Artistic Revolutions

War Photography and Its Consequences

Susan Sontag, an acclaimed social critic, published a very important book for the photography world in 2003 called Regarding the Pain of Others. This work introduced revolutionary ideas about how photography and the body are related and the nature surrounding photographing human suffering. 

One of the most photographed tragedies in the last 50 years was the Rwandan Genocide, taking place in 1994. After the news broke to the Western world, many photographers and journalists made their way to the country to try and document the horrors that had been perpetrated by the Hutu people upon the Tutsis in Rwanda. One of these journalists, Philip Gourevitch, published stories from his time in the country shortly following the genocide in his 1998 book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. This book both tells what happened in Rwanda and how the Western leaders failed to respond.

Philip Gourevitch’s book puts many of Susan Sontag’s ideas that she expresses in Regarding the Pain of Others into the context of the Rwandan Genocide. This connection is especially true in chapter four of Sontag’s book where she discusses the difference between the portrayals of Western and African suffering. She explains this discrepancy through the irony shown through the display of one’s face. As Sontag discusses, the aversion towards showing ones face in his or her time of suffering gives a victim dignity and humanity. In other words, it gives them an identity or ironically, a face. However the photographs of those with their faces exposed turn them into faceless casualties of a tragedy, stripping them of their dignity. Whether or not Sontag’s argument about the irony of facial display is correct or not her statement about how the Western world likes to shield it’s victims faces while those suffering in Africa are denied the same treatment is accurate. This statement is backed up by Gourevitch’s book where he talks about the disparity between the Western power’s reaction to Western genocide and African genocide. For the case of Rwanda, world leaders, especially in the US, were hesitant to call the Rwandan genocide what it was, a genocide. They feared that would cause them to have to act. When world leaders did act, they treated the genocide as a humanitarian crisis as if it were something natural to happen in Africa, instead of a genocide enacted by a group of perpetrators. This response differs completely from the way Western powers reacted to the Holocaust at the Genocide Convention where they promised to actively try and stop future genocides, and would ultimately fail. 

A drawing done by Jackson Warmack and I depicting how violence and revolutions are portrayed.
A drawing done by Jackson Warmack and I depicting how violence and revolutions are portrayed.

For a further exploration of Sontag’s work and its relation to images of suffering, please explore this research paper I wrote on the image “The Vulture and the Little Girl” by Kevin Carter.

BreitlingHumesResearchPaperFinal

The Grunge Revolution

A picture of Kurt Cobain and Krist Noveselic performing.
Kurt Cobain and Krist Noveselic of Nirvana performing in 1991. Taken by Charles Peterson.

Grunge music was a popular genre of music in the United States in the early to mid-nineties. Grunge’s sound is one that utilizes the four main instruments of rock, but has a highly distorted, often downtuned, guitar with loud bass and slightly distorted vocal delivery. Grunge music was filled with highly introspective lyrics and angst ridden attitude. The style of music was born in Seattle in the late eighties, only to explode into the mainstream in the early nineties with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. During this time grunge would be not only the most popular music in America, but the most popular style. The grunge fad took over America and everyone wanted a part. By the mid-nineties, however, the trend was losing steam fast and the saturation of grunge in America caused it to die in an ironic twist of fate. 

