Monday, January 26, 2015

Auschwitz Photographs

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers in 1945.  The Soviet Red Army found about 7,500 prisoners left, 600 corpses, and thousands upon thousands of suitcases, shoes, toothbrushes, eye-glasses, men's and women's clothes, and tons of human hair all in enormous piles; testimony to the roughly 1.5 million people who perished there.

Probably the most poignant and riveting artifacts from Auschwitz are the surviving identification photographs made for some prisoners sentenced to "extermination through labor."  It is estimated that about 200,000 such photographs were made.  Only about 40,000 survive; most of them are divided between the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel.
One of the camp photographers (all of them prisoners) Wilhelm Brasse survived and helped to save a remnant of the photographs and negatives after German officers ordered them to be destroyed in the last weeks of the Second World War.
The overwhelming majority of people who entered Auschwitz went unrecorded.  They were killed as soon as they disembarked from the transport trains, and no records of them were kept.

These photographs show as no verbal testimony or written record could the brutality of the whole enterprise, and the still burning embers of humanity in each of these people.  Many of them show the effects of starvation, exploitation, and some show signs of violence.  Most of the people in these photos are Jews; they were the overwhelming majority of victims at Auschwitz.  But, some are Poles, and couple of photos toward the end are of men condemned for homosexuality.  The youngest person in the photos was 14 years old.

This is Czeslava Kwoka who was 14 at the time of her death in Auschwitz, here photographed by Wilhelm Brasse.

The following photographs are of 2 men condemned for homosexuality wearing the pink triangle. The top is Otto Herzfeld identified only as a 33 year old man who worked as a "laborer."   He was killed in 1942.
The bottom photograph is Friedrich Kühne, a store clerk whose age and fate remain unknown.

Auschwitz and other death camps like Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Belzec are the black hole in the heart of modern history, an abyss of death and destruction.  They were the fullest expression of the most radical rejection of the principle of common humanity.   People died in the millions upon millions, not so that some conqueror could steal their land or resources or exploit their labor, but simply because someone decided that particular types of human beings had no right to live. In the long history of mass murder, genocide is unique to the modern era; people wipe out an entire genus of humanity solely for the sake of getting rid of them.

A pile of bones and ashes at Majdanek photographed by Soviet soldiers shortly after the death camp was liberated in 1945.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Painting from the Wojnarowicz Series

I recently finished a painting based on this text by David Wojnarowicz:

“When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones. I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving a gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly resolves until it becomes dust. I am consumed in the sense of your weight the way your flesh occupies momentary space the fullness of it beneath my palms. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curves of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”

Here are my photographs (which are not very good) of the painting in my studio.

Wojnarowicz used this same text in a piece that he made shortly before his death.  It incorporates the full text with his own photograph of an excavated ancient Mound Builder burial site, the Dickson Mounds (the burial site is now closed and filled in).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

La Meme Chose

"Secularism is the enemy of all things good and decent."

"Religion is the enemy of all things good and decent."

Two varieties of the same bullshit.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The National Security State

The whole point of a terrorist attack is to terrify and to provoke.  On those terms, last week's terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed the lives of 20 people including the attackers was a tremendous success.  Around 4 million people turned out to demonstrate against the attacks across France, and thousands more around the world joined them.  This attack will almost certainly alter French politics, exactly how is not clear, but the far right xenophobic National Front is sure to pick up some more votes.  There is already a wave of nationalist fervor sweeping the French public, even among the left (I saw the same thing here in New York after 9/11).  Predictably, the very human and very idiotic tendency to generalize from the particular is causing mosques and Islamic centers across France to come under attack.  I remember security already being very tight at tourist spots in Paris when I was there in July.  I saw soldiers (a lot of them) in the crowds at the base of the Eiffel Tower with very serious guns drawn and on display for all to see.  Now, 10,000 more troops are to be deployed in Paris to secure the city.  The attack on Charlie Hebdo was intended to intimidate and in that it will succeed.  Artists and writers around the world (including me) will always think twice before publishing anything that might provoke anyone with strong opinions and a gun collection.  The already spineless American corporate media will shed several more vertebrae in the wake of this attack.

