June 10, 2013

Artist, Soldier (part 2)

Artist, Soldier

There were times where I've heard one or two of my artist pals refer to San Diego in disparaging terms: "That place is scary, all that military stuff there." or something to this effect. I made sure to insert the contrary: that the spectrum of people in the military are not much different from that in the rest of society, that San Diego is a fine city with a lot of things going for it, and the presence of the military there is not much different than say, the film industry is to Los Angeles or the energy business is in Houston. San Diego can acquit itself handily in terms of culture, it's that strong of a city. I don't think I reached my friend, he walked away secure in his assumption that the military=evil and art=good.

I generally agree with the sentiments of the author of these videos, Lewistonvideomaker. But which set of sentiments are we talking about? I think that there is a deep and shallow set of ideas that people can take from his message. The former is expressed well by the author in his description to the A.V.A.T.A.R. video: " 
and accompanying 
spliced together 
at racism in our supposedly liberal popular 
well as 
deconstructing how whiteness and Other-ness is 
about humanitarian crises." The latter, shallow set is that the military is simply criminal, full stop. I too found the movie 300 top be execrable. But war crimes and war atrocities do not define the military any more than racism defines the movie industry.

The Military? They're just like us. Artist, Soldier. Left, Right. We're split, culturally. Schizoid. The issue isn't whether the two are opposites, whether they are ultimately incompatible. These distinctions have ben exhausted. The issue of today, I believe, is in how they interlock. It's time to heal the split. It's time to see finer distinctions and stop the idea that we, the virtuous possesses all good that the other, whomever they might be, possess all bad.

Artists and soldiers have the same orientation. Both are faced with an existential commitment, both are putting their lives on the line. For both, future security is put at stake and the possibility of a wretched end loom in the balance. Speaking for myself and I am sure for most if not all of my fellow artists, we all have had those intitial thoughts about the hazards of a life as an artist. Our families certainly were the first to raise the alarm that it is a fool's choice to swerve away from the conventional life and the security it promises. To be an artist is to risk failure and the ultimate failure is that one's talent might not be recognized even in our now longer lived lifespans. Certainly, security is not what it used to be, and if there is a contemporary formula for success, it resembles the artistic ethos more than ever before. The aspiration of working for a company for the gold watch and retirement plan has evaporated by and large, and security has taken on qualities such as nimbleness, growing one's own talent ever more so, diversifying investments, self reliance and a continuing education that never stops. If the old script that promised security has frayed and narrowed over the years, the artist's script is as wide open as it ever was. Despite the fact that the arts have grown exponentially in recent times, it is also a fact that the art world has grown in population exponentially as well, such that one could say that the odds of success have hardly changed even so. To choose to be an artist is to choose a risk of the dimension of a lifespan. With an increasing tempo of change, there are fewer if any see havens in terms of careers. If the truth of artistic risk has softened in our long lasting and growing epoch of prosperity (recessionary setbacks not withstanding), imagine the gravity of a decision to become an artist was for our forebears. The pain of such an existential choice (more so for one's family) has lessened in our time but the pain persists and the artist who is not conscious of it is either too young to know better (ah! that immortal feeling!) or has a trust fund (nothing to be ashamed of, it's indeed a blessing no one could deny). Like the ace that is either part of a winning hand or the bottom of the deck, both artists and soldiers play the odds.

We in the art world recognize this existential decision, and here is a modicum of proof: via Two Coats of Paint (Sharon Butler), here is a snip from Adam Gopnik's story in The New Yorker about Van Gogh's Ear:

Van Gogh's ear makes its claim on our attention because it reminds us that on the outer edge there is madness to pity, meanness to deplore, and courage to admire, and we can't ever quite keep them from each other. We gawk as painters slice off their ears, but we rely on them to make up for our own timidity. We all make our wagers, but the artist does more. He bets his life.


"I served once beneath a great commander who asked in counsel one night of me and my comrades if we believed our calling a species of penance, a hell or purgatory through which we must pass again and again in expurgation of some crime committed eons ago? 'I do', he said. He offered his recompense for passage: 'An unmarked grave on a hill with no name for a cause we cannot understand in the service for those who hate us.' Not one of us hesitated to embrace this."

-Steven Pressfield, "The Profession"

Creative Destruction: Scripts and Improvisation

There is warfare both within art and in the art of war.

Art is at war. Warfare is the engagement in or the activities involved in war or conflict. Art as we know it is an intergenerational struggle to reconcile the life one is living with the things one is making. And it is an internecine contest, a war in other terms, for the authority to speak for one's generation. I submit a ready example at random: in an announcement for one of Paul McCarthy's shows (NYC 2013), he describes his work as the definition of art as he sees it (I paraphrase): the overturning and disruption of society's conventions. He further defines art as distinct from entertainment in a measure of the production of ideas. Even though McCarthy is stellar, every artist has a personal philosophy but whatever that philosophy is, it will be a claim on a voice of historical importance.

It is attributed to Napoleon, seemingly a variation on Aeschylus, that the battle plan is the first casualty in battle. All martial arts are a contest of pattern creation and pattern disruption. Both the artist and the soldier act first within and then outside the box, of the protocols of habit and fashion, of established systems. The first hint of an idea, of a pass at a blank canvas, on that lump or pile of sculptural material, that first take on a film set... is like the leap from cover, the heave out from the foxhole. Preconceptions of what should happen give way to brute material facts and processes of the medium. Moment to moment, attack and re-attack deliver completely new circumstances that must be acknowledged and compensated for. Every creative act produces new information that modifies all subsequent acts. New plans are devised then improvised and each in succession are modified in flight, in a fight. Soldiers use deception to attack into the preconceptions of an adversary. Artists seek out conventions to overturn and and reorder the preconceptions of the audience.

