Tomes of the Brave
- Kenny Scharf’s exuberant cartoons infuse daily life with a dose of whimsy.
- Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1960s protest songs made her the subject of FBI attention.
- Artists find unconventional ways to express patriotism.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, whether on a gallery wall or the side of a car Kenny Scharf’s exuberant cartoons infuse daily life with a dose of whimsy.
Kenny Scharf: If I’m gonna contribute something into the world I want to put good energy out there, and I want to improve things.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1960’s protest songs made her the subject of FBI attention. 50 years on, she wouldn’t change a thing.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I’ve enjoyed every year. I never went for that stuff about the big 30 and then it’s over, none of that. No, every year is better. They just don’t tell you that.
And, unconditional love of country can be blinding, but artists are finding ways to express patriotism with eyes wide open.
Nina Berman: I just want to help people to understand why things happen in the first place maybe as opposed to just accepting them.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Kenny Scharf grew up during that brief period when television had created a unified popular culture.
Kenny Scharf: I grew up in the Valley, but so and so in Pennsylvania was watching the same show, and that’s why, when I first started doing my stuff in the street, I knew that everyone knew these characters that were dear to my heart—not only my heart, it was in my dreams.
AJC: And it was in the collective memory?
Scharf: In the collective memory.
Scharf’s early work drew heavily on The Flintstones and The Jetsons, juxtaposing these thoroughly modern visions of the past and the future. Then, in 1983, he created a universe of his own, populated by mutant cartoons with infinite potential.
AJC: They do evoke happiness, with the bright colors. I don’t even know how to phrase it. It’s a lot of positive energy they give off.
Scharf: Well, thank you. I mean, if I’m gonna contribute something into the world, I want to put good energy out there, and I want to improve things. It’s not like everything I do is all about happy and fun. Because, right here behind me, these are about fracking and the petroleum industry, but it’s full of joy. They’re fracking gas monsters, and it’s not their fault. They’re just being released into the beautiful rainbow environment that they’re destroying.
AJC: What reactions do you enjoy to the work?
Scharf: The thing I enjoy most is a reaction. The one I don’t like is when there’s no reaction, people don’t notice.
AJC: But how could that happen?
Scharf: It’s happened.
Scharf: For instance, back in my early days, I shared a studio with Keith Haring. And he just became really famous while we were living together. So people were coming over night and day, and they had to walk through my art to get to his. And it was literally like my art was a white wall. It wasn’t there. So that’s an example.
Scharf met Haring when they were both students at the school of visual arts in Manhattan. They became close friends, and spent countless nights together at the now legendary Club 57—a sort of 1980s answer to Andy Warhol’s Factory. With a vibrant artistic community behind him, Scharf’s creativity knew no boundaries.
Scharf: You could be in a band, you could be a performance artist, you could be a painter, you could be a filmmaker, all at the same time. There was nobody saying, “You need to focus on one thing.”
But Kenny Scharf remained undeniably drawn to cartoons, a fact that would alienate him from the art establishment.
Scharf: I thought to have cartoons in the art world is a no-brainer. I’m not the first one that did it. I mean, pop artists were doing it, and I thought that ground was broken way before me. Yet I encountered a lot of resistance, and maybe because my cartoon use wasn’t ironic. Pop art is kind of taking that and looking at it from a distance and saying, “Oh, that’s art.” I’m just saying, “This is me, and this is coming from me.”
AJC: Without the snarkiness.
Scharf: Yeah. So, I think that people a lot of times didn’t like that. They thought it was kid stuff, and I wasn’t being a serious adult artist.
But Scharf was too serious about his style to give up on it. Since coining the phrase “pop surrealism” in 1981, he’s persisted and has been embraced sporadically over the years—a spot in the Whitney Biennial here, a solo show at the Dalí Museum there, but never the deluge of affection he would see bestowed on so many of his contemporaries, most notably Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Scharf: I had to sell my friends’ work to survive, and I was doing bartering. I was bartering my dentist, my landlord. I was like… I did it. I managed to do it.
AJC: And you have a young family at this point, right?
Scharf: Yeah, I had a young family, two little girls. They’re all grown up. I’m a grandpa now.
