Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

A work by Robert Morris from the 1960s (above) and a space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 (bottom)

This past Thursday at the Philoctetes Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sculptor John Powers presented several excerpts of his ambitious project “Star Wars and Modernism: An Artist Commentary.” Accompanied by composer R. Luke Dubois, who scored the project, and Columbia Art History fellow and Triple Canopy senior editor Colby Chamberlain, who provided editorial assistance, the project is an original and provocative look at Star Wars (1977) not merely as a Hollywood blockbuster and mythic narrative, but as an art object.

This art object, Powers informs us with his skillful voice-over, must be viewed as a film, “made by a specific group of people, at a specific time in history.” This is Powers’ jumping off point and he makes no bones about Star Wars’ service as a metaphor: the war in the title is the Vietnam War, and the evil Empire is indeed America.

Extending beyond the film’s mere metaphoric qualities, Powers intends for the viewer to regard Star Wars as engaging in a dialogue with modernist art practices, specifically Minimalism, as well as the artists, critics and even the political climate of the era in which the film was made.

Compositionally, Powers constructs his projects as a series of chapters (Introduction, Film as Object, and the cleverly named Spiral Jedi) that mimic the scenes and chapters of the original film. Employing a dual-channel effect, Powers splices scenes of the original film above still shots of minimalist art and architecture, narrations of seminal art history tracts, and photographs of a wide variety of artists and critics. Finally, Powers asks us to view George Lucas’ Star Wars as a willful misinterpretation of perhaps the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In many ways, Powers’ project is unfit for review due to the sheer amount of material and research he has compressed; a proper review would require several parts. I fear that ignoring even one of those tangents might compromise the review as a whole, but this is leavened by the fact that Powers screened only three of 14 episodes during the event — the project is as yet incomplete. I should also add that I am very familiar with the source material and though a bit younger than Powers the film too was always in “the background of my life,” as Powers said during the presentation.

I had always accepted the mainstream view of Star Wars as mythic mass-entertainment so it was at first jarring to be exposed to a countervailing view that Star Wars functioned, for Lucas and the team of people he surrounded himself with, as a critique of 60s and 70s America, Cold War politics, and modernist art. What other reaction can one have when a singular piece of childhood nostalgia and influence is held up to severe critical telemetry?

Casting Star Wars Modernism

This discomfort does not interfere with the enjoyment of the film though. Powers skillfully employs humor that lightens the mood even as he goes about the dirty business of equating Darth Vader with the image of the “ugly American,” and Nixon-era paranoia with the activities of the Galactic Empire. In fact, one of the funniest moments arrives when Powers casts critic Clement Greenberg, high-priest of Abstract Expressionism and prominent critic of Minimalism (he called it “pedestrian”), as the Emperor (with corresponding visual cue), Greenberg’s intellectual heir Michael Fried as Darth Vader, the Minimalist artist Robert Morris as Obi Wan Kenobi, and Robert Smithson as Luke Skywalker. Donald Judd is “just a droid, probably C3P0.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (above) and Star Wars (below)

The heart of the film, he says, is not in illuminating Lucas’ left-wing critique of America and the Cold War, though that seems to be a prevalent concept that is never far from Powers’ reading of the film. In fact, the heart of the film is how Star Wars and its artistic predecessor 2001, engage with and react to Minimalism. Whereas Kubrick’s film loyally respected Minimalism’s precepts: its repetitious forms, its symmetry, its “lack of traces of process, abstractness, general wholeness” as Powers says quoting from a 1967 essay by artist Robert Morris, who was a leader of the Minimalist movement, Lucas flaunted these conventions. Instead of replicating the coolness and severity of Minimalism, he assigned Minimalist Art to represent the Empire, specifically in the construction, design and overall aesthetic of its Star Destroyers, the uniforms of its Stormtroopers, the monolithic Darth Vader (its chief gangster), and of course, the Death Star. At the same time, Lucas employed a separate palette and aesthetic to the Rebels and the Jedi. Minimalism is white, black and gray, clean, orderly; everything in its right place. The Rebel Alliance and their Jedi brethren are dirty and unkempt; their ships are aging and rusty, the palette of their wardrobes range from tans and yellows to greens, the color of earth not Le Corbusier.

