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the work of history

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    “One morning in class, Rifaat taught the word for ‘mud brick.’ In ancient hieroglyphics, it was djebet, which became tobe in Coptic, and then the Arabs, adding a definite article, made it al-tuba, which was brought to Spain as adobar, and then to the American Southwest, where this heavy thing, having been lugged across four millennia and seven thousand miles, finally landed as 'adobe.’”

    - “Talk Like an Egyptian,” Peter Hessler.

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    “I have on occasion heard an Englishman express horror at the French policy in North Africa; and I’ve heard Frenchmen condemn both the British and American systems of racial practices. On the other hand, the Spanish claim that they and they alone treated the colored peoples fairly and justly: they married them, etc… when the white world is viewed from inside the colored world, that world is a blockworld with little or no divisions… It is difficult for white Western Europe to realize how tiny Europe is in the minds of most of the people of the Earth. Europe is indeed one world, small, compact, white, apart…”

    - White Man, Listen!, Richard Wright, 1957.

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    President Jacobo Árbenz




    Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala, 1954

    June 27, 1954: A CIA backed coup deposes Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala.

    In March 1951, Jacobo Árbenz succeeded Juan José Arévalo Bermejo as president of Guatemala, its second to be democratically elected after a 1944 popular uprising removed Jorge Ubico from power. Ubico was one (and it seemed for a brief moment of blazing optimism, the final) in a long line of authoritarian leaders of Guatemala. Among its neighbors, Guatemala appeared to be flourishing by the time Árbenz took office, boasting the highest GDP and most stable currency in Central America. However, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Guatemala’s economic growth, like that of other young Latin American Republics, fluctuated according to forces outside its own borders, its prosperity pinned to Western demand for its primary commodities and the auspices of foreign capital. At the end of Ubico’s administration, the New Orleans-based United Fruit Company was Guatemala’s largest private landowner and largest employer. Control over land and labor alone could not ensure the UFCO’s chokehold on the Guatemalan economy without the means with which to reliably communicate and transport, and to organize this massive productive venture; the UFCO also maintained control over the country’s telegraph system, two of its three ports, and through its subsidiary, International Railways of Central America (IRCA), 95% of the railway lines crossing Guatemala.

    Like many of his predecessors and counterparts across the continent, Ubico was content to allow the acute problem of asymmetrical land ownership fester, orienting the state’s stance as far away from reform and revolution as possible and toward the loving arms of the UFCO and the United States. The authoritarian regime tilled fertile ground for the UFCO’s domination of the Guatemalan economy, quashing economic barriers such as taxes and tariffs while suppressing wages and labor organization. (At home, interestingly enough, UFCO head Sam Zemurray was something of a ‘progressive,’ at least insofar as he was a New Deal supporter and policy contributor.) 

    By 1950, 2% of landholders controlled 72% of Guatemala’s arable land. In a primarily rural country where most common people practiced subsistence farming, such an imbalance was not simply unfair - it was deadly, in particular for the historically disenfranchised and impoverished indigenous populations. Large banana and coffee plantations, whose product was picked and stamped for Western corporations and shipped out to Western consumers, dominated Guatemala’s agricultural sectors. Shortly after taking office in 1951, Árbenz decried this state of affairs:

    All the riches of Guatemala are not as important as the life, the freedom, the dignity, the health and the happiness of the most humble of its people. How wrong we would be if — mistaking the means for the end — we were to set financial stability and economic growth as the supreme goals of our policy, sacrificing to them the well being of our masses… Our task is to work together in order to produce more wealth… But we must distribute these riches so that those who have less — and they are the immense majority — benefit more.

    Árbenz, in short, acknowledged Guatemala’s relatively favorable economic position relative to its neighbors. But what did GDP growth on paper matter to the great masses of Guatemalans deprived of land, food, and the political weight to confront the power of the economy’s largest stakeholders invested in such an impossibly entrenched inequitable arrangement? In June 1952, the administration issued Decree 900, whose goal was to “liquidate feudal property in the countryside and the relations of production that it originates in order to develop the form of exploitation and capitalist methods of production in agriculture and to prepare the way for the industrialization of Guatemala.”

    The clear Marxist logic (laying out a productive and social transition from feudalism to capitalism) underlying the language and spirit of the Decree was not accidental. Unlike his predecessor, ‘accusations’ of communist sympathies levelled at Árbenz were not at all unfounded. While Arévalo had moderately suppressed domestic communists and touted instead his own third-way brand of anti communism, Árbenz and his wife, though not communist party members, were behind closed doors “convinced that socialism was the wave of the future.” 

