Sunday, January 24, 2010

truth be told: the haitian earthquake in retrospect...

In the latter decade of the 18th Century, the British attempted to wrest control from the French of the richest colony in the Americas, Hispanola. The French Revolution, this epic transformation of feudal, aristocratic, and religious privileges, was considered a window of opportunity by the British. The Revolution and the British incursion combined to destabilize Saint Domingue (the French half of the island), creating the conditions necessary for the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and the only successful slave-led revolution in history, the Haitian Revolution.

Haiti was only the second independent nation in the Americas (after the United States) and the first independent modern African state. Both the French maritime bourgeoisie (re: Napoleon) and the plantation-based colonial bourgeoisie had powerful vested interests in the institution of slavery, the former in the actual slave trade and the latter in the profit margin they sweat out of free labor. Loyalists of the French monarchy in the colony formed an alliance of convenience first with free blacks and mulattos, and finally with rebel slaves, for added strength to resist the rebellious bourgeoisie.

It should not surprise anyone who understands history that the revolutionaries of France and America fought for their economic emancipation from feudal monarchs at the same time the clung ferociously to the institution of slavery on which they had built the very fortunes and power they needed to overthrow feudalism. For example, in August, 1862 Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, who published an open letter insisting President Lincoln free the slaves immediately. In Lincoln's reply he wrote "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also so that". Lincoln objective was to save the Union, not to either save or abolish slavery.

The terrifying example, from the point of view of slave holders from the United States to Brazil, of a slave revolution, and the dismemberment of slavery’s supporting ideology by this dazzling display of African brilliance in the systematic defeat of three powerful white Western European nations, led slave-dependent Britain, France, and the United States to economically isolate Haiti. This further stifled Haiti’s economic development, and rendered Haiti vulnerable to a variety of forms of economic blackmail that continually drained her treasury. This was the first in a series of external factors contributing to backward development in Haiti.

The former slaves who fought for their freedom in St. Domingue were not historical materialists, and the question of whether capitalism was progress over feudalism did not enter their thinking. Consequently, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines lashed the revolution forward to independence, he declared a kingdom, and a semi-feudal economic system was adopted. Toussaint L'Ouverture and Dessalines quickly realized that the key to Haitian development throughout colonial rule had been the plantation system, and for many, post-Indepedent life in Haiti remained much the same.

Haiti’s post-revolutionary economic system placed a vast number of peasants on land owned by gentry. Landowners collected a share of the land’s produce in exchange for tenancy-a sharecropping system. In many respects, it was a system like that in the Southern United States. To understand political forces in Haiti today, it will be helpful to draw some further comparisons to the history of the Southern United States. Former slaves in the South who adopted sharecropping were beholden to a land-holding class in a relationship that was feudal in the sense of the tenant proffering a share. Wage labor was not employed in the production process. The instruments of production were simple, and the rate of accumulation remained slow to stagnant.

As industrial production was more rapidly introduced into the South, a conflict developed between the up-and-coming industrial bourgeoisie and the planter class over access to labor. There was a period of rapprochement in which planters were ceded black labor on tenant farms and poor whites were the province of industrial capital. But industrial capital is restless. Like a shark, if it stops it expires, and eventually industrial capital needed to reach into a new pool of black labor. The government, led by George Washington, advanced the French planters $726,000, sold them arms and ammunition, American merchants sold them food, and some Americans even fought against the rebels. But “the official government aid, however, came to an end in 1793 when the planter regime in the colony collapsed and the blacks established control over most of the island.” And in 1798, at Toussaint’s request, the Congress even authorized President John Adams to reopen trade with Haiti, a provision embraced by the Federalists, even southerners, and opposed by Republicans. All of that began to change when Thomas Jefferson became president.

Jefferson was terrified that the creation, and flourishing, of a black republic in the New World would serve as a model for the rebellion of America’s own slaves; and that, at all costs, would be unacceptable. “When news of the slave revolt reached the United States,” Hickey writes, “the first impulse of the Federalist administration was to aid the white planters”. As early as 1793, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe that “Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man...I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India Island will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac), have to wade through and try to avert them”. Two years later, in a letter to Aaron Burr, Jefferson compared the Haitians to assassins and referred to them as “Cannibals of the terrible republic”.

