Mar 28, 2008

Tunnel Vision...

Vogue Magazine has stirred up a major controversy with its April Cover page pairing a "raging" Lebron James with the Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen, which many African American commentators have described as a racist image. The critics complain that the image conjures up the archetypal King Kong image (below) in which the giant gorilla menaces a dainty white woman, thus pointing in a major way to the tunnel vision of racial (in)sensitivity. Many people have taken opposing sides in this debate and while some African Americans claim not to be offended by it, others are quite disturbed by the way the cover page photo plays with entrenched ideas of "hostile" black men menacing white womanhood. Implications of such menace contributed to the lynching of many African American men in the dark days of Jim Crow. For many African Americans therefore, such images in any form ignite terrible memories and indicate gross insensitivity to history on the part of Vogue.
The photographer of the Vogue cover image, Ann Leibovitz, is very highly respected for capturing the nuances of various figures in her acclaimed portraits. She received a lot of praise for her 2007 cover page photographs for the Bono guest-edited Vanity Fair July 2007 special edition on Africa (go here and click on "start slideshow") and has largely replaced the late Richard Avedon as the top fashion photographer of our age. An artist of this caliber usually produces provocative work and cannot be accused of racism merely on account of her photographic images. However, the LeBron image conjures up bad memories for African Americans with a long sense of history, in a context where black men accused of aggression towards white women usually had the book thrown at them. One can therefore understand the anger of critics of this image.

That said, the problem with contemporary discourses of race is that it fosters a kind of tunnel vision through which every image acquires racial overtones. Something like this happened to me after my training as an art historian in the heady days of identity politics during the Culture Wars, after which I couldn't look at an artwork (specifically paintings) without seeing their racial subtexts: my training essentially ruined for me the simple pleasures of the gaze and it took me awhile to recover it. In that regard, I saw the Vogue cover merely as a tasteless joke (even for the vacuous content of this particular magazine) and an indictment of LeBron James who was willing to be characterized in this manner. There is a whole story that can be told about how African American athletes acquiesce in negative representations of their own images but hey, the man got paid and he has every right to sell his image in any manner he wishes. It is also notable that there are other dignified pictures of LeBron in the Vogue issue. However, this is apparently a winter of great discontent in American race discourse. From the furor over insensitive racial comments from both black and white interlocutors of late to this new storm in a teacup, the American public sphere seems to have been hijacked by aggressive monitoring of racially encoded or racially explicit personal utterances, with political figures being called to "denounce and renounce" either their own comments or those of people even marginally associated with them (Stanley Fish skewers the dogma de jour in a NYT op-ed). While it is important to remember how visual images have been used to demonize and denigrate black peoples in recent history, it is also important that black people not see everything and every issue through the lens of race. As Senator Obama said in his epochal speech on the subject, it would be a mistake to speak of racial attitudes as if nothing has changed. Much has changed and racism, though it remains a problem, cannot be blamed for every foolhardy actions by insensitive dunderheads. We cannot begin the meaningful discussions on race suggested by Senator Obama by assuming that everyone who disagrees with us is evil. It is in everyone's interest to foster greater tolerance for minor errors and act on the changing nature of the times.

So then, Peace!!!

Mar 27, 2008

Disney's Vision of Africa Without Africans

It has become common to evacuate black people from the site of their own creative endeavors, as in the persistent habit of the Disney Corporation of representing Africa without black peoples in its films, theme parks and animatronics, moving away I guess from its earlier colonialist Tarzan-imagery in which a marooned Lord Greystoke lords it over a band of talking apes and jabbering black "natives". I've been citing this issue as a problem in my classes on Black Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation as an example of how persistent racism cloaks itself in non-ideological terms while espousing explicit ideologies of racial and cultural purity. After a lucrative career plundering European folklore from the works of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm's Fairy Tales (and in the process copyrighting European cultural knowledge as its private property) Disney turned its attention to the folklore of other cultures. Films like Pocahontas, Mulan, Atlantis and others presented Disney's particularly rosy version of global folk culture. The protagonists of all these movies are human beings representing idealized ethnic types from each culture (Pocahontas, the Native American princess romanced by Captain Smith, Fa Mulan the peasant girl hero who saves the state of China, etc, etc). However, in the Lion King, Disney's interpretation of an African story, all the protagonists were animals. In the vast sweep of the story, Disney's imagineers did not see fit to include a single African human being.

