Power of Art, Part 3 (Puppets!)

The Donald puppet, January 2017

I ran across this photo on my phone recently, taken at the Women’s March in Seattle in January 2017. So much that I could say, but I feel that others are saying it better than I can, so I’ll stick to the role of art – and its power – here.

When I first saw this giant puppet, my first instinct was to laugh. Second was to admire the craft (it’s very well done in terms of likeness, but also technical ability, and lastly, standing up to the Pacific Northwest weather). From a little remove, I can also appreciate its place in a long line protest art.

This will be an abbreviated, overly simplified commentary, but here goes. Puppeteers have always been able to comment more freely on social matters because they moved around. They usually took their show on the road, and so were able to comment more or less as outsiders (and I suppose, if the heat got turned up, they could leave town pretty quickly!). Puppetry was (and is) fairly low on the totem pole of the art world (patrons and curators are rare, for example, and there is no money in it), so puppeteers weren’t dependent on keeping powers-that-be happy, or romancing wealthy collectors. Part of the entertainment is a sort of brash, anything-goes schtick that seeks out laughs based on crude jokes and physical humor…we see and expect this with the Muppets, say, and can see how this easily translates to commenting on dirty goings-on in local government.

Anyway, the best education on puppets has to be at the Bread and Puppet Museum in Vermont. NYC sanitation workers to Latin American despots are proudly represented, from a protest stance, to the left of many.

But back to the idea of power…can you imagine how this puppet would get right under the Donald’s skin?! That’s power! A picture is worth a thousand tweets!

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

Artist Donates 10% of Sales to OneOrlando Fund

Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle
Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle

On Capitol Hill, the acknowledged center of queer culture in Seattle, the Pulse Nightclub murders in Orlando on June 12 exacted a special toll. Most of Seattle’s gay clubs are located here, and rainbow flags and crosswalks dot the landscape, visually knitting together disparate businesses and corners of the neighborhood. Seattle’s generally liberal vibe may have masked any real sense of danger; although assorted hate crimes have increased in the neighborhood over the last few years, there still existed a general feeling that Seattle was safe for queers. The news from Orlando reminded everyone that anything can happen anywhere.

In the immediate aftermath, before the motive was understood or the perpetrator was known, an idea was hatched to create something positive out of this destabilizing grief. Ellie VerGowe, the Community Outreach Coordinator at First Covenant Church, decided to turn the church’s art space over to a month-long tribute to the victims, affording an opportunity for the community to process its grief. Artists, performers and church staff swung into action, hanging a show of over two dozen works that honored the victims in Orlando and celebrated the queer community there and beyond. In addition to the two dimensional works on the wall, the opening reception featured musical compositions as well as an elegiac dance and spoken word performance.

The show was a financial success too, with a robust number of sales and various proceeds marked for support of victims in Orlando. One artist who donated 10% of sales was painter Maura McGurk, who sold seven of the twelve paintings she exhibited. Her paintings were not specifically painted in reaction to the news from Orlando, but were a selection of what she calls “Pride Paintings”. She began on June 1 to honor a different queer person or moment with a commemorative painting each day of Pride Month. When the events in Orlando unfolded, the Pride Paintings took on a different character for McGurk. The collection that was growing on her wall took on a protective aspect, with each portrait looking down and seeming to watch over McGurk and her wife. McGurk’s donation goes to OneOrlando Fund.

“Deeds Not Words”

Image courtesy of Google
Image courtesy of Google

I love this Google Doodle today, which celebrates the 131st birthday of Alice Paul, feminist and suffragette. Great activist, great graphic design, and all-around words to live by!

