On the Front Lines, or in the Back Room?

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a cascade of reasons, but with the recent Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson, written by the Portland Art Museum’s own Mike Murawski, I think now is the right time to contribute to the conversation around what is the role of Museums – “as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?” The following are some of my reflections on our institutions and communities that came to a head in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and too many others. You’ll notice that I’ve ruminating for long enough for some of my commentary to be dated.

I take the bus around town, and back in August one of my frequent stops was advertising the Portland Art Museum. The bench informed me that surveyed museum-goers would rather a “collective museum”, than a “museum of collections.” On evenings when I sat there waiting for my bus I wondered about what this advertisement meant. On the one hand I “know” what it means from my study of art history and contemporary art theory. On the other hand, I’m beginning to think I paid for a degree in mythology wrapped prettily as knowledge. The mythology I refer to is regarding the progressiveness of the art world, and of art’s inherently progressive values.

Questionnaire from 'Would You Rather', a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK
Questionnaire from ‘Would You Rather’, a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK

There is a notion found wherever the contemporary art world is that art is on the right-side of history. The idea that art pushes history forward, dragging people, economies, and politics with it is not a new idea, or even a bad idea, but it is a dangerous idea. It’s not new because it can be traced back to the notion of the “avant-garde” in 19th century France. It’s not a bad idea because certainly some part of history lends it the gravitas of truth. But for both these reasons it is a dangerous idea in the present day. It is no coincidence that new, unorthodox, and experimental art practices began to be described as ‘avant-garde’ during the bloodiest period in modern French history.

Meaning ‘the foremost division or the front part of an army’ avant-garde, or vanguard, refers to risky practices that often come with great reward. Artists whose work was bestowed with this term took great risks to criticize those in power. By exposing those who maintained the status quo they created vulnerabilities for the next wave to exploit. Therefore, the artistic avant-garde was an explicit tool of the revolutionary fever that marked the development of the modern age. The role of art continued in this function through a good portion of the 21st collective struggle as white-walled enclaves grew up around it.

“”Daumier soon saw the King’s ire aimed at him, when Daumier produced what is likely his most famous drawing, where he depicts Louis Philippe as Gargantua, feeding off the toil of the peasants of France.” – Text from Good Comics

Today these same white-walled enclaves want to cash in on the avant-garde history of modern art. Hence the museum markets its ‘collective’ values; contemporary art spaces “aspire to present forward thinking work,” and “propose new modes of production”; artists create work informed by critical theory, and audiences swarm to consume these new works, new ideas, new modes in the name of acquiring some of art’s progressive cultural capital. Yet where there is an avant-garde there ought to be an army. If bloodshed shows us the battle grounds, I don’t see the fight on these pristine walls.

Why else would PAM claim to be a ‘collective’ space if not to fight against oppression? Why else would YU investigate ‘new modes of production’ except to fight against Capital? Though they use the rhetoric, I don’t see them making much space for revolutionary thought, action, or art. Why aren’t any of the works in their permanent collection by Jacob Lawrence, one of the most renowned artists of mid-20th-century Modernism, on display? Has anyone there considered how the dearth of African-American artists represented on the walls of the art museum affects who in our communities are ‘allowed’ to see and be seen. Despite the local scene there are museums, galleries, artists, and audiences who go out of their way to provide forums where difficult issues can be discussed in the arts community. I found one recently in the Walker Arts Center, which through its Artists Op-eds commissions contemporary artists to respond to contemporary headlines.

Following the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, I came across Illegitimate, an essay by the artist Dread Scott that addresses the United States’ history of slavery, Jim-crow, and police terror. Taking his name from the slave who unsuccessfully sued for freedom in a St. Louis court, Scott salutes the Ferguson protestors, decries those who aim to control through force, and calls for participation in the October Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, called for by Carl Dix and Cornel West and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.

stop sign with text

As part of the ‘Month of Resistance’, museums have an opportunity to show work from their collection that speak to these issues, and to provide platforms for these groups to speak. What a powerful moment to expand the ‘public’ of the public museum, and yet beyond the advertisement at my bus stop at night, little it seems is being done to create a forum within our arts community.  However, if we collectively call upon our collections then the mythology of art-as-avant-garde needn’t be a decaying relic.

While revolutions spurred the development of the artistic vanguard,  many museums began to be housed in historic military armories. Whether they are collections of guns or collections of art, objects perpetuate and perpetrate the ideas that made them. Therefore it is conceivable that our museums and institutions could do more than just use art’s outdated reputation as being on the ‘right-side’ to garner attendance, and instead put their stores of creative wealth behind the collective battles against injustice. Then perhaps museums would not be merely sites for viewing collections, but sights for imagining justice.

In the Studio – Eric Petitti

We talked with Eric Petitti about his upcoming show and his process. Even though he comes from Boston, his work is imbued with a lot of Old Town/Chinatown history. We hope to see you on First Thursday!

IMG_8053Duplex: Tell us about your background.
Eric Petitti: I was born and raised in the Boston area. The arts weren’t something my family thought much about. As a kid the two things I like to do the most were drawing and asking lots of questions. They encouraged the drawing because the ceaseless questions, my parents said, drove them crazy. Guided by an amazing high school art teacher, I opted to pursue the arts as a career. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I studied interdisciplinary practices and earned my BFA. Eight years later I pursued my MFA in Painting and Drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating in 2010. I returned to Boston in 2011 where I currently teach as Adjunct Faculty at Bunker Hill Community College and Emmanuel College. My studio is located in Field’s Corner of Dorchester, MA.

