Stir the Masses: The Necessity of Art (Part VIII)

There is nothing like art to wake us. Art has the power to get under the skin, splinter nails and moisten brows. Hang a urinal on the wall and get a rise (No pun intended). Draw a comic the Prophet and get blasted out of this life. Paint a portrait using multiple perspectives and challenge convention. Art is noise. Art is a thumb in the nose of static notions.

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Art and revolution are long-time companions. Militant art directs movements by giving people motivational images, reflecting their thoughts and capturing possibilities: You could be her; this could be you. We need art to energize us. The United Farmworkers Union employed an iconic eagle as their emblem; the Black Panther Party and Mao’s China used art to manipulate, agitate and propagate a message (not necessary in that order).

It was Honoré Daumier, who in the late 18th century glorified the masses of the “Third-class Carriage” even while giving us a peek into the lifestyles of the first-class passengers. I relish neither classification, because poverty is the domain of those who do not own their destinies. Calling attention to disparities is the domain of artists. Take Goya’s criticisms of public figures through allegory and blatant representation of government atrocities, which led to public outrage. Likewise, satirical political cartoons have been the voice of dissent since the American Revolution.

Art also has unintentional consequences. Take the writer Nicolai Gogol, whose most famous, and nearly seditious work, Dead Souls, foreshadowed the fall of the monarchy and led to political strife when it was published in 1842. In fact, Gogol, a nobleman, believed in the crown and serfdom—he did not expect Dead Souls to be interpreted as criticism of the state. For Gogol, he was simply depicting Russian life. Ironically, he was unable to “correct” his book though he tried, twice, to create a second volume; in frustration, Gogol committed suicide by starvation, proving we cannot control Art.

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Rebecca Solnit assures us that artists have a place, poets have a place—and protests have a place. Without art, she implies, we succumb to dichotic thinking, viewing the world and everything in it as binary opposites, rather than complicated, nuanced situations that we have the power to impact.

Art is no trivial matter. It is skillful, thoughtful, daring and courageous work that must be done. Whether imagery or words, film or created objects, performance or free association—these are the pillars of a thriving society. Art is not merely the purview of advertisers and marketers. Art belongs to us.

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The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

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Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

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Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.

 

Historical Repetitions: (Just Waiting to See What Will Be Considered Next) d

Charity begins at home. Sometimes Trump seems to be saying just that. Perhaps freedom from hunger is the freedom we all need. When our people are starving, roving the streets looking for shelter, chronically unemployed, then it is at last time for a movement. It’s what prompted the revolutions of the 19th century and it’s what drove the 1960s Civil Rights activism. We are no more impervious to ills of imposed poverty than to the desire to feed and shelter our families. The people have spoken, and beneath the rhetoric of hate, misogyny and bigotry, are the very real concerns of people who have witnessed a steady decline in resources, opportunities and wages, as well as the intangibles: loss of pride, purpose and dignity. Unlike the bulk of Trump’s electorate, I don’t draw the boundary along a color line. I see that in San Francisco, the disenfranchised, displaced and working poor are blacks, averaging salaries of $24,000 a year. These communities, long-time residents of this thriving metropolis, are in need of jobs, resources, supermarkets and hope. Maybe we will see change.

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What’s Happening Here?

 

That said, this is not the time to go to sleep. We need to remain watchful, vigilant and engaged. Trump’s policies need to provide for all of us, not just White Americans, who are feeling the pain that historically, only Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans and countless other minority groups have experienced. It’s the same pain. The pain is momentarily evenly distributed among those of the working class and working poor: groups, which are increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Let us look upon the lessons of history and see that we are our brother’s keeper. We’re in it together. Four years, or less: Who knows? But if we get more jobs, better paying jobs, I’m okay with prosperity. img_1896

In the meantime, let’s practice agape, friends. I’m talking about love. Kindness is contagious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Repetitions: (Considering the Things I’ve Not Seen But That Have Happened Before) c

 

There’s a lot of unhappiness even among the wealthy. It seems that money cannot buy everything, and what it can buy is not always available. Take, for an example, the numerous Google employees purported to be living in their cars. I’ve known about poor students doing it, and the community of full-time campers near my home, but they’re under employed. This is something different. Presumably, these Google homeless are the lucky ones; they can shower and eat at work and are probably not harassed by the police. Still, it’s hard to ignore that one of best-known tech companies on the planet has homeless employees. You gotta wonder about how the people who are chronically under-employed and have no regular income are surviving.

