AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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BLACK PANTHER AND CROSSPLAY: WHY COSPLAY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU THINK

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In a post for the Oxford University Press Blog titled “Cosplay is Meaningless”, G.R.F. Ferrari, a professor of Classics at Berkeley, argues that cosplay is just about perfecting the art of dress-up. He writes:

Cosplayers … are not out to intimate something about themselves, or, for that matter, about anything else.

As an occasional cosplayer myself, I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more with what Ferrari says. Cosplay is much more aesthetically, socially, and personally important than he gives it credit for. Continue reading


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BOTTOM RAIL ON TOP THIS TIME: BLACK PANTHER, BY CHARLES PETERSON

Bottom Rail On Top This Time:
Politics, Myth, Culture, and Afro-Fantacism
in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther

I.

As Walter Mosley observes in his essay “Black to the Future,” the genre(s) of science fiction/fantasy neé Afro-futurism speak clearly to the dissatisfied through their power to imagine the first step in changing the world:

Black people have been cut off from their African ancestry by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us, science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.

As such, African-descended people have long understood and utilized the power of narrative to generate the images and ideas that will spark the liberatory imaginings of the sufferers. Particularly in the realms of the fantastic have characters, scenarios, and worlds been constructed to expose the truths of the world as it is and reveal the possibilities of worlds that could be. The figures of Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Nanny of the Maroons (who, though a historical figure, has risen to mythic proportions), John Henry, Shine, and many other figures casting spells thru the genres of proverbs, folklore, folk tales, song, short story, novel, graphic literature and movies have served as prompts to address the spoken and unspoken realities of their respective times and communities.  The Ryan Coogler-directed addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther steps momentously into this tradition.

The Marvel Comics character Black Panther is the creation of legendary Marvel artist and writer Jack Kirby. In 1966, Kirby and Marvel founder Stan Lee, in an intuitive bit of corporate multi-culturalism, created the fictional African nation of Wakanda, ruled by the Black Panther. Though it bears an ambiguous relationship to politics — the expanding demographics of their audience (Black children like comic books too) and the growing list of African countries winning their freedom from European colonialism — Kirby and Lee’s use of the panther as a symbol was timely. Despite being seen by Lee as a “strange coincidence,” it arrived in between the use of the Black Panther as a symbol by the Lowndes County Freedom Party, Alabama (1963-64) and the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (1966). T’Challa of Wakanda, dressed in the ceremonial garb of Wakanda’s spiritual totem as the Black Panther, made his first appearance in The Fantastic Four #52, “The Black Panther.” This character, though created in the spirit of the Black (Negro) American movement’s transition into mainstream cultural consciousness, served as a relatively peripheral character in the Marvel Universe. This continued despite efforts to maintain regular monthly issues with such titles as Jungle Action (1974-1976) and the Kirby-helmed Black Panther (1977-1979), the latter of which became the title for various volumes produced since. During this time, under the auspices of writer Don McGregor, the character himself evolved beyond an exotic marginal figure and member of the Avengers, and was instilled with a level of dignity and gravitas. Building on this foundation, later African-American writers Christopher Priest (Vol. 3), Reginald Hudlin (Vol. 4), and presently Ta-Nehisi Coates (Vol.6) added resonant characters, situations, and additions to Black Panther’s world. These additions have reflected contemporary cultural and political circumstances and deepened the character’s connection to Africa and its diaspora. The gradual evolution of the character, along with the aesthetic sensibility of Coates’ Vol. 6 artwork by Brian Stelfreeze, brings us to the Black Panther of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

II.

The central conceit, implicitly and explicitly referenced in the film, is the fact that Wakanda has been free of foreign invasion for the entirety of its history. As Reginald Hudlin writes in his introductions to the issues of Volume 4,

Unfettered by the yoke of colonization, the African warrior nation of Wakanda flourished and became a high tech, resource rich, ecologically sound paradise — one that makes the rest of the world seem primitive by comparison.

This central feature of the Wakandan kingdom and its subject’s stories is as defining a feature of the nation’s existence as its exclusive stores of Vibranium, a rare metal whose properties are the spur for Wakanda’s technological advancement. This fact drives two central features of the movie’s dramatic tension: the scope of its Afro-speculative vision and its importance to the imagination of African diasporic communities.

