Back in the early 2000s, artist Cindy Loehr made a free distributable artwork entitled Don’t Give Up, which was that phrase on a refrigerator magnet the size of a business card. These minimally-designed artifacts became ubiquitous among her growing circle of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and she continually sought further distribution captains to act as nodes, signing on to give away the little reminder to as many as wanted it.1 Not surprising that many people took them, for in art, any association with ‘free’ tends to promote a run on things, witness posters flying when museumgoers figure out that Felix Gonzalez-Torres piles are takeable. The similarly-styled Edson Chagas Found Not Taken, Luanda. 2013, at MoMA’s recent Ocean of Images show, were photo-poster stacks nearly emptied to the pallets one recent Target© Free Friday evening. Less fortunate sheets were carelessly strewn about the floor of the gallery.2
Don’t Give Up fits within this democratic tradition in art, a revaluation of the role of the individual viewer as co-owner of the multipliable artwork. Loehr’s phrase reads less like a command than either a support-group affirmation or a fridge-front nudge and might apply equally to young art world strivers and strugglers, or to anyone going through serious troubles. “Don’t give up” is an acknowledgment that there are sometimes reasons to, or at least to feel like you might and that sometimes people carry through with giving up, in one way or another.3
The current political climate, for example, begs this question. Hardly anything has been more disheartening during the Obama era than those—primarily on the political left—who have given up on the process, who stomp or slide into apathy as though their disavowal would somehow help. Having agreed to be a Don’t Give Up distribution node myself, my current temptation is to send a magnet to each person who has for one reason or another disenfranchised themselves enough that they don’t vote, or turn up for an election only once every four years, as if somehow President Perfect might solve our conjoined future, without the necessary legislative support behind them.
How many who lean Left fail to vote in so many mid-term and crucial local elections?4 The numbers aren’t necessarily staggering, but they are staggeringly clear. In my reliably ‘blue’ state that consistently votes Left for President, the Wisconsin statehouse leans so far Right that it seems there’s no Left left, with our grand tradition of progressive politics upended. The terrifyingly apparent downticket result is that relatively few Democrat-leaning progressives make it to the city governments and legislative statehouses that would give them a suitable platform for their ideas, and experience necessary to move up through the political ranks to try for higher offices, including Congress, Governorships, and eventually the Presidency. People who proclaim to actually care about crafting a humane system that governs through economically just policies have simply given up on the process and ‘stayed home’ (such a seemingly comfortable, yet hauntingly ‘king-of-my-castle’ phrase) to let others dominate who are more in touch with the pragmatic side of their political fervor.5
Who cares? It’s all corrupt, it’s all bankrupt, politics is so money-soaked that nothing can ever really change. They shut us out of that process a long time ago. The only solution is revolution!!
This line of thinking is all too real among those who consider themselves our most progressive advocates, particularly disaffected anarchist-leaning, collective-minded folks. Nevermind that revolution tends, more often than not, to result in much destruction and permanent damage, up to and including fascist retrenchment, or at least to make divides dig in and run much deeper. The goal of a revolution is to overturn, to destroy, rather than to remake or rebuild.6
We can’t be surprised that the revolutionary impulse is in the American DNA since that’s how the country came into existence. But also recall that there was a second American revolution which had its seeds in the unsolved issues of the first one: Some 1.5 million of us killed and maimed each other, with the result that can best be described as ultimately just, but hardly a resolution.7
Political apathy is molded by impatience, a signal problem when the system of governance requires checks and balances so thorough that all positions must be accounted for, all points of view allowed their moment. The key term is ‘incremental change,’ something our current president continues to believe in, despite that it has caused him corrosive political damage from both sides. Not surprising that the Right would want to “throw the bums out,” since the Bum-In-Chief represents everything they hate. More surprising is the abandonment of Obama by those on the Left who helped elect him, who then turned on him because he couldn’t immediately make their impossible dreams impossibly real. Though his popularity has risen steadily, their anger remains as support for Bernie Sanders and disavowal of a potential Clinton presidency. We can’t blame the opposition for countering Obama’s presidency since that’s their job, so the real fault lies with the give-ups who ‘stayed home’ while the makeup of the main legislative body of the US was being determined.8 In Wisconsin, this also meant state representatives, local councils and alderpersons, Senators, Congresspersons, and perhaps most important locally, State Supreme Court Justices (who in both Illinois and Wisconsin are elected officials).