Seth Stevenson, writing for Slate, describes this situation as a representation of Africa without Africans. He points out this worrisome detail in his analysis of Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park, where its supposed representation of an African village, Harambe, is completely devoid of Africans: no actual black people, no black animatronic figures or even black tourists to speak of (someone do a quick search: is there any single black person represented in Disney's animatronics in all its theme parks worldwide or represented positively in any of its movies and vast media empire? I'd really like to know. Send Aachronym a picture or citation if you find one example).

What we have here is a major global corporation that promotes a racially biased view of the world and through this, achieves a form of ethnic cleansing in its media. In recent times, the corporation has moved to repair the grim image of racism inherited from its founder Walt Disney but I'm concerned that its solution to this problem (cut out black people completely) is equally disturbing. Disney pays its imagineers lots of money to come up with its visuals and it invests more to create its theme parks and films. Anything it ends up with has to be seen as intentional. Of course, the corporation is made up of human beings who reflect prevailing social mores: as such, it may not be better or worse than the prevailing social negation of black peoples at any given time. However, since the corporation has a firm grasp of the imagination of children (control and commodification of childhood if you will) on a global scale, we must ask in earnest, what exactly is Disney teaching children about the state of human affairs? What kind of world is Disney promoting through its clearly white supremacist ideologies? Persistent negative stereotypes of Africans and other non-Western peoples in Disney media is a cause for global concern. In an age of great global tumult, such biased view of the world promotes intolerance and justifies ethnic stereotypes. The Disney brand is a major global player. It is important that it moves to rectify this persistent problem in its view of the world.

Time Magazine presents a heroic overview of Walt Disney here. Click here for Disney's worst moments in the representation of racial identities. Also, Disney plans to curtail accusations of racism by making a movie with a Black Princess protagonist, slated for release in 2009.

Florida Legislature Apologizes for State’s History of Slavery

From a NYT report on Florida's Legislature's apology for their state's history of slavery. This is yet another in a growing list of American states and world powers apologizing for their unjust treatment of Africans and black peoples through slavery and colonialism (Australia recently apologized for its gross mistreatment of Aborigine peoples, among others). Apologies are welcome indeed but must be backed by practical actions to remedy the lot of large populations who still suffer from their relegation to the status of second-class human beings directly as a result of past injustices. The racial healing and social progress needed will be greatly enhanced by an improvement in the current lot of the descendants of slavery throughout the world. One could say we are witnessing an important social movement that might in time lead to greater sensitivity for human obligations to each other. The problem is that every time it seems we are near that goal, naked self-interest overrules any progress made but as always, one hopes things will get better in this respect.

A curious question though, who receives these apologies for slavery and on whose behalf?

Mar 24, 2008

Diasporic Boundaries: Art, Slavery and the Visual Field

CFP for the upcoming College Art Association 2009 Conference, Los Angeles, Feb 25-28, 2009:

Diasporic Boundaries: Art, Slavery and the Visual Field
Julie L. McGee, Independent Scholar, 12 Longfellow Ave, Brunswick, ME 04011.
Moyo Okediji, University of Colorado, Denver and Denver Art Museum, 4438 Yates Street, Denver, CO 80212.

African diaspora
as a term has aged haphazardly. Few would argue its relevance in the context of the history of slavery, in particular the Middle Passage. Artists, curators, and museums deploy visual images to locate slavery, historically or otherwise, in our contemporary consciousness. What is the scope of the visual field when the central point is slavery? How contingent are notions of disapora on slavery and vice-versa? Can contemporary objects be said to remember slavery at all - or rather the more present and relational African diaspora? How do we account for the absence of experienced memory? This session seeks to explore the fungible relationship between slavery and the African diaspora within the visual field, with particular attention to the interplay of historicity and mythology, memory and heritage. Artists, historians and curators are invited to submit proposals. Papers that address theories of practice and use or aspects beyond iconography are especially welcome.

For more information on the conference and details on submission process see CAA website:

Mar 22, 2008

Childhood's End...