365 Days of Art: December 12 – Artists Protest Whitney to Demand More Female Inclusion, Cornell Hosts a Party

Artists Ann Arien and Lucy Lippard protest outside the Whitney Museum, 1970
Artists Ann Arien and Lucy Lippard protest outside the Whitney Museum, 1970

December 12, 1970

Artists with police whistles protest at the opening of the Whitney Annual because of the few women the Whitney historically exhibits. Faith Ringgold recalls:

In the fall of 1970 Poppy Johnson, Lucy Lippard and I, formed an ad hock [sic] women’s group to protest the small percentage of women in all past Whitney Annuals…Our goal for the 1970 annual was 50% women…The Whitney Museum became the focus of our attention. We went there often to deposit eggs. Unsuspecting male curatorial staff would pick up the eggs and experience the shock of having raw egg slide down the pants of their fine tailor–made suits. Sanitary napkins followed… Generally, everywhere the staff went they found loud and clear messages that women artists were on the Whitney’s “case.” The Whitney Annual that year was to be a sculpture show… Because of the Whitney’s well-known preference for abstract art, …Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud…were the ones I unconditionally demanded to be in the show. Saar and Chase-Riboud became the first black women ever to be exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The total percentage of women in the Whitney annual in 1970 was twenty-three percent as opposed to the previous year’s average of five to ten percent. This was better than ten percent, but it still wasn’t fifty. We decided to demonstrate during the opening to make that point… At a pre-determined time, Lucy Lippard and I began to blow our whistles… We continued to blow. The people gathered around us and we formed a big circle on the floor. Then we got up and walked around chanting, “Fifty percent women, fifty percent women.” Throughout the show we demonstrated every weekend, blowing our police whistles and singing off key…”.

Cockatoo with Watch Faces, by Joseph Cornell, 1949
Cockatoo with Watch Faces, by Joseph Cornell, 1949

December 12, 1971

Joseph Cornell, known for being so shy that he disappears for an hour in the bathroom to avoid social interactions, hosts a party at his house, with art critic Dore Ashton, writer Octavio Paz and his wife, and editor Barbara Burn.

Ashton recalls:

Knowing his love for desserts, Barbara had baked a pie, and thus, I’m inclined to think, set the tone for the long afternoon. Joseph, who knew of my friendship with Paz, had asked me and when he caught sight of Octovio’s vivacious French wife, he smiled broadly — something few of his acquaintances had ever witnssed. Usually Joseph’s smile was small, hesitant. During the afternoon, Joseph spoke with unaccustomed ease, bringing forth his knowledge of French poetry and engaging in an animated discussion of Mallarmé’s sonnets with both Octavio and Marie-José [Paz’s wife]. He took us to the cellar, showed us all his works in progress as well as some completed boxes and thoroughly enjoyed himself. Before we left, he drew me aside, and whispered with a certain ingenuousness: “Was he really an ambassador?”

365 Days of Art: December 1 – Day Without Art

December 1 - AIDS ribbon-Day Without Art

December 1 has been acknowledged since 1989 as a Day Without Art, in order to remember artists who have died from AIDS. Many museums and galleries have closed, held vigils, hung walls with black, sent staff to volunteer at AIDS organizations, held special AIDS-related exhibitions, or otherwise used this as a day for mourning and action. This year, about 8,000 organizations are expected to take part in some form.

365 Days of Art: November 30 – National Portrait Gallery Censors AIDS Film

November 30, 2010

The National Portrait Gallery removes a film from the first-ever gay portraiture exhibition, Hide/Seek, after receiving complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.

The video, created by David Wojnarowicz, features footage of ants crawling on a crucifix, and is made in the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. It is a tortured response to the disease and to governmental inaction in the mid-1980s. Wojnarowicz himself dies of AIDS in 1987.

The Catholic League calls the video “hate speech”, and John Boehner’s office calls it a misuse of taxpayer money. The video is quickly removed with little debate. In response to heavy criticism that the museum has acted too hastily, or not pushed back because of the gay subject matter, the museum’s director Martin E. Sullivan says:

The decision wasn’t caving in,” said Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director. “We don’t want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum’s and this show’s strengths.”

Many museums and galleries around the country screen the video in protest.

365 Days of Art: November 22 – Benton Writes About His Work; Bernstein Continues to Protest NEA

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948
Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

November 22, 1967

Thomas Hart Benton writes a letter to Matthew Baigell:

…The better part of our history, cultural history, certainly was the outcome of rural pressures on the centers of cultivation and policy-making. This lasted until the turn of the century and beyond (note effects of rural members in state legislatures). Of course this is no more so. It is just the reverse that now holds. The urban centers now provide the pressures. But our basic cultural ideas, our beliefs as to what constitutes the “American character”, our mythologies, had their origins in the earlier conditions. It was these I tried to represent”.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

November 22, 1989

Leonard Bernstein composes The NEA Forever March to continue his protest of the agency cutting funding for an AIDS exhibition in New York. Earlier in the month, Bernstein declines the National Medal of Arts, selected by the NEA and awarded by President Bush, for the same reason.