There are visual features of the film that illustrate the tensions that exist between Wakanda, free of the stain of foreign domination, and the rest of the Africana world. The differences in the landscapes occupied by Wakandans and non-Wakandan Africans provide examples of these differences. The movie opens in Oakland, CA in 1992 in an inner city neighborhood, resplendent with the signs of urban decay: poorly equipped parks, run-down housing, lack of green space, and prison-like enclosures for housing. This stands in sharp contrast to the landscape of Wakanda as three characters return from a mission: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Commander of the Dora Milaje, the Royal Guard of Wakanda. The wide, open plains with livestock and joyful villagers, lush green forests, and roaring rivers and falls are signs of land free to develop naturally. A land open for movement, work, or pleasure. The gritty streets of Oakland are the domains of African-descended populations, routed and hemmed into decaying and dying living spaces, alienated from the natural world, whose lives admit of at best circumscribed possibilities. Again contrast the images of Wakanda’s capital, Birnin Zana. Dazzling in its architecture, it is trafficked by clean energy vehicles that float on the air among traditional market vendors. Notably absent are the smoke and fumes ubiquitous to developing world cities. Birnin Zana is a carnival of an African society that embraces the old and new aspects of its national identity. Its high-rise buildings glisten with the glow of futuristic materials, but have been shaped and designed with attention to the nation’s cultural heritage.

This is a different Africa from the one portrayed in the opening scene, where Nakia is retrieved from her infiltration of a Boko Haram-like organization that kidnaps Nigerian women and children. On this midnight ride, guns are brandished by violent kidnappers, driving along unpaved and unlit rural tracks. The look of anger, terror, and fear on the faces of all but the sole Wakandan (Nakia) hint at lives spent in desperate struggle. These contrasting images provide a graphic argument about what contact with the “West” has done to other “African” populations. The African-American community is reduced to struggling in open prison yards not of their making, and the rest of the African continent lies in great literal, moral, and technological darkness. The shining technological array of Wakanda, the resources it puts to use for its population, the internal control that derives from organic and stable leadership, and the assertion of values that unquestionably developed from thousands of uninterrupted years of intellectual, philosophical, and ethical development are all signs of what it could mean if a population could be in control of its destiny.

When T’Challa, Okoye, the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), or any of the film’s “traditionalists” speak of “our” or “we,” they speak in pure theories of identity. Wakanda = Wakanda, and has always been for Wakandans. The sites of African life set in contrast to Wakanda suggest the dangers of infiltration and contamination. Having been robbed of their self-determination by colonizers, these African populations have lost the ability to address their communities’ challenges, establish systems of belief and behavior that benefit these communities, and most importantly (from the perspective of a warrior culture) establish, protect and preserve their nation. If, as El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) asserted, the basis of nationalism is land, then where one lives and the condition of that land speak to the conditions of the people, and to their ability to affect those conditions.

III.

The story — or better, the myth — of Wakanda is a primordial myth of African peoples in the Modern World. According to the obvious villain Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), it’s El Dorado. It unwinds from the most fundamental “What If?” story of Africa and its diaspora: “What if we had been left to our freedom?” This question lies at the back of every creative expression confronting the question of Black life in worlds they did not create. This question is the pulse of the film and it constructs the tension between the protagonist and antagonist, T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Klaw’s history with the Kingdom of Wakanda, wherein he stole caches of Vibranium and killed Wakadans to escape, sets him up to be the villain. However, we soon discover that Killmonger is a true antagonist in the literary sense. He is a foil; his actions are most illuminating when read, not as a villain, but as a counterpart to T’Challa.

T’Challa is a Wakandan elite raised to take up the mantle that is the single most definitive representation of the Wakandan people. Heir to thousands of years of history, philosophy, religion, culture, tradition and practice, T’Challa and the Wakandan people have always been in control of their self-image, self-imagining, and interactions with outsiders. Wakandans have agency. They are able to be the “masters of their fates and the captains of their souls.”

Killmonger is the lost son of T’Challa’s Uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and (we presume) an African-American woman. N’Jobu, as a “war dog,” or a Wakandan spy sent to live in and gather intelligence about foreign nations, died before he could return to Wakanda, leaving Killmonger to be raised in and informed by the circumstances of American society as filtered through the African-American experience.