Slaveowner himself, Thomas Jefferson feared that a successful Haitian revolution would threaten the stability of slavery: “If something is not done, and done soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children”. By 1802, Jefferson’s worst fears had come true: the “course of things in the neighboring islands of the West Indies,” he wrote to Rufus King in July, “appears to have given considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves...a great disposition to insurgency has manifested itself among them”.

By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862. What happened in the 1804-1820 period set the tone for Haiti's future and is directly responsible for much of her misery. The former slaves ran away from the lowlands, the plantations, away from the cruel rulers who would have effectively enslaved them again. They ran to the mountains where they would be safe from the soldiers and police of the realm. And here they have in large measure remained. This pattern of relocation has defined several aspects of Haitian life which undermine the development of a healthy economy. Today, only a mere 5% of the population control an estimated 80% of the Haiti's wealth.

To make matters worse, in 1825 France, which was being encouraged by former plantation owners to invade Haiti and re-enslave the Blacks, issued the Royal Ordinance of 1825, which called for the massive indemnity payments. In addition to the 150 million franc payment, France decreed that French ships and commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti would be discounted at 50 percent, thereby further weakening Haiti's ability to pay. The abolishment of tariffs and special treatment of goods from certain countries is a technique still utilized by World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural readjustment plans to devastating effect. According to French officials at the time, the terms of the edict were non-negotiable and to impress the seriousness of the situation upon the Haitians, France delivered the demands by 12 warships armed with 500-plus cannon.

The 150-million-franc indemnity figure was based upon profits earned by the colonists, according to a memorandum prepared by their lawyers. In 1789, Saint Domingue (all of Haiti and Santo Domingo) exported 150 million francs worth of products to France. In 1823 Haitian exports to France totaled 8.5 million francs, exports to England totaled 8.4 million francs, and exports to the United States totaled 13.1 million francs, for a total of 30 million francs.The lawyers then claimed that one half of the 30 million francs went toward the costs of production, leaving 15 million francs as profit. The 15 million franc balance was multiplied by 10 (10 years of lost revenues for the French colonists due to the war for liberation), which coincidentally totals 150 million francs, the value of exports in 1789.

To make matters worse for Haiti, the French anticipated and planned for Haiti to secure a loan to pay the first installment on the indemnity. Haiti was forced to borrow the 30 million francs from a French bank that then deducted the management fees from the face value of the loan and charged interest rates so exorbitant that after payment was completed, Haiti was still 6 million francs short. The 150-million-franc indemnity also happened to represent France's annual budget and 10 years of revenue for Haiti. One study estimates the indemnity was 55 million more francs than was needed to restore the 793 sugar plantations, 3,117 coffee estates and 3,906 indigo, cotton and other crop plantations destroyed during the Haitian struggle for independence.

By contrast, when it became clear France would no longer be in a position to capitalize on further westward expansion in the Western hemisphere, they agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory, an area 74 times the surface area of Haiti, to the United States for just 60 million francs, less than half the Haitian indemnity. Even though France later lowered the Haitian indemnity payment to 90 million francs, the cycle of forcing Haiti to borrow from French banks to make the payments chained the nascent Black nation to perpetual poverty. In fact, Haiti did not finish paying the indemnity owed to  until 1947.

According to the Haitian government's reparations booklet, the immediate consequence of the debt payment on the Haitian population was greater misery. The first thing President Jean-Pierre Boyer did to help pay the debt was to increase from 12 to 16 percent all tariffs on imports to offset the French discount. The next step Boyer took was to declare the indemnity to be a national debt to be paid by all the citizens of Haiti. Then he immediately brought into being the Rural Code. The dreaded Rural Code laid the basis for the legal apartheid between rural and urban society in Haiti. With the Rural Code, the economically dominant class of merchants, government officials and military officers who lived in the cities legally established themselves as Haiti's ruling class.

