Feb 12, 2008
Jul 05, 2007
Oct 27, 2010
Apr 05, 2013
Jan 24, 2010
Oct 27, 2010

After Newtown: Tokenism or Culture Change?

This is one photo that probably wasn’t included in the slide shows at the major papers this week.

nba_u_durant11_600

And why not, some might say, isn’t one memorial to the victims in Newtown as good as another?  Well, no, not really, but the show must go on in pro sports, and so perhaps this is the best that Kevin Durant could do, all things considered.  If you look closely, you can see that he has written “Newtown CT” on the shoe that he wore for the Friday night game.  Nor was he alone: players and teams around the NBA and NFL put names on shoes and gloves, pasted decals on helmets, observed moments of silence, and otherwise had token observances across their scoreboards, end zones, and assorted other media.

And the New England Patriots even went to far as to donate $25,000 for the families of the victims.  Really.  And if you don’t believe it, just tune in to ESPN, which is making darn sure that everyone knows just how much the sports world cares, really cares, about the tragedy.

It’s hard, very hard, not to be cynical about these token gestures.  Indeed, I think the photo above neatly captures just how small and temporary they are: compared to the gleaming arena floor, polished like the finest glass, and the Nike swoosh, which represents a lucrative shoe contract for a global market, the small, black lettering is sure to be discarded soon, which will hardly matter as no one without a telephoto lens could see it anyway.  Ditto the tiny helmet decals, the player Tweets, and any other efforts to laminate compassion onto celebrity.

But that’s too easy.  Just about every candle, teddy bear, classroom letter, and prayer chain is also but a gesture.  And if the better memorial would have been to cancel the game, well, how many of you refused to go to work on Friday or Monday because you thought doing so would dishonor the dead?  The truth is, there is very little that anyone can do in response to such senseless slaughter, and that applies not only for distant strangers but also for close friends and family of the bereaved.  And however mixed the motives might be in the business of sports, one shouldn’t be too quick to assume that nothing is sincere.  (I’m told that Kevin Durant is a fine human being.)  So, token gestures become part of the story of how a nation deals with social rupture.

Of course, nothing said above should excuse pro sports for some of its excesses.  Individual players perhaps should get a pass, but the organizations may indeed need to consider that the better response really is to do nothing–or, if they really want to help the people in their own backyard, to do it right.  (Certain prominent figures on the religious right might want to take a hard look into that same mirror.)  But, again, the matter at hand is about more than pro sports or any other single institution.  The hope that many of us have this week–the one we hold on to against the shock and grief and dismay–is that this time the carnage might really bring the country to its senses about its culture of violence.  And although the resistance will be extensive, there are signs that change could be happening already.

One of the interesting things about American democracy is that it can be stalemated for so long and then seemingly transform itself in a few years.  Think of what happened after Pearl Harbor, or what has happened in the past few years regarding the acceptance of homosexuality (even the word now sounds antique).  The strength of the political culture is that it’s not just a political culture–that is, a subculture defined solely by a political class, although there is some of that–but instead richly intertwined with all the rest of society.  Think of the importance of integrating pro sports for civil rights, not just then but continuously, and look at how so many different people and organizations respond in kind to disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes–and shootings.  In those situations, what otherwise would be tokenism can become something else: a small but visible commitment to real change.

Guns are not unknown among pro athletes, so hypocrisy may yet prove to be the norm there and elsewhere as well.  But I hope that something else could be in the works, there and especially elsewhere.  In any case, the change requires silent, personal, private resolve to think differently–and not least to move beyond the political habits that were part of the prior stalemate.  Thinking differently is easier to do, however, if it can be done in small ways that can be shared with others who might want to do the same.  And to be shared with other citizens, there is nothing like doing something that can be seen.  So this week I’m giving token gestures of solidarity a pass, and in the hope that this time the nation can raise its game to a higher level of play.

Photograph by Jerome Maron/USA Today Sports.

 1 Comment

Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day

 3 Comments

America the Beautiful

The photo is from the Obama campaign election night party at McCormick Place, Chicago.  The 21st century is here, and the time has come to recognize how the country, for all its problems, is changing for the better.  Out of many, one.  Together, so that all can thrive.