The acclaimed futurist Arthur C. Clarke was laid to rest today in his adopted country of Sri Lanka. His death at the age of 90 marks the passing of a man who helped invent the 20th Century and was responsible for nurturing a major literary field among other achievements. Although he was not happy being described as a sci-fi writer (he was more properly described as a Futurist), he helped shape the genre and his own literary contributions to this genre are among the classics of world literature. He was also a serious scientist. In fact, Clarke advanced the idea of using geosynchronous satellites as communication relays and wrote many books describing the technical and social implications of space travel. For his achievements in this regard, the International Astronomical Union named the geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth The Clarke Orbit.

I once wrote on this blog that a visionary is someone who has grand ideas in a context in which such ideas are at all feasible (even if they take a while to be realized): on the other hand, a lunatic is someone who has grand ideas in a context where such ideas are inconceivable. When I was a very young child, I wanted to be an astronaut and spent most of my childhood inventing flying machines that I tested myself with very disastrous consequences: I spent months in local hospitals recuperating from broken bones and a wounded ego. There were no opportunities for studying aeronautic engineering in Nigeria but the urge for this knowledge subsisted in me like hunger. I scoured all available libraries and read up on everything I could lay my hands on, in the process forming a lifelong hobby for space exploration technologies and research in high energy physics. I discovered Arthur C. Clarke during this period while plowing through some books on CERN's research on particle physics. A polymath in all senses of the word, Clarke's futurist novels and scientific ideas provided an environment in which I could at least dream of space flight without ridicule. I read everything I could find by the author and then read through a vast library of sci-fi and speculative fiction (the older and more scientifically oriented stuff, not the Tolkien-manque scribblings and fantasy novels passing for sci-fi in bookstores today). I spent huge amounts of time in public libraries reading up on the USA-Soviet space race and often returned home hours after school, only to find my entire family searching for me. In time, my distressed family decided to ship me from Ibadan to my village and entrust me to the care of my grandfather, a noted diviner.

Consider then a nine-year old boy in Nigeria in the late 1970s looking heavenwards and tracking stars and satellites with a small military-style binoculars, in my village where the night sky was perfect for such observations. We had no electricity here until 1994 and moonless nights brought solid darkness. In the village, my cousins taught me that there are different kinds of darkness and I eventually learned to see in all of them. But a village is not a city and there were less places to find the kinds of books I needed to read to keep my inquisitive mind occupied. As such I visited the local schools and read through their libraries, literary reading through shelves of anything I came across. In time I let go of the dream of spaceflight and studied the land instead. From my grandfather, I learned some divination and from my grandmother I learned the oral history of my varied lineages. My cousins taught me how to be a tracker, farmer and hunter, how to walk the village paths in the dark without tripping, to walk in the forest without making noise, and finally how to properly speak the languages of my people. I went to a high school nearby, went up to Northern Nigeria for further studies, and ended up at the University of Nigeria where I majored in Fine and Applied Arts. I went abroad for studies in the USA, got a job and now work as an art historian, in a context where the world wide web now provides all the information I could ever want on space exploration.

Through all these years of sojourn, I carried two books: Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Oddysey. The latter suggested that at the edge of technological advancement in the search through outer space, the leap into Godhood came not through technology but through investigation of inner spaces, of the human mind. I have come a long way from my village and live today in a place where city lights blot out the night sky. I can however still see the stars faintly and still follow space exploration in all its ramifications. Above all, I still have those books by Arthur C. Clarke, which at close on thirty years, are now the oldest things I own. In the vast fog of time and what might have been, I credit Arthur C. Clarke with saving my mind, by showing that even if I didn't make it to the stars physically, I could still go there in my mind, and that both forms of travel are eventually valid. One obeys the iron laws of science, the other sails on the vast oceans of human potential.

It is a tenet of hard science that any sufficiently advanced technology will eventually seem like magic. The great mind perceives this magic before it becomes technology. The ultimate tragedy of Africa is that our conditions of life (what little of life we are afforded in our endless pursuit of subsistence) affords very little opportunity for grand visions. In my childhood, my visions consumed me from within and my gaze was feral: for many, this was simply madness. Clarke's vision of the future suggested otherwise and provided for me a path to follow. I write therefore to pay homage to Arthur C. Clarke who was my mentor when I most needed one most even though he did not know of me.