Under the Rural Code agricultural workers were chained to the land and allowed little or no opportunity to migrate within the country. Socializing was made illegal after midnight, and the Haitian farmer who did not own property was obligated to sign a three-, six- or nine-year labor contract with large property owners. The code also banned small-scale commerce, so that agricultural workers would produce crops strictly for export, similar to the post-Civil War sharecropping methods of production in the American South. The Haitian Rural Code was all embracing, governing the lives not only of farmers but of children as well. The Rural Code was specifically designed to regulate rural life in order to more efficiently produce export crops with which to pay the indemnity. The taxes levied on production were also used predominantly to pay down the debt owed France rather than school construction or providing social services to the Haitian populace.

The imposition of French language within the country is an immediate cause of Haiti's misery. French is the official language of the country. All state business is carried on in French, the schools educate mainly in French. Social prestige and mobility is related to the ability to speak French. Yet only about 10% of the people can even get along in French, with less than 5% knowing the language fluently. Creole is the language of the masses, with nearly 100% of the Haitians speaking and understanding it as their mother tongue. The road to social, economic and intellectual development is reserved to the speakers of French, while the masses are kept in their misery because their language is not recognized nor allowed as an official language. Creole is not a patois or dialect of French. It is a recognized language in its own right, with its own syntax which is significantly different from French. The Creole grammar is rooted in Central African languages, though most of its vocabulary is influenced by French.

The Haiti state following Duvalier included a nation trying to deal with repression on a scale most never know. The Duvalier dictatorship was allowed to expropriate approximately $900 million USD over the 29 years of their reign. After their departure former tonton macoutes agents fought over control over the vacuum of power that occurred. Haiti, following Duvalier’s exile, was placed into a state of chaos, something it had been used to in the years leading up to Aristide’s election. In 1971, the US restored its aid program to Haiti to ease suffering, but outbreaks of disease and the epidemic of AIDS only unleashed a furthering of the decay to a fragile society. Duvalier had used the treasury as his own and left Haiti poor, a remnant that Haitians are still trying to deal with to this day.

Tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured, wrongfully accused – and seething. This has a snowball effect into education, literacy (only around 25%), job creation and growth and stability of the family and culture norms. This created the military-industrial-complex of sorts on Haiti following Duvalier’s collapse. The military was intimately tied with the ruling aristocracy and became, for some, a way out of the slums. This was the Haiti that ratified its constitution in 1987, setting up a fairly predictable representative government based around a bicameral government with a president and prime minister. Haiti, following the dictatorships, was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As mentioned above, the elite from which “Papa Doc” Duvalier came from, constituted 5% of the Haitian population and controlled most of its wealth (an epidemic which still exists today- recent clashes occurring as late as April of 2008). The business deals and natural resources were secured for the elite at the expense of the civilian population, it would not be too much to call them “the poor”.

This money, to the tune of $550 million in 10 years, was used to fund trips, homes, yachts, and parties (85% of the population of 7 million [in 1992] lives in poverty). Haiti had long been exploited, by foreign powers, neighbors and its own rulers. France not only milked Haiti for coffee and sugar production but also extracted an indemnity from it: the young nation had to pay a burdensome sum to its former colonizer in order to achieve France’s diplomatic recognition. This was the setting for a country that waded through an equally autocratic and unstable series of interim governments in preparations for elections in 1990. This was the country that elected, with 67% of the vote, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, who would become the country’s first democratically elected president, ever. Leading Haitian activists in the U.S. claim that between 1804 and 1990, when President Aristide was first elected, a grand total of 32 high schools were built in Haiti, all within urban settings. Since then, more than 200 have been built, they say, most in the countryside. To this day, the discrimination between rural and urban areas takes the form of color discrimination by light-skinned Blacks toward darker-skinned Blacks, and it remains entrenched.

In the end I am left to ponder what role did the world’s super powers play in burying Haiti before the Earthquake, and what sort of role will we now play in digging her and our own collective human soul out of the rubble? The use of the military and intelligent sources in order to keep authority. Truth be told, The United States does not believe in popular democracy that challenges the economic authority of the United States. Pentagon official says there are some 11,500 U.S. military personal in Haiti or offshore and 16,000 are expected by week’s end. What you have in Haiti is a well-funded and armed elite that controls the major industries of Haiti. Industries such as sweatshop manufacturing where laborers are paid approximately 50 cents USD a day; industries that thrive upon political instability and weak infrastructure that prevent effective tax collection and financial distribution. Aristide representing a threat to the hegemonic global economic status quo that would threaten U.S. economic interests.