20141112_054245_Centervale ParkD: Describe your studio space. How often do you work there?
EP: My studio space is located in Howard Arts Project workspace, which is located in Dorchester, MA. The space contains about 14 private studio space, 1 shared workspace and 1 art gallery and a performance space. I rent part of the shared space with 2 other artists who work surprisingly well together. Currently, my space is in a state of functional chaos. Over the winter I plan to reorganize my space so it doesn’t break down into a mess when I’m involved with a big project. On a normal schedule I spend anywhere between 12 to 20 hours a week in the studio.

D: Where do you draw inspiration for you work?
EP: I’m an opportunist, I can draw inspiration from anywhere; history books, conversations with friends, the radio, commercials and etcetera.

20141112_054513_Centervale ParkD: Tell us how the concept of this show progressed.
EP: Current events serve as a massive influence on my future histories. I’m currently (finally) transitioning away from Golden Pear chapter into two new ones: The Destruction of the Platinum Pineapple and the Violent Violet Affair. The No Place People show set up the Platinum Pineapple story line, which involves the revaluing of “Junks” from a dangerous social pestilence to a valuable labour-force. The current debates centered on immigration reform and the controversy over the Washington Redskins mascot fed my ideas and helped set the tenor for the discourse.

The notion of Shanghaiing, which I learned about from my research into the Shanghai Tunnels, figured largely into this exhibit. Shanghaiing is the practice of kidnapping people to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. I view the “Wooden Bill”, introduced in “Reappraising Junks”, as a politically savvy version Shanghaiing.

In the Dreadnaught Saga, the “Junks” are descendants of the climate refugees that were left behind. These people were not of value to the powers controlling the move to safer lands. These people should not have survived this environment. They stewed alone in the toxic environments for a couple of centuries, which led to mutations. Junk is a derogatory term for these nomadic people. The Junks began to arrive in Southern Ocean in the early 24th century sailing in vessels that looked like piles of ‘junk’; hence the moniker. When they arrived they were a people without a place in the civilizations of the Southern Ocean; the No Place People.

E_Petitti - Image 9D: What struck you about the history of the Shanghai Tunnels?
EP: When I began researching the Shanghai Tunnels, a history I knew little about, I was immediately struck by with not only the concept of Shanghaiing, but the word itself. I know the act of acquiring sailors as Pressing. Shanghaiing is a term that is imbued with othering.

Although the Tunnels had commercial uses, the history of the Shanghai Tunnels being used for Shanghaiing is fiercely contested amongst historians. There is a lack of evidence either for or against the claim. Those whom dispute the practice of Shanghaiing in Portland have been accused of revising the undesirable histories of Portland to make a more pleasant tourist spot. I’m not sure what the accepted history is, but this form of revisionism fascinates me!

D: Do you usually incorporate local history and lore into a show?
EP: This is the first time I’ve actually attempted it. It fit in so well with ideas I was already working with it didn’t affect my existing process. Although I did not directly use the folklore this exhibit was absolutely inspired by the concept of Shanghaiing and its disputed connection with Portland.

E_Petitti - Image 2 - Glance PageD: How much of the show is created and how much is borrowed?
EP: A majority of the show is created but if you look closely you will find what was borrowed hidden in plain sight. Scanning QR tags in the works with your phones gives you access new content that adds new dimensions to reading of these commemorations. If you don’t have a device that can scan a QR tag and connect you with the internet you are denied access to this content…othering.

D: Do you think about history vs. fiction and the intersections between when creating your narrative?
EP: I do all the time even when I’m not developing narratives! In a sense histories are biased fictions based on records and facts. I heard the term “Historical Truth” on NPR not too long ago and it really resonated with me. Historical truth is is a complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes, which doesn’t sound too truthful to me! I review all histories with a healthy skepticism aimed at locating the meta-dialogues.

E_Petitti - Image 1The Loss of Golden Pear is based on the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898. Forensic evidence recently solved the mystery of the Maine’s fate determining that it was an ammo bay explosion sunk it. With a failed investigation, strife with Spain over Cuba, Media Sensationalizing the situation and President McKinley’s imperialistic aspirations the US blamed Spain for the act. This event led directly Spanish-American War.

Look no further than the unfortunate situation in Ferguson, MO for a contemporary demonstration of the malleability of history.


All images courtesy of the artist.

Meet Our New Intern!


Emily Greaney is currently studying Drawing and Painting at Oregon College of Art and Craft and is due to graduate with a BFA in Craft this coming May. Her work, anything from print work to mixed media painting, revolves around the emotional exchange of human soul and nature and the layers in between. She draws most of her inspiration from the landscape and its relation to the foundation of human spirituality, from its beginnings to its contemporary relevance. To embody this experience she melds together the figurative and the organic using abstraction and selective representation. Through her work, she hopes to evoke that interplay of experience and internalization in the viewer.

Mind Your Head (April 2014)
Mind Your Head (April 2014)

If you see her on 1st Thursday, please say hi!

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