From the Editor: James Cooper, editor of the American Arts Quarterly, recently argued that there was an “explosion of new realism across the country”—more specifically, a revival of “history painting.” According to Cooper, it involves the restoration of humanism and figuration, filtered through a modern existential understanding of the human condition. Do you agree or disagree?
I disagree because artists committed to figuration in general, and variants of new realism (or even nouveau realisme for that matter) in particular, have always been making significant artwork. Contemporary figurative painters and sculptors seeking to restore humanism by lifting it above the dehumanizing conditions of a modern, existentialist drag have long been on the American scene: consider Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series”; the gritty cityscapes of Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, and Isabel Bishop; George Tooker’s alienated working stiffs; Leon Golub’s Mercenaries; Sue Coe’s graphics; Edward Kienholz’s conceptual tableaux; Marisol’s parodic sculptures; or Kara Walker’s A Subtlety.
Modern, existential understandings of the human condition must be tempered by our contemporary creation of and navigation through new, digital and online personas. We have become, and have been for quite some time now, digital citizens—social-media platforms enable us to meet and interact with others online in ways that are both profoundly complicated and socially unprecedented. And, in doing so, we can transcend national boundaries, bridge ethnic and language barriers, and foster relationships with new “friends” from around the world. Even if we don’t participate in social-media as content-producers, we may find ourselves communicating with non-existential entities as Siri or Alexa; certainly, if one is single and wishes to date others, a digital presence is required. The digital reality of contemporary daily life short-circuits the epic grandeur required for the scale of history painting. But, scale in the digital realm is measured in new ways: by web traffic consisting of hits, likes, and re-sends.
Today, many are both the producers of personal “feeds”—digital crumbs documenting the mundane passages of everyday life—and the consumers of their family and friend’s “feeds”—providing each other unending streams of memes, gifs, texts, and tweets. These fragmented scraps of banal information multiply and accelerate into a flurry of online entertainment that can easily drown out anything resembling sustained analysis or critically engaging with ideas outside one’s own algorithmically-curated information silo.
Ours is an age of digital consumerism—simultaneously compressed and unfolding at hyper-speed; a period of unending ocularcentric spectacles in which existentialist angst is no longer framed by a heightened awareness of one’s own mortality, as it was during the Cold War’s nuclear arms race, but, rather, existentialist angst today is framed by one’s own reaction to the daily outrage. Scale shifts, as the quotidian Trump truncates the epic of history into a trivialization of statecraft (the stuff, or content of history painting). The question, then, is can “history painting” have a place in the digital arena for what constitutes meaningful discourse today? That is, if we are constantly barraged by click-bait headlines found on the pages of myriad digital media news sites, both fake and fact-checked, fringe and respected, can the scale and magnitude of history painting rise above such noise? No, I fear not; just as I hope I’m wrong.
What the visual arts in a digital age can still do, though, is provoke public controversy and stimulate opportunities for meaningful dialogue. So, while the scale of history painting may be very difficult to capture in the trivial trappings of contemporary life, the capacity for some works of art to trigger conversation that generates reflective responses in the twittersphere still occurs. Two events during March forced many of us cultural workers to confront two outrages of the day that dealt explicitly with figurative art—if not history painting specifically: the responses to Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket.
On March 7, one day before “International Women’s Day,” Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl was plopped down at Bowling Green in the Financial district. This bronze statue of a petite tweener depicts her standing with chin up, shoulders back, arms akimbo and skirt waving in the wind. She squares off confidently in front of Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull. Both of these works of art are extraordinary because although they appear as public monuments, neither was commissioned by New York City. In 1989, Di Modica surreptitiously dumped his Charging Bull next to a sixty-foot Christmas tree display on Broad Street near the New York Stock Exchange as a guerrilla art attack—“guerilla,” though it was given in the spirit of a token of good will for the return of a bullish market. This 7,100-pound bronze bull was so adored by the public that it was moved to the Bowling Green, where it has since remained. It is technically on a special permit to remain in New York City, but Di Modica still owns the sculpture.
Similarly, Fearless Girl is actually an advertising stunt organized by State Street Global Advisors. Originally, Fearless Girl had a permit for a one-week display, but given the public’s instant and enthusiastic response, this adorably kitschy urchin was granted permission to remain up for a full year by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decree. The statue’s function is to produce public relations hype which becomes clear as one reads the plaque on the ground below this supposed champion of women’s equality (as if corporate boards were meritocracies): “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” “SHE” is the ticker symbol for an index fund that is reportedly comprised of gender-diverse companies with a high percentage of women in senior leadership positions. But, the threshold does not seem to be terribly high as State Street itself has only five female executives (out of twenty-eight), and three women on its board of eleven directors.1
This has led many to refer to such a sentimental and cloying media stunt as an example of Wall Street “pinkwashing.”2 But, such a backlash of criticism lead directly to a confirmation of the old adage: “any press is good-press.” On April 28, Bloomberg reported: “The marketing and media exposure for State Street Corp., the custody bank that installed the statue for International Women’s Day, is worth 7.4 million dollars, said Eric Smallwood of Apex Marketing, which measures the value of media placement and sponsorships.”3 What cannot be denied is that people are paying attention.