A shift from abject misery to dignified poverty- The Promise of Jean-Baptiste Aristide

Haiti was supposed to turn 200 years old in 2004 with pomp and celebration as the first black republic in the history of the world. In addition to trying to raise the daily minimum wage in Haiti, former President Aristide attempted to secure reparations from France, in the amount $21,685,135,571.48, at 5 percent annual interest. In this era of multibillion-dollar bailouts of private banking institutions, $22 billion should scarcely raise a Western European eyebrow. But to Haiti, the sum would be a godsend. In 2004, at the time of the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence, the Haitian government put together a legal brief in support of a formal demand for "restitution" from France. The sum sought was nearly $22 billion, a number arrived at by calculations that included a notionally equitable annual interest rate.

Yet things turned out differently, and the 200th anniversary of Haiti holds the same overtones as Haiti in 1804, as Saint-Domigue in 1680. It began with unrest in the cities in the Fall of 2003- some could see it as a response to prices or food or, as the people of Haiti should be, just fed up with the system. But this unrest broke out into violence in the days leading up to January 1- the date that Haiti became an independent nation. In accords, as if on schedule, CARICOM members (members of the Caribbean community) all abstained from the celebration- boycotting the events in response to the regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Former president Mbeki of South Africa, one of the major CARICOM members who attended, compared Aristide to Nelson Mandela to much criticism. Haitian artists including Franketienne, Gary Victor, Lannec Hurbon, Dany Laferriere, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot boycotted as well, stating:

In the face of this slide toward totalitarianism, we, artists, writers, intellectuals, and educators, declare: that we refuse to associate ourselves with official celebrations through which the government seeks in vain to legitimize itself. This refusal to associate ourselves with the government is not an opposition to Haitian unity, but on the contrary a defense of it.

On February 5, 2004, the city of Gonaives was taken over by a gang known as the “Cannibal Army” (now National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti) in retaliation for its believed involvement of Aristide in the death of their leader Amiot Metayer. From this takeover came support, as Dominican Republic convoys rode into Gonaives and other cities to offer assistance, something it is believed the rebels did not predict. On February 22, the rebels took over Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. They were closing in on Port-au-Prince.

A crisis was declared. CARICOM tried to mediate this conflict with the US, Britain, France, and Canada. On February 29, President Aristide resigned the presidency, was flown to the Central African Republic on a U.S. military aircraft, and has been in South Africa ever since late 2004. He told viewers in Haiti that his leaving was “a modern way to have a modern kidnapping.” He told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!: “No, I didn’t resign. What some people call ‘resignation’ is a ‘new coup d’état,’ or ‘modern kidnapping.” According to Peter Hallward, who immensely cites evidence in his book Damning the Flood, the events in Haiti were indeed a modern coup backed by the US government.

In a sense, despite the leftist intentions and solidarity with the poor and the international sanctions – these past 5 years have only risen Aristide’s standing within Haiti. President Aristide demanded land reform, alienating the weakening but still powerful grandons, and he demanded that corporations pay their back taxes and raise the minimum wage from $5 a week approximately to $5 a day, thereby igniting the wrath of the bourgeoisie. He paraphrases Toussaint L’Ouverture:

I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, 
but it will grow back because the roots are Louverturian.
(the original: “In overthrowing me, they have uprooted in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of the liberty of the blacks; it will grow back because its roots are deep and numerous.”)

That being said, there is enough blame to go around. Both internal and external forces within Haiti have led to the current sociopolitical and economic status of Haiti relative to the rest of the Western hemisphere and the world. In this one superpower age, it’s important to identify those struggles which have the most capacity for effective resistance. Haiti is one of those places. Not only because it is the home of the world’s first successful slave-led revolution, but because today the Haitian people have been able to maintain the will to resist on every level, politically, culturally, and economically. Through a combination of both high-intensity and low-intensity warfare, the will to resist has been diffused for the time being throughout most of the Americas. Earthquakes alone do not create disasters of the scale now experienced in Haiti. The wealthy nations have for too long exploited Haiti, denying it the right to develop in a secure, sovereign, sustainable way. The global outpouring of support for Haitians must be matched by long-term, unrestricted grants of aid, and immediate forgiveness of all that country’s debt. Given their role in Haiti’s plight, the United States, France and other industrialized nations should be the ones seeking forgiveness.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

death in two parts (part two)...