AJC: It was a lot?
Scharf: Yes it was. And not only did I have that to deal with, but all my friends pretty much died. So I was like, “Oh, you didn’t die.” I felt like that. I felt like I was being punished for not dying with the rest of my group, so not only did I have my own pain of losing my friends, I… My career was…
AJC: You were being punished for surviving?
But Kenny Scharf persevered, and, in 2000, he tried something brand new: animation. His characters, already so full of motion, seemed poised to be put in sequence. However, The Groovenians fell victim to the Hollywood machine and was canceled after just one episode.
Scharf: I felt like I had a baby, and I had to throw it in the gutter, and walk, and just drive away. It was really hard. But what I did learn was important and really good for me was, when that whole thing ended, I was broke. I kind of left my art career for two years, in a way, to work on it, thinking it was gonna be a huge hit. And so I’m back here, and I’m like, “You know what’s so great? When you make a painting, you don’t have to get anybody’s approval.” So that gave me a real kick.
AJC: It’s a pretty good consolation.
Scharf: It is.
AJC: When you think you’ve given up everything, to find out that you still exist.
Scharf: Yeah, and I basically said, “Okay, what am I gonna do now?” I said, “I’m gonna make the greatest painting that is gonna blow everyone away so bad they can’t deny it.”
That painting was City of the Future, and it began as sort of a comeback for Kenny Scharf.
AJC: Whatever you have now, you’ve earned, twice and three times.
Scharf: I have paid my dues, that’s for sure.
AJC: You really have.
Scharf: You won’t find me complaining, ’cause I don’t and I won’t. It’s just, stick to your thing, and just keep doing it, and you will prevail. And I think—I’m hopefully thinking—I’m not a young whipper snapper anymore.
AJC: But you’re not an old man.
Scharf: I’m not an old man, and I’ve got plenty left in me. But I’m hoping that maybe I will be accepted as here to stay.
And, to look around his native Los Angeles, it would seem that Kenny Scharf is indeed here to stay.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has had a more than half century long career as a performer and songwriter. Her latest album, 2015’s Power in the Blood uses signature elements of her earlier recordings, Native American influences, she’s Canadian Cree, and politically poignant lyrics with hard hitting rock and electronic grooves that place her sound firmly in the present day. Yet, her original ambition wasn’t to be front and center herself. She wanted to write for other artists, and indeed she achieved many great successes in this area. Among them “Until It’s Time For You To Go”, a proto-feminist anthem that was covered by major stars including Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, and Elvis Presley.
AJC: It always seemed a little odd to me given the times and this was a woman asserting her right to be intimate with somebody on her terms, did it ever sound odd to you in the mouths of men singing it?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: A little bit, you know? A little bit. It doesn’t
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Yeah, but it didn’t bother them, and I was just so flattered that they liked the song enough to take it into their lives and do it their own way.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s career began to bloom during her early 20’s, but her artistic sensibility appeared much earlier.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: When I was about three I discovered the piano and that was it. I still write the same way, songs still come to me in the same way, I paint the same way, I draw the same way, I dance the same way just like a kid.
AJC: But, it comes to you easily?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Very easily.
AJC: You say you find songs in the piano.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No, that’s how it is. I’ll pick up a guitar. Even if I’m gonna go and buy a guitar I’ll listen to the guitar and some of them I don’t know what it is. Some I find are really inspirational, and I never know about writing. For me it’s like dreaming. You know how it is if you go to bed at night you don’t know if you’re gonna have a dream or if you do what it’s gonna be about? That’s always been the way songs have come to me. They appear in my head, and some I can identify as what I ate for dinner or what I’ve been thinking about, but others are just brand new.