    Whether those underlying sympathies were publicly known at the time or not, Árbenz’s administration appeared to morph before American eyes from a vaguely threateningly reformist regime into a rogue land-expropriating revolutionary communist Soviet satellite in a matter of months. Under Decree 900, the Guatemalan government would redistribute hundreds of thousands of acres of “idle,” uncultivated land under lease by the UFCO to landless and near-landless peasants, most of them indigenous people. It also promised state investment in livestock, fertilizer, and technical assistance and increased access to credit and capital to newly-landed peasants. The lands’ previous holders would be compensated, but dispute over the compensated value of these lands became a point of dispute between the state and large stakeholders.

    The specter of American hard power had always loomed in the background in support of the UFCO’s ventures in Guatemala and American business ventures throughout Latin America. But it had only directly intervened intermittently in Guatemala until Decree 900, which was an apparently brazen challenge of foreign entitlement to Guatemala’s land, natural riches, and the labor of its people. Intense lobbying within the halls of the U.S. bureaucracy, and in particular the influence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, gave way in June 1954 to the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS to depose Árbenz and install Carlos Castillo Armas, a political exile-turned U.S.-backed caudillo and the first in an ensuing line of Guatemalan dictators. Both John Foster and CIA director Allen Dulles sat on the Board of Directors of the United Fruit Company while serving under the Eisenhower administration, and they and other lobbyists worked to convince the administration that toppling the Árbenz government was prudent in the name of Cold War-era national security.

    On June 27, 1954, Árbenz resigned his office and fled Guatemala; he participated in public events in revolutionary Cuba (by some historical accounts it was famously the events that toppled Árbenz in Guatemala that fully radicalized Che Guevara) and rejected overtures from Guatemalan leftists to return home before his death in exile in Mexico City in 1971. Armas’ regime, and the series of military dictatorships that followed, terminated and undid Guatemala’s nascent reformist programs, swinging Guatemala back into the good geopolitical graces of the United States. The domestic situation in Guatemala quickly dissolved into a decades-long civil war.


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    “’I Feel Love’ is a brilliant combination of whipped-up synthesiser and Summer’s dreamy, driven, ecstatic vocals,” wrote Vince Aletti in his August 13, 1977 column for Record World. “The pace is fierce and utterly gripping with the synthesiser effects particularly aggressive and emotionally charged. Again, this is unlike anything Summer, Moroder and Bellotte have done before.” 

    During the session for David Bowie’s ‘Low’ album, also recorded in Germany, producer Brian Eno ran in one day after hearing ‘I Feel Love’ for the first time and said, “I have heard the sound of the future. This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.

    Despite the eventual rapture, few inside Casablanca had much faith in the song. “I remember, at the very beginning, [Casablanca MD] Neil Bogart was interested, but not as much as I would have liked,” recalls Giorgio [Moroder]. In fact, ‘I Feel Love’ was originally released as B-side to the ballad ‘Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)’. Nobody seemed to have an inkling of what they had done. 

    “To us it was just a track and we didn’t even think it was a single,” recalls Bellotte. “We definitely did not think when it was released, yes we’ve done something special. It didn’t feel revolutionary.” But the song began to take off in clubs, first in the UK, where it was quickly switched to the A-side. ‘I Feel Love’ became Donna Summer’s biggest hit in the UK and reached No 6 in the US Hot 100.

    Until ‘I Feel Love’, synthesisers had either been the province of serious musicians like Keith Emerson, Jean-Michel Jarre or Tangerine Dream or used as a novelty prop in throwaway songs like ‘Popcorn’ by Hot Butter or even on Moroder and Bellotte’s first hit ‘Son Of My Father’. ‘I Feel Love’ was a rejection of the intellectualisation of the synthesiser in favour of pure pleasure…

    Still its influence grew and spread. Hi-NRG, the white gay propulsive sound pioneered by Patrick Cowley, stood on its shoulders; the new romantic explosion of electro-pop in the UK came from a similar place; Italo-house, one of the foundation stones in house, was heavily influenced by it; and techno, as in love with glacial German synthesisers as it was P-funk, is massively indebted to this strange and beautiful teutonic masterpiece.

    I FEEL LOVE: Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder created the template for dance music as we know it


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    At the Montreux jazz festival, in 1990, Nina Simone sat at a white baby grand. Her hair was cornrowed into a bun, her cheeks brushed red; double drop earrings grazed her neckline. Leaning into the mic, she introduced the mostly white, transfixed crowd to a jaunty, go-go song: “Liberian Calypso.”

