This site accompanies the exhibition Position and Imposition: MCAD Faculty Responds to Politics at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. It is a forum for MCAD's Liberal Arts faculty to recommend books, films, and other cultural artifacts that contribute to the dialogue surrounding the exhibition. We invite you to comment on the books, the work in the exhibition, and address how they are part of a larger conversation about art, politics, and society.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ana Lois-Borzi

HOMO SACER: Sovereign Power and Bare Life by Giorgio Agamben

When a text allows me to slowly and painfully crack open my basic conceptions (and some I didn’t even know I had), it opens up distant vistas where the world as I knew it has shifted. The same old world, seemingly solid and impenetrable, becomes slightly porous. HOMO SACER: Sovereign Power and Bare Life by Giorgio Agamben is doing this in the political terrain.

Agamben’s analysis of the constitution of sovereign power, the modern state, the law and their relationship to life is allowing me to understand further how the political realm (in “the state of exception”) makes allowances for torture, nepotism, high-handed policies and corrupt practices. It’s a perfect companion to this season of National Conventions.

[[ Ana Lois-Borzi is an artist and an educator. She has been working with graduate students at MCAD for the last 10 years. Her work has been featured at a number of galleries and spaces throughout the United States and internationally. ]]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ellen Hurst

Lorenzetti frescoes
As a Renaissance art historian, I like to think of how contemporary art and exhibitions relate to much earlier examples of art. “Position and Imposition” calls to mind Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1338-40 frescoes in the Palazzo Publico in Siena, depicting allegories of good and bad government. So often today people forget the political application of Renaissance art, instead focusing on religious and private examples. Lorenzetti’s frescoes help remind us of how symbiotic the relationship between art and politics has been for centuries.

For more, see Joseph Polzer "Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'War and Peace' Murals Revisited:Contributions to the Meaning of the 'Good Government Allegory'" Artibus et Historiae, v. 23, no. 45 (2002): 63-105.

[[ Ellen Hurst is a recent transplant from New York City, where she completed coursework towards her Ph.D. in Art History. Her focus area is Art and Architecture of Mediterranean Europe, 1300-1600, and her dissertation will explore the interaction of Italy and Russia in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. She is excited to be joining MCAD this semester. ]]

Lightsey Darst

In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada by Marjorie Perloff

I'm more interested in the politics OF art than politics IN art. When you choose a way to imagine, make, or present art, you're making a political choice -- and once you realize this, all kinds of new possibilities open before you. This article raises some important questions about authorship and authenticity: in what ways may authors present themselves? whose stories can we use, and how? does authenticity or lack thereof change the value of the work--and if so, how?

[[ Lightsey Darst is in her fourth year of teaching at MCAD. Outside school, she writes dance criticism--for and Mpls-St Paul Magazine--and poetry--for which she received a 2007 NEA Fellowship.]]

Linda Wing

I spent a chunk of this summer reading about and looking at images of Picasso's painting "Guernica" and am amazed by its power and continuing relevance over time and through so many periods of conflict. It took a lot of critical heat for being vague and modern, too political and not political enough, and yet I think it remains one of the clearest statements on the horror of war that we have. Seeing it on display at home in Spain after its long exile would be great, but if that's not feasable, check out "Picasso's Guernica" in Simon Schama's Power of Art (BBC).

[[ Linda Wing has been part of the Liberal Arts Adjunct Faculty at MCAD for several years. She currently teaches Writing for the Arts.]]

Margaret Todd Maitland

How do we get news of the world? Journalism gives facts, but stripped of emotional nuance and sensual detail. So we read about war, suffering, and death as if they were abstractions, wondering why the terrible statistics slide by with only a small jolt to our awareness.

Art, on the other hand, takes us inside experience and makes us feel it. In Carolyn Forché’s prose poem, “The Colonel,” she speaks of atrocity by narrating a small event. Because of her exquisite skill as a poet, we find ourselves in the same room with evil, forced to contemplate the enigma of human cruelty.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I believe that the job of the artist is to explore one’s own experience with all the available tools—imaginative, intellectual, and sensual—and to produce work that forges a vivid, urgent connection with reality. Art is the most complete source of news.

The Colonel by Carolyn Forché
What you have heard is true. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His
daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the
night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol
on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television
was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles
were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his
hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of
lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,
salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed
the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.
The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the
table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on
the table. They were like dried peach halves. There
is no other way to say this. He took one of them in
his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a
water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of
fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,
tell your people they can go f--- themselves. He
swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your
poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor
caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on
the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978, From The Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché.
Note: This is one of a series of poems about Forché’s experience working for Amnesty International in El Salvador in the late 1970s.

[[ Margaret Todd Maitland teaches writing as an adjunct professor in the Liberal Arts Department at MCAD. The former editor of Ruminator Review, she has received fellowships in creative nonfiction from The Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College.]]

Patricia Briggs

Who Cares, essays by Anne Pasternak and Doug Ashford
New York: Creative Time, Inc. 2006

Although it is a good introduction to socially engaged art since the 1980s, Who Cares is focused on the present. Do artists really care about social engagement anymore? This little book is a record of three informal conversations over dinner on this topic. Simply flip through this book and walk away with the names of significant contemporary artists and projects. If you’re already grounded in this area, you will probably enjoy and learn something from the participant’s discussion of commercialization and the Chelsea gallery system, public art projects and city branding campaigns, the status of the visual in spectacle-saturated society, funding political art in the wake of the Patriot Act, and the problem of teaching activist art. Skip Doug Ashford’s over-written introduction and dig right into the conversations which sometimes erupt into intergenerational squabbling.

[[ An Associate Professor in the Liberal Arts Department, Patricia
has been teaching art history and contemporary criticism at MCAD since 1999. An art historian, critic, and independent curator, Briggs has published reviews and essays in journals such as History of Photography, Artforum International, and Public Art Review and has curated exhibitions at the Weisman Art Museum, Plains Art Museum, and MCAD Gallery. Briggs received her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1998.]]

Phil Anderson

My Draft Card, 1973
This is not a ‘cultural artifact’ in the usual sense. It’s a government document. The “4-W” classification shows that I spent 2 years working as a Conscientious Objector to military service.

What I did – work as a hospital clerk for two years – wasn’t heroic, like the battle service of other men my age. But I didn’t begrudge the two years of “imposition;” I was drafted like any of the soldiers.

Then, and today, my “position” is to honor some kind of a draft as an acceptable common obligation – but for ALL young Americans, and applied to MANY kinds of social or cultural service. We have a good country, we do owe it something, and 18 months or 2 years out of a young man or woman’s life should be an acceptable “imposition”. Why only kill when you can also serve?

My Great-Grandfather's Naturalization Document
The only thing artful about this is John Burt’s handwriting – he was a mere harness-maker, but look at that calligraphy!

The document shows that this Canadian immigrant, born to parents themselves emigrated from England, has chosen to renounce allegiance to Queen Victoria. This still seems dramatic to me, since it gets to the heart of a “position” all Americans implicitly enjoy, which is one of personal freedom.

John Burt moved to Duluth most likely for economic reasons, and his daughter – my grandmother – left school at 15. But his later descendants became college graduates. His own mute declaration of the position of freedom should remind us what many other, more recent, immigrants also seek and sacrifice, whether they admit it overtly or not. Like him and them, do we still choose to be here?

[[ Professor Phil Anderson has taught steadily at MCAD since 1979; since 1999 he has been full-time faculty. From 1978-99 he was a freelance writer and critic, appearing in City Pages weekly and multiple regional and national publications, including The Boston Globe and USA Today Weekend magazine. In 1993, he was a Fulbright Lecture/Research Fellow in Norway, and for the past two years has delivered papers at the Society for Animation Studies conferences in Portland, Oregon and Bournemouth, England. This fall he is teaching a course on American history of the 20th Century. ]]

Ruth Voights

Native American powwows are a people’s art form that in performance are also political statements. When ceremonies were outlawed, people risked jail to sing and dance. The songs, dances, ceremonial dress of powwow all work together to maintain identity. There is a saying in powwow that the drum is the heart. When you participate in powwow, you as an individual symbolically connect to the body of tribal history, the personal and the political become one. The power of powwow is the power of song and dance to carry the heart of a people!

It is best to attend a powwow but a resource is:
“Into the Circle: An Introduction to Native American Powwows”. prod. Full Circle Communications. 52 minutes. 1992. Videocassette.

If you'd like, please leave a comment to share a song or music that connects you to your own political history.

[[ Ruth Voights has taught in the liberal arts department at MCAD for more than 30 years, and in the 1980s she was the department’s first woman chair. Prior to that she was a student, instructor, and curriculum writer for the American Indian Studies program at the University of Minnesota, one of the first programs of its kind in the country.]]

Thomas Haakenson

Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America
(ISBN-10: 0618641831)

Nick Kotz’s history of the debates about and passage of the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s provides a window into the challenges of achieving legal equality in a democracy rife with competing beliefs, ideologies, and prejudices. Kotz’s study showcases the wonderful aspects of democracy – cooperation, community-building, and hope – even as it reveals how demanding and distorting the mechanisms of democracy themselves can be. By focusing on King’s struggles to control and direct the movement for racial equality and in highlighting Johnson’s demanding personae and impressive political abilities, Judgment Days proves itself worthwhile reading for history fans, political theorists, and all those interested in justice and equality.

Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale
(ISBN-10: 0679406417)

Spiegelman’s graphic novel, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, is amazing in its simplicity. I remember reading the text for the first time, and realizing what perfect sense Spiegelman’s choice of medium made: the graphic novel as an art form might be the ideal way to communicate the emotion and felt bodily responses we have to historically difficult or political vexing problems. One gets the feeling of anxiety from the novel, recognizing how the Jews and others victims of Nazi persecution must have operated in a constant state of fear prior to and during World War Two. Anyone who doubts the importance of the graphic novel as a way of communicating charged political, historical stories is in for a surprise. Spiegelman’s more recent work on the terrorist attacks of September 11th, titled In the Shadow of No Towers, repeats this idea of graphic novel as an ideal art form for conveying the emotions of politics and of history.

Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen’s Monument to Gay Victims of the Holocaust
(Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany)

Officially unveiled during a public ceremony in late May of 2008, Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen’s monument to gay victims of the Holocaust occupies a simultaneously public and removed place on the southeast edge of Berlin’s Tiergarten. The dark gray, box-like structure echoes the design of the nearby memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Yet its windowless walls and unmarked edifice are dwarfed directly to the north by the Branderburger Tor and rendered visually inconsequential by the bright lights and spectacular displays of the Potsdamer Platz shopping district directly to the south. Incorporating the juxtaposition of haptic and optic modes of knowledge outlined in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” the monument’s designers seek to familiarize the unfamiliar visitor to the invisible past through recourse to the visual present. To some extent, Dragset and Elmgreen’s monument serves its dual function: to provide incentive for further historical education and to illuminate the confounded place sexuality plays even today. Yet, as Benjamin reminds us, using haptic modes of knowledge to awaken our eyes to the habitually unseen can have both positive and problematic repercussions.

[[ Thomas O. Haakenson completed his doctorate at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature in July of 2006. His dissertation, "Grotesque Visions: Art, Science, and Visual Culture in Early-Twentieth-Century Germany," critically examines developments in the artistic avant-garde, particularly in Berlin, through the lens of scientific developments in optical technologies. He has published and has articles forthcoming from Cabinet, New German Critique, The Rutgers Art Review, and the anthology Legacies of Modernism, among others. He has received numerous research awards and residency fellowships from several national and international venues: the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Social Science Research Council, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, and others.]]

Thomas Pope

The first great cultural artifact is also the greatest cultural artifact -- The Iliad, by Homer. Not only is it the greatest long poem ever written, the mid-wife to history, the precursor to the novel, and the truest war story ever conceived, it is also the first examination of (indeed, it is the inventor of) individual personalities, and of how their interactions affect and define political decisions. Homer's astounding ability to mix great events with specific personalities, the large with the small, lends a tragic perspective to all human endeavors. It shows how hard-edged poltitical decisions are typically informed by individual ego, the heroic with the tragic, the magnificent with the pitiable, in a manner which is at once hypnotic in its rhythms, and majestic in its sweep.

[[ Thomas Pope has worked for 30 years as a professional screenwriter. He has worked with Francis Coppola, Ridley Scott, Robert Redford, Frank Oz, Penny Marshall, Wim Wenders and many others. He has worked on Someone to Watch Over Me, F/X, Lords of Discipline, Hammett, and many others. His book, Good Scripts, Bad Scripts, examines good and bad screenwriting. He was script consultant and co-producer on Sweet Land, which was on numerous top ten lists in 2007.]]

William Alexander

Shakespeare is magnificently political. We revere the playwright as the untouchable and transcendent bard, but he was also a part of the ordinary interactions, negotiations and dangers of his day—and ours. He tackled radical gender politics and the fallibility of monarchs.

In Measure for Measure, premarital sex becomes a capital crime. The governor enforcing this law against amorous citizens ends up falling for a girl as severe as he is, and suffers a crisis of conscience. Rather than relaxing the law, he tries to blackmail the girl into secretly sleeping with him, thereby diving into the same sort of hypocrisy which currently plagues homophobic politicians in airport restrooms.

It's possible to sum this up as a solid political stance: Puritans are bad. Will Shakespeare probably thought so (they kept trying to shut down his theatre). But the characters in Measure who speak most eloquently against puritanical laws are the pimps and madams that the laws put out of business—they act out of self-interest, and the playwright himself keeps his head down.

Shakespeare's politics are so very slippery to specify, not because he rises above the vulgar negotiations between ourselves and each other, but because he is too immersed in them, too much a part of that magnificent mess.

[[ William Alexander is a fiction writer, an editorial assistant at Rain Taxi Review of Books, and an adjunct faculty member of the MCAD Liberal Arts department. One of his Life in Art courses focuses on William Shakespeare, severely stretching the course description of "a contemporary artist."]]