Though many of her more ephemeral songs came naturally, others such as the powerful antiwar song, “Universal Soldier”, made famous in the US and UK by the British folk singer, Donovan, required a more studied approach.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I mean “Universal Soldier” I wrote not as a dream or an inspirational thing, but I worked on it real hard like I work for doing a thesis for a professor who didn’t like me and didn’t like the subject I had chosen, and I wanted an A, so I write that way. I’m a good journalist in song. If it’s of a difficult or unusual subject matter I want it to give to people in a way that they can understand it and that hopefully they’ll want to listen to again and that they’ll like. You don’t want to give them the good news in an enema. You don’t want to do that, you don’t have to do that. “Universal Soldier” is not an expression of anger. It’s a song about justice, and it’s about the person who is listening. It’s about individual responsibility.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The content of the songs I thought people would like. It was different. It turned out to be way ahead of its time, and other people were writing eventually about drug addiction or were writing antiwar songs. Eventually people started to know about Native American people, but for some reason the things that appeal to me to share with other people at the time were quite new, and the first place I wanted to give audiences is uniqueness. That was tolerated in the 60’s. Uniqueness was welcomed.
Sainte-Marie was an early pioneer of the socially conscious songs that are now a hallmark of 1960’s folk music, but not everyone was quite so tolerant, and just as her career was taking off Sainte-Marie’s songs stopped being played on the radio. Years later, she would find out that the Johnson administration has targeted her after “Universal Soldier” became an anthem for antiwar activists.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: When all of a sudden I was on magazine covers and Life magazine and all the big magazines and the Tonight Show, et cetera, the morning shows all of a sudden I disappeared, and I didn’t know for a very long time that I had been blacklisted. I never considered that I would have been important enough to be under surveillance.
AJC: Never committed any crime?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No, I’d never broken laws, no.
AJC: And, then when you did find out most of it was redacted, right? So, you never really find out what the reason was.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Correct, yes.
AJC: You just seem to roll with the punches, so you’re not getting radio air play and you don’t know why, you don’t know why your musical career is stalled, so you go out and you spend five years on Sesame Street.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Yeah.
AJC: And, that’s a great period of your life as well.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Well, it’s not all I was doing, though. I was living in Hawaii back and forth, so I did have that organic loveliness of nature. I lived way in the middle of nowhere. Also I was still touring. I would play at reservations. I’d play in other countries. I traveled with the United Nations for the High Commission on Refugees and UNICEF, so I was having quite a career in spite of being gagged in the US, and what ticked me off about being gagged in the US when I finally knew about it and thought about it, it wasn’t that my career had been denied because I already had three meals a day for the rest of my life. It was that the people who needed support and encouragement and people who needed and wanted information, particularly about Indian issues, were being denied that.
AJC: You seem remarkably un-cynical by all that life has thrown at you.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I am. I’m real happy. I’ve taken care of my health all my life. I’ve enjoyed every year. I never went for that stuff about the big 30 and then it’s over, none of that. No, every year is better. They just don’t tell you that. I never got into alcohol. I’ve been a teetotaler all my life, and I take real good care of myself. I do ballet and flamenco. I mean, that’s like being in the Army. It keeps your body real healthy. It keeps you lifted, and it keeps you strong. I got so fortunate in my early career. I made a lot of money, and I bought a farm in Hawaii.
AJC: Where you still live?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: And, I still live there. I’ve been there for 50 years. I live with a bunch of goats, a whole bunch of chickens, and wild pigs, and a kitty cat, and a horse, and a sweetheart.
AJC: And, your son is a neighbor?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: My son is my neighbor, yes. My son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild.
AJC: What did Big Bird say about him, it was a snobby name?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Big Bird said, “And, I think Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild “is a stuck up name!” Sesame Street was just the best.
Now in her mid-70’s, Buffy Sainte-Marie shows no signs of slowing down thanks in large part to her childlike approach to life.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: If I have a religion I would say it’s creativity and just the easiest most playful use of that word. I mean, the Bible says that we’re made in the image of the creator, and when I used to hear that I’d say, “Oh, that’s obviously true everywhere even in the Bible.” That’s the green light for creativity. We create our worlds, our families, our cultures. We create our music. We create our future every moment. It’s really the gift.
There’s a familiar set of ideas about what it means to love your country that have become the accepted norm. What being a patriot is supposed to look and sound like is deeply embedded in our culture, but what if there are patriots to be found outside the bounds of the standard narrative? Among the rebels, the activists, the artists?
Michael D’Antuono: It’s a great country, but it’s not perfect, and I want it to be great for everybody, not just a few.
