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But Is It Art? 

Abu Ghraib, The WB’s Superstar USA, Black Panthers

Thursday, Jun 10 2004

My first thought on seeing the snapshots emerging from Abu Ghraib was, “Gee, the ’80s revival sure spread fast — these look just like studies for a Joel-Peter Witkin photo.” I heard similar responses: Jim Shaw commented on the similarity to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s long-banned S/M political fable Salo, while others drew comparisons to the death-squad paintings of Leon Golub and the X-portfolio photos of Robert Mapplethorpe. On the surface, this outpouring of “Me Decade” art associations might seem a tad insensitive, or at least politically alienated, but it actually points up a crucial issue regarding the power of images in our culture, and the degree to which that power is usually kept in check.

Making the conceptual link between Abu Ghraib and Postmodern Kink isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual sophistication — remember Rush Limbaugh? Apparently he’s still on the radio, and in the midst of arguing that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the result of women being allowed in combat, he commented, “Maybe you can get an NEA grant for something like this.” Limbaugh went on to quote extensively from American Spectator editor George Neumayr, who asserts in a recent op-ed column, “If Robert Mapplethorpe snapped the photos at Abu Ghraib, the Senate might have given him a government grant. The Senate back then could handle disturbing images and even felt duty-bound to use taxpayer dollars to pick up the tab for them. Who knows, perhaps the photos from Abu Ghraib will reappear as modern art at one of the museums the senators have patronized over the years . . . If the Abu Ghraib incident looks like a demented reality show or one of those Mapplethorpe images they used to subsidize, they should begin the finger-pointing with each other.”

Of course the unspoken mystery word here is “consent,” and if Mr. Neumayr is on shaky ground with his Mapplethorpe bashing, his dig at reality TV is almost apropos — though I hardly think the Senate can bear the full responsibility for the atrocity called The WB’s Superstar USA. Ostensibly a parody of American Idol, this sneering, humorless program came to my attention via the Outsider Music mailing list a while back. As a fan of idiosyncratic amateurs, I had to check it out and was startled by the ugliness of the premise: set up cross-country cattle calls for next big singing superstar and select only the “worst” singers, tell them how “good” they are, make them compete for $100,000 and a recording contract, and make fun of them behind their back until the denouement when they are revealed in all their foolish gullibility in front of a live studio audience. All well and good. But just where do washed-up bush-league dance pabulists like panelists Tone Loc and Vitamin C, not to mention “straight shooter” (and co-producer) Chris Briggs or host Lance Rock Jr., get off dissing the visionary vocal stylings of a Mario, Jojo, or Rosa?

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It may seem trivial or beside the point, but to me it’s a perfect example of a monolithic cultural edifice so confident in the equation between economic clout and quality that it can harness its enormous resources to orchestrate the humiliation of individual creative voices — those who don’t conform to whatever slick, focus-group-determined, cross-branded vanilla dishwater passes for culture this week — without raising a ripple in the calm porcelain bowl of ethical indeterminacy in which it floats. It’s the same process by which almost all noncorporate visual art is trivialized, and individual voices are marginalized as beneath contempt. And it’s precisely why a sudden disruption of the mechanism — such as the Abu Ghraib photos — has such an enormous impact.

For me, the outrage produced mostly skepticism — certainly the shit has hit the fan, but what is it that people think armies do exactly? Distribute powdered milk? Then a couple of things made me realize that the sudden penetration of these images into public consciousness has breached an unspoken barrier. One was seeing Donald Rumsfeld railing — not against the abuses themselves, but the fact that they had been photographed. The other was the May 27 incident in which a San Francisco gallerist was allegedly assaulted for displaying a painting based on the Abu Ghraib imagery, after which she closed her gallery indefinitely. When was the last time you heard of someone getting beat up over a painting? There’s some serious confusion and anxiety about the relationship between art and reality coming to the surface here.

 

With all this swirling around in my head, I went to check out a couple of photo shows at 18th Street Projects in Santa Monica. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of the Black Panther Party is aware that it is rife with controversy, violence and political intrigue. Targeted by the feds’ COINTELPRO program of infiltration, subversion and assassination, the Panthers eventually fell apart in the mid-’70s amid stories of rampant drug use, organized crime, torture and executions. Revisionist historians both left and right have been reconfiguring the Panther mythology ever since. Photographer couple Pirkle Jones and the late Ruth-Marion Baruch, protégées of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston respectively, were given unusual entrée to the Panthers milieu in 1968, resulting in this exhibit. Barely. Scheduled for the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco for December of that same year, it was postponed indefinitely by the powers that be — until the photographers went to the press and got their slot reinstated. The show was a huge success, breaking attendance records and helping to precipitate the armed revolution that finally redressed the racist economic inequalities in American society. Uh wait, let me check my notes . . .

The thing is, looking at these photos now, you’d think it would be difficult to filter out the bleak and ironic historical baggage that clings to the Panther legacy. But it isn’t so. Taken primarily at public rallies to support jailed party co-founder Huey Newton, these images capture a moment of tremendous hope and momentum for social change. Whatever you think of them, the Panthers were the last great public image of African-American consciousness and political engagement, and it shows on the faces in these photographs. It doesn’t hurt that Baruch and Jones were excellent photographers and the Panthers were brilliant visual propagandists. But what comes through most poignantly is that these were real people living their lives, not props in a political shadow play.

The humanizing effect of documentary photography is taken up a notch in Sylvia Sukop’s heart-rending essay on her late brother, Alex, who died in December 2000 of colon cancer at age 19. Following Alex’s diagnosis, Sukop stayed close to him, documenting his life on the Tolstoy Farm, an organic Washington state commune, and following his treatment, physical deterioration and death. We see him glowing with life as he lays out a tray of fresh strawberries to dry, we see his teenage torso mutilated by surgery and tangled in IV feeds, we see him dead. Augmenting this is a cluster of sweet photos from Alex’s childhood, part of a series documenting Sukop’s family from the 1970s on. The sense of mournful identification generated is enormous — this could so easily be you, or someone you love. Yet who could wish for a more loving and dignified sendoff?

Disrupting cultural hegemonies aside, herein lies the real power of the Abu Ghraib photographs — no matter how the prisoners may be verbally demonized, these are pictures of somebody’s brothers, somebody’s children. It sounds corny when you put it in words, but everybody gets the picture.

BLACK PANTHERS and ALEX, AMEN | 18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica | Through July 23

  • Abu Ghraib, The WB’s Superstar USA, Black Panthers

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