This incredibly short-sighted stance could be called selfish but for the fact that it undermines every goal of those very selves who skip these elections. Fewer decent, civic-minded candidates are elected to office, to gain the experience and name recognition necessary to run for higher office, to actually make positive legislative change possible, and to better represent the actual political makeup of the country.9
The country lurches and leans ever-further to the Right exactly because of such woeful decisions, made sharper in their irony because those on the opposite end of the political spectrum certainly do not stay home. They do exactly what we Left-righteous folk should be doing: organize, volunteer, support candidates, study up to back informed arguments over issues within personal networks, and make informed choices on voting day. Is it a Sisyphean task to affect real change through democratic government? Or is the task made Sisyphean by those who abandon their role in the process?
Jesse McLean’s 6-minute looping video Climbing succinctly reproduces mythic futility.10 The Apple-familiar “hand” cursor grabs and drags a screen of majestic mountain images, one glorious shot after the other, continuing seamlessly until the Photoshopping becomes too apparent to be overlooked. Mountains lapse from range to distant range, in a continuing cascade. The “hand” seems to be climbing, attempting to reach the end, the metaphorical ‘peak,’ triumph, conquest, but like this sentence, runs on, grasps and grasps at the unending stream of images with no resolution in sight. Not only a seamless contemporary rendering of the Sisyphean myth, but McLean’s piece also suggests other possibilities on a more optimistic side of things.
Google Maps has no edge, no end to its unidirectional scroll, a 2D image of the perfect 3D spherical shape. The ‘endless scroll’ mode of certain websites like Who Wore It Better or LinkedIn can be maddening, as a never-ceasing population of potential contacts and new things to know must, eventually, transcribe every possible human or idea, if you had the wherewithal to endure. “End the Endless Scroll!” I cry, futilely. But back in the early days of video game consoles, I recall feeling the distinct pseudo-hacker’s joy at discovering that the Indy-car racing game on my Intellivision did not separate its various race courses into separate screens. If I zoomed off-road, I could zip around until eventually, I happened on an adjacent course. I loved it! I’d discovered the world outside my window, that my apparent limits were unbounded by the edges of the screen. McLean’s Climbing parallels Google Maps’ paradoxical endlessness, which flattens our sphere but dissolves its limits. A suggestion of transcendence arrives by breaking free of the globe’s limits, perpendicularly, breaching the atmosphere to achieve boundless space. (That space, of course, would be the actuality outside the computer screen, which, perpendicularly, is our own eyes.)
It’s no wonder, of course, that Obama has been dreaming of a Mars escape.
Not literally—not by himself—but that humankind’s future lies ultimately in space, leaving behind the world we’ve despoiled through war and abuse, replaced by the blank slate of an unblemished globe.11 In recent sci-fi movies, the risks of time dilation in Interstellar, or the harsh odds of The Martian must seem meager and thrilling compared to the Republican establishment’s intransigence on accepting that pollution causes, well, pollution, for example. The Martian, painstakingly realistic, demonstrates an equipoise necessary to achieve big, communal goals, each part contributing to the greater good. In this scenario the revolution would be to try again, somewhere else, in the kind of deadly-harsh environment where cooperation is essential, expertise is the only means, and dedication to the cause is crucial—a military discipline that doesn’t destroy but builds. Obama’s cooperative, “community organizer” background holds. He is a demonstrated believer in the power of incremental change, but one left bereft, hoping his legacy outlives those—even on his own side—who have disavowed him not for what he’s done but for what he hasn’t been able to get done. Historic intransigence by his ideological opponents + abandonment and apathy by his allies = massive disaffection all around.12 (No wonder he and Michelle are stumping so vocally for Hillary, who might help ensure their legacy.)