Nina Chanel Abney: Artists get a little bit of more wiggle room, a free pass to be rebellious. It’s okay for an artist to do that more so than someone else.
Nina Berman: I just want to help people to understand why things happen in the first place maybe as opposed to just accepting them.
Artists are, in fact, uniquely positioned for this task says Rogers Smith, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rogers Smith: People who are competing to hold political office often are too focused on their immediate objectives to have the kind of broader vision of an alternate future than can help inspire broad support and also provide guidance for what to achieve, so often they need the artists, the creators. Shelley said that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind because they offered a vision of what humanity could be that the more pragmatic, political types might eventually draw on and implement.
Michael D’Antuono: They’re very honest, my paintings, and they challenge the morality of the status quo, so by shining a light on our problems that’s the only way to fix them, and that’s what I try to do. A lot of people consider me a iconoclast and an evil kind of guy, un-American, which is to me ironic.
AJC: Because you have the best interest of our country at heart? Really?
Michael D’Antuono: Absolutely. I don’t hate America, I love America. What I don’t like, and what I have a problem with are those who want to monopolize all the freedoms and opportunities that America gives.
But, what about what America takes? From 2003 to 2004, photojournalist Nina Berman focused her lens on the plight of young veterans, wounded in war and struggling to find a fresh start.
Nina Berman: Many soldiers that I met believed in the war effort, and I don’t hold that against them. I never tried to convince them otherwise, I didn’t do the project because I wanted to show “look at these idiots, they bought some lie.” It was nothing like that. They were all very complicated human beings, and I wanted to understand now that their war was over or whatever they imagined their life was gonna be, then what?
With her series Marine Wedding and Purple Hearts Nina Berman was one of the first to shine a spotlight on the traumas suffered by servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nina Berman: I think especially as a journalist that what we’re supposed to do is hold power accountable. That’s one of the things that’s really our mission, and photographically we have to do that in a way that uncovers things that are not seen or shows things that need to be seen in another way, in a way that makes an impression, that conveys an emotion, that creates compassion, or understanding, or revelation.
These were also among the goals of painter, Nina Chanel Abney in her 2015 series, Always A Winner.
Nina Chanel Abney: For that show, it was actually the most direct I’ve ever been with any of the work I’ve made just because I mean, you can’t really obscure that. It is what it is, so I purposely want to be I guess more in your face about it instead of abstracting what was going on. It was no way to hide it, so I wanted to make the paintings very large and extremely confrontational.
AJC: How can it translate into change?
Nina Chanel Abney: I think if it can spark a conversation even just change an individual’s perception that’s how I feel like I could make a change, by using my work to get the viewer to feel compelled to do something.
AJC: It sounds like you’re talking about duty, that there’s almost, an artist is almost duty bound to not sit there. They need to be the first people who get to say it because they have the most articulate voices a lot of the time.
Nina Chanel Abney: Well yeah, I feel like if you’re not doing that I could just be in my studio making work for myself and never show anyone, but if you’re going to put it out there for the public I feel like “well, what are you doing it for?”
Still, when change seems so elusive many artists do ask themselves why they do what they do. Michael D’Antuono believes that the change artists can bring about is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Michael D’Antuono: The struggle between the haves and the have nots have been going on since time began, and one painting or one movie isn’t gonna do it. It’s a constant battle. It’s been from the beginning of time, and it’s gonna keep on going, but there are forces, powerful forces working the other way, so art is a way where you can get a message across, and it gets into people’s minds, and it will make a difference.
Rogers Smith: It as a recurrent feature particularly in American experience that people seeing themselves as patriots have criticized their government even rebelled against their government because they thought it wasn’t living up to its true ideals, and that tradition that it can be a patriotic act to engage in civil disobedience, to go outside the law to bring the country to its higher ideals is a very deeply rooted American tradition ever since.
AJC: One man’s traitor is another man’s freedom fighter.
Rogers Smith: Absolutely.
Nina Berman: You should care about the place you’re living in and whether you want to then identify yourself as an American or someone who lives in New York City, whatever it is, then you should care about the place you’re living in and understand the history and understand the forces that are maybe keeping you down or keeping your friend down. That to me is, I think, a purposeful life.