"A Painting Transcends Economic Downturn"

Discussion Between Dr. Costanza Baiocco, Mr. Allen Ascher and Yu Gan, Dec 12 , 2011


Costanza Baiocco is a writer, visual artist, educator and lawyer from New York City . She earned the Doctorate of Philosophy in American Literature from New York University and the Doctorate of Jurisprudence from Golden Gate University School of Law in San Franciso. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sumi-e Society of America, editor of the "Sumi-e Quarterly" and past president of the Manhattan chapter of the Sumi-e Society.

Allen Ascher is an author and artist. Hisundergraduate degree was in fine art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his graduate degree was MA in Applied Linguistics from Ohio University. He work ed asanEditorialDirector for more than eighteen yearsat Pearson (Longman) until recently. Allenwas responsible for creating some of their most popular series including NorthStar, Focus on Grammar and True Colors to name a few. He is also an author whose works include the speaking module of Teacher Development Interactive (Pearson), an online multimedia ELT teacher-training program, Think About Editing (Thomson), as well as the co-author of the best-selling international series Top Notch and Summit (Pearson). He was also academic director of the International English Language Institute at Hunter College. Allen As cher was teaching English in Beijing Second Foreign Language University.

Last Fall Costanza and Allen both wrote meaningful comments on my conceptual artwork “AMoving Mountain - Dow Jones Performance in the First Decade of the 21st Century.” Today, I am chatting with them on the commentaries they wrote and exploring with them the subtle links between art, society and the current world economy.

Yu: Costanza, many viewers liked the comment you wrote on my painting but couldn't fully understand it. Would you please explain what you meant when you wrote "We are all students until we become arrogant with acquired knowledge.”

Costanza: Student-Mind is a state of mind that is curious, questioning, open to ideas, flexible, willing to experiment, willing to consider all points of view, expanding, growing, intellectually adventurous. Those who abandon Student-Mind become arrogant in the delusion that they are knowledgeable. This is a great disservice to their souls and to their communities.

Yu, Gan's Artwork: << A Moving Mountain - Dow Jones Performance in the First Decade of the 21st Century >>, Oriental Ink on Canvas, 30” x 240 ”, 2010

Yu: Allen, your commentary on my painting is "Mountains are breathtakingly beautiful and dangerous - Societies rise and fall in broad brushstrokes - Individuals carve out their own peace and security.” Would you elaborate on your comment and share with us your feelings and thoughts that prompted this comment.

Allen: In one sense, I think I was just trying to be poetic in response to your very poetic painting. But what I meant was to evoke several things. For one, when we look at huge mountains they are breathtakingly beautiful, and even when we approach them and climb them a little, they are still quite beautiful, but they also begin to reveal their danger with tall precipices and rock faces and sudden storms-- all things quite out of our control. And the more you embrace them, as any real climber can attest, they can be quite dangerous. You really have to know what you are doing. I think you can probably say the same thing about economies-- after all the US economy looks quite bright and beautiful to people all over the world, yet the recent economic collapse put the whole world into a tailspin. And of course we have numerous examples of societies with booming economies that all looked to with great awe-- take Argentina in the 90's as an example-- that completely collapsed without warning. The biggest danger to all of us as individuals is that we can feel quite helpless in response to these ups and downs. As individuals, we need to avoid dependency on our own governments to figure things out and we need to move ahead with our lives without "closing down" because of the events around us. One of the things I love about your painting is that, as we are observing a pretty cataclysmic economic event on your canvas, you have taken it and presented it with the beauty of a traditional Chinese painting of the mountains, which presents the peace and serenity of nature. In other words we have choices in how we view events-- without being unrealistic or making us want to stick our heads in the sand. Be thoughtful-- be at peace.

Yu: Costanza, I clearly remember that one day after one of my workshops you and I had a discussion about the economic situation in the U.S. You said that the housing market is going to fall and the sub-prime mortgage is a very dangerous practice. That was in 2007 a year before the market crash. It almost seems you have a sixth sense.

Costanza: Regarding the housing market issue and my prediction in 2007, I don't know if I can make the claim that I have a sixth sense. There were subtle but persistent signs of the coming crash. Those signs were apparent in the streets and in the marketplace. What I did not foresee (and perhaps it was not possible in 2007, since certain forces had not yet come into play) was that the Manhattan real estate market would be immune to the disasters that were happening in the real estate market throughout the USA, especially in the mid-West, south-West and California. Currently, New York City real estate is showing signs of softening, but it is still a high market compared to the rest of the country. The main reason is that New York City real estate was not treated as a free market activity. If it had, prices would have crashed. Manhattan real estate in particular was artificially propped up by very powerful economic and political forces, nationally and locally. New York City is the hub and stalwart of the global market and symbol of America's economic power in the world. It will always be expensive to live here unless this entire country implodes, which is not likely.

What I do see on the horizon is a major culture and economic confrontation in values and ideology in this country. There was a very interesting You-Tube airing of an event near Zucotti Park on Wall Street. The images were wonderful and captured the actual revolution that is going on under the surface. On the balcony of a very large monied building, Wall Street types (often referred to contemptuously as "masters of the universe") were belittling the Occupy Wall Street protesters below by toasting champagne glasses in a kind of in-you-face attitude. On the street below one young protester carried a sign: "WE CARE" To me this says everything, that the main struggle in this country today is between the forces of cooperation, inclusion, fairness that is represented by "WE CARE" and the forces of capitalism as it is practiced in this country. I think there is something in the DNA of the human species that will not allow exploitation, unfairness, injustice and greed to exist indefinitely. When it reaches critical mass as it has today, resistance and mass protest emerges and finally revolution.

Oct 10, 2011, Photo by Yu, Gan

Yu: You just mentioned the OWS protesters. Coincidently I went there on Oct.15th to engage people in Zucotti Park to write their comments on the reproduction sheet of my painting, “AMovingMountain - Dow Jones Performance in the First Decade of 21 Century.” I was motivated by the fact that the basic concepts of my painting are to encourage interactive communication between artist and viewersand tocapture an authentic global sentiment about the modern economy. My question to you is do you think this movement will spread, forming something of a "New Hippie" movement?

Oct 15, 2011, Photo by Yu, Gan

Costanza: Yes, I do believe this is a movement that will persist, expand and will engage people world-wide. I wouldn't call it a "New Hippie" movement in that it allows the power elite to discredit it as a youthful, passing passion of young students. It is not! People of all ages, races and gender and background are involved in this movement.  However, I do believe that spiritually the energy comes from what we accomplished in the 1960s when I was a student, feminist revolutionary. Regarding OWS my own political view is that a free market is a good idea. It gives us people like Steve Jobs whose creativity, expressed in a free market context, gave us incredible gifts. His uniform of jeans, sneakers and turtle neck sweater was his symbolic way of sending a message that he did not adhere to the values of corporate America. Remember, he was a young boy in the 1960s, deeply influenced by that cultural revolution, a lover of the Beatles and Bob Dylanand the philosophy in their lyrics. Ironically, it is corporate America, the great beneficiary of capitalism (as well as socialism evidenced by the Big Bailout), that is destroying free market philosophy. Without values of fair-play and justice, integrity, honesty and modesty in taste, a free market cannot function. The crash in 2008 and the subsequent economic depression, with ripples felt throughout the world, was the result of a shallow, narrow-minded philosophy that emphasized accumulation of wealth without regard for the public good.

Yu: Allen, how is OWS the same or different from movements in the 60's

Allen: In the sixties, there were basically two movements going on that questioned the orthodoxy of those times. One was cultural-- the hippy movement (which you could argue developed out of the "beatnik" movement of the fifties.) People "dropped out" of society and did their own thing, listening to music, developing relationships, wearing clothes and their hair in ways that the establishment considered shocking. The other was a political movement, which was an extension of the leftist movements of the thirties and forties (before the backlash of the fifties)-- often referred to as the New Left. Both overlapped in many ways, but if you think of them as two ends of a spectrum of thought, people were either more toward one end or another of that spectrum. The cultural trend was in response to the very stultifying views of the fifties in which everyone tried to look alike, dress alike, eat alike, and act alike. The latter was in response to segregation in the South, aligning with the civil rights movement, and of course in response to the Vietnam War.

