Media Literacy

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in.

The Pusillanimous Art of Lucien Smith Burns the Bronx

Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%. 

How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.

On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.

Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.

Earlier this year, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed Mr. Smith where he noted:

“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”

When asked about future shows he responded:

“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”

This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:

“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”

Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:

“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”

Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.

In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”

What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.

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Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in. http://www.luciensmithstudio.com/?s=ls-581-racist-cartoon

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Trump, A Necessary Evil

Donald Trump: A Necessary Evil

In response to the New York Times article, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak”, a NYT picks, I wrote:

Quite simply, Trump is a necessary evil. No RATIONAL voter really thinks that this billionaire reality “star”, with several bankruptcies and failed marriages (this does not matter to me, but I thought it did to his “constituency”) under his belt, can ever be considered presidential. Trump’s greatest accomplishment has been to highlight the worst features of the other, more “serious”, and often Koch-funded, conservative candidates: he has, with his rather large microphone, noted the staggering failures of politicians like Walker and Christie. Why is this a good thing? Because conservatives would never listen to this coming from someone like Sanders or Clinton. Trump has their attention, and this is quite a conundrum for conservatives. I would encourage everyone on the left to stop slamming Trump—he is going to fracture the right worst than the Tea Party— and just sit back watch Bernie Sanders sweep into office.

This is the beginning of the world depicted in the comedy Idiocracy.

Turnstyle

Gentrification of a Subway Station

Yesterday I attended a comic convention at pier 94 in Manhattan. I took the subway and disembarked at Columbus Circle, which was once a part of my daily life when I was a student at John Jay College. Because pier 94 is at 55th Street, I walked the long, cavernous part of the station that allows you to exit at 56th Street. It had been quite a few years since I walked through that part of the station and was appalled by what I discovered.

All of the thriving businesses that once operated there were gone.

Notably missing was a vintage style barbershop and a very busy newsstand. Also missing was a charming tiled mural created by grade school children titled, Hello Columbus. Instead, I found empty storefronts with homeless people camped out in front.  The exception was an office called Turnstyle (a “clever” amalgamation of the words turnstile and style), where a business could rent out one of the storefronts.

Homeless Individual Sleeping In Front of a Turnstyle Storefront

Homelessness is all consuming.

The following day, I visited the Turnstyle website and discovered these nuggets of information: 30 shops, 22 million people. $135,000 average income.

Really? $135,00.00? I think the people who work at my alma mater, Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, Fordham University and the thousands of retail, hotel and restaurant workers that also use this station could contest this number.

What really burned me about the web site was how it implied that there was nothing there before. I have previously written about how the Giuliani / Bloomberg era created the current state of gross inequality in New York City while killing ethnic and local flavors. Turnstyle is congruent with this.

Once upon a time, the subway was the inexpensive way to get around. Lately it is catering to and fostering the wealthy. Did you know that the MTA is planning to do away with the MetroCard and implement some sort of bankcard? This means that in addition to the fare, you are going to have to pay fees to a bank. Cash is going out of “style”! Fare increases and stagnant salaries are already catastrophic to the working poor. This tactic reminds me of McDonald’s paying workers with debit cards loaded with fees.  There is also a strong connection with gentrification and subway lines. Take out a subway map and circle any subway line with relatively easy access to Manhattan and you can almost predict where gentrification will happen next.

A recent article in The New Yorker about urban blight in the West Village notes:

“The fate of small businesses in the West Village may be a local issue, but it is one with large implications. For one thing, cities remain major drivers of economic growth, and small businesses continue to form a larger part of G.N.P. than their larger cousins. But there is a deeper issue as well. Since the nineteen-sixties, when Americans faced an extreme wave of urban blight, they have understood rising property values as a reliable measure of recovery. But everything can go too far, and at some point high property values may begin to destroy local economic activity.”

While I agree with this, I would like to SHAME The New Yorker for the accompanying photograph that further perpetuates the myth of urban blight as young men of color wearing hoodies.

As the Turnstyle website notes, there is no shortage of high-end stores in the Columbus Circle area. However, they failed to realize that the 1% who live in the neighborhood do not occupy as much space in the subway as the 99% who commute there. Turnstyle AND the MTA have likely created urban blight underground by forcing out the businesses that once offered an affordable haircut, shoeshine and local art.

High end is not necessarily a sign of progress.

Recommended viewing:

The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy

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Luckily, my walk from the train station to pier 94 was not a total loss because I did see this burst of real New York City personality on 56th street.

Garden on 56th Street

A lovely garden located on 56th Street.

A Xenophobic Troglodyte Hates Fútbol

I normally wouldn’t devote much thought, let alone an entire blog entry, to a xenophobic troglodyte like Ann Coulter, but was inspired after watching the World Cup yesterday. This is a response to her shoddily written article about Fútbol (soccer) that created quite a stir on social media last week.

Before I address Coulter’s article, I would like to infuse some media literacy and survey her mindset.

Coulter knows her audience (market). She operates much like Fox “News”, appealing to a certain narrow-minded and largely intolerant demographic. Interestingly, most Fox “News” viewers do not realize (or simply ignore) that the same company broadcasting television series like Glee also owns Fox “News” (not exactly congruent as both appeal to difference audiences). Then there is the foreign ownership: Rupert Murdock is not American and the second-largest holder of voting stock in the company is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (yes, a brown skinned Arab owns stock in Fox “News”). Some may say that MSNBC is the Progressive equivalent, but there are noticeable differences. First of all, MSNBC has at least one conservative voice (Joe Scarborough). Second, whenever you watch an MSNBC program, they provide substantiation: watch a segment of Rachel Maddow and she isn’t merely speaking, she provides sources (often using visuals). Coulter and Fox “News” just tell their audience what they want to hear; they are essentially pushing a product. This mindset creates an assortment of perils, the most notable being the loss of apt discourse. What we have now are Conservatives who immediately reject any idea (like climate change) that bears any semblance to something progressive or scientific (often referred to as ‘elite’) regardless of how sound or how much evidence has been provided.

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As I was watching Brazil play against Chile, in between the infinite cycle of big company logos being flashed on the field monitors, I took notice of a message that conveyed #stopracism. Coulter came to mind because I remember reading one headline regarding how she grumbled about the game being foreign. Out of morbid curiosity I read her article.

Scattered like a shipwreck on a beach, the article manages to take bizarre pot shots at the metric system, soccer moms, girl soccer players and Michael Jackson. Here are several points I have extracted from the wreckage.

  • “You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs. Our hands can hold things. Here’s a great idea: Let’s create a game where you’re not allowed to use them!”
    Not using your hands in sports takes great coordination and brainpower. You have to move and kick the ball while maintaining balance and strategizing where on the field you are going to kick it.

What is so wrong with Americans liking Fútbol (soccer)?

Could it be that some Americans watching the 2014 World Cup may want to start exploring how Brazil became energy independent (https://law.wustl.edu/WUGSLR/Issues/Volume7_2/Potter.pdf )? I have seen solar companies advertised on those field monitors (http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/socialresponsibility/environmental.html ).

Is it because too many brown people are playing?

Is it because it can inspire thoughts of understanding and tolerance?

Or is it because FIFA stands against discrimination and makes it known:

Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. (http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/socialresponsibility/antiracism/index.html )

no to racism

Interestingly, if you watch the games on Spanish-language television, many of sponsors convey the above sentiments (not so on American television).

In a country like the United States, where you have a handful of small minded puritanical holy rollers picking narrow-minded textbooks for children (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/21/how-texas-inflicts-bad-textbooks-on-us/ ), the last thing Americans need is to have an even lesser understanding of the world. I am truly embarrassed whenever I read anything discussing America’s lack of knowledge regarding geography and basic social studies.

Coulter notes American Football’s ratings as if she had been hired by the NFL (http://www.npr.org/2014/01/18/263767372/the-nfl-big-business-with-big-tax-breaks) to stomp out any potential competition. Is it so hard for both sports to co-exist? In Coulter’s narrow view it is. She seems to have little sense that there’s an enormous, complex world beyond our borders.  She seems to think that the universe consists of the United States and then everyone else—and that everyone else should be stomped on.

“If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”

I am pretty sure that Coulter’s readers do not know that American Football came from the European sport called Rugby (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/550852/football )? And Rugby has roots in similar ancient games found in Ancient Greece and China (http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/history/the-game/origins.html ).

Like most things in modern America, it started somewhere else. Coulter, suffocate with that thought the next time you order French fries or a slice of pizza.

Ann Coulter, Circa 1980

Ann Coulter, circa 1980. Years before she got that boozy, party girl look that she has been sporting since the 1990’s and is too old to pull off in 2014.