The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

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OCT 2013 Issue
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Art in the Age of Vulnerability

vul·ner·a·ble (vlnr—bl)
a. Susceptible to physical or emotional injury.
b. Susceptible to attack:

Vulnerability implies that a greater force will threaten a more fragile one. As a woman I have been acquainted with the word since childhood. Women, small kittens, and sparrows fit the definition of the vulnerable.

Video still: “The Dance Language of the Bees, 2008” from the film by Lenore Malen.

As an artist I often identify with Wanda Landowska, the Polish-Jewish harpsichordist, who recorded her Scarlatti Sonatas in 1940 as the Nazis were entering Paris. With guns thundering in the background of the 1940 Master’s Voice recording, she finished the piece. Unlike Landowska, I might not have had the steel to carry on with such perfection. The guns on the horizon have shaken my nerves, and I find it hard to work in the face of them.

It is September 2013. The guns are pointed at Syria as my aggressor country is about to kick off WWIII over a pipeline from Iraq to Syria to Iran, and a possible loss of the petro dollar. Fantasies of global domination, false flags, and a march into Persia dance in Neocon heads; the inmates are running the asylum. We are the new Krupps; our huge output of munitions has become the destructive force to be reckoned with. The fragile are the children of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Gaza who lie dead in the streets. When asked about the million and a half children who died due to our sanctions in Iraq, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” Where does a Scarlatti sonata fit in this scheme of carnage?

As Americans today we are allied with the greater forces, the bigger bombs, and the largest standing army. Two “Chechen terrorists” require that all of Boston be shut down with tanks and swat teams. Americans are obsessed with making it bigger and better. This imperial aesthetic extends to art. One giant balloon dog is not enough; we need two. Bulldozers and dynamite are required to cut giant gashes in the earth for a “Double Negative”; a poetic wildflower garden would never do. Damien Hirst needs all of the 11 Gagosian Galleries and one collector must buy up every Warhol. Big art and imperial fantasies have merged; isn’t it all about the biggest auction price?

My friend Mary Bancroft told Henry Luce a tale during the Second World War. The Zurich zoo was feeding little kittens to their eagle population. Mary said the large eagles are big ideas and the kittens represent feelings that are sacrificed. Global domination is a big idea, but so are the rigid ideologies that have dominated much of the art world. Women often do not fair well in departments where logos is used as a weapon and power complexes are rampant. Where is the Aphrodite energy, the Eros, when we need it? Where is the warmth Beuys referenced with his honey pumps?

“ This germinating love that is spread out over the flowers is also contained in the honey they make. ” — Ruldolph Steiner

“Hamasilahl,” Edward Sheriff Curtis of Kwakiutl and Koskimo (Kwakwaka’wakw) ceremonial rituals, 1914.

Tonight I sit reading Rudolph Steiner’s book, BEES,written in 1923. This sage of biodiversity predicted, almost 100 years ago, what today we call Colony Collapse Disorder and the disappearance of bees. Steiner’s understanding of the energies—“the fact that bees live as it were in an atmosphere pervaded thoroughly by love”—moves me with its linking of the planet Venus with the cooperative spirit of the hive. You see, it is the smaller entities like bees in our fragile ecosystem that are rebelling. The bees have had enough and are refusing to perform. The effects of colony collapse will soon destroy 90 percent of food on our supermarket shelves. Abandoning tanks for bee-loving flower gardens needs to be an imperative.

My thoughts drift to a series on bees by Lenore Malen, The Dance Language of the Bees (2009), based on Austrian ethnologist Karl Von Frisch’s 1973 Nobel Prize winning discoveries on bees and language. Malen’s bee dancers in fuzzy costumes and black gloves possess both the humor and tenderness of their Northwest Coast Indian counterparts. Like the Kwakiutl, Malen relates to the bees with the love beekeepers feel for their charges. I can think of few contemporary artists who are as concerned with the small creatures as she is.

I think back to a visit with Hannah Höch in Berlin in 1977. She was living in modest circumstances in a series of cobbled together garden houses near Heiligensee. All she spoke about were the sparrows in her garden. In some way I feel it is the women with their small budgets, homemade artworks, and compassion for the vulnerable who may prevent the colony collapse of the art world. We need Venus now more than ever.


Ann McCoy

ANN McCOY is a visual artist who teaches in the Yale School of Drama. She is the winner of a Prix de Rome, a D.A.A.D. Berliner Kunstler Award, and others. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and others. Currently she is working on a fairy tale she has written. It will be projected on the front of the Pfaueninsel Castle in Berlin. She worked with Dr. C. A. Meier, Jung’s heir, in Zurich, and has studied alchemy for 35 years.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

All Issues