Monday, March 31, 2014

His Kampf

Not long after moving to Wellington, Justine and I went into a second-hand shop in lower Cuba Street and were confronted by a large Nazi flag. It wasn’t tucked away at the back of the shop either, but displayed – fully unfurled – behind the counter. Our first instinct was to leave, but then we went back and asked the owner if he would please take it down. The request, I’m sorry to say, was delivered poorly and in a shaky voice. Much more calmly and assuredly, he replied that if we wanted it taken down, we’d have to take it home, and it would cost us $50. We left for good.

Now I go home to Italy once a year and the second-hand stalls of our city centres sell Fascist memorabilia. Trinkets, mostly, or party membership cards, but occasionally larger items as well, including the odd bust of Mussolini, whose semblance also graces the pages of calendars sold in the odd sympathetic newsstand. The normalisation of Fascist nostalgia is one of the most visible signs of our ongoing political and ideological crisis, and is so endemic that it would be pointless to confront individual purveyors of the stuff. Somehow around the turn of the century we just let the small-time commerce happen, lost among far larger and more pointed instances of historical revision or the restoration of public monuments like the landscaped forest outside of Antrodoco that spells the honorific of il duce.

Yet there is nothing that is remotely innocent about the nostalgia of Fascist pins or insignia. It indicates, at the very least, a disgraceful level of comfort with the symbols of our collective criminal past. In its commodified form, it also grotesquely mirrors our economic crisis, and the lengths that we will go to extract profit from all the wrong things. But mostly it’s the casual denial of history that should trouble us. It’s a very small step from the superficial, aesthetic fascination with Fascist-era design and iconography to the revisionist statements of our political leaders.

One of the reprehensible lines used in defence of fondly reminiscing about Italian Fascism is that we weren’t as bad as the Germans. German people don’t have that luxury, and although I cannot speak from any direct knowledge of this, it seems they have kept a firmer grip on what can and cannot be published, what will or will not be sold. Neo-Nazism, of course, exists (as it does outside of Germany), but it’s more effectively cauterised from institutions and the wider society than neo-fascism is in Italy.

Which makes it all the less likely that a German person would wear a Waffen-SS helmet as a joke, or do so out of mere ignorance. Kim Dotcom’s explanation for the photo above, taken at a Gumball Rally in 2004, is that someone asked him to wear the helmet so that he could take his picture, and he obliged.

I ask you: who would do that? And not just because the photo may come up again at an inopportune time – it seems safe to presume that the last thing on Mr Dotcom’s mind at the time of that rally was that he might some day enter politics in any country – but generally. What kind of joke is it to wear an SS helmet? What does it say about your understanding of politics and history, about who you are?

That explanation – 'I did it as a joke’ – is the whole damning thing. It’s like with the signed copy of Mein Kampf that Dotcom has admitted to owning: it means nothing more than that he’s the kind of person who would wish to own a signed copy of Mein Kampf. But it means nothing less, either. There is, again, that unacceptable level of comfort with atrocity, and an atrocity perpetrated by your own people to boot. (This matters.) But there is also what participating in this commerce means.

Liberals – not all of them, but many – love defending Dotcom, and they’ve come at this from a variety of angles: that it’s a distraction; that the revelations matter less because they were obviously timed to coincide with the launch of the party, or because some of them come from Cameron Slater, or because some of them come from disgruntled, gagged former employees; that it was just an investment (et tu, Hone); that it’s no big deal and certainly no reason to think he’s an actual neo-Nazi. I even heard someone opine that it’s no different from a library or a museum owning such an object. But the best defence came from Dotcom himself, who explained that he bought that copy of Mein Kampf because he’s really into Call of Duty.
Look, I’m a Call of Duty player, right. So if you know the game Call of Duty, it’s all about World War II, how you play it... and I’m a big fan of that. I’ve bought memorabilia from Churchill, from Stalin, from Hitler.
It’s an extraordinary admission, from an aspiring politician, to be fascinated with Hitler because of a videogame. It’s also a piece of misdirection. The original Call of Duty was released in 2003, and in a Bloomberg interview from 2001 – back when his name was still Schmitz – Dotcom compared the decision to become a businessman he made while under partial detention to the famous turning point in the Führer’s life:
Wasn't Hitler writing Mein Kampf while being arrested? Not that I like Hitler hehe, it's just that strange people can have strange ideas while being arrested.
Another joke, like the SS helmet he would wear three years later, but also evidence of a less naïve, less juvenile Dotcom. His current image of a game-addicted geek is a much better fit with the eligible non-voter whom the Internet Party is supposed to appeal to, and who is also chronically infantilised by the media. Never mind that I suspect that the party will attract more wealthy urban liberals currently voting for the Greens or Labour than disaffected, politically disconnected gamers. It’s really about selling a post-ideological political project reduced to few simple policy-slogans: internet freedom, personal freedom, high-tech jobs. That the figurehead may have flirted with Nazism might not do much for the ‘freedom’ bit, but so long as we can sell it as a Call of Duty-related shopping binge, it won’t hurt the product unduly.