Di Modica wants the statue removed because he believes it alters the meaning of Charging Bull—as if the meaning he intends for his sculpture conforms to that of everyone else who has ever viewed it. Does Fearless Girl alter Charging Bull’s context and imbue it with new interpretive possibilities? Certainly. Here, we have an example of contemporary figuration, but Visbal’s contractual relationship with State Street as “artist-for-hire” to produce media buzz, tarnishes this work’s artistic integrity. But, isn’t Charging Bull also an artist’s prank? Certainly, it is. If not, why did Di Modica unload it under the cover of night? As regards Fearless Girl, Visbal may be the artist, but her patron’s motivation is solely to increase shareholder profit. 21st-century corporate ideology still accords with Charles Sanders Peirce’s “Gospel of Greed”4: “[T]he conviction of the 19th century is that progress takes place by virtue of every individual’s striving for himself with all his might and trampling his neighbor under foot whenever he gets a chance to do so. This may accurately be called the Gospel of Greed.
The rapacious pragmatism of the marketplace trivializes and undercuts any whiff of power this waifish cliché might convey. Apparently, profit accumulates from just the suggestion of girl-power. Fearless Girl is inauthentic, yet any irony the artist intended could only come off as cynical sarcasm. Is Visbal a dupe, merely the designer who casts in bronze her patron’s wishes, or is she a willing State Street conspirator? As a sculptural tableau, though, perhaps together Charging Bull and Fearless Girl—the prank and the ad campaign—in combination aspire to “history painting”—as they remind us, no matter how crassly, of the close and historic relationship between financial markets and thriving art centers.
Open Casket, a painting by Dana Schutz included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, has also been the source of much media buzz since the March 17 opening. Dana Schutz has taken much criticism for using the image of Emmett Till as published in Jet magazine in September 1955. Since the opening of the Biennial, black artists and allies have staged protests by standing in front of the painting so as to block others from viewing it; other artists co-signed an open letter to the Whitney that was written by the U.K.-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black. In her letter, she requested that the painting not only be removed from the Biennial, but that it be destroyed as well. The cause for this hostile reaction to Open Casket is that the artist’s identity is as a white person:
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.5
Yes, Black’s response signals to me that history painting is still being made and striking nerves in audiences who bear witness to it. Maybe this current chapter in history painting bears no resemblance to the experiences of 19th-century academic history painters who commented on the present day events through allegorical allusion to Greco-Roman or Biblical subjects. But, the electric contestation of subjectivity, identity construction and the interlacing of diverse interpretive communities, complicate our collective reaction to this audacious and painful painting. Black, paralleling Di Modica’s response to Fearless Girl, brought increased attention thereby raising our collective awareness of Open Casket: attention attracts more attention. Such controversies force their way into digital discursive spaces that can be accessed widely, even for those of us living far from New York City. Schutz, though, has not moved far from her earliest works which features humans as fragmented, awkward and unflattering, as a quick glance at Sneeze (2001) will attest.
Yes, today’s variant of history painting (and its sculptural equivalent), still resonates nonetheless. Because Géricault took liberty with the traditions of history painting and good taste, criticism followed the unveiling of the Raft of the Medusa,even if it also received praise and adulation. So, too, does Open Casket merit the mixed responses it has received following its unveiling at our culture’s equivalent of an annual salon exhibition—the Whitney Biennial. Only time will tell if Black or Schutz (or both) will be vindicated for the positions they have staked out in this contested discussion of who paints history, whose history should be painted, by whom and for whom. But, if we read this episode through the lens of academic history painting, it reveals once again just how messy, contested, unresolved—and, perhaps, unresolvable—history remains. There can never be one comprehensive and socially-just painting (or recounting) of history, because histories multiply as more are empowered to shape the telling of history and will it to accord with one’s own narrative as grounded in one’s assumptions and needs.
Today, we approach our recent past, especially in this age in which civil rights appear to be in retreat, from myriad vantage points: jaundiced and jaded; vivid if veiled; empathetic or ashamed; sad yet mad; in agony or in peace. Kristen Visbal, Dana Schutz, and Hannah Black may all be working with the best of intentions; let’s hope they are. They may each wish for a more equitable society built on trust, mutual understanding, awareness and compassion. They may come to understand one another, and help us to better understand each other, too. What is certain is that Black, Schutz, and Visbal have sparked conversations that spilled over through many well-trafficked websites, as a quick Google search affirms.
The conversation triggered by Open Casket is not unlike the controversy regarding “SHE” and Fearless Girl. One may argue that neither of these works suffice as an example of history painting, or even attests to an explosion of new realism—or even has anything to do with the restoration of humanism. But, the capacity for figuration to crystalize “the modern existential understanding of the human condition,” is, I believe, evident in these recent outrages of the day.
- Bourree Lee, “About Wall Street’s ‘Fearless Girl,’” The Atlantic, April 14, 2017.
- Emily Peck, “Why the ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is Kinda Bull,” Huffington Post, March 9, 2017.
- Jeff Green, “The Fearless Girl Is Worth $7.4 Million in Free Publicity for State Street,” Bloomberg Pursuits, April 28, 2017.
- Evolutionary Love, The Monist, vol. 3, no. 2, January 1893, 182.
- Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, “Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest,” Artnet, March 21, 2017.