Monday, October 19, 2015

Margo Jefferson's Coming of Age in Negroland

One of my fondest memories from the New School for Social Research Liberal Studies MA program comes from a course titled "Representations of Race and Gender in American Culture." It was the day, about halfway through the semester, when co-teachers Elizabeth Kendall (author of feminist studies of early modern dance and 1930s screwball comedies, among other books) and Pulitzer-prize winning critic Margo Jefferson demonstrated the cakewalk, a dance developed in the 19th century by southern slaves and later picked up at the turn of the 20th by white people who without realizing it were in fact imitating black parodies of their tight-assed selves. Conundrums of race and gender identity in modern America are similarly at the core of Jefferson's memoir, Negroland.

"Negroland" is Jefferson's name for that small, privileged segment of black American society alternately known as the "colored aristocracy," "the black bourgeoisie," and "Our Kind of People." Like her University of Chicago Laboratory Schoolmate the late Paul Butterfield, Jefferson was born in Chicago. She grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s attending private schools, socializing with her peers at Jack and Jill club functions, traveling to Interlochen summer arts camp in northern Michigan, and spending leisure time on the family yacht. While enjoying a comfortable upbringing, Jefferson was always on guard to contain herself, knowing full well that "Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive."

Indeed, in her youth, Jefferson was constantly reminded of the imperative to know her place, of the strictures of what she terms the "fortress" of segregation. She listened with chagrin as her mother recounted an incident of the family's white laundryman snubbing her in a chance encounter at Sears; another time her father, a respected doctor and head of pediatrics at what was America's oldest black hospital, Provident, was rousted by the cops in his own neighborhood on the way home from the office and accused of carrying illegal drugs in his medical bag. Jefferson herself was often teased by white playmates as a child, subjected to the blithe disregard of teachers who taught literature and songs tainted with racist sentiment, however oblique, and inundated with representations of dominant, which is to say white, culture in everyday encounters with the so-called mainstream print and broadcast media. At the same time, Jefferson's privileged status required maintaining psychological and physical distance from blacks of lower socioeconomic status, whose failures the more elite segment, including her own parents, denigrated as "[making] it hard for the rest of us."

Jefferson terms being caught in the fault line between the social imaginaries of white and black in American society as the condition of "the third race." As she writes:
We cared for our people—we loved our people but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them.
And yet there was also the realization that much of Jefferson's social cues, in terms of lifestyle and expectations, came from white upper-middle-class society. At one point she observes feeling that she had more in common with white peers at her exclusive private school than the far less-advantaged majority of blacks with whom she rarely if ever interacted. She notes thinking at one point that Paul Butterfield, with his immersion in South Side Chicago blues, was more closely in touch with what from a mainstream perspective was considered "authentic" black culture than she was. Jefferson doesn't comment on it, but that appropriation of blackness is yet another white construction as an iteration of the Noble Savage in Western culture. It can be seen during the period of Jefferson's childhood, for example, in Jack Kerouac's description in On the Road of the Denver nightclub hot jazz combo in which "the big Negro bullneck drummer" attacks his kit with a primordial "Boom, kick, . . . kicking his drums down the cellar and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom!" And then there is the more "superficial" hipster adoption of it in Norman Mailer's notorious 1957 Dissent magazine essay, "The White Negro."

The word "Negro," capitalized, is consciously and rigorously used by Jefferson throughout most of the book, abandoned only in the final sections, when moving from the years of her upbringing to the beginning of her professional life in the 1970s as a reporter for Newsweek, where she replaces it with "black." (She uses "African American" only once as a self-identifying term in recounting an episode from the 1990s of buying hair care products in the West Village.) "'Negro,'" she writes, is "a word of wonders, glorious and terrible." Its various connotations, which have shifted over time and depending upon context, have informed her understanding of race and its construction, politically, socially, culturally, and, of course, personally.

From this semiotic ground zero, Jefferson launches her chronicle of Negroland. The book is subtitled "A Memoir," though in truth it's really more what social researchers term an autoethnography (a less marketable term to be sure), which describes a form of self-reflective writing that places an individual's experience within a wider cultural, political, and social context. With her many years as an astute cultural critic, Jefferson cannot help but take a broader view of her life within the larger narrative of American social history. The first few sections of the book trace the emergence of the black elite back to its origins in the antebellum plantation slave system, through the 19th-century stirrings and spread of the abolitionist movement, and on into modern civil rights and black pride. The capsule profiles of important figures in that story, some well known and others less so, constitute a useful survey of social history in and of themselves.

Woven throughout the book are also meditations at the intersections of race and class and especially gender. Trenchant in this latter regard are the taxonomies of skin color, grades of hair, and the shapes and sizes of noses and derrieres as markers of female beauty. (Baby definitely don't got back in 1950s Negroland.) Also noteworthy is the suspicion with which many black women in the 1970s and '80s viewed Second Wave feminism as a middle-class white woman's thing. In response to that notion, Jefferson quotes Florynce Kennedy:
When black women tell me feminism is a white woman's thing, I tell them: you've spent all these years, all these centuries, imitating every bad idea white women came up with—about their hair, their makeup, their clothes, their duties to their men. And now, they finally come up with a good idea—feminism—and you decide you don't want anything to do with it! (Italics original)
Another resonant section pertains to relations and other acquaintances who crossed the color line and became estranged from family and friends, sometimes for a lifetime. One is a relative identified only by his initials J. E., presumably to protect his legacy for two ostensibly white sons who have never been told of their racial heritage. Another is a cousin, Lillian, who lived her life as a fair-skinned Negro and passed for convenience when patronizing white-only shops and restaurants. She also served as a go-between for passers and non-passers on the Jefferson side of the family. An interesting case is Jefferson's great-uncle Lucius who after decades of passing for white as a traveling salesman "resumed his life as a Negro" upon retirement. In reading this section I was reminded of two books Kendall and Jefferson assigned our New School class: James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, originally published anonymously in 1912, and Nella Larsen's Passing from 1929, both of which explore the treacherous terrain at the borders of race. Where those writers present fictional accounts, Jefferson reports on facts. I was also reminded of the times that I, a person of Mediterranean descent, have been taken for black, one of them at a party by an Africana Studies professor who kept insisting I was passing.