And yet for all the horror and outrage that attacks like these cause (and they really are horrible and outrageous), I have to ask, are these types of attacks existential and mortal threats to the USA and to Europe?  I would argue no they are not.  Compared to what the USA faced before in World War II and the Cold War, Islamic State and Al Qaeda are pipsqueaks.  They can injure the USA and make it bleed, but unless they have the full force of a modern advanced industrialized state behind them (which they don't), they can't kill the USA.  Al Qaeda and IS (along with Boko Haram in Nigeria which massacred hundreds last week in attacks that were barely noticed in the world press) are savage thugs whose leaders I strongly suspect take sadistic pleasure in the very public atrocities that they commit.  We shouldn't forget that the Germans and the Japanese that we faced in World War II regularly and frequently vivisected people, and unlike Al Qaeda and IS, they really were mortal threats to the USA.

Islamist terrorists may not be a mortal threat to the USA or to Europe, but no politician of any persuasion would dare ignore them  The first duty of any state is to protect its inhabitants.  That's the whole reason we willingly pay taxes and obey laws no matter how onerous or unjust.  Political leaders have every interest in preventing such public massacres from ever happening. Their efforts to do just that have dramatically altered life for all of us in the West.

This is a picture of New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square in 1938, a year full of foreboding and tension with war on the near horizon (Japan had already invaded China in 1937).  The USA was in the midst of the second dip of the Great Depression.  And yet, look at all the people crowding the Square from sidewalk to sidewalk and even blocking traffic.  There was a lot of public drunkenness, fights, petty crime, and pickpocketing at those old mass street parties, but they were largely spontaneous gatherings of people who spilled out of bars to watch the Ball drop.

Here is a picture of New Year's Eve in Times Square in 2014, a dramatically different event.  Instead of locals spilling out of neighborhood bars to ring in the New Year, the crowds these days are mostly tourists from around the world.  Unlike the drunken crowds of old, these crowds are sober teetotalers with remarkably capacious and continent bladders.  Drinking is forbidden in the Square and people must go to outdoor corrals and stay there for the duration.  If they leave for any reason, even to answer the call of nature, then they will not be admitted back into said corral.  Note the heavy police presence in this photo and how organized everything is compared to the photo from 1938.  Far from being spontaneous, New Year's Eve in Times Square these days is a thoroughly and carefully planned event.  At least in part, this is a consequence of the Age of Terrorism.

A big New Year's Eve event must be sirloin steak to a terrorist; a huge crowd of people and live television coverage.  Terrorism is a creation of the age of television and live internet broadcasting.  History is full of sectarian massacres, but none was more public and witnessed by more people than the September 11th attacks of 2001.  Millions around the world watched the murder of almost 3000 people and the destruction of a major public landmark in real time for the first time.  I wonder if the impact of similar attacks would have been quite the same in the age of radio and newspapers.  The only thing we in the USA have to compare it to is the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941; a military attack by one large industrialized state upon another, not a series of hijackings by a stateless organization of fanatics armed only with box-cutters.

The 9/11 attacks dramatically altered life and politics in the USA.  In that respect, those terrorist attacks were a huge success, probably the most successful of them all.  The point of the attacks was to provoke the USA into military action, and it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the planners of the attacks.  We have only recently extricated ourselves and our forces from 10 years worth of heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Our operations there were certainly not victorious.  We failed at almost all of our objectives in these places.  The fault lies not with our military, but with the political leaders who created the policies that put American soldiers in these places.  Our invasions of countries that were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, our catastrophic mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq, our abandonment of our own laws and principles for the treatment of prisoners of war culminating in the Abu Ghraib scandal created far more terrorism than it suppressed.

The terrorism we face now is the consequence of decades of policy in the Middle East that was simply imperial.  Ever since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, American policy in that region was about one thing only and that was keeping the flow of this vital natural resource open and uninterrupted.  The world's oldest constitutional democracy found itself in the very awkward position of supporting some of the world's last feudal monarchies along with some brutal military dictatorships; anything to keep the oil flowing.  We are still in that position, cultivating ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar even though we know that they bankroll the very terrorists that threaten us.

Installation by Christian Boltanski, 1980s

It looks as though terrorism is about to succeed in another of its chief objectives, to create so much fear in their targets that they turn upon themselves, upon each other, and against their own constitutions.

The September 11th attacks created the single greatest moment of national unity since the Second World War.  I saw it for myself here in New York.  I remember East Village punk bands doing fundraisers for the families of dead firefighters.  The gay ghettos of Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen
waved American flags and rainbow flags together.  Even the shopping carts of the homeless sported little American flags.  Instead of seeing opportunity in this outpouring of nationalism, the Bush Cheney Administration pursued some of the most divisive policies in American history.  They used the attacks and the terrorist threat to marginalize the political opposition into silence and to cow their critics in the press.  Dissent of any kind was called treason; "Why do you hate America?"  "Why do you support the terrorists?" were very effective rhetorical questions that bullied into impotent silence anyone who still thought that politics was about reasonable discourse.