Both the artist and the soldier bear the responsibility of presiding over destructive forces. This is obvious of course in the military, where soldiers talk of delivering steel on target, of being managers of violence. We artists ourselves too have a full array of tools whose effect is one of disruption for creative purpose. We too manage destructive forces. We draw and redraw the boundary between fantasy and reality, risking the madness that stems from losing such a distinction. We employ the energy of revolution in themes big and small, heedless of potential negative or even catastrophic consequences. Terms and ideas such as interrogation, resistance, deconstruction, disruption, interruption, argumentation, are nouns in a martial language both inside the academic arts and inside the Pentagon.

Paradigm and counter paradigm is the kernel in the story of art history that prevails in our darkened art survey classrooms. Disruption and fragmentation are normal methodologies in our practice. We as culture's outliers exist in order to break open the scabs of convention and the closure of experience and reflection. The avant-garde is reported to be passé today, but who could doubt that such an entity does not haunt us as each new season trumpets all that is supposedly new and of-our-time? We artists, like the soldier, the fireman and the policeman, all go to where the danger is. What is art history other than a chronicle of hubris, violence, of power in movement, of deception and subterfuge, of the acts of the bad son or daughter? What movie or novel does not have as a premise, some form of bad behavior?

Combat and Logistics

A soldier in combat is only half of the story. The other half is supplying the front lines with food, water, equipment, ammunition and information. Like soldiers, there are two kinds of people in the art world. Artists, like soldiers are fed into the maw and then there are the people who together form the infrastructure that sets the stage of art history (collectors, gallerists, curators, critics). Support personnel set the stage for battle and there would be no success in war without it. For example, In WWII,Eisenhower bypassed Paris so that the logistical needs of a recaptured capitol would not detract from the war machine driving towards a decapitation in Berlin.

We are all familiar with the type in pop culture: the cigar chomping supply sergeant who knows how to obtain that impossible and critical item, who has the access to whisky and porn (insert your favorite contraband). Witness Don Rickles' Sergeant Crapgame, or Phi Silver's Sergeant Bilko, for example. These are the pop culture stereotypes. Here's a link to a real supply sergeant, to sober up the mediated image.

In our art world, there are many types of support personnel: gallerists, writers (critics), curators, arts administrators of many types. Many of these art world support people are grounded in a clear recognition of the indispensable nature of their role in the larger system, and there are an albeit contestable percentage of them who are indeed venal. Let's be real here: there is no regulation in the art world, it is a Wild West where there is no law against insider trading. In both varieties military and art, there are those who game the system for either personal gain or to overcome the inherent lethargy intrinsic to all systems in order to deliver such much needed support, to overcome the system for its own good. One character is committed to the mission, the other exploits the system for personal gain. The spectrum of human character is fully represented in both worlds.

"an entrepreneurial soldier, Milo Minderbinder, "exposed" as a ruthless, moneymaking crook in an early vision of the novel, developed into a more nuanced figure, amoral rather than simply villainous."

-Vanity Fair, The War for Catch-22
by Tracey Daugherty


Solitude and Leadership
If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts

By William Deresiewicz

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there's something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read, Heart of Darkness. If you haven't read it, you've probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn't about Vietnam; it's about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship's captain, is sent by the company that's running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who's ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.

Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy--what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like--and here's why I'm telling you all this--just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym "snafu": "situation normal: all fucked up"--or "all fouled up" in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the U.S. Army in World War II.
You need to know that when you get your commission, you'll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you'll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior--what kind of character--they reward, and what kind they punish.


Elias and Barnes

There are two types of soldiers on the battlefront. I'm thinking of the two sergeants brought to cinematic life in the 1986 movie Oliver Stone, Willem Dafoe's Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger's Sergeant Barnes. This, from an essay in part about Platoon by Dan B. Butler :

Sergeant Elias, the "good" sergeant, is given an almost ethereal quality, whereas Sergeant Barnes is much more self-serving. Although Barnes and Elias take on almost mythic qualities inPlatoon, their characters are based in reality, an important element in the film. Oliver Stone described the two men in 1987:
I knew the two sergeants in the different units. Sergeant Barnes was wounded in the face. He was a good soldier who had his men's trust. But he had one huge failing: his murderous obsession with the Vietnamese. He hated them all, men, women, and children. Sergeant Elias was almost exactly the opposite: he was an anti-racist who looked like the rock star, Jim Morrison-a handsome man, well-dressed, loved by his troops.

Let us consider the fighting styles of Barnes and Elias.

Elias abandoned himself to the chaos of combat. He worked better alone, stripping off non essential gear to prowl and rush the jungle of the battlefield. Hip, pot smoking, naturally counter culture, spiritual, the character of Elias was imbued with an aura that is universally appealing. Hector. Christ. Love.

Barnes was identified as like Melville's Ahab:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.
Barne's martial art was rage all the more frightening for his methodological intensity. The corrosive rage of Achilles. Hate.

...and so too artists? Consider perhaps the rage of early Chris Burden, of our scowling Serra, the protesting Spero,

Consider the love (or somesuch) that glows from the work of Bonnard, Koons,

how they are different:

how they are complimentary:

one secures freedom
the other employs it

The soldier is reconciled with oblivion even before they make their vow to defend the constitution. The artist has to learn how to accept oblivion in varying magnitudes.

each defends the interests of the other

Posted by Dennis at June 10, 2013 1:03 AM

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