I don’t accept the explanation, and wouldn’t accept it even if it were true. A signed copy of Mein Kampf is no more an ordinary piece of historical memorabilia than that Nazi flag in the Wellington shop was just another antique. Both are powerful symbols of hate, not to be acquired or owned lightly. Every time they are traded among private individuals like mere commodities, they dull our perception of the living link with real history and real genocide. If, in spite of this, you still wish to indulge in the thrill of buying and possessing such totems, you had better be prepared to be asked why, and for progressives to think that you are their enemy.

Credit for finding the Bloomberg interview goes to the indispensable Philip Matthews.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Brandis doctrine

Not knowing where to start, I’ll start from this. The famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro painted by Piero della Francesca around the year 1470.

The portrait is part of a diptych, with Federico looking at his spouse, Battista Sforza, who stands opposite, but the actual reason for the unusual direction of the profile is that the right half of Federico’s face had been horribly disfigured in a tournament.

Federico, to whom the Duchy of Urbino owes its single historical moment of splendour, was one of the great art patrons of the Renaissance. He was also a condottiero, a soldier of fortune. While the House of Medici owed its immense wealth first to textile trading and then to banking – an activity intimately connected to warfare – Federico was one step closer to the battlefield still. The masterpieces of Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, as well as the Duke’s own magnificent 'little study', were traded for in the blood of his soldiers.

Transfield Services is an operations, maintenance and construction services business, operating globally in the resources, energy, industrial, infrastructure, property and defence sectors. In New Zealand, it’s building the ultra fast broadband network and helps run Carter Holt Harvey’s Tasman Mill in Kawerau. In Australia, among very many other things, it has been contracted first by Labor, then by the Liberals to provide ‘garrison and welfare services’ to the refugee detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru, and is thus profiting directly – to the tune of AUD1.22 billion over 20 months – from policing one of the West’s racist frontiers.

The company also boasts a proud tradition of arts patronage, including a four-decade association with the Sydney Biennale that ended this year after nine artists withdrew from the event in protest of Transfield’s sponsorship. As part of the fallout, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis – executive director of Transfield and company co-founder along with his brother Franco – resigned his chairmanship of the Biennale board. Both brothers voiced strong opinions as to the spurious merits of the boycott, and insisted that the company does good work in the detention centres (or, in Franco Belgiorno-Nettis’ words, provides ‘engaged service delivery’).

One could speak of the success of the boycott, notably in relation to prospects of the BDS campaign, but I’m interested today in the nexus of capitalism and the arts, and the rare occasions in which it becomes awkwardly transparent.

Transfield’s long-standing association with a major art event reminds us that one of the principal functions of contemporary art, as it was at the time of Federico da Montefeltro or Lorenzo il Magnifico, is to confer prestige upon the powerful – a prestige that often translates back into more power. In this country, Alan Gibbs assembled a large and spectacular private art collection by profiteering from the privatisation of state assets, and still he gets praised for occasionally allowing members of the public to see it. This is what’s normal. What is less normal is for the violence that underlies the accumulation of capital to become visible and disrupt the nexus. When this happens, we can expect critics to be reminded of their subservient role, like when Tao Wells dared to use public money for an art installation in praise of the unemployed life. The violence, in this case, was metaphorical, but only just. And as our then acting Social Development Minister (who also happened to be the Minister of Justice) and our leading weekly magazine issued vague threats to the public funding body for overstepping the boundaries of propriety, so too in Australia did the Arts Minister (who also happens to be the Attorney General) ask the national arts council to develop a policy that would prevent organisations from turning down private money ‘unreasonably’, or lose their federal funding.

I would be interested in a definition of what might be ‘reasonable’, if not a private company’s involvement in a programme of state persecution and violence. But as Senator Brandis himself clarified, what he meant by ‘unreasonably’ is ‘on political grounds’. His was therefore a direct assault on the right to criticism traditionally afforded by liberal democracies to a select few individuals, namely well-regarded artists and tenured academics. A perceived independence that in turns assists sometimes in obfuscating how those institutions – the arts world, universities – are crucial to the legitimacy of the state, and to the myth of a society in which everyone is free to speak their mind.