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

 1 Comment

Flying Through Photography’s Fourth Wall

I doubt that any title can quite capture the aesthetic intelligence contained in this photograph of an artwork by Arlés del Río at the 11th Havana Biennial.

I’ve referred to the fourth wall in order to highlight some of what the photographer has added to del Río’s remarkable installation.  The wall refers to the formal barrier between stage and audience in the theater, and by extension between the artwork and audience in any work of fiction.  The term is rarely applied to photography, which instead is assumed to either directly reproduce reality or immerse the spectator within visual experience.  By contrast, this photograph clearly discriminates a series of viewer positions in regard to both the artwork and the photograph: the direct, embodied, even imitative response; the more distant act of recording the event with a camera; and the still more distant act of viewing the photograph.  Each spectator is set out in a spatial array along the central axis–just off center right, back and further right, and then further back to center for your standpoint–and so you are oriented directly toward the art work but also zigzagging toward or away from it through these other viewers.  Thus, a question arises: you can see what they are doing, so what are you doing?

But perhaps this is backwards, for I have described the photographer’s framing of the scene in place of its central object: del Río’s artwork. And what a work.  The plane’s silhouette cuts through the screen with terrifying force–indeed, it is the presence of terror as it evokes the image of those planes hurtling into the twin towers on September 11, 2001.  The poles at the center of the screen make that point emphatically, for they need not be there and so remind us that in place of an ethereal image real aircraft collided with buildings of steel and glass.  Because this plane is but an outline and air, it becomes a ghostly sign of all that now is gone forever, from the planes to the buildings to the people within.  In the artwork, however, the plane both hangs in the air and has already cut into the wall of the building.  It is just at the other side of impact and already past that point, barreling past us in an invisible fireball.  We see a provisional structure of concrete blocks and metal fencing, and an impossible compression of time and space, and a terrifying emptiness.

But is it really a 9/11 image?  No one actually saw the outline of a plane cut into one of the towers–that image is entirely reconstructive.  Likewise, the woman entraining her body with the outline is being playful, not mournfully commemorative.  She seems to be channeling her inner child, as if running around the yard imagining that she’s a plane, although now also with something of the dancer’s body sense of weights, ratios, and coordinated movement that is available to an adult.  She imagines not horror but the beauty of flight, and perhaps also its fantasies of adventure, liberation, or transcendence.  By showing one viewer’s response, the photograph reminds us that meaning is characterized by plurality.

And what of the woman behind with the camera?  Whatever her attitude, it is confounded by the much more prosaic act of taking the photograph.  And is she trying to record the artwork or her friend’s imitation of it?  (Thanks to cheap imaging technologies, tourists now regularly play this life-imitating-art game in museums, as when kids will act out a sculptural tableau for the camera.)  Because either photographer could have taken a picture of the artwork alone, we have to assume that they are intending to foreground viewer responsiveness.  But is the artwork just a pretext for a little play in the performance of everyday life, or are art and audience being brought into view in order to question what they have in common?

And what about you?  The photograph clearly creates a space for the viewer: that is, it points backwards toward the space inhabited by the viewer.  In fact, each of the positions becomes calibrated as what we might call degrees of separation: the artwork from the reality it represents, followed by the direct response, followed by the documentary response, followed by the mediated response.  What is more important, however, is how the image can simultaneously mark and collapse those distances.  Photography has a fourth wall, but like del Rio’s artwork, it also can remind us that the task of art is not to reproduce the direct encounter.  Photography works by making things present, but also by evoking what is absent; by bringing things closer, but also by maintaining the distance needed for reflection.

Photograph by Jose Goitia for The New York Times.  The artwork Arlés del Río is entitled “Fly Away.”

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 1 Comment

What If They Held a Protest and No Photographers Showed Up?

Democracy relies upon dissent. Not just the theoretical possibility of protest implied by the First Amendment, but the very thing itself—flesh and blood individuals speaking truth to power and thus embodying  the possibility of popular sovereignty in contexts that demonstrate both the risk and safety of political opposition.  Of course, in a mass society of over 300 million people, “speaking” truth to power has less to do with words per se—although sound bytes, posters, placards, graffiti, and 140 character tweets do play a role—and more to do with visibility.  Put differently, political protest is as at its root a matter of public spectacle, and its success or failure is generally a measure of who controls what is seen and by whom.  Of course, governments and political operatives have known this for quite some time, and each seeks to manage the dialectic between seeing and being seen to strategic benefit.  Photographers know it as well, and they too use it to strategic effects.

The NATO protests in Chicago this past weekend are an interesting case in point, as both protestors and police have jockeyed to control the public eye, each enacting what have come to be fairly conventional poses.  The protestors, of course, want to be seen en masse as a way of giving a sense of solidarity and magnitude to their popular presence, but they also want to make it clear that they “see” what is going on behind the closed doors of governments and corporations.  Theirs is, we might say, an attempt to embody a democratic gaze—the people seeing and being seen.  Governments, on the other hand, also want to be seen, but they get caught between official political/diplomatic roles played by recognizable leaders (think of all of those photo ops you’ve seen of the heads of State shaking hands with one another, or relaxing together while watching a soccer match on the television) and the maintenance of public order, (hence lots of pictures of anonymous, paramilitary forces whose task is to “uphold the peace”).  Theirs is a statist gaze or what we might call “seeing like a state.”  Corporations, it seems, are generally content to remain largely invisible—their recently achieved status as individuals to the contrary notwithstanding—in a manner that implies an apolitical neutrality.

Photographers tend to capture all of this in a manner that reinforces the status quo, which is to say it underscores the sense in which our government remains democratic (dissent is allowed), even as government officials perform their tasks (leaders meet, negotiate, do their business), and the police maintain the peace (they “watch over” the scene” and “clash” with those who pose risks to public safety).  Sometimes, of course, the police become over zealous and have to be reigned in (one more sign that the status quo is working) but in general they are professionals doing their job under difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be cynical of such an account, but there is a different point to be made.  For such images also remind us of the importance of political spectacles as a potentially important medium of public engagement that are not entirely controlled by any one agent or set of agents, whether protestors, governments, or the media—or for that matter, the audiences that consume the images. The caption to the image above notes that the police officer shown “watches demonstrators protest”  in Chicago during the first day of the NATO summit.   And the point is that he wants to be seen watching—notice his stance and how he holds his baton as a visual threat to anyone who would challenge his territory or charge; indeed, the point is precisely that he needs to be seen watching in order to enact any sort of agency.  But in this regard he is no different than the protestors who also need to be seen watching.  Both are actors in a political spectacle.

In an important sense, democracy in particular relies on such spectacles as a way of giving presence to its effectiveness and legitimacy.  And that is not an inherently bad thing, for spectacles rely upon the active involvement of a viewing audience to authenticate the experience on the ground even if its members are not directly involved in it.  That said, political spectacles always come with the risk that seeing and being seen can be manipulated as absolute and hierarchical technologies of domination and control.  In the photograph above, are we looking at the legitimate defender of a democratic regime or big brother?  There is no final answer to that question, of course, but it is one that we need regularly and vigilantly to entertain.

Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images North America

 0 Comments

The Public Mirror

The camera, we say, shows us the world it is pointed at.  A mechanical representation of the world, it nevertheless presumes a degree of agency in the assumption that the camera lens fragments and frames the world, and someone has done the pointing.  In this sense, it is an art.  The mirror, however, presumes an enhanced degree of objectivity and a  relative degree of passivity inasmuch as it literally reflects back everything within its purview. Lacking any obvious agency it is assumed to be fundamentally inartistic and thus arguably more “authentic.”   Or at least that’s one theory of the relationship between the gazes of the camera’s lens and the mirror.  But what happens when we photograph the mirror’s gaze?

Photographs of the mirror’s gaze are not uncommon and they are offer provocative examples of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls “showing seeing,” a pedagogical strategy for challenging the boundaries between nature and art, or what we might call the “real” and the “image.”  The two photographs below are a case in point.

This first image is of Palestinians “reflected in mirrors as they sat outside a store in Gaza City.”

