Thursday, April 24, 2008

Byzantium N O W

"We're stocking up on Windex" said a Getty spokesman in preparation for Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, the premier 2006-07 Byzantine art exhibition in America. Judging from the New York Times review (Nov. 12, 2006), the organizers seemed intrigued by the devotional repercussions of such an exhibit, namely visitors smearing their bodily fluids on the pristine airtight glass cases. The curator, herself, discovered such practices in Cairo, when a Coptic housekeeper kissed the image of the catalog proofs scattered on her work table. The Getty exhibition highlights most dramatically the biblical gulf that separates the white tower of Byantine art-history and its subject matter (not to mention the monks' postmodern relationship with the Getty during their visit). Perhaps it has less to do with culture (East vs. West) as it might have to do with class and social expectations. One hardly needs to travel to Egypt to see the devotional kissing of objects; housekeepers all over Los Angeles engage in such practices if one attends closely to the Latino community. Sometimes, I think that Byzantine wisdom resides in the plastic furniture covers of immigrant households, or even in Gus Portoklalos' prophetic cure, "every ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex" in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).

During the last year my research has been focusing on the intoxicating motivations for studying Byzantine art during the 1930s. For better or for worse (and for a variety of reasons too complex to enumerate here), Byzantium mattered greatly. The same could be said for the 1960s, too, which explains the renaissance of Byzantine art history during this period. Glenn Peers is working on a terrific new project showing how Byzantium infected American postwar art, why Clement Greenberg would write "Byzantine Parallels" in 1958 (
Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston 1961, pp. 167-170), or why the de Menils would commission both a Byzantine icon chapel and a Rothko chapel at Houston (Peers, "Utopia and Heterotopia: Byzantine Modernisms in America," paper, Florence, 2005). But this only takes us into ca. 1980. Did Byzantium lose its cultural relevance? Not entirely, considering that postmodernism loved all marginal periods. Byzantium was useful for a greater counter-canonical critique, which ultimately addressed the canon itself (and those who cared about it from Allan Bloom to Lynne-Chenney's NEH. In 2005, Anthony Cutler gave a talk at the University of Toronto illustrating some lessons from the classroom, showing how Byzantine art was perfect for introducing the postmodern condition. And research on Byzantine historiography flourished in the mid-1990s, with some excellent works, such as, Robert Ousterhout, "An Apologia for Byzantine Architecture, Gesta 35 (1996), pp. 21-33; Robert S. Nelson, "Living on the Byzantine Borders of Western Art, Gesta 35 (1996), pp. 3-11; "The Map of Art History," Art Bulletin 79 (1997), pp. 28-40.

During this last semester (Spring 2008) , I've been part of an Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) public outreach program, lecturing on Byzantium, the avant-garde, archaeology and the 1930s. After my talks, an inner voice and often an audience member would ask the natural question: Does the West care about Byzantium today? Has Byzantium lost the relevance (or even a superficial hotness value) that it had in the 30s? Are there any subjective motivations for studying Byzantine material culture in the 21st century? I commonly gave one simple answer. Yes, the lore of Byzantium rose after World War I and World War II because Byzantine lands (like Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia) were at the limelight of "the other." Up until the Cold War, Byzantium was the edge of the West. Thanks to 9/11 and China's economic growth, the front has moved to Mesopotamia and China. American academia unabashedly displays its opportunist underbelly. Dressed up in some transparent do-good enlightenment, every art history department is scrambling to hire Islamicists and Asianists. Sure, the discipline needs to integrate those lesser known periods and regions, but the timing of multiculturalism requires reflection. Our academic open-mindedness is politically and economically motivated, simply riding on a much larger wave. Have we forgotten about Orientalism altogether? have we forgotten about Napoleon and the Egyptian Expedition? what happened to all that reading of Foucault we seem to be doing, inquiring about the relationship between knowledge and power. Getting to know Islam and the East corresponds cannot be separated from the geopolitics of dominance. The culture wars (focused on America) have shifted into the global wars (focused on American dominance). From a Machiavelian vantage point, the waning of Byzantium makes clear sense. Frankly, I don't know what is better: to relish liberal academia's attention, knowing that heavier guns surround it, or to chose oblivion. I won't try to answer this question but simply acknowledge that Byzantine Studies are spectacularly diminishing and perhaps we should celebrate that condition (even if it means a whole bunch of unemployed Byzantine art historians).

A more interesting question for me right now is how Byzantium is positively capturing the public imagination. My AIA lecture tour coincided with the release of Richard Price's new novel
Lush Life (2008). I had never read Price before (Clockers, 1992, etc.) and knew him only as a writer for HBO's The Wire, a growing addiction (having no HBO, I'm only now getting the first season from Netflix, and, OH MY GOD, IS IT GOOD). Having my own first experience with public lecturing (and, I guess, self promotion), my ears perked up when catching Price's parallel promotional campaign, which has been quite pervasive. No regular PBS viewer or NPR listener could have missed an interview. Returning from two lectures in Ohio, on April 16, 2008, I caught Price on the Bryant Park Project in the early morning on Charlie Rose (PBS) in the late night. In both interviews, Price talked about ... Byzantium or the Byzantine landscape of his novel. A month and a half earlier, the New York Times had referred to the "Sleepy-Eyed Writer Wandering Byzantium," (Charles McGrath, March 2, 2008). Price's Byzantium is the Manhattan's Lower East Side where "the shift in the tectonic plates" is taking place, and where six separate universes are intersecting: 1) Fujianese/Chinese, 2) Orthodox Jews, 3) Porto-Ricans/Dominicans, 4) Projects Un-Rehab tenements, 5) Black culture, 6) La Bohèmers. In his review of Lush Life, Michael Chabon calls Price a demonologist like Dostoevsky and Philip Roth ("In Priceland," New York Review of Books 55.7, May 1, 2008).

At first, it seemed that Richard Price is using Byzantium as a metaphor for ethnic tapestry or cultural mosaic. So, I resisted the novel, especially since I've been reading another book also referred to as "Byzantine," Thomas Pynchon's
Against the Day (2007). Having committed to 1,000 pages of sheer Pynchon pleasure, I wasn't ready for additional reading commitments (and, I must agree with the critics, Against the Day is the next best Pynchon novel since Gravity's Rainbow, 1974). But after repeated flirtations with Lush Life at the Greenville Barnes and Noble, I finally broke down and started reading it. The experience was a revelation. Although it's premature to make any overall statement, I cannot resist commenting on the first 32 pages that I have read. Byzantium is more than a metaphor, it is a paradigm laboriously worked through in the language, the motifs and the novel's preoccupations. Generic cultural history is not what Price has in mind. Eric Cash, the main character, thinks: "But after nearly a decade in the neighborhood, even on a sun-splashed October morning like this, all of this ethnohistorical mix 'n' match was, much like himself, getting old" (p. 15). It's as if Price is commenting on the state of Byzantine art history, especially the kind that tracks cultural influence (from the East, the South, the North, the West).

Walking to work, Eric runs into commotion. A young Chinese policeman, Fenton Ma, like the archangel of the Annunciation, tells Eric of the religious revelation taking place inside the Sana'a 24/7, the mini-mart run by two Yemeni brothers. The conversation goes as follows:

"What is it?"
"Mary's in there," Ma said, getting bumped by the ripple effect of the crowd he was holding back.
"Mary who."
"Mary the Virgin. She showed up in the condensation on one of the freezer doors last night. Word travels fast around here, no?" Taking another bump from behind. (p. 17)

Price's novel begins with an image, perhaps a work of art, manifesting itself on the glass surface, similar to the condensation eradicated by the Getty's Windex army at the Mount Sinai exhibition. "The Virgin was a sixteen-inch-high gourd-shaped outline molded in frost on the glass doors fronting the beer and soda shelves, its smoothly tapered top slightly inclined to one side above its broader lower mass, reminding him vaguely of all the art-history Marys tilting their covered heads to regard the baby in their arms, but really, it was kind of a stretch." (pp. 17-18). Price's description takes us into the most quotidian realm and self-consciously humors the image. There's been an explosion of art-historical scholarship on the Byzantine Virgin (mostly from Harvard) which desperately stretches traditional art history towards theory. Price's condensation-Virgin manages to capture the complexity of Byzantium (iconicity, materiality, subjectivity, meaning, meaninglessness) in ways that supersede the verbiage of scholarship. The hero Eric asks policeman Lo Presto (this time not Chinese but Latino):

"Can I ask you something?" Eric said lightly, not knowing this guy.
"Have you seen her in there?"
"Who, the Virgin?" Lo Presto looked at him neutrally. "Depends what you mean by 'seen'."
"You know. Seen."

The vision and erasure of the cooler condensation provides an element of hubris. Ike "casually reached for the glass door, opening it for a few seconds, then closing it back." (p. 24) Later in the bar, Ike humors Eric, "I have a real bad feeling it's going to come back and bite me in the ass... I'm just fuckin' with you brother." (p. 29) Ike's murder (later that night) and Eric's accusation becomes
Lush Life's narrative premise.

Perhaps I'll never be able to sufficiently articulate how EXCELLENT this incident is, vis-a-vis art history today, but I am thoroughly provoked. This is TOTALLY Byzantine in some deeper way. A few days ago, I attended Holy Friday services at the Greek Orthodox Church at Greenville. The experience was sociologically terrific. Lots has been written about the Southern Greek-Americans (esp. RE: rates of assimilation) and, indeed, they are an interesting lot (I'm one of them, too). At the end of the service, Father Tom made a fabulously weird apologia on the visual quality of the Epitaphios flowers. Apparently, the faithful had complained in previous years that the flowers were not bright enough. Father Tom went through a catalog of this year's colors and explained how the problem is not the floral selection but the lighting of the space. Saint George is a Byzantine revival structure (from the 1990s, I believe) with a huge central dome and insufficient lighting for fancy display. After last year's complains, someone from the church council placed a spot light in the back of the church to assist in highlighting the brightness of the sepulcher. Father Tom's sermon revealed the innovation. The discussion alone, following a long and beautiful service, was priceless in addressing problems of experience, revelation and aesthetics but with Greenbergian material rigor. The southern flowers of Greek Easter, like the condensation of the Lower East side, make Byzantium still infinitely interesting (in ways that Chinese or Islamic art could not fully replace).

Listening to Price interview makes it clear that he is a master of conversation. Chabon calls him "one of the best writers of dialog in the history of American literature" (see earlier). The beauty of his book lies heavily on the hours and hours of fieldwork he has put in studying the tectonic plates of the Lower East Side; he's an artist-ethnographer and an artist-archaeologist. So I anticipated the amazing conversational voices of the novel. But I never expected the levels of visual acuity that I've encountered. This novel could be seen as a treatise on the state of contemporary art history. Price directly tackles the world of visual imagery from tattoos to architecture. A waitress (another Virgin perhaps?) "had all seven dwarfs tattooed in miniature trampling up the inside of her thigh." (p. 19) Ike, a new bartender in Eric Cash's cafe, visits the condensation Virgin and extinguishes the vision by opening the refrigerator door. He is tattooed, too. "He had a shaved head and a menagerie of retro tattoos inside both forearms--hula girls, mermaids, devil heads, panthers--but his smile was as clean as cornfield." (p. 20). Another character, Paulie Shaw, tries to sell the restaurant owner slide transparencies, originals of Jacob Riis--who is, in many ways, Price's predecessor in documenting Manhattan's human condition (
How the Other Half Lives, 1891). Shaw holds the slides up to the light: "Each one personally hand-tinted by Riis himself for his lectures ... The man was light-years ahead of his time, total multimedia, had sixty to a hundred of these fading in and out of each other on a huge screen accompanied by music." (p. 20) Price becomes our multimedia word-smith. We turn the corner and, in fact, we have architecture, a synagogue whose roofed collapsed a few days earlier. A rabbi tries to save the tattered remains of prayer books, while a light-skinned and Latino teenager are stuffing the salvaged sheets into pillowcases. This is truly a visual masterpiece. We gather from his interviews that Price was personally immersed in the project of documenting the Lower East Side, a place that was inhabited by his Jewish immigrant ancestors and a century later by his hipster teenage kids.

In conclusion, I believe that Byzantium continues to matter. This is suggested in Price's Lower East Side research turned into fiction. I usually cringe with the association between New York and Byzantium, as it often stays at the level of gold and glitter (not that there is anything wrong with gold and glitter). At some visceral level, the cultural traditions of Latin America are relevant to Byzantium and they are vibrant in New York. Diego Rivera is probably one of the earliest artists to import Byzantium into the Americas. In 1920, Rivera visited Ravenna studying its mosaics as a visual prototype for his own monumental art. Rivera's tradition survives in what the
New York Times calls "Hip-Hop Byzantium." Surely a whole new blog posting may be necessary to describe the relevance of Byzantium in modern Latin American arts and the public work of Nanny Vega. Suffice it to conclude with sending you to David Gonzalez's discussion of Vega's work in "In Mosaics, an Artists Lasting Impressions", NYT February 25, 2008.

Is it a class thing? Perhaps it is. Art history, its curators and scholars are aiming high and missing low. Byzantium N O W is better nourished in the bosoms of Coptic and Latino housekeepers. The geopolitics of Empire my take us far out into China and Iraq, where we can buy the latest hot Chinese art or the latest luted antiquity. But the business of the cultural historian might keep him closer to literature, New York, L.A. (minus the Getty), Philadelphia, Cleveland, the Byzantium of Richard Price or, for that matter, the Detroit of Jeffrey Eugenides (
Middlesex, 2003). I like this Byzantium of N O W even if I'm not sure exactly what it may add up to. Christ has risen in Greenville, y'all, and Ike has opened the cooler door that erased the Virgin. Happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Punk Archaeology: Glue

Street art has been a vibrant form of the urban underground for the last decade. Back in the 1990s, I began photographing such ephemeral installations throughout Philadelphia, returning even to trace the effects of deterioration or intentional erasure. This documentation, obviously, satisfied my archaeological sensibilities but, more importantly, got me to seriously think about medieval epigraphy and graffiti, a genre that is rarely considered as protest. Interestingly enough, we rarely imagine medieval men and women subverting public space through writing or scratching; we rarely think of them outside the modes of religious expression. Michael Camille's sign typology--protection, power, publicity, memory, location, public fantasy--does not include political subversion ("Signs on Medieval Street Corners," in Die Strasse, ed. J. Gerhard, Vienna, 2001, pp. 91-118). I have a suspicion that some Byzantine inscriptions served a subversive role, an idea based on prison graffiti from Corinth, as well as a series of proto-cartographic scratches.

Philadelphia street art (clearly defined as post-graffiti) boomed when I was a graduate student in AAMW (Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World) . Photographing this vernacular art while studying vernacular architecture gave me an excuse for meaningful procrastination. The discovery of street art, moreover, introduced me to the Space 1026 collaborative, which is responsible for producing some of the best Philadelphia street art. One day, I even stepped up the stairs of 1026 Arch Street, met Ben Woodward, explained my project and bought one of his prints, the barking dog with the word LOST. The print was inexpensive enough ($10) that I also bought a copy for my god-son, whom I've been intentionally trying to subvert through skate boards, CDs, etc. So a LOST print now hangs in a teenager's room in Überlingen, Germany, mind you, not glued in the streets but properly framed and hung).