The question “What if we had been left to our freedom?” or more directly the cultural question of who African-Americans would be without the “American,” is addressed in the tension between T’Challa and his American cousin. The story, though framed as a simple, if tragic, family tale, betrays the fundamental question of African-American identity.

At every moment when Wakandans participate in a ceremony, they introduce themselves either by their ethnic identity (“The Border tribe…” or “the River Tribe…”), their patrilineal identity (“I T’Challa, Son of T’Chaka…”), or both (“I M’Baku, of the Jabari people…”). But when Killmonger is introduced to the King’s Council, the ability to assert a known and recognizable identity is called into question. It is not until the River Tribe Elder (Isaach de Bankolé) asks him to state his name in Wakandan that Killmonger introduces himself as “N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu,” the dead king’s nephew, T’Challa’s cousin, and a member of the Wakandan Royal family.

The larger implication is the diasporic Africans’ loss of a claim to their heritage, a loss that results from the cultural severance of the Middle Passage and the diminishment of familial and cultural knowledge over time. Killmonger is able to answer this question because of his father’s identity, but diasporic Africans are not able to assert their identity or heritage in this manner. This loss of name, identity, and, even deeper, a place in the world of continental African life are indicators of the gulf between those able to exist beyond Western domination and those subject to its contingencies.

IV.

The chasm that exists between T’Challa and Killmonger expresses itself both personally and politically. N’Jobu’s time as a war dog exposed him to the tumultuous lives of diasporic Africans, and he is politically radicalized by his sympathy for their relative powerlessness against the forces of oppression. He argues before King T’Chaka, in full view of Public Enemy posters, that if diasporic Africans were to be given access to Wakanda’s resources, they could have the means to challenge the powers that be. They could, in alliance with Wakanda, take over the world for it to be ruled “the right way.” Killmonger re-articulates the idea of a Wakandan Empire when he meets the King’s Council. Accusing Wakanda of hiding in power and safety as “2 billion people that look like us” suffer, Killmonger pursues his father’s plan to arm the “wretched of the earth” with Wakandan weapons and stimulate violent revolution across the Western world.

This radical Pan African Imperial vision confronts the isolationist policies of generations of Wakandan kings, in the face of genocides, including the Maafa (the “terrible occurrence” or “great disaster” in Kiswahili, referring to the Black Holocaust when millions of Africans died during the Middle Passage). It reveals a lack of identification of Wakandans with other African peoples. In fact, after two viewings, I am not sure I hear a single indigenous Wakandan use “Africa” or any other identifying term that signifies a connection to African peoples directly. Openness, when expressed, takes an attenuated form. The Wakandan elite debate whether to share Wakandas advancements with the world, but these ideas are articulated as refugee support, as infrastructural assistance in short aid packages. Some degree of openness is also expressed by W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who is open to initiating a war of conquest to assert righteous governance over the planet. He, unsurprisingly, rejects refugee intake by saying, “when you bring in refugees, you bring in their problems.”

It is, however, Killmonger’s view of a radical militant conquest that propounds a realpolitik. Trained in CIA black ops and insurgency tactics, he repeats, “I know how they [the oppressor] thinks!” He immediately identifies with a global African community (“our brothers and sisters”) and desires an “eye for eye” historical reordering. “History will start over and this time we will be on top!” he shouts. On his first day as King of Wakanda, we see the visual embodiment of this rhetoric. A close-up, slow-motion, upside-down shot from behind shows Killmonger approaching the throne and slowly rotates until Killmonger is sitting upright, feet perpendicular to the floor. The world will be turned right-side up once Wakandan and African peoples rule it. It is a revolutionary vision, one not far out of line with Pan-Africanists and Nationalists gone by. The only difference is that, this time, under King Erik of Wakanda’s rule, Black cadres have the support of a world superpower with the most advanced weapons technology in existence.

The film offers a nuanced take on this political argument, and it is testament to Coogler’s ability to plumb the rich emotional inner life of his Black male characters, exemplified by his work with Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s views are unavoidably tied up with their own personal narratives.

The scenes of the ritualized ascension to the role of the “Black Panther” show a literal death and rebirth. The winner of the ritual challenge takes the heart-shaped herb in order to visit the ancestral plane and commune with spirits. T’Challa rises in the ancestral plane beneath a beautiful night sky on the African Savannah and at the foot of a tree faces the spirits of Black Panthers past, including T’Chaka, his father. He meets and takes council with T’Chaka’s spirit, receiving encouragement as he becomes the next king.

Killmonger’s spiritual ascent sees him revisit the apartment he and his father shared in Oakland, and the site of his father’s murder by his uncle T’Chaka. He retrieves the diary his father kept, which contains his royal ring, military plans, and reminiscences of home. He is interrupted by his father’s spirit, who suddenly speaks to a now ten-year-old Erik (reflecting his stunted spiritual growth), expressing regret that he never took Erik to their homeland. When N’Jobu asks if there are any tears of grief for him, young Erik simply shakes his head and says, “People die. That’s the way it is around here.”

Whereas T’Challa is able to ascend to an enlightened place and benefit from the wisdom of his predecessor rulers, Killmonger visits a place of trauma, betrayal and psychic pain. This contrast, too, becomes metaphor by gesturing to African diasporic populations trapped in the spiritual stasis of diremption from the parental support of indigenous African cultures. This hurt informs and pervades the consciousness of the diasporans, who are unable to transcend their psychic-spiritual injury, owing partly to incessant wounds delivered by the dominant culture. In the case of Killmonger, this is especially salient. He identifies as one of the wretched of the earth (perhaps his mother’s heritage), as one of those who were trapped in the Atlantic Slave Trade and orphaned in the wilderness of America. Consequently, his politics and policies are those of fire and anger and Old Testament justice. While perhaps justified, this sense of justice renders him out of step with the traditions, beliefs, and rituals of his Wakandan heritage. The Wakandans have not suffered as the rest of Africa and its diaspora have. It is a culture that, though able to maintain its integrity, has not developed a larger vision of itself in the forge of suffering and the alembic of survival.

The spirit of N’Jobu declares that perhaps he and Killmonger are both lost, having chosen a path antithetical to those of N’Jobu’s ancestors. But Killmonger is a son of the West: a student of the streets of Oakland, an Annapolis Naval Academy graduate, and a CIA black operative (“one of us” as the CIA agent, Everette K. Ross (Martin Freeman) says). He understands himself to be something new, terrible, and pained, but clear in his spirit visions. At the climax of their battle, T’Challa argues that Killmonger has absorbed too much of the pain and anger of his oppressors, and has as a result become too much like them. Killmonger maintains that his insight into the psychology and the ways of those that have hunted African peoples will give him the strategic advantage. He implies that it is his very experiences in the West that have taught how to most effectively fight back. His experience in the West, far from undermining the purity of his vision, has taught him many useful lessons.

V.

The dynamics of identity, culture, and political ideology in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther add to the ongoing examination of these questions within the fantastic literatures of African diasporic creative artists. Despite the seeming absurdity of examining these issues through a fictional African country in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Black Panther is an important contribution to this conversation. Of course, it hits all of the beats of superhero genere and the corporate model of the MCU:

1) Hero’s origin story
2) Villain challenges hero
3) Hero falls
4) Hero attains moral clarity
5) Hero challenges villain
6) Hero wins.

Ryan Coogler’s vision adds textures and resonance to what could easily be bubble gum entertainment. Black Panther understands itself as existing within the culture and ideological politics of African diasporic history and philosophy. It leverages its position in the pop culture marketplace to have open conversations about the histories of exploitation and alienation endured by African peoples. Though positioned as the villain, Erik Killmonger is not a cardboard cutout but a complex character whose grassroots message of African liberation is as old as the African Diaspora itself. It would have been familiar to figures such as Dessaline of Haiti, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Frantz Fanon. His position is as compelling as the contrasting position of faith, inclusion, and cultural maturity presented by T’Challa. African-descended populations have long struggled with the absence of self-reflective images in popular culture, having only experienced representations of their lives and concerns in the creative expressions of the African diaspora. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a bold step that dares to imagine political and cultural tensions within Africana history as being of world historical import. Which, of course, they are.

Notes on the Contributor
Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College and writes on film, political theory and fronts a cover band for spiritual nourishment. He is a co-editor of De-Colonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2003) and author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007).