365 Days of Art: November 16 – Frida Writes a Letter from US, AIDS Exhibition Opens (Under Duress) After Grant Partially Restored

Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933
Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933

November 16, 1933

Frida writes a letter to her friend Isabel Campos that she is “dreaming about my return to Mexico”:

New York is very pretty and I feel better here than in Detroit, but in spite of this I am longing for Mexico…Yesterday we had snow for the first time…there will be nothing to do but dress in woolen underwear and put up with snow. I do not feel the cold so much because of my famous long skirts but sometimes I feel a cold draft that could not even be prevented by twenty skirts. I still run around like crazy and I am getting used to these old clothes. Meanwhile some of the gringa-women are imitating me and trying to dress a la Mexicana but the poor souls only look like cabbages and to tell you the naked truth they look absolutely impossible. That doesn’t mean that I look good in them either but still I get by (don’t laugh).”

The painting above is a humorously critical painting about her time living in the US.

The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.
The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.

November 16, 1989

An exhibition about AIDS, organized by Nan Goldin, the grant for which was revoked by the NEA, opens in NYC with the grant partially restored.

This is not seen as a victory, however. The grant money is revoked based on content in the catalogue, and the partially restored grant specifically will not fund the catalogue. This decision, leaves artists and others, like composer Leonard Bernstein who rejects a medal from the White House over this incident, feeling that the NEA is playing dirty.

To understand a little more of the emotion and feeling of betrayal surrounding this incident, consider Goldin’s personal statement about the show, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing:

Over the past year four more of my most beloved friends have died of AIDS. Two were artists I had selected for this exhibit. One of the writers for this catalogue has become too sick to write. And so the tone of the exhibition has become less theoretical and more personal, from a show about AIDS to an issue to more of a collective memorial.”

The offending part of the catalogue, written by David Wojnarowicz, who himself will later die of AIDS, criticizes members of Congress and a Catholic cardinal whose stances against safe sex education are widely seen as jeopardizing more lives. The NEA’s reaction to this essay, along with their cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s entire show just six months earlier, is seen as a disturbing trend that dirties the waters of the art world with right-wing politics and specifically punishes those who speak out about the AIDS epidemic.

Wojnarowicz feels so strongly about the gallery director’s decision to accept the partial grant that he does not attend the opening, saying:

I don’t feel that civil or constitutional rights are a worthy trade for money.”

Interestingly, Wojnarowicz, who will die in less than two years of AIDS, angers certain politicians again in 2010 over a different art exhibition. A different generation of right-wing politicians, outraged over his work about AIDS, threaten to remove government money from the Smithsonian Institution and directly cause the removal of Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition Hide/Seek.

365 Days of Art: November 15 – Homer is Published, O’Keeffe is Born, Bernstein Protests NEA, Vandal is Sentenced

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac - A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862
Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862

November 15, 1862

Winslow Homer’s The Army of the Potomac-A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty a wood engraving based on a painting, is published in Harper’s Weekly.

Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939
Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1939

November 15, 1887

Georgia O’Keeffe is born.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

November 15, 1989

The composer Leonard Bernstein declines a National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by the White House, in protest of the NEA rescinding a grant for an art exhibition on AIDS. As a gay man and AIDS activist, Bernstein says he cannot stand by without making a statement, especially as the NEA is responsible both for recommending him to the White House and for revoking the grant money.

Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.
Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.

November 15, 2007

A woman who vandalizes a painting by kissing it with red lipstick is sentenced in court for the crime. The painting is a panel of the Cy Twombly triptych Phaedrus, of which she says:

It was just a kiss, a loving gesture…I thought the artist would understand…. It was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art.”

Her sentence is to pay €1,000 to the painting’s owner, €500 to the Avignon gallery that showed it, and €1 to Twombly.

365 Days of Art: November 6 – NEA Withdraws Grant for AIDS Exhibition

Protest on June 30, 1989 in DC, against the NEA's cancellation of the grant for Mapplethorpe's exhibition.
Protest on June 30, 1989 in DC, against the NEA’s cancellation of the grant for Mapplethorpe’s exhibition.

