Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Leon casino,

To the rest of the world the word American must sound a bit disingenuous. The application of a blanket term to what we regard as a country and many regard as a mindset takes us further from equality- both within our own culture and to the rest of the world. Identity politics are a big distraction, and for now right-wing politics use the word American as their own personal bludgeon. I may not want their America, but I do want the word back.

Montrose wants it back for their Pride Parade, as if the Stonewall riots weren’t American. The black cowboys who marched through downtown on Juneteenth want the word American back, as if the Buffalo Soldiers weren’t American. First generation immigrants who rallied at Guadalupe Park on May 5th want la palabra too. As if their sons and daughters in the military aren’t American.

In a year ripe for change, in the middle of a hot summer, in a city in transition, in the depths of the reddest red state, we look for ways to call ourselves American. Barreling through a recession without a dip in housing prices or a drop in average speed on the freeways it is still impossible to ignore the ugliness on the horizon. America doesn’t mean relentless consumption and callous wastefulness; it only meant that to the 20th century. Energy is our business here in Houston, and without an evolution we may be looking to Copenhagen or London for our center of power, in more ways than one.

Two Houston curators are now stepping into the fray with timely shows that reexamine Americana without Modernism. It’s a curate-off! The Old, Weird America and Neo-Hoodoo delve into the collective past that we learn as children and recycle as adults. Today, for the first time in my life, an America without a political party may emerge- and these exhibits play on our collective education and culture with a knowing hand. Whether your last name is Cruz, Uzokwe, Naseer, Fitzgerald or Butler digging up the messy innards of American life is not as easy as describing our differences or how we have been horrible towards each other.

The integrated, interwoven fabric of American society has at its core a sense of entitlement straight from English law, but the roots of American society are West African and Scotch-Irish. Two peoples oppressed by the iron grip of the British Empire defined the temperament, cuisine and folklore of an emergent American culture, coming together three centuries later as rock and roll. As peoples from across the globe have emigrated from their homes to America they adopted the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality so thoroughly, it was thought that the great melting pot knew no bounds.

Our past century of hate and destruction that began and ended with Modernism may now relent; we may be free from cruel logic. We have no illusions of parity and no rules to rail against. At the Contemporary Arts Museum (1000 Montrose Blvd), The Old, Weird America teases folkloric implications out of contemporary, market-driven artwork. The results are supremely nostalgic, and even if their presence here validates the backroom manipulation that oppresses the American people their touching inclusion in an art museum reminds us all of how we do contribute to the moneyed class’ playthings. The ironies of post-modern artwork allow for the realities of America’s dirty past bleeding through even if they are contained in sanctified sarcophagi. Curator Toby Kamps has truly tried to create something worthwhile out of the glad-handing art industry.

At the Menil Collection (1000 Alabama) another curator new to town, Franklin Sirmins, tries his hand at divinizing American history with Neo-Hoodoo. Tailored more toward African religious themes, the artists included in HooDoo are hopelessly entwined with other cultures and a sense of abandonment in the same way that all Americans struggle. Even if hackneyed trite like Jean-Michel Basquiat makes it into the mix, there is more than enough careerists like William Cordova to provide the show with a revenue stream and critical acclaim. Reaching out to Latin American artists may give the curator reason to believe he is thinking differently than The Old, Weird America, but it simply points of Kamps deficiencies in including Hispanics in America’s “old, weird” period. The adaptations of Central American and Caribbean cultures to scarce materials may be attributable to their country of origin without a historical compass, but their struggles mirror those of poor Americans as well as new immigrants across the globe. Treating an ethnicity as particular and unique is a typical folly in our divisive times, as well is the commoditization of folk rituals and themes once they are mimicked by an artist with a higher education.

Both shows rely on illustrative work that narrates rather than demonstrates, but in all they are a good reflection of why it may be our heritage on the Left to be American too. As the artworld spirals into obsolescence it is first-rate to see the institutions of the 20th century point our way out of the degrading elitism of art and toward our own forgotten past.

-Buffalo Sean


At July 18, 2008 5:26 PM , Blogger sand said...

"old weird america" "old weird period" "our diverse time" "elitism of art"

It was interesting to read "Buffalo Sean's" limited understanding of race, culture and time. The exhibition NeoHooDoo at the Menil was indeed curated by Franklin Sirmans who has been curating and with that institution for "some time now."
There is nothing diverse in "our" time except the entitled privelage that ignorant writers like Buffalo Sean contribute to the internet. It could seem funny at first but then to read his lazy description of an exhibition with "old weird" is probably the best presentation of how pathetic Houston's art writers/bloggers/critics/educators have dumbed themsleves down. This lack of criticality is due to a desire to write without being informed. If writers/critics would only take the time to consider the "other" then they might just make it through the decade without repeating their self-entitled and racist beliefs that are so well inbeded in the fabric of this country.

At July 24, 2008 12:21 PM , Blogger b.s. said...

Sand, you can go fuck yourself. Go write something. Go make something. Spend your time doing something other than spreading hackneyed criticism on websites. Do you think I'm not critical? Are you not listening? I've got something to say and that's more than I can say for you.

In artworld terms two years in town is still "new", it is a slowly crawling culture that sets wheels in motion years before anyone in the public sees the results.

Who's this other? Is it you? For me the other is anyone else. Would you agree with me on that? I do not identify as white, you son-of-a-bitch, I'm Irish. Because I say that Scotch-Irish and African-American culture are the backbone of Americana, that makes me racist? You are a fucking imbecile.

You also spelled 'embedded' wrong.


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