From Richard Avedon's series of Texas portraits:
From Richard Avedon's series of Texas portraits:
It's the 84th anniversary of the Reichstag fire. Timothy Snyder in the NYRB:
On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”
The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree.
After 1933, the Nazi regime made use of a supposed threat of terrorism against Germans from an imaginary international Jewish conspiracy. After five years of repressing Jews, in 1938 the German state began to deport them. On October 27 of that year, the German police arrested about 17,000 Jews from Poland and deported them across the Polish border. A young man named Herschel Grynszpan, sent to Paris by his parents, received a desperate postcard from his sister after his family was forced across the Polish border. He bought a gun, went to the German embassy, and shot a German diplomat. He called this an act of revenge for the suffering of his family and his people. Nazi propagandists presented it as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy preparing a terror campaign against the entire German people. Josef Goebbels used it as the pretext to organize the events we remember as Kristallnacht, a massive national pogrom of Jews that left hundreds dead.
The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime....
Clearly, a Trump comparison is coming:
If we know the history of terror manipulation, we can recognize the danger signs, and be prepared to react. It is already worrying that the president speaks unfavorably of democracy, while admiring foreign manipulators of terror. It is also of concern that the administration speaks of terrorist attacks that never took place, whether in Bowling Green or Sweden, while banning citizens from seven countries that have never been tied to any attack in the United States.
It is alarming that in a series of catastrophic executive policy decisions—the president’s Muslim travel ban, his selection of Steve Bannon as his main political adviser, his short-lived appointment of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, his proposal to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—there seems to be a single common element: the stigmatization and provocation of Muslims. In rhetoric and action, the Trump administration has aggrandized “radical Islamic terror” thus making what Madison called a “favorable emergency” more likely.
Hmm. Concerns there undoubtedly are, but drawing such crude parallels clouds rather than clarifies the debate. And equating Jews in the 1930s with Muslims now is grotesque - especially given the virulent antisemitism still so commonplace in the Muslim world.
As it happens Michael Gove (yes, Michael Gove) reviewed Snyder's latest book (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century) in the Times (£) on Saturday, and made some relevant points:
[W]here Snyder falls down is his willingness, again and again, to reach for comparisons to the Nazis to alert us to present dangers. And specifically to invite comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. On page 31 of his book Snyder speculates that the elections of 2016 may be the last democratic elections in his country, just like the German elections of 1932 that presaged Hitler’s seizure of total power.
On page 45 of his book he chooses to compare Trump’s behaviour at campaign rallies to the deployment of the SS. On page 60 he chooses to compare Trump’s rhetoric explicitly to Hitler’s. On page 67 he goes further and brackets Trump’s stump speeches with the “shamanistic incantation” of Hitler. On page 73 he compares Trump’s attitude to any opposition to Hitler’s approach to critics. On page 82 he compares feelings of fear on the streets of the US today with totalitarian terror in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On page 110 Hitler’s exploitation of the Reichstag fire is compared to Trump’s approach to terrorism.
It shouldn’t need saying, but let me restate it for the avoidance of doubt, that Trump is a man of many flaws. If I were an American I would not have voted for him and as a Briton I can say freely that I disagree with him on a host of issues — from his travel ban to his tariff plans. As our prime minister has said, some of his comments have been unacceptable and some of his policies are indefensible. However, vulgar and boorish though he may sometimes be, and wrongly conceived and poorly executed as some of his policies may be, he is not a genocidal maniac. He is not, to quote Snyder’s chilling phrase, “standing over death pits with a gun in his hand”. He is not Adolf Hitler.
By comparing Trump to Hitler, criticism of Trump is less effective because it is so crudely exaggerated it is easier to dismiss. Snyder has some acute points to make about Trump, not least his relations with Russia, but the acuity of his critique is diminished because it is yoked to so many unjustified Nazi references.
More than that, there is a cheapening of the specific evil of Nazism, a diminution of the debt we owe to its victims, in so promiscuously using references to that regime to make contemporary political points. It is a sin that many, including I, have committed. When any of us do, we should apologise. History, as Snyder says, does not repeat, but it does instruct. And one of its most powerful lessons is that when we seek to damn our enemies by anathematising them as massively and grotesquely evil we risk undermining democracy’s precious fabric.
As I said before, I don't think Pyongyang expected the assassination of KIm Jong-nam to hit the news in quite the way it has. A regime which has so little concern for human lives or the niceties of international relations may not have anticipated such a dramatic fall-out, with the story still in the headlines some two weeks after the event.
There's now what seems to be a stand-off in Kuala Lumpur, as the North Korean embassy refuses to give up the two suspects they're holding to the Malaysian police, all the while furiously denying any responsibility and, of course, blaming the South Koreans or the Malaysians themselves.
In fact in many ways they're shooting themselves in the foot by antagonising the Malaysian government so brazenly. The Malaysian authorities are already talking about throwing the North Korean ambassador out of the country and even cutting off diplomatic relations. But Malaysia has long been one of North Korea's closest allies - albeit clandestinely. From Reuters: North Korea spy agency runs arms operation out of Malaysia, U.N. says.
It is in Kuala Lumpur's "Little India" neighborhood, behind an unmarked door on the second floor of a rundown building, where a military equipment company called Glocom says it has its office.
Glocom is a front company run by North Korean intelligence agents that sells battlefield radio equipment in violation of United Nations sanctions, according to a United Nations report submitted to the Security Council seen by Reuters....
U.N. resolution 1874, adopted in 2009, expanded the arms embargo against North Korea to include military equipment and all "related materiel".
But implementation of the sanctions "remains insufficient and highly inconsistent" among member countries, the U.N. report says, and North Korea is using "evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication.”
Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world which had strong ties with North Korea. Their citizens can travel to each other’s countries without visas. But those ties have begun to sour after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother was murdered at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport on Feb 13.
And Joshua Stanton:
[I]f Pyongyang deserves the brunt of our outrage, a second object of outrage should be the Malaysian government itself, which had long been warned in U.N. reports that Pyongyang’s agents on its soil were violating U.N. sanctions and the laws of other nations, yet did little to curtail them. Report after report identified Malaysia as the home base of North Korean spies, smugglers, arms dealers, slave traders, money launderers, and procurers of tools to make missiles. In allowing this activity to go on for years, the Malaysian government not only allowed North Korea to endanger Malaysians, but to endanger the citizens of other countries — and indeed, the security of the entire world.
With Estonian photographer Alexander Gronsky:
Other images, from Less Than One, cover a wider area, including Vladivostock (second to last, with the sunbather on the roof).
A social psychologist explains:
Identity politics, especially what is going on within the academic left, is strange because it is at odds with much of what we know about intergroup relations. Decades ago, psychological scientists established that dividing people into groups and highlighting group differences leads to in-group bias. It also leads to hostility if the groups perceive themselves as fighting over scarce resources. It is human nature to defend one’s in-group and to be suspicious of and hesitant to trust out-groups. Identity politics makes relations between groups worse because it constantly reminds people of their group identity and what distinguishes them from members of other groups. Experimental research also shows that making people feel like victims, which is common in identity politics and on college campuses, increases feelings of entitlement and reduces prosocial behavior.
Feelings of victimhood are also contagious. This is called competitive victimhood. Research shows that when one group is accused of victimizing another group, it causes members of the supposed victimizing group to perceive their own group as victims. Therefore, a lot of identity politics activism is causing harm to intergroup relations. The key to helping members of disadvantaged groups and improving intergroup relations more generally is to focus on what unites people, not what divides them.
Why, I wonder, does Wolfgang Tillmans merit an exhibition at Tate Modern? He's a photographer, but he doesn't seem to be interested in the usual concerns of photography - capturing decisive moments, or recording the world in all its strange glory, or manufacturing timeless arresting images from the messy business of everyday life. There are very few pictures which, of themselves, capture the attention. Instead you have to read the guide to try and understand what's going on.
He's interested in the technology of making pictures, we learn. So, in the first room - the first very first image, in fact - we have Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast. Here's the man himself in a publicity shot in front of it:
From the exhibition catalogue:
Static interference typically appears when an analogue signal is switched off. This can occur when a station's official programme finishes for the night or if a broadcast is censored. In Tillmans Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast 2014 it represents the coexistence of two different generations of technology. The chaotic analogue static was displayed on a digital television, which allowed Tillman's high-resolution digital camera to record the pattern as it really appeared, something that would not have been possible with a traditional cathode ray tube television. This work shows Tillman's interest in questioning what we believe to be true: the seemingly black-and-white image turns out to be extremely colourful when viewed very close up.