November 6, 1989

The New York Times reports that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has cancelled a grant for a show about AIDS, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. The withdrawal of funds reportedly stems from an essay in the catalogue that criticizes two members of Congress and a cardinal of the Catholic church, for their opposition to educating Americans on how not to contract AIDS.

This is the second time in six months that the NEA has cancelled previously-approved money for an art exhibition. A culture wars controversy over the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition of photographs has not even died down when this news is reported.

365 Days of Art: November 5 – Pollock Moves to Long Island, Obama Portrait Joins NYC Exhibition After Presidential Election

Jackson Pollock painting outside at Springs.
Jackson Pollock painting outside at Springs.

November 5, 1945

Jackson Pollock moves from New York City to Long Island, to a farmhouse in Springs. This is a shocking move at the time, since NYC is the center of the art world. The yard and barn where he keeps his studio become the backdrops for some of the most iconic Pollock moments: a documentary of him working, and many photos of him squatting over his canvas, with the barn walls behind him.

Fun Fact: The asking price on the house is $5,000; Peggy Guggenheim loans him $2,000 for the down payment. Obviously, this is before The Hamptons are The Hamptons!

Elizabeth Peyton, Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democaratic National Convention August 2008, 2008
Elizabeth Peyton, Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democaratic National Convention August 2008, 2008

November 5, 2008

The day after the historic election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, a new painting by Elizabeth Peyton goes on display at her exhibition of celebrity portraits at the New Museum: a portrait of Obama’s wife and daughter at the Democratic National Convention. The painting is commissioned by W magazine, but the museum’s curator decides that in the interest of being bipartisan, the painting will only join the exhibition if Obama wins the election.

365 Days of Art: October 23 – Gauguin Moves in with Vincent; Art Exhibition Takes on Chicago Mayor’s Brutality

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh), 1888
Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh), 1888

October 23, 1888

Paul Gauguin arrives in Arles to live with Vincent van Gogh in the Yellow House. This is something Vincent has wanted for some time, but his dreams of an art community dissipate as he and Gauguin repeatedly clash. By the end of the fall, Gauguin moves out and Vincent infamously cuts off his ear.

Barnett Newman, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, mixed media sculpture with barbed wire, 1968
Barnett Newman, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, mixed media sculpture with barbed wire, 1968

October 23, 1968

The Richard J. Daley Exhibition opens at Feigen Gallery in Chicago, in direct response to the brutality that protesters, regular folks, and even news anchors like Mike Wallace and Dan Rather experience at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago–with the encouragement of Mayor Daley.

A total of 47 artists take part in the show, with 21 of them making new work that directly comments on the summer of violence. Artists include Claes Oldenburg (a Chicago native), James Rosenquist, and Barnett Newman, who cancels an entire solo show in Chicago out of moral qualms about what is happening.

Newman’s piece above not only uses material like barbed wire to comment on the police state that Chicago becomes for the duration of the convention, but it takes a particularly insulting slam at Mayor Daley by drawing the inference of “lace curtain Irish”. Daley, a proud Irish-American in a city full of proud Irish-Americans, would have taken umbrage to the implication that he puts on airs or behaves like the Protestant gentry, like the titular Irish immigrants who hang lace curtains in their shacks.

365 Days of Art: October 15 – Fascist Propaganda Discusses Artworks, Lee Krasner Has First Solo Show

Palermo devastated by American bombing, May 1943
Palermo devastated by American bombing, May 1943

October 15, 1943

Radio Rome provides this bit of Fascist propaganda:

The first ships left Sicily for London today with precious works of art, some of which will go to the British Museum and some to private collections”.

The idea is to create suspicion surrounding Americans interested in artworks (i.e., the Museum and Fine Arts Archives Program, AKA the Monuments Men). Given that American bombs have devastated Palermo just months earlier, feelings are already running high. A healthy dose of national pride doesn’t hurt either…what red-blooded Italian/Sicilian wants to see his or her cultural treasures going to private collectors in London, for pete’s sake??

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1948
Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1948

October 15, 1951

Lee Krasner has her first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery.