Gronk’s “Theater of Paint”


Gronk paints set designs for big bold operas, little intimate plays and even on the walls on the way in to his loft in downtown Los Angeles. A whole exhibition dedicated to his set designs is now at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM). The show is immersive since you can actually experience being on one of his sets yourself. It’s also a fun show imbued with the spirit of bricolage as well as an ingenious juxtaposition of the high and the low.

The immersive part is the series of set designs themselves that are beautiful, labyrinthine, dense and intricate paintings that become part of the theatrical experience. Like characters in an opera or a play, they “speak” and play a central role. He’s also painted a set that you can actually perform in or simply stand on to get a feel of what it’s like to be on one of his stages. He recently had a performance of “La Tormenta,” one of his alter egos, on that set.

The fun part of the show is that besides his set designs, notes, and diaries of drawings, Gronk pays playful homage to the cult 1950s B-movie, “The Giant Claw.” It may be one of the worst movies ever made mostly due to its dreadful special effects. It was a joke without intending to be a joke. The movie’s low budget meant that instead of using the his first choice for special effects, FX master Ray Harryhauser, the director, Sam Katzman, was forced to hire an inexpensive special effects firm based in Mexico City. The result was a ludicrous puppet-like creature. An inside joke for the movie’s cultists is that throughout the movie everyone keeping repeating that the creature is “bigger than a battleship.” In actuality it was probably a few inches high. Where the Japanese gave us “Rodan” with it’s well-made believable flying pre-historic monster, Katzman gave us “The Giant Claw” where you can’t help laughing at the unbelievable creature flying around like a deranged kite. You can see the whole movie on YouTube and judge for yourself.

In the “Theater of Paint,” Gronk has sculpted the claw from the creature. In the movie the last thing you see is the claw as the creature sinks into the ocean after being killed. In the show, one big black claw hangs from the ceiling and another is installed on a circle of red carpet. Gronk really loves this movie. He did a whole book of fascinating drawings called “The Giant Claw that drew its inspiration from the movie.

I don’t know if the claw has an existential meaning for Gronk or not. It could simply be that he was taken with the idea that something so bad as the horribly concocted clawed creature would even star in a Hollywood movie. Or, the big claw could simply be the symbol of Hollywood itself as in, “you have to claw your way to the top” to be a star.

This is where the concept of bricolage comes into play. It’s a French word that basically means “do-it-yourself” and use whatever materials are at hand, the odds and ends, and create something new from that. The creature in “The Giant Claw” was an accidental form of bricolage. Imagine yourself at the studio in Mexico City where they built the bizarre and ugly papier-mâché creature. It seems they grabbed whatever was lying around to make the bulging eyes, the stringy hair, and the oddly shaped wings.

I was fortunate enough to have seen the 2005 world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera of Gronk’s set design for the opera, Ainadamar, based on the tragic assassination of the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. Lorca had been shot and killed on the outskirts of Granada by the Spanish fascists in August 1936 because, as the fascist’s own documents attest, they saw him as a “socialist and a freemason,” about whom rumors swirled of “homosexual and abnormal practices.” Gronk’s set design incorporated the warm color palette of the region into the set design and used the seed image as an organizing motif to literally set the stage for this sad but ultimately inspiring production dedicated to the power of the artist.

This set for Ainadamar by itself is high art. When Gronk’s series of opera sets are seen alongside the black sculptures of the giant claw from the B-movie you get a unique mixture of the high and the low. This is what makes the show interesting.

Opera is often seen as the art form preferred by elites and, of course, B-movies are usually the purview of the masses. The intersection is where you can find Gronk and “Theater of Paint” provides some serious fun and a worthwhile diversion in a hot summer filled with terrorist violence, unhinged politics and basically a world on the precipice.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts.” This resonates for me when I see Gronk’s painted stages and the many parts he’s played as an artist. It’s almost the perfect quote for a show of set designs and reminds us that life is a performance, we play many parts and then we’re gone in a flash and, if we’re lucky, someone might memorialize a part of us like maybe a claw.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Horizon’s Verge

“Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.” – Lord Byron61715BlueBlack3A9623

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
Herman Melville




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Grow Old

“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” Herman Melville





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An American in Provence

As an American heading to Provence after spending a week in Paris and then another week in Istanbul, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Yes, I knew of Peter Mayle’s classic A Year in Provence and years ago enjoyed watching the French films about rural Provence, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. More recently, there was Ridley Scott’s amuse-bouche with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, A Good Year, a film offering a picture perfect postcard image of Provence. I was also aware of the famous expats who had lived here at one time or another: everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Nina Simone. Perhaps I was expecting too much for one place to deliver. Well, we were in for a pleasant surprise.

Quartier Mazarin

Quartier Mazarin

We arrived in Aix-en-Provence early one evening in mid-June from the Marseille airport to a charming apartment in the Quartier Mazarin, an elegant section of the city. The rooms were just a few hundred feet from the famous Place des Quartre Dauphins with its beautiful fountain (dating back to 1667) and, as we would later learn later from our tour guide, right behind the legendary Hotel de Caumont. All was good and then it started to rain and I mean it really rained.

Suddenly, we wondered if we had made the right choice but then we realized the weather–whether in Provence, Istanbul or Los Angeles–has a mind of its own. Anyway, there was a certain romantic feel to the rain especially when we threw open the French doors and the moist night air drifted into the apartment along with the soothing sound of rain falling on the cobbled street below.

Our time in Provence became unforgettable because we had come upon a recommendation for guided tours in Rick Steve’s Best of Europe 2015‘s section on France. He recommended Discover Provence, which is owned and managed by the British-born and French-fluent Sarah Pernet. Sarah and her team offer small intimate tours of Provence. So, instead of being tourists walking around lost and asking for directions in broken French, we were introduced to Provence in the best way possible.

Our first full day in Provence began with Sarah leading a tour to the stunningly picturesque perched villages of Luberon. Not only did Pernet take us to the well-known villages such as Gordes and Roussillon, she also took us to some of the villages off the beaten track. As you tour these hilltop villages you also pass fields of lavender and olive trees. Since it had rained the night before the air was full and the scent of the damp soil mixed with lavender, rosemary, and an earthy aroma wafted through the air, something that I had never smelled before. Call it the natural perfume of Provence.

Luberon Villages

Luberon Villages

At one point, Sarah stopped at the side of the road next to a field of lavender. There was a muddy and clay-like feel to the soil. She even said if that if we weren’t careful we’d sink right into the ground. It was a bit like quicksand. Again, there was that aroma and it was then that I knew that this was part of the secret allure of the place: the soil, the air, the wind, and the calm aliveness that surrounded us. Along with the strong scents in the air it was also the light violet hue of the lavender next to the pale green of the olive trees, and the dark green of the grape leaves on their vines. I would learn later there was one more ingredient that made Provence even more captivating.
Lavender Field and Olive Trees in Provence

Lavender Field and Olive Trees in Provence

Every step along the tour Sarah combined historic, geographic, cultural, and local flavor to give us a true sense of the hilltop villages and their surroundings. As I mentioned, she also took us to lesser-known villages and a special treat was Ansouis with its 1,000-year-old chateau. As Pernet told us, the villages were perched high on the hills because they were originally built as fortresses for protection from attacks by encroaching battling families, armies, and outsiders.
Pont Julien

Pont Julien

Along the way we stopped for a photo at the Pont Julien, a classic and beautiful Roman bridge with three arches spanning over the River Calavon. This was near the village of Bonnieux and Sarah told us that the bridge was built in 3BC and took twenty-five years to complete. It really is a superb bridge even now in the 21st century. She said that it remained in use until quite recently. Although we never made it to Avignon and the famous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, seeing the Pont Julien was the next best thing. The Romans knew how to build things to last.

The next day we took a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence. Sarah walked us from the main fountain in the city, the Fontaine de la Rotonde, to sights throughout the town. One of the highlights was seeing the high school, the Collège Bourbon, that Paul Cezanne, the famed Aix-en-Provence-based painter, attended and where he met his great friend, the writer Emile Zola.

Cezanne, Zola and Baille

Cezanne, Zola and Baille

It was also there at that Collège that Cezanne, Zola, and another close friend named Bastistin Baille spent so much time together that they became known as “les trois inséparables” or simply, the inseperables. Sarah told us that a film is being made about their intense friendship called, of course, The Inseperables, to be released sometime in the next year.
The Card Players by Paul Cezanne

The Card Players by Paul Cezanne

Interestingly, it’s only a ten-minute walk from Cezanne’s birthplace to his grave. There are brass studs actually built into the sidewalks in Aix with the letter C standing for Cezanne and if you follow them you embark on a self-guided tour of Aix about Cezanne. Some tourists have actually taken the studs out of the sidewalks as souvenirs.

The highlight of our time in Provence was a truffle hunt at a secret farm that Sarah had arranged. She even joked that we had to be blindfolded so the farm’s location would remain a secret. When we arrived the sun was bright and shining. The farm itself was exquisite. There were grape vines, olive trees, oak trees, beehives, cherry trees, and pomegranate trees coupled with the now familiar splendid ripeness that is Provence.

The host, a Frenchman named Johann, gave us a deep dive into the truffle business. He had purchased over 500 oak trees and planted them throughout his farm. He said that maybe 25 percent would be the trees where the spores of truffle would grow. The oak trees are planted and then nearly seven to ten years later you learn whether or not truffle spores have taken “root” near an oak tree.

Truffle Hunting

Truffle Hunting

We hunted truffles along with a truffle hunter named Jean-Marc and his two dogs. One, a cute two-month-old mixed breed called Éclair, was just learning how to hunt truffles. The dogs smell the truffles in the ground and begin to dig and then the hunter goes over and finishes the dig and brings up the found truffle. Before long we had a basket filled with summer truffles since this was June. They are pungent and musky but still not as pungent as the more sought after winter truffles.

After the hunt, Johann took us back to the main house where his wife, Lisa, took our basket of truffles (truffe in French) and served them sliced with cheese and bread plus champagne or a red wine produced from grapes grown on the farm. She also served us truffle ice cream made by a local ice cream maker who drives a jaunty yellow ice cream truck to all the farm markets around the area.

It was then that we experienced the final and most important ingredient that made our time in Provence special. It’s the people. It was Sarah, Johann, Lisa, Johann’s 92-year-old grandparents smiling and waving to us, and the gentile lifestyle that they all live and love. We sat by a cool blue swimming pool sipping wine and champagne as the sun set. We talked. Everything mixed together to show us that for those moments on a beautiful farm it was a way of life that is Provence at its best.

Follow Max Benavidez on Twitter:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pablo Delgado: Art & Dystopia

Tonight on April 4, 2015 I walked the streets of downtown Los Angeles. I was walking down Spring Street on the night of the full moon and a lunar eclipse. I’m not surprised that it was a night of discovery, of the unexpected, of something new.

A timelapse of the lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015.

A timelapse of the lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015.

I walked into the Howard Griffin Gallery into the exhibition of “Pablo Delgado: On Their Level.”

Installation View, Pablo Delgado show at the Howard Griffin Gallery, Los Angeles

Installation View, Pablo Delgado show at the Howard Griffin Gallery, Los Angeles

The gallery itself is the art with chipped walls, exposed beams and ceilings, wires, and pieces of little stones throughout as if it the space itself had been bombed or terrorized or simply decayed. This is the world as accidental dystopia. The end times. As you go through it, piece by piece and revelation by revelation, you see four of five epic signature works that seem to intrude astutely right into your vision as if they always belonged there.


Mirrors are placed over some of them and reflect a reality or scene you didn’t see on first glimpse. There are multiple and parallel prismatic views of the world. We only see what we are accustomed to seeing. Our programmed viewing habits get in the way of seeing of what is really there and what is actually before us. Delgado exposes in the most subtle way the taking in of the totality of what is around us at every moment in its most varied, muted and ethereal manifestations.

Delgado, as the gallery notes on their site, “is a visual artist originally from Mexico. After moving to London to study, Delgado emerged in 2011 as one of London’s most important street artists of the 21st century with a cult following. Delgado’s work is both populist and conceptual; he is known for his miniature paste-up scenes in which he rearranges existing imagery from mass media or popular culture into new compositions in a surreal and humorous way. Delgado’s early work consisted of tiny doorways pasted up around the walls of East London. He then started working with ‘the figures that came out of these doors,’ attempting to reflect the rich mix of cultures that makes London so cosmopolitan.”

Even Less (White), Delgado, Howard Griffin Gallery, London

Even Less (White), Delgado, Howard Griffin Gallery, London

Delgado’s work in “On Their Level” is the art of shadow and prescience. He shows us what we see and then reveals in the most subdued ways what is hidden in the shadows and in the darkness. We not only see what is directly in front of us but also what is deeply within, hidden away inside us as we observe and perceive. Is it not true that what we see is nothing more than a reflection of our deepest desires and secrets refracted onto the perceptions of our observations?


In the central installation in the show, Delgado has created viewing platforms. You place your head through the openings and see tableaux of figures from another time in imaginary communities that are dystopian in that sense that the surrealism of the view seems to be an environmental catastrophe just as much as it is an imaginative and somewhat playful symbol of both the world hurling toward the extermination brought on by global warming and a complex exhaustion of natural resources. It is as if the soul is recoiling from the hard and material facts of reality but cannot turn its eyes away from the holocaust of our habitat.

“On Their Level” is an exhibition that places the viewer inside the art and then turns that placement into a question of the deeper meaning of our existence. Delgado is an artist to watch as he has captured our moment in 2015 beautifully while at the same time allowing us to surrender to its dark allure with a both a wink and a giant question mark.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Secret Lives of Bilingual Books

Many Americans are familiar with well-known mainstream children’s books such as the Dr. Seuss series, Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. But what about Americans who come from another culture, speak another language or are bilingual? What children’s books are there for them and their families?

This group, until recently, was especially missing from children’s literature, often referred to as kidlit in the publishing world. These are the families whose parents’ first language is Spanish and whose children are learning English in school. When you add in the fact that the majority of the 54 million Latinos in the U.S. are bilingual and yet very few children’s books are bilingual you have a tremendous gap in books that can speak to this community and its culture, particularly the parents. That means they don’t see themselves in the children’s books distributed at their schools, stocked in their local libraries or sold in bookstores. The effect of this invisibility and absence in children’s books is dramatic and negatively affects the self-esteem of these children.

Nationally, nearly 25 percent of all K-12 students are Latino and the percentage is only growing. In California, the most populous state in the country, Latinos comprise 53 percent of all students in K-12. Latino families like these–who live all across the country from the Southeast to the West Coast–are often bilingual with Spanish being the main home language for many.

And, guess what? Until now there have been very few children’s books for this huge population of children who want to see themselves and their families in children’s books.

Finally, one publisher is doing something about it. In the early 2000s, Katherine Del Monte founded Lectura Books and since then has been publishing bilingual books aimed at this large and increasingly expanding population. Her desire has been for parents and their kids to learn together how to love literature and to see themselves in the literature. These families are often marginalized in our society and their stories untold. To remedy this, she started Family Stories for Parent Involvement.

“We all want a literate society,” says Del Monte. “The question is how do we get there? How do we do we reach millions of families who speak Spanish at home and help them learn English, learn how to read, and to build vocabulary. Reading is the essential building block for literacy and if we don’t create bilingual books for these families, our society will lose the edge that literate and educated citizens bring to the country and its economy.”

Based on her research and personal experience, Del Monte decided to tell their stories in a combination of both English and Spanish. To date, she has published 25 bilingual books including Letters Forever, a moving story about a young girl in San Antonio who exchanges letters with her grandfather who lives in Veracruz, Mexico. She dreams of seeing him again one day and when she becomes 18 she visits him in Veracruz. It’s a story of love across the generations and the power of culture and music.
Another title published by Lectura Books is The Shark That Taught Me English. Written and illustrated for elementary students, it tells the story of a girl named Sophia who only speaks Spanish and how she learns English with the help of a shark image that her teacher uses in class. Once she begins to learn English, her self-confidence grows and by the end of the book she is teaching English to her father. Del Monte’s books have won many awards including the Moonbeam Award, the Independent Publishers Award, the International Latino Book Award and been listed on the Texas State Reading List.
“My goal is to show the stories that are overlooked by mainstream publishers,” explains Del Monte. “I want to publish bilingual books that connect families to their stories. Rather than allow this audience to be an afterthought at best, I want to showcase the brilliance and wisdom of their stories. No one in the U.S. is doing this today. You simply can’t ignore a quarter of all the children in our schools. You can’t ignore their parents simply because they don’t speak English, are immigrants and work in low-paying jobs. True diversity in book publishing will only come by publishing in English and Spanish for the 37 million people in our country who speak Spanish.”
This is not a new concern. In 2014, a hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a social media phenomenon when two authors of color, Ellen Oh and Lamar Giles, tired of the lack of diversity in kidlit, launched the hashtag and a movement was born that brought awareness to the stunning lack of diversity in American children’s literature.

Flavorwire recently reported that, “In 2013, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Wisconsin cataloged 3,200 children’s books, constituting a majority of all children’s books published that year. Of these, only 68 — about two percent — had black authors. A slightly larger number, 93, had black protagonists. The numbers are either comparable or worse for Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, and show stagnant or regressive movement.” They also noted that a 2014 Publisher’s Weekly salary survey included questions about race and ethnicity and it found some dismal results: of the people working in publishing 89 percent are white and only three percent are Hispanic or Latino, 3 percent Asian and one percent African-American.

The bottom line: although the U.S. is growing more diverse every year, you would never know it from children’s books or from the publishing industry itself. For that reason, Lectura Books plays a key and necessary role by publishing books that are culturally relevant to children and families who are often ignored. The long-term outcome will be to produce literate young people who go on to college and contribute to our society and its economic vitality. That’s how you build a literate society.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Phenomenology in the Real World: From Default Thinking to Sensemaking

Can you take the ideas of phenomenologists like Gademer, Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty and apply them to the daily world of concrete business problems? Well, Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen, two Danish strategy consultants, think you can. I first heard about them and their approach of transforming phenomenology into problem-solving when a colleague told me about their work and its sources. I was intrigued since philosophy was my undergraduate major at UCLA and I had long shared the belief, along with many others, that philosophy is the mother of all disciplines.
So, as a trained philosopher albeit as an undergraduate, the idea that you could take grand philosophical ideas and use them in everyday life appealed to me. I ordered Madsbjerg’s and Rasmussen’s book, The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems. According to them, these sophisticated philosophical concepts, ideas and constructs can be applied to real-world situations especially in the consumer marketing realm.

At one point, they paraphrase Heidegger from his magnum opus, Being and Time: “we are at our best not when we are sitting, detached and thinking, but when we are deeply involved in the world — when we forget where we are and engage in activities we can master.” As they further note, he blurred the “distinctions between rational and irrational, subject and object.” It comes down to what and how we experience things.

Another aspect of their approach to solving business problems is ethnographic anthropology. As they write: “Ethnography — the process of observing, documenting and then analyzing behavior — is one of the main data collection techniques for the human sciences.” They also say that ethnography is an “imperative focus for analyzing phenomena.” Again, I could relate as anthropology was a central part of my studies as a graduate student.

The anthropological process, they write, is contextual. As practicing ethnographers, they go into situations and use thick description, a concept from the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, to find the texture that adds “depth to life” in the subject at hand, whether that is a Chinese consumer who wants to buy electronic equipment or why a child may prefer one play experience over another. In the end, it comes down to the way we experience within a cultural context. By taking the holistic nature of cultural context and its relationship to emotional resonance regarding products and how and why we make decisions, Madsbjerg and Rasmussen developed what they call the sensemaking method, a new tool in the marketing research toolbox.

They also explain that sensemaking is complementary although quite different from what they refer to as default thinking. Default thinking is an automatic, taking-things-for-granted, unthinking use of the same tools and data to solving problems. It’s helpful when dealing with efficiency and productivity but not so helpful when dealing with human behavior. In other words, the quant and qualitative approaches are complementary but when dealing with people, the qualitative approach is better at least according to Madsbjerg and Rasmussen.

They recommend we use both sensemaking and default thinking. In their words,

“Certain problems benefit from a linear and rational approach, while other, less straightforward challenges — navigating in a fog — benefit from the problem solving utilized in the human sciences like philosophy, history, the arts and anthropology.
In other words, sensemaking helps us better understand how people really experience the world and life.”

Madsbjerg and Rasmussen hope that readers’ and clients’ main takeaway is to get people right and that marketers, in particular, “reframe the problem as a phenomenon.” I think that approach is worth pursuing whether in marketing or in life. The depth and richness of life is what it’s all about and as they put it, we know about “love, trust, hatred and beauty through our experience of them in our everyday lives.” And, that is truly extraordinary and simple.

Follow Max Benavidez on Twitter:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Interview With Rod Benson on Journalism and Democracy

Journalism is at a major crossroads. The digital revolution has turned print and broadcast upside down and although the media are more successful than ever on many levels, the traditional role of journalism as democracy’s watchdog is at risk. Rodney Benson is a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University who has studied the interaction between journalism and democracy. I asked him to comment on where journalism stands today based on his study of how the media cover immigration and explain why some of the best journalism in the U.S. is that with the most civic-cultural capital and what American journalism can learn from the French practice of debate ensemble journalism. (This interview was conducted via email.)

Max Benavidez: Your book about journalism and democracy, Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison, is now out in paperback from Cambridge. We’ve seen the media industry change quite a lot in the last decade or so. There’s greater concentration of ownership, the ongoing disruption of legacy media especially newspapers by the rise of digital media, and tremendous pressure on the basic practice of journalism. Are we at a tipping point?

Rodney Benson: I’m not sure we are there yet, but we may be close. There are one-third fewer full-time journalists today in the U.S. than there were a decade ago. So, it’s a tough time for professional journalists, that’s for sure. And, it seems clear that in terms of market-supported journalism, the field is going to be downsized for the foreseeable future.

The important thing, I think, is to see journalism as one crucial part of a vibrant public sphere, but not the only part. As a democracy, we need to think strategically about the kinds of voices and vehicles best equipped to provide the information, critique, and deliberation we need. In many instances, it won’t be journalists who provide this – yet journalists, broadly defined, will still be crucial as the ones who translate, package, and circulate ideas and information to non-specialist publics.

MB: You refer to journalism as a “field” — as you put it, an “organizational and professional space inside of which external constraints are mediated.” Can you explain why you use this term and the related notion of “habitus”? How do these concepts help explain the character of contemporary media and civil society?

RB: Journalism is a field, in the same way that art, law, medicine, science, and a range of other professional and creative endeavors constitute fields. They are specialized worlds with their own rules and traditions. They have some “autonomy” from outside pressures, that is, they have some capacity to determine what it is that they do and how they do it based on their own professional principles.

In the journalistic field, news articles may be shaped, indirectly, by the ads that surround them. But they aren’t the same thing as advertisements — at least as long as journalism has some autonomy as a field, they aren’t. I draw on the sociological term “field” rather than industry or market, because it captures these aspects of creative endeavors that aren’t reducible to purely economic logics.

Habitus brings structural influences down to the individual level and helps explain the differences we find within and across fields. Each of us has a habitual way of thinking and acting based on our family, class, and educational backgrounds. And the media we produce or consume closely reflect these backgrounds: we tend to spend time with media that reflect or reinforce our habitus-shaped worldviews — and this tendency seems to be only increasing with sophisticated Internet target marketing. The only way out of this loop is to become more “reflexive” about this process, to see how we are shaped by these structural forces, and, in so doing, try to self-consciously overcome them.

In sum, field and habitus help us see that what we take for granted as our freely chosen actions are in fact deeply structured and patterned. At the same time, these concepts help us get beyond talking about the “media” as if it were one thing. What I find is that media tend to differ systematically depending on, first, the level of autonomy they have in the field from external economic pressures and second, the kind of class-based habitus of the people who produce (and consume) their content.

MB: Your book is about the shaping of immigration news. Clearly, immigration reform is not going to pass in the U.S. Congress this year. You write about the way that news on immigration in the U.S. and France is shaped by many forces. Can you talk about the frames within which immigration news, specifically, is reported and why frames are so important?

RB: Immigration is this incredibly complex, multifaceted issue. So when journalists write about immigration, they have to make choices about which aspects they are going to select and emphasize. And those choices — shaped by the structural factors I’ve just discussed – in turn shape the ways that the public will think about immigration. That’s what I mean by frame. The news we receive is in fact like the frame around a window: what you see of the world “outside” is limited by the size and orientation of that window frame.

What I found in systematically studying U.S. and French news coverage of immigration from the early 1970s through the 2000s is that the coverage has increasingly narrowed so that just two frames have come to dominate: the “public order” and the “humanitarian” frames. In other words, immigrants tend to be portrayed either as criminals or victims. These are dramatic and emotional frames that make for good stories. And this simple binary pushes aside coverage that might attempt to sort out the complex causes and benefits of immigration. At the same time, much of the political coverage just traces the back-and-forth of whether legislation is moving forward or not, without providing any new information about what the problem actually is and what might actually work to address it.

