24 March 2009

stories of art and war

I finished reading Stories of art by James Elkins and started Doves of war: four women of Spain by Paul Preston while I was in Toronto for the VRA conference. Jacquelyn Coutré had recommended Stories of art as one of her favorites among Elkins's books. We both enjoyed his Pictures and tears as well.

In Stories of art, Elkins discusses the writing of art history: as narrative, by theme, including non-western. When I was in Toronto, I was struck by the Art Gallery of Ontario's efforts to shake the rigidly chronological or western telling of the art/culture story. For example, they included a couple vitrines of Chinese snuff bottles in a passage way between earlier and later mostly European decorative arts. In a gallery of Baroque paintings, there was a Kara Walker video installation. Still, I most enjoyed the galleries in the contemporary wing featuring individual artists. The Robert Smithson gallery included several other works including Tim Lee's "Upside down torture chamber" which featured a young man tied up, reading Smithson's collected writings upside down. The cover picture on the book features the reflection of Smithson walking on the Spiral Jetty; what's upside down becomes right side up. Martha Rosler's wonderful pictures of the Bowery with words meaning drunk were also on display in the Smithson gallery. The Gerhard Richter gallery was just Richter but a real treat with a small piano with painted underlid.

Priscilla Scott-Ellis, known as Pip, is the first woman featured in Doves of war. A member of the English elite, she went to Spain to do nursing during the Civil War. She worked hard between moments of relaxation with friends and acquaintances, carried on a mostly unrequited affair with a prince, etc. etc. Oh, she was working on the Franco side. Reading this has led to me reflecting considerably on how your view of a political or cultural situation is dependent on your natural inclinations, your experiences, how you were raised, and probably a bit of randomness. From our historical position now, we rather naturally think that all things Franco were nasty and fascist. Just like most people were ready to totally condemn the terrorists that flew into the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. Excuse me but your terrorist may be my freedom fighter. We have killed more Iraqis since 2003 than the folks that died in the WTC bombing. I'm not trying to justify the 9/11 attacks as anything but horrible but they were part of the general war and violence we humans can't seem to shake. This morning, I noted Slavoj Zizek's Violence and thought it looked like it might be worth reading. He scares me a bit, perhaps too heavy or philosophical. And of course I also wish that I could figure out where the hacek is so that I could do his name with the diacritics.

No comments: