Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Just Black and White

The Kulprit

A familiar swirl of ethnic, betasseled, chainlink-patterned cotton fabric punctuates the racks here in the men's department. The hues evoke a Sunday paper -- black and white dominates, with an occasional peek of comic-book color. We're in the basement of KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), the edifice billed as Europe's largest department store. This retail behemoth is situated in the Ku-Damm shopping district, the capitalist heart of Berlin and de facto Times Square of a necessarily de-centralized city.

If the foulard is the national accessory, the keffiyeh in particular is enjoying a precipitous resurgence as the scarf's most popular manifestation, appearing en masse on the necks of savvy shoppers in this wealthy Bezirk, or borough, to employ another New York analogy. While the predominant colors are black and white, occasional billows of green and red are either reflections of the disparate regions of the Middle East whence they came, or simply a concession to their mass appeal. Paired with everything from Adidas (the national sneaker), t-shirts and jeans, to Members Only jackets and little black cocktail dresses, the keffiyeh has become de rigeur for self-respecting fashionistas and fussball fans from Charlottenburg to Wedding. KaDeWe carries a staggering array of the newly fashionable head/neckwear, which trend-spotting designers are now printing onto more expensive materials like silk, varying the original pattern dramatically, further attenuating the garment's PLO connotations .

One would never guess that across the Pond, a brouhaha had been brewing over ten-minute recipe doyenne Rachel Ray's donning of this alleged Palestinian "scarf of terror" in a subsequently yanked Dunkin Donuts commercial. Certainly this "scandal" fell on deaf ears here in PC-immune, live-and-let live Berlin. Various jingoistic blogs have come out in praise of Dunkin Donuts for its removal of Ray's raiment and staunch support of immigration policies. This tempest in a Dixie cup would be considered at best a non-issue in Deutschland, as the middle-missing dessert shops are hugely popular here, with twenty six in Berlin alone. While this brand of conservative-caving may go over in the U.S., fashion is a resolutely non-partisan enterprise, and here in Germany a boycott would surely follow.

It is a telling irony that Ray's scarf was simply the apolitical fashion choice of her stylist. In the end it was but a black and white paisley pattern, arranged in such a fashion as to raise the eyebrows of right-wing hawks, who reacted as if Ray had appeared in Yasser Arafat drag declaring an out-and-out jihad. One perturbed blogger risibly referred to the beleaguered scarves as "Hate couture". Interesting that no one called out rapper Kanye West when he sported a much more stylish, posh permutation of the guilty Schal on a recent Spin cover. (Perhaps Ray's stylist should have chosen something less homely.) If their popularity on Berlin streets is any indication, the political symbolism behind the scarves has become, like the ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts of recent past, as dilute as the ersatz mochaccino concoctions that Ray shills.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Der Unglaubliche Hulk

Does anyone else think there is something weird going on with this ad?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kung Fu Bowling

At times in Deutschland, normally mundane activities are given a sparkling new cache by virtue of their very "Otherness". I guess it's just a function of being a stranger in a strange land. Even seeing a crappy film can be imbued with a sense of adventure, whereas at home I would be shaking my fists in righteous indignation. Zum Beispiel, this week I accompanied my roommate to a showing of Kung Fu Panda. Now, I had never seen a Pixar film, and had no intention of ever seeing one -- my idea of escapism is psychological realism on the order of say, Fassbinder. But for some reason I decided to go, as "research".

Normalerweise, we see films in the original tongue, but the English version was sold out, so on we soldiered to the Deutsch version, which was fine with me. It's good for me to flex the Deutsch muscles. Plus, no Jack Black! No Dustin Hoffman! Thank Fortuna for sparing me these hammy American irritants. (Of course, even without the voice, who else could the titular porcine panda be patterned after but Black the Crack?) Besides, the German cast did just fine in their respective roles, thank you very much. I hadn't known it, but I guess in foreign versions of big budget Hollywood animated films there are two sets of credits at film's end, the first featuring the actors dubbing the second language, which means the credits roll on forever. These were actual name actors out of Germany, including one Cosma Shiva Hagen, daughter of my favorite German punk singer, Nina Hagen (a household name in Deutschland, this goddess is now a spokesperson for some kind of German yoghurt pops)! I can still hear Nina shrilly ululating the refrain of "Cosma Shiva" from the classic album "Nunsexmonkrock": "Cos-ma Shivaaaa! Galax-inaaaa!". If only my mother had celebrated my birth in such an artful way. But then, I wasn't conceived in a California earthquake during an alien invasion.

