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Tag Archives: G. Roger Denson

G. Roger Denson’s excellent series on Leftist and Political Art continues with his coverage of the period from 1966 – 1975. This is particularly interesting to me because I have actual memories of this era. I turned 9 in 1966 and was in the middle of my senior year of high school in 1975, turning 18 in December of that year. This is the time I came of age, became an adult, at least in a legal sense. I have memories of a lot of the things Denson talks about in his article.

I would not say that I was deeply involved in politics during that time. I went from a disinterested little kid to a disinterested young adult. When the Vietnam war was winding down, when Nixon was fleeing the White House in humiliation, I was busy falling hopelessly in love with a little blonde girl I knew, suffering the hyper-dramatic pangs of teenage angst, and experimenting with all those things we so loved to experiment with at the time.

I wasn’t deeply involved, but I was aware. I knew about My Lai and Watergate and the 1967 Riots in Detroit.¬† I knew about Kent State and the Black Panthers and Patty Hearst and Hanoi Jane and the Summer of Love. I didn’t know much about gays, but I knew about feminists. This stuff was swirling around me and it sunk in somehow despite no conscious effort on my part to absorb it. How it may have influenced my social, cultural, and political views is anybody’s guess.

I’m especially intrigued by Denson’s observations that leftist, and even left-leaning, movements often eventually become as oppressive as the injustices they seek to replace. Denson offers the following¬† commentary that I think is helpful in understanding his point of view:

“As for the question, “When does the Left become fascist? It’s a question I asked myself as I organized Part 3 of the Art of the Left Timeline and found myself drawn in by irresistible graphic art and romantically alluring tropes of revolution waged for the alleged good of humanity–only to come face to face with wholly resistible–as in unsavory, unscrupulous, and unrestrained–paramilitary organizations posing as liberators of the people. Which people, we should ask. It’s a question that wasn’t asked enough, if asked at all, by the activist youth of the 1960s.”

I’ve seen something akin to this happen to people I’ve been associated with over the years. Not violent revolutionaries by any means but dedicated liberals (we call them “progressives” these days) who get so caught up in the righteousness of their cause that they lose not just the ability to understand politics and human nature but all sense of perspective or balance. Right-wingers have always had that air of condescension borne of their sense of moral and intellectual superiority, but the left has had to come to it over time. Now, everyone seems to have it, a fact that provides us with the only explanation we’ll ever need as to why American Politics is such an unmitigated disaster as we slide into 2012.

Feeling that you and your side is better and smarter than everyone else is like tacit permission to ignore your own flaws and shortcomings, to elevate your opinions to the level of fact. It also allows you to take yourself and your movement far too seriously. This explains the positively dreadful drivel and dreck that passed for “art” at the time.

I’m going to focus on American art again, but I have to share one fabulous painting from the People’s Republic of China, circa 1972:

Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside (Chen Yanning - 1972)

I offer this because I find it so patently ridiculous that it would be funny if Chairman Mao had not caused, directly and indirectly, the deaths of maybe as many as 70 million people during his decades at the helm of the People’s Republic. I mean, everyone looks so happy here. But these aren’t the people he had executed or starved or worked to death in re-education camps, so maybe there really are that glad to see him.

Our own work during that period wasn’t much better. The visually chaotic pop-art poster style that dominated at the time tended to confuse more than illuminate. The garish colors shocked rather than warmed. So much art seemed confused and self-indulgent and we started to confuse the brilliant with the merely peculiar.

Left to Right: F-111 (James Rosenquist - 1965), Time Magazine Cover (Vija Clemins - 1965), Signs (Robert Rauschenberg - 1970) Borrowed from Denson's Post.

Things back then seem so angry in retrospect but I’m not sure it’s not every bit as angry now, just with different people bitching and moaning. Other than the position being expressed, is carrying a picture of Che Guevara (or Chairman Mao) in a protest march really significantly different from dressing up like Ben Franklin and carrying a picture of Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache? Or George W. Bush with a Hitler mustache? Or anyone at all with a Hitler mustache? I’m not so sure.

