Artists of the Year

Framed, penned, screened, danced, sung, shot, delivered: City Pages lauds the artistic creations of 1999

 

Michael Tortorello is arts editor ofCity Pages.

 

THE PROTESTER

by Jim Walsh]

 

On December 2 WCCO-TV's 10:00 p.m. newscast led with a story called "Holidazzle Grinches." The Grinches in question were animal-rights activists, who, during the parade, walked down the Nicollet Mall sidewalk with signs and painted furs. By all accounts, it was a peaceful demonstration against the selling of fur at Dayton's. But given the Hometown Team's scolding tone, you'd think that these people had just marched down the aisle of the Basilica of St. Mary's and defecated on the baby Jesus.

But that is not what they did. What they did is practice their First Amendment rights by getting off their butts, taking a stand, and embracing an art form that has been around since the American Revolution. This year, the protester was everywhere: in downtown Seattle and by the Minnehaha Parkway; in front of a Brooklyn art museum and at baseball-stadium rallies; outside movie theaters, Marilyn Manson concerts, abortion clinics, and the governor's office. All fighting to have their voices heard.

And in the case of the "Grinches," they rankled two of Minnesota's most sacred cash cows--Dayton's and Holidazzle. But since the age-old journalistic credo "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted" has, in some circles, deteriorated into "comfort the comfortable," it has been left to the citizenry to ask most of the tough questions. For their efforts, protesters are too often dismissed as trendy and/or flaky. But be honest: If you were in a fight, and you needed someone to get your back, whom would you call? Don and Amelia, or Marv Davidov and Clyde Bellecourt?

 

Jim Walsh is the pop music columnist for theSt. Paul Pioneer Press.

 

CHRIS OFILI

by Richard Flood

Chris Ofili was this year's classic example of the art world's victim of circumstance. Once mayor Rudy Giuliani decided that he wanted to strengthen his conservative constituency in New York State, he needed a target and he found Chris Ofili, a young, first-generation British citizen of Nigerian descent. Ofili's paintings were part of a huge survey of contemporary art from Great Britain called Sensation that was booked at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Giuliani used one of Ofili's paintings to unleash a firestorm that is still raging in the New York courts and seems destined to spread into his senatorial fight against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The painting in question is a depiction of the Madonna with one breast made out of elephant dung, and Giuliani used it as a platform to assert his aggressive piety to churchgoing voters. Never mind that Ofili is a Catholic and that, for him, the painting is devotional, that the use of the dung is about the complexity of interweaving his own African heritage with traditional Eurocentric interpretations of Mary. For a mayor whose regime has set New York's communities of color adrift and racked up one of that city's worst records of police brutality against African Americans in memory, Ofili was disposable. That Ofili is an important artist who believes that his blackness needs to be expressed in his art is of no importance to politicians like Giuliani, whose need to win at all costs continues to foster minority exclusion while paving the road to prejudicial populism.

For sustaining Giuliani's attack with dignity and, more important, for being a necessary creative force, Chris Ofili is my choice for artist of the year.

 

Richard Flood is chief curator at Walker Art Center.

 

ELLEN WILLIS

by Keith Harris

Across our purportedly boundless political spectrum there are, in fact, few pigeonholes officially designated for culture critics. I count, in fact, three. You can splash into a stream of market-driven smugness that mistakes cynicism for irony. You can slump into a weary realism that views any stance other than status-quo compromise as pie-eyed idealism. Or you can rebel against a supposed "conventional wisdom" few people in fact endorse, touting a knee-jerk "provocative" stance as an end in itself. Not much room in that club for an independent voice powered by a nimble brain. Maybe that's why Ellen Willis's byline is so scarce these days.

Once a high-profile paragon of alternative journalism, Willis now teaches at NYU. She's just the latest of our public intellectuals to be cordoned off in academia, for reasons outlined in her essay "Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity." When her former home base the Village Voice abandoned its groundbreaking commitment to the exploratory essay in favor of a bland gruel of "editor-driven and idea-free journalism," Willis laments, it degenerated "from an editorial vision seeking an audience to a marketing vehicle seeking a formula." And so Willis headed back to school.

That essay is one of the six concise volleys launched in Don't Think, Smile!, Willis's terse, triumphant return to the public arena. If you'd vowed to never think again about such hoary public controversies as The Bell Curve or Bill and Monica or (oh, no! not) O.J., your resolution came one polemic too soon. Willis's "Decade of Denial" pinpoints how the public debate over such symbolic controversies has consistently missed the point because of stringent limitations on the political imagination. This way of controlling discourse reminds her of those smug urban signs that sneer, "Don't even think about parking here." The injunction not to think (or talk) about anything is offensive to Willis--to both her Marcusian heritage and her working-class roots. And, she states calmly but firmly, it should offend you, too.

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