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Two Mediated Deaths

The following dual blog entry is about two elderly Americans who died the same week in March 2016 and their funerals, both of which I experienced onscreen. One service was my uncle’s, which was webcast, and the other was Nancy Reagan’s televised funeral. My subject is the representations of reality that stand between first-hand (or lived) and on-screen (or mediated) experience. In the case of my uncle, I employ “mediation” in the sense of digital communications employed to share a far-away event. In the case of the former First Lady, I juxtapose the mass media’s portrait of an historical figure against a more accurate, albeit in this case irreverently treated, recollection of her character and qualities.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

Thursday night March 10th, my Uncle Howard Bram died. On Sunday I tuned into the webcast of his funeral, streaming from Cleveland Heights. I didn’t know whether or not such webcasts are standard operating procedure at funeral homes now, but it appeared to be at this one. It was new to me and is one of the few cases where the descriptor “surreal” seems to apply. (Since then I’ve taken an informal poll and no one I’ve asked has watched such a webcast.)

Howie Roz Edith

Howard Bram & his two surviving sisters: Edith Ballonoff (L) and Roz Senkfor (R)

The youngest of my maternal grandparents’ four children, Uncle Howard was the second to die, following my mother’s death many years ago.  He was an honorable, accomplished and generous man who will be sorely missed, as he was at his grandson’s wedding in Florida, two weeks earlier. I attended the wedding, but did not fly East for the funeral. I was pleased that my cousins had recently organized a 90th birthday party for my uncle and solicited greetings and memories for it at a less emotionally charged moment while he was alive and able to enjoy our anecdotes and accolades.

The tributes to him were also public. Uncle Howard, in fact, could be regarded as an expert in death having spent his entire working life as head of a geriatric facility—a/k/a an old folks’ home—highly regarded for its thoughtful practices and innovative design. (Its chapel even boasted a Ben Shahn window.) One obituary described him as “a visionary in the field of senior care” and the fact that decades ago he had testified before Congress made an indelible impression on me as a teenager.

Howard ethical will

The signature on Uncle Howard’s “Ethical Will”

Funerals are always educational and I learned from his that he was too young to have enlisted in World War II but lied about his age and went on to win a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. Twenty years ago, shortly after my mother’s death, he wrote something referred to as an “ethical will,” which I’d never heard of. It was evoked during the funeral and distributed via email a few days later to his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Its two single-spaced pages of instructions begins “Be honest at all times” and ends with a final heartfelt request urging his children— needlessly—to continue to make his lovely and loving second wife part of their lives. What a thoughtful and characteristically modest memorial to him!

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at funeral

The unedited, grainy video footage streaming from the funeral resembled nothing so much as the automatic output of a cheap, Canal-St. security camera. Its focus on the speakers at the pulpit neither showed nor even suggested an audience listening to them. The effect of the missing congregation was profoundly alienating, and no doubt the opposite of what was intended, Judging from a two decades-old cover-story in journal format I wrote for Art in America, “The Art World and I Go Online,” little seems to have changed in our online lives since the mid-nineties. The issues central to the then-emerging “virtual” world—censorship, celebrity, online security, cultural margins and mainstreams—were mirrored in the so-called real world of that day and remain with us, both online and off-.

An exception to this stasis is the change of attitudes in the U.S. toward death. In an entry in this article dated April 23, 1995, I discuss futurist Tom Mandel and his unprecedented “blogging” about his fatal, five-month bout with lung cancer. I regarded his disclosures as an oddly self-inflicted invasion of privacy at a time when the still-raging AIDS epidemic was frequently accompanied by losses of medical insurance, jobs and apartments. He was clearly prescient, though, given today’s ubiquity of medical marijuana and the lack of blowback (or even attention) to California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent signing of assisted-suicide legislation. Is it any wonder, then, that a webcast funeral already seems not just inevitable but—even after a single, off-putting experience–everyday?

