Gene Elder interviews art critic Sarah Fisch

My Own Private Alamo. Original collage by Gene Elder

Gene Elder: Greetings Sarah. Thank you for joining all of us on the global gossip sofa. Just move those stuffed animals out of the way and have a seat. Don’t sit on Bugs Bunny. I am very interested in your recent study venture in California, but I know we have more important things to discuss. Let’s just start. What’s first?

Sarah Fisch: Hello Gene! It’s an honor to sit on this storied couch. I’ve been eyeing it for years. Let’s talk about UFOs.

Gene: Oh God! You are good. You know what I like.  Have you seen one?

Sarah: I have! I was about nine years old, and it was in Laredo. I was staying with my family in La Posada Hotel and I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window. There was a green light swinging in the air … as though there were a mile-high lamppost with a green light bulb on a cord way off in the distance, and the light was swinging pretty slowly back and forth on this cord. So it’s an unidentified swinging object, I guess? I’m no better at describing it than I am at understanding it, unfortunately. But that thing has undermined my knee-jerk skepticism ever since.

Gene: All right! Well, more and more people are willing to talk about this and bring their UFO sightings out of the closet. OK, so lets talk about you. You were helping with a political campaign. Without boring us, tell us what that was like.

Sarah: I did social media for the Enrique Valdivia City Council run for District 7. Enrique is a good friend and an incredibly smart person with tremendous integrity; and it’s fascinating to help a true local grassroots campaign. I tell you what: Neighborhood association meetings can get pretty spicy. Especially when one of the candidates is campaigning while being investigated by the FBI and the SAPD.

Gene: Well do tell! We want all the dirt!

Sarah: Here’s the most important dirt: Watching and participating in the campaign reignited my concern about local politics. Enrique, to my mind, won the issues contest, hands down. But the voting in District 7 went for Medina. He’s got some very real credibility issues. In town hall meetings, when he showed up, he was flummoxed by constituent questions about his finances, skirted input about his renaming of a public park, and had no workable solutions about the police and fire department union stalemate. But this didn’t translate to the district votership—or not to enough of it. It’s a real challenge to potential candidates, to San Antonio neighborhoods, and to the future of our city to build an informed electorate. People are still voting in small numbers, and I think are making decisions based on name recognition, not on platforms. Some of the problem is an entrenched political ignorance about what municipal government should be accountable for and what it can achieve. Local media plays a role in that, and increasingly social media has an important role to play in communicating between San Antonians and their elected officials, city offices, and candidates during election cycles. How does a political voice as thoughtful and informed as Enrique’s reach its audience? I’m giving this a lot of thought.

Gene: Well, that was thrilling. And it makes me want to move right along to National Political ARt Month. As you know, and all of San Antonio too, July has been Political ARt Month since the powers that be moved Contemporary Art Month to somewhere else. I forget where. Somewhere for the tourists to ruin. So lets talk about political art. What do you think that is?

Sarah: The lazy answer is “all art is political.” I happen to believe this, but it’s still a lame answer. For one thing, there are artists who take a definitive political stance in their work, and who deserve to have their arguments taken seriously. Political ARt Month can shift the critical dialogue away from mainly formalist concerns. My favorite genre of political art is satire. I think it’s a difficult thing to do well. You’re a great satirist by the way. Which brings me to how we met! In 2008, I wrote a story about Hap Veltman for the San Antonio Current and Elaine Wolff put me in touch with you as the keeper of his legacy. Through Happy Foundation, the LGBT archives, the Wedding Cake Liberation Front and, in that series of interviews, you struck me as very much a political, conceptual artist. You convey a really idiosyncratic point of view, but you also consciously represent and document a strong LGBT community that’s been completely under siege in your lifetime—whether the community was persecuted by Anita Bryant, or the cops raiding the San Antonio Country in its early days, or the stigma and inaction surrounding HIV/AIDS. Satire is a political fight. What’s your line about lipstick and war?

Gene: Hap had said one evening as we were plotting how to deal with the military raids on the San Antonio Country, “Put on your mascara girls. This means war!” I am not sure where that quote came from. I had always thought he made that up, but it may have come out of the women’s liberation movement. But it is funnier as a gay man’s war cry. Well, as much as I like to talk about me. Let’s move on to other interesting artists. I always use Mount Rushmore and Guernica and theater and movies to make my point about political art, but it really goes on all the time. Pick someone from our stable of San Antonio artists and lets expose him or her and their subversive art.

