July 9, 2008

"A little girl seems to be crying, her eye bruised, with an American flag in the background and two words framing her figure: 'Liberty Weeps.'"

The NYT promotes incredibly bad art on display in a mall in southern Florida. Can you fathom why?

The huge posters — from "a surprising new exhibition at the Wolfsonian museum at Florida International University titled 'Thoughts on Democracy'" — are supposedly a present-day permutation of Norman Rockwell's famous "Four Freedoms" posters. The Rockwell posters, made during WWII, present an inspiring, positive, plainly un-ironic vision of freedom in America. (The illustrated freedoms are: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.) The new posters eschew the Rockwellian attitude and replace it with— who could have predicted? — snark, cynicism, and sadness.

Let's see if we can figure out why the NYT thought this Florida art show deserved a big write-up and slide show:
In Guillermo Kuitca’s rendition of Rockwell’s image of parents putting their small children to bed, the family is surrounded by a sea of blackness. In James Victore’s remake, tears burst from the parents’ eyes as they pull an American flag over a wooden coffin.

What all of this suggests is not just a reinterpretation of Rockwell but a meditation on an American crisis of self-confidence: the sense that trust in American ideals is giving way to fear and uncertainty about how they are exploited....

Many of the artists interviewed said they felt that now was not the time to emphasize American greatness, as Rockwell did, but rather to caution people about the risks of complacency. They said they created the posters because they loved their country — about two-thirds of the 60 are American — but felt that their fellow citizens needed to wake up, to break free from anxiety and a habit of looking away.

In the mall at least, the artists’ instincts seemed to be borne out. In an hour and a half, more than 100 people walked by the exhibit. Only 8 stopped to look.
Oh, my lord, the people really are complacent about freedom! They continued going about their business despite the presence of giant crappy posters!

Apparently, the NYT has not heard of some of the less-frequently-invoked American freedoms: the freedom to ignore propaganda, the freedom to avert your eyes from artists who scream for attention, the freedom to shop without genuflecting at sanctimonious criticism of your country, and the freedom to loathe hideous art.

Now, the journalist who wrote this piece, Damien Cave, did spend "18 months on and off" reporting from Iraq, and he is "stunned by the war’s lack of impact on people’s lives or thoughts." I'm not sure why his personal experience belongs in this article. He seems to be offering it as a basis of authority for his promotion of this exhibit which aims to goad Floridian shoppers to agonize about the war. I'd say it reveals that Cave's field of expertise is not art.
The most powerful efforts tackle the tension between the American democratic ideal and its practice. The Map Office, a design studio in New York, produced three unequivocal images. One poster shows democracy as a green goo spread across a pristine landscape; another reads, “kiss the fist of democracy.” A third says, “Democracy is the Helvetica of Politics,” reflecting its ubiquity, openness and adulteration, the artists said.
The most powerful efforts? Look at the slide show at the link. These are the most embarrassingly unsophisticated pictures in the bunch.
A paradox is embedded in this round of cynicism and self-doubt...

Why, then, are we so depressed?...

In many cases the results feel more like heartbreak than like anger...

Democracy often seems to grow uglier with age.

But amid the happy, escapist shoppers at the Aventura mall, these thoughts felt as out of place as Rockwell’s proud posters. The sprawling darkness of Mr. Kuitca’s remake of “Freedom of Fear,” with the original tucked in the corner, seemed far more apt.
You've got to be kidding me. This is the New York Times, not the student newspaper at Florida International University?


Matt Brown said...

The little girl frightens me. I'm quite certain I'll have a nightmare about her the next time I sleep.

Paul said...

Is it not fully staffed by people from the student newpapers of the high schools and universities across the country? Yes. But NYT didn't used to be so bad and it was staffed by those same kinds of people so what changed? Perhaps the students are no longer learning proper journalistic standards. Why not? Modern philosophical teachings about truth. There is no objective truth, just different opinions and they are all morally equivalent. There is no morality either, one cannot derive an ought-statement from an is-statment and there never was a God. Nihilism.

I think we need to solve that Is-Ought problem, because God isn't going to happen for me.

KimH said...

"The pitch is low & slow, right down the middle."

"Althouse swings - connects..."

"It's out of here!"

Good job.

Anonymous said...

If we're having a crisis of self-confidence, why do we need to be cautioned about the risks of complacency?

The Drill SGT said...

Just another group of liberal artists demonstrating how much they love America.

And shocked that the shoppers don't seem interested in their creative vision.

rhhardin said...

When liberty weeps the tough go shopping.

Pogo said...

Stellar post! (especially the less-frequently-invoked American freedoms).

Rockwell Re-enlisted for a Nation’s Darker Mood
Rockwell re-enlists?
Double entendre city, man!

A Nation's Darker Mood?
I realize the mood has been dark and getting darker at the NYTimes, but really, fascism seems always to be falling on America, yet it always lands somewhere else. In the UK, for example.

The posters are decidedly NOT a reinterpretation of Rockwell or a meditation on an American crisis of self-confidence.
Instead they are either

(1) failed entries to the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts juried competition.

(2) comedic knock-offs, like the 22,345 renditions of American Gothic.
(3) A lefty version of Chicago's various cow sculptures, also riffed on endlessly (e.g. Saint Paul, Minnesota "Snoopies", Cincinnati, Ohio's Big Pig Gig).

Ann, I think you're really onto something in your description of the lesser known freedoms to loathe, avert one's eyes from, shop without kneeling to, and generally ignore hideous America=Bad propaganda purporting to be art.

It's the visual version of Brian Eno's ambient music.
Ambient Art!
Like wallpaper, only worse!

MadisonMan said...

There aren't many of those posters I'd hang on my wall. I like the Want poster cityscape. Would I put that up instead of a Rockwell? I'm not sure.

k said...

You want to know who the eight people are who stopped to look? They're the ones who, when they glanced over, thought their grandchildren might have a picture in this middle school art show. How can you take those seriously? I mean, seriously!

Ron said...

Why is going to a place to happily buy what you know you want to buy "escapist", while wallowing in negative fantasia about America is, what, "realism"?

Anonymous said...

Most of the article is standard NYT, but this is just plain weird:

One poster shows democracy as a green goo spread across a pristine landscape

If they weren't going to show the picture, there might be some point to bowdlerizing the description of it. But they did show it, and we can see for ourselves that that isn't goo.

Henry said...

I wonder if any of the contributing artists, full of contempt for Rockwell's un-ironic images, bothered to think about what was going on in 1942.

You think this war is tough?


From Inwood said...

Ex-NYT Readers giggle

The NYT thinks that "Che" T-shirts are art, for goodness sake.

Prof A: BEWARE. Frank Rich will condemn you as a Limbaughian, a Philistine.

paul a'barge said...

If only these mutts would go live somewhere else.

ricpic said...

Will the Times ever love America? Simply, unashamedly love America? The answer is no. A big fat NO.

perry masonmint said...

Apparently, the NYT has not heard of some of the less-frequently-invoked American freedoms: the freedom to ignore propaganda, the freedom to avert your eyes from artists who scream for attention, the freedom to shop without genuflecting at sanctimonious criticism of your country, and the freedom to loathe hideous art.

Shorter Althouse: Why should we hear about body bags and deaths, ... So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

Shorter Althouse II: Leave me alone!

Shorter Althouse III: Waaauugghhh!!!

Wow. It's always all about her, isn't it....

Pogo said...

perry masonmint wants you to focus all of your energies on body bags and deaths, because there are no principles worth dying for; the most we should ever do is make posters and wear t-shirts. (Free Tibet!)

perry masonmint mourns the loss of freedom of speech so severe that he has been disappeared, unable to comment on blogs, imprisoned for years, smuggling out his thoughts scribbled on tiny pieces of scrap paper and only now do we read them. Even now the jackboots are at his door, and soon on his neck.

It's perry masonminy Solzenhitzen hisself, speaking straight from the US Gulags.

Drew W said...

As Paul Zrimsek pointed out, the Times writer was being remarkably dishonest when he said: One poster shows democracy as a green goo spread across a pristine landscape.

In this picture, democracy is plainly equated with eagle poop. If the writer was embarrassed by that idea or image, as most sentient beings would be, then maybe the NY Times should've thought twice about publicizing a political art show of such crude stridency that it would seem more at home on the wall of some college cafeteria.

perry masonmint said...

Pogo said...

It's perry masonminy Solzenhitzen hisself, speaking straight from the US Gulags.

You gleaned that from my comment on Ann's boundless narcissism?

Wow -- that oxycontin must be hot stuff.

Randy said...

Don't worry. Be happy. All will be well with the election of our savior in November. So it is written. So shall it be done.

The Drill SGT said...

So it is written. So shall it be done.

Now that made me smile. I have this vision of Edward g Robinson bowing to the Pharoah.

jcooper121 said...

Wonderful! Another example of why I no longer read the NYT and always read Althouse.

mcg said...

Wow. It's always all about her, isn't it....

Uhh, it is her blog.

Pogo said...

my comment on Ann's boundless narcissism

Is there any form of narcissism that is bounded?

How does one glean 'narcissism' from a complaint that one dislikes when people say 'I'm not listening' in response to complaints about being vague or vacillating?

That's merely saying this:
Me "You're being vague"
You "Then you're not listening."
Me "That's insulting and evasive."
You "Then you're just a narcissist. It's all about you isn't it?"

PatCA said...

"Now" is not the time to be complacent, and to produce crappy protest art?

Get a clue, NYT, people who think of themselves as artists have been producing this stuff for the past 40 years.

PatCA said...

From the article: "Why, then, are we so depressed? Perhaps, as the artists’ work suggests, because we are no longer so young and naïve."

The cri de coeur of the aging hippie leftist set.

Henry said...

It's the new royal we.

Richard Dolan said...

"The new posters eschew the Rockwellian attitude and replace it with — who could have predicted? — snark, cynicism, and sadness."

Just so, and snarkily done to boot. Wonderful.

The article offers an interesting view of what the world looks like from inside the cocoon. And it's a really big cocoon, reflecting the default attitudes of much of college-educated America. Despite the internationalist sentiments, it's a world that's co-extensive with America, and is ultimately no bigger than the observer-as-subject ("it's all about me!"). For the artists no less than the journalist who wrote this story, the only theme of real interest is their own brilliance, how superior they are to ordinary Joes/Janes who are too dumb to share the frisson of "a meditation on an American crisis of self-confidence."

Steven said...

The Left has been alienated from America for at least forty years. The trouble is that they think this indicates that there's something wrong with America.

Smilin' Jack said...

Democracy often seems to grow uglier with age.

The "art" seems to, anyway.

Peter said...

Leftists have appointed themselves as our new priesthood. They believe their job is to pound into us, day after day, how wretched and miserable and sinful we are. Repent! Repent! Repent all ye sinners!

Seriously -- I don't go to the mall to be lectured about how evil I am. Of course, America was founded, in part, on the right to follow or not follow any religious doctrine as you see fit. So it was inevitable that self-appointed moralizers would be forever frustrated here. Historically, the priesthood has always hated freethinkers.

The real tragedy is that crappy "art" like this makes it easier to ignore and discount good, sincere, and thoughtful protest art, which could really help us self-reflect and self-criticize in constructive ways.

Sincere protest, however, would require the artists to aim more at self-improvement than sanctimonious adolescent heckling. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Peter said...

And sincere protest art would be art in which the artist doesn't imagine himself or herself to be morally or ethnically or intellectually superior to the viewer. That is narcissism and self-righteousness, not good art.

The best and most provocative art throughout the ages is that which recognizes universal human frailties -- and in which the artist doesn't imagine himself somehow immune.

vnjagvet said...

Contrary to the implication of the NYT article, Rockwell could protest in a way that struck middle American values.

An example is his painting The Problem We All Live With.

Here's a link:


I suggest many of the Florida mall shoppers might have stopped and looked at this painting. And most of them would have understood its point and agreed with its sentiments.

MadisonMan said...

The Problem We All Live With.

I've always thought the clothing was too clean in that picture. And why are the married men out in front?

Tibore said...

Jesus! You weren't kidding when you said "bad art". That stuff has all the subtlety of Soviet Heroic Propaganda art with less depth than a Britney Spears single.

If someone wants to make modern ironic comment on the state of America, they need to see how real artists deal with it. The gross overcharacterizations of Americans in Les Triplettes Des Belleville may have annoyed me, but it was far more evocative, aesthetic, and effective than some stupid ripoff of motivational posters.

Rockwell's art worked because it was based in his time's truth, not charicature. It may have been a simplistic truth, long outgrown in today's modern and cynical world, but it captured the zeitgeist of that period. Contrast that to these works: They come off less as considered, thoughtful art and more as angry teenagers let loose with an Adobe suite than anything else. It sure as hell doesn't come off as anything thoughtful.

Maybe people were only giving the art a passing glance because that's all it took to understand it.

AJ Lynch said...

That is twice in one day, Ann is disillusioned when she gets a peak behind the curtain at the real Obama and the lame NYT.

Henry said...

If there is a 1942 corollary to this art, it is the portrayal of the west by the Nazis.

Consider this:


The caption: "Information from the USA." Uncle Sam broadcasts, while truth stands on her head.

Fen said...

A little girl seems to be crying, her eye bruised, with an American flag in the background and two words framing her figure: 'Liberty Weeps.'

Spoiled little American brats weep. Liberty is busy celebrating in Iraq.

LordSomber said...

“Democracy is the Helvetica of Politics”
Damien Cave is the Papyrus of reporters.

ricpic said...

Rockwell eschewed chiaroscuro,
Wan flat light was his forte,
Rather than dark convoluto
A limp handshake halfhearty.

Revenant said...

It is amusing to me that the best example Chip Kidd could think of for his poster on "abuse of the freedom from fear" was a clean-cut white man holding a gun.

Then again, the addition of "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" to the list of American freedoms was just another example of Roosevelt's New Deal totalitarianism in the first place, so I guess I shouldn't be annoyed when someone attempts a mocking reference to it.

EDH said...

Isn't the little girl a little old to be photographed topless?

And who's that man clutching for her in the background.

If not child porn, it's one of the most exploitive things I've seen.

Kevin said...

I love that the art is being displayed in the mall. Every single minimum-wage retail jockey in that mall is VASTLY more useful and delivers far more good to their fellow-man than all of those self-absorbed narcissistic artists put together.

Peter said...

Is it not odd that the "artist" puts George W. Bush holding the "God Hates Fags sign? Anyone who does the slightest bit of research would know that Phelps is a lifelong Democrat who has run for office as a Democrat.
Why can they not ever put the right hat on these clowns?
I am also still looking for the American citizens who have had their freedom restricted by George W. Bush.

William said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

Thanks for you sane response to this idiocy. I am very glad to live in a country where people see themselves as they would like to be in a Rockwell illustration. I am also glad to live in a country where a markdown on sequined oven mitts gathers more attention than this crap. OK, Rockwell retouched the moles, but these artists drown in a fistula of their own creation.

Revenant said...

Is it not odd that the "artist" puts George W. Bush holding the "God Hates Fags sign?

He didn't. That IS Fred Phelps.

Ernst Blofeld said...