Once colonized, though, Mars would undoubtedly become a version of our forlorn, stupidly mythic Wild West, less that mirage, though, than the real deal, beset by the winner-take-all mentality of corporate enterprise and easy criminality. David Milch’s keen HBO series Deadwood (2004), was meant as a timely allegory, I believe, of the lessons to be learned by the Bush/Cheney administration’s dogmatic refusal of communitarian thinking, for us-versus-them ideological positioning. A semi-historical image of gold-boom South Dakota, Deadwood exposes individualism in American society as the vapid fallacy it is, a total illusion based essentially on greed. Necessary interdependencies are expertly drawn, in particular through the most corrupt character’s need for a lawman in town to keep just enough order for commerce to flow smoothly. The god of profit thrives on an orderly arrangement. Chaos only causes high overhead.
Had the truncated three-season series not burned out due to unfortunate contract disputes (the excellent, seditious Battlestar Galactica suffered a similar, anti-artistic fate at the hands of its network overlords), Deadwood would have gotten to its central point, glimpsed only in fits and starts as the anarchic “camp’s” nascent fire inspector made some rounds to try to get folks to apply basic standards.13 Of course, what we didn’t get to see is the entire wood-built town being burnt to the ground by unrestrained fire (as happened in the IRL version), destroyed because people believed that community regulations damage the ‘independent spirit’ that made them great, rather than understanding that simple methods of cooperation among co-interested parties better assure survival of the group. All would benefit, yet in the name of individuated liberty; all will lose all.
Our 20th and 21st-century winner-take-all societal ethos places our conjoined wealth in the hands of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (r.i.p.), Warren Buffet, Sam Walton, and a couple of others and all we can do is hope they give some of it back. We all suffer for such intense concentration of wealth, akin to America’s ‘robber baron’ years, yet somehow the preponderance of us prefer this situation—or at least that’s what our political representatives would have us believe. 14
This combination of electoral forces has aligned to reflect us back to ourselves as someone else. Unsurprisingly then that we experience the unendurable election season as schizophrenic.
Were I able to seek Loehr’s permission, I’d scheme to hand out her Don’t Give Up magnets at polling places on November 8th. Obviously, if people are showing up to vote, they haven’t given up, but one power of a little affirmation is to spark a communicative confidence. It’s a thing you want to pass along, maybe by giving the magnet to the next person you encounter who says they don’t plan on voting. The powerful simplicity of Loehr’s piece is its pure generosity, not in the sense that she doesn’t get something for it—in the exchange, you make a small, tacit acknowledgment, Okay, I’ll try. It’s reassurance that we actually need each other to get along in the world. Loehr seemed to know deep in her heart how many people need her message, as a reminder of how important it can be to get simply through the day.
Measuring the relative value of Gonzalez-Torres’s giveaways gets difficult because of their intrinsic value-contradictions. People tend to grab the sheets as though in on the ground floor of the next big thing, a great stock tip, a collector’s item, a misprinted stamp. But they are not that. As single sheets, they have no material value. Their production continues in perpetuity. They are meant to have no material value, instead of transferring value to the immaterial, the image or idea they convey. They are like the weight of memory, insubstantial in the present, even unconveyable, but effectual. The “Untitled” (Veteran’s Day Sale) stack stands out for its multi-layeredness.15
At once a critique of commodity culture, and a yearning for acknowledgment of sacrifice, this graphically simple work (the title words printed small and spaced out in the sheet’s center, black print on white) is also a funeral, a memorial, a territory of collective memory more expansive than Arlington National Cemetery, which itself lends sublime grace to the former estate of Robert E. Lee on which it lies, in perpetuity. Veteran’s Day Sale is a eulogy on the human tragedy of war, which is the result of the profound inability to agree on fundamental things, and the reduction of supposed détente to commercial exchange, as a salve—though from one perspective commercial exchange was the basis of the wound the war cleaved. Our government was designed for us to strike enough balance for us to live together within our disagreements. Its proper functioning demands participation, and apathy is its auto-immune disorder.16
We citizens are like Gonzalez-Torres’s stacks, each a single sheet portraying value mainly for our function within the greater whole, sovereign in that we are markers of our own existence, but also represent an idea larger than ourselves.17If I pass by a stack and don’t take one, I’m leaving it for someone else. Is voting like that?18
- During the artist’s lifetime (1971-2014), Don’t Give Up was distributed through multiple nodes. The magnets are still available from the Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago, Loehr’s representative and now the caretaker of her estate. They will also be distributed through my project in Milwaukee, the Nicholas Frank Public Library.
- Edson Chagas (Angolan, b. 1977). Found Not Taken, Luanda. 2013. Five stacks of offset lithographs on pallets, each print 18 7/8 × 26 3/4″ (48 × 68 cm). “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” The Museum of Modern Art, November 7, 2015–March 20, 2016.
- What many people weren’t aware of was the Loehr family history, that her brother killed himself, and that in the aftermath she struggled not only to continue as an artist but as a person. Loehr moved to New York and changed her nom de plum to Cynthia Gray, collecting her various projects on her website collectiveexperience.org. Loehr struggled with her identity as an artist, though her work made strong and clear pleas for understanding each others’ complexity, and the relationship between spiritual imagination and perceived reality. mcachicago.org, sculpture-center.org, icaphila.org Loehr’s death under mysterious circumstances resonates disturbingly among her family, friends and allies. Just before she died, her normal website http://www.collectiveexperience.org was transformed to a single-page paragraph rumination on God, from what was formerly a multi-part platform for her various art, writing, and social practices. This might give some further insight: http://www.opentohope.com/wristbands-educate-public-about-causes-of-suicide/
- Illinois, where Loehr lived during her college years (before moving to first Milwaukee then New York), since the 1990s has been solidly a ‘blue’ state. Wisconsin, however, is more a ‘purple’ state, voting Right in local and mid-term elections and Left for president every four years since Reagan took the state (and nearly every other state) in 1984. The 2012 Scott Walker recall election was ultimately poorly timed, occurring in the highly unusual off-month of June (elections in Wisconsin are normally April/November) as a stand-alone rather than tied to the important Fall general election (Obama’s re-election victory, in which Wisconsin went for Obama 53%-46%, or 1,620,985 votes to 1,407,966 for Romney/Ryan—note that Ryan is a local boy!) The Walker results speak volumes: 1,335,585 to 1,164,480 for his (granted, very weak) Democrat opponent. Nearly 500,000 Left-leaning voters stayed home? Obviously, that’s an oversimplification, as some were (somehow) conflicted about recalling the Governor, and large numbers of self-declared Independents might not be consistent Left-leaners, instead of making judgments based on the circumstances of each election and the merits of each candidate. Nonetheless, a mere 200,000 voters would have easily tipped the scales in 2012, and half of that number would have secured a Lefty seat on our badly skewed Supreme Court. 2012 Recall Vote Results, 2012 General Election Results And the nightmare continues. In the April 2016 elections/presidential primary, in this state that has gone for every Democrat presidential candidate for 32 years, more Republican voters turned out than Democrat (it was close, ~1.1 million to ~1 million), despite that a crucial 10-year term on the state’s already Right-skewed Supreme Court. And the nightmare continues. In the April 2016 elections/presidential primary, in this state that has gone for every Democrat presidential candidate for 32 years, more Republican voters turned out than Democrat (it was close, ~1.1 million to ~1 million), despite that a crucial 10-year term on the state’s already Right-skewed Supreme Court was being decided. The Right won, of course, and we now have a justice who openly declared that because of government funding, contracting AIDS is better than getting cancer, and wrote, “How sad that the lives of degenerate drug addicts and queers are valued more than the innocent victims of more prevalent ailments.” To be, um, fair, she now says she’s grown up a bit and has learned to respect everyone. And this was attached to a presidential primary, in which Bernie’s got the youth so whipped up that they’ll turn out. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we didn’t have him in the race. Two important circuit court posts in Milwaukee County were decided for the Left, against Gov. Walker appointees, by incredibly slim margins. I don’t know that it can entirely be attributed to him, but thank you, Bernie!
- As noted above, turnout among Republicans in recent Wisconsin elections far outstripped turnout among Democrats, one reason Scott Walker has been elected and survived his recall, though he does not represent the majority views of the state’s population (which went for Obama both times in the general elections). Though turnout was high for both parties during the Walker recall (again see footnote #4, above), so many let non-presidential elections drift by without voting that the State Legislature is crammed with a fervent, hardcore Republican majority. Those on the Left increase their disillusionment with politics, as law after law against everything they stand for (Act 10, so-called ‘Right-to-work’, Voter ID requirements, etc.) is passed seemingly without a chance for the opposition to take a stand, unless they abandon their posts and leave the state to avoid quorum (as happened in 2011 for the initial Act 10 vote). Possibly the worst among this cohort are those (I was one of them), in instances like the potential re-election of George W. Bush, or the current potential for President Trump, who say “I’ll leave the country if…,” and thus would literally abandon those who need us most, everyone who has and would suffer greatly under such abusive regimes. Yes, it is grindingly dispiriting and difficult to maintain living equanimous with such fervent disavowal, but it must be endured if opposition factions are to produce any resistance. Only those under direct threat should leave the countries they believe in, to make their case from afar. Please don’t suggest that you’d leave the grand American experiment in the hands of those who would toss it aside, people.
- The principal editor of this essay, Barry Schwabsky, notes that since I provide our American revolution as an example, I do not allow enough for the positive results revolutions can provide. While my paragraph is admittedly condensed, consider this off-the-cuff list of revolutions: Tanzanian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Yemeni, Somalian, Sudanese, Orange, Chechen, Czech, Burmese, Algerian, Guatemalan, Colombian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Irish, Chinese, Cuban, Spanish, Russian, French. (In some cases I’m uncertain where the line between rebellion and full-on revolution is crossed.) How many resulted in a better society? How many resulted in mass slaughter and repressive regimes? How many led to further strife, conflict, civil war, splitting along ethnic lines? Conversely, how many produced long-lasting, relatively stable population-driven governance systems that put the greater good above elite gain? Ours stands above these all, to be sure, as does the French, however on this last question we teeter close to failure. Lastly, as I address in the paragraph, our successful revolution failed to solve the major flaw of our society, which lack of resolution maintains to this day. That slavery was not abolished and its aftereffects not dealt with caused the eventual Civil War, the disenfranchisement of freed slaves through lack of reparations and protections, the repressive, murderous and disgusting Jim Crow South, the harassment, battery and murders of so many Civil Rights leaders, inadequate legislation, and a lasting population of white supremacists and enablers of racial hatred and demagoguery.
- Estimates that 620,000 men were killed in the line of duty. The larger figure of 1.5 million includes wounded/captured/missing. The current red/blue electoral map stands as a testament to the lack of real postbellum resolution. “W” might have been the worst American president, for dragging the country into an unjust war, or it might have been James Buchanan, who failed to prevent the nation from tearing itself apart, or Andrew Johnson, who gave back so much of the potential progress achieved by the Union winning the war, and canceled the reparations program for emancipated former slaves. The unreconstructed South still lives in the hearts and minds of many Americans, particularly that 38 % of South Carolinian Trump supporters who reportedly wish that the Confederacy had won. The relevant section of the Public Policy Polling site’s report: …38% of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War… and with some context: …to only 24% glad the North won and 38% who aren’t sure. Overall just 36% of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious to 30% for the South, but Trump’s the only one whose supporters wish the South had won. Granted, that’s only 91,143 voters, out of 737,917 people who voted in the Republican primary, which is a mere 0.0186% of South Carolina’s total population of 4,896,146 (from 2015 census and 2016 South Carolina primary numbers). Anna Merlin offers some wider perspective on Trump borne/bred intolerance on ‘The Slot’/Jezebel.
- My on-board Dictionary App seems to agree. The example phrase for the ‘apathetic’ entry reads “apathetic slackers who don’t vote.”
- Following my principal editor’s advice, the term ‘civic-minded’ in this sentence replaces the former ‘communitarian-minded’ as I’d had it initially. He points out the exclusionary timbre of the term ‘communitarian,’ though my onboard dictionary comes to the rescue again, seemingly supporting my intent:
communitarianism |kəˌmyoōniˈte(ə)rēəˌnizəm| noun; a theory or system of social organization based on small self-governing communities.an ideology that emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community and the social importance of the family unit.