Per Aspera Ad Astra

Mar 17, 2008

The Smithsonian's New Boss

The New York Times reports that University President, G. Wayne Clough of the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been hired as the new chief executive of the Smithsonian Institution. He replaces Lawrence Smalls who resigned last year in a period of great changes for the museum. Read the full story here.

Mar 16, 2008


Home. Pulled into my garage around 3.45am on Sunday morning after an hour's drive from LAX, the last leg of a 30-hour flight aboard Delta Airlines from Lagos to Los Angeles through Atlanta with an unscheduled stop in San Juan Puerto Rico, ostensibly to refuel. Strong headwinds, said the captain, caused a high rate of fuel burn hence the diversion. The Boeing 767-300 landed at Lagos Murtala Mohammed International Airport around 8.20am, and by 10.25am, it was ready to make the return flight to the USA. I may be wrong but I did not see it refuel in Lagos which explains why it needed to make the unscheduled stop in San Juan. Come to think of it, most British Airways flights into Lagos don't refuel there either. They fly six hours from London-Heathrow, take on passengers and make the return flight to London where they refuel. Might have something to do with the problem of adulterated fuel in Nigeria, which is in the news big time recently after car-drivers started getting poisoned by fuel fumes due from their stressed out car engines.

Anyway, we lost time due to the refueling diversion and arrived in Atlanta almost two hours later than scheduled. A freak twister tore up the city on Friday night and Hartsfield-Jackson International airport was clogged, backed up with rescheduled flights disturbed by the freak weather pattern. Our flight sat on the tarmac for one hour while we waited for a gate assignment. Finally they called in people movers (specialized transportation vehicles) to get us from the plane to the terminal. Once deboraded, everyone ran to clear customs, get their luggage from the huge piles of luggage stacked around the baggage claim area, pass through security, find their flight-gate assignments and then make their connections. I got lucky: my flight to Los Angeles was held back for three hours and I was able to make it aboard around 10pm. It was supposed to leave by 8.20pm but finally left at 11.50pm after taking on passengers and waiting for a pilot to arrive from another flight inbound from Miami. Five hours later, we landed in LAX, I cleared my luggage and headed north on my one-hour drive home.

This was probably the worst international flight I have ever been on. I want to think it reflects less on the incompetence of Delta (the in-flight service was very professional and efficient) and more on the inefficiency of the hub system of USA flight management. Hartsfield-Jackson International is the main hub of Delta airlines and when anything goes wrong at a hub (like the bad weather conditions of Friday), it backs up the system across the country and internationally. I suspect the stop in Puerto Rico was probably made to give the inbound airline time to get a gate assignment at Atlanta even though it ultimately didn't. For me, the flight out to Lagos was easy: I checked in my luggage at LAX and retrieved them in Lagos. However, I'd only recommend flying on Delta to Nigeria if a passenger builds in enough time for clearing their luggage and going through customs to check into the domestic leg of their connection to final destinations in the USA (budget at least three hours and hope there are no delays on any legs of the flight in). On the European routes, you check in and retrieve luggage on a point to point basis (LAX-LAGOS-LAX) and are allowed the full international allowance of 70pounds each for two items. Delta allows 50 pounds each for two items, which ensures that most travelers to Nigeria have to pay higher fees for any oversized or additional checked-in items. Since it is always the case that such travelers carry a lot of luggage, this is tantamount to a costly flight surcharge ranging from $150 for any single luggage above 50 pounds-weight, to multiple charges of that amount for additional luggage over the two allowed. Other international airlines I've flown on pro-rate the cost of additional luggage and weight.

Obviously, any passenger that can afford to do so on a long-range international flight should fly business class. The coach seats are always too cramped for a 6-footer and such cramped sitting causes the knees (being bent through the flight in uncomfortable positions) to swell up considerably. The health implications of this issue has been raised often but the airlines continue to try and cram more passengers into smaller and smaller seat spaces. There's a joke I heard recently that low-cost airlines will eventually start flying people around strapped to their seats in upright positions. No matter: the important thing is that once a flight's schedule is compromised and the delays start piling up, one feels sorry for passengers who must endure the additional stress of an already stressful long-distance flight.

