Numb and Number: The Art and Politics of Clinton Fein
In the digital collage “Some Called It Treason,” South African artist Clinton Fein integrates a photograph of his face into a World War I poster and writes a letter of the resulting image, which begins with the self-congratulatory declaration, “In your fear-filled spin reality, I am dangerous.” Fein constructs aggressive pictures that mock political leaders, challenge truths promulgated by mass-media institutions, and try to disturb what he sees as the apathy of the American public. Indeed his pictures have often landed him in trouble. He has been sued or threatened with legal action by the New York Times, the Gap, Ziff Davis, and other corporations whose images he has appropriated. He pursued a case against Janet Reno to the Supreme Court over a provision of the Communications Decency Act that prohibited the internet transmission of indecent material intended to annoy. And the company hired to print several pictures for this most recent show refused at the last minute to produce the images. He is the webmaster at Annoy.com, and clearly takes himself to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be. However, the celebration of Fein’s art as ‘scandalous’ seems all too easy. And, though I sympathize with his efforts as an activist, I did not find his pictures powerful and doubted their capacity to provoke meaningful reflection.
In Numb and Number Fein directed his attack at the Bush Administration and media myths that have shaped public perception over the last four years. “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” showed Bush with his arm raised in a wave and Hitler behind him giving a Nazi salute. The title was written across the image. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” presented a wall-sized photocollage of civilian casualties from the war in Iraq, again with the title printed across the picture. In “This September 11th,” a man stood naked with his legs in the place of the Twin Towers and seemed to topple over through a series of partially translucent images. Text at the bottom of the picture challenged the sentimental over-valuation of the losses suffered during the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks by flatly stating, “This September 11th approximately 8,500 people will die due to AIDS.” For “Like Apple Fucking Pie,” Fein constructed an American Flag with repetitions of the now iconic image of the hooded torture-victim at Abu-Ghraib for stars, and the text of the Taguba report printed in red for stripes. And in “Who Would Jesus Torture?” Fein showed President Bush hanging on a cross with a missile rising out of his loincloth and assorted images behind him of Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Text over the top of the cross included the title of the piece, and attributed to Bush an “industrial moral military god complex.”
As an artist, Fein does not seem to be interested in pictures as such. His images are perhaps, frightening, shaming, and obscene – but they aren’t essential to his work. His artwork is the vehicle for his political activism and, as if to prove the point, each piece in Numb and Number was accompanied by a short essay defining its context and explaining its significance – even when the work already contained a clearly stated slogan. His pictures are designed to give his political positions weight not as arguments, but as convictions – as outrages! He is horrified by what has happened and wants others to be equally horrified. This, he seems to imagine, is what would make him dangerous, a threat to the status quo, and a target of repression and censorship. He wants America to see its own ugliness and to change.
However, Numb and Number left little room for any response other than simple rejection of or acquiescence to the truth of Fein’s heavy-handed messages. His work does not stand-apart from the “fear filled spin-reality” he denounces but employs the same sensationalism and vilification. His association of Bush with Hitler in “The Unbearable Likeness of Being,” for example, is as glib and ahistorical as Bush’s association of Hitler with Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Fein’s art is dogmatic. It might make titillating t-shirts, posters, or bumper-stickers (and in fact Fein markets t-shirts on his web-site), but it forecloses any exploration of more difficult and engaging questions concerning the anxieties that plague our world, the power and role of images in shaping social-political perceptions, and the need for illusions and a sense of security. Fein avoids complexity and ambiguity. His work betrays the same self-righteous certainty that he despises in President Bush, and precludes the possibility of meaningful dialogue with Bush’s “red state” supporters. Safely tucked away in San Francisco, Fein preaches to the converted at best. And, while his struggles against censorship are clearly difficult and praiseworthy, it would be a mistake to think that they hinder him as an artist. To the contrary, they serve him well by allowing him to sustain the illusion that his artwork is powerful and a potent force for change.