If you're thinking, hey, what a great idea, and what a fascinating image - well, you're in luck. There's plenty more where that came from. There are 14 rooms in the exhibition, and it's on till the 11th of June. There's plenty of time to engage further with this "groundbreaking" artist and his works "in an exciting variety of media – photographs, of course, but also video, digital slide projections, publications, curatorial projects and recorded music – all staged by the artist in characteristically innovative style".
If, on the other hand, the idea of using a high-resolution digital camera to picture an old analogue static interference pattern strikes you as a fatuous conceit, and the resultant image as uninteresting at best, having no relevance whatsoever to the question of "what we believe to be true", then I could be saving you the £12.50 entrance fee.
And no, it's not extremely colourful very close up. I checked.
Then there's Greifbar 29 - one of a number of similar large prints:
From the catalogue:
[T]he abstract Greifbar 2014-15 images are made without a camera. Working in the darkroom, Tillman traces light directly onto photographic paper. The vast swathes of colour are a record of the physical gestures involved in their construction, but also suggest aspects of the body such as hair, or pigmentation of the skin. This reference to the figurative is reflected in the title, which translates as "tangible".
Tillmans has observed that even though these works are made by the artist's hand, they look as though they could be "scientific" evidence of natural processes. For him, this interpretation is important, because it disassociates the works from the traditional gestural technique of painting. That the image is read as a photographic record, and not the result of the artist's brushstroke, is essential to its conceptual meaning.
Its conceptual meaning??
At some point our hero gets tired of sitting around in his studio and heads out into the world. These travel photos, to me, are distinguishable from your average tourist snapshots by their size and the quality of the printing, but by not much else. Sunset night drive, for instance:
A fairly hackneyed shot of Sunset Boulevard by night, you might think. Rest assured, though - Tillmans is not your average traveler:
Tillmans is interested in social life in its broadest sense, encompassing our participation in society. His photographs of individuals and groups are underpinned by his conviction that we are all vulnerable, and that our well-being depends upon knowing that we are not alone in the world....
He's also politically involved. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, apparently, a key moment in his political awakening:
The year 2003 is the exhibition’s point of departure, representing for Tillmans the moment the world changed, with the invasion of Iraq and anti-war demonstrations. The social and political form a rich vein throughout the artist’s work.
"I have a feeling that 2003 was a year of destiny," he tells me while we stand in the first room of the exhibition.
"There was an ongoing misunderstanding between the west and the Islamic world, and a pointless war that has repercussions to this day, with the European refugee crisis that's put the EU under threat. It was a very disheartening moment."
An ongoing misunderstanding between the west and the Islamic world? Hmm. Do you sense a profound grasp of the pre-invasion situation vis-a-vis Saddam's vicious Baathist regime, the failing UN sanctions, the genocide of the Kurds and so on? No, me neither.
He ticks all the right boxes, then. And he's very well regarded in art circles. Here's a hagiographic Guardian interview by Sean O'Hagan - "In person, Tillmans, tall and muscular, his hair close-cropped, is an imposing presence...". At the same paper art critic Adrian Searle gives a breathless five-star review to the show - though the Guardian commenters are less complimentary.
Why is he so loved by the art establishment? Well, as we've seen, his work seems to lend itself to all the familiar delights of art exegesis, finding significance in the banal, with a determination to infuse every image with the most profound meaning just because....well, just because they've been produced by Wolfgang Tillmans, who, they all agree, is a great artist.
All photographs are of light, are made by light, although not all are about light. Not all of Tillmans’ photographs are about light either, or about it solely, but looking at a collection of them one gains a sense of its immense importance for him. It is not simply a technical necessity, or a formal device, but rather suggests a transformative process that is fundamental to photography...
One sees throughout Tillmans’ work a longing that moves between engagement and retreat, a fascination for the crowd and all that comes from a shared experience, the ‘sensuous community’, but also those things which reveal themselves only when we find ourselves alone. These are the moments of reflection upon what has come before, an attempt, perhaps, to re-establish the sense of self that had previously been dissolved.
The man does seem to inspire this kind of adulatory verbal incontinence. Indeed the exhibition catalogue is almost one long panegyric to his brilliance:
An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans's practice in all its different forms. Often this is expressed in his attentiveness to textures and surfaces....
The text and tables sculpture Time Mirrored 2017 represents Tillman's interest in connecting the time we live to a broader historical context. He always understands the Now as the history of the future. Events perceived as having happened over a vast gulf of time between us and the past, become tangible when "mathematically mirrored" and connected to more recent periods of time in our living memory.
And so, endlessly, on.
Some of the answer to my original question, then - why does he merit an exhibition at Tate Modern? - is answered in my first paragraph: you have to read the guide to try and understand what's going on. There's nothing the art world likes more than an artist whose work needs to be explained, at length. In fact you could more or less define the difference between a photographer and an artist nowadays by the fact that, with a photographer, you just look and you get it - though perhaps some brief context might be helpful, ie location, or date, or who the portrait's of. With an artist, you look and you think...umm...and you then open up the booklet to have it all explained to you by an art expert who leads you through the correct thought processes so you can gain an understanding of quite how brilliant the artist is - and of course, equally important, gain an appreciation of quite how clever and sensitive the expert is who's responsible for this clever elucidation that you're reading.
But also it just seems to have been accepted that the man is a Very Important Artist, and therefore, by definition, every thing he does must be Great Art, even if we have to struggle a bit and mutter about "conceptual meaning" and an "acute awareness of fragility" and all the rest to justify it.
For the rest of us, not inducted into the rarefied upper reaches of the art world, it is, despite the odd arresting image, an exercise in self-indulgence and pretension.
Interesting interview with BR Myers in Slate. Short answer: what North Korea wants is South Korea. That is, reunification on its own terms. And although we in the West take it for granted that South Korea is now a solid and secure political entity with a powerful economy that could never succumb to its much weaker rogue neighbour, our confidence may be displaced. Look at the current crisis with President Park Geun-hye - or the powerful accommodationist movements within South Korea.
North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960. One would have to be very naïve not to know what would happen next. As Kim Il-Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Todor Zhivkov in 1973, “If they listen to us, and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.”
Western soft-liners keep saying the U.S. must finally negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang. That’s where their op-eds conveniently end. These people show no awareness of what such a treaty would have to entail. Are they in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops? If so they should come right out and say so, instead of pretending North Korea will content itself with the security guarantees it has rejected for decades. Many observers believe that the stronger the North Koreans get, the more reasonable they will become. Whenever I think I’ve seen the height of American wishful thinking, I find out it can get even sillier....
Having lived in South Korea for the past 15 years, I don’t share most Americans’ confidence that it will always choose America over a North-supporting China. My own impression—bolstered by the ongoing controversy surrounding the stationing of the THAAD missile defense system—is that a growing number of South Koreans would rather see their state’s security compromised than risk their own prosperity.
Let’s not overestimate South Koreans’ attachment to their own state, which a sizable but influential minority still considers illegitimate. The most popular movie in Seoul at the moment is a thriller about a joint North–South effort to catch a criminal ring of North Korean defectors. That plot tells you something right there. The main North Korean character is played for cool by a handsome Tom Cruise type, while his South Korean counterpart is a homely, tired-looking figure of fun. There is a tradition of this sort of casting. The subtext: Serving the North is glamorous; serving the South, not so much. Let’s keep in mind that Kim Jong-un is watching these movies too....
[W]e must stop focusing on short-term shifts and nuances in North Korean propaganda and instead grasp the fundamental consistency its ideology has maintained since 1945. We have to take that ideology seriously, however absurd the personality cult may seem. To a radical Korean nationalist, the division of the nation, the race, is an intolerable state of affairs. So too is the continued presence of the foreign army that effected that division in the first place.
Were Kim Jong-un to share our own leader’s love of slogan caps, his would read: Make Korea Whole Again. Unification is not just central to the North’s ideology, but the only sure and lasting solution to its security problem. That makes the nuclear crisis all that more difficult to solve. But we will never get anywhere if we don’t face up to the true and frightening nature of the North’s goals. For decades our politicians and cartoonists have mocked North Korean leaders as squalling babies who wave missiles around just to get our attention. We’re the ones who need to grow up.