The Paranoid Surrealism of Wall Street Art

True connoisseurs of New York City graffiti, guerrilla art, unsanctioned theater, and all the other forms of illegal public art often neglect what is certainly the most long-lived and even perversely iconic work in this genre: the Bull of  Wall St., situated in Bowling Green Park near the stock exchange. This statue is called Charging Bull and it is by Arturo di Modica. Di Modica spent 360,000$ of his own money to forge and illegally deposit the monumental sculpture under a Christmas tree  in front of the stock exchange, on the night of December 15th, 1989.

The city initially planned to remove the monstrosity,  but public outcry protected it for posterity. That same year on March 15th, 1989, the same public outcry tore down Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from its place by Foley Federal Plaza, dismembering the post-minimalist artwork. A number of people had complained about the way Serra’s artwork acted as an obstacle to passage, sight and convenience, unconvinced by the art historical argument that it was doing this on purpose. Locals discussed the very existence of Tilted Arc as “insane,” prompting a psychiatrist to testify in its’ favor. Tilted Arc fell, but Charging Bull remained. We can thus readily rule out the consistent love of the New York people for public art as the cause of the survival of Charging Bull.  

Cynics might naturally assumed that the Charging Bull was a provocation: a literal Golden Calf to taunt Wall St. with its pursuit of false idols in the middle of holiday season.  Not so! Di Modica claims he created it to assert the “strength and power of the American people,” and deposited it as a Christmas gift to New York City, handing out fliers to the public the next day.

After gifting it to the people of NYC, Di Modica retained the rights to the sculpture, and has previously tried to sell them, on the condition that the bull remain in its’ current location. He has also sold what wikipedia describes as a “younger” and “stronger” version of Charging Bull to Shanghai.

While Di Modica is evidently a Michelangelo of horrible business art, the ideal artist that Jeff Koons has always aspired to become, always falling short, very little is known about the man behind Charging Bull.   Except for a few interviews, there are no monographs of Di Modica, and while the statue’s webpage unironically calls it “the most famous work of sculpture anywhere” very little has been written to explain the sort of person who would do such a thing to a city.

What is known, is that Charging Bull is beloved. A 2002 Washington Post article writes “People on The Street [sic.] say you’ve got to rub the nose, horns and testicles of the bull for good luck”, and visiting the Bull today will readily reinforce the popularity of this view as those parts always gleam, having been polished by a steady stream of pilgrims.

The symbolism of Charging Bull would be less obscene, had either Di Modica or the City of New York, or Wall St. had the good sense to commission a bear to stand beside the bull. Then the implication would be different, it would be something like “ha ha, get it? Bear and Bull because of Bear and Bull markets? The sculptures are reifying concepts for a laugh!” rather than “Worship me, and I shall grant you wealth beyond measure!”, which is how I would approximate the current message of the sculpture.

Standing alone, without the bad-luck Bear, the Bull is idolatrous. People rub it because  they hope to attract a bit of the wealth and fortune that the idol represents. It stands by Wall St. for the same reason. It is literally, not metaphorically, an idol of a bull promising wealth and fortune to supplicants, made out of expensive metals, and placed in the economic center of the city. It is not making a reference to the Golden Calf, it just is one!

The bull’s solitude turns the absent bear into a devil, lurking in poverty and darkness opposite the gilded bull.  The sculpture, its guerrilla origins, its perverse message, and its absent, lurking twin are all deeply, unconsciously surrealist, in the vein of Salvador Dali’s notion of “paranoid-critical method”.

Dali developed the “paranoid-critical method” long before he was expelled from Surrealism as a traitor to their Revolutionary cause. Nevertheless, his complex ideological shift from a member of an unambiguously communist movement to a successful, self-described business artist is a helpful framework when discussing the aberrant art of Wall St.

Dali’s paranoid-critical method was his contribution to the Surrealist attempt to confront the object, and especially the art object, with the convoluted and irrational subjectivity of the artist or spectator. Dali described it as the “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena”, alluding to the near-universal experience of finding meaningful shapes in the grain of wood or in clouds. Dali represent such experiences as a model for the radical expansion of artistic vision to encompass irrational but true knowledge, shattering the conceptual consistency of the artwork, and opening it to new and surprising meanings.

If clouds or wood grain accidentally prompt the paranoid-critical method, Dali sought to prompt it purposefully. He was not alone in pursuing such experiments with unconscious meaning within Surrealism: for instance, Max Ernst’s practice of “frottage” relied on a very similar principle. Ernst would dip crumpled cloth in paint, and apply it to canvas, preserving the chaotic patterns that resulted and developing them into figurative images within the work. Within surrealism, such experiments were motivated by a desire to destabilize conventional frames of mind and experience. The surrealists didn’t just want to “Épater la bourgeoisie,”they wanted to to fundamentally alter normative perception, irrevocably changing society through their art.

However, if the surrealists around both Andre Breton and George Bataille  largely agreed on the revolutionary nature of this project, and sometimes even on its affinity with the Soviet experiment, Dali’s expulsion from the movement and declared affinity for capitalism created an interesting dilemma. If surrealist works of art could still prompt the paranoid-critical expansion of irrational but true meaning, even when divorced from a revolutionary project, and explicitly married to a capitalist project, what did this really say about the unconscious?  After all, the basis for the surrealist expectation of causing a revolution through art was their assumption that the unconscious was already on “their” side: on the side of the revolution, artistic, sexual or political.

Drift around Wall St.  Treat it as a surrealist exhibit. It has numerous works that can pass muster as surrealist. By a bus station, there is a massive metallic and vaguely cubist guitar embedded in the pavement.  Some giant Picasso dropped it, heedless of the human beings scurrying for public transit, a few feet over and it would have crushed them, pulverizing human bones under its’ cyclopean weight. What other meaning could it have? Could one really read it naively, as a celebration of music, or an out-of-place Picasso reference?

Across the street, there is an olive tree cast in opaque white plastic. It isn’t merely dead, it is the tree of death, a tree killed and transformed the medium that most signifies cold distance and inhuman materiality. The embodiment of the transformation of a vital beautiful thing into something dead and mass-produced. And yet, the over-long artist statement tries to convince you that the work represents vitality and a beautiful moment in time captured for your enjoyment. That this embodiment of death is supposed to be a celebration of life. Is anyone fooled? Does anyone overlook how sinister this work appears?

Search Wall St. and around Wall St. Metal containers crushed into meager, ruptured pancakes and strung together. Grotesque whitish mushrooms bursting from the middle of a square. Massive murals celebrating global mobility, set behind glass in a corporate lobby.

Wall St. is packed with art, all of it intended, by patron and artist alike as a positive symbol of something universal, a celebration of life, a captured moment in time, a testament to the generosity of the corporation and the virtuosity of the artist, and each and every one silently screams something disturbing.

The motifs of death, wealth and horror are too obvious to be ignored, much the way the iconic Raging Bull obviously reproduces the Old Testament idol without referencing it. That is what is so perverse about Wall St. art works: they don’t prompt the paranoid-critical intentionally, they embody the surreal, unconscionable, and transgressive meanings they contain accidentally, like clouds or Dali’s wood-grain.

If taken as unintentionally surrealist, the art of Wall St. testifies to a core of surrealism often neglected by its’ scholars: its’ affinity for the cultic, idolatrous and occult, its’ desire to harness art and the unconscious as species of magic, and the realization and perhaps even terrible success of their venture in the art of Wall St. and especially in Raging Bull.  

Tarantino’s Unnoticed Trilogy

Quentin Tarantino has just completed a trilogy and no one seems to have noticed. Inglorious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), and The Hateful Eight (2015) all examine the same issue: how does a society designate which human bodies are open to the obscene, sadistic and guiltless spectacle of violence we all seem to desire, and which aren’t? How do we decide whom it is acceptable to kill or torture, or to fantasize about killing and torturing? Where does that line between the tragic and the lurid lie, when it comes to spectacles of violence?

