Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Art, Mm-Hmm, In Embassies

Sean Scully's 'Wall of Light Cubed 2'

As you may have read, the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department shelled out one million dollars for the artwork depicted above, which will be displayed at the future new U.S. Embassy in London. The new embassy office building will be a work of art in its own right, so I guess we needed exactly the right sculpture to compliment the new building. Why the sculpture costs more than some entire buildings do, I just can't say.

The artwork of Sean Scully, which you can browse on his website, is not something I am qualified to judge, so here is an expert description:

Sean Scully is known for rich, painterly abstractions in which stripes or blocks of layered color are a prevailing motif. The delineated geometry of his work provides structure for an expressive, physical rendering of color, light, and texture. Scully’s simplification of his compositions and use of repetitive forms—squares, rectangles, bands—echoes architectural motifs (doors, windows, walls) and in this way appeals to a universal understanding and temporal navigation of the picture plane. However, the intimacy of Scully’s process, in which he layers and manipulates paint with varying brushstrokes and sensibilities, results in a highly sensual and tactile materiality. His colors and their interactions, often subtly harmonized, elicit profound emotional associations. Scully does not shy away from Romantic ideals and the potential for personal revelation. He strives to combine, as he has said, “intimacy with monumentality.”

I think I'm starting to see it ... yes ... intimacy combined with monumentality ... abstract, geometric, repetitive, and it echoes architectural motifs (the motif part sounds good to me). Plus, it is universal, sensual in a tactile way (do we get to touch this art?), and it elicits emotional responses.   

I can easily believe the part about eliciting emotional responses. With no disrespect for Sean Scully's artistry, any time the U.S. government spends a million dollars to buy a sculpture for display at an embassy you can be certain that there will be profound emotional responses, particularly from members of Congress. 

The incomparable State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf displayed some performance art of her own at last Friday's daily press briefing when she tried to explain why she thinks this purchase is "a good use of our limited resources" (yes, she does):

Okay, on the artwork, we have an Art in Embassies program run through the Office of Art in Embassies which curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for U.S. embassy and consulate facilities. It’s a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors. For the past five decades, Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and the artist exchange.

In terms of the London piece, like much of the art purchased by this program, this piece was purchased under the market price after considerable negotiation with both the artist and the gallery. This is an important part of our diplomatic presence overseas. We maintain facilities that serve as the face of the U.S. Government all throughout the world, and where we can promote cross-cultural understanding, and in this case do so for under market value, we think that’s a good use of our limited resources. Yes, we do.

-- snip --

QUESTION: -- to give you the critics’ point of view. I don’t think any of the critics, even the more harshest ones, are saying that people should go to receptions at U.S. embassies abroad and drink Ripple or Natty Boh or something like that. And I’m not – and I don’t think that they’re saying that people --

MS. HARF: (Off-mike.) Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: -- people at – people who are waiting in line or go to embassies should be looking at velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker either on the walls. (Laughter.) But do you acknowledge at least that the amount that was spent and the timing of – that the optics are not particularly good ... particularly going into the government shutdown?

-- snip --

QUESTION: You mentioned that you purchased the art at below market prices.

MS. HARF: Sometimes. Sometimes.

QUESTION: Sometimes.

MS. HARF: I don’t know about --

QUESTION: Is that not sort of stiffing the artist? I mean, why not – now, I understand you want to be good stewards of the public’s money. But on the other hand, why not pay them what their stuff is actually worth?

MS. HARF: Well, it’s a negotiation between the artist and the gallery, and having their art displayed in a U.S. embassy and especially a prominent one in a place like London, I think is probably something that, if artists choose to sell us their pieces, is an important thing for them as well.

QUESTION: And it is displayed prominently if anyone could actually get into the embassy to take a look at it, right?

MS. HARF: Is that really a question?

QUESTION: Well, it’s not exactly like it’s a public – it’s going to be – unless it is. I don’t know. Is it going to be outside?

MS. HARF: I have no idea.

"Is that really a question?" Yes, it really was a question, and a pretty basic one. Does the public get to see the art on display in our embassies, or not? Is a sculpture such as Wall of Light Cubed 2 going to be displayed inside or outside the walls of the new London embassy? That's the sort of question a Deputy Spokesperson might reasonably be expected to answer. Alas, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had no idea.

I can't be the only one who gets the impression that Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf doesn't actually know all that much about the operations and activities of U.S. Embassies. She always comes off second-best in her frequent bantering with AP's Matt Lee, for example. Why doesn't she have a couple subject matter experts around to prompt her when questions arise that she can't answer?

And don't even get me started on that annoying "Mm-hmm' sound she makes as a sly way to suggest agreement without saying anything. That sound was amusing when it came from Yoda - here's Yoda as Deputy Spokesperson: "A question you have? Mm-hmm" - and creepy when it came from the guy in Sling Blade. When it comes from someone conducting the State Department's daily press briefing it just makes me think she's a lightweight poser.


P.S. - On the subject of art in embassies, let me put in a good word for Velvet Elvises and paintings of dogs playing poker. What's so wrong about those? Personally, I think American artists have only begun to explore the possibilities of the vernacular working-class theme of anthropormorphized dogs playing poker. It is art for the masses and therefore impeccably democratic, so why shouldn't it be displayed in a cross-cultural dialog thingee? At the very least, it ought to get us points for irony.

And who is to say that sort of art doesn't have real cultural value? In a recent post I used a photo of a Proto-Elamite sculpture, a bull in a human pose, which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Met's museum label, bulls in human poses were a common theme in Proto-Elamite art. Is that sculpture on display today merely because it was created around 3,000 BC in southwestern Iran, or because it has genuine artistic interest?

I say to the fancy-pants curators of the Art in Embassies program, don't rule out paintings of dogs playing poker just because it's a modern theme favored exclusively by guys who drink domestic beer. Let's promote that cross-cultural dialog and understanding through the visual arts of the low-brow and the popular, as well as through the rarefied and expensive.


Anonymous said...

TSB: Haven't had time to read your post yet but my first impression of the art in question is: Hay bales artfully decorated by rural grade schoolers. Thumbs up for agriculture!

TSB said...

They DO look like hay bales! That brings in a whole new agricultural [cultural?) exchange possibility. Everyone things the sculpture in the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa looks like a John Deere tractor, so you're on to something.

James said...

They're quarry blanks (blocks of stone to be milled into finished veneer)note the drilling marks on them. Don't know the source or their pricing, but I'm guessing I could buy here approximately the same thing and have them delivered and installed for 80 to 100,000 dollars.

Anonymous said...

TSB: James has struck at the heart of this fraud. It isn't art at all! Just stone. If properly titled I think it represents something important about the times we live in. "DEHUMANIZATION" gwb

“It neither kills outright nor inflicts apparent physical harm, yet the extent of its destructive toll is already greater than that of any war, plague, famine, or natural calamity on record — and its potential damage to the quality of human life and the fabric of civilized society is beyond calculation. For that reason this sickness of the soul might well be called the ‘Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse’. Its more conventional name, of course, is dehumanization.” – Ashley Montagu (The Elephant Man)

Anonymous said...

You're not the only one who gets that impression when it comes to the deputy spokesperson. Maybe DOD will take her as their next spokesperson as had been suggested in some quarters. And I can stop rolling my eyes when she starts talking.

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. I think the DOD job got taken by someone else today - by an Admiral, of all things! - so we'll probably have her around a while longer. Maybe practice will make perfect, or at least competent?

Anonymous said...

TSB: As The skeptical bureaucrat do you get a sense of some dysfunction in this development? And I wonder if Ms. Pfarf had any comment on how things are going with the big Iran initiative? gwb

TSB said...

GWB: I haven't seen MH commenting on this development yet, but unmanned spokesmen have said they don't see anything in the P5-Iran agreement that precludes the U.S. from enforcing its own sanctions law against violators. The Iranians have gone home for consultations, probably they'll be back.

It is always possible for hard line opponents in either the U.S. or Iran to sabotage this deal. Personally, I hope the deal gets done. But, if Congress insists on undercutting the negotiations by continuing sanctions regardless of nuclear nonproliferation agreements, then Iran would be acting in its best interests by walking away.

It's a separation of powers - Congress versus the Presidency - matter, so this is just our system of government working itself out. Neither right nor wrong, just reality. In the end, that's still the system I want.

Anonymous said...

Thanks TSB! You may have already heard this but in the (House Examines Future of the Afghanistan Mission)hearing after 1:35 minutes of total BS Dana Rohrbacher provided the best 5 minutes of questioning I've seen since the old Af-Pak days. It goes from 1:35:30 to 1:40:30.

Bottom Line: Who cares what it costs or whether it works? We've been doing this since 2001 so we think we know what we're doing! gwb

TSB said...

That was the kind of moment that makes up for all the non-event hearings on the Hill. I retweeted a link to the video. Even the Democrat member, Gerry Connolly, who is my congressmen and clearly an idiot, said he was astounded by the lack of an answer.

The Ambassador on the panel said that each department has its own budget - you can bet they all knew the details of their own budgets - but none of the three could name the total costs or the number of U.S. casualties this year.

The numbers are: 118 killed, 4.8 billion in civilian (State and AID) costs and 88 billion in military costs.

Anonymous said...

TSB: When John Kerry says don't worry I turn to rumor central! And that rep of yours was pretty funny after Rohrbacher woke him up. gwb

Anonymous said...

Original paintings of dogs playing poker are worth more than you think... "NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Two "Dogs Playing Poker" paintings cleaned house at Doyle New York's annual Dogs in Art Auction, fetching a staggering $590,400, the auction house said." Here's the link to the story for you to forward to the next embassy that doesn't want to show its art collection to the general rabble: http://money.cnn.com/2005/02/16/news/newsmakers/poker_dogs/

TSB said...

That much? I feel that my (lack of) taste in fine art is validated!