On 9 October 1990, President George H.W. Bush held a news conference about Iraqi-occupied Kuwait as the US was building an international coalition to liberate the emirate. He said: “I am very much concerned, not just about the physical dismantling but about some of the tales of brutality. It’s just unbelievable, some of the things. I mean, people on a dialysis machine cut off; babies heaved out of incubators and the incubators sent to Baghdad … It’s sickening.”
What’s sickening is that this was fake news, broadcast by the president at a time when there was plenty of real information coming out of Kuwait. Iraq had invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, and the following day Kuwaitis living in the US hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, in a $12–million deal, the biggest contract in the history of public relations at the time. The firm settled on a strategy of publicising atrocities being committed by Iraqi troops in Kuwait. Here was born the great incubator lie — a story claiming that Iraqi soldiers ransacked Al-Adan hospital, ripped sick and premature babies from incubators and left them on the tiled floor to die before shipping the incubators off to Baghdad. The story was an “eyewitness account” made public by a tearful 15-year old girl named only as Niyirah, who said she had worked as a volunteer in the hospital maternity ward. The tale was graphically told to Congress in November 1990 before it passed a crucial vote to send US troops to liberate Kuwait.
The move towards the First Gulf War was motivated by a blatant lie. Hill & Knowlton had coached the girl to tell her story without revealing that Niyirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, Saud Nasir al-Sabah and that she had not been in Kuwait during the invasion. Nurses who lived in accommodation opposite Al-Adan hospital told reporters they had never seen the girl before her public appearance. It took months for the truth to emerge, and Bush mentioned the incubator incident in five of his speeches. Seven senators also referred to it in speeches backing the pro-war resolution. The problem with fake news is not just its fakeness, but that it distorts and discredits real and essential information, especially regarding atrocities. It also undermines the credibility of actions based upon it. Read more »
A statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John MacDonald, has become the latest lump of kitsch concrete to hit the ground after protesters pulled it from a plinth in Montreal and cheered as the head broke off and bounced across the pavement. (MacDonald was linked to vicious policies that killed and displaced thousands of indigenous people in the late 19th century. His system forcibly removed at least 150,000 children from their homes and sent them to often abusive state boarding schools). That’s as good a reason as any to add this to the list of monuments being dethroned around the world.
Another good reason is that phrase “lump of kitsch.” Jonathan Jones recently lamented in The Guardian that the falling statues were being followed by a sterile conversation about who does and doesn’t “deserve” a statue. “This is because all statues are dumb. They cannot represent big or complex themes. All they can do is function as crude symbols. They reduce history to celebrity culture. So many Victorian statues survive in our cities because 19th-century historians believed ‘great men’ and their leadership created history,” Johnson wrote, adding that every dumbass general who ever won an obscure skirmish had a statue somewhere across the British empire. No heroic soldier ever did.
So, what a lineup of dumb statues one could craft from that display of Trump royalty at the recent Republican National Convention. The “great man” being honoured this time was “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” as Charlie Kirk, founder of the anti-liberal Turning Point USA, described the president. This, wrote The Washington Post, was “an image in keeping with painter John McNaughton’s kitsch paintings of Trump.” Read more »
He was a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1954 when two white men lynched him to death for whistling at a white woman. That in itself, sadly, wasn’t so unusual. Thousands of African Americans were lynched to death during the first half of the 20th century. What was different about this particular lynching was his mother’s response.
Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago instead of getting a quick burial in Mississippi. She then insisted upon an open-casket funeral so the world could see what they had done to her boy. The black press covered the funeral as upwards of 50,000 black mourners passed by the coffin. Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender newspaper published photos of his body, mutilated almost beyond recognition. Afterwards, mainstream (white) national publications also ran the pictures and covered the story in depth, and Emmett Till entered the larger white consciousness as a martyr of racial violence.
Needless to say, there have been countless black (and Latinx and Indigenous and Asian) victims of racial violence in America over the last four centuries. How many black people have been killed or maimed by whites for, essentially, being black? The number is impossible to know. As an American historian, I suspect that tens of thousands would be an underestimate. When considering the ravages of slavery and decades of subsequent lynch violence, the number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet prior to Emmett Till, almost none of them ever entered white consciousness as martyrs. Till became the first, the token black, the only one from among the countless thousands who most white people ever learned about in school or could cite by name. That slavery and Jim Crow repression wrought horrible violence was no secret. But upon whom, specifically?
In the 1960s, Till was joined in this sad canon only by Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers (briefly), and Malcolm X (only to a minority of whites). However, with the death of King in 1968, white consciousness considered the civil rights era over, largely went into hiding on the issue of race, and stopped acknowledging new black martyrs of white racial violence.
In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde. In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we expect from contemporary culture. There is nothing much to dare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking' is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.
But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.
In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.
In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it's the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?
They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we've seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy's Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.
When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains. It's as if Mary Shelley's Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher's gaze, they've drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they've been cast in bronze and are now ‘art'. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don't do ‘meaningful', though they do do irritating particularly well.