Sarah: Ed Saavedra. He’s smart, fierce, and inventive. For example, he did an onsite performance a few Luminarias ago, where he took over the copy room at the Convention Center and made Xeroxes of his work and handed them out for free. He was dressed in an office job uniform; a tucked-in shirt, a tie, and even a pocket protector, if I remember correctly. He stayed in character as a regular working Joe the whole time. He took breaks to chat with whoever stopped by. I think most of the people who watched him making copies, and who he gave printouts to, didn’t even know he was the artist. It was an unassuming performance but it felt subversive. He demonstrated that art is a workman-like practice, not something precious and remote. Have you ever seen his portrait of Harvey Milk?

Gene: Quick! Lets Google! Well, hmmmm. Are you referring to this portrait? So what’s so great about that? Ed is an interesting choice. Why exactly?

Sarah: For me, what’s great about that portrait is how a social statement is conveyed by the composition—the palette, the cropping, the background, the focus, even the title. One can say that this painting accomplishes not much more beyond a pictorial representation of a man, which is not necessarily special. And beyond that, the work gets a lot of thematic mileage out of its subject. So is that cheating? I mean, is Saavedra just relying on Harvey Milk—his life, his death, his accomplishments—to carry the conceptual weight and value? I’m not sure what your objections to the specialness of this work are, if there are any, but those are valid questions. My counter argument is this: Whatever else any portrait is “about,” it’s also about portraiture. Whatever else a painting is “about,” it’s also about painting. I don’t know who first said this, but it feels axiomatic, anyway. So let’s take a close look at the formal choices Saavedra is making in this painting, and how he addresses the inherent politics of portraiture. His most obvious choice is scale. It doesn’t translate through a Google image search, unfortunately, but the painting measures 48 by 60 inches. So when you stand in front of it, Harvey Milk’s face is five feet tall.
Now, let’s consider scale within the canon of Western art-historical portraitists, like da Vinci, Dürer, Velasquez, Holbein, van Eyck, Eakins and Sargent. Their bust portraits are often on the order of about 21 by 30 inches in size, very intimate. I arrived at these dimensions pretty informally, based on Dürer’s self portrait of 1500, the Mona Lisa, Holbein’s Portrait of Sir Thomas More, van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Turban and Van Gogh’s various “head of a woman” portraits. Whereas canonical portrait paintings at the scale of Saavedra’s often depict an entire figure or several figures, in more of a heroic narrative, such as a general on his horse. Velasquez’s portraits of Philip IV, Sargent’s Madame X, some of Stuart’s George Washington [portraits], and The Blue Boy of Gainsborough. So, to my mind’s eye, Saavedra’s scale—like Harvey Milk’s political activism—inverts traditional conventions. Like Harvey Milk, Saavedra takes something intimate and demands it be addressed on a heroic scale. Milk defied the history of shame and insisted, despite every risk, that the LGBT community not be marginalized or kept in secret subordination. Harvey Milk was far from the first demanding human rights, but in his time he was a high-profile public face. The personal is the political in Milk’s mission, and in Saavedra’s painting. Then there’s the emotional resonance of the color palette—wait, what’s your word count?

Gene: Damn! You are good! I want to take your art class! I suppose we could go on about size and Mount Rushmore and importance, but what do you think about Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei? This is live radio, broadcast around the word, there is no word count. And who is counting?

Sarah: I am in favor of both. I was particularly fond of Pussy Riot, because they cited the Riot Grrrl feminist-punk movement of the 1990s as an influence. I was their age when Riot Grrrl was going on, and it forms some of my aesthetic, too. And I can identify with Pussy Riot’s anger, though certainly not on the order of what women face in Russia.

Gene: OK, well enough of that. Let’s talk about you. What is your latest project?