MB: What other kinds of frames do you think are missing from the immigration debate?

RB: Well, for one, there is an almost total disconnect between the journalistic and political discourse on the one hand and the robust social scientific research on the other. Migration is a global phenomenon that encompasses both emigration and immigration, yet we hear far, far more in the news about the latter than the former. Why are people leaving their home countries? What is the role of U.S. military, diplomatic, and trade policies in unsettling the sending country economies and societies, thus creating “push” factors that increase migration?

This “global economy” frame doesn’t show up much in the public debate, especially in the U.S., and as a result the public doesn’t have a full understanding of why immigration levels have been near historic-high levels in recent years. Greater understanding could help lessen anti-immigrant attitudes and shift the policy debate beyond the dead-end of enforcement vs. amnesty. These policies treat the symptoms instead of the causes of the problem. (For a more complete elaboration of this argument, see my recent op-ed in Al Jazeera.)

MB: You talk about news curation and “the ideals of in-depth, multiperspectival, and critical news” in your book. How does this relate to the coverage and shaping of immigration news?

RB: Well, why do we care about how immigration — or any other issue =- is covered? Because we have certain democratic expectations for media performance: background context, diversity of voices and viewpoints, and a critical stance toward those in power, among others. We need to keep these goals clearly in mind when evaluating journalistic practices.

The value of the French comparison is that it shows a different way of achieving these ideals that just might be worth trying in the U.S. Curating the news in a way that self-consciously makes room for the in-depth expression of multiple voices and viewpoints is a big part of this distinctive French approach. A greater use of this “form of news” could help correct some of the deficiencies in U.S. immigration coverage that I’ve just noted.

MB: Is this related to your rather surprising critique of “narrative” long-form journalism in the U.S., the kind of reporting that often receives Pulitzer Prizes?

RB: Absolutely. This focus on narrative is much more pronounced in the U.S. than in France. It has its advantages. At its best, American journalism excels at providing a window on the lives of ordinary immigrants and their travails. Story-telling journalism also can serve a critical function when it takes the form of investigative reporting of individual abuses of power (as in the heavy coverage of Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona). But not everything you need to know about immigration can be captured in these kinds of melodramatic tales.
French “debate ensemble” journalism, in contrast, is less about telling stories than about promoting a debate of ideas. Newspapers pick a “topic of the day” and give over two or three pages to a mix of news, background features, interview transcripts with experts or activists, and the official editorial. News, opinion, and analysis are brought together in a way that makes the news more “multiperspectival” (to use the term first coined by Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans) but also more substantively critical. In recent years, I’ve noticed an increase in debate ensemble journalism in the U.S., especially online where news and other genres are mixed more closely. That seems to me to be a positive trend.

MB: One of the reforms you touch on in your book is the need to expand and strengthen public media. In fact, you say that what you learned from your study is “that the best journalism tends to be that with the most civic-cultural capital.” Can you expand on that?

RB: This relates to my earlier point about the importance of defending journalistic professional “autonomy” from external, especially economic, pressures. The journalistic field is structured around an opposition between those media outlets highest in economic capital and those highest in civic-cultural capital. Public funding — either from public taxpayer or philanthropic support — is what underpins civic-cultural capital. And what I found consistently is that those media outlets with more public funding tended to be among those offering the most critical and multiperspectival news: for example, the newspapers L’Humanité and Libération in France, the Christian Science Monitor in the U.S., and the TV news programs on PBS and the French-German cultural channel Arte. I’d definitely say that this also holds for NPR, though it was not directly part of this study.

But let’s be clear, the amount of public funding that media receive from philanthropy in the U.S. is a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of public license fee support common across most western European democracies. And the overwhelming weight of the research supports my finding of the superior democratic qualities of public media (see my report with Matthew Powers for Free Press, “Public Media and Political Independence”).

MB: Finally, you close your book by saying that it’s not enough to just change individual practices in the media and in journalism but “to change the rules of the game.” What do you mean?