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Unemployed and Homeless, NYC

Sadly, this is not new. We are in a cycle, repeating a dismal fate. The Hoovervilles of the 1930s also had explosive mass migration and homelessness. But, we’ve forgotten them, or have failed to teach these lessons to our children. We think we are immune to history, even our own. Hoovervilles are created when wealth is consolidated in the hands of few. Will the government step in to correct the disparities? They can start with raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy. After all, people like Trump should pay their share. If not, only some of us pay of the price of inequality: it’s due every April 15th.

 

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Hooverville, USA

We could all use jobs. We all want healthcare. We all want a home to rest our bodies through the night and at the end of the day; preferably that home is dry, clean and heated with good, old-fashioned fossil fuels. The challenge to do so, for all of us, regardless of race, is tasked to our new president, a man promising to make this a great nation, again. This is a familiar moment from a historical standpoint: the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of people, looking for refuge, opportunity and peace is the same one that has driven previous generation to enact change, from the bottom up. We forget, that the people who rule our nation are the 1%, the most elite among us. We are the many.

 

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Hooverville, Seattle

Staying Alive: The Necessity of Art (Part III)

 

Art is often viewed in commercial societies (those engaged in gathering, hoarding and consuming resources) such as ours as superfluous, an indulgence of the affluent, a whim of the bored. This I strongly disavow. Art is more for the poor masses, we mere proletariat, than for any wealthy individual—a collector, say. We are the products of millennia of seeing and creating. In our hands imitation is a form of life. We long to leave our marks on the planet, even as we see only the tiniest remnants and fragments of former civilizations and our own productivity over-saturates the Internet with more than we can manage, blinding us to ourselves.

 

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The Seer

We have become anonymous in our own quest for immortality if only because we are now one of billions where once there were few in number to be counted. Still, art drives us. We bathe ourselves in whatever beauty we can find, curating our lives from the replication of someone else’s vision, conveniently mounting it all on the walls of our gallery homes. And still, art is a friend, reminding us of the past.

From her special place, the red eyes of Hundertwasser’s “Blind Venus Inside Babel” look at me whenever I work. I wonder what the artist meant by those eyes and her flowing skirts full of worlds, peopled with spirits and planets so vast that the ruffles of it extend beyond the edge of the canvas. It’s as if she is the mother of the world and the brightest light originates in her navel, above which the Black Woman, confident of her place in the universe, looks out across the expanse of our world, forever. The red orbs of her eyes, mirrors to the sanguine nature of man, empty and invite, over and over. Around her neck hangs a crest, an ornament, which given the history intimated in her skirt, is unnecessary, and yet, she is regal in her simplicity, swaying on the page to the music of time, oblivious to her immortality. She is here to stay, this Black Woman, watching over me.

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Hundertwasser’s 1975 “Blind Venus Inside Babel”

Historical Repetitions (and Other Forms of Seeing for Consideration): a

 

I refuse to live in fear. I’m told about the many frightening things ahead for us because of Trump’s status as president elect. A woman stopped me on the street to give me a stack of her fliers about the new face of fascism. (Until recently the same fliers had Obama’s face on them.) Everywhere I hear alarming news—increased suicides, hate crimes, bigotry. To all of these worries and stresses I say, “I refuse to live in fear.” Elections, public and free, are not worth dying for.

