Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Urbanism of Superheroes

Batman Begins (2005), Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900), Superman Returns (2006)

In his book about the creators of golden age comics, Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones writes:

The superman was scarcely a new idea and was in fact a common motif of both low and high culture by the early Thirties, the inevitable product of those doctrines of perfectibility promoted by everyone from Bernarr Macfadden to Leon Trotsky. The word had descended from Nietzche’s Übermensch through Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, but it was easily wedded to ideas neither Nietzchean nor Shavian. In Germany Adolf Hitler was claiming that a whole nation of supermen could be forged through institutional racism and Militarism, and his popularity was rising steadily. In America the idea of eugenic was being explored as Ivy League universities… Even leftists could use the word: a Cleveland radical named Joseph Pirincin argued in his lectures that socialist production methods would create a ‘superabundance’ of goods and opportunities, would make the citizens of a socialist future a ‘veritable superman’ by our current standards.

That Depression Era mash of eugenics, nationalism, and progress/self-improvement, when introduced into the settings of the already popular crime pulps, gave birth to two enduring strains of superheroes: those that are inhumanly-super, like Superman; and those that are merely humanly-super, like Batman. Each has a place, an urban setting. More than childhood trauma or costume choices, it is these negative spaces that surround the heroes that make them what they are.

Both these ur-superheroes were recently re-imagined for Twenty-First Century film audiences and their urban settings updated. The phone booths are gone from Metropolis, and the scale and squalor of Gotham's slums has grown even more horrible. The realist pessimism of Gotham and the idealist optimism of Metropolis are attitudes about city life that have their origins in the very earliest moments of the modern world, but it is a false and outdated dichotomy.

Batman & Machiavelli

Batman is the Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli of comic books. Machiavelli's 1513 political treatise, The Prince, is a primer on how to be the God Damn Batman. The Florentine poet justified rule by force, advised that it "is much safer to be feared than loved," and counseled the powerful to use subterfuge and illusion as means to their ends. Batman's role demands that he, exactly like Machiavelli's Prince, stand above us as a paragon of moral virtue, and that his moral certitude justifies the violent means he employs. Batman is humanly-super: stronger, smarter and faster, but also morally superior. He is not simply a stand-alone figure however, he (and the crime-fighting overmen he inspired) require us to accept the grimmest judgment of our all too human nature. For Batman to function, city dwellers must be reduced to vermin. Gotham is a portrait of the city as a rat's nest.

This vision of Gotham reached its peak in 1986 with the publication of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. In Miller's story Gotham City had been overwhelmed by gang violence, a playground for youthful superpredators, and populated by the sorts of passive "bystanders" who supposedly stood by and watched as Kitty Genovese was cut down. The story we were being told was that cities were ungovernable, escalating crime was unstoppable, and we, the people who lived in the cities, were cowardly, corrupt, and morally bankrupt.

Superman & Sir Thomas More

Superman is the Utopos of comic books, and Metropolis is the city-as-it ought-to-be. In Sir Thomas More's 1516 political fantasy, Utopia a conquistador named Utopos invades a peninsula somewhere in the Americas, makes himself king, and founds the perfect state:

Utopus, that conquered it (whose name it still carries, for Abraxa was its first name), brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind. Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them. To accomplish this he ordered a deep channel to be dug, fifteen miles long; and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labor in carrying it on.

One of the earliest stories Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman, wrote about the Man of Steel, was a story in which Superman confronted juvenile delinquency by tearing down the slums where the troubled youth lived so authorities would be forced to build “decent public housing.” In Batman's Gotham, human-nature makes the city a bad place. In Superman's Metropolis, exactly like More's Utopia, it is the city that makes people bad, and it needs to be physically reordered for it to be a "good place" and for "the rude and uncivilized inhabitants" to be brought to "that measure of politeness." Superman isn't just any sort of utopian; he's a Modernist.

The "Superman in the Slums" story appeared in 1939, the same year that New York World's Fair opened, celebrating the theme of the World of Tomorrow. DC comic would print special editions comics featuring Superman for the Fair and even sponsored a Superman Day. One of the Fair's organizers' and the man who embodied the vision of housing projects and superhighways that would "displace outmoded business sections and undesired slum areas" was the Modernist urban planner Robert Moses. Slum clearance was the heroic utopian labor of the day, and he was the man responsible for bulldozing more acreage of "slum" housing then any other.

Map of Utopia (1595), Action Comics #8 (1939)

The “splendid housing conditions” that Superman's creators, Siegel and Shuster, so admired, were exactly the sort of no-nonsense housing blocks Robert Moses would bulldoze whole sections of New York City to build. This was no coincidence; Moses was one of the most influential men in America in 1939. His ideas about city planning would not only shape New York, they shaped cities around the world.

According to his nemesis, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, in 1961 Moses planned to level the existing housing stock in New York's Greenwich Village (where she lived at the time) and "mass-produce a new 'neighborhood,' formed for the most part by large, identical buildings." Superman's mission in 1939 was clear-cut; to get rid of crime-ridden slums, and replace them with rationalized modern structures where crime would be a thing of the past. As it turns out, the reality was a bit more complex.

Due to the efforts of Jacobs and her neighbors the Village was not bulldozed. The neighborhood was categorized as a slum and slated for clearance, not because of a crime problem, or sewage running through the streets. It was, and is, one of the nicest areas of New York City, but because of the density and age of housing stock the Modernists categorized it as a slum. While ‘slums’ were portrayed as crime ridden in comic books, the term as it was used by urban planners, politicians, and bankers had nothing to do with public safety. The reasons for clearing them were dogmatic. Modernist planners believed a good city ought to be new, allowing them to separate residential and commercial areas, provide suburban lawn-like green space, and should be isolated for the corrupting influences of bars. In her first book Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs systematically attacked these presumptions. Argued against playgrounds and parks and championed wide sidewalks and neighborhood bars.

Jane Jacobs & Wonder Woman

In her second book The Economy of Cities Jacobs explained that Moses' scheme for the Village would have cost $35,000,000.00 (in 1964 dollars) and would have destroyed "more than seven hundred existing dwellings, the expenditure would have resulted in a net gain of 300 dwelling units and a net loss of 156 businesses." Jacobs and her neighbors successfully resisted the slum clearance efforts and even offered an alternative scheme. They proposed the city use already vacant lots in the neighborhood and build new stock there. Jacobs says the alternate plan would have displaced no one, cost only $8,700,000.00, and would have added 475 dwellings.

Jacobs accused Moses and other modernist planners of being utopians. While that charge is usually taken to mean unrealistically optimistic, Jacobs carefully constructed criticism of the Modernist makes the charge of utopian far more pointed and reveals just as much about More as Moses. The vision of mass-produced block replacing the chaos of neighborhoods has been with modern cities since Thomas More described his Utopia:

He that knows one of their towns knows them all—they are so like one another, except where the situation makes some difference… Its figure is almost square… Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house… they say the whole scheme of the town was designed at first by Utopus, but he left all that belonged to the ornament and improvement of it to be added by those that should come after him, that being too much for one man to bring to perfection.

Robert Moses & Superman

In his book about utopias and scifi, Archaeologies of the FutureFredric Jameson makes it is clear that Thomas More’s Utopia grew was a reaction against the “irritant” of commerce and money that in More’s time “remained episodic,” flaring up within the fairs and cities, but not yet an element of rural life. Utopia reflects More’s “nostalgia for monasticism.” And the brand of anti-urban fantasy he spawned at the dawn of the modern era set a pattern that is still in play, that by imposing rational order onto the chaotic and congested space of the city. Like Moses, Superman was probably against bars, most urban reformers were (and probably still are). Jacobs was bucking dogma and common sense when she wrote a thoughtful and convincing defense of bars as important elements within a healthy city block.

The agenda of the Modernists was for the forthright moral purity of basic rural life to be restored to those poor lost city dwellers. Exactly like More, Modernist planners believed that by re-ordering cities physically, moral orders could be re-organized as well. History has shown that they were wrong. The splendid housing conditions built by the moderns had their own problems. In Chicago, where I grew up, housing projects were geographically isolated from the greater city and used as holding pens for the poor, in a city referred to by the KKK leader David Duke "segregation city" (that was a drag), the projects became racially segregated ghettos. In his graphic novel Give Me Liberty Frank Miller, Batman's great chronicler, fantasized about encapsulating the crime and disorder of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing projects underneath a geodesic dome. (Miller is a Sith.)

Superman & Robert Moses

As a part of his American Icon series, Kurt Anderson did a really detailed and interesting profile of Superman. The piece discusses how after the "Superman in the Slums" story (which had Superman fighting the national guard), the editors at DC reigned in Siegel and Schuster. Superman lost any political edge and increasingly became an "establishment figure," no longer challenging the authorities. It wasn’t until Frank Miller’s Dark Night Returns was published almost fifty years later that Superman’s political role as an establishment figure always loyal to the American state was once again tested. In Miller's story America was on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. Batman and Superman are at loggerheads. Batman was in a "by any means necessary" battle with street crime and Superman had effectively become an arm of the US Military; a super-human Ollie North serving at the pleasure of a comically decrepit Ronald Reagan.

The birth of Metropolis (and its shadow Gotham) took place at the end of the Great Depression and the earliest moments of WWII. Miller's story appeared at the end of the Cold War, at a moment when American cities were spiraling downward from years of neglect and the world faced a true existential threat. The two stories bookend a period of ferocious urban development shaped by a powerful anti-urban pessimism that was shared by all corners of the Ideological divide. One of the few things that nearly everyone could agree during the Cold War; communists and capitalists; liberals and conservatives, was that cities were violent incubators of sin and vice.

Superman: Red Son, & The Watchman

Jane Jacobs is a notable and prescient exception. In 1968 she wrote about how that pessimism shaped urban policy on both sides of the ideological divide at the height of the Cold War. She relates the story of how the Rockefeller Foundation invested in building a contraceptives factory in rural India.

The Rockefellers, early in the 1960s, decided to build a factory in India to produce plastic intrauterine loops for birth control. At the same time they were undertaking to combat the Indian birthrate [in the mistaken belief that poor people perpetuate poverty by multiplying excessively], they also wanted to curb migration to Indian cities. A way to do this, they thought, was to set up industry in small settlements instead of cities.

Mao Zedong & Kal-El

Jacobs reports that the experiment was a fiasco; that the factory had to be closed down and moved to a nearby city. She presciently questioned the premises the Rockefellers were working from. She wrote that the Rockefeller’s little fiasco “casts light on the great fiasco of Chinese economic planning of 1957-58, so hopefully called the Great Leap Forward.”

The planners of this program shared with the Rockefellers the belief that village industry would be more wholesome for a predominantly rural country than city industry. In Part, for reasons to be mentioned later in this book, the policy seems to have been a defense measure, but it was also, in part, evidently based upon the conventional belief that cities are superficial economically while rural production and rural life are ‘basic.’

According to Jacobs the Great Leap was designed to counter the movement to cities, as well as to industrialize China rapidly, but “In spite of heroic efforts, few of these factories ever got into production, the program was abandon after two years. The economic corpse of the attempt dot China.” While Jacobs does not discuss it, one could add the racist regime of South African Apartheid to this list. Starting in 1948 and lasting until the 1990s, Apartheid was an effort to create an Industrialized economy while simultaneously excluding black workers from city life. Of all the modern urban planning experiments, this was probably the most hideous and strange, but again, it was founded, in part, on the same urban pessimism that was shaping cities around the developing world (the other part being a particularly septic racism).
At the same time it was becoming apparent that the utopian reform of the slums promised by Robert Moses and valorized by Superman’s Metropolis was a failure, scientific findings based on rat studies confirmed the grimmest fantasies of Gotham; bolstering the septic racism and anti-urbanism of those who feared and misunderstood the “inner city.”

Batman Begins (2005), John Calhoun's "Behavioral Sink" (1970)

In 1962 Scientific America “published a seminal paper by experimental psychologist John B. Calhoun entitled ‘Population Density and Social Pathology.’” It wasn’t until 2000, when American cities were well into their recovery that Calhoun’s scientific metaphor of rats and humans was rebutted in that same magazine by the primatologist Frans de Waal:

[Calhoun’s original] article opened dramatically with an observation by the late- 18th-century English demographer Thomas Malthus that human population growth is automatically followed by increased vice and misery. Calhoun went on to note that although we know overpopulation causes disease and food shortage, we understand virtually nothing about its behavioral impact.

This reflection had inspired Calhoun to conduct a nightmarish experiment. He placed an expanding rat population in a crammed room and observed that the rats soon set about killing, sexually assaulting and, eventually, cannibalizing one another. Much of this activity happened among the occupants of a central feeding section. Despite the presence of food elsewhere in the room, the rats were irresistibly drawn to the social stimulation— even though many of them could not reach the central food dispensers. This pathological togetherness, as Calhoun described it, as well as the attendant chaos and behavioral deviancy, led him to coin the phrase “behavioral sink.”

Calhoun’s behavioral sink helped harden anti-urban biases into a scientifically-based dogma, de Wall and his coauthors admitted:
Primate research initially appeared to support the harrowing scenario that had been presented for rats. In the 1960s scientists reported that city-dwelling monkeys in India were more aggressive than were those living in forests. Others claimed that monkeys in zoos were excessively violent. Those monkeys were apparently ruled by terrifying bullies who dominated a social hierarchy that was considered an artifact of captivity—in other words, in the wild, peace and egalitarianism prevailed. Borrowing from the hyperbole of popularizers, one study of crowding in small captive groups of baboons even went so far as to report a "ghetto riot.”

Planet of the Apes (1968), All Star Superman (2005)

In an essay about the science fiction author Charles Stross the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman observed that “Modernization turns out to be pretty hard to do. I may have a better sense of this than most, because I’m an economist of a certain age. When I went to grad school in the mid-70s, I thought about doing development economics – but decided not to, because it was too depressing. Basically, circa 1975 there weren’t any success stories: poor countries remained obstinately poor, despite their access to 20th-century technology.”

Elsewhere, Krugman says that it wasn’t until the mid 1980s, that development tactics began to be effective, but he admits that economist still don’t understand why. Krugman is referring to efforts to develop third world economies, but modernization is urbanization. (Something the Rockefellers and Chinese learned the hard way.) Jameson observes that Utopia was published “...almost exactly contemporaneous with most of the innovations that we have seemed to define modernity (conquest of the New World, Machiavelli and modern politics, Ariosto and modern literature, Luther and modern consciousness, printing and the modern public sphere).” Curiously the one innovation Jameson leaves off his list is explosive urban growth that in the 16th century began its spread around the globe.

The God Damn Rudi Giuliani & The Dark Knight

That explosive growth has most often been pointed to as a negative. That was the case in the mid 1980s when Frank Miller’s wildly violent Gotham was first published. City life the US was at an all time low, violent crime was skyrocketing and suburban malls seemed to be about to deliver the killing blow to already stressed downtown shopping districts. Miller’s Dark Knight was fingering a very real wound, but what he couldn’t know then (and judging by everything he has done since, has still failed to absorbed) was that his grim vision of city life was about to be overturned, not by scientific studies, but by urbanites themselves.

On his website, Malcolm Gladwell, who made his reputation writing about street crime, admits that, “The startling decline in crime in major American cities in the mid-1990’s is a mystery. No one predicted it. Everyone thought that high crime rates were a permanent feature of urban life.” The moment Gladwell is the same bewildering moment that Krugman is referring to. Only a few years later city life would pass through a change so profound that observers are still at a loss to explain it. Urban crime dropped so precipitously in the 1990s that explanations ran the gamut from legalized abortion, that social change may resemble disease tipping points, and even (my current favorite - thank you Felix Salmon) that since the removal of leaded gasoline from the market young men are less violent. (I do not give NYC's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, any credit for the drop in crime. Crime rates continue to drop in cities where no special action was taken, along with cities like New York that aggressively policed minority communities.)

In his 1999 article de Waal explained what city dwellers themselves had already begun to show, that Calhoun's findings were flawed. A better understanding of apes and more carefully designed studies, make clear that primates are not rats:

Our research leads us to conclude that we come from a long lineage of social animals capable of flexibly adjusting to all kinds of conditions, including unnatural ones such as crowded pens and city streets. The adjustment may not be without cost, but it is certainly preferable to the frightening alternative predicted on the basis of rodent studies.

Like the mysterious changes in the effectiveness of developmental efforts that has Krugman scratching his head, economists, policy makers, and pundits are still not sure why urban violence has been dropping. The evidence on the ground, that violent crime rates are continuing to fall, is bolstered by de Waal's findings. It is no longer a given that cities are violent "behavior sinks."

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968), Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman (2005)

In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand recasts Calhoun’s urban pessimism in terms of cultural and environmental hope for our global future. He calls cities “populations sinks.” In Brand’s judgment the Calhoun's behavior sink becomes a needed reservoir akin to the much-celebrated carbon sink. Brand unsentimentally points to the positive qualities of population density, not only because city dwellers have fewer children, use less energy and generally have a much smaller carbon footprint than their rural counterparts, but because cities are engines of creativity and positive social change. “Cities are wealth creators.” He writes, and he points out, they are the future:

The ten-thousand-year flow of people to cities has become a torrent. In 1800 the world was 3 percent urban; in 1900, 14 percent urban; in 2007 50 percent urban. The world cross that threshold – from a rural majority to an urban majority – at a sprint. We are now a city plane, and the Greener for it… At the current rate, humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade. It’s the largest movement of people in history.

Kowloon Walled City (1898-1987), The Narrows

To sustain the fiction of cities as rats nests for 21st century audiences, the director Christopher Nolan created a massive third world slum directly across the river from the fictional American Gotham. In Nolan's Batman Begins "The Narrows" is a neighborhood so dangerous, "Cops only go there in force." The architecture of Nolan's slum is recognizably that of a Brazilian favela, or Mumbia squatter settlement.