The Delta Airlines route to Lagos has potential. They seem to be doing good business and this particular outbound flight from Lagos was quite full. If one were assured of a less stressful transition at Atlanta, I might consider flying Delta to Lagos in the future.

Jo'Burg Art Fair

Some information about the Johannesburg Art Fair, which concludes today. Read an interview with event curator Simon Njami here and deliberations on the commercial possibilities of the art fair in Anthea Buys's interview with Ross Douglas, Director of Artlogic and producer of the Art fair. Finally a discussion of the debates on the merits and demerits of the event, with commentary by participating artists.

Mar 13, 2008

Wilder's Dream

An interesting article in the New York Times about the efforts of former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder (the USA's first African American governor) to build a museum of slavery in Virginia. Despite important programs like PBS's Slavery and the Making of America, the history of slavery in America is gradually being effaced from the national consciousness. There is no public museum worth its name focused on preserving this history and even less enthusiasm for talking about it in popular culture. Wilder's dream is thus very significant for its effort to prevent mass amnesia. The history of the United States of America is largely intertwined with the history of its African descendants whose labor made everything about this nation possible. Despite this history and their immense contributions, African Americans are still patently second-class residents of the USA whose very claim to American citizenship remains continuously contested. The crass underbelly of such disenfranchisement is playing out on the national stage as various commentators try to subvert Obama's candidacy by literally tarring him as a race-candidate.

Wilder cites fundraising as his biggest problem. The expected cost of the museum is 200 million dollars and so far, the project has raised about $50 million dollars in pledges. In comparison, the New York Public Library is about to embark on a one billion dollars revitalization program which as far as I know is fully subscribed. As far as I know, there isn't a single cultural institution in the USA devoted to African American history or culture that has 200 million dollars either in initial capitalization or corporate value. I have written at length of this undervaluing of global African culture and identified it as a wilful process of economic marginalization that locates African American history outside American historical developments and locates African history outside the history of the world. It is now so bad that a school I taught in actually classified African American art history as Ethnic Studies akin to analysis of Papuan New Guinea art. In other words, the American educational system considers African American history separate from the history of the USA. (Of course, the fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that white American history is equally an ethnic history but not characterized as such)

Wilder's dream of building a museum to memorialize slavery and honor the ancestors impacted by its nefarious protocols deserves the support of every well meaning American. Slavery remains a stain on a nation founded on the premise that all men and women are created equal. The least such a nation can do is to persuade descendants of those they enslaved that their memory and pain are not trivial matters. Such focus benefits all Americans and allows them to embrace their shared history in this land where all the bloodlines of the human race met for the first time since the ancestors of modern humans left Africa barely seventy thousand years ago to populate the world.

Mar 12, 2008

BobTV 2008

Pictures from the ongoing BOBTV 2008 event in Abuja whose focus on packaging Nollywood/Nigerian Movies for a global audience drew contributions from a wide range of industry practitioners and stakeholders. The Nollywood Foundation (NF) sponsored a workshop masterclass in Screenwriting, moderate by the Nigerian American Emmy award winning screenwriter Mike Ajakwe. Pictures, top: with Amaka Igwe (right) founder of BOB-TV and Paul Obazele, President of the Producers Guild of Nollywood. Below: Dignitaries at the BobTV event and bottom: Keynote Speaker Ben Tomoloju and I taking questions at the CORA Stampede panel.

Mar 8, 2008

The Professor Formerly Known as Sly...

Lagos, in the frenetic days of March. Nigeria is humming these days with major reconstruction projects on Lagos roads, humming with crusading politicians holding hearings on corruption and political misbehavior, with the discontent of the people struggling with a dastardly problem of tainted petroleum products making people sick from fumes in their cars (how in God's name do you taint petrol), and with the massive hum of stalled traffic everywhere on every road as far as the eye can see. But as always I am surprised. In the middle of this maddening hum of overbearing circumstances, Lagos is vibrant and the mood in the city is heady. There is serious money circulating in the local economy and the county projects a new confidence on the global stage. Accountability is making inroads and even as everyone complains of corrupt politicians, they equally speak of positive things the government is doing to benefit the common people. I try to stay out of the local politics...I am here mainly for the arts.