Anyway, on Donnerstag my friend Berndt invited me to gay Bowling. This plebian sport is not something I would endeavor to undertake on a Thursday night back home, but I found the idea of doing it with a bunch of schwules German boys too delightful to resist. What comprises gay bowling, you might ask? It's nothing so salacious or felch-tastic as all that, although it sounds it. At first it seemed completely harmless --the only difference between homo and hetero bowling was that every time you scored a strike, you got a free shot of really bad schnapps. Oh, and the blaring of the likes of Kylie and Nikki French, among the other usual suspects, over the sound system (It reminded me of the old Quentin Crisp quote about disco music being a high price to pay for one's sexual orientation, but fortunately I don't not like it).

Well, the joke was on me. First of all, I failed to answer some trivia question correctly (I hardly think it was fair, since it was all in German) so I was forced to lie on my stomach in the bowling lane and bowl that way. Oh, the humiliation. What next? Being forced at gunpoint to shoot ping pong balls out my ass? The announcer handed me a shot of the rancid-but-effective schnapps as a token, he told the crowd, of the "Deutsch-Amerikanisch Freundschaft." How prescient, what with Barack Obama's upcoming visit and all. Then I won a bottle of Sekt (think really cheap champagne) for being the schlechtest player. Actually, there was one guy who played worse than I, by a margin of two points. The top and bottom (no pun intended) three players received Flasches of sekt. My team also won a bottle of the same for worst team, and I'm pretty sure it was down to me. Guess I'll have to come back next week to work on my technique.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pop Art Paradise

Having assiduously studied the works of Andy Warhol over the years, and having seen exhibits in Chicago and London, I can say that nothing quite prepares you for the Sammlung Marx Collection on display in at the Hamburger Banhof, a majestic former train station which now houses works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly (fraud), Robert Rauschenberg, Bjork hubby Matthew Barney and others. Perhaps it is the novelty of contextual analysis used here. For example, the Warhol paintings are preceded by a mid-20th century painting of the Virgin Mary, to illustrate how East European Catholic iconography shaped Warhol's use of celebrity images, for example Marilyn, in the same way (the same technique is used by placing a Picasso next to works by Lichtenstein). To be honest, I had never thought about the connection.

The shock could be compounded by the sheer magnitude of the paintings on a human scale (as you can see here with the Mao). And the effect of the Hammer and Sickle paintings has more resonance in the former East Berlin than in New York or London, obviously.

This inspired me to revisit an article I wrote last year which examines the depth, belied by trademark surface Warhol naivete, of these paintings:


The personal is political, or in the case of Warhol’s work, I would modify the axiom to “the impersonal is political,” in that he took everyday, common household items and used them in an alchemical process to make (in effect) political or iconographic statements. The altered maxim is certainly apropos of Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle Paintings, in which the once controversial symbols were transmuted through Andy’s artistic process, the vagaries of history and the progressive impotence of the symbol -- which Arthur Danto contrasts with the still-potent swastika -- into those of a homey, apple-pie, American style capitalism. The works are:

In the aggregate celebration of a form of life in which he believed fervently, even to the point of subverting the once-feared Communist emblem by finding a way to bring into it the form of life it was thought to endanger. To deconstruct the emblem of an opposing political system and recreate it as a still life is exactly to drain it of life.

The emblem, in Warhol’s work, is certainly drained of life. And it is given new life artistically in a process I would argue is markedly different to that which yields art in the case of Brillo Boxes. They are both conceptual pieces, but Hammer and Sickle requires a more traditional definition of aesthetics, since, though its recognizance (implements he “just picked up on Canal St.”) and “line of beauty” do draw the eye in (as in the Brillo work), and Warhol uses his training as a commercial artist to cram in all sorts of concealed effects on the viewer, it requires a certain amount of education or awareness of the two economic systems to fully “get” the work.

One of Danto’s rationales for the Italian capitalists’ embrasure of the paintings is that the “aesthetization” of these “dread symbols” would be a trophy not unlike the “shrunken heads of his enemies” to their owner. Conversely, the Communists would have seen this work, superficially, as a validation of their political system. The common denominator, from Warhol’s vantage point, was of course, money. So capitalism wins out in the end, and the meaning of those symbols becomes attenuated, outdated and eventually lost. After all, post-Industrial revolution, what function would these items serve other than, as Danto points out, hardware items for the home? Therein lies the subversion of the paintings.

Danto gives us Hegel’s famous quote: “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old.” If philosophy is the changing consciousness of the history of art, this is made manifest in the Hammer and Sickle paintings. These paintings were based on symbols which, at that historical moment, were losing their original power to shock. The subversion exists in Warhol’s use of ordinary brand-name hardware tools, which not only neutered them, but gloried in the political system which was anathema to them.

Now let us apply the same historical phenomenon from the Hegel quote to the Brillo pad boxes. The industrial capacity to build the boxes, according to Danto, was only generated about a year before the work came out. Brillo pads themselves had scarcely been in households that long, so it was very of-the-moment. The art world plainly could not have been ready for such a foray into “commercialism” before that historical moment, either.

The concept of the Hammer and Sickle paintings is heightened and complicated by the intellectual caché imparted by the history of the symbols. We can contrast this with the Brillo pads, which appeal to a primitive, democratic sense of beauty in the everyday. If there was any political statement in this latter work, it is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle. Most people in America have used or seen Brillo pads; to riff on The Philosophy of Andy Warhol , it is likely these folks include the President and Elizabeth Taylor. Though most people in America at that time were aware of jingoistic terms such as “Pinko Commies” or “Red Menace”, I don’t believe most would have cottoned to the florid political connotations behind it, which Danto describes in detail on p. 180: the original symbols struck a delicate balance between the implications of power/force and unity in their evocation of the crossed swords used in heraldic code. Many Americans, if they were to see the original communist logo, would have a gut level reaction, which is what Warhol’s art is about, but by including brand names and separating the two implements, thereby neutering them, he magically changes this feeling into a warmer familiarity. The warm familiarity of capitalism! The magic lies in the fact that he is using the subliminal techniques of advertising to make a statement on these self-same techniques, but the resulting enigma is partly found in the fact that Andy himself would probably never admit to any such intent! His purported ignorance of this merely plays into the notion that in a capitalist society, consumers don’t know why they want what they want, they just want it, and in many cases that fact is contingent on packaging. This also precipitates the “gut level” reaction in “Brillo Boxes.”

The intent in “Brillo Boxes” is obfuscated due to the fact that the boxes themselves are actually factory items, so there may be a “hidden” political agenda there, but I think Danto is more obsessed with it for that very reason. He confesses that the nature of their aesthetic completely eludes him. I’m guessing he considers “Brillo” the more radical (certainly the more seminal) of the two. He even states that the Hammer and Sickle still lives are apolitical. The Brillo Boxes have been elevated to iconographic status, whereas the hammer and sickle have been brought down from their original place as icons . The nadir of this “bringing down” would be exemplified in Paulette Goddard’s request for a pin of the icons (p. 182).

Great Moments from the Annals of Pop

As many of you know, I am a firm believer in Noel Coward's axiom (I paraphrase) "There is nothing so potent as cheap music." I was feeling a bit gloomy the other day, then I gave this timeless nugget a spin and presto! The gloom was punctured.

Like with many disco songs, the admittedly kitsch, bubblegum surfaces contained therein obfuscate subversive lyrics dealing with adult themes, creating in effect a pop operetta of sorts, a tragic mini-masterpiece of paranoia and insecurity. It's a perfect synthesis of raw pop emotionalism and storytelling. The singer's bushy eyebrows and slightly raspy voice add to the sense of androgyny vital to all great pop moments, and harken back to a pre-Christina Uglyarea era of less-processed pulchritude.

Fact File: Laura Branigan was backup singer for Leonard Cohen!