Down With the Whiteness (Rupert Garcia - 1969)

There was an undercurrent of rage that permeated this period of our history. Minorities, women, Native Americans, this group and that coming forward to claim their share of the American Dream on a wave of reproach and bitterness. The more conservative America vigorously defending their precious status quo. Even if everyone’s anger was well-earned, I don’t think it was at all productive. We’re still living behind the walls we all built back then.

I suppose I was a part of the White, Male-Dominated American everyone was rebelling against, but I’ve always rejected the notion of some monolithic White Majority in this country as a kind of cultural shorthand that frees people from having to think too much about who they’re talking to. I grew up relatively working-class poor in a pretty middle-class Midwestern suburb. I don’t remember oppressing anyone.

Women Are Not Chicks (Chicago Women's Graphics Collective - 1973)

It all seems so ridiculous now, or would if it weren’t so tragic.

We’re still trying to dig ourselves out of the hole that we tossed ourselves into back then. In the 1960s we had confused hippies. Today, we have confused Teabaggers. Confusion has replaced reason and the trend is ever downward.

The past is prologue. I’ve got an idea; let’s try to learn something from it.

From the Huffington Post this week we have this entry from one G. Roger Denson, described as an essayist and cultural critic, chastising Facebook for removing a sexually graphic image and suspending the guy who posted it. What makes this little tempest noteworthy is that the image in question is no ordinary camera-phone beaver shot but a 1866-vintage painting by Gustave Courbet, a 19th Century French Realist painter of extraordinary talent.¬† The poster isn’t a precocious 15-year-old prankster but an artist of some reputation by the name of Matthew Weinstien.

Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man) - Gustave Courbet 1843-45

This is controversial because Courbet’s painting, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), is pretty much indistinguishable from a lot of what is historically considered pornography, from the grainy black-and-white Swedish magazines we used to occasionally find in the ditch when we were kids to the millions of internet porn sites available today.

L'Origine du monde (Origin of the World) - Gustave Courbet 1866

Denson is a smart guy. His more recent post on Huffpo on the art of The Left (which I’m going to discuss in a blog post later this week) is brilliant and insightful. On this issue, however, Denson is out to lunch and I think this discussion shows why art has become so disconnected from the lives of ordinary people.

Denson apparently gives a lot of weight to the fact that it’s a Courbet painting at issue and that it was posted by someone he considers a legitimate artist. I’m willing to accept that Weinstein IS a legitimate artist but I’m not sure that’s the point. While Denson denounces Facebook administrators as prudish Philistines, I think they were absolutely right in taking the image down, although I think suspending Weinstien’s account was a bit of overkill.

There is something condescending and sanctimonious in Denson’s position. I would like to see him explain, in practical terms, the difference between Courbet’s painting and the stack of Polaroids in your daddy’s bottom drawer, what makes L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), in his words, “an art-historical icon” and the latter pornographic trash. He may actually have a good explanation but he certainly doesn’t offer it. We’re expected to accept the Art World’s pronouncement of legitimacy.

In the plain language of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, the line Denson is drawing doesn’t exist:

“You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence (emphasis added).

Does the Courbet painting contain nudity? Yes. End of discussion? No. Facebook ultimately caved and issued a inane apology with some ridiculous reference the “real-world nudity,” whatever that is. I wonder if they’ll amend their terms of service to make that distinction. Either way, good luck enforcing that policy now.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t have a problem with graphic sexual imagery. That’s not what this is about. This is about one group of people, in this case, the self-appointed art elite, setting itself apart from the rules that the rest of us are supposed to live by. In a broader sense, it’s the artist’s responsibility to venture into new and uncharted territory, but we’re not talking about a broader sense, we’re talking about a private website with clear and specific rules that’s now expected to bend those rules for someone who’s smarter than everyone else. It’s about treating my 16-year-old niece to Courbet’s iconic art-historical beaver shot because G. Roger Denson says it’s OK.

I’m wondering now what Facebook will do if I decided to post Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic art-historical self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his ass, or maybe one of his more graphic but equally iconic images along those lines. They’ve been pronounced genuine by the Art World, so who am , or they, to argue?