Sarah: I’ve got a few—after writing about art and culture for the past eight years, I had to figure out a way to make a living. To support my writing habit, in a way. The writing economy is in limbo, as I’m sure you know—the death of print, the rise of the blog, fewer and fewer editorial staff positions, freelance budgets are shrinking, etc. I was an Annenberg Fellow at the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California from 2012 to 2013 and got to attend seminars led by experts in the journalism industry, academics, editors, publishers, SEO experts, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
There’s so much good writing out there, but we’re in a bizarre moment in media history. How to pay writers? So I’m making an entrepreneurial leap. I started a company in January called Go Fisch New Media. I create content for clients—Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, blog posts, videos. I also help them strategize what kind of social media and online presence best suits their organization. That’s what I was doing for Enrique Valdivia’s City Council campaign. I’ve also done some work with AtticRep, the Southwest School of Art, Luminaria and Blue Star Ointment. The first six months have been crazy hard but really fun. How to adapt my journalistic and personal writing to this framework? That’s what I’m figuring out next.

Gene: Gosh, you are busy. Any other thoughts about journalism before I ask you what your favorite places to eat in San Antonio are? And just to add, Adan Hernandez is my favorite political artist in San Antonio. Any thoughts about his work? And give me your website.

Sarah: I think there are many reasons to be optimistic about journalism, the strange current economics of it notwithstanding. The technological change brought about by the internet is so enormous and has happened so quickly, it’s just going to take awhile for the financial elements to sort it out.
OK, this is really reductive, but here’s how I’m thinking of this period in a historical sense. The internet is the biggest leap in mass literacy since the printing press in terms of the sheer amount of material made widely available to a reading public. With Gutenberg, literacy moved from the hands of the clergy and the rich to being achievable to anybody, in theory anyway. But books, although not written out individually by monks, stayed expensive beyond the reach of most people. Printed materials were tricky to monetize. Writers often had wealthy patrons, or came from wealth. And readers couldn’t afford to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars per book.
Periodicals gained power in the 19th century, fueled by printing technology and potential profit, and they changed the reading world. While regular people couldn’t afford to pay for a whole novel, they could afford a shilling for a monthly installment of a novel. Charles Dickens issued all his novels in serial form, starting with The Pickwick Papers in 1836. His audience grew very quickly. The masses could afford to read his work, because publishers were able to sell advertising space in these smaller, cheaper  publications. Dickens and other authors were able to make a living from this model, too, which kept them working. And because each installment was so popular, a big population of readers read Dickens at more or less the same time, which made for a public consensus and a shared conversation. Everybody could discuss the most recent developments in Oliver Twist, or speculate on what Nicholas Nickleby would be up to next. Dickens’ storytelling technique reflected this serial approach too, with each chapter constructed to keep the reader interested for the next. This serial technique influences media to this day, from TV dramas to, well, Serial, Sarah Koenig’s massively successful and excellent podcast about a murder case.
But back to Dickens. As his readership of everyday people grew and grew, so did his platform for voicing social concerns. Oliver Twist is a visceral indictment of child exploitation, as well as an exposé of the horrific living conditions for the London underclass. Flaubert and Dostoevsky published their novels serially as well, and made a living and reached enormous audiences in the same way. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published chapter by chapter in an abolitionist magazine in the United States. Wide readership of these works changed hearts and minds, and inspired action.
But what would Dickens do now? How would he fare in this mass media climate? Now we’ve got a million outlets, and everyone can be their own Dickens. Which is great, but as a reader, how do you find your Dickens? If you’re Dickens, how do you find your audience? And how do you make a living in the process? Media is so much more complex and diffuse. For online publications, or the web versions of traditional publications, subscription and paywall models are struggling. Advertisers aren’t totally sure where to put their dollars. And the audience isn’t convinced they should pay for content.
So all this seems kind of dire. But there are so many indicators that, despite all the noise, there’s a huge, smart audience out there, bigger than ever before and more reachable than ever before, who want to participate in journalism as social change. Social media has an interesting part to play in this dynamic.
Let’s look at the media and marriage equality. What seemed impossible a generation ago gained incredible momentum and media at all levels had a role in pushing us forward. Mass media has become permeable from one level to another; it isn’t top-down communication anymore. I read so many great essays, watched such moving testimony, and really appreciated the legal analysis I had access to on the internet during the marriage equality battle. The good media came from all directions. There’s the micro level, by which I mean social media practitioners and bloggers who have made eloquent and influential arguments in favor of legal rights. Families themselves share personal stories through social media, and activists and essayists cite these stories to demand recognition and change. Micro-level mass media is increasingly followed and quoted by more traditional publication-level media; a lot of news coverage derives from social media and the blogosphere. What first goes viral, then becomes national coverage. Then the coverage produced by mass media outlets like The New York Times, CNN, or even local news, get disseminated through Facebook and Twitter and through blogs. The media companies keep a close eye on what’s being shared, and how often. Meanwhile, polling indicated that more and more Americans supported marriage equality. All this media momentum was cumulative, and reflected a critical mass of support. A nationwide mandate for equality became greater than the critical mass of oppression. I believe this mandate influenced the Supreme Court ruling. This is such a great outcome, and it makes me feel hopeful.
Now, how do I get paid for writing? I don’t know. But there’s healthy dialogue to feel excited about, and to participate in and contribute to while I keep trying.