Death has always been a subject that has fascinated me and has recently become a focus of my painting and my writings at university. Not on some obsessive 2pac "I feel death around the corner"trip, but I have had friends that have passed away at my young age and, more importantly, loved ones whom have passed on. Am not scared of it but rather cautious and, much like anyone else, I would like to confront those final moments and years on my own terms. So I have imagined how best to confront death in a battle we will all lose, 300 (the movie) style.

Fast forward to the late 2000's, perhaps 2060 or so...

1) I will go to Paris, if I am not already living there at the time,

2) I will head to Pont Notre-Dame (or Le Pont Mirabeau), with one of my children, grandchildren, assistant, or by myself if need be,

3) If I am able-bodied enough I will climb to the edge of the bridge, which stands approximately 20 meters from the water and I will jump off..

Simple as that. But come on, is that anyway for an artist to die on his own terms? Maybe, but not this artist.

I have a favorite color. It's Cerulean Blue and until the last month I was the only person I knew that held that same color in similar regard. While technically not exactly a shade of blue that qualifies as a primary color, who cares? Am going to take Cerulean Blue, Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red, either acrylic or oil or even tempura paint, and strap it to my body in some form or fashion. And then I will jump in the Seine. Oh wait, before that happens I need to add some small explosive charges to the tubes. And one large one for myself. There's no way am going to drown, or hit the water and then suffer a broken and slow death. Not I.

So this is how I imagine it, right before hitting the water perhaps a second or so at the least, which is approximately nine feet from the surface, I would ideally have someone detonate all four explosive charges so that I disappear into a mist of primary colors. "Man Jumps Off Bridge, No Splash!" will read the headlines of Le Monde and Le Figaro the next day. Eat your heart out David Blaine! Top that Dalí! Ideally, it would be filmed and will live on as an ultimate expression of performance art and sacrifice for my craft. The final triumph of three primary colors that have haunted my efforts since the age of three to bend them to my will and create art.

These events all presume that I have some incurable disease, which as a resident of the United States, is a very real possibility since most of us NEVER go to the doctor since we cannot afford it. Hopefully no random taxi, bullet, heart attack, stroke or other anticipated event rushes me off the stage of life unexpectedly. But that being said, these are my wishes. In the meantime I shall live fearlessly and travel the world with reckless abandon in pursuit of my dreams. Imagining the day when I will float down the Seine as colored pigments, travelling along the banks of my favorite arrondissements, then out to the sea, travelling freely as i did in life, without a need for visas or passports, the hassle of stupid airports security agents or confined to the timetables and schedules of commercial airlines. In death, I shall experience a true sensation of freedom, fuck a constitution or national/religious doctrine.

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity...
~Edvard Munch

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

death in two parts (part one)...

"Death is never a trick; nature doesn’t play a comedy; instead,
it’s a tragic, colossal and unstoppable drama"...

~Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, German philosopher

I went to Canada the last week of 2009, it was beyond cold, the kinda cold where you imagine you might die from the elements. So I thought about it and I realized, almost to my surprise, that I would not have traded it in for another life. There had been disappointments, to be sure, but my life appeared to me to have been a meaningful one, a life I did not regret. This is not to say that I was not nearly paralyzed with fear by some of the close calls I have had in my life. Episodes in El Barrio in the early 1990s, encounters in Brasil, drama in Barcelona with some Moroccans that could have ended ugly. I was. At the same time, strangely, my life appeared to me as worth having lived.

There are two lessons here. The first, and most obvious one, is that death is terrifying. Here in the United States, we have the technology to defer death, so we often pretend it will never really happen to us. There is always another procedure, always a cure in sight if not in hand besides the whole "I cannot afford it because I do not have health care" thing. But in our sober moments we recognize that we will indeed die, and that we have precious little control over when it will happen. But if we did not die, if our existence did not unravel in the endless darkness of death, would life be quite so precious, so extraordinary, so moving?

