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Railing Opinion: Dore Ashton and Carlos Brillembourg on Post 9/11

Railing Opinion is an open space for dialogue on the current art world. We invite critics, art historians, artists, and viewers to participate.

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Are We Sufficiently Alarmed?

The recent assaults on “public” radio and television in our privatized culture made full use of political jargon that has an ominous history. I noticed particularly the word “liberal.” Have we forgotten that the Nazis used the word to denounce academics and artists (not to mention scientists, as in their denunciation of “liberal biologists,” i.e. Darwinians)? These are dangerous times, and they require alertness, because, as Mr. Rumsfeld reminded us, “stuff happens.” It’s not that it can’t happen here.

So far, the radicalism of the program of the right has not yet effectively dealt with the arts, but the warning signs are now visible. “Liberals” are the enemy. But then, they always were. I cast my mind back to a time when quite a number of distinguished intellectuals were attacked with the label for their interest in a short-lived experiment in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had appointed the well-known priest-poet, Ernesto Cardenal, as Minister of Culture. He wasted no time in inviting artists and writers from all over the world to come and observe the experiment. Naturally, I went. In an interview with Cardenal, I asked him about cultural policy. He laughed and answered that, “The policy is to have no policy.” Those who flocked to observe with their own powers of observation included Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Graham Greene, all of whom wrote accounts of the open character of the Sandinista undertakings particularly in the arts. Naturally they were made fun of in our own press, as were the many students who had traveled to Nicaragua, and whom, I remember, the Times sneered at and called “Sandalistas.”

In my files I discovered that I had clipped an interview re-printed in Nicaragua in English with Graham Greene, April 14, 1988. The headline was: “The Times Refused to Publish a Letter from Graham Greene.” The letter, Greene said, was about the meeting of Western leaders the year before, in which the “big seven” had adopted a declaration against “international terrorism.” This, he said, “Was clearly an effort to justify the bombing of Libya and the dispatch of punitive forces in Nicaragua.” In response, Greene said, he had sent a letter to the Times objecting “to the notion of selective terrorism.” Now that “terrorism” has become a key word in propaganda, Greene’s prescience is obvious.

But it was a different part of the interview that struck home with me:

The terrorism in our time is the legacy of Hitler. If the world is no longer horrified by the massacres of Palestinians in the camps at Sabra and Chatila it is because of the precedent of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. The poison penetrated deeply in Latin America because that was where most Nazi war criminals fled, and, secondly, because that was where U.S. imperialism had ‘vital interests.’ It was difficult for me to return to that new, clean and well cared for Europe which, after recovering from its wounds, had lost its memory.

Apart from Maurice Blanchot, whose last works were replete with warnings that we must not forget the central catastrophe of our time, and whose book The Writing of the Disaster is a tragic testimony of immense power (largely ignored in our academies), very few artists have attempted to convey the magnitude of the events that clearly lead up to Guantánamo and all the other gulags we maintain throughout the world.

This is not to say that I think artists must become “political” artists. But they must remember. Works of the imagination require it. When the real trouble comes, as it did in Germany, the artists who painted flowers were just as condemned as those who painted abstractions.

Want of imagination is certainly one of the causes of brutality, even at the highest levels. I recently re-read Herbert Marcuse’s correspondence with Heidegger immediately after the war. Heidegger’s lack of affect, and above all, imagination, were starkly revealed. Marcuse implored him to make a public renunciation of his Nazi years. Marcuse wrote respectfully: “I myself—and very many others—have revered you as a philosopher and have learned an immeasurable amount from you. But we cannot make the separation between Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the man…” Heidegger replied to Marcuse’s “justified reproach” over what Marcuse described as a regime “that has exterminated millions of Jews, that has made terror a norm and that transformed everything connected to the concepts of spirit, freedom and truth into its opposite,” with an astoundingly inappropriate and unimaginative remark:

I can only add that instead of the ‘Jews’ one should put ‘East Germans,’ and that is even more the case for one of the Allied Powers, with the difference that everything that happened since 1945 is known to all the world, while the bloody terror of the Nazis in reality was kept secret from the German people.

To construe the displacement of Germans geographically with the incineration of Jews as equally criminal is a revelation of Heidegger’s insensibility, his absolute want of imagination. The regime he had joined in 1933 had resolutely attacked the “liberals” who prevailed in the arts and letters of Weimar Germany, and eliminated them from the presses and airwaves within weeks of coming to power. Dare we forget?

—Dore Ashton

On Culture and Freedom

Last month Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a new design for the so-called Freedom tower. When freedom is lost, it goes away in small steps, and this unveiling was not an addition to the great buildings of New York, but the proof we needed to certify all that has been taken away from us—not by Al Qaeda, but by Governor Pataki, his silent accomplice Mayor Bloomberg, and a growing army of fundamentalist and self-righteous citizens. How did we lose the freedom that Jefferson clamored for? Architecture can be a testament to judge the values of a society at any given time: the debacle of “ground zero” is no exception to this rule.

When the LMDC choose the Think team proposal for a cultural center surrounded by commercial buildings, they judged the competition on both the merits of the program proposed and its architectural resolution. Very little time elapsed until the winning design had been branded as a skeleton and one of team members Rafael Viñoly smeared by false accusations. Governor Pataki vetoed the recommendations of his own council and selected the scheme proposed by Libeskind. The choice was easy: Libeskind’s master plan is based on the populist notion of rescuing a sacred ground and in the representation of the tragedy dressed in the clothes of patriotism.

Eventually Libeskind’s role was consumed by the need to transform the kitsch dystopia of his vision into a building. The complicity between the political and the economic produced SOM’s twisted tower—a semi-abstract Statue of Liberty denuded of any Francophilia soaring 1776 feet into the sky.

The cheering stopped when this design was objected to by the Fire Department as being too terrorist friendly. The resulting design, another lackluster space occupying corporate office building forfeiting excellence for the ordinary, is an impressive representation of the repression of freedom and civitas in the name of security, commerce, and blind politics. A concerted effort to underpin the last remaining element of culture left at the site, namely The Drawing Center, was begun in a report and editorial in the New York Daily News attacking the freedom of a cultural institution to “desecrate” ground zero with inappropriate art.

In this progression from catastrophe to proto-fascism, we find the token cultural ingredients: The Freedom Center, The Drawing Center, and the Joyce Theater caught in the middle of the avarice of the lease holder and the heavy-handed opportunism of the governor. The Drawing Center will not compromise its essential task and we the citizens of this marvelous city cannot let these elected officials destroy what has taken generations to build. —Carlos Brillembourg


Dore Ashton

Carlos Brillembourg

Brillembourg is the founder of Carlos Brillembourg Architects in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

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