Each film represents a further development of the prior film’s insight into this question. Each film adds a new dimension to the debate that the trilogy embodies and plays out. Approaching them as separate entities warps their structural logic and effaces crucial links and parallels.

Inglorious Basterds tackles the issue directly. The film is a trap for the audience, letting us cheer for the murder and eradication of Nazis, before turning a mirror to our own sadistic glee.  The Nazi has long and understandably served as the irredeemable villain in movies, cartoons, comics and games. For instance, Indiana Jones has killed an impressive number of human beings through the three original films, which would be jarringly out of character for the happy-go-lucky archeologist, if most of them were not Nazis, whose humanity is essentially and implicitly compromised by their participation in the evil Nazi apocalyptic project. This logic is consistent in other media: aside from Inglorious Basterds and Schindler’s List (1993), and arguably The Night Porter (1973)  I struggle to think of a single example of Nazis humanized.

It is always ok, to do anything to a Nazi. You are never allowed to kill a child, unless the child is baby Hitler. This is  Tarantino’s point of entry into his trilogy’s investigation of violence, and especially socially endorsed violence.

Tarantino subverts the trope of the irredeemably evil Nazi, not the least through the complex and charismatic portrayal of the “Jew Hunter”, down to his dehumanizing branding with a swastika at the film’s conclusion, questioning whether the mechanism that allows us to readily dehumanize the Nazi into a convenient object for our cruellest violent fantasies, is not the very same mechanism that that Nazis exploited to dehumanize and exterminate Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and the disabled.

In three crucial scenes, Tarantino makes us recoil from the abject suffering of people, while winking at us to enjoy the show, for the tortured are just Nazis: and don’t you want to kill Nazis?

First, the opening scene of the ambush, where a captured german soldier is allowed to speak and then brutally beaten to death and scalped, readily confronts us with a human being, and with the spectacle of his torture and death, encouraging us to take pleasure in the whole situation. People cheered the beating death in the theater where I watched the film, back in 2009.

Second, in the scene in the cafe, several German soldiers are humanized and portrayed as innocent people eager to escape the war and return to their lives and families. They drink, laugh and celebrate the birth of one of the soldier’s sons and play a party game. This scene is mirrored and prepared by the elaborate introduction of the “basterds”, whose identities and exploits define them as major characters. Of course, at the conclusion of the scene all of them die, both the basterds and the sympathetic Germans. Once again, Tarantino makes it clear that there is no reason to dehumanize or violate these particular Nazis, and  then violates them for our pleasure anyway,  while pointedly reminding us that everyone who dies in the cafe is a human being with hopes and dreams.

The most crucial scene comes at the film’s climax, where the auditorium of Nazis watching a film about a Nazi war hero murdering American soldiers by the dozen, mirrors our own reaction back at us. This is most effective in a theater, where the same excited audience members that cheered a German being beaten to death with a baseball bat and then scalped, sobered slightly at an identical image of a Nazi audience watching a film and cheering the gratuitous murder of Americans.

At the conclusion of the film, the Nazis are burned alive and machine-gunned in an enclosed space. For some, myself included, the scene made clear and uncomfortable allusions to the Holocaust, and to the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. Basterds purposefully stages an effect one only normally feels when watching a poor staging of the Merchant of Venice: a human being is tortured and killed, but we are supposed to feel glad about it because the protagonists are happy, and the suffering dead are “bad guys” anyhow.

Inglorious Basterds viscerally and painfully makes a parallel between the way the Nazis dehumanized and murdered Jews and the way our cinematic and ludic fantasies dehumanize and simulate the murder of Nazis.

For better or worse, we too readily designate a class of human bodies as open to violence. Our reasons just seem better: scalp them, burn them along with their spouses–everything is permissible, for they are Nazis!

Django Unchained radically expands the focus of the discussion, implicating the apparently universal readiness to designate some bodies for violence that Basterds explored, in broader social issues, as embodied in American slavery. Once again, the actual plot of Django is secondary to its clinical examination of violence. Tarantino makes an unmistakable formal choice departing from the genre of the cowboy action movie. Django’s gunslinging and all scenes of shoot-outs are done in an exaggeratedly violent style: gunfighters take cover behind the corpses of the fallen and each bullet sends meat flying, bodies are torn apart and rent to pieces. However,  this violence, exaggerated and cinematic as can be, pales near all the incidents of mundane, off-camera violence trivially mentioned in the film.

