each one of more enormous proportions than one before, all of them covered with graceful parabolas and striations of color, layered atop one another so that pictorial space modulated with the trace of painterly event. I distinctly remember one of deep purple and black pigment mixed with Rhoplex, built up in sedimentations of gesture, made I later found out by using floor squeegees, push brooms, and garden rakes as painting implements. A master colorist, Jim was just as happy using castoff commercial house paint, gotten from the "mistakes" made by mixers at the nearby hardware store, as the best Winsor & Newton acrylics. He once told me that ultimately all the colors are related to one another; the trick is simply to put them together the right way.

Jim was a serious devotee of music, and many of our conversations were about music as much as art. Like Kandinsky and a number of other abstract artists, particularly of the Modernist persuasion, compositional strategies and other musical inspirations factored into Jim's work. Many of his paintings were titled in a manner similar to musical compositions—the "Bagatelle" series of the 1980s, for example, and the many paintings referencing works by modern British composers, such as Sir Michael Tippett and Vaughn Williams. For a period, he used John Cage's aleatory methods to dictate his painterly decisions. (Jim also pointed out that Mozart did something similar, getting up in the morning and throwing dice to determine what type of composition he would write that day and then throwing dice again to determine the number and types of instruments.) The composer I think of most in relation to Jim is Gustave Mahler, whose sprawling symphonies marked the transition from late Romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century to Modernism early in the twentieth. Similarly, Jim's expansive canvases—the triptych I39A-C: Prelude, Transition, Finale (1988-89), measures 11 feet high and 100 feet wide—register the limits of Modernist easel painting and its ambitions of achieving utopian fields of pure presence.

The large scale and subtle modulations of form and color of Jim's paintings made them extremely difficult to capture photographically, one of the fall outs being to severely limit his ability to market himself. His uncompromising dedication to grand proportion and pure abstraction, combined with diffidence as it pertains to the "artist's hustle," didn't help much either. There were really no local galleries that could do justice to the work in part due to its scale, although several—Cantor/Lemberg when it was in Birmingham, Christine Schefman when she had her own space on Eton Street, and Sharon Zimmerman when she ran Detroit Artists Market—to their credit tried. And as time wore on, along with the rise of Postmodernism, there was less and less interest in Jim's kind of work, isolating him further, though he kept on painting away. Most of Jim's paintings, and in particular many of the best ones, have never been seen outside his studio and I feel extremely privileged to have been one of the few so blessed with having had the experience on many occasions over the past four decades.

He wasn't completely overlooked, however. He did receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. I was also able to get a review of his stunning exhibition at the Muskegon Museum published in the October 1989 issue of Artforum; although, I got in a bit of trouble for it. According to the reviews editor, Scott Gutterman, one of the Italian editors of Artforum had asked where the hell Muskegon was. I responded to Scott: "It's where the art was." Still, he cautioned, Artforum chronicles activity originating from recognized world "art centers" and I needed to pay attention to that. I was reminded of something Jim once said that if Jackson Pollock had stayed in Cody, Wyoming, no one would have ever known who he was. (Certainly, the evidence from research in the sociology of art bears that out. And more distressingly for me in Jim's case, Pierre-Michel Menger's empirical research on the unequal distribution of material rewards and recognition in the arts suggesting that artists who are unknown at the time of their deaths are overwhelmingly doomed to forever remain obscure. Menger's first monograph in English, The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement Under Uncertainty, published last year by Harvard University Press, is an essential, if sobering, read. And I have worried in recent years as to what will happen to the trove of Jim's paintings currently rolled up in storage in a basement in mid-Michigan. This is a problem not for only Jim but for many artists who have left estates largely comprised of their work.)

The sculptor and Jim's friend from their early days in London, William Tucker, wrote a heartfelt tribute titled "Grand Symphonic Paintings" published in the online magazine Art Critical. Another written by British painter James Faure Walker was published in The Guardian. Both are worth checking out.
Installation view at the Muskegon Museum of Transition, 1988-1998 (Acrylic on canvas, 120" x 744").
James Adley, Carmine, 2007 (Acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36").
Even in his final months in a nursing home, Jim kept painting. Below is a video of a talk he gave to residents about his current work. On the one hand, it's difficult to see him all contorted and frail—in his prime he stood nearly six-and-a-half feet tall with a penetrating gaze as the above portrait of him by Patrick T. Power testifies. But on the other hand, there is the appreciation of the fact that he kept working literally almost to his dying day. There is a small beauty in the video at 16:50, a departure, actually, from his more typical color field work.