I’m as guilty as the next left-wing blogger type of using the word ‘neoliberal’ in vague fashion, to denote the things that are especially dire about the current stage of capitalism. But it seems to me that if we still find proper neoliberalism anywhere, it’s precisely here, in the dismissal of those cherished liberal fictions, for they are no longer necessary or useful. When politicians pass laws to make protests or boycotts illegal; when they dismiss the value of an education in the humanities; when they declare that publicly funded organisations shouldn’t be free to criticise the government; above all, when they state, like Senator Brandis did, that we must take the money. ‘What we can’t have in this country is a culture in which arts companies and arts administrators are not encouraging private philanthropy,’ he said. We just can’t have it. We won’t. And encouraging – that is to say, courting – private philanthropy is another service we provide to wealthy magnates and corporations, as well as a tangible sign of our grateful servitude. We bow still before the mighty Duke.

Obliquely, the injunction to take the money reminds me of the magazine editor’s plea to the nation’s writers to stop giving away their work for free, which came in the midst of the continuing collapse of freelance rates and the vanishing of salaried writing jobs. It is singularly ironic that writers and artists should be berated for withdrawing their labour just as their work becomes less valued and more insecure, but it’s not without a certain grim logic. You are only as good as the work you do as measured by the marketplace, and never for its social value. To operate outside or interfere with the mechanisms of this marketisation, or begrudge the role of business, places you outside of the public sphere. For that choice you must be punished.

But I don’t want to end on a dismal note. The boycott, after all, was a success. Of the nine artists who made it possible, I feel that we should salute in particular the two who didn’t enter their works again after Transfield withdrew. They are Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo. They felt, it seems, that their campaign had only just begun.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Marilyn met Molly

Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off by heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid
(Molly Bloom)

The photograph above and the ones below came to me by way of How to Be a Retronaut, which published them – in typical fashion – without a shred of context, save for the name of the photographer (and the year, which is wrong). This is how we snack on history now, unremorsefully. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Did the famously uneducated Marilyn Monroe really read Ulysses? And if she did, or if she didn’t, what were those photographs of her reading Ulysses supposed to mean? Where they part of the careful (re)construction of her public image, or was the hardback copy of Joyce’s novel merely a random prop? Was it her idea? Was it a joke at her expense?

Decades later, the photographer explained the circumstances of that shoot, so there is an official version out there. But it’s fun to speculate, to pretend that there really was no context and that the famous pictures had really been found in a digital capsule, undated, belonging nowhere. In such circumstances, one would have to situate the pictures judging only by Monroe’s appearance, thus somewhere between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959), but likely closer to the former. This was the time between Monroe’s modelling career, including the famous naked spread for Playboy, and the burgeoning of her film career. A time when she made deliberate efforts to abandon her image of oversexed ingénue in favour of a more nuanced public persona. It’s not just that she wanted to be taken more seriously and land a greater range of roles. It’s also that, as she matured as an artist, she learned how to be in control of her extraordinary beauty and sex-appeal.

The images appear to belong to this period, and tempt us to read them as a simple, direct statement: ‘I’m not a dumb blonde’. Were this the case, however, it would be laboured in a way that belies the grace of the composition. The well-worn copy of the novel, signifying a book not only read, but intimately known and loved. The fact that Monroe is conspicuously reading from the very end of the book, indicating that she conquered the literary mountain. The detail is overbearing.

But then, it’s possible to read the pictures differently. Maybe Monroe really knew her Ulysses, and chose to read from the novel’s final chapter in order to signal an allegiance with Molly Bloom, to whom that chapter belongs. Molly, who worried that people may think her stupid; who was defined by her sexuality and by her fidelity (or lack thereof); who fantasised about a world run by women but only thought of men; who was, in the final instance, written by a man. And perhaps Monroe, reading Ulysses subversively (therefore how it’s meant to be read), further wanted to signal that she felt trapped in a character written by men. Like Molly. Like the Homeric Penelope. Perhaps even that she wanted her final word to be something other than the obsessively repeated, acquiescent ‘yes’ that Joyce picked for Molly.