Grunge was the messy child of heavy metal and punk. To understand this illegitimate birth, the origins of punk and metal must be understood. Heavy metal emerged in the late sixties as acid and blues rockers decided to up the distortion and play loud blues riffs. Artists like Jimi Hendrix and Cream experimented with this new sound, but it was not until Black Sabbath sang of Satan on their eponymous song on their eponymous debut album that the dark lyrics solidified the genre as a new branch in rock. The genre was given a shot of adrenaline in the seventies from New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. These bands along with early forms of glam metal bands in the United States such as Kiss would launch heavy metal  into the spotlight and it would remain that way throughout the eighties. However, in the underbelly of Great Britain working class kids would take the rock they grew up on and develop a do-it-yourself approach with punk. Punk was a rebellion against increasing corporate rock groups and the growing divide between rockers and their fans. It encouraged the idea that anyone could start a band. As one fanzine (magazines popular in the punk subculture responsible for spreading information) famously declared, “This is a chord… This is another… This is a third… Now form a band.” As the early British punk rockers such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash began to fall off, a new subgenre of punk was emerging in America: Hardcore. Hardcore was political, taking shots not only at the extremely extravagant glam metal superstars but also the deeply conservative establishment of two term president Ronald Reagan. While hardcore proclaimed to be against authoritarianism and establishment culture, it began to have internal contradictions because of the rules the subculture had established, essentially creating an authoritarian society inside their own subculture. Inside the scene, any member was judged intensely if they were seen as “not punk enough.” Wearing the wrong fashion, being too old, liking sports, making money, incorporating any other genre into the music, or signing to anything other than an underground label were all seen as against the movement. By the late eighties many new hardcore kids were getting tired of the elitist practices in the subculture and began to experiment with new genres. These kids were tired of being judged for liking rock, metal, and pop bands and began to add melody to their music. Along with these diversions newer punk became less political and more cynical; the lyrics became more focused on conflict within the self instead of conflict against the establishment. This new brand of punk would lead directly into grunge.

Another important factor in the development of grunge was its birthplace, Seattle. “The two i’s: isolation and inbreeding,” reads a Rolling Stone article from April of 1992 referencing the culture of Seattle that led to the rise of grunge. Seattle is a mostly working class town with a vibrant music scene. Many people started bands in their garage and played at local venues. Music was a common hobby for most in Seattle. Any musician that made an appearance in Seattle made an impression on the city’s music sound. Especially was the case with late hardcore punk bands such as Husker Du and Black Flag, who planted the seeds for the emerging grunge sound. Another major factor in Seattle’s emerging grunge sound was the local record label, Sub Pop. Not only did the label sign some of the earliest grunge acts such as Mudhoney and Soundgarden, they were also responsible for promoting the grunge sound and the grunge look to the outside world. In 1988, the label released Sub Pop 200, a box set of early grunge artists as well as a twenty-page booklet adorned with Charles Peterson’s greasy black and white photos. Sub Pop then signed who would eventually pull them out of bankruptcy, Nirvana. Originally from Aberdeen, the passion project of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic would become the flagship band in the grunge wave. Their first album, Bleach, was recorded for only 600 dollars but it would take one tour with Sonic Youth for Nirvana to sign with a major record label. In 1991 the band released their second album, Nevermind, filled with a smoother sound and catchier riffs that made it more accessible to the public. The band found their breakthrough into mainstream popularity when the album’s lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was broadcast to the world through the repeated showing of its music video on MTV. Soon Nevermind was selling more than Guns and Roses and Michael Jackson. For the next few years, the dirty, inbred Seattle sound became everything in American music. 

To Nirvana’s record label, Nevermind was a surprise success, however, in retrospect it makes sense that an album about a self loathing, apathetic, loser would strike a chord with the teens of the nineties. As children of high divorce rates, the Reagan era, the AIDS epidemic, and mass consumerism, Gen X looked to Cobain and his fellow grunge rockers not just as heroes but as peers who have suffered along with them. In the eyes of the media, Gen X was lazy and quick to blame their parents for their problems; in the eyes of grunge artists, however, they were the heroes of their own story. If glam metal and the consumerization of music was the disease of baby boomer culture, then Gen X’s antidote was grunge. It divided the two generations. However, where there is a demand, there is a market, and the corporations once selling kids extravagantly packaged Bon Jovi albums, were quick to consumerize an anti-consumerist style. In 1992 at his grunge couture show, Marc Jacobs turned what was originally a dominant thrift store, working class clothing style into high priced fashion. Following the huge success of Nevermind along with Pearl Jam’s Ten, record labels were scrambling to sign any new grunge band. Soon advertisements would include grunge music and musicians. Even Hollywood cashed in with Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles set to a grunge soundtrack. This new nation-wide consumer culture completely replaced that of the eighties and eventually started to run out of gas, beginning with the suicide of its icon, Kurt Cobain. 

By 1994 the ironic infrastructure that grunge was built on began to crumble. The movement could no longer claim authenticity as consumerization made it into the new glam metal and its original forefathers no longer wanted to pursue the harsh confrontational sound that they had once used to give a musical middle finger to the genres they were pulling from. Instead Nirvana looked into a new sound right before Kurt’s death that followed in the footsteps of their MTV Unplugged performance similar to that of REM and took roots in the pop-rock of David Bowie. Other bands such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden would release their last albums of the decade in 1995 and 1996 respectively. At the same time new bands were entering the scene with sounds that were reflective of the genre but dulled down to appease casual listeners. Critics were harsh to bands such as Stone Temple Pilots who were accused of being grunge imitators. The scene at home was not looking good either. Mudhoney would write in their song “Overblown,” “Everybody loves us. Everybody loves our town… It’s so overblown.” New bands were pouring into Seattle just to have a shot at achieving grunge fame. One of the founders of Sub-Pop stated, “We aren’t signing very many bands from Seattle these days, simply because a lot of the bands here are starting to suck.” The imitators began to be the norm and the old bands either changed their sound or stopped in their tracks. Although grunge would trickle out slightly afterwards, the death of Gen X icon, Kurt Cobain in April 1994 was the physical manifestation of grunge’s demise. The world mourned him like a dead president but grunge went down as another musical moment in American history that was corporatized and killed.

Bibliography

Azerrad, Michael. “Grunge City: The Seattle Scene.” Rolling Stone (blog), April 16, 1992. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/grunge-city-the-seattle-scene-250071/.

Clover, Joshua. “Negative Creep.” In 1989, 1st ed., 73–89. Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. University of California Press, 2009. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnc2m.10.

Grossman, Perry. “Identity Crisis: The Dialectics of Rock, Punk, and Grunge.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 41 (1996): 19–40.

Kobel, Peter. “Smells Like Big Bucks.” Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993. https://ew.com/article/1993/04/02/smells-big-bucks/.

Marin, Rick. “Grunge: A Success Story.” New York Times. 1992, sec. Styles.

Strong, Catherine. Grunge: Music and Memory. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

Walser, Robert. “Grunge.” Grove Music, January 20, 2001. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000049139.

“Heavy Metal.” Grove Music, January 20, 2001. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000049140.

Color Field Painting

Color field painting emerged in the 1950s in America, primarily in New York City and Washington D.C. among artists like Mark Rothko, Helen Frankethaler, and Morris Louis. Color field painting is a form of abstract expressionism, however, while many expressionist painters lent their paintings to symbolism, color field painters avoided this. Instead they preferred geometric motifs and solid color paintings. 

One color field painter, Morris Louis, helped to define the Washington D.C. scene in the late 1950s.

Morris Louis

A photo of Morris Louis
Morris Louis

Biography

Morris Louis was born in Washington D.C. on November 28th 1912. Louis studied at Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts from 1927 to 1932. A few years after graduating he moved to New York City and joined the Federal Art Project. Louis’s early style reflected his time working for this program. His style took a dramatic shift when he returned to Washington D.C. and became friends with color field painter Kenneth Noland. Louis along with Noland were core members of the growing Washington Color School of painting. Louis continued to work as a color-field painter until his death in 1962. His death was due to cancer likely caused by the inhalation of toxic paint fumes. Louis is still highly regarded as one of the most important color-field painters.

One of Louis's paintings, Ambi II
Ambi II (1959)

Style

Morris Louis is best known as a color-field painter but his style stems from multiple different sources. Early in his career Louis’s paintings were generally influenced by his time working in the Federal Art Project. In school he became fascinated with Henri Matisse’s use of color. This interest would come to influence his move to a color-field painter.

One of Louis's early works, Untitled (Two Women) (1940-1941)
One of Louis’s early works, Untitled (Two Women) (1940-1941)
Another one of Louis's early works, Landscape
Another one of Louis’s early works, Landscape

In a general sense, Louis’ main style continues the tradition of abstraction and color-field painting established by the New York School with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. However, Louis’s art was also heavily influenced by another New York artist, Helen Frankenthaler. In the early 50’s, Frankenthaler experimented with Pollock’s technique of painting on the floor, however taking it a step further and letting thin layers of paint seep into the canvas. This new style of “staining” allowed for the texture of the canvas to be viewed as well as the paint. Louis was so amazed by one of her “stained” paintings that he began to adopt the idea in his own work. Most of his work in the 50’s and early 60’s combined both the color-field style of the Washington scene and the “stained” technique developed by Frankenthaler.