The way that Powers discusses Lucas’ work as an engagement with Kubrick is fascinating as well. From Powers’ initial essay in Triple Canopy, “Star Wars: A New Heap,” which presaged the more ambitious presentation:

Kubrick’s 2001 environments were cohesive and balanced, informed by architectural theory and late-60s aesthetics … By contrast, Lucas willfully mashed together minimalism, modernism, and NASA design. Two visual rhetorics are at war on-screen: The first is that of an industrial superpower; the second is that of a rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches.

There is a certain kind of glee at seeing an image of the Death Star placed next to stills of 70s architecture (aerial photos of the World Trade Center’s construction almost exactly mimics the look of the Death Star’s reconstruction in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi with its craggy outcroppings and fractured spires). This glee comes from the immediate understanding that Lucas was indeed engaging not only with historical myth and narrative constructions but with contemporary art and politics.

It is hard not to hear oneself say, “but of course” during Powers’ discussion of Kubrick’s obtuse black monolith in 2001. He refers to 2001 as a supreme piece of Minimalist art. Furthermore, Kubrick’s black monolith, when interspersed with images of Darth Vader’s first appearance in Star Wars: A New Hope, a giant, hulking figure in black blotting out the serene whiteness of Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner, and New York’s United Nation’s building, only solidifies the obviousness of both Lucas and Kubrick’s allusions.

Darth Vader

But here is also the problem with Powers’ work. In his conflation, the “rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches” in short “The Irrascibles” are the Jedi. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning are at once the faces of Abstract Expressionism, which Powers likens to “the force.” Their work, on the other hand, made possible a certain “benevolent propaganda” to be used by sinister cold warriors like Greenberg, the statesman and politician Nelson Rockefeller, and MOMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, as examples of American superiority in the arts, as well as politics and economics. An audience member brought up this contradiction, citing Clement Greenberg’s lifelong Communist sympathies (which he never recanted), and asked Powers how Greenberg could be cast as a Sith, an astute point which Powers clearly expects. He knows the contradiction is there, and though he parried the question by explaining that he was referencing the writings of Max Kozloff, and furthermore that he was forced into at least some generalizations by his project, the point remains. To this writer, this is the reason first to see the film and then to engage in what is sure to be a long and heated, yet entertaining, debate. In short, Powers has a triumph on his hand, one that even without viewing in its entirety I know I’ll return to again and again.

Lastly, I cannot, in good faith, sign off without mentioning R. Luke Dubois’ powerful score which, like Powers editorial and even Lucas-like editorial style, engaged the original Star Wars score by John Williams, while mashing it up with the minimalist style of Phillip Glass. It is the perfect music for Powers’ splendid project.

For more information on John Powers and his ideas, please visit his blog Star Wars Modern.

And here is the introductory clip from Powers’ YouTube channel.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Zachary A. Cohen

Zachary Adam Cohen is a social media strategist and consultant working with businesses and brands in the hospitality, technology, and arts sectors. His work has appeared in the New York Times and...

22 replies on “A Review of “Star Wars and Modernism: An Artist Commentary””

  1. Damn, Zach – you are getting smarter by the minute. What an amazing article filled with deep zeitgeist reflection on the evolution of art – thru the lens of the pop culture icon Star Wars. Have you seen the documentary Jedi Junkies? My friend Jerry Kolber produced it…http://www.jedijunkies.com/

  2. Before anyone can really discuss visual art as a creation by and for human beings one must read “Art and Visual Perception: The Psychology of the Creative Eye” by Rudolph Arnheim. His scientific facts concerning the physiology of sight are particularly valuable when discussing the modernist movement, which for all intents and purposes ended with the minimalist movement of the mid to late 60s. The basic act of seeing and our perception of balance, shapes, form, space, light, color, movement, and expression are not subjective things but scientifically pre-determined by the biological structures of everyone’s eyeballs and the way they are connected to our brains. Our reaction and sensitivity to every thing we see is subjective but what is being sent to brain through the optic nerve is the same for everyone.

    The next book that should be read before discussing the subject at hand here is again by Rudolph Arnheim and it is called Film as Art. Here he discusses the aspects of viewing cinema that contribute to it’s qualifying as visual art, as well as the aspects that deter it from being so categorized.

    Once we understand these definitions, with which I whole heartedly agree , that is what makes something worthy of being called a WORK OF ART, then we can begin to discuss how Star Wars. The entire series of movies -all six of them- as thrilling, entertaining and great as they are ( I actually liked Episodes 2, 5 and 6 the best- I waited on line for 15 hours to see The Phantom Menace at the Ziegfeld Theatre- long story), are complete and utter failures as films to be considered “works of art”.

