Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Heroes and Martyrs

Paintings by Dustin Spagnola on display at Ananda Hair Studio, 22 Broadway, in downtown Asheville.

In his book, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes about the fetishization of commodities in relation to mass media. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he says. "Images have supplanted genuine human interaction." Debord was mostly referring to the grandiose schemes of corporate and religious institutions to pull in consumers and followers, and he encourages
détournement as a reaction to this phenomenon.

Dustin Spagnola's paintings always bring these issues to mind when I see them, because his paintings are spectacles, but they are generally spectacles of artistic, social, and political iconoclasts. Spagnola paints his subjects larger than life, in a graphic manner that is reminiscent of street art and propaganda art. I get the feeling that Spagnola's paintings are created purely out of respect to his subject matter and to pay homage to them because they are so masterfully executed. The work feels less incendiary than it's subject matter because many of the images are, at this point,
recuperated and the paintings themselves are (arguably) safe, aesthetically -- with exception, perhaps, to the bombastic size of them.

His most recent paintings of Chief Crazy Horse -- a Lakotan chief who fought against the federal government and died resisting imprisonment -- are huge in scale and loom large in the salon where they are currently on display. It's almost the perfect postmodern venue given all the hair care and beauty products, large mirrors, and buzz of people. The juxtaposing of these elements lends an interesting tension to the exhibit.

See more of Spagnola's work at

In Palestine, when someone is killed by Israeli gunfire, it is referred to as "being martyred," and upon their death leaflets and posters like those shown above are distributed widely and paraded through the streets. I look at these computer-generated memorials to the martyrs and wonder how this heroism of victims perpetuates the glamorization of a war culture. Perhaps it is all they can do to make sense of the poverty and devastation wreaked upon their communities.

I started thinking about these things after watching the movie Death in Gaza, a powerful documentation of children growing up in the Gaza Strip. The director of the film, James Miller, intended to make a similar video about children in Israel but he was killed during the filming of Death in Gaza. You can view the film in it's entirety on the web:
The bittersweet ending, in my opinion, is a subtle testament to the use of art as a means to overcome the perpetuation of war.

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