Like Jacobs in 1961, who was opposed to Modernist slum clearance and saw density as a positive quality invisible to her contemporaries, Brand sees the high density of slums of contemporary South America, Asia and Africa as the model for future city life. While Jacobs pointed to so-called slums as healthy, but underserved neighborhoods in Boston and New York, and argued that they were positive examples to be emulated by planners, Brand points to vast squatter cities that house billions of people globally as feral urbanism that needs to be legitimized and fostered. The favelas and katchi abadi are thousands of times larger then the neighborhoods Jacobs wrote about, but Brand points out that San Francisco started out as a shanty town, and while he is quick to admit that "new squatter cities look like human cesspools and often smell like them," these are still neighborhoods, they are a legitimate form of urban development. These are not the "breeding ground for suffering and injustice" that Nolan has cast them as. In Brand's description squatter cities are vibrant:

Their narrow lanes are bustling markets, with food stalls, bars, cafes, hair salons, dentists, churches, schools, health clubs [I am quoting], and mini-shops trading in cell phones tools, trinkets, clothes, electronic gadgets, and bootleg videos and music. This is urban life at its most intense. It is social capital at its richest, because everybody in a slum neighborhood knows everybody else intimately, whether they want to or not. What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Kowloon Walled City & Jane Jacobs

Explosive urban growth is modernity. Utopia is to urban growth as industrial agriculture is to wild growth. Utopia is the expression of an anti-urbanist bias; a desire to tame cities; to rationalize and control their growth; to impose moral order. Rem Koolhaas calls the explosive urbanism of early 20th Century Manhattan a “culture of congestion” and blames European modernism for "lobotomizing" the "Capital of Perpetual Crisis." In a nice bit of post-war symmetry, the Situationist International idealized the confounding and compressed center of the old Ville de Paris, defending it against a brand of modernist development widely seen as American, and prompting Raul Vaneigem to proclaim:

“Our position is that of combatants between two worlds - one that we don’t acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist.”

These are the same forces that denuded Superman and turned him into a creature of the establishment, and justified Batman’s uncompromising violence If squatter cities are indeed the world of tomorrow, one is left to wonder what a feral superman would fight for, how he would fight, what he would fight against, and what kind of city it would take to support him. At the time The Matrix premiered I remember thinking that this was the superhero movie I had waited for my entire life (I cannot describe how much it bummed me out to watch Spiderman climb around suburban corporate developments). I was struck by how different the city and the hero both were from either the crime fighter or the superman. The film held out the promise of something new, something feral.

Christopher Reeves (1978), Keanu Reeves (1999)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Portrait of the Artist as Supraman

Most heroes of Hollywood action movies aren't supermen, they're suprahuman. They’re beaten, shot at, dropped from buildings - they get cuts on their faces, their shirts get bloody but they never die. This is not because they have magical abilities like Spiderman or Dracula. Freddy Krueger is super. Hannibal Lecter, supra.

But not all supramen are created equal, there is a range. Some are just working stiffs - cops or firemen or some such - dropped into an extraordinary circumstance and forced to rise to the occasion. Bruce Willis' detective John McClane in the film Diehard is the best of the Joe-average variety.

Others are natural wonders, geniuses, like Bill Pullman's detective in the film Zero Effect (please make a sequel), these characters are in some ways clearly superior to us, they have mental and physical resources we can imagine having. All the same these supra-heroes are human, they aren’t bulletproof. Either the bad guys they face are just dependably bad shots or the the supra-hero is consistently very lucky.

Finally there are those who have been some how honed to perfection like Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. These characters verge on the super human, they can catch bullets, survive wounds that would kill the average man or woman.

It is possible to find examples of artists at every point on the spectrum, but what is interesting is different points are occupied by very different types of artists. "Stick-up artists" in Hollywood films aren't artists at all. Bank robbers, con men, magicians and prison break movies often have the same sort of material focus as sculptors.

The planning, plotting, fabricating, and execution all remind me of mounting a large installation, or piece. This is that baritone intersection of the dandy and Ben Davis. They are the David Smiths of Hollywood movies. But while these bank robbers/magicians/et al are uber-competent craftsmen, they are hardly ever supra. Sculptors are really rare in Hollywood movies, so one can't be too picky. The Iron Giant is a great movie, but I love it because one of the main characters is a beatnik sculptor (but not at all supra).

Detectives are more conceptual. Unlike spies, like James Bond, who are awesome but not artists in any sense (they are the fantasy of the early adopter), detectives like Sherlock Holmes are graphic designers. They are Hollywood's version of the branding experts and font geeks featured in Gary Hustwit's film Helvetica.

Sherlock Holme's attention to detail is mirrored in the awesome specialty knowledge designers trade in, but most of the rest of us take for granted. Just as Sherlock Holmes can tell all that needs to be known about a man from his walking stick, for designers differences appear in the use of fonts, and proportionate spaces. In a piece for the times Michael Bierut explains:

“I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy... My font nerdiness makes me have bad reactions to things that spoil otherwise pleasant moments... Cooper Black is a perfectly good font, but in my mind it is a fat, happy font associated with the logo for the ‘National Lampoon,’ the sleeve of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ album and discount retailers up and down the U.S... I wouldn’t choose it as a font for St. Agnes Church even as a joke. Every time I go by, my vacation is, for a moment, ruined.”