The Bush Cheney administration and the Patriot Act created the National Security State that we live with now.  Data mining and communications monitoring have effectively vacated the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.  A clear majority of Americans support the use of torture to extract information from prisoners of war and from terrorism suspects.  These policies (partially and perhaps only temporarily halted by the Obama administration) violate military codes of conduct, the 8th Amendment, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (which we initiated and played a large part in writing), and the UN Human Rights Charter (which we also initiated and helped write).  It seems to me that if we are determined to pursue these policies, and to join the ranks of the torturing nations, then the proper thing to do would be to rescind our ties to those treaties and to repeal the 8th Amendment.  It is better to do that, and to make those laws all over again if we should ever come to our senses than to allow them to become vacant hollow shells without any force or meaning.

A certain amount of restriction and surveillance these days is inevitable and necessary, but where does reasonable precaution and judicious protection end and paranoia begin?  When do we begin forgetting who we are and what we are about as we face our fears?

Unless human nature changes radically and quickly, I think it is inevitable that these policies will be used to silence political opposition in the future.  I could see Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, left, right, center, and anything else applying policies meant to deal with terrorism to intimidating political opponents.  It would be so easy to brand one's opposition as terrorists or terrorist enablers and to send them off to Guantanamo or to a network of secret prisons, maybe waterboard a few to make an example.  There's little now to stop anyone from doing just that.  The courts are thoroughly politicized and our corporate media is so compliant that it might as well be a state propaganda agency.  I think that as long as the National Security State exists, this outcome is inevitable.  The question is not if, but when.

The NSA with its monitoring and data-mining, the eagerness of frightened people across the board to forget themselves and their principles and support policies of secrecy and intimidation that properly belong to police states, the worshipful exploitation of the military,  the militarization of the police, the attempts to silence all criticism of security forces, these are Osama Bin Laden's greatest and most durable legacies.

Piranesi, print from the Carceri or Prisons cycle, 1761


I should point out that in the wake of the September 11th attacks in 2001, not only was there a wave of nationalism, there was also a wave of xenophobia.  Mosques and Islamic centers were attacked around the USA in 2001.  The little mosque up the avenue from where I lived in New York was locked up tight for at least 6 weeks after the attacks.  Its congregants were simply too frightened to pray together. There were attacks on non-Muslims, especially on Sikhs.  Idiots came to the conclusion that because they wear turbans and beards then they must be terrorists.  There were attacks on businesses in Chinatown.  I remember seeing a long line of people waiting patiently outside a printing shop in Chinatown for free printed American flags to put up in the windows of their homes and businesses to ward off possible attacks.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Solidarity with the people of France in this difficult hour.

As thousands of the French march through the streets of Paris today to reaffirm their allegiance to Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite in the face of violence and intimidation, Montesquieu has been much on my mind this past week.  He said that it was much more important for people to be free to be wrong than that they should be compelled to be right.


The BBC has pictures from today's rallies in France.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


A cartoon by Joe Sacco

Hat tip to Digby's Hullabaloo.


On the other hand ...


Just to be clear, though I agree with Joe Sacco, I still think this is a free speech issue.  The whole point of the attack was to intimidate; and it may well be successful in that aim.


From our friend in Lyons, Jean-Yves Bonnamour, a photo he posted on Facebook of a spontaneous rally in Lyons on the day of the attacks.

A poster by Paul Colin, originally made for the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

Friday, January 9, 2015


The artists at Charlie Hebdo may have drawn coarse provocative cartoons, but they were artists, and their murders remind us all of the value of that democratic liberalism so many now profess to despise.
Their killers were fanatics inspired by holy men who have more in common with Charles Manson than they do with the Prophet Muhammad.  Those holy men are predators exploiting lost uprooted immigrant youth in a hostile Europe, using their need to belong to goad them into doing unspeakable evil.  The mores of the terrorist cell are not so much those of a religious order than those of a criminal gang or a cult.

Two pictures are much on my mind these days, and have been for awhile.