    “This is a song we learned from when we were in Liberia, for the three years we lived there; I guess most of you know about that,” she said. “In the middle of it I want you to sing with me: ‘Run, Nina.’” As the audience warmed up to the chorus, Simone slammed on the spruce, singing the story of that night at The Maze… 

    I listened to “Liberian Calypso” again and again. A 1982 release from Simone’s penultimate album, Fodder on My Wings, it isn’t her most striking composition, yet there is something remarkable about it: the story of an erotic dance, told through small and sweet lyrics (“My joy it was so complete, you know. My friend was happy, he said, ‘Go! Go!’”). With its colorful chords and childlike verse (“I danced for hours, hours on end. I said, ‘Dear Lord, you are my friend’”), almost all sensuality has been scraped away, exposing the muscle below (“You brought me home to Liberia, and all other places are inferior”). That night at The Maze, Nina Simone stripped right down to her bones.

    And the song she wrote about it is—rare for Simone—a love song without longing, a ballad to a land that set her free.



    - “Nina Simone in Liberia.”

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    1963


    2013


    1981


    1920


    2015




    1968


    2013


    1983

    THE REMARKABLE IMAGES readers consistently find in National Geographic today weren’t possible when the publication began in 1888. The technology cost too much, and travel moved too slowly to send photographers on assignment. So National Geographic leaned on information graphics, instead. “In the first magazine, the first images that appear there are drawings. They wanted to use maps from the very beginning, because that was how they could tell people about their expeditions.” […] as the cost of professional photography dropped, National Geographic’s editors grew to favor it over the hand drawn maps and charts it once relied on… Then, late in the 20th century, the photography trend reversed course. A proliferation of data generated fresh demand for designers to take on subjects that a camera lens cannot capture. 

    “We are deployed to subjects that can’t be photographed,” writes Kaitlin Yarnell, a cartographer currently in National Geographic’s art department, in the book’s introduction. “Things too small (atoms!), too big (black holes!), too complex (migration patterns!), too old (Roman ruins!), too conceptual (dark energy!), or too numeric (trade flows!) to be photographed are our specialty.”

    National Geographic’s classic infographics, now in one stunning book


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    Cosmic Vortex - Justice Divine, 1974
    Weldon Irvine


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    Gordon Parks
    “Eldridge Cleaver and His Wife, Kathleen”
    Algiers, Algeria 
    1970

    The Gordon Parks Foundation


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    Lourdes Grobet
    “La India Sioux en su recamara, Ciudad de Mexico,” 1983

    SFMOMA


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    “When Christianity met the so-called pagan religions of Asia and Africa, there was a strange result… There was too much in that Christian religion that the Asian and African had believed in long before the Christian religion ever came to their shores, for it had been from the shores of Asia and Africa that these powerful legends, myths, images, symbols, and rituals had originally come. But the return of Christianity to the place of its birth was no peaceful homecoming; it came with fire in its eyes, a sword in its hands, and with the will to conquer and despoil.”

    - White Man, Listen!, Richard Wright, 1957.

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    [Wonder] was a sign that you were ignorant at best, or at worst you were timorous or fearful. Since ancient times, curiosity was associated with vice rather than virtue… And then what happens in the 16th and 17th centuries is fascinating. Curiosity goes from being a real vice to a virtue. It becomes a form of audacity. ‘Dare to know’ becomes a motto that natural philosophers are proud to make their own, and wonder goes from being a sign of ignorance to a desire for knowledge… Wonder is like the spark that ignites the fuse of curiosity.

    Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science: How the unlikely and unexplainable, strange and terrifying, spawned the age of science


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    Renato Guttuso
    Santa Panagia (Sicily), 1956


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    There is something very strange about experiencing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain… What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage?

    Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmanueuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? 'Art thou content, Jew?’ she prods. 'What dost thou say?’

    And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, 'I am content’?



    - “If You Prick Us,” Stephen Greenblatt.

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    Tina Modotti
    Workers Parade, 1926

    MOMA


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    If one horror film hits, everyone says, “Let’s go make a horror film!” It’s the genre that never dies.

    George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017


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    Designing a billboard is a different task than designing an ad for a magazine; it’s got a very different set of requirements. It has to read really fast, because it’s aimed at people driving by. I think they’ve got about six seconds to digest an image and get the message. To make them stand out, the designers would also add sculptural elements. 

    There was an Eric Clapton billboard for “Backless” where he was sitting alone in a room and there was a three-dimensional lampshade on the billboard that lit up at night. Alice Cooper had billboards with light-up eyes that changed from day to night…

    I think the thing that set the rock-’n’-roll billboards apart from other billboards at the time, and probably ever since, is that it really wasn’t about making a sale. It wasn’t about getting somebody to a cash register to buy something. It was about creating an image, and about a trust between the artist and the record companies… One great billboard for a recording of the “Tommy” album—not by the Who but by the London Symphony—had these two giant chrome pinball eyes photo-realistically painted on it. If you were driving down the street, you’d practically hit the brakes when you saw it. You might have no idea what this was about, it didn’t say “Tommy” or anything on it. They had this leeway to treat these billboards as art pieces, bridging that gap between fine art, commercial art, and the urban landscape.

    When Rock ‘n’ Roll Loomed Large Over the Sunset Strip


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    “Confronted with a range of negative hostility of this sort, knowing that the society of the Western world is so frantically defensive that it should seek to impose conformity at any price, what is an honest man to do? Should he keep silent and thereby try to win a degree of dubious safety for himself? Should he endorse a static defensiveness as the price for achieving his own personal security?

    The game isn’t worth the candle, for, in doing so, he buttresses that which would eventually crush not only him, but that which would negate the very conditions of life out of which freedom can spring.



    - White Man, Listen!, Richard Wright, 1957.

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  • 07/28/17--15:38: Right On! magazine, 1982


  • Right On! magazine, 1982


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    It came to pass, salt of the earth, grapes of wrath, how are the mighty fallen, know for a certainty, root of the matter, thorn in the flesh, at death’s door, the way of all flesh, a law unto himself, scum of the earth, the haves and have-nots, bite the dust, my brother’s keeper, the skin of one’s teeth, as old as the hills, casting pearls before swine, at their wit’s end, the powers that be, eat, drink and be merry, and so on. All resonant phrases living on in the English-speaking world. But let us not forget that this prose for all seasons was laid down, built and assembled from common and colloquial speech; prepared for the public from vulgate raw material.

    The King James Bible (KJB), ‘probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world’ (HL Menken), was actually a confederation of 66 books that introduced no more than 43 new words to the English language and were written using a lexicon of about 12,000 words only. Shakespeare, on the other hand, wallowed in 30,000 different words, many of them overbearingly polysyllabic, with many turgid imports from Latin.

    The KJB was written in the clear vernacular of the people ‘so that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar’. But it had to sound stately and majestic… It was also written as prose that was meant to be heard, to be read out aloud. The grammar had to be uncluttered; the cadences had to be rich and compelling.

    The editorial process had to be, therefore, an auditory exercise. Each draft was finally submitted to a Committee of Revisers, which heard it over and over in all its sonorousness and cast it differently if it was found wanting in stateliness and rhythm. For some time now, a surfeit of academic material is being spawned to ascertain the qualitative and quantitative influence of KJB on the collective imagination of all Anglophones.

    There was a time when most Englishmen and Americans could quote directly from it. One can find the marks and smudges of the KJB everywhere: in the rhetoric of Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Roosevelt and Churchill and Obama, in all major works of literature from Melville and Faulkner through Steinbeck and Saul Bellow to Vikram Seth and Joanne Rowling, in the lyrics of Sinatra and Marley, in journalism and jurisprudence and advertising, in Monty Python and cricket commentary and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. In Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’, in Ambedkar’s declamations. In Tagore’s elevated, half-poetic register, in the dense mysticism of Aurobindo Ghosh. In the treatises of Amartya Sen. In prime-time television sophistry. And everything in between.



    - “Tongue in Check.”

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    But why? Why Guernica? How does the picture answer to our culture’s need for a new epitome of death – and life in the face of it? … Guernica might have proved a failure, or a worthy but soon forgotten success. It was made by an artist who was well aware, the record shows, that in taking on the commission he was straying into territory – the public, the political, the large-scale, the heroic and compassionate – that very little in his previous work seemed to have prepared him for.

    When Josep Lluís Sert and other delegates of the Spanish Republic came in early 1937 to ask Picasso to do the mural, he told them he wasn’t certain that he could produce a picture of the kind they wanted. And he was right to have doubts. Was there anything in his previous art on which he could draw in order to speak publicly, grandly, to a scene of civil war? It is true that since the mid-1920s his painting had centred on fear and horror as recurrent facts of life. Violence, once he had tackled it head on in the Three Dancers of 1925, became a preoccupation. So did monstrosity, vengefulness, pitiful or resplendent deformity – life in extremis.

    But none of these things need have added up to, or even moved in the direction of, a tragic attitude. Treating them did not necessarily prepare an artist to confront the Tragic Scene: the moment in human existence, that is, when death and vulnerability are recognised as such by an individual or a group, but late; and the plunge into undefended mortality that follows excites not just horror in those who look on, but pity and terror.



    - “Picasso and Tragedy,” T.J. Clark.

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