We are all Watson in relation to Bierut. But also like Sherlock Holmes and Daryl Zero, designers are a bit lost between cases. Their passion is dependent on an assignment. They need a challenge in which to apply their creativity. Between jobs I imagine they all collapse into a drug fueled depressions.

My personal favorite artistic supraman is Richard Dreyfuss' character, Roy Neary in Close Encounters. His line, "Next time try sculpturing." has always seemed the perfect justification for the primacy of sculpture over painting. Neary is a really interesting depiction of the artist. Unlike most artists in Hollywood films, like Jack Dawson, Leonardo Decaprio's sketch artist in Titanic, who are throwbacks to a romantic idea of the artist, Neary is a post-war hybrid. He's Jackson Pollock but he is Pollack after Duchamp.

Unlike the fey Duchampian serial killers, who have their origin's in Hitchcock's re-imagining of Norman Bates as a young sensitive Anthony Perkins (Bates was a fat bald drunk in the book), Neary is very similar to the ideals of both his action hero and Action Painting equivalents. Like John McClane, he's a failed family man. Duty destroys the cop's family, visionary passion the artist's. Either way they both easily fit within the same non-threatening social norms of working class life that post war artist were made to fit.

Additionally he is a man lit up by a passion, struggling against himself, an alienated visionary. In 1966 the artist Robert Smithson mocked this romantic notion of artistic passion, quoting a press release for the bio pic Lust for Life: "Shot in Cinemascope and a sun-burst of color on the actual sites of Van Gogh's struggles to feel feelings never before felt." Having visionary passion is the artistic equivalent of dodging bullets. Neary is a Hollywood supraman, but in a particularly 1977 way.

In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut explains that "after WWII alienation ceased to be seen in the United States as a deviant condition and began to be viewed as a way of being. The period saw a reevaluation of madness and, more generally, alienation:"

The years 1947 and 1948 saw formation of such an organization and the establishment by the avant-garde of a new standard reference based on alienation and on the notion of freedom of the artist individual, together with all the anxiety and contradiction inherent in such an approach.

According to Guilbaut, American Cold-Warriors were pushing the idea that "true freedom" could be recognized by the "anxiety and frustration that the individual feels when faced with a choice." that in contrast to the "totalitarian certitude" of Soviet socialist realism:

The free world offered the exuberant Jackson Pollock, the very image of exultation and spontaneity. His psychological problems were cruel tokens of the hardships of Freedom. In his 'extremism' and violence Pollack represented the man possessed, the rebel, transformed for the sake of the cause into nothing less that a liberal warrior in the Cold War.

That narrative of tortured angst was largely abandon by the contemporary art world sometime during the 1960s. Smithson was not alone in his distain for that romantic idea. In his essay Notes on Sculpture II Robert Morris dismissed the "retardataire" part-by-part "Cubist esthetics" of the post-war sculptors and painters: "Such things as process showing through traces of the artist's hand have obviously been done away with." he wrote. (The painter Chuck Close is even harsher: "Inspiration is for amateurs.")

In a favorable piece on Sol Lewitt, an artist famous for not executing his own drawings, the critic Lawrence Alloway wrote that traces of the artists hand were believed, "because of there intimacy, authentic evidence of the artist's presence. Personal touch is highly valued on this bases." Elsewhere Alloway wrote:

The process-record of the creative act dominated all other possibilities of art and was boosted by Harold Rosenberg's term Action Painting. This phrase, though written with de Kooning in mind, was not announced as such, and got stretched to cover new American abstract art in general. The other popular term, Abstract Expressionism, shares with "action" a similar over emphasis on work-procedures, defining the work of art as a seismic record of the artist's anxiety.

A sea change was taking place at the time Allow was writing. It was a change Hollywood has absorbed unevenly at best.

In a talk for the Frieze Art Fair the historian Thierry de Duve said that the most famous modern artist going into the nineteen-sixties was Pablo Picasso (the father of the "Cubist esthetics" Morris dismissed), but by the end of the decade it was the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. In the 1970s artists like Robert Smithson abandon painting and object making and headed into the desert. Neary is a great depiction of the artist in that moment.

"This means something, this is important." he insists. This is the cry of an abstract artist at a loss. He is looking at a shape carved out of potatoes. The 1970s were a time when abstract art was falling from favor, but hadn't completely collapsed (it never quite did but there were some years where it was no fun making abstract work in art school). It was a transitionary moment when artists were still struggling to find meaning in abstraction, but meanings wholly separate from the narratives of the Cold Warriors. If his visionary passion is a relic of a Cold War artworld, his alienation clearly isn't a dated stand-in of freedom and democracy.

From the first moments we see him, its clear he is not a great match to the world he occupies. He is a bit of a man-child. A distracted father. And while he is shown displaying knowledge and competence at work, its clear he's not a guy with a lot of responsibilities. After his close encounter he is distrustful of authority, and while he is hardly a revolutionary, Neary's desire isn't a straightforward mater of self-expression. He wants to know "What the hell is going on!"

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Architecture of Serial Killers

A few years ago I was seated next to a guy at a dinner party, where I had been introduced as an artist from New York. It was somewhere far enough out of town where that was exotic (we are like fleas on a yard dog in Brooklyn), and my dinner companion, who was an accountant or some such thing, asked me what artists talk about when they get together. I said, "Movies. What do you guys talk about?"
I was giving the guy a hard time, but I wasn't joking. There is good reason to believe its always been this way (in New York at least, which really doesn't date back as an artworld much beyond WWI). In 1966 the artist Robert Smithson wrote:
Artists see an infinite number of movies. Hutchinson, for instance, instead of going to the country to study nature, will go to see a movie on 42nd Street, like ‘Horror at Party Beach' two or three times and contemplate it for weeks on end. The "blood and guts" of horror movies provide for their "organic needs," scifi movies provide for their "inorganic needs." Serious movies are too heavy on "values," and so are dismissed by the more perceptive artists. Such artists have X-ray eyes, and can see through all of that cloddish substance that passes for "deep and profound" these days.
I like that Smithson quote, not because I imagine myself as having "X-ray eyes" but because it gives me solid high art grounding for my disinterest in serious film. I know movies the way most Americans do. I go to them. As an artist I watch for artists. Bio pics like Thirty two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Mishima are obvious places to look (and two of my all time favorite movies), but because movies are made by artists, I don't just look in the obvious places. I watch for artists in every movie I see.
There are no artists is Star Wars (just felt it needed to be said). Heist movies are a super badass version of how it feels to work on a large art exhibition (and probably a film) - bring the team together, pulling an old friend back into the game, building task-specific tools, all-nighters, then finally the job, a short celebration and everybody goes there separate ways. But it is an imperfect fit. Thieves seldom have a point beyond profit. If there is an agenda at all it might be revenge. Heists are not art. Serial killers in Hollywood movies are a perfect fit. They are the Marcel Duchamp of Hollywood. They have a point, and it is to upend convention, break down social norms, to shock. They are manifesto writing preachers.

Smithson went on to write in that same essay that "Artists that like Horror tend toward the emotive, while artists who like Sci-fic tend toward the perceptive." Again, I am making no special claims about my perception, but I am not a big fan of Horror. All the same, some things stick out.
The serial killer's lair in Se7en looks like the most awesome artist studio ever. It is filled to the ceiling with tools, images, sketchbooks, stacks of material, and cool constructions made of appropriated materials. Likewise with Hannibal Lecter's storage space in Silence of the Lambs. Although strictly speaking Hannibal is an interesting exception. He's not an artist, but he is an aesthete. He is the serial killer as art collector.
Lecter's protégé Buffalo Bill is the midwestern career art professor as serial killer. His lair is a basement workshop. It is a grizzly turn on the sorts of spaces you only see outside New York. In New York an artist is lucky to have one large room, and everyone in New York (not just artists) lives like college students. Visiting artist's studios in Missouri or Michigan or wherever; where artists have more then one workspace; where they live in houses with driveways and own dinning room sets, is a somewhat painful experience for a long time New Yorker.
If Buffalo Bill were going to give me a studio tour it would probably make me a little jealous too: "Here is where I raise my deaths head moths," he would tell me, "I used to special order them. In this room is where I listens to disco while sewing my Ed Gein-esque body suits out of tanned human skin. (he's a HUGE influence on my work.) That? Its an old well, its probably 200 years old, left over from the original homestead. I use it as a holding pen. The house is a Craftsmen. It was built in 1910. When I bought it is had this horrible aluminum siding. Did you notice the built in hutch up stairs, and the leaded glass? Everything inside was intact. I bought it for $4000.00 eight years ago. Can you believe it?" Kill me.
I first made the connection between artists and serial killers soon after I started art school, because the killer’s walls are always decorated with little pictures, sketches, and other scraps of various what-what. That's what artist student's walls look like: A couple Joel-Peter Witkin photos, engravings of micro-organisms, an cool postcard invitation from a Matthew Ritchie show, a plastic toy, some strips of human skin, and voila, an artist studio/serial killer's lair. These little bits of imagery and reference materials serve the same function in both spaces. They are hung for the benefit of the audience. Students generally don't have much more than a year or two's worth of art, very few tools usually little or no furniture. They hang images that are supposed to give some insight into their creative process; to tell us a little something about what he or she is creating, but also give a studio some ambience, make it feel arty. I still do it. Serial killers ALWAYS do it.
The Cell takes this trope one step further. In that film we actually see into the killers mind and what we are shown are images lifted directly from the art world (Matthew Barney, and Damien Hirst most notably). Watching it was a bit like seeing a shopping survey show like Greater New York: "I saw that at Gladstone! Wasn't that at Kreps two years ago?, I didn't see that, but I heard about it..." Commercial artists and designers lift imagery from the artworld all the time, Hollywood is no different. And terms like obsessive, schizophrenic and paranoid are used to describe artistic activities with regularity. For a long time I was offended by the association between pathology and creativity. After all, art is a healthy productive engagement with life. Artists should be the ideal, not a gruesome deviance from acceptable norms.
Consider what a serial killer actually is. It is a psychopath with no empathy or sense of guilt. These are not creative people, or expressive people these are empty disconnected violent men (this really does seem to be a social derangement tagged to the Y chromosome). By any definition the serial killer is sexually deranged. As portrayed in Hollywood films their deviance is pointed. While always a bit effeminate they are fey in the most sinister sense of the word. In his essay Losing the War Lee Sandlin writes:
People now understand [fey] to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant, “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair.
Artists are often fey in a far less sinister way. But perhaps it is not that the feyness of art is not being recast as violent deviance, perhaps there is something more complex then homophobia and misogyny going on (in the better movies). Perhaps when someone says an artist's work is obsessive (I get that one a lot), that his or her intellectual style is paranoid (I've gotten that one too) or schizophrenic (that I never hear), art is not being driven down, it is simply being asked to carry a new burden.
Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness not as an organic disease, but as a cultural construction. what is crazy shifts over time. The term nostalgia was originally used to describe a mental disorder. It started its life as a pathology, but has been normalized. In the post war years the paintings of Jackson Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists were discussed in terms of alienation, a term that had been coined to describe a mental disorder. But if I were to describe myself as alienated no one would prescribe medication - it has became a nonthreatening condition akin to nostalgia. Hysteria and homosexuality are no longer treated as mental illness. Feminism and gay rights are still heavily contested ground in our society, but it is clear in which direction things are going. Artist still manage to get the Rudolph Giulianis of the world worked up, but nothing like the battles over Robert Maplethorp's photographs in the 1980s. Whatever anxieties the social conservatives have, their fear is waning.
According to the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the function of the avant-garde “is to deconstruct everything that belongs to order, to show that all this 'order' conceals something else, that it represses.” That was deeply threatening inside and outside the art world once upon a time. But now it has as much rhetorical punch as nostalgia. Of all the varieties of artist the serial killer resembles the avant-garde artist most. They have a agenda of social disruption. They mean to shock and defamiliarize. They are making the avant-garde confusion of art and life in the most gruesome fashion.
But the serial killer is insane, violent, and subtractive. Art can be all of these things as well. It is an alogical enterprise. However Stockhausen was horribly wrong, art is never murder. If artists disfigure flesh, it is almost invariably their own. Marina Abramović, Chris Burden, Orlan, and Bob Flanagan all put their own flesh on the line to make points. Santiago Sierra is the only artis I can think of who disfigures the flesh of other people (shame on him, and everyone who supports him). Art is being asked to lift something out of the sinister depths, but it is not murder. The serial killer is a pointed depiction, it is the artist with an agenda beyond self-expression. It is the artist as an agent of change. These are often disturbing figures.
I remember reading that the reason Foster didn't reprise her role as the FBI agent Clarice in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs was because she felt the script betrayed her character (after seeing Hannibal I saw why, the film had no moral bearings). Empathy is a word we associate with discussions of mental health, but it was coined to describe the relationship of the viewer to abstract painting. It names the struggle to see in the painting what the artist was feeling. Art is not a straightforward, cause and effect experience. Neither is empathy.
Part of watching Silence of the Lambs is knowing who Foster is, knowing her integrity as an actor. She does not just shape my feelings about Clarice, but the entire film. Her presence (and her moral stance when presented with a script she found truly amoral) is a challenge. It dares us not to empathize. The artist in the role of serial killer is shamanistic. Pathologies are being normalized. The fey revolutionary is being masticated, digested painfully and made less threatening.