The harm of death goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. We are, in essence, forward-looking creatures. We create our lives prospectively. We build relationships, careers, and projects that are not solely of the moment but that have a future in our vision of them. One of the reasons Eastern philosophies have developed techniques to train us to be in the moment is that that is not our natural state. We are pulled toward the future, and see the meaning of what we do now in its light.Death extinguishes that light. And because we know that we will die, and yet we don’t know when, the darkness that is ultimately ahead of each of us is with us at every moment. There is, we might say, a tunnel at the end of this light. And since we are creatures of the future, the darkness of death offends us in our very being. We may come to terms with it when we grow old, but unless our lives have become a burden to us coming to terms is the best we can hope for.

The second, less obvious lesson of this moment of facing death is that in order for our lives to have a shape, in order that they not become formless, we need to die. This will strike some as counterintuitive, even a little ridiculous. But in order to recognize its truth, we should reflect a bit on what immortality might mean. Immortality lasts a long time. It is not for nothing that in his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges pictures the immortal characters as unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.

And when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. It may well be that life is not long enough. But it is equally true that a life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments. It would become boring, but more deeply it would become shapeless. Just one damn thing after another. This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away. It gives us the promise of each moment, even as it threatens to steal that moment, or at least reminds us that some time our moments will be gone. It allows each moment to insist upon itself, because there are only a limited number of them. And none of us knows how many.

I prefer to think that the paradox of death is the source not of despair but instead of the limited hope that is allotted to us as human beings. We cannot live forever, to be sure, but neither would we want to. We ought not to mind the fact that we will die, although we really would rather that it not be today. Probably not tomorrow either. But it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit. Death takes away from us no more than it has conferred: lives whose significance lies in the fact they are not always with us. Only Life will reign supreme, the Life of the Beyond, the Life of the ever transcending Beyond. This life is not and cannot be the sole monopoly of an individual. No. Each human being is to be flooded with this Life of the ever-transcending Beyond, for it is here in this Life Divine that God will manifest Himself unreservedly-here, here on earth. Our happiness lies in being able to inhabit that fact..."For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?" (Kahlil Gibran).

Monday, January 04, 2010

cercle et carré (or circle and square)...

My formal art education consisted of the "greats". That meant Picasso, Dali, Degas, Monet, Velázquez...all European, all men. That is what Cooper Union in New York City taught me. Art was never the graffiti I saw in books like Subway Art or at the NYC Graffiti Hall of Fame, which was in the courtyard of my high school. The art of NYC in the 1980's was that of Basquiat, Haring, and Kenny Scharf. Not only the downtown art scene of Warhol but also Case 2, Phase 2, Crash, Ezo, Seen, Taki 183, Dondi, Haze, and Burn1. What is considered "classic" could also serve as a dividing line between the "classist" world of art dealers, agents, galleries, and museums and the art brut, naïve art, and art primitif of "urban" (re: non-European or conventional) artist.

I grew up buying fat and skinny caps from stores in Queens and Montant paint markers from Bomb the System/Scrapyard NYC in Lower Manhattan before acrylic paints and linen canvases ever entered my life. I was fascinated by the graffitied trains from the early 1980's, the colors, burners, whole cars, throw-ups, tags and the skill required to control the flow of condensed/pressurized paint. But most of all, these graffiti artists, which include Basquiat, looked like me and spoke like me. Even as a young child I was aware of the inferiority complexes that mass-mediated culture and the status quo tried to push upon individuals. I knew of, and lived within the world described by Frantz Fanon before being aware of who a Frantz Fanon was.

But by the late 1990s, after NYC trains were replaced by stainless-steel exteriors and the dreaded "buff monster" acid bath that tagged trains were given daily, meant that achieving artist notoriety would have to be achieved in some other form. So on to the next one...did an internship with James DeLaVega, out here in New York City and began painting on canvases, eventually studying art in Madrid in between Marketing degrees and grad school. But who would be the prototypical third-world genius who I would refer to, and claim as my own. Not necessarily the most well-known or popular but one that would constantly serve to inspire me throughout the years. I found him while out studying abroad in Barcelona at El Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