RB: It’s just a way of saying that all of us act within a social context. Our freedom is constrained by that context. And that the first step toward any change is to become aware that society is ultimately a kind of game with rules — not some “natural” expression of the way of the world — but rather a choice that has been made by us or for us and one that we can change. This lucid coming to awareness is what I mean by reflexivity.

So unless we change the context — or the game — it will be hard to start acting differently on a consistent basis. What I found in my historical, comparative study is that the styles of writing and the ideas expressed in news tend to vary consistently according to the policy regulatory environment, the funding model, and the kind of audience it is being produced for. The question is how do we create the material and symbolic support for new forms of public expression — not only journalistic — that could make room for greater reflexivity, ideological diversity, and critique.

Sure, markets and new technologies can help — after all, we’re having this conversation through the market-driven Internet outlet of the Huffington Post. But clearly we need strong, widely accessible public and non-profit media too. Rather than leaving it to chance or under-funded good intentions or the machinations of the most powerful market actors, I’m just saying that professionals, activists, academics, and public officials ought to think clearly about what’s really needed: how can we mobilize the amount of civic-cultural capital necessary to support a large-scale improvement in the quality of our media system?

Follow Max Benavidez on Twitter:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Camera’s Secrets: Ricardo Valverde’s Visionary Images

Seeing a Ricardo Valverde photograph can easily lead one to consider what photography really is and what it means. We usually think photography captures the truth of a moment or a scene. Not true. It is actually a subversive medium. The invention of photography changed how we see the world. It disrupted history. In many ways, photography is the great-grandparent of today’s proliferating digital technologies.

Photography is the use of an apparatus, a tool, a machine to take pictures and that fact forever transformed how humans see the world. Vilém Flusser, the philosopher of photography, wrote that what we think are faithful reproductions of reality are not faithful at all but are instead dependent on the tool: “The Gestalt of space-time surrounding the scene is prefigured for the photographer by the categories of his camera. These categories are an a priori for him. He must ‘decide’ within them: he must press the trigger.”

The trigger is the thing. In On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

I was reminded of the revolutionary and subliminally murderous role of photography when I visited an exhibition of Valverde’s work at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College called Experimental Sights, 1973-1996. Valverde worked in Los Angeles for most of his brief career. There is something of Vivian Maier, the street photographer, about him. Like Maier, his main daily work was not about photography per se. She was a nanny to the children of the wealthy and took her camera with her wherever she went and photographed people and scenes she encountered.

Valverde, as Ramón García explains in his excellent monograph on the artist, “Worked for the Department of Water and Power (DWP) in the city of Los Angeles–as a meter reader, in collections and delinquent accounts, and as a commercial service representative.” As García notes, Valverde “managed to carry his camera with him as he walked on the job.” And that job “permitted his surreptitious art making.” Secret art.

In the catalogue for the show, we see that Figure 15, Untitled, ca. 1971, is of a scratched, burned, and hand-colored 35 mm color slide, which seems like two burnt out eyes as in gaze, perception, hole, opening, aperture, or the eyes of the storm. Was this an intentional early assessment by the artist of the visual vocabulary of photography — that a photograph or the act of photographing can literally sear your vision?

Valverde was of his time and ahead of his time. In his documentary style photographs, he captured a Los Angeles that no longer exists. We see the streets he walked as a DWP worker. But, later, living through the after-effects of brain surgery for a tumor, he created mixed media works that stand the test of time and transcend their moment of creation. Today, 20 years later, when one looks at his Urban Nightmare pieces from 1994, there is a stark prescience of the 21st century’s extreme dislocation and fragmentation. García calls them “surrealist disaster zones,” and images “made ghostly by the abstraction of scratches and effects of paint on surface.”

Sometimes a show about an artist arrives at the right moment. Seeing Valverde’s work in 2014 seems to be one of those times. In Sanctity, 1973/1991, an eerie mixed media work, Valverde gives us life as shadowy presence and the show’s curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill writes that the artist violates photography’s “sanctity.” What happens to work that violates, that pulls the trigger? Is it a “soft murder” or perhaps a form of artistic suicide? As García says at the end of his monograph, “Does it become a phantom, a nebulous cipher of history that has taken on another life to become an image that is accomplished and realized, but is never to be finished?” Perhaps, yes, because life itself is never finished, never complete, always almost there but never arriving and then gone.
Follow Max Benavidez on Twitter:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment