« "Giving You the Business" | Iconoduel | "Such Bloggy Hotness" »

July 12, 2005

While I Was Out, Fall Guy Edition

While I was out, former Chicagoan and current Brooklynite Kerry Skarbakka raised an inadvertent ruckus with a public performance and photo shoot that involved him jumping repeatedly from the roof of the MCA.

Cynthia made mention of the event in advance, and I might've made a trek down to witness the doings myself if it weren't for a damned job that keeps me far from the Mag Mile during regular working hours.

Even without me, though, it seems Skarbakka and friends went ahead with their plans. A harness was rigged; photos were shot; a public spectacle was deployed. Then the New York Daily News vultures descended with a fistful of concocted outrage, capitalizing on 9/11 grief for the sake of some impact headlines.

Here's a dose of Chicago's own Neil Steinberg, wanking his ernest schtick all over the pages of that paragon of integrity:

To be frank, that people will naturally be aghast at his artwork isn't what I find really gross about Skarbakka. I can't do what I do and condemn a guy for offending the public, no matter how cavalierly. What really astounds me is the falseness of what he claims to be doing.
"The work is about control and lack of control," he said. Which is where we find the sickening lie. Because Skarbakka never loses control of the situation the way the 9/11 victims did. Just the opposite, he is creating a charade and passing it off as something genuine.
It is like putting on pale makeup and a hospital gown and pretending that you've touched upon the essence of being gravely ill. Not only does it not approach the reality of being sick, it misses by so much it ends up mocking those who are. Skarbakka aping something that is all too real for too many would be bad if he did it without any artistic pretense. But by pretending he is capturing a higher truth, he ridicules the fallen. Were he sincere, he'd go off the roof without a harness. But he isn't. Which also adds to the offense to those who think and feel for others.
That's why performance art is invariably so lousy—it spits in the face of honest human reaction, all those trust fund frauds locking themselves in a bathroom and claiming it is in solidarity with actual prisoners who don't have Guggenheim fellowships.

(I'll try to ignore for the moment, though it's a minor obsession of mine, the familiar iconoclastic tone in the suggestion of art's inadequacy in the face of life, so that I can suggest that you probably don't want to get Neil started on Marlon Brando. After all, that phony wasn't even a real longshoreman, let alone the aging patriarch of a Sicilian crime syndicate. And Olivier? I hear that fucker had never even been to Denmark. Color me impressed, though, that Steinberg has clearly witnessed enough performance art in his time to offer an honest assessment of its invariable lousiness. Would that we were all so cultured.)

The heart of the News' coverage, though, is to be found here, sensitive title, scare quotes and all:

But some people who lost loved ones in the terror attacks told The News they were disgusted by the very idea of Skarbakka's "art" project.
"What kind of sick individual is he?" asked Rosemarie Giallombardo of Midwood, Brooklyn, who lost her son, Paul Salvio, on 9/11. "Tell him to go jump off the Empire State Building and see how it feels. He's an artist? Go paint a bowl of fruit or something."

Does Adam Lisberg have these folks on speed dial, or did he have to consult the Rolodex? Here he offers yet more balanced reporting, including even more scare quotes, not to mention this outright misrepresentation:

The horrible sight of people leaping to their deaths from the burning World Trade Centers was the catalyst for his art project, he said...

Skarbakka's personal statement on the matter attempts to set the record straight:

I began working with issues of mortality and demise well before September 11, 2001 documenting my mother’s death from cancer—as well as mountain climbing, martial arts, landscape photography, and film stunts, all of which have influenced my images.
In the past few years I have fallen from trees, porches, bridges, train trestles, stairways, ladders, roofs, mountains, volcanoes, water towers, fences, and billboards—without anyone ever mistaking my work for a representation of our national tragedy.
Like my other works, my most recent photo shoot was never intended to mimic the tragic events of September 11th. The images shown in the news coverage are not my images and the quotes attributed to me are not my words. I feel terrible that these misrepresentations have upset so many and I believe my work can speak honestly for itself.

[Update: Kerry offers some stronger words in response to some comments in this Gothamist thread: "... It was a response to the our world that had changed so dramatically that day and many days later. It is about the futility of war and our inablility to do much about it. It is about being late on your bills and feeling so frusturated at the all the other things that are out of control. Let that be your guide to what I was trying to say. I never once said the work was to represent or imitate 9-11, not once and will never. The newspapers made that up..."]

Really, amidst the immediate fallout of this cooked-up scandal, photographer Brian Ulrich had already said pretty much all that needs saying about the Daily News' conduct:

As always the thing people miss here is the irresponsible way the media, specifically the NY Daily News, went to lengths to exploit the grief of a national tragedy. Sensatonal headlines sell, and slamming a performance and work by an artist which few actually witnessed or have seen the work, i'm sure gave a nice boost to the GDP. In addition the political careers of a few. I can see it now:
'Mr. Bloomberg, an artist made a performance mocking the events of 9-11, care to comment?'
and later 'Governor Patacki, Mr. Bloomberg says this guys a chump, care to weigh in?'
Makes me think how defenseless anyone is from a becoming tomorrows headline. Whether an artist or the Runaway Bride, how can one deal with the weight and barrage of phone calls, not to mention the long line of insults and threats? Several of which showed up here on a previous post on Kerry. Not one intelligent response or criticism, just the usual 4th-grade line of name calling.

(By the way... everyone is aware of Brian's blog aren't they? I know it's been mentioned over here, all around here and now, of course, right here... so, no excuses, folks.)

Well, today Brian points to an op-ed on the subject by Chicago Reader art critic Fred Camper in New York Newsday. Fred takes the fight to the politicians, drawing out some comparisons and implications along the way:

While Skarbakka's photo shoot in Chicago was a public performance, its purpose was to produce more photographs in his series, this time framed to include spectators as well. The documentary pictures and videos that appeared in the media were the work of reporters, not Skarbakka, whose own artworks from the Chicago event are not yet finished.
None of the critics who excoriated him could have seen the art they condemned, and it seems likely that some have never seen any of his photos.
So the question might be asked of the politicians: Are you not trying to win cheap points by mischaracterizing work you haven't seen?
The whole sad affair recalls Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's admission that he had never seen a Chris Ofili painting, showing the Virgin Mary but including elephant dung, that he attacked. In the traveling exhibition that included it at the Brooklyn Museum, one could see dung being used as decorative adornments in many Ofili works, establishing that in his art dung had no implications of defilement. But "dung" together with "Virgin Mary" makes for outrage-generating sound bites—not unlike the statements this time of Bloomberg and Pataki.
On June 24 the Daily News gave the politicians another shot in the art war, going after The Drawing Center, an excellent SoHo exhibition space not especially known for political art, by describing some extreme-sounding pieces shown there and quoting 9/11 survivors referring to them as "offensive," "America-bashing" and "truly the most vulgar thing I have ever seen in my entire life." The point was that such works don't belong being displayed at Ground Zero, where The Drawing Center is scheduled to move.
Pataki responded, "We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America." To some self-described patriots, any criticism of America amounts to denigration. But no contemporary art space could ban all political criticism and retain credibility. Raising questions about the status quo has been one of the great missions of all forms of art for centuries.

* * *

I think I ought to be upfront about something: I first read about this brouhaha in the Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg's home paper. (I believe the article I read was a localized version of the Daily News' take, pulled off the wire, or however they work it.)

I assure you, this is not something I make a habit of. Really, the only time I ever find myself with a copy of "the bright one" in my hands is when I go in for my quarterly haircut (hence my perusal of it back in June) or when I find an abandoned copy on the Red Line and feel like checking some sports scores.

Why the harsh words for the paper? Perhaps it's just a disdain for the tabloid format or a complementary bit of broadsheet fetishism that keeps me loyal to the Republican paper in town (a ridiculously strained endorsement of Bush this past fall notwithstanding).

But I suppose it could be something else...

Quite frankly, I only prattle on like this because I simply can't resist sharing the following delightful comparison of the two papers' takes on the arts courtesy of the Reader's Michael Miner. From early 2004:

Give 'Em What They Want
When James Cuno accepted his new position in Chicago, the Tribune ran its story on page one January 22 and headlined it "Rising star chosen to lead Art Institute." The Sun-Times ran its story on page four the same day and headlined it "Art Institute's new leader says he's no stuffy snob." Presumably both papers know their readers.
The second paragraph of the Tribune story told us that Cuno was getting "a second chance at realizing a long-held vision." The second paragraph of the Sun-Times story told us that Cuno is a "baseball nut."
The Tribune story then explained that two years ago, when Cuno was director of Harvard's art museums, plans to add a new building designed by Renzo Piano fell through. The Sun-Times story then explained that when Cuno left Harvard two years ago staffers printed up Jim "Bash" Cuno baseball cards that showed him wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform. "He ate it up," said a colleague.
The Tribune story had more to say about the Piano building Cuno had been unable to put up along the Charles River and the Piano wing the Art Institute plans to begin building this fall. The Tribune story didn't mention baseball. The Sun-Times story had more to say about the Red Sox and Cubs baseball games that Cuno plans to watch this summer. The Sun-Times story didn't mention Renzo Piano.
The Tribune reported that Cuno has called the Art Institute "the greatest municipal art museum in America." The Sun-Times reported that Cuno "has certainly hit the big leagues."

"While I Was Out, Fall Guy Edition"
Posted by Dan at 09:21 PM


Referenced in this post:

Chicago Reader: Hot Type, For the week of January 30, 2004, Part 2—Michael Miner
Chicago Reader: Hot Type, For the week of March 5, 2004, Part 2—Michael Miner
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times: Neil Steinberg
Chicago Tribune
Fresh Paint
Fresh Paint: Kerry's Fall
Fresh Paint: Speaking of Things Falling From the Sky
Gallery Hopper: Brian Ulrich's 'Found Artists'
IMDb: Hamlet (1948)
IMDb: On the Waterfront (1954)
IMDb: The Godfather (1972)
Lean Left: Oh that Liberal … Chicago Tribune??
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
New York Daily News: 'Artist' sorry for stunt—Adam Lisberg
New York Daily News: A phony artist and his dopey, insulting stunt—Neil Steinberg
New York Daily News: Go jump in a lake, pal! 9/11 families rage at photog's fake plunges—Adam Lisberg
Newsday.com: Is art defaming 9/11 deaths?—Fred Camper
Notifbutwhen #2
Notifbutwhen #2: 'Go paint a bowl of fruit or something'
Notifbutwhen #2: Art Attacks
Pete Lit: Michael Miner on the Tribune
Skarbakka: June 14 statement
ThatColoredFellasWeblog: Chicago Tribune Fails To Make The Case For Bush