A picture of one of Louis's biggest influences, Helen Frankenthaler
One of Louis’s biggest influences, Helen Frankenthaler

Art

Louis liked to group his paintings by ideas. He often had hundreds of paintings in one collection. His most famous collections are his Veil Paintings, his Unfurled Paintings, and his Stripe Paintings. The process to make each painting was highly secretive but it is known that he used his dining room as a studio and did not make use of brushes, rather letting natural forces act on the paintings. Louis’s  paintings were fairly large, some even reaching twenty feet in length.

Loam (1958), part of the "Veils" series
Loam (1958), part of the “Veils” series
Delta Zeta (1960), part of the "Unfurleds" series
Delta Zeta (1960), part of the “Unfurleds” series
Pillar of Risk (1961), part of the "Stripes" series
Pillar of Risk (1961), part of the “Stripes” series

Critical Response

Louis was and still is highly regarded by critics as a tentpole of the color-field movement. Clement Greenberg, one of the most prominent figures in art criticism during the 20th Century, was very impressed with Louis’s work. Greenberg, who was a strong advocate for abstraction and the color field movement, considered Louis’s work to be “in the essence of modernism.” He stated that the paintings of Morris Louis were self-referential and stripped painting down to its most basic feature, flatness. On the other hand, Greenberg also commented that Louis’s “staining” in his later works allowed for the canvas texture to work with the art to use color as “A thing that opens and expands the picture plane.” A later critic, Michael Fried, also praised the paintings’ depth when he reminisced about the first time he saw one of Louis’s Unfurled in a 2014 review of a Morris Louis art show. He stated, “I felt my gaze as before sinking into their richly glowing depths of color, then being brought back continually to their dark-grained surfaces.”

A picture of one of Louis's biggest enthusiasts, art critic Clement Greenberg
One of Louis’s biggest enthusiasts, art critic Clement Greenberg

Bibliography

1981. Clement Greenberg. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822001863321.

Alexander Liberman (American sculptor, painter, photographer, and author, 1912-1999). 1964-1965. Helen Frankenthaler with Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. Photograph. Place: Alexander Liberman Photography Archive, 1925-1998, Getty Research Institute, Accession no. 2000.R.19, http://www.getty.edu/research/. https://library.artstor.org/asset/AGETTYIG_10313546473.

Brookeman, Christopher. “Frankenthaler, Helen.” Grove Art Online, December 27, 2011. https://www.oxfordartonline.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000029718.

Brookeman, Christopher. “Louis, Morris.” Grove Art Online, January 22, 2014. https://www.oxfordartonline.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000052120.

Fried, Michael and Sarah K. Rich. “”Morris Louis: Veils”.” Artforum International, 12, 2014, 266-269, https://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/docview/1638683346?accountid=10427.

Kandel, Eric R. “From Figuration To Color Abstraction.” In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, 132–40. New York, N.Y., United States, New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Leith, Anne. 2004. “Morris Louis.” Modern Painters 17 (1): 129. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=12885172&site=ehost-live.

Louis, Morris. Landscape. In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Columbia University Press, 2016, 133.

Louis, Morris. Untitled (Two Women). 1940-1941. In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Columbia University Press, 2016, 133.

Morris Louis. 1950. In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. Columbia University Press, 2016, 132.

Morris Louis. 1960. Delta Zeta. Paintings. https://library.artstor.org/asset/LARRY_QUALLS_10311282796.

Morris Louis. 1961. Pillar of Risk. Paintings. https://library.artstor.org/asset/LARRY_QUALLS_10310740548.

Morris Louis, American, 1912–1962. 1958, Image: 2000. Loam, Ovearll view of canvas. Painting. Place: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund. https://library.artstor.org/asset/AWSS35953_35953_41452446.

Morris Louis, American. 1959. Ambi II. Painting. Place: The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), The Nancy Lee and Perry Bass Fund. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ANGAIG_10314021242.

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