There he was on the wall (well, his work at least): a pioneer of modernism, Joaquin Torres-García who was born in Montevideo in 1874 of a Catalan father and Uruguayan mother. His family moved to Spain in 1891 and settled in Barcelona. Torres-García studied at the Escuela Oficial de Bellas Artes de Barcelona (the "Llotja"), (where all the bourgeois Catalans hung out) and at the Academia Baixas. He was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and Ramon Casas, part of the bohemian milieu of the café Els Quatre Gats. In 1903 Torres-García assisted Antoni Gaudi with stained-glass windows for the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca and later with the windows for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

On April 30, 1934, when he arrived in Montevideo after forty-three years of absence, Torres-García told the press that he had returned to Uruguay in order to "develop a wide range of activities, to lecture, to teach courses, to achieve...on walls what I have already achieved on create in Montevideo a movement that will surpass the art of Paris." Soon after arriving in South America, Torres-García made a drawing of the map of the continent upside down. This radical image illustrates how important it was for him to establish his place in the world. This illustration became a centerpiece in the history of Latin American efforts at reclaiming themselves in a world vision. He placed the South Pole at the top of the earth, thereby suggesting a visual affirmation of the importance of the continent, and in an effort to present a pure revision of the world.

His ambition was to create with the students of his workshop an independent art movement in Uruguay which he hoped to export to the rest of the Americas. By stating that the South was from now on his North, he was challenging the supremacy of European culture at the time in peril due to the second world war. The South because it is our North. We place the map upside down, then we have the right idea of our hemisphere, not the way they want it on the other side of the world. The tip of America points insistently South, which is our North. The same with our compass: it leans irremissibly always South towards our Pole. When ships leave from here going North, they go down not up as they used to. Because North is now under, and Levant is to or left.

The zeal and joy in art making that Torres-García inculcated in his students, gives evidence of what a vibrant creation Latin American modernism was. It was technically at least as accomplished as its counterpart in the pre-Abstract Expressionist New York of the 30's and 40's, but improved upon it in one crucial respect: it transformed a borrowed European style into one deeply expressive of a New World culture. By Torres-García's standards, the work produced by El Taller was the genuine utopian article, and for anyone interested in modernism today, it is certainly an art to be reckoned with. Recently, I paid homage to Torres-García as part of my series of artists that have influenced me, a series that includes Joan Miró, Basquiat, and Dalí (painting shown above).

After a long development, during which his painting evolved from the Mediterranean classicism of his Barcelona frescoes of 1913 and passed through periods of Vibrationism, Cubism, and Fauvism, culminated in 1929, what was to become his characteristic incorporation of symbols into a geometric grid based on the golden section. For Torres-García, the symbol was a way of synthesizing idea and form while bypassing narrative, which would interfere with the unity of the work. He called this conjunction of idea and form the nexus between the vital (or living) and the abstract. By inserting a symbol representing humanistic values into the antithetical rational structure of neoplasticism (which was devoid of human references), Torres-García succeeded in creating a style that constituted a major contribution to modern art, that of Constructive Universalism.

What Torres-García envisioned as the new art for the Americas would encompass all expressions from architecture to the most humble utilitarian object. This was not an American version of the Russian constructivist movement or the Bauhaus; his aim was to create a modern art for the new continent equal in scope to the art of the greatest civilizations of antiquity. Structure means recognition that unity is at the foundation of everything. To say structure is also to say Abstraction: geometry, rhythm, proportion, lines, planes, idea of object. These are elements of work—they act, they form, they construct and gain significance through the law of unity. The uniqueness of Torres-García's proposal consisted of his incorporation of essential elements of indigenous American art into the basic principles of European constructivism and geometric abstraction. His conception of art had a metaphysical and spiritual dimension - a faith in the spiritual value of art as a creative act bound to a universal law, and, in the independent existence of a work of art, apart from its naturalistic contents.

When the racial leaders of twenty years ago spoke of developing race-pride and stimulating race-consciousness, and of the desirability of race solidarity, they could not in any accurate degree have anticipated the abrupt feeling that has surged up and now pervades the centers of the third-world art scene. Neither would Torres-García know the distant impact of his own exhortations. Unlike Fernando Botero, Torres-García did not live to see the 1970s, when a significant portion of the energy that was the Latin American Arts Movement emanated from the geographic centers that he had indeed awakened.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

measuring up...

