June 12, 2007

Naked Paintings

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The early 20th-century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno railed against the idea that we are strictly rational beings. He believed that we are first and foremost sentient or “feeling animals”. Our vaunted “reason,” he argued, was built upon nothing but “irrationalities”; our idealism and rational thought, in other words, sprang from the tumult of our passions. At the time, the big picture issue for many thinkers were the inroads the scientific and industrial revolution —spawned from enlightenment objectivity— had made on our appreciation for the vitality of life. In retrospect it might not seem like Unamuno’s protest was thorough enough. After all, our compulsive consumer culture makes it abundantly clear that practically everything in our spectacle society, especially our politics, is sold to our hearts and not to our minds. But the mystic philosopher was prescient enough to understand how his words could become twisted against themselves, and warned us against “conservatives who look upon religion merely as a means of government”. “Sin,” he writes, as if he had been here to witness the Neocon disaster for himself, is: “taking means for ends”. One of the problems, Unamuno conceded, in attempting to construct a polemic that pits reason against emotion, is that it might not ultimately actually constitute a “religious” or “ethical” debate, but rather one that is more accurately speaking “esthetic”. It is unfair to blame his ideas for the way our political debates are increasingly reviewed as theatre, or the way consumer trends are measured in terms of how effectively advertising campaigns create hype and buzz. If our natural desire to empathize has been turned against us, then all the more reason to reclaim it. Tragic Sense of Life, regardless of its mystical bias, is a wonderful book precisely because it is so replete with the kinds of contradictions that result from the struggle of a consciousness trying to free itself from stale and accepted points of view. As a model for speculation about ideas that would seem to totally oppose each other, it is a polemic full of trap doors and secret passageways that as often lead nowhere as they do to profound truths that illuminate the primary problems that beset us all as we wrestle with the great themes that make us human. These paintings take inspiration from the idea that what we call “reason” is born from emotion, and is ultimately built from the vast accumulation of cultural prejudices that have come before us. Unamuno, like many of his contemporaries, believed that ideological canons repressed and demonized what preceded them, cutting us off from the vitality and beauty that are so important to our humanity. These paintings, by comparison, are the product of a post-ideological world in which all the great unifying belief systems have been relegated to the scrapheap of history. There are no more rules to break, as in Unamuno’s day. These paintings engage in a polemic of oppositions unencumbered by the past. They are intended to communicate the awkward grace of the living world, along with all its infinite contradictions, and to do so as directly as possible.

Long version of the Artist Statement for Daniel Mendel-Black's upcoming summer solo show at Modernism Inc., San Francisco, titled Naked Paintings. The show opens July 14th.

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June 11, 2007

The Power of Nightmares

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We are still living the frightening reality of a Neocon gambit to drag the whole country into a frenzied archaic Dark Ages of hate-based morality. Through their devil’s bargain with religious fundamentalists they formed the radical right to wage a global war against anyone who disagreed with them. Only a few years ago that might have sounded like a fantastic mix of science fiction and conspiracy theory. But too much about the disastrous path they set in motion has come to light to ignore the reality of the situation anymore. The Power of Nightmares, which first aired on BBC 2 television in late 2004, charges that in a post-ideological world governments have found it necessary to retain their power through the manufacture of mythological evil and the spread of fear. If you’re looking for examples of political censorship in the US, check out the three-part documentary. It has yet to be released in this country. Writer-producer Adam Curtis had this to say about the state of US broadcast journalism in a quote from The Guardian: “Something extraordinary has happened to American TV since September 11. A head of the leading networks who had better remain nameless said to me that there was no way they could show [the documentary]… He said, ‘We would get slaughtered if we put this out.’” The question is: by whom, the minority of fanatics who currently run the nation? Luckily, the film series is not too hard to find. All three episodes are viewable in their entirety on Google Video. Subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, it charts the ascension of the Neocons in American politics and makes some remarkable revelations about their connection to the spread of radical Islam. To begin with, the documentary makes the connection between Neocon founder Leo Strauss and the Islamic radical Sayyid Qutb. Shortly after his encounter with Strauss, Qutb went back to his homeland and founded the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in which the young Osama bin Laden got his first taste of revolution. We all know the rouge’s gallery of Strauss’s most prominent students Stateside: Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Pearl, etc. They were all weaned on Strauss’s simple-minded ideas about world domination. After all, his favorite TV show was the Western Gunsmoke in which the good guys literally wore white hats and the villains dressed in black. Strauss’s second favorite show was Perry Mason, because of the attorney’s superior intellect and unnatural guile. Along with their mad dog allies like Donald Rumsfeld and Darth Cheney these guys cut their teeth in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations before conscribing the hapless buffoon Dubya into their reactionary cause. In other words, these guys fingerprints are on the most corrupt administrations in our country’s short history. There are many festering cesspools never addressed in the documentary such as the Neocon association with the Rushdoonyites who advocate a taliban-like moral code and legal system on the home front based entirely on the Old Testament. The connection between their appeal to fundamentalism and the same confusion of political means for ends by the Strauss inspired Islamic fanatics is made clear enough, even if the whole story of their treachery to our way of life remains to be told. Among the documentary’s most important points is the way in which our government created the myth of Al Qaeda as a homogenous, organized army of darkness. It is a painful reality that the war in Iraq makes abundantly clear. Journalists covering the US occupation constantly have to point out that Al Qaeda in Iraq are overwhelmingly actually really mostly Iraqis who are fighting against US forces supposedly there to protect an embattled, walled-in Green Zone government. The obvious question arises: If the Iraqi government was actually Democratic, why would the might of our military need to protect them. Clearly, as a retired Army officer recently commented, the US choice for government in Iraq is “rotten to the core”. The blaring problem with a US President who is a slave to the interests of the Petroleum Industry and reactionary religious groups who want to roll our moral code back to something similar to the Taliban makes any appeal to Democracy foolish. The Bushevic insistence on the recent elections in Palestine made their position on Democracy abundantly clear to the entire world. Dubya, himself, was most upset that the corrupt US backed Fatah government could lose so sorely to Hamas which he had roundly labeled as terrorists. Once again, the simplistic Neocon fantasy of good vs. evil blew up in its face. Will the corporate US media ever allow these basic truths any coverage? The answer is, without a doubt, No! At a time of clear crisis, when we should really be thinking of the way our value system is being exploited and corrupted by a small but wealthy vocal minority of zealots and bigots who control our national media and corporate culture, our ability to see something like The Power of Nightmares becomes all-important. The facts are right there. And since the documentary was produced two of its stars —Wolfowitz and Rummy— have been forced out of their offices in the clean up effort. Have we really become so alienated from our most basic principals that the kind of revelations this film series makes about the way our government has divided us against ourselves and fed us false information is too much for our collective conscience to bare? If so, our current situation is far worse than any science fiction writer or conspiracy theorist would ever dare to imagine.

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