On April 18, I returned to my alma mater and gave a lecture on Byzantium, Modernity and the American School at AAMW's Archaeology Lunch series. It was a wonderful event in its own right and quite emotional; my last involvement with AAMW was 5 years ago, scrambling to complete my thesis. In my last trip, spring had just began in Philadelphia, offering great opportunities for walking the streets. Although the visit was short and the wanderings even shorter, one image kept creeping up, the sticker you see above. It's a small red monochrome print juxtaposing a simple figurative image of a small mouse and the word GLUE. The print is wheat-pasted on a street pole near 44th and Pine Streets. In fine Pop Art form, text and image are congruous and incongruous. The subject matter itself is so appropriately regional to Philadelphia's domestic life, punctuated by the ever-present mouse problem creeping through every row-house. I cannot even begin to list the Philadelphia mouse stories. Sadly enough, mice was the subject of the last conversation I had with my father before he passed away (unexpectedly from a heart-attack), and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another memorable incident is returning from a trip to Greece and finding a mouse strung around the strings under my mother's sewing machine (she was a seamstress). The poor baby-mouse had spun itself into its own death. We were gone long enough that the bodily deterioration was complete and what confronted us was a beautifully textiled flat object.

I find GLUE to be such a thought-provoking piece beyond the vernacular associations to West Philadelphia life. I will spare you of my own multiple readings. Flat as it may be, GLUE reverberates with so many references, including images from Robert Mapplethorpe's famous "Perfect Moment" show (1988) at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art (which, back then, was housed in Meyerson Hall). Most obviously, GLUE is about prey and preyed, animals and humans, wild and domestic, but also about art process and meaning (the piece itself is literally "glued" on a post). Having just heard a fantastic Studio 360 episode, I cannot fail to see connections with Abu Ghraib as well. Errol Morris'
Standard Operating Procedure (2008) just out in theaters and Stephen S. Eisenman's The Abu Ghraib Effect (London, 2007) are high on my list--Eisenman teaches Art History at Northwestern and he is the editor of Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (3rd ed., 2007); I received a review copy of this textbook and could not put it down . I have no idea who produced GLUE, but I thank them for articulating so many subterranean strata with economical eloquence.

Whether coming out of punk rock, skate-boarding, or both, the aesthetics of street art have reached national exposure in the last few months. One of its most celebrated practitioners, Shepard Fairey, has donated a portrait to the Barak Obama campaign. Fairey's CHANGE is sadly SOLD OUT, but you can read more about it in Rob Walker's, "The Art of Politics" (
NYT Magazine, April 13, 2008, p. 27). Fairey was born in South Carolina (which adds another bizarre geographic thread) and became famous through his OBEY THE GIANT signs. Even if you have never heard of Fairey's name, you have probably seen his work; this is one of the beauties of a genre that is (partially) anonymous but (thoroughly) pervasive. A few years ago, street art was an underground phenomenon integrally connected to other subversive urban grass routes movements. At this point, street art has entered both mainstream political arena and popular culture; Fairey, for instance, has designed the cover of a greatest hits CD for Led Zeppelin. Another artist, Banksy, is equally unavoidable. Last summer, I was so happy to find a copy of his Wall and Piece (Phaidon, 2007) at Barnes and Noble (Rittenhouse Square) to give to my godson when I visited him in Greece . When I walked into my godson's room in Athens, I saw the very same Bansky book in his library; the book had already been translated into Greek (now, that is globalization). I ended up lugging the (ungiven) gift all the way back to the U.S. and returning it to the Barnes and Noble. Whoever has bought that copy, has unwillingly purchased a much traveled book. Incidentally, my godson has now fully embraced hip-hop (as well as computer hacking) and goes by the nickname Pak. Regardless of its mainstream status, the much-traveled street art of Philadelphia seems potently alive and exciting. GLUE not only made my day happier but provided some wonderful connective tissue across multiple years of punk, art and urban archaeology.

PS. Connected to subversive street art, see the documentation of an ephemeral historiography in Boston, Chrstina J. Hodge "History on the Line, Davis Square, "
Archaeoblog, April 10, 2008.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States