"Making abstract work involves a lot of reflection. Even in work like this, in which paint must be put down with verve and speed, the artist has to spend a lot of time looking at the results and evaluating them. An area of paint has either come to rest in an optimal shape, density, transparency, hue, texture, and relationship to nearby areas, or it hasn't, and thus something needs to be done. But what? It depends. You decide by paying a lot of attention to your gut reactions about pleasing forms."
~Franklin Einspruch, Catalogue essay for
George Bethea's "Prajna: Color and Light" at Dorsch Gallery

The Golden Ratio and Beauty in Architecture

The Golden Ratio has appeared in ancient architecture. The examples are many, such as the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt which is considered one of the Seven World Wonders of the ancient world, and the Greek Parthenon that was constructed between 447 and 472BC. Not only did the ancient Egyptians and Greeks know about the magic of Golden Ratio, so did the Renaissance artists, who used the Golden Ratio in the design of Notre Dame in between the 12th and 14th centuries. Earlier I was speaking about how we can improve communication designs by looking in unexpected places. For example, by examining Wabi-Sabi concepts and sensibilities to influence our approach with designing visuals. Wabi-Sabi (demonstrated below by the Japanese Tea House) and Zen aesthetics are rooted in the natural world. The "design" of the natural world has a lot to teach us about symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace. Are these words you use to critique your presentation visuals- symmetry, balance, beauty, and grace?

We are drawn naturally to visuals that exhibit symmetry, balance, and beauty in proportion. Artists and designers have for centuries emulated a proportion called the "Golden Mean" or "Golden Ratio" found in nature into their works. The golden ratio is a proportion defined by the number Phi (1.618033988...). Kimberly Elam points out in her book, Geometry of Design, that "...use of the golden section rectangle, with a proportion of 1:1.618, is documented in the architecture of Stonehenge built in the 20th-16th centuries B.C". There is evidence as well that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians applied the principle, and of course, much has been made of Renaissance artists and architects who employed the golden ratio in much of their work. Kimberly also points out at least two studies in the last 150 years or so which concluded that, given a choice, people have a significant preference for man-made objects which have proportions closest to the 5:8 ratio golden section.

We see strong golden section preferences in the natural world, of course. The sunflower, for example, consists of 21 spirals moving clockwise and 34 spirals moving counterclockwise. This 21:34 ratio is 1:1.619, very close to the golden section. Maybe the reason we are so intrigued by the things in the natural environment such as flowers, shells, fish, etc. is because of the preference we have, at least subconsciously, for shapes that have golden mean proportions.

Below, using a Bayen painting from the 12th century Japan, golden section grids are applied over the image to see what would happen. The width of the image is multiplied (line A) by 0.618, which gives me line (B) and (C). Here we can see that (A) is 1.618 times (B) and (B) is 1.618 times (C). What is interesting about this painting is that the sight line of the fishing line (including that which we imagine under the water), pole, fisherman and boat roughly run along a line that is .618 times the length of the entire image. The image is powerful and we can feel the sabi of the fisherman and the vastness of the ocean. If the subject were placed exactly center would we still get an appreciation of the waves gently carrying the boat from left to right?

Attempting to design visuals according to the golden mean proportions is impractical in most cases perhaps for us. However, the "rule of thirds" which is derived from the golden mean, is a basic design technique that can add symmetry, beauty, and professionalism to your visuals. The rule of thirds, which is not a "rule" at all, is something you can use. Photographers, for example, use the rule of thirds when framing their shots and artists to construct composition. The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.

The Golden Ratio has a great impact on art, influencing artists' perspectives of a pleasant art piece. Have you ever wondered why DaVinci's Mona Lisa is aesthetically pleasing and considered so beautiful? Da Vinci, a sculpture, painter, inventor and a mathematician, was the first one who first called Phi the Golden Ratio. And scientifically, her face actually appears in a golden rectangle, which also makes her face appear more beautiful to human eyes. Also another of his masterpieces, the Last Supper, contains Golden Ratios. The French Impressionist painter George Seurat is famous by his technique of drawing, Pointilism, and he is said to have "attacked every canvas by the golden section".