    The retelling of the great myth of the hero, bought up regularly in Jungian psychiatry, – his trials, tribulations and eventual triumphs expressed through the use of archetypal concepts, actions, and characters is what Star Wars is all about. A lot of ancient Japanese stuff as characterized so well by Joseph Campbell—the aged wizened old master, teacher who knows everything, the sword fighting blind folded, overcoming the darkness within you, following the force. I love that stuff. Then there is the damsel in distress that needs to be rescued. More importantly these narrative sub texts are beautifully integrated into the central theme running through the entire six films- a paternalistic Christian allegory. A son willing to sacrifice himself for the good in his father, which only he, as his son knows and sees. Throw this in with new state of the art special effects, cuddly puppets and animals for the kids. the dashing, cavalier, selfish, handsome, older brother pirate character type for some comic relief and romance, and then, as the son, at the grand climactic moment of the film series actually redeems the father and saves the entire universe,—it is a movie after all— gets a nod and a blessing from the spiritual triad of father figure masters- you have a super duper DUPER history making American blockbuster on your hands.

    Granted, I am not criticizing these movies. I loved them. They tell a universally accepted and fantastic age old story with late 20th century sci-fi trimmings, brilliantly conceived and executed. But if film is an art form, read your Arnhiem – these films don’t even come close.

    The measuring stick to determine the greatness of a work of art is how successfully the artist uses the medium chosen to deeply move and even change the way the viewer not only thinks, but more importantly feels about some part of or even the totality of his or her life. Being the audience to a masterpiece can be a deep, serious, smart, funny (sometimes), beautiful and meaningful personal experience. By attempting to attribute a political or social cause to a work of art you are diminishing the power of that cause and the power of the art. Art becomes political by how deeply people are moved by it. Film, paint, dance, literature, music and more have the potential to express something on a deeper more real and primal level to people than they feel in the normalcy of their every day lives. These art forms are languages which for some unknown and beautiful reason are capable of communicating a certain mysterious truth about being a human being. That is what makes them art!

    Star Wars changed the movie industry. It made more money at that time than any movie before it. It made people dress up like Darth Vader for Halloween, Solid, solid entertainment, I loved and still do love those movies. but again they are no where near works of a art as films. They may have associations projected upon them which compare visual features, characters and sub plots to contemporary events in politics and art at the time, but this in no way says anything about the film’s value as a piece of art. It is hard for me to believe that the main motivation behind the use of the light saber was to comment on Dan Flavins use of the fluorescent bulb as a minimalist work of art. In the film it was primarily used and worked most effectively as the tool of choice to visually enhance the battle scenes in the galaxy far far away. For Dan Flavin the singular tubes are an expression of how he emotionally and personally related to a minimalist expression of himself at the time he created theme. If Lucas was intending for Luke Sywalkers use of the light saber to be some commentary on Minimalism and Dan Flavin it certainly does the opposite of adding points to the “Is Star Wars Art” score card. It’s a movie for emotional thrills not a socio-political commentary. Go watch Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose for that. The most valid claim at connecting the two is that they are creations by individuals who had lived through the 60s’ and related in their own way to the appeal, look and use of a fluorescent tube. There is nothing intrinsically “filmic’ in a single one of these movies that makes them film art. Great story yes. Great art no.

    Then there is 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is nothing but filmic mastery in almost every frame of this movie to qualify it as the most powerfully stunning and effective piece of minimal art ever made. The use of light, shadow, color, shape. movement, concept and music are so beautifully integrated it easily goes beyond just surpassing everything in the genre. Societal references are intentionally minimized for the sake of the art. Arthur C Clarke’s book was based on his story The Sentinel which did have some political overtones concerning fighting and war. 2001 was made in 1968 at the height of the colds war and there are some Russian speaking characters and an American Flag in some of the opening scenes in the move but those components are many galaxies away from what the film was most deeply about or how powerfully it expresses it’s deep message about human beings and our fate. All of this is done through the language of film. Sights, sounds, movement, color, concept, dialogue and story.

    If George Lucas used archetype and myth in Star Wars to bring an old story in to modern times, Stanley Kubrick used the language of his art to really get inside of us and make us think and feel deeply about the message he was trying to express.

    The film is so intriguing because through its slow pace and relative lack of action, it’s seeming simplicity, it winds up being one of the the most thought provoking films ever made. It forces minimalism on you. It demands that you see how simple and innocent we are and it achieves this while addressing the foundation of our entire history and the future of our entire race and our place in the universe.