...And you, an art student!

I'm sorry, it had to be said eventually.

Patm said...

Great post, Ann.

Irony has a place in art, but these posters are mostly intellectually dishonest garbage.

I looked at them and the overall sense I had was of a lot of frustrated and hate-filled people mentally masturbating. But they're not sure why.

Peter Blogdanovich said...

It occurs to me, as it has others, that this internet thingy is here to stay, and its not gonna be too good for the NYT. It is however interesting as hell to watch the details of exactly how it's not good for the NYT.

Michael said...

Are these people really so isolated that they think anyone outside some very small typographically obsessed communities have a reaction to Helvetica?


Greyhawk said...

"In many cases the results feel more like heartbreak than like anger. The emotion in more subtle works, like Richard Tuttle's simple drawing of Uncle Sam hidden behind a wall, reminded me of what I saw in the faces of Iraqis and Americans when things went horribly wrong."


huh - I spent last year in Iraq, too. But when I saw the picture I thought "that looks like shit."

matthew said...

A little off tangent, but Ann, have you ever been to the in Stockbridge, MA?

If not, it's worth a trip.
The Berkshires are an incredible place to visit.

Revenant said...

huh - I spent last year in Iraq, too. But when I saw the picture I thought "that looks like shit."

I know it is a cliche to say that modern art looks like it was drawn by a nine year old, but in all honesty most of the nine year old artists I've known would have done a better job with that picture.

Henry said...

Democracy is the Helvetica of Politics

Finance is the Bodoni of the free market.

What the hell?

angie said...

My experiences in life and knowledge of history lead me to believe that those who still stereotype others have MUCH to learn.

All the poster designers are modern artists. Whether you find their aesthetic engaging or not is your own opinion.

The context of the design problem was to think about the meaning in Rockwell's posters as it relates to times today.

Given the mass of political corruption within the past 7 years (how many indictments are we up to now?), it should be expected that some feel less than proud of the US.

On one side, this attitude is viewed as being "pessimistic" and "unpatriotic". However, it could just as easily be viewed as "idealist" and "optimistic". When one doesn't feel like the person/thing they love is living up to their expectations (the same expectations Rockwell illustrated), it is quite natural to have a passion for wanting to improve the person/thing they love——and having the optimism of believing it can happen.

In essence, those that are engaged in this visual conversation are still optimistic and very patriotic.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It should also be noted "…The Wolfsonian museum…has asked 60 designers from around the world…" (Speakup.com)

We're not the only ones who want America to reach higher.

E.M. Davis said...

"Given the mass of political corruption within the past 7 years (how many indictments are we up to now?), it should be expected that some feel less than proud of the US."

Care to elaborate on these mass indictments?

angie said...

"Care to elaborate on these mass indictments?"

My pleasure.

Lewis Scooter Libby (R.), former Assistant to the President of the United States, George W. Bush, Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, and Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs;

Tom Delay, former (R.) House Majority Leader (also indicted were Jim Ellis & John Colyandro);

James Tobin, President George W. Bush's New England campaign chairman, indicted for conspiracy, later overturned, BUT "a properly instructed jury could probably convict Tobin on his actions alone if intent to harass need not be proved." (wiki)

Mark Deli Siljander, former Republican U.S. Representative from Michigan, indicted January 16, 2008 in connection with his work for an Islamic charity accused of funneling money to an Afghan warlord;

and Karl Rove, who was not indicted, but "resigned" rather stratigically and also: "On May 22, 2008, Rove was subpoenaed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers to testify on the politization of the Department of Justice. However, on July 10, he refused to acknowledge his congressional subpoena. Instead, he left the country on an unannounced trip" (such profound integrity!! I had to include him anyway.)

Thats 4 complete/very possible indictments and 1 (just for fun) strategic resignation. Thats 4 too many accounts of corruption if you ask me.

angie said...

Furthermore, if you are only including indictments, you are missing my point.