I can't claim to know the people involved in Occupy Wall Street well-- so I can only give my response based on what little I know. In many ways, OWS seems to also have that spectrum-- people who are dedicated and committed activists who have a political agenda for change. And there are those people who are there for the cultural theater-- wearing weird hair and clothing, showing off their tatoos and body piercing, and beating on drums. I think that spectrum has become a strong part of the American political scene. And again people fall on different points of that spectrum. You can certainly display the cultural trappings and yet be a committed activist with clear-headed political views. But you also have those who make the activists nervous in how they are chosen by the media to represent the movement. I remember a political march I attended in the early seventies held by dedicated activists who were angry that there was an old crazy guy marching with us who had a long white beard and a pony tail who carried a tall sign with bells hanging from it. They thought it threatened the seriousness of their cause. I still laugh about that. But one thing that does seem different to me about OWS is that it is much more consciously inclusive. The movements of the sixties fell apart at the seams in the seventies because of factionalism and intolerance. OWS is very particular about not appearing to have leadership, and in the sixties movements changed and split over leadership all the time.

Oct 15, 2011, Photo by Yu, Gan and Liu, Yan

Yu: Do you both remember Bruce Springsteen's famous song "Ghost of Tom Joad"? In Zucotti Park I heard an old man playing his guitar and singing:

"Man walks along the railroad tracks

He's goin' someplace, and there's no turnin' back

The highway patrol chopper comin' up over the ridge

Man sleeps by a campfire under the bridge

The shelter line stretchin' around the corner

Welcome to the New World Order

Families sleepin' in their cars out in the Southwest

No job, no home, no peace, no rest

No rest..."

Is the current situation similar to the Great Depression in the Thirties in 1930's?

Oct 10, 2011, Photo by Yu, Gan

Costanza: Thank you Gan for reminding me. You may remember Tom Joad is the protagonist in John Steinbeck's classic novel, "Grapes of Wrath," published in 1939 during the Great Depression. In one way the Great Depression was more severe than our current economic situation. However it should be remembered that it took several years before the effects of the 1929 stock market crash were visible, and then the Great Depression lasted 12 years: 1929 to 1941. This current depression is only 3 years old. 

There are similarities between the two depression eras: wealth was concentrated in the few; people lost their homes and were burdened with debt; banks closed, people lost their savings; corporations, and the politicians who front for them, attempted to break up collective bargaining and the right to organize labor unions; the middle class was under economic siege; the poor just fell off the cliff. In the 1930s as now, the power elite used local police force to brutally attack unarmed, peaceful protesters exercising their Constitutional Right to speak freely, to protest.  President Roosevelt saved capitalism. Laws, creating a safety net that would bring relief to citizens and would prevent such horrendous effects in the event of another depression, were passed. Today the Republican party is committed to destroying that safety net. In the 1930s we still had an industrial base. The opportunities for jobs lay dormant but became available when WW2 broke out. Not so today. We no longer have an industrial base with potential jobs. Jobs that were outsourced will not be available in this country if and when the economy improves. I believe that while conditions today are not as severe as they were in the 1930s, in time conditions in this country will become worse than what we experienced during the Great Depression, or at least as bad. 

Yu: Costanza , if you have a sixth sense what do you foresee?

Costanza: If I were to make a prediction it would be this. Washington and Wall Street are worrying about protests that will compel them to give up some of their ill-gotten goods and put a brake on their power. This is a narrow view of what is really happening. What is really happening is much more profound and dangerous to the economic elite that molded a materialist society for their benefit. We are experiencing the beginning of a momentous, grass-roots culture revolution, an extension of the 1960s. In the '60s the resistance was expressed in terms of race and gender discrimination and the Vietnam war. Now discontent, disillusion and defiance is expressed in economic terms. But OWS is actually a discourse on how we will live in this society. To understand the importance of the OWS movement it helps to remember the profound impact the 60's movement has on our lives today. Not too many years ago married women could not hold credit cards in their name; banks would not give mortgages to women; women were required to relinquish their names upon marriage; deeds of purchased property would vest in the husband; there were few women in the workplace holding significant jobs or getting equal pay for equal work; control over the female body was determined by the state; for white women, particularly, social norms determined her peer group; inter-racial contact was met with violence or ostracism. When I prepared to attend the university I was not permitted to apply to New York University Law School because the official policy of the university was to deny access women. So it was no wonder that only 3% of the legal profession were women until the early 70’s; Today all professions are open to women; single women can take mortgages, use credit cards, travel around the world alone; join the military as combat soldiers, control their own bodies, choose their own friends; enjoy an economic safety net, hold public office and in one case campaigned for the office of the president of the United States. This monumental shift in attitudes towards women borders on the miraculous. Normally cultures die hard but this shift happened in one lifetime. Even more incredible is that in the 1950s bright, industrious black high school friends—my friends-- could only find employment as porters on trains. Some fifty years later a black man is the president of the most powerful country in the world.

The 60’s has taught me that the strength of the American national character is its ability to adapt to change. It is also a strength that is dangerous to the power brokers.

Occupy Wall Street is the first expression of a similar dramatic shift in values. Years from now we will be a less materialistic society, more appreciative of spiritual values that encompass compassion and concern for one’s neighbor; we will honor the earth and its gifts; cooperation will replace cut-throat competition; the public good will be an important consideration in all endeavors, political and economic; the family will be redefined and become more inclusive; people will own their own industry and the means of production and distribution; there will be more small community and cooperative businesses. The dream of John Lennon’s "Imagine" is the prophesy of the future. And art is the path.

I sometimes think the problem with corporate America is that the "masters of the universe" have no aesthetic sensibility. Art and the exercise of it is an expression of beauty and from beauty comes truth and justice. The ancient Greek philosophers had it right. I have a fantasy – a movement to give every CEO in every USA and multi-national corporation a bamboo brush, a sheet of schuan, ink and a sample of calligraphy. Who knows what might happen.

Yu: Allen, I know you went to China twice. Tell me about your experiences when you lived in China, and how you felt when you returned to the United States.

Allen: When I first moved to China in 1985, the culture shock was very intense. Americans knew so little about China then, I had no idea what to expect. Everything was different. For example everything was behind walls of some sort, unlike in the US where everything is open to the street. People crowded around and stared at Westerners all the time-- it was like being a goldfish in a bowl. Crowding was a common experience on buses, trains, tourist sites, etc. at a level unthinkable in the US. And there was a huge difference in terms of access to goods and choice of goods. In the winter you could eat pork and cabbage or pork and cabbage. A common retort in a restaurant was "Mei you le!" At restaurants, you rarely could find a table for two-- you had to sit with strangers at a huge banquet table. There was no sense of privacy-- service people would just walk right into a hotel room or a dorm room either without knocking or simply one knock. If you wanted a t-shirt you could get white or irridescent blue or pink. And if you wanted ANYTHING, you had to talk to a fuyuyuan behind a counter in order to even look at it.

When I returned home to New York, it was very weird. New York, one of the most vibrant cities in the world, seemed calm and serene to me. When I rode on a bus, for example, it was air-conditioned and there seemed to be hardly anyone aboard with me. It was quite relaxing. But also strange, when I went to supermarket or clothing store, the choices were overwhelming. It seemed bizarre to me that Americans would require so many choices of everything and it overwhelmed me to make the simplest decisions in these stores. My salary in China had been about the equivalent of $3000 US a year, which compared to Chinese teachers was huge. Yet in comparison to US teachers was equal to about one month's pay. I found it difficult to adjust back to the US economy and I think I struggled with that for about a good few years.

I had the good fortune to return to China on business two times in 2008 and 09, both to Beijing and Shanghai. The change was mindblowing. One of the simplest, yet profound, changes was that fuyuyuan generally didn't stand behind counters anymore. If you wanted to look at something you could just walk up to it and touch it without having to (a) get someone's attention, (b) get someone to understand you, and (c) ask questions about it. The transportation was modern and clean and crowds seemed to move with greater efficiency than they did when I lived there. The choices were now on par with the US-- you could drop into a Starbucks for coffee, hop in a taxi on the street, choose from a variety of restaurants, eat great food, choose from extensive menus, etc etc etc. Of course the tradeoff is streets clogged with cars (instead of the quiet tinkling of bicycle bells I remember from the 80s). I met some old friends in Beijing who lived in a beautiful apartment (in the 80s they lived in a dank grey dorm room) and they dropped me off at my hotel in their SUV (in the 80s they were thrilled when I gave them my bicycle). I miss the streets filled with bicycles, but it's clear that the lifestyle changes have been a huge plus in people's everyday lives. When I see advances in China in high speed rail, solar energy, etc. I feel excited about the Chinese economy and embarrassment at how behind the US is with these things. When I left in the 80s I wasn't sure I wanted to go back. Now I'd go back in a second. But I'm also aware that the gap between haves and have nots has also gotten huge, and that is a problem that can't be swept under the rug. And a booming economy also breeds corruption which we see in the news from time to time.

Yu: I envision the universal aesthetic as a river of art with two banks: the East and West. Costanza, you live on the West. What has prompted you move to the East bank? How do you link your art with your living environment, such as OWS nearby, and separate with it too?

C ostanza : When I started my art studies schools were imbued with the philosophy of abstract expressionism. The "language" of art that produced great paintings and sculptures from the Medieval period through the Renaissance and the Impressionist movement, was deemed an obstruction to free expression. The objective was to demolish all recognizable imagery. This was considered cutting-edge art, progress. So, what did this "cool" art give us? Blank canvases in solid black or white color; bland fields of color with a yellow spot in the middle or spots all around; drip paintings; paintings that looked like gabardine striped fabric used to make men's suits;  or just splashes of paint applied to a canvas with no apparent rational. Nowhere was the craft of art taught. If I had taken up the violin at the renowned Julliard School of Music, I would have been taught how to read notes and how to play those notes on the instrument. I would have been taught harmony and balance and  a language that would enable me to express my feelings.   But in the field of visual art in the West, harmony, balance, composition, color theory – the craft of art was tossed away along with concepts of beauty and resonance.  So I looked elsewhere, and discovered a whole new world of aesthetics in East Asian art.  That’s when I began to learn and to practice the subtle craft of art. And it was during this study that I discovered the aesthetic bridge between the East and the West that started with the French Impressionists. The work of Monet and Van Gogh in particular is a spectacular example of the influence of Asian art in the West.  In turning to Oriental art to learn the craft of painting I learned that many of the elements of Impressionism that are so appealing to me have their roots in Asia.  When I view Monet's painting of a small boat at the port of Le Havre  entitled "Impression Sunrise" I recognize in this work the influence of calligraphy, it's spontaneity, the truthful marks emanating from the imagination and the emotions. It is this merging of the aesthetics of two cultures that delights me and informs my work.

Generally speaking my interest in art is to create Beauty with a brush, a very radical idea in the contemporary art world of abstract painting, installation work and images whose only function is to shock. Because abstract art is today’s Academic art, dead and deadly, to commit to Beauty, Justice and Truth is an act of rebellion very much like the OWS movement’s banner: “We Care.”

<<Manhattan Bridge>>, Ink on Paper, Costanza Baiocco

Yu: Allen, I know you graduated from the Chicago Institute of Art and you are now writing for living. I have also seen lots of fantastic drawings you have done in the past and finished recently. Is there any link between your writings and drawings? Can you give me one direct connection between the art of the East and the West? I also know you went to China t hree times . Do you want to display your artwork in China and talk to your former students or friends if there is a possibility?

Allen:  That’s an interesting question actually. I’ve always felt that my writing and drawing share the fact that they are essentially both creative outlets for me. As you know, my art lay dormant for quite a few years after graduating. It popped up from time to time in little ways―creating cards for friends or colleagues, making people laugh with funny drawings. But I didn’t do it formally and regularly for a long time until more recently. Writing, like art, involves observation, creating solutions to problems or challenges, attempting to express the individual in some way. In the case of educational publishing for English language training, it also involves a visual sense for how things are laid out on the page, how art and photos support learning, and how design meets market expectations and needs. I’ve always been very drawn to eastern art compared to western. I love it for the same reasons western impressionists were so drawn to it more than a century ago. To any artist trained in the formality of western styles, eastern art is refreshing. (I’m sure the reverse is probably true for many eastern artists as well. The grass is always greener on the other side. . . ) That’s one of the reasons I’m particularly drawn to your work and the fusion of styles you bring together. Unfortunately my own art is not developed enough for me to feel comfortable displaying it in China… I have a long way to go before I could do that. But I would love to talk with my former students in China. They encouraged me to do Chinese calligraphy on several occasions and they were very encouraging about it. I love working with a Chinese brush and black ink.

<< American Flag>>, Drawing by Pan on Paper During a Trip, 2009

Yu: . My original intention in this interview was to ask you, my two true friends, to elaborate on the commentaries you made on my painting so that viewers would understand their import.  Because my painting is a visual expression of the recent Wall Street implosion, and because art is all-encompassing, our discussion ranged  from painting to economics, from New York to Washington, from Western aesthetics to Eastern philosophy.  This interview  started and ended with art.  I think you would agree with me that  the power of art is changeless, regardless of economic cycles of boom and bust.





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