As an action movie, Django intentionally falters and pales when  it encounters the existential but rote horror of American slavery. The gunfire and perforated human bodies are tame next to the unspeakable imagery of the hotbox and the mandingo fight.  Tarantino’s special effects cannot top the horror of normal, day-to-day life in the Antebellum South of his depiction.

When a human being is being fed alive to dogs off-camera, when a human being is forced to murder another with his hands and a hammer and rewarded with a half-empty bottle of bourbon, when Django’s beloved is punished by being put in a buried and hot metal box for hours, and finally, in Samuel Jackson’s horrific monologue as Stephen, the self-effacing collaborator, when he aptly represents to Django that all the worst and most hideous punishments imagined for him by the vengeful slave owners do not even come close to the mundane fate met by each and every man sent to the Le Quint Dickey mining company, all point to the same central, crucial insight: the most shocking kind of violence is the day-to-day kind.

The vilest evils and horrors that a special effects lab, or a cinematic spectacle can conjure, will never match the villainy of a mid-ranking overseer on any slave plantation in any state of the Confederacy. The spectacle of flying blood and viscera doesn’t really compare to the normal operations of the institutional violence of slavery.

The death of Dr. King Schultz, Django’s ally purposefully accentuates the film’s central message: that “normative”, mundane violence is far more sinister and significant than mere blood and guts. Although Schultz and Django have successfully tricked Candie, and can make their escape with Django’s beloved, Schultz sabotages their enterprise and gets himself killed by refusing to shake Candie’s hand, to seal their deal.

Schultz’ gesture explicitly refuses to normalize Candie’s monstrousness and the monstrousness of the Antebellum South by acknowledging him as a fellow human being through the universal social ritual of the handshake. In so doing, Schultz forces Candie to make the violation hedging his existence apparent, bringing it to the surface in a wave of the extreme violence that follows, enveloping the scene until almost everyone is dead, spilling out like a punctured boil onto the opulence of Candie’s manor house.

Within the film, the slaver is a comparable body to the Nazi, as a figure whose actions have removed them from human mercy, and the film takes a similarly lurid glee in violating the bodies of Candie and his family and servants, but the shocks of normal, mundane violation punctuating the film, purposefully overshadow the bloody gunfights.

If Basterds showed a profound and troubling parallel between the logic of dehumanization that fostered the Holocaust, and our own affinity for violent spectacle and need for a body to subject it to, Django removes the state of exception framing the entire discourse of WWII and Nazism, shifting emphasis to the normative and institutional, rather than exceptional horror of slavery. Django shows that the normalized, justified fantasies of violence that both films explore are far more troubling and dangerous than spectacular gunfights or conflagratory wars, and that our socially acceptable desires to see the “right” kind of  body violated and debased, are far more insidious than some charismatic villain, or even the most oppressive institution.

Hateful Eight completes the trilogy, tying off the major motifs of both films and taking a particular delight in subverting the expectations of its’ audience. The films’ opening vastness and cinematic grandeur precedes the immediate compression of the entire space of the American West within the film to the closed confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery in a blinding blizzard. This gesture directly claims the Haberdashery as a synecdoche for America: a condensed and symbolic representation of the struggle for the American soul after the Civil war, mediated through a debate between the major characters about whose body should be violated now? Who deserves violence? Someone must, after all.

The scene of the protagonists’ desperately marking out a roped path to the outhouse through a blizzard is a crucial metaphor: when the stakes are high, it is the outhouse, the lurid and the base, that takes priority over the beautiful and uplifting. In a blizzard, no one is going to map a route to a scenic view, and Tarantino suggests that we are in a similar crisis and that his visceral films are just such a lifeline.

Hateful Eight is a lurid, base and deeply theatrical film, restrained to dialogue between a small group of characters who serve clearly symbolic roles at first, and subvert them later: the Confederate bandit with a score to settle, and the Union war hero with a personal letter from Lincoln,  the protagonist from every cowboy movie and the chained up woman he keeps beating up, the Mexican bandit and the English hangman. Tarantino introduces stock characters only to twist them inside out, echoing his prior movies.

In one of the most powerful scenes, Tarantino condenses and restates the problematics of both Basterds and Django, when Samuel Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, the Union war hero and primary protagonist, tells a confederate ex-general and another guest of the Haberdashery about the fate of his lost son, who once tried to kill Warren, and whom Warren stripped, tortured, raped, and murdered.  In this jarring and central account, Tarantino explicitly asks us to consider the limit of our own desire and glee for the violation of “bad guys” : be they Nazis, slave owners, confederates, or any other species of humans that we can justifiably call “human scum”.

As the confrontation between the characters escalates, Tarantino makes a point of brutalizing his audience with excesses of violence that undermine the narrative logics that they are supposed to represent: a subtle poisoning is depicted through fountains of blood, a dramatic moment of reconnection between the female protagonist and her brother is cut short by his face exploding to a bullet wound mid-sentence.  Everything that the film sets up for a meaningful point of connection for the audience, is crudely undercut, violated or cast aside, with characters provided with emotional depth only to be casually murdered, as in the cafe scene in Basterds. 

The final scene of Hateful Eight is one of the most piercing and critical in the history of recent American cinema. At the conclusion of the violent confrontations, the sole survivors are Major Marquis Warren, the black Union hero, who has been shot in the genitals and is bleeding to death, Chris Mannix, sheriff and ex-member of a notorious band of Confederate reavers, fatally injured in the leg and stomach, and Daisy Domergue, the woman and outlaw, sentenced to death and responsible for much of the violence.  Up to the final scene, each moment of the film is depicted in detail, and if the characters brew coffee, or shut the door, the action is shown on film and often narrated. Here, the exact moment that the dying and prone Mannix and Warren sentence Domergue to death, the film cuts instantly to her, already bound with a hanging rope, as if by the will of the American people themselves, embodied as they are in the dying men; and Mannix and Warren lynch her, pulling on the rope from their supine positions on their deathbeds.

The film ends with them, a castrated, dying black man from the North and a hobbled, dying white Southerner, tearfully reading a letter from Lincoln that they both know to be a forgery, over the lynched corpse of a strong woman.  Thus is National unity achieved and America restored.

This is Tarantino’s trilogy: a brutal unflinching examination of the way we culturally justify, normalize and internalize an unspeakable excess of violence, how we define the bodies we are allowed to torture and kill, how we flinch at gore on the screen but shrug at “enhanced interrogation”, and the vital role of such systemic violations in the forging of national unity and identity, here and elsewhere.

By entangling the figures of the Nazi and the Slaver, and the contexts of the Holocaust and American slavery and the Civil War, Tarantino makes a spectacle of theatrical violence only intended to distract and subvert the audience, exposing the far more insidious role of socially acceptable, and even self-righteous sadisms, ever more relevant in our troublesome times where people tweet beheadings and television shows make a conscientious case for torture.

Bern Everything

Everything is finished. The Republican party establishment has convinced itself that Trump isn’t what they all feared. They have shrugged, figuring that Cruz is just as bad. That Trump’s Mexico wall is not much worse than Cruz’s return to the gold standard, and may even be less economically catastrophic.  The Republicans aren’t fools, after all.

Sure, voting for Trump means giving up the Republican claim to a moral high ground, maybe even their principles.  But those were always shaky, weren’t they? Pragmatism always wins,  it is the true form of bipartisanship, red in tooth and claw.

Kasich remains the unrecognizable candidate and Trump’s daily villainies make him the darling of the media and public. Cruz, we learn from the former House Majority leader Boehner, is “Lucifer in the flesh”, but with none of the namesake’s charisma. All this is a truism.

The real trouble is with the other party, for the Democrats are blindly repeating the Republicans’ mistake. All conventional Republican wisdom, and many esteemed and critical scholars of the circus, 538 included, once declared Trump unelectable against the establishment candidates.  They have been proven wrong.

