On June 25, the San Francisco School Board voted to destroy Victor Arnautoff’s Depression-era mural series Life of Washington at George Washington High School because it was deemed racist and demeaning. Some students and educators—as well as school board officials, indigenous groups, and various black and Latinx leaders—have singled out two of the murals, which show enslaved Africans and a disturbing image of a dead Indian. The work’s critics argue not only that it depicts history from the colonizers’ perspective but also that such violent images are triggering. The school board’s decision provoked a national campaign in defense of Arnautoff’s work, with proponents citing First Amendment issues, the importance of historical memory, the failure to grasp the radical intent behind the mural series, and the absurdity of spending $600,000 that could have gone to fund arts education to destroy a work of art.
After dozens of editorials, blog posts, petitions, and weeks of rancorous debate, the school board recently struck a compromise that would preserve and digitize the murals but also shroud them behind removable covers. This eminently reasonable solution, however, should not mark the end of what is potentially a fruitful debate over how we interpret the past, who has the authority to do so, and how liberal multiculturalism has shifted our response to historical violence and exploitation. Unfortunately, few on either side of this debate have taken stock of earlier contestations over the murals’ meaning, which bear little resemblance to the current controversy. Looking back at the long fight over Life of Washington exposes a gaping deficit in historical thinking—one that has infected contemporary political discourse and impoverished our capacity to think beyond spectacle.
The urge to capture, whether cactus or city, is far older than any app. Mr. Kovacs knew cactuses would be visually appealing, but he also wanted them to be useful, giving festivalgoers a meeting point and a place to sit in shade.
Architects have always designed spaces to be seen in specific ways: It is only now that everyone has the ability to stop and take the perfect shot. When I visit famous postwar American houses, I often find myself mimicking the vantage points of classic architectural photographers, as if the house is telling me how it wants to be seen. I’ll take that picture, but I will also try to find a detail you notice only when you are on site.
- Liza Kirwin, deputy director of the Archives of American Art (AAA), discusses acquiring important art world papers (they just acquired 250 linear feet of records documenting the business of Andrea Rosen Gallery, which closed in 2017 after 27 years). AAA is infamously picky (and elitist), if you don’t know. She talks to Apollo about the challenges, but I thought the short history was also useful to know:
For the past 64 years. The Archives of American Art was founded in 1954, at the Detroit Institute of Arts (we became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970), and the first gallery records came to us in 1955. Those were the records of the Macbeth Gallery. There were relatively few art dealers in the US before 1900. William Macbeth was the first to devote himself entirely to the sale of American painting and sculpture. [The gallery held Andrew Wyeth’s first solo exhibition, in 1937.] The records of the Macbeth Gallery are unusually complete in correspondence, financial records, and photographs, ranging from the opening of the gallery in 1892 to its closing in 1954. As one of the earliest acquisitions, it formed a foundation for building a complex picture of the US art market.
Today we hold approximately 212 collections that fall in the category of commercial art gallery records, or the papers of art dealers that also include substantive gallery records, providing a staggering quantity of information on the American art market from the late 19th century through the 20th. Of all of our holdings, in terms of extent – that is the size of the collections – gallery records make up about a quarter of our holdings, although we have about 6,000 collections in total.
If one considers our gallery records comprehensively, our greatest strength centres on the market for New York painting and sculpture between 1940 and 1970. We hold extensive, intertwined records for this period, beginning in the 1940s and early ’50s with Kraushaar, Macbeth, Milch, Ferargil, Rehn, Weyhe, Marie Sterner, Downtown, Valentine, Grand Central, ACA, Midtown, and Associated American Artists, among others. Then from the late 1950s through 1970, we offer Willard, Perls, James Graham & Sons, Rose Fried, Tibor de Nagy, Allan Frumkin, Kootz, Betty Parsons, Tanager, Stable, Grace Borgenicht, André Emmerich, Fischbach, Galerie Chalette, Zabriskie, Poindexter, Leo Castelli […] … And we continue to collect every day.
The Southwest has always been a space for psychological and economic negotiation for those who came/come to conquer it. For the economic, the Cities of Gold evolved into extractive mining like coal, uranium, and copper. For the psychological, the desert became synonymous with freedom and danger. An approaching lightning storm, with black thunderheads, is seen as foreshadowing. However, for Diné and the many tribes of this area, a coming storm means, quite literally, life. The rains provide for the crops. This type of recognition and reverence continues today for many communities. Land evolves into time and even discipline. For example, string games, like cat’s cradle, are not permitted during the summer because we learned those games from Spider Woman and we respect the presence of spiders during the summer. A solar eclipse is another example. While Twitter celebrates a visible solar eclipse, most families here fast and stay inside to respect the ceremony of the cosmos. This type of reverence even extends to the creation of art. I learned from Crystal Littleben, Miss Navajo Nation 2017-18 and the program coordinator for the Navajo Cultural Arts Program, that Diné basket makers can’t weave their baskets during the rain. These practices make up my own epistemology and poetics. For me, it was never a question about the role nature plays in my poetry. It will continue to be a crucial space for me to engage with poetry.
Last year, poet and critic Rebecca Watts called out Kaur and her fellow Insta-poets for the “rejection of craft that characterises their work” in a polemic titled “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”. Watts really went in, describing the new fad of Insta-poetry as the “complete rejection of complexity, subtlety and eloquence”.
So what’s going on here? Are Kaur and her cohorts really making meaningful points in a quick, simple way, and deservedly picking up followers off the back of it? Or is their stuff just a load of easily digestible, marketable noise?
To find out, I dived headfirst into the world of Instagram poetry – not as a reader, but as a contender, aiming to write the worst stuff possible. I’m no poet, but that was perfect for my plan: I would pack my page with the most sickeningly trite, cliché and flowery words I could muster. Would I be spotted for the talentless hack I am? Or would I become next best-seller and prove quality doesn’t matter when it comes to Insta-poetry?
Still, there’s a growing consensus on the American left that there’s something wrong about the way we traditionally consume meat—even if the moral logic behind that consensus is hazy and at times contradictory. The more enlightened among us buy eggs, milk, and meat harvested from animals that have, even in death, been treated “humanely.” Embedded within such consumer choices is the assumption these creatures should have a measure of freedom, whether to forage for grass or live outside a cage—and that, in turn, can be construed as a right of sorts, even if a limited one.
Our divided state of mind on just how to understand this inchoate set of rights has produced two schools of thought that alternately overlap and compete with each other: animal welfare vs. animal rights. Welfare proponents believe it’s acceptable to kill animals so long as we don’t do so in an overtly cruel fashion—or so long as their deaths have benefited human life, as in many forms of medical research. Rights activists, meanwhile, believe it’s almost never acceptable to kill an animal and that animal species possess the same basic rights as humans should. As Steven Zak for The Atlantic observed about the new interest in animal rights in 1989, this latter conviction served as “the source of the movement’s radicalism.”
In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and confessed to raping and killing 17 young men and boys, some of whom he then dismembered and ate. The news media soon learned that Mr. Capshaw had been Mr. Dahmer’s roommate in the Army, and descended on Hot Springs, Ark., where Mr. Capshaw lives.
At a news conference before a bank of reporters, Mr. Capshaw described the heavy-metal posters Mr. Dahmer decorated their room with, and the W.C. Fields jokes Mr. Dahmer liked to tell.
But he did not mention the vials of lorazepam and ketamine that he said Mr. Dahmer often used to sedate him. Or the metal bar he said Mr. Dahmer used to beat him, or the motor-pool rope to tie him down, or the scars, still visible on Mr. Capshaw’s cheeks after nearly 40 years, from Mr. Dahmer trying to muffle his screams with a clenched hand.
1. Hans Abrahamsen Let Me Tell You (2013)
2. George Benjamin Written on Skin (2012)
3. Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur (2008)
4. György Kurtág Fin de Partie (2018)
5. Thomas Adès The Tempest (2003)