Chris Britz

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Know Your Enemy or Recalled Legends of the West

 

Manfred Wagner, professor, Hochshule für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna

Know your Enemy poster

Art is inter alia that power that symbolizes an age, it’s events and social implications concentrated into clear, unmistakable signs that in their distillation contain the whole complexity of human life. Chris’s work covers the theme of violence, images from the public domain (advertising) and the period that separates us from the end of World War II – whose wounds, according to Britz, are still bleeding.

The second half of the 20th century, it would appear, is governed by ever-increasing facets of "violence-of". A form of violence whose originator is invisible and anonymous, whose targets are not the bull’s-eye objectives of its cousins: "violence–over", "violence-against", "violence-for" and "violence-on".

This "violence-of" is a new and decisive category of influence which is driving individuals, institutions, states and, in the end, the whole world into instability. Expressed not only in an increased potential for individual violence that can arise anywhere, anytime, "violence-of" specializes in state and civil conflicts, employing a ratification mechanisms in an ethnic framework as is typified by the current strife in the Balkans. This "violence-of" is a consequence of an unpredictable fundamentalism decided by religious, ethnic and social factors. A whole arsenal of despair, powerlessness and uncertainty and their associated physical and psychological conditions seems to have its approbation in this "new" and "refined" category of violence.

Know your Enemy poster

Tribune while political commentators, historians, social scientists, journalists and speculators search for explanatory models, art’s seismograph vision may be taken seriously as an indicator of explanatory efforts. Britz’s starting point is the acknowledgment that our daily life is rife with inconspicuous, "normal" though explosive materials whose historical roots in part a remarkable fascination and attractiveness that, long recognized by advertising specialists, have been used without scruple. Britz brings these little signs with their heavy consequences, out of there in conspicuous anonymity and blows them up into gigantic forms, exposing them for what they really are - icons of violence, always to be suspected of fascist tendencies. With a painterly exactitude reminiscent of the meticulousness of the old Masters and his mastery of the big format to honor them as signs, Britz endows them with the themes they contain but do not formally express.

Chris Britz stands in an art historical tradition that has been familiar to us for at least 500 years. The first model of this genre is without a doubt Giulio Romano’s "The Fall of the Giants". Painted between 1532 and 1534 on a wall in the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, the immense 10 x 10 m work contains no narrative but communicates by visual force the synchronistic symbols of fear. French sculpture in the late 18th century further disembodied story from the classic visual narrative by creating torsos, severed limbs, cut off heads or slit throats – all objects of homicidal destruction but without perpetrators. The feelings evoked by viewing these horrific byproducts of power and violence became the story.

The nouveau tradition of "violence-of" lives somewhere in that space between war and peace or, more specifically, is the dividing line between contemporary violence with its mundane fascination and tranquility which can embody the hope of more placid times.

Somewhere, this dividing line de-sentimentalizes those both components, dissecting them coolly as temporal phenomena whose projected hopes lie in the periphery of a product. Advertising, with its quick eye for seductiveness, recognize this representation as usable and, without ethical reflection, exploited it for its products. The products stand as a material synonym for this age and draw their effectiveness out of this contradiction between war and peace. All the products that Britz unmasks our Cooking with Gas illuminations of this cynical use of the terror of war: the gas stove refitted as a weapon, bombers forming across; baking for national identity; the ear as the organic receptacle for market cries; the bayonet as an element of speech; toilet paper as a synonym for moral cleanliness. Following this method, the French philosopher, Levy, in 1995, drew an analogy between toilet paper and ethnic cleansing. The product as perpetrator, anthropomorphic, raised, even out of the human category of dangerousness, giving us power over terror through the power of purchasing.

Chris Britz takes these objects that are used as advertising tools literally and brings them out of their original context and, almost in a process of analogy, transports them on to a new level-that of a painterly, artistic environment that deals seriously with the promise in the advertisement. Metamorphosed, the object suddenly stands alone in space, the center of the message, and is elucidated by its mood - strengthening background to become the machine of its own message. Suddenly it’s innocence is gone, likewise its advertising appeal. Instead, the form itself stands there, that merciless starting point, and with it a powerful push in the direction of reality. The war backgrounds of the cannon gas stove, the cross of the bomber over the Inferno, the healthy American family going barefoot, the ravenous Star-Spangled Banner, Madison Avenue’s range of colors for the boot show, the visual quotation from Turner for "Research and Development".Research and Development Warhol’s pop color offerings for "Just Ask a Jap": all these work in the same way. The backgrounds, surrounding spaces woven from the history of painting, with colors added to the associations that make transmission sparks fly, thereby produce a volatile new context, which are far from advertising’s normal lightness and triviality. This process, whereby the formal aspect lends pathos to the themes, yields, in art, wholly new contents based on giving absolute value to the object and receives in this dynamism of "pure painting" a significance that cannot be avoided.