 

CHANNELING NANCY REAGAN

The Autobiography of Nancy Reagan by Robert Atkins is a fictional work that begins shortly after the former First Lady’s death but before her funeral. In fact, the televised extravaganza-of-a-funeral Reagan planned long before her death had taken place when this was written, as had the crescendo of gushing mass media coverage about her. The celebrity-crammed funeral brought together strange political bedfellows, each seemingly intent on effusive flattery. The most discussed remarks were those of Hillary Clinton, who credited the Reagans with stimulating discussion about the AIDS crisis during the eighties when history tells us—OOPS!— precisely the opposite. As this sketch begins, we see Nancy Reagan lying in the coffin she selected and channel her thoughts as she steels herself for the imminent funeral. Paradoxically, she has never felt more alive.

nancy + ron dancng

Waltzing through life with Ronnie

Today Nancy Reagan (nee Anne Francis Robbins, a/k/a Nancy Davis) “rests in repose.” Although her detractors insist this is merely an interlude preceding her joyful reunion with Ronnie and their likely immolation in Hell, she no longer cares. She is at peace. She is secretly pleased (and surprised) by the uncritical media drivel her death has generated. No unpleasant reminders of the past, none from Hollywood—so Jewish!—nor from the White House—so Democrat! (And hardly white!) Instead the Presidential Library staff had unleashed a tsunami of stories and pictures and film clips about the Reagan romance that cast a gendered and outdated Hollywood aura over their relationship. If they constantly held hands, it was so she might signal to him to change the subject, to return to the canned responses she and their staffs had laboriously devised. She and Ronnie were a team.

In fact, she was exultant at the their escape from what had seemed like an ever-growing horde of detractors who’d dogged them over the past half century. It was six decades since she’d initiated the therapeutic conversion that transformed Ronnie from Hollywood labor leader to capitalist hard-ass. In the glow of her death, her unappealing reputation as the Dragon Lady (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) who yanked Ronnie’s strings seemed nearly forgotten. Yet the comparison to the Machiavellian Angela Lansbury character in the Manchurian Candidate (1962) still rankled, as she’d sniffed to Barbara Walters (off the record) during their last interview.  And how, her mind wandering now, could Frank (Sinatra) have persuaded United Artists to finance that pinko movie in the first place?

 

The novel from which it was adapted was published in 1959, long after the jittery optimism and innocence that prevailed during the immediate postwar years had passed. This was a golden age when she was Nancy Davis, and MGM was MGM! Where would she be without the studio that had brought her together with Ronnie in 1951? They’d met cute: Ronnie was president of the Screen Actors’ Guild and she’d been mistakenly (and ironically) blacklisted because of another Nancy Davis whose pseudonym she shared. On March 4, 1952–soon after Shadow on the Wall (1951), her debut film, was released–they were married. Daughter Patti was born seven months later, suggesting that she was hardly the prig some thought her. She might have said “No!” but understood all too well that a girl who wanted to be popular during the fifties had to…

Yet what a time it was! Getting General Electric to fund Ronnie’s political re-education was genius. She honed his divisive but down-home style of communicating and reflected, yet again, that he was her greatest creation. She was among the few who early on recognized his genius and its relevance to the political arena. He could tell outrageous (and invented) anecdotes about unmarried Negro welfare moms driving Cadillacs on drugs that didn’t even sound extemporaneous. Being an actor, he could always find a nugget of “truth”—usually from a movie he’d seen or acted in—to motivate what she thought of as his fables of the far right.

Afflicted by a rare sense of remorse she worried about the future of the country she and Ronnie had so shaped. She felt a twinge of guilt about the credulous media and cash-strapped schools that enabled an amnesiac attitude to history that made it easy to re-write the past, in ever more Republican- and patriotic terms.  And then how to forget Iran Contra…the astrologers…and the saddening betrayal of their old friend, Rock Hudson.The list wasn’t endless but it was plenty long.

Just Say No

Her disastrous Just Say No! campaign certainly took a toll among the lives of the underclass, especially in conjunction with those 3-strike laws. Still, she’d been around and knew that marijuana led to harder stuff. And what about that over-the-top PR blitz for Just Say No! with Mr. T? God! What a mistake it had been to take that 1983 picture at the White House with the goony boxer-actor-rapper playing Santa while she sat on his lap and planted a kiss on his ebony head. Every little thing sounded so big in print, she thought grimly. She was afraid that her connection with the unconventional Mr. T would be used Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style to associate her with even more unsavory characters like Muhammad Ali.

Hillary at funeral

Hillary Clinton removes foot from mouth to pay respects to Reagan

Lost in the past, she was especially grateful that nobody had raised the subject of the contested tax deductions she’d tried to take for the costly weekly trips from Sacramento to her Beverly Hills hairdresser while Ronnie was governor. That was an embarrassment. And what about her hair? Her customary mid-week set was long overdue; perhaps the open casket viewing wasn’t such a good idea after all. Still, she held on to her faith in God and her plastic surgeon. It had been a good life, she mused. We made a difference… And at least she wouldn’t have to attend Hillary Clinton’s inauguration.

Pussy Riot’s Teach In

 

flames & pavel

L to R: Ksenia Zhivago, Maria Alyokhina, film czar, Zarina Zabrisky. above: Pyotr Pavlensky

“We’re going Pussy-Rioting” shouted a couple of gender-ambiguous millennials entering San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on February 10th. The dissident Russian punk band’s appearance there barely resembled the usual fare at the Art Deco movie palace-turned-concert-venue: There was no lack of shouting and drinking, but nor was there any music, since Pussy Riot never charges for concerts. To justify the $45 orchestra seats, my friends and I adopted the view that this was a tribute, a fund-raiser and perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The long wait for Pussy Riot’s entrance was lengthened by an hour-long “pre-show” that opened with a wonky performance piece featuring some comradely joking around between a faux Donald Trump and a faux Vladimir Putin, which was followed by a 45 minute “trailer” for a documentary about the Russian band. Both were casually presided over by MC Zarina Zabrisky, a local writer and co-founder of Arts Resistance, an anti-war/arts collective. She would remain onstage to facilitate an interview and conversation with two of the Pussy Rioters, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago, intended to spread the word about their NGO, Zona Praya (Zone of Rights).

The documentary footage offered close-up views of actions by some members of the group—a rotating cast of about a dozen women anonymous behind their balaclavas and previously affiliated with the feminist street-art performance troupe Voinal formed in 2011. Their “stages” included the platform of a cavernous subway station and the roof of a trolley car, where a burly female conductor assaulted them in Chaplinesque style. But it was the group’s appropriation of the altar of the new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for its performance of Punk Prayer (2012)—a brief entreaty to the Virgin Mary to remove Putin from power—which raised the hackles of both Church and state. (A queer architectural aside re the cathedral: Stalin had the 19th century “old” Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the banks of the Moscow River demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. Foundations for it were laid, but little else was completed. During the fifties, Kruschev had the flooded foundations converted into the world’s largest swimming pool, transforming it into one of Moscow’s premier gay cruising spots. With the opening of the reconstructed cathedral in 1995, this function was eliminated, but figuratively evoked in Punk Prayer.)

Punk Prayer shared the spirit—if not the massive numbers—of ACT-UP’s controversial Stop the Church (1989) demonstration in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Both protested the collusion of Catholicism and the state in constitutionally secular societies. Although Punk Prayer gained Pussy Riot the moral high ground—at least abroad—its insolence apparently could not be tolerated by officialdom. It resulted in two-year jail terms for the three performers who had been arrested; while another two fled the country.

Pussy Riot’s prominence surely saved them from worse treatment and more hard time. As with other incarcerated revolutionaries like Angela Davis, their prison sentences became the impetus for a more sober approach to struggles for liberation. If less exhilarating than their mediagenic, Putin-baiting performances, their more conventional human-rights activities may ultimately prove even more dangerous: “The difference between being a human rights worker in Russia and the US,” said Masha Alyokhina later in the evening. “Is that in the US it’s like being a middle manager. In Moscow it’s Molotov cocktails and beatings and [being] branded a foreign agent.”

Pussy Riot’s San Francisco appearance was the last stop of an informational, fund-raising trip that included Seattle and Portland. Their efforts are a reminder that political art practices ought to be evaluated by both their message and by the audiences they reach. Being “about” an issue is rarely enough. (Ai Weiwei’s recent reenactment—impersonation?–of a disturbing photo of the drowned Syrian three-year-old Alan Kurdi, for instance, falls into this category with its narcissistic, art tourism.) Some may question whether Pussy Riot’s advocacy and fundraising activities can even be discussed within an art context. They can if you ascribe to artist-theorist Hans Haacke’s belief that art is another branch of the “consciousness industry” (linking it to advertising and propaganda). There’s little doubt that Pussy Riot’s punk performance antics reached—and altered the consciousness of—millions worldwide. Given Russia’s saddening slide into oligarchy and authoritarianism, any taxonomic concerns—that rarely interesting “But is it art? question–seems less relevant than Malcolm X’s injunction to seek (revolutionary) change “by any means possible”.

There’s also a relevant Russian tradition of moral fervor in art that the West abandoned in the mid-19th century for modern formal experimentation. Just as Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s now unreadable novel What is to Be Done? (1863) supplied the emotional back story for the Russian revolution(s) of the early 20th century, it also pointed to future works of conscience, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, written precisely a century later. Solzhenitsyn’s historical and essayistic account of Stalin’s death camps ensured its author a Nobel Prize in 1970 and the attendant attention that made it impossible for authorities to “disappear” him.

girls & pavelIn their remarks, the Pussy Rioters did not refer to any forbears in any medium. Instead they provided a fascinating analogue in the form of a slide show about the work of some contemporary visual artists and kindred spirits. The most interesting of them is Pyotr Pavlensky. Reminiscent of many US body- and AIDS-artists of the past 30 years, he’s nailed his ball (sac) to the pavement of Red Square, before an interested audience of police waiting to arrest him, and sewn his mouth shut in zig-zag stitches to protest Pussy Riot’s arrest. Many readers will link my mention of his sewn mouth to the similar actions of the brilliant US artist David Wojnarowicz during the eighties and early nineties. But given such different cultural contexts, these art historical associations can feel distracting (and detracting).

My sense of cultural dissociation was increased by Zhivago’s view that Pavlensky’s designation at a recent trial as an artist—rather than a hooligan–was a victory. But like many Soviet artists before him, Pavlensky was silenced in January by the authorities who had him (again) committed to a psychiatric center for evaluation. Surely there are differences between incarceration in prison and in a psychiatric hospital—including historical precedent–but for non-Russians they are difficult to discern. Putin’s power grab is also a reminder of the relative freedom Russian artists of the nineties enjoyed. The ever-worsening repression is likely to force increasing numbers of them to return to their pre-nineties’ roles of gadfly, goad and/or prankster. If doing so entails ignoring conventional forms and formats in favor of writing between the lines or mashing up music, art and politics, then credit Pussy Riot for their inspiration.

 

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Teraoka_Pussy_Riot_Russian_Unorthodox_Confessors-2015_pressWe tend to associate so-called political art with conceptual or social practice art. Rarely is painting the preferred medium of the politically inclined creator. Masami Teraoka is an exception, a painter who for the past few decades has bent historical styles and imagery to his own ideological purposes: In the nineties this meant AIDS-inspired imagery brilliantly and meticulously mimicking ukiyo-e prints and depicting, for instance, geishas fumbling with condoms to suggest the perils of unsafe sex. The title of his recent show Masami Teraoka’s Apocalyptic Theater: The Pope, Putin, Peachbody and Pussy Riot Galore at Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco gives you some idea of both the subject matter and style he’s derived from Russian icons and altarpieces. (It unfortunately closed on February 20th.) Suffice to say that these works are witty and mischievous, authoritative and subversive.

 

 

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