The mirrors have been affixed to a wall, one set within an octagonal frame, the other a simple shard of glass.  Importantly, they are triangulated and connected to one another by what appears to be a broken picture frame, its matted image slipping out of sight.  The difference between mirror and photograph are thus accented; mirrors can be framed, just like photographs, but even when the mirror’s frame is broken or missing, as with the shard of glass, it continues to relentlessly reflect its gaze back to the viewer.  But even as the difference is underscored it is effaced, for what the photograph we are looking at shows is how the mirror is a medium for representing social relationality, framed by its very placement on a wall in a public place.  Put differently, mirrors—like photographs—are an artifice by which we take account of our self presentation to the world, and that abides whether the mirror is mounted in our private hallway or in the agora of public relations.

The point is made somewhat differently in this second image of people “reflected at a shopping center in downtown Tokyo.”

Here, the photograph displays the mirrors reflections of a shopping center as a fragmented panorama of people coming and going in every which way.  Because the glass is cut in a variety of geometric forms that are then welded together at odd different angles, the reflection is simultaneously real and imaginary.  Each fragment (or shard?) is accurate in its representation, but the articulation of those fragments leaves us with a scene that is chaotic if not altogether incoherent.  And so, once again, the viewer is confronted with the artificial—and hence artistic—representation of the mirror’s gaze.  And once again, the very public location of the mirrors puts us in position to take account of ourselves as social beings.

That social self in these two images seems to be very different, and there is no doubt that that difference bears careful consideration.  But the bigger point here is how these photographs of the mirror’s gaze remind us of the similarities between cameras and mirrors and the ways in which they function as artistic, reflexive spaces for monitoring ourselves, whether in private or in public.

Photo Credits: Mohammed Salem/Reuters; Koji Sashahara/AP

 5 Comments

America in Black and White

Color photography has become so ubiquitous and so useful that I now am skeptical when a photojournalist resorts to black and white.  Color no longer is the medium of advertising alone, nor is black and white the medium of documentary truth.  You might say that we’ve learned to think with a color palette, and if a photograph is given a retro look, we risk losing information on behalf of artistic pretension, or assuming documentary truth that hasn’t been earned, or succumbing to nostalgia rather than learning something about the present.  To see what still can be accomplished, however, take a a look at a recent series by Charles Ommanney on the Republican primary campaign in South Carolina.

Substitute George Romney for his son Mitt, and this photo from Greenville could have been taken in the 1960s.  Perhaps there have been changes in public trash bin design, or in bus wheels, but otherwise her clothing, hair, and everything else in the picture could be built for time travel.  She may be wearing contacts, of course, and may have a much better job than would have been available to a woman fifty years ago, but I find it striking that so little seems to have changed in half a century.

And that, I believe, is a very important implication of Ommanney’s artistic choice to use black and white.  You’ll have to see the rest of the show at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, but I’m confident that many viewers will see what I see.  Other than a few very small details such as the occasional smart phone, the photos suggest that nothing has changed: ordinary citizens of a homogenous society listen to a wealthy, good looking candidate campaign in a one-party state.  The election rituals include flags, banners, signs, funny hats, and public speaking as the candidate presses the flesh and otherwise shows that he’s a man of the people.  The people don’t look too well off, but they’re proud, and the campaign is exciting but still a relatively humble, egalitarian process.

Of course, that process is run by men–and men who mean business.  And that is just one part of how there is something creepy, even downright ugly about the photographs, as you can begin to see with this shot from North Charleston.  This is not a welcoming image, but rather something much closer to a portrait of white resistance.  The photographs are astonishingly homogenous, and it becomes clear that the world of the Republican primary is a black and white world–and the primary process one that is for whites only.

Whatever his intentions, Ommanney has brilliantly captured how the GOP is trying with all its might to turn back the clock.  Against the reality of a multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic civil society and an African-American president, they want to make the present look as much as possible like the past.  That past ideal may be the ruinous economic policies of the last Bush presidency or the vicious social order recently illustrated in The Help, but it’s always a past that most Americans today want to leave far behind. Indeed, we can look to a photograph form another primary campaign in South Carolina to see just what a difference there is between the new America and the old.

Ommanney’s images do more as well.  There can be some reassurance in the thought that politics may have changed less than many pundits suppose.  Of course, the South is now a Republican stronghold rather than Democrat, the primary campaigns probably are financed more than ever before by a small number of wealthy donors, the media saturation is complete, and the struggle for the soul of the nation is as difficult as ever, but the process still is democratic, demanding, unpredictable, and revealing.  History may be more than a reactionary political vision or an artistic device, but rather something that is being lived and moved forward, however slowly and painfully, year by year, day by day.

