Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I would like to challenge your preconceptions here.  We all have them don’t we?  We are trained to see and understand things a certain way and should those ideas be wrong it is hard to undo them.  When a society changes, when there is a paradigm shift in a society  then those in power go to great lengths to keep from losing the power to the new voice, to the whisper of hope.

We have seen it in Egypt and Libya and now, because with the help of technology people have a power to speak up like never before.  To keep tabs. 

Here are two important human rights issues that I would like for you to be aware of as well because they are happening in the art world now, simultaneously, and more importantly because you will want to keep an eye on the canary even if you don't smell  danger in the air. Artists and painters have always forged out ahead and they alert us to that which we were previously unaware.  Artists fill the role in our society that the shamans did in ancient tribal societies.  They’re the ones who go out and explore the abyss and come back with wisdom and guidance and clues for the rest to follow.  How should we treat our wise men? 

Aside from a few forgers I cannot recall any artist being “taken” for taxes in our time.  Financial trouble came to Rembrandt and even Munch back in the day but in our time not even Damien Hirsch’s empire is questioned.  Have you heard of anything like this happening in the art world in the past 50 years?  It has happened to resellers of the art but to the artist?  I do not know of any.   Now we have two cases occurring simultaneously with curious connections.

Both of these cases are currently happening.  One in China involving the artist Ai Weiwei, and the other in Norway involving the painter Odd Nerdrum.  Do you have preconceptions of them already? 
Ask yourself.  Think about it.

Do you believe that those who are clearly gifted should be treated any more or less compassionately than anybody else?

There are long histories behind these cases which I will not go into here, other than to point out some interesting observations that pertain to the comparison of the cases at hand here.

We all know about the record of human rights violations that China has, right?  The US held trade sanctions against China for 40 years because of what China did in Tibet.  We have the preconceived notion that it is dangerous for an artist to speak out against the power of the state.  Over the years we know that many writers and poets and artists have disappeared, Tienamen Square, child labor and still China continues to be the leading executioner of its own people in the world.  Green Peace reports that there are 500,000 people incarcerated in China without having been charged.  

The imprisoned dissident writer Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel peace prize in 2010. There had been strong words between Chinese and Norwegian officials over the award and China was clearly not happy with the committee’s decision to award Xiobo.  The Nobel prize, as you know was set up to be a non political award to those who help humanity.  The committee is chosen by the Norwegian parliament and consists entirely of ex-parliament members.

I understand that the Artist Ai Weiwei was considered for the prize but in the end did not get it.  He was however, to fly to Oslo for the awards ceremony on behalf of Liu Xiaobo who is in prison for  “inciting subversion of state power.” At the airport Ai Wewei was seized by authorities and not allowed to leave the country on grounds that it would be a “threat to national security”.  National security?  An artist?  A peace prize? Yet another story to back up our existing idea of what free speech can cost in China and of how valuable it is to us. 

Around this same time, 2010, Ai Weiwei’s school, which he had been asked to build by the city of Shanghai was torn down as soon as it was completed, by the same officials who supervised its construction, on grounds that it didn’t meet code.  It is understandable that this artist feels passionate about giving the finger to the establishment.  Who can’t relate to that?  We believe that an artist has a right to peacefully say and do whatever it takes to get his point across, right?  Isn’t this why Ai Weiwei has been shown so much support?  For being brave enough to stand up to the establishment?
In March of 2011, after 9 years of investigation Odd Nerdrum was notified that he was to go on trial for tax fraud to the tune of 14 million NOK which is $2.5 million US.  He was notified that the trial would be on Aug. 2, 2011 in Oslo.   Normally on Aug 2nd, in Norway, it is a time of national holiday.  The court convened a week earlier than usual to hear the case, while most of the country was still on vacation.  It can be noted that Norway is the only country in the EU to be able to investigate an individuals tax affairs back so long.  In other countries it is 7 years.  They took the maximum amount of time possible which, think about it, is a sort of torture.  To tell a man he is being watched and then not say anything about it for 9 years until one day…

On April 3rd, 2011 the artist Ai Weiwei disappeared for 81 days.  He was held by Chinese officials and only after he was released was he eventually charged with tax evasion in the amount of 15 million yuan.  $2.5 million US.  The same sum as in the Nerdrum case.

During Ai Weiwei’s disappearance there was an online petition set up and an international internet campaign to free Ai Weiwei raised hundreds of thousands of signatures.   He received endorsement from the Guggenheim, the International Museum Society and many hundreds of others.  There were articles on CNN, the BBC and news sources around the world and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on issues surrounding the case as did Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.  He said, just days before Nerdrums trial, that the the Chinese authorities must substantiate their charges against Ai Weiwei with evidence.  Days later the greatest painter in Norway was sentenced to two years in prison, without the right to paint and that decision was made by a couple of people in a room closed to press (unusual), where key pieces of evidence were not allowed to be presented and elements of the prosecutions were fabricated.    That ruling came just 10 days after the attack on the prime ministers office and the massacre of dozens of children in Norway last summer.  Indeed unfortunate timing to be before the judge, back early from such a summer vacation. 

Nerdrums lawyers immediately appealed the case but only 12% of such cases are granted an appeal in Norway.

Why do you think the outpouring of support for Ai Weiwei was so large?  Is it because so many people like Ai Weiwei’s  work?  Is it because people are told that they like his work?  Is it because we consider it important or does it just fit in with the preconception of how dissidence is and should be?    There, in China, that is where people are repressed for having a voice.  How could such a thing happen in Norway?  

Whose work do you like?    
Ai Weiwei’s work is varied but consists of painting over or smashing 2,000 year old vases on the floor, flipping off the Eiffel tower as well as other symbols of establishment as well as sharing pictures of himself naked on the internet with strategically placed stuffed animals.  A national security threat?  Perhaps.  If you don’t want the people to be able to do what ever the hell they want to do.  Or to paint the way they want to.

One of Odd’s recent paintings portrays his twin daughters together as one in the landscape with the golden light upon the sides of their beautiful faces.  Another one is of a girl signaling with her hands at the edge of the forest.  There is a new self portrait and again we look over his shoulder at the sunset.  Do we tire of the golden hour?

In 2011 Ai Weiwei was runner-up in Time Magazine’s person of the year award.  First place went to “the protester”.   If the protestor is so newsworthy I would think that the media would jump on a story about the first and only Political art prisoner in Europe. Here, in our time, living in a democratic society, a brilliant painter makes claims of human rights violations on National TV, but is censored for it.  After 10 years of not granting an interview to Norwegian media because of the way they twist words, Odd Nerdrum went on a popular show, Skavlan, which everyone is lead to believe is a live show, to talk about his case. So he thought.  In fact over 6 minutes of discussion concerning Nerdrum's perspective on the case was edited out.  On that show the international best selling author of Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts offered to to serve Nerdrum's sentence for him because he believes Nerdrum's work is that important.  

According to the Global Times, a State oriented paper in China, supporters for Ai and other dissidents are just a tiny minority who do not represent the wider Chinese public.
"For 30 years, Ai Weiweis have emerged and fallen. But China has kept rising despite their pessimistic predictions. The real social trend is that they will be eliminated in the rising process of China," said the commentary.  And still the international community pours out support for this man without question as to whether he is guilty or not. Out of all the articles I have read on the subject, only one or two even address that issue.  Apparently he may have been made to confess under torture or threat of torture.  Silence.

Due to this international pressure Ai Weiwei was granted a review of his case on Jan. 6, 2012, and Nerdrum was granted the right to appeal two weeks later.

Norwegian media says about Nerdrum that he is not important and only known in Norway where the state sponsored papers proclaim his guilt endlessly in spite of the fact that the case is set for retrial.  Clearly this is due to reasonable doubt about the first trials outcome.  Article after article appear with his face and the verdict of guilty.  If they say it often enough will the people come to believe it and accept it regardless of what they know about Nerdrum.  Has this happened to you?

American Artist Magazine ran an article titled “the Nerdrum Affair” by Allison Malifronte in the Jan. 2012 issue and in it were statements of support from Nelson Shanks of Studio Incamminati in Philedelphia, Daniel Graves of the Florence Academy of Art and others which likely helped Nerdrum receive the right to appeal.  The second trial is scheduled for  June 11, 2012 in Oslo.  
Keep tabs. 

There was a small article in the New York Times and a few other bits and blogs in the States and here and there but aside from this one major article in American Artist, the media didn’t touch the story.   Of my letters sent out to news sources and institutions asking for support almost none were replied to.  I asked around to some of my media friends who are in the business about why they thought this was and I heard that some people want to distance themselves from Nerdrum who seems to make them uncomfortable. This I found amusing because since when was making one uncomfortable with ones art something the media shied away from?  That is the mission statement of most artists isn’t it? They can gurgle homoerotic poetry with  bull whips hanging out of their asses until we are all blue in the face but a painter who succeeds in spite of the system he is born into makes us uncomfortable?  Isn’t Ai Weiwei’s success rooted in making people uncomfortable? A man who sunburned the letters FUCK on his chest and whose art is to fly the bird and break vases from antiquity is  more disturbing to me than a man who wants to make beautiful paintings and spend time with his family.  What do you say?  If we can save Ai Weiwei then we can save Nerdrum.

The bottom line is that Nerdrum is arguably the best figurative painter alive, in fact Andrew Wyeth thought so and that alone should say that the Nerdrum case is important to people in America. 

Why do you think the Nerdrum case received so little attention?  Do you have preconceptions that such things could not happen in Norway?  Is it not interesting?  What if Nerdrum is right?   I find it extremely plausible and quite an interesting story to see unfolding.  Unfortunatley, I also happen to think it is possible that Nerdrum was granted an appeal to get him back in Norway so they can get ahold of him.  An appeal is no guarantee that Nerdrum will go free, or even be allowed to paint if convicted. 

  Do you see Nerdrum's paintings as valuable?  Have you seen one up close? 

(There is a show of Nerdrums right now at Forum Gallery in New York!)

Is it because our ideas about Norway, often ranked the best country in the world, are set and it would take a lot more than an innocent genius being stripped of his livelihood and sent to prison to make us interested, to make us challenge our preconceptions? We know that changing public opinion once it is formed is difficult.  All the propaganda machines know that and use it.  You know it is true.  Weapons of mass destruction, 
building 7, the Warren report, 
echo, echo, echo… 

I want to leave you with the most disturbing thing I have seen regarding the Nerdrum case and one that should make us listen even closer to the tune Nerdrum is singing. 

In late Feb. An article appeared on the on line edition of a newspaper in Norway which is known for being outspoken against Nerdrum.  The article was about undocumented explosives found on rural farms in Norway and along with the article, by an unnamed journalist, was a picture of  the Nerdrums  home.  A serious and possibly illegal allegation as Nerdrum had absolutely nothing to do with anything of the sort!  Nerdrum is quite famous in Norway and his house is well known.  This is a very serious association to place in the minds of the public, especially the Norwegian public at this time, wouldn’t you agree?  A few days later an apology was written in the paper where it was stated that the farm belonged to the Nerdrums but had nothing to do with the article.  So now they have repeated the association between Nerdrum and explosives at the same time as they deny it.  That was not enough though so another “apology” was made by the paper on line. This time a full screen shot of another picture of the Nerdrum home, the original article headline about explosives with the original picture of the house as well as an unflattering picture of  Nerdrum which stated, again, that there had been an error.  Do you think that making that absurd association on three separate occasions was an error?  Could it have been devious creative journalism in a country where they think nobody outside will notice and if they do won’t believe it?  Whatever it is it is serious business.

A few days later the Nerdrum residence, which has been an international school for painting these past 15 years was seized by the Norwegian authorities and reappears in the papers. 

What is really going on here? Are these men really dangerous?  To who?
Remember, Nerdrum has paid his taxes and that is not the issue here, just as it is not an issue in discussing Ai Weiwei’s situation.  Do you think it is about taxes, really?  I don't.
How could Nerdrum be a threat? 
The answer is the same reason that Ai Weiwei is a threat and that is  by being a successful individual and for sailing uncharted seas without permission.  Something artists in the US might still take for granted is their right and freedom to create as they choose but here are two men who are laying it on the line.

The reason Nerdrum is important to you is that you know how valuable the freedom of speech is  and to remember that even in western, civilized countries, it is not to be taken for granted.  Keep tabs.  If they require it, Should we offer assistance those whose aim is to make beauty in the world?

What if it was the other way around? 
Would you want somebody to notice if you were the canary?

From now until Nerdrums appeal case is heard it is especially important that you speak up for what you believe in.  That will be Odd’s only chance.  Please sign the petition and encourage local and national media, art groups and organizations to give statements of support on Odds behalf, to let Norway know that you are paying attention, and that you wish for Odd Nerdrum to continue painting.

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