Required Reading

This week, the Obama portraits, Fortuny in Madrid, the precarious lives of independent curators, slavery at US colleges, the information apocalypse, and more.

Ronaldo Schemidt’s “Venezuela Crisis” is one of the nominees of the 2018 World Press Photo Contest. The image depicts José Víctor Salazar Balza (28) catching fire amid violent clashes with riot police during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela. (via World Press Photo)

In other words, the world of art is one in which absolute truths or certainties often cannot be had. Good art has the power to pull us into the abyss — or at least bring us close enough, making us feel very uncomfortable. Our go-to procedure when faced with something unsettling tends to be to put everything on the artist: isn’t this all her or his fault? Isn’t s/he a bad person? This is an obvious approach, but it feels too convenient to me. However much we like to pretend that we’re only talking about the artists, our condemnation of what we encounter in art is also tied to ourselves, to what we believe, what we hold true, what we have in us.

Anyone who has ever watched Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will might know what I am talking about. Unless you’re an actual neo-Nazi (of whose continued presence these past few years have reminded us in painful ways), an educated viewer in all likelihood will be repulsed by the celebration of an evil tyranny that ended up killing millions of people. At the same time, the film is done just as well as the latest Star Wars movie. It’s an engrossing spectacle that manages to successfully speak to our reptilian brain. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I’m aware of the presence of the reptilian parts of my brain. They’re just as much a part of me as all the other, somewhat more appealing parts. To deny that they’re there would be foolish.

In his letters, Van Gogh touches on the ambivalence Fortuny provoked and still provokes, the sense that his delicacy – what some might call his mawkishness – makes him something less than a proper artist. Van Gogh complains of the Italian ‘watercolour manufacturers’, among whom he numbers Fortuny, as ‘birds with only one note in their song’. To his brother, Theo, who worked at Goupil et Cie, he denounces Fortuny’s ‘raillery’. But a month later, on returning from Paris, where he saw the engraving An Arab Mourning over the Body of His Friend, he writes, ‘I deeply regretted saying to you not long ago I didn’t find Fortuny beautiful,’ and praises the ‘seriousness’ of his work.

Lise Soskolne, the Core Organizer of W.A.G.E., also underlines a comparison between independent curators and their counterparts in academia. “Like the replacement of full-time, tenured faculty with adjunct labor in academic institutions in the U.S.,” she said, “there seems to be a turn in Europe toward replacing single, full-time curatorial positions with multiple, independent curators working on short-term contracts.”

Soskolne sees in this tendency an array of negative effects: “increased precarity, lack of benefits, and the debilitating and impossible process of cobbling together an income based on flat fees that bear no resemblance to the actual value of the labor, based on the hours invested.” One can only imagine that the situation in America—with a comparatively much flimsier social safety net—is equivalent.

“Curators, like artists,” she concluded, “are working well below the minimum wage.”

“Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff,” Ovadya said one January afternoon before calmly outlining a deeply unsettling projection about the next two decades of fake news, artificial intelligence–assisted misinformation campaigns, and propaganda. “We are so screwed it’s beyond what most of us can imagine,” he said. “We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we’re even more screwed now. And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”

That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and “human puppets.”

As a scholar-activist working on issues such as sexual assault, Palestine, and anti-fascism, I am used to receiving abusive messages and being publicly maligned. Now, however, attacks on me have reached troubling new heights.

Last month, the Stanford Review, a rightwing publication co-founded by Peter Thiel and based on my university campus, wrote that I have helped set up an “organization [that is] undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group” and demanded my resignation. Their article was picked up by groups like JihadWatch, Campus Fix, Campus Reform, Fox & Friends, and other rightwing media outlets.

According to the surviving records, the first enslaved African in Massachusetts was the property of the schoolmaster of Harvard. Yale funded its first graduate-level courses and its first scholarship with the rents from a small slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island (the estate, in a stroke of historical irony, was named Whitehall). The scholarship’s first recipient went on to found Dartmouth, and a later grantee co-founded the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton. Georgetown’s founders, prohibited by the rules of their faith from charging students tuition, planned to underwrite school operations in large part with slave sales and plantation profits, to which there was apparently no ecclesiastical objection. Columbia, when it was still King’s College, subsidized slave traders with below-market loans. Before she gained fame as a preacher and abolitionist, Sojourner Truth was owned by the family of Rutgers’s first president.

In 1936, the FWP began collecting interviews with former slaves, amassing thousands of pages of oral histories which, though often filtered through the racism of white interviewers and their supervisors, provide an invaluable snapshot of how more than 2,000 survivors of slavery lived and thought.

Nearly 40 of those interviewed claimed Abraham Lincoln visited their plantation shortly before or during the Civil War. They said he came in disguise as a beggar or a peddler, bummed free meals off his unsuspecting white hosts, snooped around to find out what slavery was like, and told the slaves they would soon be free.

In 1932, Money-Kyrle briefly visited Berlin at the invitation of his friend, the diplomat Arthur Yencken (who was later murdered when Nazis planted a time-bomb in his plane). Yencken took him to a Nazi Party rally, at which both Joseph Goebbels and Hitler spoke. Money-Kyrle was fascinated and disturbed by what he saw and heard, and tried to make sense of what went on by examining the speeches and crowd dynamics through a psychoanalytic lens. The outcome was the article ‘The Psychology of Propaganda’ (1941).

By the time he visited Germany, Money-Kyrle was strongly under the intellectual influence of the Hungarian-born English psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein held that all human beings are haunted by profound and terrifying fears that she called ‘psychotic anxieties’. She thought that these anxieties, and our responses to them, drive a great deal of human behaviour – for good or for ill. In the Kleinian scheme, there are two primary forms of psychotic anxiety: paranoid anxiety, which is the terror of being persecuted by evil, eternal forces, and depressive anxiety, which is the sense that one is guilty of having destroyed what one loves and values. Klein also described what she called the manic defence, which is a denial of helplessness and dependence on others by delusions of power, grandeur and self-sufficiency, and is expressed in the attitudes of triumph, control and contempt.

  • Sid Fischer, who was a student in the recent Florida school shooting, did a Reddit AMA, and answered a lot of questions, including:

What is the school doing to help you and other students struggling with this event? I’m assuming you have days off, but are there counselors and resources for you?

Yes, yesterday the whole day they had counselors at the local park in the auditorium inside. I believe they are still there today, I haven’t went yet but I am going to go later this weekend once I’m done seeing all the people that want to see me. At this same park, there was a vigil that was streamed live to the world yesterday that I was at. During the main event, I was standing with 4 of my classmates who were there with me in the classroom as it was happening.

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning ET, and is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

comments (0)