 2 Comments

Photographic Space, Museum Space

At least one of the figures in this photograph from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a sculpture, but how many?

Jim Dine‘s “Walking to Boras” occupies the center of the display space.  The pedestal and the four short poles for the ropes to prevent contact assure us that it is an objet d’art, just in case you had any doubt about a seven foot boy in lederhosen.  But what about the two figures on the left?

They are so perfectly caught in time, and so gracefully posed in a moment of dynamic equilibrium, and so absolutely isolated in visual space, where they are at once almost together and yet completely separate, and both specific individuals and social types. . . . The composition seems too good to have happened naturally, while it could be the real point of a larger composite grouping.  We look for the statue contrasted with the people around it, only to discover that the artist has tricked us into seeing statues as people.

Perhaps in the next millisecond the couple leaned into one another to confer or confide or otherwise get closer together, or perhaps a brief word or glance was enough to break the pause and they vectored off along the paths each was on, going in opposite directions in more ways than one.  Or perhaps they are still there, perfectly posed in a moment of aesthetic perfection, but of course inert.  But if they have moved on, what about the two figures on the right?

They certainly could qualify at statues, as their all too ordinary clothes and postures echo the sculptures of George Segal. And it would be a good joke, not to mention a moment for genuine reflection, for a museum in the Ozarks to feature its most local visitors as works of art.  And what if everyone in the room was a thing, a statue rather than a person passing through the aesthetic space?  Would the space become less welcoming or more stimulating?  More an occasion for reflection on art and life, or a disturbing walk through an uncanny valley of simulation?

Questions such as these are prompted by the photographer’s superb ability to recreate the deep experience of the aesthetic encounter as it is available in any well-designed art museum. Stated more simply, a good museum, like the art it holds, brings the spectator not only to see the artworks as they are, but also to see everything else aesthetically.  Nor need there be one definition or purpose for this kind of perception.  However it works, the result can be to see more of what is there to be seen, and with more clarity, insight, objectivity, empathy, humor, desire, and respect.  We can see how others are at once alien and human, typified and unique, needy and mindful, beautiful and doomed, achingly desirable and hopelessly out of reach, inhabitants of alternate worlds and caught in our shared catastrophe, exposed by the surface of things and forever unknown.

A good museum does that.  Photographs can do the same.  Photographic space can work like museum space: tuning the senses to see the artistry in ordinary life.  Admittedly, “museum” can be a ponderous word, heavily institutional and easily denigrated: “The real art is in the streets, not hanging on museum walls!”  But photographic space can seem too small by itself, and the artistry of the photographic encounter is in fact nothing less than entering a dedicated space for seeing anew.  And besides, much of the time photography already is in the streets.

The relationship between photography and the fine arts has a rich history, including early modernist avant-garde movements such as surrealism and Dada, use as a muse by major painters such as Francis Bacon and as more than that by photo-realists such as Chuck Close, late modern avant-garde movements such as pop art, and work by contemporary hyperrealists (and keep in mind that all such labels are only partially accurate), and not least by Cindy Sherman, who I put in a class by herself.  The photograph above was taken to accompany a New York Times review of the museum, and it serves that purpose well.  It surpasses that assignment, however, to capture something profound about photography itself.  Every photo of someone turns them temporarily into a statue.  Doing so doesn’t kill them, but it can bring the rest of us to life.

Photograph by Steve Hebert/New York Times.

 0 Comments

Dueling Tumblrs: When the Personal is Visual

The Occupy Wall Street protests have entered the phase where they have the attention of the mainstream media but now have to struggle to get their message out.  The problem is twofold: the movement has more messages than organization, and the press can be astonishingly thick-headed about what happens outside of their usual ambit.  Even though they had a full-time propaganda machine in Fox News, the Tea Party had the same problem.  Now as then, the press is asking, “Just who are these people?  To answer that question, someone started a Tumblr site, “We are the 99 percent.”