Like Jefferson's previous book, the 2006 On Michael Jackson, Negroland is filled with incisive commentary and unexpected observations, all of it delivered with a sly wit and in crystalline prose.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art

In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC presented the exhibition "The Art of Video Games," now on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee until September 13 as part of a ten-city tour. The exhibition is billed as one of the first to survey the evolution of video games as an artistic medium over the past four decades, although video games have certainly been featured here and there in art exhibitions previously. John Sharp's book Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art doesn't argue whether games are art or not, but instead looks at the intersection where games and art meet.

One of the book's key concepts comes from James J. Gibson, a psychologist known for his work, along with his wife Eleanor, on visual perception. Gibson coined the term "affordance" to describe the relationship between things and environments and organisms. Affordances, in turn, are embedded within communities of practice, or what Gibson termed a "psychological ecology," a perceptual environment of understanding rooted in place and time.

Industrial designers use the phrase "product semantics" to similarly identify the way in which objects are designed so that their meaning or use is encoded in their physical form. For example, the product semantics of a hammer, in terms of its shape and materials, tell you which end is for holding and which end is for pounding. So a hammer has affordances with the nail and the wood into which it is pounded, as well as the human hand by which it is held and used. It is situated within a community of practice, i.e., a psychological ecology, that includes a particular method for constructing shelter, which contrasts, for example, with non-Western practices such as the Turkic yurt, Native American teepee, and African grass hut.

When it comes to games, according to Sharp, the affordances change depending upon the community of practice. The example he gives is chess, which has a range of communities of practice, from amateurs to Grand Masters. Each of these accepts certain aspects of the game: the movement of the different pieces, the rules of play, the offensive and defensive strategies, and the ultimate objective, which is to best one's opponent by capturing the king. Artists, on the other hand and most famously Marcel Duchamp, also see the game as a trope, which can signify struggles of various kinds̬—ideological, sexual, aesthetic, and more.

Sharp constructs his discussion of the intersection of games and art using three categories: game art, artgames (rendered as one word), and artists' games. Each has its own affordances situated within their communities of practice, though the distinctions can sometimes be subtle to the point of being somewhat opaque.

Game art appropriates game industry tools and bends them toward artistic purposes. The resulting works comment both on game culture and the art world. Julian Oliver uses a well-known bug in Quake 3 to create abstract images that subvert the 3D verisimilitude of the game space and thus its field of battle. More interestingly, Cory Arcangel hacks Super Mario Brothers 3 to create room-size art installations that completely remove any narrative from the image. Both contest conventional art world notions of originality and preciousness.

Artgames, on the other hand, adopt game conventions and refract them through traditional aesthetics to create forms of self-expression. Like the auteur theory in film, the notion of the artgame sees the developer as a kind of artist, using game mechanics to meditate on a variety of issues. The most obvious is the game as autobiography. Jason Rohrer designs game narratives drawn from his personal life for others to use as part of their own self-reflection. The 2007 game Passage deals with the untimely death of a family friend. Another, Gravitation from 2008, is about Rohrer's need to balance family obligations against his need for creative fulfillment. Brenda Romero's games are about more social issues drawn from historical tragedies, such as the English invasion of Ireland and the Holocaust. Jonathan Blow's games are downright epistemological, about the way in which iterative processes factor into knowledge acquisition. (Repeated play, of course, is at the source of game mastery; Blow makes it the subject of the game rather than its presumptive precondition.)

Finally,  artists' games are more sophisticated than either game art or artgames. Where game art experiments primarily with form and artgames with content, artists' games synthesize both form and content to construct new interactive situations. While meant to be the capstone of Sharp's argument, the category is a bit fuzzy. Sharp himself seems unclear when in the final chapter he asks: "Is there a different sort of aesthetics at play in artists' game that combines the values of both the art and game communities than that found in a more traditional approach to games or art?" Indeed, in trying to write his way through the concept of the artists' game, Sharp makes reference to contemporary art theories of relationalism, collaboration, and participation loosely gathered under the rubric "social practice." He touches on the role of play in making the connection between art and games, not only in the sense of play as recreation but in the sense of play as a space that allows movement. The examples he gives could just as easily fit into a study of contemporary performance and installation art as one on games.

Works of Game is an effort at constructing a framework for understanding how games and art interact. It accepts the rules of contemporary art as its field of play. As such, there isn't much consideration of games as a social and cultural phenomenon, which for me would have been a more interesting subject. For an astute analysis of that, see McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory, a book that is a bit dated perhaps but well worth checking out nonetheless.

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.