It needn’t be far-fetched. And what a nice counterpoint it would be to the paternalistic praise from first-time directors of Monroe who claimed to be surprised by her intelligence. But then I’d be yet another guy writing this story. The authors of the shoot were two women, Monroe and Eve Arnold, and Arnold, who died in 2012, gave scholar Richard Brown her account of the events.
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet. As far as I remember (it was some thirty years ago) I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it–but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned – but almost more her input.
I like this version, even as it leaves open the possibility that Monroe might have been trying to impress Arnold, or that she was taking steps to craft her own image, or both. There is no definitive truth available to us. But I like this version. I like that she read from the book aloud, picking her favourite passages, and that she admitted to finding it hard-going. I like that she really opened the book at end, that she read from Molly’s chapter. Above all, I like that she co-wrote this little, perfect story about herself.

Speaking of photography, last week's post was picked up by Capture and features therefore some lovely reader contributions.

Monday, March 10, 2014

One picture of you, and no more

It was taking me so long to draft an obituary of my beloved Alain Resnais for Overland that I re-watched some of his films, in search of inspiration. That’s how I was reminded of the scene in Last Year at Marienbad in which Delphine Seyrig’s character wanders down a corridor and finds inside a desk drawer hundreds of identical pictures of herself.

In the context of the film, the pictures signify Seyrig’s inability to find external evidence of her past that isn’t frustratingly ambiguous or elusive. As a stranger tries to persuade her that they used to be lovers, her only defence is that she can’t remember him, and it gets progressively weaker.

I had forgotten about this brief scene, and I’m struck anew by that image. A single picture, but in an indefinite, infinitely multiplying number of copies. It’s hard not to think of how digital images circulate on the web, or are stored and backed up in the cloud. Conversely, there is nothing so culturally alien to the present time as the idea that there may be only one picture of any one of us.

In my dissertation I drew a contrast between Winston Churchill, whose life was documented in minute detail form the moment of birth, including a great deal of photographs, and my maternal grandmother, of whom there was only one picture before the age of fifty. This one.

Nonna was sixteen at the time, and pregnant with her first child. The picture is so worn because my grandfather took it with him on his military service. I suspect that this was in fact the reason why the picture was taken.

That there is virtually no visual record of my grandmother until her daughter’s wedding, and a very sparse one since, is in no way unusual. It’s not just that cameras and films were still expensive until the 1960s. It’s also that the lives of working class people – and women especially – were not deemed worthy of documentation. Nonna shared in this reticence, and was always reluctant to have her picture taken. In the one we selected for her tombstone she looks like she’s saying: ‘Why are you doing this?’

It hardly bears pointing out that we have collectively moved past such prejudice and misgivings, and that most people are as keen to self-document as the state and corporations are to document them, regardless of class – and when it comes to a visual record, even more so. (This at least in Western countries, and probably outside of them as well.) It’s also trite and boring to speculate whether we may be taking and sharing too many pictures, creating a surplus of description that impoverishes each individual image. Which, to the extent that it may be true, is most often meant as a critique of other people’s behaviour, and seldom reflexively, to question the roots of that desire to see oneself socially immortalised.

But I wanted to turn that question around this week, starting from the arresting image of a drawer full of the same photograph. What if you were forced – due to a material constraint that is pretty well unthinkable – to pare down your personal visual archive to a single picture? Which one would you choose? How would you operate that selection? What would that picture come to mean to you, and could you bear to let go of the others?

Let’s say it has to be a photo of you, not to make it a question of who else is involved, or fulfil their own quota of one. And if it has to be a photo of me, it would probably have to be any one from the set which included the one below. So let’s say this one.

It was taken on a Sunday afternoon, in 1975. I know it was a Sunday, because my father worked on Saturdays and we had guests that day. The photographer was a friend of the family who died just a few weeks ago. There are few photos of him, because he was always the one behind the camera. And he stopped doing it, eventually. He had grown tired of friends using his portraits for their tombstones.

I am attached to this picture because there aren’t very many of me as a child, and because I can see bits of the house in which I was born, and how little it has changed (I spoke about this before). Except for the armchair, that I destroyed by jumping on it repeatedly. Were it the only picture of me, I think I could live with that. It would speak to me of another life.

To have a single portrait of oneself means to have one more than almost all of the people in almost all of history. But wouldn’t that image become an obsession? What if you forgot everything about your life except the context of that one picture? Or remembered everything, except for that. You are sitting in the garden of a wealthy estate, on a sunny day, not far from a statue of which we can only see the plinth and legs. You seem to be happy. You just don’t know why, or who the person in the picture is.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My country is the world

My country is the world;
My flag, of stars impearled
Fills all the skies.

