Francis Alys: Gentle Tornado of Art

Like Godzilla, Charlie Sheen’s “My Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour continues to roam the countryside, fortunately leaving ontological, rather than physical, destruction in its path. In New York City, however, at the MoMA through August 1, 2011, a different kind of truth delivery is taking place. Belgian performance artist Francis Alÿs stars in the retrospective Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, which is more of a “gentle tornado of art” with a side order of truth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. With a selection of his “greatest hits” in video form and some accompanying graphic works, Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception tells the story of how a Belgian architect came to understand the world via Mexico City, a whirlwind of corruption, beauty, and absurdity—like pretty much everywhere else.

Alÿs the architect arrived in Mexico City in 1986, just one year after a terrible earthquake, with the goal of helping reconstruct the city. Instead, Alÿs the artist began building scenarios to perform to help reconstruct the truth of the place before a video camera. In Alÿs performed Re-enactments, in which he wandered around downtown Mexico City for 11 minutes with a 9-mm Beretta dangling from his hand before police stopped him. Amazingly, the authorities allowed him to reenact the performance the next day, which Alÿs also filmed. The MoMA places both videos side by side, surrounded by drawings, maps, newspaper items, and photographs related to the adventure. This chapter in the story of Alÿs’s “deception” asks you to decide which version is “real” and which is “false,” all while thinking about the nature of danger in drug-plagued Mexico City.

As Peter Schjeldahl’s recent review of Alÿs’s show in The New Yorker proves, not everyone is on board with Alÿs’s style. While some praise Alÿs’s politically charged art, others, including Schjeldahl, feel that, “[i]n truth, Alÿs barely grazes the subjects, while being quite ready to accept credit for affirming humane values amid geopolitical vexations.” For Schjeldahl , Alÿs will always be a “character” who makes “excellent company” when “in the grip of gratuitous whims,” but, alas, “[j]ust a tad more humility, eschewing grabs for bonuses of gravitas, could perfect him.” Alÿs suffers from “performance art syndrome”: art based on personal performance easily comes off as egotistical. “Look at me,” everyone from Joseph Beuys to Chris Burden to Marina Abramovic seems to shout, often compelling critics to turn away. But when did ego become a deal-breaker for the public to embrace an artist? (See Picasso, Pablo.)

Also, if lightness of approach were a crime, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst would have been locked up long ago. Alÿs deceives with lightness in taking on serious issues with comic techniques. In Rehearsal I sends a red Volkswagen Beetle fruitlessly up a hill on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. (In reality, the diver listened to a recording of a brass band playing and losing track of the score and mimicked that action, which becomes the soundtrack of the video.) At first glance, Rehearsal I looks like Herbie the Love Bug meets Sisyphus. Schjeldahl ranks this among “[t]he iffiest of Alÿs’s gestures [that] invoke a personal identification with the strain of tragicomic fatalism in Mexican culture,” and discounts Alÿs’s quoting of Samuel Beckett as empty posturing. I’m not sure it’s possible to emptily posture Beckett, who was all about the emptiness of posturing.

I see Alÿs as the modern-day Buster Keaton, the closest America’s ever gotten to Beckett-esque. For the past ten years, Alÿs stalked tornadoes in the dusty highlands south of Mexico City. Tornado (still shown above) depicts Alÿs waiting, chasing, and then trying to run into the heart of the storm, which bear little resemblance to the monsters that tore across America this year. The film captures not only the power of nature, but also the power of persistence—a windblown variation on Sisyphus. Keaton would have done nothing less. Alÿs plays it for laughs, but we’re laughing along with (essentially at ourselves) and not at him.

The first work I ever saw in person by Alÿs was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Cezanne and Beyond exhibition. Alÿs took a small painting by Cezanne and wrapped it in bubble wrap. Both protective and transformative, Alÿs’s gesture honored the past while laughing his way to the future. Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception wraps the world up in bubbles to protect us and entertain while still allowing us to see through to the truth. If it’s a deception, it’s a permissible white lie. To discount what Francis Alÿs offers is to deceive only ourselves.

[Francis Alÿs (Belgian, born 1959). Tornado. 2000-2010. Video (color, sound), 39 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Volkswagen of America. © 2011 Francis Alÿs.]

[Many thanks to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for providing the image above from and other press materials for Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, which runs through August 1, 2011.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.