Gene: Well that made my head spin. And your favorite place to eat?

Sarah: On to where I like to eat in SA! OK, speaking of all things political, here’s one place I’m really excited about: La Botanica on North St. Mary’s. One of the chef /owners, Rebel Mariposa, is a real powerhouse thinker in terms of marrying traditional Mexican elements with healthy techniques, and sheer deliciousness. Food is definitely political art, especially as our diets have become so reliant on unhealthy and processed food. I’m impressed by La Botanica’s mission, and the food is yummy. Cocktails, too. And they’re open late—a good place to spend your money!

Gene: And about Adan Hernandez? Do you know of his work?

Sarah: Now, as to Adan Hernandez, he’s great. Talk about somebody who merits more widespread media coverage. I really admire his mission to get a museum of Chicano art here in San Antonio, and I have hope he’ll be successful. He’s a real political artist, for sure. He is an important voice and part of a crucial tradition which includes Jesse Treviño and Mel Casas; a tradition that’s both visual and thematic, and brings to light the complicated and embattled Chicano experience in South Texas, which is still madly under-represented in the art world, the academic world, and the media world. And the work done by Adan Hernandez has established a beachhead for younger artists like Ed Saavedra, Julia Barbosa-Landois and a host of others, even if their work is dissimilar. It’s a matter of voice and representation. Adan Hernandez’s “Chicano noir” aesthetic is emotionally charged—it’s visceral, you see these images and they’re unapologetic and draw you into a larger story.

Gene: Ok your turn. You get to ask me a question now.

Sarah: Oh good! Here’s one. Do you see your work with the archives as itself a work of political art? Also, you’re a very prolific political artist through your emails, in my opinion. Would you talk about how the email format appeals to you as a chosen medium—over, say, blogging or other social media platforms? OK, I know that’s two questions, but I can’t help it. I also want to ask you about the opera you’ve been working on. But I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these questions to address, and how to answer!

Gene: I do approach my duties as an archivist for the Happy Foundation with an artist’s spirit and think of it as my most relevant art project. I do like to talk about it as art and feel like I am ahead of the art curve in some way by not just thinking of it as a job but an artwork. Life is so much more interesting if you look at what you are doing as art. But I am not the first to proclaim an archive as art. I had read an article in Artforum or somewhere about two artists who were creating an archive as art—photography projects. So I don’t claim to be the first to think this thought, but I do enjoy being the first in San Antonio to promote this idea.
Emails are a fast and easy way to communicate, very simple, and I suffer from a Paul Revere complex. I think I am supposed to tell everyone the British are coming; hahahaha! I’m sure Paul wishes he had had email. I really hate the internet and computers, so I just flat don’t want to waste a lot of time spinning my wheels. I don’t blog. I don’t Facebook. The internet, to me, is like walking into an auditorium where millions of people are all talking at once and saying nothing. Which is why I invented the Chartreuse Couch—back to civilized conversations.
The opera: First, I am not composing the music; I am only attempting to write the words and invent the story. And I see it as a left brain/right brain opera using business and the arts as an inspiration. It is called Banco de San Antonio because that is where I banked when I managed the San Antonio Country and it was a really neat art-inspired bank. More about this later when I have more. Talking about a project too much beforehand just tends to jinx it. Thanks for visiting the Chartreuse Couch, “My own private Alamo.”

Gene Elder can be reached at [email protected].


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