This is a book of primary school readings produced in 1967. It originally belonged to my sister. The poem is by Robert Whitaker, an American clergyman and verse writer (1885-1969) who didn’t greatly trouble the encyclopaedists and literary historians. The Italian title of the book – Il mondo è la mia patria – is the translation of the title of the poem, which is reproduced in its entirety on the last page, at the end of the readings.

This being a schoolbook, my mum covered it, in a rough sort of plastic that is pleasant to touch.

‘My country is the world’ is a reassuringly edifying idea, suited to the post-war myth of a world without conflict – our long, uninterrupted, prosperous peacetime. It also picks up on an image that had been painted to great effect by Edmondo De Amicis in his enormously successful 1886 book Cuore (‘Heart’), whose second chapter is a prolonged and impassioned metaphor of the world's school as an army of children poised to defeat the forces of ignorance and want. Cuore was no longer popular when I was growing up, but it continued to be read in China and the Soviet Union far longer than it did in Italy, likely because of that very message, that a democratic system of education holds the key to a radical refounding of society. So, too, the first verse of Whitaker’s poem can be found in the socialist song America.

However, a key characteristic of De Amicis’ message is that he was profoundly anticlerical. This was perfectly acceptable at the time he wrote the book, when the unification of Italy had finally been completed by defeating the Papal army in Rome, and ideas of progress were inextricably linked among our intellectuals with limiting the power and influence of the Church. It was Pope Pius IX, after all, who had railed in a letter to the newly installed King against ‘the scourge of public education’. But this was before Fascism, before the Concordat between Mussolini and the Pope, before the forty-year hegemony of the Christian Democratic Party, which sought legitimacy from religion and the Church authorities in a manner that differed only by degrees to the rulers of medieval Europe.

And so in the opening of my sister’s book, next to the story of a Sumerian schoolchild of 4,000 years ago – leading into a homily about how all the children on this earth are brothers and sisters – is a Christian prayer. One that grounds that ideal into a very specific culture and tradition, binding universal kinship within a precise subset of beliefs.

The book is so dense with parables and Bible stories, mixed with tales from exotic peoples, little moralities and scraps of general knowledge, that I had to repeatedly reassure myself before writing this post that it wasn’t some sort of Sunday school aid, but an actual text for state school instruction.

Above: The man who discovered penicillin. Below: Let's give thanks to the Lord

I started primary school – the same primary school – nine years later, in the mid-seventies, but those few years were sufficient for Jesus to disappear from the textbooks, along with the more crassly racist depictions of some of the foreign peoples we were supposed to resemble.

'The Redskins'

Also toned down in my reading books were the aggressive attempts to enforce gender norms. Overleaf from that opening prayer was this pair of stories: ‘Mother’s work’ and ‘Tonight your dad is proud of you’. The pictures and titles make translating the content quite superfluous.

There is something uniquely unpleasant about propaganda aimed at children. My parents grew up during Fascism, and so their schoolbooks were immeasurably worse – they taught actual hatred. But even the relatively benign prescriptions of ‘My country is the world’ seem suffocating if one considers how many pupils at our school would have had access to few other reading materials. For them, those primers and reading books, like the Boys’ and Girls’ Annuals of the British Empire, might have been exactly what they aspired to be, that is to say book-worlds, self-contained little guides to realities far beyond the confines of a child’s everyday experience. Although I grew up surrounded by nothing but books, I also felt – I think – that those texts carried a special authority, by virtue of their being endorsed by the school system which I was so eager to fit into.

In thinking how much these books have changed, along with our ideas about education, I turn to the inside back cover. This invites the child to write a list of important addresses. Not their own, but the police, the fire service, the nearest hospital, the parish priest.
Fill this page with care. Write the exact contact details, in good penmanship: they could be useful to you especially if you happen to witness an accident, or if someone needs help; in these cases, you will do your duty of little citizen by alerting the competent authorities.
I try to picture a child of 8 or 9 coming home from school and witnessing an incident that requires summoning the nearest priest. No, this has nothing to do with the ostensible practical advice: it’s all about writing out, in good penmanship, the adult institutions charged with ensuring order, safety and physical and spiritual health. It’s a final, implicit lesson in citizenship, or rather a projection of the model citizen that the book constructs. One whose country isn’t the world – it’s the suburb, the parish. Far too small a world for a child.

The response to my subscription drive of sorts last week went far beyond my expectations, and for that I must thank you all. It was a big help, as well as teaching me something about the value that people are willing to place in a place such as this. We'll continue to think of ways to support our independent media and writers, but in the meantime all I have to say is thanks.