Jim's wife Alison McMaugh was also a fine painter. She died of ovarian cancer in 2005. They are survived by their son Raphael Adley, who lives in Lansing. It was my great privilege to have known both Jim and Alison, whose work I also wrote about for Art & Australia among other publications. It is my sincere hope that against all odds, both will finally get their due in times to come.

A memorial service for James Adley will be held on Sunday, May 31, 2:00 p.m. in Gallery 114, Kresge Art Center, at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Click here for a map.


YouTube video of Jim's memorial held at Kresge Art Center, MSU, East Lansing:

Thursday, January 15, 2015

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

I remember the week after September 11, 2001, when the subway from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan was back in limited service, getting off at Broadway-Lafayette and feeling somewhat disoriented when my usual landmark indicating south, the World Trade Center, was missing from the downtown skyline. The specter of the World Trade Center was soon enough evoked by Art Speigelman in his September 24, 2001, New Yorker magazine cover of the Twin Towers as black silhouettes against a black background. The Twin Towers haunted the New York skyline again a few months later in the Tribute in Light installation of 88 search lights configured in the buildings' original footprints and projected upward into the night sky.

The tremulous memory effects of the World Trade Center is the subject of Thomas Stubblefield's 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster. It examines, on the one hand, the cultural industries' attempts to put the World Trade Center disaster down the memory hole by erasing its image in media representations while, on the other hand, galvanizing its persistence as a kind of visual undead with deep ideological significance in the collective consciousness.

Underlying the text is the assumption that our reception of the events of September 11 and its aftermath have been profoundly shaped by the military-entertainment complex and its culture-industry forebears. Hollywood cinema, particularly Cold War dystopias and science fiction; various photographic genres from fine art to journalistic to robotic surveillance; and social psychology constitute the fertile ground from which the cultural meanings of September 11 and its imagery have sprouted and grown.

According to Stubblefield, there have been two main ways of interpreting September 11 from the academic perspective, one primarily European and the other basically American.The former extends the critical analysis of spectacle society, i.e., laying bare the alienating effects of mass media under capitalism; the latter involves the more pragmatic discipline of trauma studies, the therapeutic response to dealing with disasters both natural and man-made. Stubblefield endeavors to steer a path between the two.

First and foremost is the role of the camera in representing September 11. The year 2001 was the first time digital cameras outsold film and September 11 is believed to be the most photographed disaster in history. Ironically, a good portion of the archive was not recorded on digital media but on film, especially from disposable cameras purchased after the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Another significant database of images was recorded by what in contemporary parlance we might call optical drones—security cameras, webcams, and other imaging devices of the Panopticon. In both cases, the dialectic of morbid fascination, the lure of the spectacle on the one hand, and the bracketing off of horrific experience, the need to hold trauma at bay on the other, produces what Stubblefield calls "non-seeing," a situation in which the apparatus of the camera at the same time enables us to maintain distance in space and time from actual events while ostensibly reaffirming their reality through the captured image.

And yet the reality theoretically being captured is itself up for debate. Stubblefield examines two well-known examples of supposed diffidence (what sociologist Georg Simmel terms the "blase" attitude engendered by modern culture) in the face of the September 11 disaster. The first is Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker's A Group of Young People Watch the Events of 9/11 from a Brooklyn Rooftop (2001), an image of five hipsters apparently basking in the autumn sun as black smoke from the collapsed towers billows across the East River. The photograph was cited by Frank Rich in The New York Times as representative of the American public's failure to learn anything significant from the September 11 attacks, a state of denial held to begin even as the horrific event was taking place. Withheld from publication until the fifth anniversary of September 11, the meaning of the photograph was almost immediately contested, not the least by its subjects who confessed to actually being in "shock and disbelief" about the attack rather than nonchalant as Rich asserted.