    The films metaphors are psychological and are born from the art of looking. seeing and absorbing at what is dramatically presented before you in film , as film and deriving meaning, consciously, semi consciously or unconsciously from it.

    If we are to measure by films the effect of minimalism on our culture in the second half of the last century, Star Wars is int the wrong building. ” 2001: A Space Odyssey” , 42 years after it’s release still has many more lessons to offer about what being a human being really means, and if that does not define a work of art, I don’t know what does.

    1. Peter
      thanks for leaving the longest ever blog comment. We’ve entered it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

      I am going to respond in full after I’ve read your comment once more as I believe it deserves a proper response, more than I am capable of this sunny Sunday morning.

      Z

  3. love this site and wish i could go to the exhibit!

    i’d never thought of star wars in the context of 2001, but it is an obvious precedent. a big difference between the two films, outside of minimalist artistic influences and intended social critique, is how THE FUTURE is visually depicted. 2001 came during the peak years of space travel idealism, released a mere 1.5 months after the first moon landing. star wars came 9 years later, importantly in my mind, after the 1973 oil crisis. 2001’s space station is new, clean, and pristine… utopic except for our friend, hal, while star wars was grimy in places and third world in others — the ‘lived in’ future where devices, robots, and wookies (lol!) don’t always work as they’re expected to. (i know hal didn’t function as expected either but it was more that hal worked too well, had too much power.) alien was another early space film to present a dirty space station, one that was literally infested.

    1. Jamon,
      Thanks for the comment. There are clips of the project on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/user/terminalsite

      All of John’s clips are there though not the entire project.

      John actually discusses this very issue that you have brought up. 2001 came out after several decades of American superiority, in the arts, in economy, in progress. The moon landing was important as was the aesthetic of NASA and the scientific promise that NASA’s engineers and accomplishments heralded.

      The Empire in Star Wars takes this legacy. Its Star Destroyers are clean, perfectly fashioned diamonds of technology. Stormtroopers are uniform in look (as well as in there inability to hit a damn target!)

      But the rebels and the Jedi lack the Empire’s sheen. In fact, Lucas specifically told his crew to give the Rebel Alliance’s ships a used look, as if their ships were once new, but now had aged a few hundred years.

      In 2001, everything is clean and orderly, Too clean (as you can see in HAL, what happens when we try to perfect artificial intelligence). As Powers argues in his project, Star Wars came out nearly a decade later, and what a decade it was. The counter cultural revolution had spun out of control with drugs and violence. The US was humbled (or embarrassed, depending on your viewpoint) in Vietnam. Then there was Watergate. And other societal tumult that turned the 70’s into, well, the 70’s.

      Also, DISCO!

      Thanks for coming by and for reading!

      Z

  4. Considering what is going on in technology (did anyone imagine in 1998 that today we will have computers you can use under water, shock resistant, any size for about $2500, and projectors size of sigarette lighter) art will change to be something we can’t yet understand, Technology might be the new Modernism or Postmodernism, So this content, Zachary, is very timely and need a lot of examination. Thanks!

  5. Great review. I didn’t quite get his reference to Ab Ex, though. The source of the force?

    1. Amos

      I believe that because Abstract Expressionism could be used as both a cause for good or for evil. The positive aspect of Ab Ex was perhaps that it was the culmination of modernism and occurred at a time when the US was becoming the world’s sole superpower, just after the 2nd world war. The negative aspect of this was that it could also be used for what Powers sees as nefarious means, as propaganda to be used by cultural arbiters and cold warriors as expressions of American might.

      If Abstract Expressionism is the fruit of American Hegemony than that hegemony must be a good thing because Ab Ex is so celebrated and powerful etc..

      Z

  6. These are all great comments.
    In brief:
    -Star Wars provides an answer to what it means to be a human being facing the unknown darkness of an unknown universe
    -2001 forces us to ask ourselves the same question, and leaves the answer up to us, providing hints along the way…

  7. The rebellion and the “good guys” aren’t just idosyncratic as the author explains them, but associated closely with nature…ORGANIC. There are dozens of important references to this, from Yoda’s jungle swamp home, to the victory with the stone-age Ewoks on the Forest Moon of Endor, to Princess Leia’s name: Leia Organa. Our salvation as a society comes partly if we make peace with the natural world from which we sprung, in Star Wars and life

Comments are closed.