Unfortunately, bigotry has been a very common circumstance throughout my life and professional career. The bigots emboldened to come out of the closet were never invisible to me. And, the problems we face are bigger than openly racist leaders—for many people that has been the reality all along.

Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable to imagine hope packaged in the incendiary language with which Trump ran his campaign. Perhaps it makes us angry to be ruled by people with less education, less polish and less manners than ourselves. On the surface, this seems to be true. We want to ask ourselves how much could we have in common with rural Virginians and Appalachian Whites whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and have never yet ceased to fly the losing flag. Upon a closer more careful examination, we see the same conditions exist for them today as they did nearly 200 years ago when they lost the Civil War in part because they were starving then too. I often wonder whether their ancestors, many of whom did not hold a single bonded man, woman or child, ate any better than their predecessors do today. Given the evidence that African Americans, who ate poorly, died young and served as free labor in the South embodied the wealth of their slavers, it’s clear that jobs for poor, White Americans have always been scarce.

Nothing has changed.

(Solutions forthcoming.)

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As Seen on TV

The NRA’s Convenient Gun-Reform Policy

 

Let us recall the words of abolitionist Lloyd Garrison in this process of truth telling: “ I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.”

I just learned that the NRA’s current stance on gun reform is political far beyond the degree of merely upholding the Constitutional rights of Americans. In a landmark decision, led and advocated for by Ronald Regan, Don Mulford and the NRA, California changed the open carry gun law that had been in place under the Mulford Act in 1967. They did this only after the Black Panther Party started carrying guns in self-defense. By changing the law, the NRA worked strategically with state officials to limit the group’s ability to defend themselves. The Mulford Act changed the laws in order to directly disenfranchise Black American Activists, who were being lynched with impunity in the United States. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter Movement is a continuation of the work they started. (No guns, however.)

Read the history that the NRA has obfuscated from the public for the past five decades in The Atlantic’s “The Secret History of Guns.”

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Plus, here’s a photo of the only confiscated gun returned to the Black Panther Party by the Oakland Police. From the current OMCA Exhibit All the Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50

Well, why not regulate and uphold gun laws in this country so that we are all safer?

 

 

Registries and Other Post-Modern Curiosities

I’m curious what would happen if we create a registry for Muslims we also create a registry for all White Supremacists involved with terrorist organizations like the historic Klu Klux Klan, an organization that has terrorized Black Americans for centuries, and, not just in the South.

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Ancestral Observers: A Tableau

(Ancestors include Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass)

Here’s a photograph of the hooded Klu Klux Klan marching down a main boulevard in Oakland, California circa 1950 from the current OMCA All the Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 Exhibit:

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Evolving Forms of Entertainment

Thank G-d for television, Netflix, cable, video games and movie theaters. Remember when lynching Black Americans was a form of entertainment? During the days of Jim Crow law, after Emancipation, our government allowed White Americans to kill black people with impunity. Some of them even mailed photographs with family members and friends gathered around the defiled bodies, subverting decency, undermining justice and using the federal mail system to send evidence of their crimes. To be fair, some White Americans were also lynched outside of the formal judicial process, but those murders seldom involved the nudity and corporal mutilation that were common singularities of their Black counterparts.

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Lynching-photos postcards from the book Without Sanctuary

Don’t take my word for it. Learn American History. We have a complex story that needs to be examined, discussed and remembered. Otherwise, we may just repeat the same mistakes.

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                                Thank you for remembering, James Allen, Hilton Als,                                  Congressman John Lewis    and   Leon F. Litwack

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Making the Count: Our Rights and Duties

Election season is upon us, again. It is a joyous time, one full of demanding intellectual rigor, requiring contemplation and discernment in order to ascertain which propositions to support and which presidential hopeful to embrace. With all the valid concerns Americans face, we must weigh the balance of a society enduring broad disparities in services, goods and care, based on income levels, gender and race. That’s why I love this country: even with our national foibles, rampant discrimination and numerous beneficiaries of unearned privileges, we each get the same opportunity to vote. Regardless of political leanings, no matter our party affiliation, voting is a duty that must be taken seriously. There’s too much apathy—too many people declining their responsibilities, not making time, and shirking the duties bestowed upon a liberated citizenry.