The other is Tim Soter's Self Portrait (2001), showing the artist, also on a Brooklyn rooftop, looking straight into the camera as smoke pours out from the Twin Towers in the distance behind him, an image posted for its perceived opportunism on the "wall of shame" as part of the "Here is New York" exhibition mounted in a vacant SoHo storefront not long after the attacks. Professed on one level by the photographer to provide a document of himself within the historic event for the future sake of his grandchildren, Stubblefield reads it as a prime example of photography's mechanically reproduced "euphoric blindness," its penchant for separating the photographer from the photographed.

Stubblefield doesn't cite it, but this distancing in space and time, and the slippery nature of photographic signification, is central to Siegfried Kracauer's under-appreciated 1927 essay "Photography," in which he discusses the difference between the photograph and what he terms the "memory-image." Kracauer writes: "Compared to photography, memory's records are full of gaps." A photograph captures what is within the camera's mechanical view while the memory-image is highly selective based upon an individual's perception.

But a photograph is in essence only a specter of the reality it represents, a trace of a fugitive moment that is gone the instant it is captured. The gap between the photograph and the memory-image increases over time with the signifying value of the physical trace eroding as the years go by. "The truth content of the original [photograph] is left behind in its history," Kracauer notes, opening up the possibility of broader significance through what might be termed the collective memory-image, in this case as a signifier within the visual culture of the disaster of September 11.

Contributing to the social imaginary of September 11 representation is the history of American popular and visual culture, especially as it evolved after the Second World War. Stubblefield organizes each chapter of the book by providing a genealogy, a prequel as it were, of films, photographic images, and other cultural references to frame various representations of September 11, from falling bodies and their subsequent disappearance from the public eye, to abandoned cityscapes in various post-Apocalyptic mise-en-scenes, to the erasure of the Twin Towers in media depictions of the New York City skyline.

As much as the events of day were captured visually, it is the void left behind by the collapse of the Twin Towers that reveals the ever-widening gap between the initial photographic record's truth content and the metamorphosis of the collective memory-image over time. The book's penultimate chapter is the most powerful one, dealing with failure of non-representation as exemplified by Spiegelman's graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) and Michael Arad's 9/11 memorial Reflecting Absence (2011). In both cases, the semiotic dialectic of presence/absence is ostensibly reversed—rather than the presence of the sign marking the absence of that to which it refers, the shadows and voids of the World Trade Center's silhouette and footprint are vestiges of a  wound that refuses to completely heal. This reversal constitutes a space for institutionalizing what Stubblefield terms a "national trauma" (and what we might term a pathological collective memory-image), a psychological state that early on facilitated the march to war and now continues with "counterinsurgency" measures such as NSA warrantless surveillance, CIA drone assassinations, and the militarization of the domestic police force.

Instead of heralding a new political reality or the occasion for national reflection, Stubblefield concludes, September 11 seems to have provided the impetus for continuing business as usual, only now with a vengeance. The American Imperium carries on, most recently through what Naomi Klein terms "disaster capitalism." And in that sense, Frank Rich appears to have been right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Art and Gentrification

The online journal ∞ Mile has embarked on a six-month series of articles on the subject of art and gentrification. Besides publishing articles, they are working with the University of Michigan Penney Stamps School of Art and Design to also present a panel discussion on March 21, 2015, at the Carr Center in downtown Detroit. My article on art and gentrification appears in the January 2015 issue now available. (Click here to read it.) The other essay is by the redoubtable (and fellow Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow) Marsha Music. It's titled "Just Say HI! (The Gentrification Blues)," and it provides an excellent counterpoint to my more academic piece. Where my essay traces external conditions, Marsha's reveals the internal experience. So much collective memory embedded in her piece. Thanks to stephen garrett dewyer, Jennifer Junkermeier, Ryan Harte, and Nick Tobier for putting it all together. The schedule of upcoming contributors looks really good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Getting Over" Live on Tape

A video of my November 18 talk at College for Creative Studies Center Galleries in connection with the show "How I Got Over." Shot by Ashlei Watson on her iPhone and formatted for YouTube by Charlie Grover. Thanks to all who came.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"How I Got Over" on View at CCS

Vince Carducci, Getting Over at the Office (1987-2000). Performance documentation, installation view.
In May 2014, the online journal ∞ Mile published an essay about my performance piece Getting Over at the Office (1987-2000) under the title "How I Got Over." Documentation and artifacts from the performance are now on view at College for Creative Studies Center Galleries until December 13. I am giving a gallery talk on Tuesday, November 18, at 11:30 am. I want to thank CCS Center Galleries Director Michelle Perron for the opportunity to revisit this project. Also, thanks to Matthew Hanna for the installation and Crista Deneau and Charlie Grover of the CCS Audio Visual Center for A/V assistance. Thanks as well to Steve Stanchfield of the CCS Entertainment Arts Department for transferring "vintage" Betamax videos to digital format. Finally, thank you to Gary Kulak and Nora Dillon for lending items from their collections to the exhibition. Below is a slightly edited version of the ∞ Mile essay, which also features some additional content.

How I Got Over

By Vince Carducci

Like most people in the arts, for many years I supported my artistic activities, along with the rest of my life, by holding down a day job. Corporate communications and advertising primarily in financial services were not such a bad gig, actually, and, in fact, were what I trained to do by having a dual major in graphic design and painting. For the last 13 years of that time, I also mounted a performance piece, Getting Over at the Office (1987-2000), whereby I recoded aspects of my daily work life as art through a series of artifacts and documents. Much of the documentation consists of news releases, sent out intermittently to a mailing list that grew with time. The performance was a gesture through which I sought to reclaim the time that had been appropriated from me by the capitalist system.
"Per Foucault" (1987).
As I note in the inaugural news release, “Per Foucault” (1987), the inspiration for the project came from a quote in an article on performance art by James E. Hart, published in a local art magazine: “Role playing is a prerequisite for ‘getting over’ at the office.” The release is a parody of “art speak,” using language misappropriated from critical theory to establish the project’s parameters. On one level, the project comments on the state of performance art, a lot of which at the time I believed, and, in fact, still believe, simply is just bad theater, dance, music, creative nonfiction, or other genre, as the case may be. Submerged within the narrative of the performance was also an admission of an ambition to indeed “get over,” to actually make it in the corporate world.

Whereas most performance art is virtual—that is to say play-acting within the privileged sphere of what philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto calls the artworld—my performance was for real. I set about slogging through the shit of the corporate bureaucracy and endeavored to come out on top.  (In truth, this is what many of us must do in this wretched world. As the bumper sticker reads: “I owe.  I owe. It’s off to work I go.”) I began the performance in the late 1980s when appropriation was all the rage in the artworld. Again, I believed that my performance had a level of reality most appropriation art did not because I actually stole from the company—the time I spent writing the news releases and duplicating them, the stationery, envelopes, and postage used in mailing them out, the copy machines and computer technology necessary for production, and other resources, such as paper clips, computer disks, and anything else lying around the office that I might need to do the work. Another aspect of the performance is the question of identity: “Who is the ‘real’ Vince Carducci?  Subversive artist?  Office drone?”  As Lacan teaches with regard to the decentered self, most famously in the essay in Ecrits on the mirror stage where he notes that the ego’s reflection of itself is always already a misrecognition, it can go either way.
"From the Archive" (1987).
The second news release, “From the Archive” (1987), came shortly after the first when I traveled to suburban Chicago for a trade fair sponsored by the Ricoh Corporation. A guest of my Ricoh sales rep, I gorged myself on sushi and looked at the various types of imaging systems on display. For some reason, they photographed all their clients in a line next to Richo’s CEO, which I thought was a kind of wacky thing to do. I mean, neither a celebrity nor war hero; he was just a guy in bad suit. As I stood there shaking hands with him, I envisioned the caption for the photo that would accompany the news release: “Shown is the artist performing ‘Getting Over at the Office’ (assisted by Keiji Endoh, chairman of the board, Ricoh Corporation of America).” And with that the performance was truly on its way.

Over the course of the performance, documentation was released to mark sundry, noteworthy events. Every time I received a title change, for example, a release would go out with my new business card attached and a detail of what the new status entailed—stock options, an assigned parking space, a bigger office, etc. Sometimes the news release provided a convenient cover for what sociologists call role strain, the stress experienced when behavior, expectations, or obligations associated with performing a social role conflict with one’s basic sense of self. An example of this is the release carrying the headline “‘Getting Over’ Goes Over the Edge” (1992) documenting my decision, years in the making as an aging hippie, to shave my beard in order to better fit into the expected look of a bank executive, again calling identity into question. Others documented some of the odd rituals of corporate life including, for example, the first time the CEO invited me to address him by his first name instead of “Mr. So-and-So Big Shot,” which became the subject of the release “‘Getting Over’ Artist Gets Inside” (1993).
"'Getting Over' Goes Over the Edge (1992).
"'Getting Over' Goes Over the Edge," detail.
One of my favorite news releases is the one titled "Notes from the Field" (1988). It documents the time I was in the Systems Planning and Development department and came across an illustration posted on the wall of an analyst’s cube. Titled “Problem-Solving Flowsheet,” the illustration mimicked the flow charts that business analysts use to document the steps of a work process. These charts have been used since the beginnings of industrial management theory in the nineteenth-century to plan out and achieve the supposedly most rational and efficient results of any task. In this case, it sardonically documents the steps of the avoidance of consequences for the poor saps stuck in so-called rationalized management structures where, as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” It had obviously been photocopied several times so who knows where it came from or where it may have been distributed. I believed, and still do, that it exemplifies true folk art and that it says more about the plight of the worker bee than any self-satisfied diatribe of a highfalutin postmodernist artist who had never experienced the no-win situation most people live under in large bureaucracies. The “Problem-Solving Flowsheet” continues to circulate around the Internet in a cleaner, digitized version as a PDF.
"Notes From the Field" (1988)
"Notes From the Field," detail.
Besides sending out documentation to the mailing list, I encouraged people to visit the performance in situ. Several people did and they typically received what marketers call “trinkets and trash,” giveaway items—pocket calculators, brochures, and other logo-imprinted items—I had designed as part of my job as the bank’s brand steward. I duly signed each of these in my capacity as The Artist, and if there was enough room, stamping them with the phrase “The Solution is to Become Part of the Problem,” which was the performance’s tag line. One of the people who did a site visit was noted Detroit collector, DIA and Cranbrook trustee, and art consultant Mary Denison, who also bought the bank’s stock simply because I had designed the certificate. Mary never got the physical certificate since the stock was held in what’s called “street name,” a method whereby brokers hold securities electronically to facilitate recordkeeping and transaction clearing. I fixed that when I gave her a copy of a cancelled certificate for her 60th birthday under what I called the “Universal Gift to Collector’s Act” that entitled her to a “piece of the action.” After Mary’s death, the certificate went to her long-time partner, the sculptor Gary Kulak, who still has it hanging in his office at home.
"A Piece of the Action (for Mary M. Denison)" (1992).
Documentation of the performance was shown, along with two videos, in 1989 as part of the multi-site exhibition “Urbanology: Artists View Urban Experience.” Two years later, artist and critic Virginia Maksymowicz wrote about it as part of an article on art dealing with business for the California-based magazine High Performance. Joy Hakanson Colby, Detroit News art critic who was also on the mailing list, subsequently read about the High Performance article and pitched a story to her editor about it. In 1992, she wrote a major feature article on the performance, “Art Attack,” that was on the front page of the Arts section.

By that time, I was high enough in the corporate chain of command that the article was viewed as positive PR for the bank and not some scandal, which it certainly would have had it come out a few years earlier. Our CEO, “Tom” as I called him, was a collector and trustee of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and he knew many of the people in the Detroit artworld who, although they were not all aware of my performance, certainly knew who I was as an exhibiting artist and, more importantly, a critic who published nationally. Many high-net-worth individuals are, of course, movers and shakers in the arts. In my case, the two worlds comfortably collided as I often gave tours of the bank’s contemporary art collection to current and potential private banking clients, including regaling them with art talk over an expense-account lunch in the executive dining room. At that point, among my duties was serving as Tom’s personal ghostwriter, and, therefore, repudiating me would have been a tremendous embarrassment for him. Instead, following Tom’s lead, people around the office congratulated me on being such a shining example of the bank’s diverse work force.

The performance gained a level of artworld legitimacy with its inclusion in the Franklin Furnace Archives, now part of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I also turned one of the video narratives (see below), detailing my experience upon entering the junior executive ranks of receiving tie-tying lessons in the men’s room by not one but two senior vice presidents, into a piece of creative nonfiction published by the webzine PopMatters under the title “Ties That Bind.” Ironically, as much as the performance was a doubled-edged deconstruction of the art and corporate worlds, it also became my plan for success. Whenever confronted with role strain, I could simply and literally call it part of the performance, sending out a news release as a form of confession and then do what I needed to do. I am thoroughly convinced that it had a material effect on my actually getting over at the office by becoming Senior Vice President-Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications, the top job in my area reporting to the CEO.

The final gesture was to conclude the performance when I decided to quit my job and return to grad school. The last piece, “‘Getting Over’ Over and Out” (2000), has three parts: my letter of resignation to my then boss the Chief Operating Officer, my memo ghostwritten for the COO announcing my resignation and the company’s plan of succession, and the final news release announcing the end of the performance. Again, the question of identity is at play in that each of these documents, written in a different voice for a different audience, are all composed by the same individual.
"'Getting Over' Over and Out," parts 1-3 (2000).

Partitioning is a survival mechanism many of us use in navigating the treacherous terrain of the postmodern world. To be sure, the subtitle of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s two-part masterwork, “capitalism and schizophrenia,” pretty much says it all. And that, in a nutshell, is how I got over.

Below top: "Getting Over at the Office [18 July: 11:02-11:29]" (1988).
Below lower: "Tales of Male Bonding" (1989).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Manufacturing Victory

These days people generally think of Detroit—with its vast expanses of abandoned real estate that have given rise to the photographic genre known as ruins porn—as the place where modernity went to die. But for a good chunk of the twentieth century, Detroit was the boomingest of boom towns. In the ten years after the introduction in 1913 of the modern moving assembly line in the automobile industry, Detroit's population doubled to nearly 1 million. In the 30 years following that, it doubled again to become the nation's fourth-largest city and one of its most affluent, especially for the working class. An important chapter in that story was the turning of the Motor City's manufacturing might to arms production during the Second World War when Detroit came to embody the slogan "Arsenal of Democracy." The new book of the same title by journalist A.J. Baime, Wall Street Journal contributor and editor at large for Playboy, tells the tale from the point of view of the Ford Motor Company and its involvement foremost in turning out B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at a faster rate than the Germans could shoot them down, helping turn the tide of the air war in Europe.

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War is told through portrait sketches of a few key individuals—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued the call to arms in a 1940 radio broadcast during which the phrase Arsenal of Democracy was introduced, and auto pioneer Henry Ford and his only son Edsel, who for nearly three decades fought their own battle with one another over the company's direction. Along the way there are appearances by other historical figures, including the nefarious Harry Bennett, Henry's personal henchman and head of Ford's so-called Service Department (which was in fact a kind of corporate Gestapo); "Cast Iron" Charlie Sorensen, head of production at Ford, developer of modern mass-manufacturing techniques, and Edsel's confidant; and Harry S. Truman, who at the time was an ambitious senator from Missouri intent on making a name for himself by exposing waste and profiteering in the defense industry.

The book begins with an overview of Henry Ford's world-changing methods of production, and its accompanying social, economic, and political effects, that came to be termed "Fordism," the high wage/high output system that that gave birth to the American middle class. The vast productive capacity of Ford's system of mass manufacturing enabled him to double the wages of his workers and dramatically reduce the price of his Model T, all the while becoming one of the richest men in world history. (One story has it that the enormous wealth Ford accumulated came so quickly that his wife Clara once found an uncashed check for $75,000, the equivalent of $1.5 million in today's money, in one of his pants pockets while doing laundry.) This largesse allowed Ford to indulge in all sorts of wackiness, including a well-documented practice of virulent antisemitism and decades of thwarting rational efficiencies and new business opportunities proposed by his son Edsel, which would have added even greater profit to the enterprise.