Gave a lecture today at Bisi Silva's Center for Contemporary African Art in Yaba Lagos. Subject--Managing Nigerian Cultural Patrimony: The Need for Social Entrepreneurs focusing on art management and the question of Nigerian cultural patrimony. This taps into my current project of applying entrepreneurial models to the management of African cultural heritage in an age of cultural commodification. Despite the long history of modern and contemporary art in Nigeria, art management is underrepresented in Nigerian art and art-collection practices. I used the National Museum Onikan and selected collections of modern Nigerian art to illustrate the problem and proffer solutions.

The talk was well attended and very well received. I was particularly surprised by the warm reception of a Nigerian audience of artists usually given to combative debate. Many of them sense the problem of their increased marginalization in discourses of contemporary African art but had no way of tackling it given its large scale. In dealing with this problem, I worked out a solution that employed economics of scale. I believe that in scaling up the relevant issues, connections between the various needs for management of cultural patrimony become apparent and solutions that work well in one sector may be successfully applied to contiguous sectors. For example, many Nigerian artists complain of inadequate exposure and lack of respect for their creativity by international curators. (I commented on the impact of curatorial negation on modern and contemporary Nigerian art in a previous blog). I suggested ways of improving the visibility of these artists and how they can take advantage of economics of scale in Nigeria where a sustainable internal market exists for their artworks. I pointed out the need for curatorial intervention into the issue of branding these artworks for the international discourse on contemporary art. Finally I introduced aspects of my Aachron Knowledge Systems program (designed to organize information on global African arts) and pointed out how its various subsidiaries focus on specific needs and requirements of cultural management. I plan to return to Nigeria every summer to give workshops on management of cultural patrimony and provide art-equity consultancy.

The Center for Contemporary Arts Lagos was also hosting an installation by Ndidi Dike titled Waka Into Bondage: The Last Three Quarter Mile but more on this later. Many old friends took time out of their busy schedules to attend my talk and I was glad to see them. The witty word of the day came from my friend Chinwe Uwatse, an artist and alumna of my alma mater--the University of Nigeria who greeted me as the professor formerly known as Sly, as I was known to all during my college days. You can move far away I guess but you can't outrun your past. To Chinwe, Toyin Akionsho, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke and others who attended my talk, greetings and thanks.

Images below: with Bisi Silva at the CCAL lecture; with Chinwe Uwatse (left)and Ndidi Dike; cross section of the audience...

Mar 6, 2008

Delta Test Run: LAX to Lagos...

I'm in Atlanta Hartsfield/Jackson Airport en route from Los Angeles to Lagos Nigeria via Delta Airlines. I decided to try out this new service to see for myself the quality of its flight protocols and customer service. I can say at least that the Atlanta-Lagos leg of the flight is scheduled on a Boeing 767 airplane that looks fairly new. The LAX to Atlanta service was fine and speedy at four hours. If Delta's Lagos route works out, it might save hours off the usual route through Europe, which is these days fraught with major delays and antagonisms to passengers.

Kehinde Wiley Redux

Further critical praise of the New York based figurative painter Kehinde Wiley, from the Art Newspaper. The time seems right to revisit the figurative art of modern Nigerian and African artists who've pursued this aesthetic protocol since the turn of the 20th Century.

Mar 4, 2008

Gavin Jantjes Visual Century Project

Gavin Jantjes comments on the Visual Century project he is spearheading in South Africa in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) of the University of Cape Town, and Mario Pissara's Art South Africa Initiative (ASAI). "Visual Century, a new multimedia publishing initiative funded by the DAC, aims to promote a critical reappraisal of South African Art History.

Mar 3, 2008

Eating your Cake and Driving It...

