"Why are Americans this way?" This was the persistent ambush question
in Dhaka. I went back to visit Bangladesh soon after Baghdad fell.
This trip, old school friends only wanted to talk about one thing:
America. More specific: the invasion of Iraq, and the "overwhelming"
support for Bush. Everyone took as gospel a poll taken during the
invasion, which claimed 70% support for the White House.
I agreed with some arguments, but also disagreed with stereotypes.
Most persistent was the cliche about the "average American"-- they're
complacent, they don't resist, they accept immigrant-bashing and
warmongering, the list went on...
A welcome antidote to all this doom-and-gloom came as soon as I
returned to New York-- with the opening of the "Homeland" exhibit.
Provoked by the dreaded Dept. of Homeland Security, this is
double-barreled political art with no holds barred. During the last
Documenta, critics grumbled that too much of that work was overtly
political and agenda-driven. That debate hasn't muzzled the Homeland
artists. There's no mistaking the targets in this exhibition-- the
Pentagon war machine, manipulation of patriotism, surveillance society,
the Israeli occupation, and decimation of Native Americans.
A little background here. The Homeland invite came courtesy of my
friend, Palestinian artist Ayreen Anastas. Her work in the exhibition,
"m* of Bethlethem" is a video map describing a "homeland lived under
occupation and geopolitical displacement." Ayreen is part of the 16
Beaver art collective, and last year she initiated a spectacular piece
of resistance art that also morphed into raging controversy. In summer
of 2002, I received notice about a new exhibition that she and artist
Rene Gabri were mounting at White Box Gallery. Named "Radioactive," it
was a series of radio shows on 9-11 and its discontents. Premiering on
the first anniversary, it would obviously carry a "big" political
message. Though I skip many art openings, I dutifully marked off this
one on my calendar.
So far, so good.
One day after the opening, we suddenly received an e-mail on the 16
Beaver mailing list. The Dept. of Homeland Security's Cultural Bureau
(hsbc.org) had shut down the exhibit, citing "potentially dangerous
content". Several people had been to the Gallery to find it closed
down. Astounded, I went to the Cultural Bureau's website. Nestled
between stories about other department initiatives was the closure
announcement. The notice referred to the "cultural sabotage act", but
didn't specify what was "objectionable" about the exhibit.
Stunned and outraged, I found it easy to get mobilized. Here was a
chance to tap directly into resistance networks we'd been building
since 2001. I wrote immediately to Ayreen. What do you need? Do you
have a lawyer? Can the gallery help? My cousin contacted a Federal
judge, who promised to get the Wall Street Journal to send a reporter.
By coincidence, I'd just purchased David Cole's new book, "Terrorism &
the Constitution." A good book about the crackdown on civil liberties,
with a startling cover image of a shredded copy of the constitution.
Leafing through it, I began to wonder if Cole himself could be
A flurry of e-mail condemnations followed, all from the art world.
Several prominent artists condemned the closure and forwarded the
e-mail. Activists also chimed in. Someone suggested a press
conference. But within 24 hours of the first announcement came a
second e-mail. There had been no closure of the exhibition, and there
was no Cultural Bureau under the Dept. of Homeland Security! The
entire chain of events: planning and promotion of the exhibit, then its
closure, shuttering the gallery, and even the website for the Cultural
Bureau were planned and executed by Ayreen and Rene.
Incredulous, I went back to the website. But of course-- there were
telltale signs, why hadn't I noticed them before? The description of
the Bureau's mission sounded plausible, but there was an over-the-top
quality to the breathless prose. Perhaps the offer of a magazine
subscription should have been a tip-off. Why would the obsessively
secretive Bush government be publishing a magazine about the Dept. of
Homeland Security? For those who looked closely, there were enough
clues to tip you off to the "art intervention" cloaked as a closure
The interesting thing was that I had found it entirely plausible. I
found it logical that the government would create a cultural affairs
bureau, which would monitor the "appropriateness" of art. Why not?
Scarier things had already happened- reality was a daily dose of
Orwellian satire. The fact that the entire event had been so
believable was precisely the artists' point, and they had made it in
the only way possible-- by staging it as a real event, and not warning
anyone in advance.
Regarding Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag
So it?s open season on Virginia Woolf. Alas, among her prolific career as literary critic, feminist essayist, novelist, and publisher of Gorky, T.S. Eliot, and Katherine Mansfield, among others, she makes even suicide a far livelier flourish than the sum of all recent ripoffs ? namely the Mrs. Dalloway-lite of 2002 Hollywood fame. In the distinguished tradition of suicidal literary geniuses of both sexes. Luckily, one need not rely on Michael Cunningham and Nicole Kidman for interpretation on the desperation of ?women?. If you didn?t specifically study ?Women?s Literature?, since for the most part, Woolf, Stein, Eliot, Welty, O?Connor are still not part of the gender un-qualified Anglo-american literature canon among such apparently universally-applicable storytellers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck ? check out Mrs. Dalloway, or Orlando, or A Room of One?s Own. They are not the dated, generalizing or provincial ravings of some madwoman in the attic railing against the injustices done by her husband. Half a century before queer, in A Room of One?s Own (1929), Woolf, referring to Coleridge, explored the idea of an androgynous mind as the possible solution for the limitations of male and female identities and subjectivities.