 

History teaches many lessons to those willing and able to observe them. Since the advent of human existence, there has been slavery and its lesser forms of abridged liberties, myriad forms of oppression: the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, the Romans subjugated any conquered person, the monarchs of Russia created serfs of countless legions of peasants; the early Americans enslaved boatloads of Africans shipped over like so many other tradable commodities. Less severe are the disenfranchised of the world, ruled by tyrants, people unable to decide their own fates, for example, in places like South Africa, where once only those born with the right skin color could vote or North Korea, where even dreams of liberty are taboo. The list of deprived world citizens, past and present, is endless. We must not forget this reality. We must honor these fleeting privileges. They are precious jewels in the shifting power structures of the tumultuous geopolitical landscape.

 

The privilege of suffrage is a profound responsibility, necessitating our distilled convictions to not let others decide for us. We must not defer our power for another day, else we may find the power lost forever. It is our duty to exercise our right to vote. It’s what many people have died for over the centuries—a right too many take for granted: the privilege, in this country at least, has worn dull with use. We have entered a time of ennui with disposable everything; this insatiable desire for quick consumption has us in a vice grip of boredom with our own democratic process. Now that we no longer need die for the right to vote, it has become nearly worthless.

If one were to search the centuries for a single reason for unrest, uprising and revolt, it would most likely result in the quest for agency—freedom. Humans, rightly so, want the right to choose their destiny. That yearning defines us as humans. We may even have too much choice, too much freedom. We are lulled into a stupor by our easy lives. We grow fat on the expectation of having our way. We forget that we are one of many, deciding a common fate in a power-sharing process based on the full participation of society’s members.

To abstain from the vote is to betray our own democracy, our own moral mandate to be agents of change. Were it a question of people subjugated under laws without the slightest possibility of mitigating outcomes, we’d die for liberty. And yet, we have the ability to impact our own governance, but easily abandon our duties as a form of stubborn foot stomping. We have the power to decide our fate and the direction of our nation, our states and our cities. We must use our power.

People make every imaginable excuse for not going to the polls. They attempt to justify their inaction—they seem to be waiting for a magic carpet to transport them to a mythical utopia in which voting is irrelevant and only the candidates they want will appear on the ballot. This complacency is akin to the child archetype, rendering citizens helplessly mute, overcome by indecision, protesting carelessly about their discomfort with their choices, eschewing their responsibility in obscene temper tantrums. The nation is not formed to serve individuals; we serve one another, the collective good decided by all, sharing both the burdens and the glories of our making. Relying on excuses while ignoring the past and the current political reality in our nation prevents progress, ingenuity and the pursuit of truth and justice. We must allow the past to inform us so that we may correct the mistakes of the past and leave a legacy of love for our children. We only put our own civil liberties at risk when we succumb to fantasy and refrain from exercising our personal power. Even if we don’t get our way this election, we still have an obligation to participate in the established democratic process in our nation.

The past is available to us as a powerful tool. Without the right to vote, we lose our democracy—one that many people have died to secure—early settlers who fought the British Crown, poor white men and later white women who gained suffrage under new systems, and most recently, African Americans, whose blood wrested the vote from those in power. Will we abstain from the duty of this obligation out of complacency and apathy? Don’t we have an obligation to our predecessors to cast a ballot? I believe we do.

Too many people in our country are ready to take up arms, assemble bombs and shed innocent blood to be heard when there is a viable, peaceful option in place and accessible to us right now. My hope is that our hunger for liberty and justice, democracy and activism is peaked by injustice, cruelty and tyranny, and that our needs will be slaked by performing our civic duties, especially our right to vote—for we need that hunger to stay engaged, awake and empowered. And, we must do our duty to nourish our souls and pacify our spirits.

Vote!

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