The New York Times reports on that the current global focus on biofuels in rich countries is resulting in extraordinary increases in the cost of producing food in poor countries due to the diversion of food crops into fuel production. There is something called The Law of Unintended Consequences, which states that unintended consequences of an action will overwhelm the intended ones. The classic example concerns road construction to ease traffic flow, which results in increased traffic for various reasons. Nuclear energy results in radioactive waste with half-lives ranging from thousands to billions of years (the half life of Uranium-238, a major component of nuclear bombs is 4.5 billion years, older in short than the current age of planet Earth). In this regard, there is a terribly illogical debate going on in the West about the benefits of environmental conservation. In a mere 200 years, Industrialization has brought the planet to the brink of collapse by the sheer amount of resources extracted to feed a growing demand for conspicuous consumption. As China, India and other non-Western countries industrialize, the debate that I see in the media is not about whether the planet as a whole can afford the senseless cycle of resource waste involved in their aspirations but what their growth means for the West's ability to sustain its current lifestyle. Cue then the debate about biofuels in which Ethanol and other agriculture-based FOOD resources are being diverted into fuel production. I am sure I'm not the only one who sees clearly that this must have an impact on available resources for food when food crops are used instead to produce fuels for industrial use. So instead of laws to increase the mandated fuel efficiency of cars on the road, or prohibitions against gigantic SUVs that get ten miles to the gallon, or urban redevelopment that reverses the suburban expansion that causes drives of 50-150 miles round trip to work for people in Southern California, or even a discussion on the ethics of the West's effort to eat the world up, the deus-ex-machina of current discussion is the drive to replace oil consumption with biofuels. The law of unintended consequences of this action is the upward spike in the price of food and basic agricultural products.

Even the most ardent anti-environmentalist recognizes that we are riding the last great wave of facile consumption of natural resources. In this regard, it is impossible for the advanced economies to eat their cake and have it too through many are angling for just such an outcome. Of course, NYT points out that the impact of the growing cost of food resources negatively affects the poor, and Africans most especially. We'll revisit this issue when current hunger turns to mass starvation and another group of well-meaning well-fed Western musicians use their music to try and save starving masses of hungry Africans. The contemporary world has legitimized charity as a response to current problems of global inequity. But charity will not solve the problem of global poverty, only equitable distribution of global resources will do the trick.

Mar 2, 2008

The Future Present

The Art Newspaper reports on the rising phenomenon of privately funded museums which it describes as new museums and galleries that are conceived, funded and run privately, usually but not invariably through the vehicle of a philanthropic trust or foundation, in which tax breaks are traded for ceding formal legal ownership, but not necessarily control. A function of the widening disparity of wealth in which newly rich collectors strive to plant their names on the cultural landscape, privately funded museums are now competing fiercely with established museums for access to rare art. In many cases, the competition is actually lopsided: private collectors regularly outbid major museums and are fueling inflation in the prices of artworks. However, I don't necessarily think this development is as dire as the Art Newspaper imagines. Most of the major museums in the West today were formed in the Gilded Age by the so-called Robber Barons who eventually gifted these institutions to the public. One crucial factor that may be different in this current gilded age economics of art is that the artwork is now a fully fungible commodity. Private collectors may thus hand down their collections to heirs as another aspect of their inheritance and no one quite knows whether these collections will be available for public use. Also, since some collectors are not very scrupulous in how they acquire artworks, the question of cultural patrimony of these artworks may be greatly hindered by their disappearance into the black hole of illicit collections. We will see how all these play out in the future.

There is an upside though: I predict that the boom in private collections will be a great boon to art historians and curators whose services will come into greater demand. Art historians broker valuable cultural commodities worth millions of dollars but are nevertheless grossly underpaid, except for curators who land major international Biennale exhibitions and thus effectively serve as managers of multi-million dollar projects. Art Historians should be better paid in relation to the value of the objects whose value and reception they mediate. Major institutions like the Getty already pay their curators much higher salaries than public museums do and this trend will only increase in time but with the negative impact that prospects of higher pay will attract the top echelon of the field away from academia and public museum jobs. It is thus possible that as private collectors compete with museums for art resources, major museums will fall victim to the new privatization of art and its economies as they increasingly become unable to sustain the gigantic costs of keeping their operations going. The richest museums will survive but many will simply go under. In this regard, Fisk University's problems with maintaining its art gallery (it suffers from serious lack of funds) may foretell a future that awaits many other public institutions.