Bush’s pragmatic counterweight to Trump pulled him under, drowning him in waters perpetually muddied by Trump’s cunning with tweets and sound bites. Trump is brilliant at generating spectacles: speaking words that seem meaningful but aren’t, taking shallow stabs that leave gangrenous wounds. No one remembers what, if anything, Bush was wrong about during the debates, but everyone remembers Trump’s refrain: “Bush is a mess” and “Bush is a waste”.

Everything Trump says lacks meaning on purpose: it is a void left for the spectator to fill with whatever they believe to be true. This makes Trump impossible to counter with conventional discourse. Even if a Trump supporter disagrees with any or all of his specific plans, a common refrain in Trump-supporter discourse is that Trump himself doesn’t agree with these plans either, only making grand claims to get elected. A true Schrodinger’s candidate, Trump can represent anything to anyone.

Certainly, Trump is hated. At the moment, 61% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of him, according to the Huffpost Pollster. However, Hillary Clinton isn’t doing much better, with 55% unfavorable.

Worse, Clinton has nothing to counteract Trump. Every single poisonous lie and shallow claim that killed the once proud Bush candidacy, will hurt Clinton far more. Bush didn’t have any real scandals, congressional hearings and FBI investigations of his own. If Clinton doesn’t falter immediately upon entering the general election against Trump; if  the public listens to her cautious whispers, over Trump’s shouting; if Trump doesn’t define every part of the debate by grandstanding when he isn’t accusing Clinton of unspeakable crimes; if all goes well for Hillary Clinton, then still, all it will take is a significant leak, a major news story about Clinton being investigated, or a Republican calling in a favor in the FBI on the eve of November, and Hillary’s campaign is doomed. Trump will be president.

Hillary polls neck in neck with Trump, and the narrative that moderate Republicans are about to swing her way is crumbling, for she is far more hated among the Republicans that Trump is among Democrats. Democrats mock and despise Trump, but they do not take him seriously, whereas Republicans see Hillary as an implacable enemy of everything they stand for. Come November, the Republicans will be seething with love and hate, but the Democrats will be apathetic, and that is how elections are lost.

Paradoxically, and despite all conventional wisdom, Bernie Sanders is the pragmatic choice for liberals in this election. Sanders answers the same populist anxieties as Trump, but appeals to an idealistic and unrealistic but infinitely more appealing set of answers than Trump. This is why Sanders polls about 20 points ahead of Trump in numerous hypotheticals. Sanders is Trump’s mirror image, and just like Trump, he is immune to attacks about his character and beliefs. Much like the real estate broker, the senator somehow appears as a Washington outsider, somehow runs a successful campaign while declaring himself a socialist and while making claims that terrify as many people as they thrill. Both Trump and Sanders galvanize the same body of blue collar, disenfranchised workers: one with racism, one with class rage.

In a general election, Sanders will likely defeat Trump simply by virtue of appearing like the senatorial, wisened and ultimately good tree-hugger, next to the debauched and orange fatcat calling for walls and camps.  Conversely, Clinton cannot help but appear as the distant, cold Washington bureaucrat that Trump will paint her as, while the questionable investigations around her server will provide the perfect ammunition for Trump’s particular brand of vague and poisonous accusation.

In short,  by allowing themselves to be convinced that Hillary Clinton is the pragmatic choice for victory, the Democratic establishment has repeated the mistake made by the Republican party. The Democrats have sacrificed much to avoid Bernie, more than the Republicans have sacrificed to avoid Trump. The Clinton campaign has been allowed outrage upon outrage, down to where we still don’t quite know who won Brooklyn and likely never will. The Democrats have sacrificed much to ensure national victory, first and foremost, Sanders himself. Ironically, their very willingness to sacrifice Bernie Sanders on the altar of pragmatism have doomed the party’s chances in November. Just as the Republican, establishment candidates crumbled when they were supposed to triumph. Hillary will crumble. Bernie has fallen. Bern it all down.