Edsel Bryant Ford (1893-1943)
Photo: Frank Moore Studio, 1920. Public Domain.
The tussle between Henry and Edsel over the company's destiny, and in particular its involvement in war production, is one of the book's main narrative threads. In the 1920s, Edsel, an aviation enthusiast, wanted to branch out into airplane production. He also wanted to adopt modern accounting techniques and rational management principles. During the First World War, he chomped at the opportunity to serve his country by enlisting in the military. He wanted to get rid of Harry Bennett, whose thuggish operating methods were barely a step above criminal, if that. (My grandfather, who worked on the line at "Mr. Ford's" for 30 years, used to tell of having to pay a Service Department goon a "reinstatement fee" to get his job back after being laid off.) Each of these was overturned by Henry and reluctantly accepted by Edsel who had a strong sense of filial duty. Edsel died of stomach cancer in 1943 at age 49, brought on many say by the maltreatment he suffered at the hands of his father. But before checking out, Edsel was able to position Ford Motor Company as a major defense contractor and bring Fordist production methods to bear on the war effort even over his father's objections, a story that is the book's other major narrative element.

Roosevelt recognized very early on that US involvement in the war was inevitable and also that the nation's armed forces were completely inadequate to the task. With the Luftwaffe controlling the skies over Europe and central to the Nazi military strategy of blitzkrieg, Roosevelt was especially concerned about American air capability, or more accurately the lack of it. He set a goal of building 50,000 airplanes and asked Congress for $1.2 billion (approximately $20 billion in today's dollars) to pay for it. Airplane manufacturing at the time was a craft industry with each unit individually built by hand often with unique configurations. Standardized mass manufacturing was the answer to ramping up production to achieve the numbers needed in short order. Roosevelt called upon William Knudsen, at the time president of General Motors, to assume control of American war materiel production.
B-24 Liberator bombers in production at Willow Run during WWII (Photo: Howard R. Hollem. Library of Congress. Public Domain.)
Illustration: J. Howard Miller, 1941.
Public Domain.
Edsel Ford's pioneering efforts in aviation as well as his hands-on knowledge of mass manufacturing made him the obvious go-to person in the quest to expand airplane production. Edsel and Sorensen worked often under cover to meet with government officials and others in the defense industry, not the least of which reason being because Henry was both a leading antiwar advocate and a hater of Roosevelt. On more than one occasion, Henry countermanded agreements Edsel had made to provide the military with various hardware. Edsel persevered, even as death was overtaking him, and in the end won out, with Ford Motor Company contributing significantly to the war effort and being handsomely rewarded for it. At its peak, the massive Ford Willow Run plant, which had been constructed on Ford family farmland specifically to mass produce the B-24 Liberator, turned out 650 aircraft per month and employed some 40,000 workers in two nine-hour shifts, including Rose Will Monroe, the real life role model for cultural icon Rosie the Riveter.

Following the war, the substantial pool of accumulated capital on the one hand and pent-up consumer demand on the other fueled an economic boom in America and in particular the suburban expansion led foremost by the automobile, ultimately precipitating the abandonment of Detroit. (A good account of the roots of Detroit's fall from grace can be found in Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.Baime doesn't get into any of that, ending his tale with the D-Day invasion and the assumption of Edsel's eldest son Henry Ford II (AKA "Hank the Deuce") to the CEO's suite at the company bearing his grandfather's name. He also glosses over several knottier questions, including whether Ford-owned operations in Germany and occupied France enabled the company to profit from both sides during the war. Instead, he accepts at face value an internal company report claiming that Ford didn't gain from enemy war production, a journalistic decision begging to be fact-checked. And as the book is essentially a celebratory account of American "can do" from back in the day, the so-called strategic bombing of enemy cities as a conscious plan to demoralize civilian populations and turn them against their leaders in which the B-24 Liberator played a such central part—and which some might call state-sponsored terrorism—is only briefly acknowledged and then summarily moved beyond.

The two main narrative threads, and various subplots, of The Arsenal of Democracy could easily and in fact have been the subjects of separate books. But through a combination of primary and secondary research and facile storytelling, Baime weaves together an interesting-enough narrative that retrieves an important piece of history for Detroit and for the nation at a time when all that both seemed to have stood for appears to be in retreat. It also brings attention back to Henry's doomed and now nearly forgotten son, Edsel, one of the Motor City's more solid citizens.