 

Each entry consists of someone writing a personal statement and holding it up to the camera.  The paper comes from notepads, the photos are not in any way professional, and everything about the presentation underscores that these stories come directly from everyday life in an anxious time.  Economics gets personal, and the personal is political once again.  These citizens are making public statements to whoever will listen, in the hope that the government can begin to undo the damage it has caused by deregulation, regressive tax cuts, and unnecessary wars.

Public statement invite public debate, and it didn’t take long for a counter-site to emerge.

We are the 53%” refers to the 53 percent of Americans who pay income taxes.  Ironically, as the deep tax cuts and public sector job losses created by Republican policies have taken wage earners off the tax rolls, the right wing feels even more aggrieved.  (Joe Klein sets out this point in more detail.)  Nor does the 53% include social security, property, or sales taxes, etc., but who’s counting?  In any case, the use of visual statements is interesting, and the debate is doing what democracies should do: get people to compare their experiences in order to work out some basis for agreement among conflicting viewpoints.

But when you get personal, you also had better be ready to take your lumps.  Here’s the guy who apparently started the 53% site:

As Brad Delong notes, the job count might involve some fuzzy math. And then there are the two houses.  Even when you don’t say a word, politics ain’t bean bag.

Photos are from the Tumblr sites.  Thanks to Pandagon for the fair and balanced leads.  A slide show of protest signs on the street is here.

 4 Comments

Symbols of Change When Nothing is Changing

A slide show at The Big Picture emphasizes that political demonstrations are breaking out all over the place.  And so they are: Argentina, Bolivia, Egypt, Greece, Haiti, Indonesia, Russia, Spain, Syria, and many more countries are becoming defined by people taking to the streets to denounce ruling elites.   And the familiar iconography of raised fists, massed demonstrators, colorful banners, painted faces, and police violence suggest that all the protests are much the same.  As institutions fail and political leaders temporize, we can imagine a common revolutionary impulse surging through the streets around the globe.  The winds of change are blowing, and can the revolution be far behind?

Well, yes, there can be a bit of a delay.  Which is why I like this photo from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An organization named Rio de Peace planted hundreds of brooms “to symbolise the need to ‘sweep away’ corruption in the Brazilian National Congress.”  If all you care about is eye candy, this is the photo of the month for you.  If you want to make light of the recent demonstrations on Wall Street or anywhere else, this image could be your poster child.  Although it’s a genuinely novel and almost enchanting remake of a very tired cliche, it also seems to hover somewhere between art for art’s sake and a Disney animated movie.  More to the point, it could have been designed and funded by a corporate sponsor–“OK, people, we’ve got to do something creative about corruption.  How about brooms at the beach?”

In short, if demonstrations are to be more than mere symbolism, they have to be about putting your body on the line, and so the brooms seem to capture exactly the wrong kind of attention.  But that may be too harsh, even without knowing a thing about the situation in Brazil.  The important thing to recognize about most of the protests occurring this year is that they are not going to change much, and that they are going to continue anyway, and should.  Likewise, many of them will be misunderstood if they are seen as revolutionary actions, or even as steps toward a revolution.  Taking politics to the streets may have that potential, but it also is a hallmark of political systems defined by endemic divisions between mass and elite, rich and poor, the people and a ruling oligarchy.  Thus, the symbols of change can also be indications that things already have moved in exactly the wrong direction.  Instead of a return to social democracy, they can be symptoms of how much democratic institutions have been captured by capital.

And so maybe symbolism isn’t so incidental after all.  There is no better icon of capitalism than the Merrill Lynch bull on Wall Street.  (And note that there is no corresponding bear, so fair and balanced is no part of the story.)  These cops have to do without their doughnuts, but otherwise this isn’t exactly tough duty.  That bored banality while manning the state’s barricade is priceless.  The likelihood of revolution is slim to none, but even so police power will be spent on keeping the symbols intact.

The brooms can remind one that the global protests are not all alike: each will involve complex local conditions, constraints, and possibilities.  The barricaded bull can remind one that the symbols do matter–not least to those with the most to lose.  Both images suggest that “revolution” may be the wrong term for describing the need to change a system that has become highly adaptable at resisting systemic change, even as it becomes increasingly dysfunctional and unjust.

Photographs by Felipe Dana/Associated Press and David Shankbone/Flickr.

 3 Comments