The first is an old favorite of mine, Nicholas Poussin's painting usually called "The Inspiration of the Epic Poet."  It shows a poet at the moment of inspiration on the right, when the idea, the concept of a great poem first enters his mind.  Apollo in the center bids him to write.  Behind Apollo is a Muse, perhaps Calliope or Clio.  There are 2 putti.  One on the left of center holds an old book and a laurel wreath.  Another flies over the poet and holds 2 laurel wreaths, one over the poet's head, and the other over the work he starts.  Apollo's right foot rests upon a stack of very old and worn books.
The poet probably does not see any of these figures.  His gaze is upward, and yet he is so absorbed in his vision that he seems to look inward.  With his foot resting upon the honored works of the great poets of the past, Apollo bids the poet to add to their ranks to make something worthy of their work.  He bids the poet to do as they did, to memorably and eloquently sing of great deeds of great men and women of old.  Apollo points to the poet's page at the very moment he takes up his pen.  Putti carry laurel wreaths associated with triumph and with Apollo.  They hold them close to the old volumes of the great poets, over the head of the living poet, and over his work.  They serve as Apollo's acolytes bidding the poet to win glory and honor for himself and his work, and to add to the glory of his predecessors.  The figures all sit together in a laurel grove lit by the setting sun at twilight, the most evocative time of the day, the time when people sit together to remember and to tell stories.

I've always loved and admired this painting by Poussin, probably a work of his early maturity from around 1630 or so.  All the figures are splendid, but the most beautiful of all is the Muse on the left, perhaps a portrait of his wife Anna Dughet.  The painting has that quality of concentrated grandeur and the momentous that we associate with the best Classical art.  This picture still has some of the intense feeling that we associate with Poussin's early work.  Poussin made this composition of 5 figures with a kind of b-a-b-a-b rhythm perhaps calling to mind the quantitative meter of ancient Classical poetry, or even something like the iambic pentameter of early English poetry.  The contour of the flying putto on the right beautifully echoes the contour of Apollo's left leg forming a kind of parentheses around the central action of the picture.  I can understand more and more why Cezanne so admired Poussin's work.  It has that perfectly complete and integrated pictorial architecture that is like a great Classical temple; nothing more can be added to it, and nothing can be taken away.  It is whole as our bodies are whole.  The colors combine to create the soft golden tonality of early twilight.

Here is my very bad photo of the original in the Louvre in Paris.  The reproduction above is from Wikipedia.

Here is another very different image of inspiration.

This is a print by Francisco Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" from a suite of prints published in 1799 called Los Caprichos or The Caprices.

It shows Goya himself asleep at his desk in the middle of the night.  A swarm of owls and bats with a cat appear out of the darkness behind him.  The title of the print is inscribed on the desk.  Owls, bats, and cats are creatures long associated with the night and with witchcraft, with everything that the late 18th century would dismiss as just so much superstition.  And yet these Halloween cliches in Goya's print have a power and vitality which is still very unsettling.  Witchcraft and superstition come from parts of the human mind that are far outside the bounds of reason as the 18th century understood it.  They come from the depths of what the 20th century would describe as the unconscious mind, the realm of animal instinct that dwells in us all.
To the left of Goya an owl perches on the desk next to him and holds up one of his drawing pens, bidding the artist to wake up and to work.  Contrary to the exhortations of the 18th century Enlightenment and of the NeoClassical aesthetic, the vast darkness of unreason is perhaps the more genuine source of the artist's inspiration than any light of reason and virtue.

The textbooks all put Goya under the heading of Romanticism, and yet Goya had no contact with the great French Romantics or with any other such artists.  Goya would not have endorsed the Romantic rejection of reason for instinct and feeling.  He certainly would not have endorsed Romantic ideas of the sublime; seeing the beauty and thrill in extreme and even deadly spectacles.  Goya meant for his horrific spectacles to be frightening, not sublime.
I think it is much too simplistic to describe Goya as an outraged liberal, but he wrote in his journals repeatedly "Voltaire is immortal."  Like Voltaire, Goya believed that it was our duty to be reasonable.  Unlike Voltaire and the rest of the 18th century, Goya had no illusions about all-powerful reason dispelling superstition as the sun dispels darkness with its light.  Goya would have agreed with William Blake when he said that "Reason is but the outward bound and circumference of Energy."  He would not have agreed with Blake that "Energy is eternal delight."  Goya saw with great insight for our own day that people are primarily driven by their passions whether of love or hate; that fear and desire far more than reason and virtue drive so much human enterprise.  The dark forces of unreason, far from being weak, are very powerful and we ignore them at our peril.


And how could I not be?

I'm watching all the madness unfolding in France with astonished horror and despair.