Image credit: photo by Alex King, from Black Panther, Vol. 1 collection


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FIVE USEFUL FACTS ABOUT THE FORCE AND RELATED MATTERS (OR, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU SEE THE LAST JEDI)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens today. I suspect many if not most of you will go see it. Hence, I constructed this little guide to some important aspects of the Star Wars saga. Obviously, given both the prevalence of words like “Force” and “Jedi” in the title of this film and the (narrative-wise) previous one, and what we know of the story so far, it seems safe to assume that the nature of the Force, and clashes between different aspects or interpretations of the Force, will be front-and-center in the new film. Hence, I’ve concentrated on some Force-errific trivia tidbits that might be useful in navigating that aspect of the story:

  • Arguably, R2-D2 is the protagonist of the overall Star Wars story. In an interview conducted while filming Return of the Jedi, George Lucas stated that the Star Wars saga was being narrated by R2-D2 to the Keeper of the Journal of the Whills. The Whills are Force-sensitive beings who were revered by holy men known as Shamans of the Whills. For more detail on R2-D2’s role in the saga as a whole, see here.
  • The Whills (or, more specifically, their acolytes) are important too. It was a Shaman of the Whills who taught Qui-Gon Jinn the secret to returning from the dead as a “Force ghost”, and Qui-Gon then passed this knowledge on to Yoda and the surviving Jedi. Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe (from Rogue One) were Guardians of the Whills – a group of warrior-monks also connected to the Order of the Whills.
  • Jedi and Sith (and Whills) are not the only powerful Force-users in the Star Wars universe. For example, both the Nightsisters of Dathomir (who played an important role in the Clone Wars) and the Force Priestesses at the Wellspring of Life (who also apparently taught Yoda the secret to returning as a Force ghost) are powerful Force users.
  • Kyber crystals are deeply intertwined with much of the conflict in the Star Wars saga. Kyber crystals are critical components of lightsabers, but they are also used in the super-weapons constructed by the Sith and other dark-side Force users (e.g. Death Stars 1 and 2, and Starkiller Base). Kyber crystals are naturally attuned to the light side of the force. Hence a dark side user must bend a kyber crystal to his or her will, causing it to “bleed” (this explains the red color of Sith lightsaber blades).
  • In addition to the force being divided into the Dark Side and the Light Side (although it is not clear that even this division is exhaustive), the Force (both Light and Dark) is divided into four distinct aspects: The Living Force, the Unifying Force, the Cosmic Force, and the Physical Force. These four aspects are tied to different abilities (e.g., a connection to all living things, the ability to see the future, the ability to come back as a Force ghost, and the ability to move physical objects, respectively). Different Force users typically focus on different aspects of the Force, or even argue that one of these aspects is, in fact, the right way to understand the Force.

Enjoy the film, and may the Force be with you!


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Modern Art: A CIA plot?

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Short answer: no, but a great clickbait title. Long answer: it’s possible that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism as an expression of soft power, meant to contrast the individualism of American artists with the realism of Soviet-approved art.

Either way, I’m thinking that those philosophers of art who attempt to define art really err when they failed to include “sponsored by the CIA” as one of their criteria…

Image credit: “Flag” (1955) by Jasper Johns at MoMA, photo by Nathan Laurell via Flickr


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JURY IN 5POINTZ LAWSUIT AGREES WITH ARTISTS!

(AfB was way ahead of the game on the 5Pointz lawsuit.  Just saying.)

So the jury’s back with a recommendation, and the jury has decided that when Gerald Wolkoff whitewashed the graffiti mecca at 5Pointz, he broke the law; under VARA, he should have given the artists sufficient notice so that they could preserve or remove their artwork.  The judge gets the final say on the verdict and on any penalty, but the jury’s decision is still a big deal, as this marks the first time that VARA has been decided by a jury in court.

The artists argued, under VARA, that their work was of reasonable public stature, and so they needed to be given 90 days notice.  If the news reports are correct, the lawyers for the developer argued that VARA was irrelevant, because the case concerns property, and presumably they argued that street art didn’t qualify for VARA.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the Internet, but I wonder if this was the wrong way to argue the case.   Because it seems that if the jury believed that the works at 5Pointz were artworks, then it looks like VARA has to apply; the artwork is well-recognized.  If they’re not artwork, then it’s just a question of property.

I suspect, however, to the average person, 5Pointz is art.    Maybe it’s not art they like, or art they understand, or art they respect, but art all the same. Better, perhaps, to concede that 5Pointz is artwork, but ephemeral artwork of a kind that has no claim on civic protection.  Street art must change with the city.

Image Credit: Aaron Harewood (5pointz graffiti) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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“TO OPEN MY LEGS IS TO OPEN MY MOUTH”: SEXUALITY AND ART

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In September this year, French-Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah De Robertis exposed her vagina in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

A few days ago, she was acquitted of charges of sexual exhibitionism by Paris’s High Court. Why? Because (a) her intent was not sexual in nature, and (b) the “material element of the crime” was missing (= you couldn’t *see* her genitalia because pubic hair obscured it). (Yes, you may giggle now.) Continue reading


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THE INTRIGUE OF ANONYMITY

 

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Banksy arrested!  Unmasked!  Exposed!

Breaking fake news, as it turns out, created by a guy who has developed an Andy-Kaufmanesque approach to creating hoaxes, delighting in particular when his hoaxes get picked up by mainstream news sites.  The hoax article by Jimmy Rustling (how did the Internet not catch this? Come on, Internet.) mixes fiction with fact, and probably would make an excellent example for those interested in knowledge, the propagation of fake news, echo chambers and the like, (cough, cough), but I wondered:

Why does Banksy bother with anonymity?  Banksy’s identity isn’t public, but the rough consensus is that Banksy is probably male, probably British, probably white, probably from Bristol, and probably in his forties.  Banksy has claimed that they’re anonymous because their work is illegal, but this seems not to capture the entirety of it.  Someone that worried about arrest wouldn’t publicize their work on Instagram, or show up at exhibits in a mask.  More to the point, while Banksy’s art continues to include illicitly-placed stencils, Banksy also exhibits work in more traditional installations, and given the notoriety of his work, it’s hard to imagine any city seriously prosecuting a case for vandalism.

(Indeed, given that some of Banksy’s stencil fetch millions at auction, it would make  for an interesting case.  Your Honor, this man illicitly gave me an artwork of great value!  Shades of Pratchett’s anti-crime here.  But I digress.)

Quick take: Pragmatic reasons aside, street art paradigmatically is anonymous or pseudonymous, historically because of its illegality.  But as the art form has matured, arguably anonymity has become an artistic convention.   To make street art require anonymity; one must wear a disguise because some of the aesthetic delight of street art lies in contemplating its creation by the faceless crowd.

Photographed by Richard CocksOwn work, Banksy Graffiti (Park Street) Close shot, CC BY 2.0, Link


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WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH FREE EXPRESSION, ABUSIVE ART, AND UNDERSTANDING?

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What follows is a guest post by John Rapko about the recent Guggenheim Museum controversy.

The controversy

On Friday, September 22, a friend sent me an e-mail alerting me to an on-line petition. This time the issue was that the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had released a list of the names of the artists and their works to be included in the upcoming show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Among the 150 works were three involving live animals, including a video of an installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wherein dogs were strapped into opposing treadmills, where they ran in place, tugged, and snarled at each other to exhaustion. The two other pieces are by artists better-known outside China: a notorious piece by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World”, which shows a large structure wherein many reptiles and insects have been placed, with the animals left to willy-nilly eat each other, fight for space, or make some kind of mutual accommodation; and a video by Xu Bing that shows a boar and a sow, each densely painted with nonsense–Chinese and –Roman characters, mating in a gallery. Thousands of people, including myself after a scanning, were signing the petition. The Guggenheim quickly released a statement urging people to consider the works as a document of their times, and to reflect upon the situation of the artists who were driven to make such works. The signing of the petition only quickened, and by Tuesday, September 26, when the Guggenheim announced that the works would not be shown, supposedly because of the threatening tone of many of the complaints about the show, the petition had garnered over half a million signatories. What had happened? Was it simply a matter of an internet mob hurling electronic threats of violence towards the museum’s employees that forced the otherwise unjustified withdrawal of the works, as the Guggenheim stated? Was the withdrawal further a cowardly capitulation to thugs with an impoverished understanding of animal rights and human rights, indeed “tragic for a modern society”, as the artist Ai Weiwei said? Is this an act of “censorship” violating the artists’ “right to free expression”, as Huang Yong Ping, the artist behind one of the allegedly objectionable works has urged? Or had an inexplicable category mistake been corrected, as implied by the countless objections that “animal torture is not art“?  Continue reading