However, there are some potentially disturbing resonances in the definition. ‘Civic-minded’ wins: of or relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area: they could not be denied access to education, the vote, and other civic rights. Also, it was suggested that gerrymandering is an equally important issue beyond voter apathy. While it is true that unrestricted gerrymandering can unduly alter the balance away from true representation of populations according to political leanings, I maintain that voter apathy is a root cause of the current gerrymandered situation. Analysts have noted that a rare confluence of the 10-year census with mid-term elections in Obama’s second term allowed such radical redistricting towards Republican-crafted districts that the effects, immediately felt, will likely last for a generation. But, if Left-leaning and sensible Independents had turned out in greater numbers during the mid-terms, our legislatures might not be so cram-packed with Righties after all, and thus less blatant gerrymandering might have been allowed to occur. Legislatures that don’t want to allow politically disinterested judicial branches or arbitration bodies won’t pass laws that make it possible to have fair voting districts. Another reason why people who think to vote once every four years somehow fulfills their democratic franchise are so frustrating and so wrong.
- http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-envisions-manned-mars-mission-for-nasa/ and for context: http://www.nasa.gov/about/obamaspeechfeature.html
- Charles Blow’s recent editorial “Bernie or Bust’ Is Bonkers” on this topic sums things up nicely.
- This info gleaned from a DVD-extra Milch interview, which clearly expresses his frustration at the demise of the show. Rumour has it, though, confirmed by Wikipedia, that Milch and HBO are in ‘talks’ (as of January 2016) to resolve Deadwood, most likely as a movie.
- Basically the mid-19th century, a.k.a. Gilded Age. A good source here, if you can get to it, and also here: http://www.alternet.org/story/156111/8_ways_america’s_headed_back_to_the_robber-baron_era/
- Thanks to the Contemporary Art Society, there is one in Milwaukee, which made it into the expansive reinstallation of the collection: Felix Gonzalez-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957–1996) “Untitled” (Veterans Day Sale), 1989 Offset print on paper, ideal height: 22 × 29 × 23 in. (55.88 × 73.66 × 58.42 cm) Gift of Contemporary Art Society M1995.88
- Those who participate win, so those who believe in the greatest good for the most had better get off their asses and into the voting booths for every single election. Here’s a good reflection on some of the same issues present in this essay.
- My principal editor also pointed out a ready complication in my rendering of Gonzalez-Torres’s material ethos. Incisively, they asked, “[Does the work make] the collector or institution the sugar daddy to whom we must all be grateful for some valueless byproduct?” The contractual agreement that preserves and maintains each piece in its institutional home is invisible, like the strings of political power that render themselves upon our nation’s polity. Rather than sugar-daddying, though, I’d like to believe that FGT enacted a kind of reverse-cynicism, making the institution (including its collector base) put its money where its mouth is, by offering itself to the public more meaningfully than the usual one-way delivery. The complexity of the layeredness of an individual sheet within this system seems an apt metaphor for each of us as citizens, each with so many invisible systems of support behind us, white privilege (e.g.) being far more pervasive and powerful than the spectral “welfare” state so many on the Right abjure.
- Though I do so often, I am loath to quote New York Times columnists, because their world can feel such like a swirling whirlpool of liberal masturbatory fantasy, but Frank Bruni wrote “A party needs to reach the 50-percent mark to win elections, and it makes ugly deals and unseemly compromises to cross that threshold.” Also this big-picture rundown, from Mara Liasson of NPR, on the effects of electoral dynamics on Obama’s presidency. “There is Presidential Election America, where turnout is diverse. The electorate is younger, browner, more single, more secular — more Democratic. Then there’s Midterm Election America, where the electorate is older, whiter, more rural, more church-going — in other words, more Republican. What’s great for Republicans and bad for Democrats is that the vast majority of the governorships and state legislative seats are elected in the midterms. And those positions are the seed corn for a party — they’re the farm teams for higher-level offices. Right now the Democrats are at a very low ebb. This is something President Obama lamented when he campaigned for Democrats in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. Republicans manage to turn out their voters every two years, but Democrats, for some reason, only turn their voters out every four. Maybe, Obama mused, because Democrats just don’t think midterms are ‘sexy enough’.”