In order to strengthen this intention, Britz has enlarged the formats into huge dimensions which are appropriate to the content but do not appear at all justified by the subjects. What the primary stimulus for the artist was does not matter. The result of his work is a complex balance of thematic and formal claims. The spectator cannot easily free himself from the richness of content. He can no longer separate object from environment. He can no longer filter out the materiality from the abstraction, and if one takes it strictly, can no longer make the connection back to advertising. If there is a method for unmasking advertising, threatening and seductive as it is, then Chris Britz has found it.

Chris has also found something which must frighten us: human history in the 20th century, filled with wars, Hecatombs of corpses, atrocities presented in the name of the people, has brought no trace of dissociation. Like the principles of their component parts originating in midcentury, the paintings are just as topical now, as the century approaches its close, as they were 50 years ago. What started off as a product of the American propaganda machine has become the property of all the World and imposes the suspicion that terror, seduction and violence are timeless. Mankind’s cultural history announced this condition long ago we just did not believe it hopefully, through his work, Chris Britz will succeed in teaching us better.


Toni Morrison, speech, Howard University
Washington, DC, March 2, 1995

In 1995 racism may wear a new dress, buy a new pair of boots, but neither it nor its twin, fascism, is new or can make anything new. It can only reproduce the environment that supports its own health: the fear and denial. The forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems are not to be found in one political party or another, or in one or another wing of any single political party. Conservative, moderate, liberal; right, left, hard left, far right; Propaganda religious, secular, socialist – we must not be blindsided by these Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola labels because the genius of fascism is that any political structure can host the virus and virtually any developed country can become a suitable home.

Fascism talks ideology, but it is really just marketing – marketing for power. Fascism produces the perfect capitalist, one who is willing to kill a human being for a product – a pair of sneakers, a jacket, a car – or kill generations for control of products – oil, drugs, fruit, gold.

When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas "marketplaced", our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the marketing of life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.


Dr. Hellmuth Petsche, Physiology of the Brain

There is a lot of talk and concern these days about threatened humanity. Increasing abandonment of human values is leading to their disregard and decline. Everyday brutality is practiced with greater refinement. Murder is rendered easy and is glorified in the media. Ethical orientation is replaced by material gain. War is trivialized into adventure, and the TV screen offers risk-free participation. What can be more natural than to use mankind’s greed by putting it to work in advertisements for material goods in order to make profits? Advertising succeeds only through suggestion; the slogans it uses are metaphors. In keeping with this tradition, Chris Britz’s paintings suggest a threatening nature and the glorification of war and the struggle for power which is abused as a stimulus for material consumption.

The meaning of Art has never undergone such a transformation as it has in this century. Even the most monstrous machinations seek justification as symbols of their Age. However, the productions of creative people can and should fulfill a much more important function today than just to hold up the much quoted mirror, mirror which is becoming more and more dispensable as our Age shows its true face more clearly.

There is a lot of talk and concern these days about threatened humanity. Increasing abandonment of human values is leading to their disregard and decline. Everyday brutality is practiced with greater refinement. Murder is rendered easy and is glorified in the media. Ethical orientation is replaced by material gain. War is trivialized into adventure, and the TV screen offers risk-free participation. What can be more natural than to use mankind’s greed by putting it to work in advertisements for material goods in order to make profits? Advertising succeeds only through suggestion; the Propaganda slogans it uses are metaphors. In keeping with this tradition, Chris Britz’s paintings suggest a threatening nature and the glorification of war and the struggle for power which is abused as a stimulus for material consumption.

The meaning of Art has never undergone such a transformation as it has in this century. Even the most monstrous machinations seek justification as symbols of their Age. However, the productions of creative people can and should fulfill a much more important function today than just to hold up the much quoted mirror, mirror which is becoming more and more dispensable as our Age shows its true face more clearly.

In a time when language is decaying, when words are being emptied of meaning, when fashionable words proliferates and are made current to quickly, when new words are minted and rapidly spread by the media thoughtlessly, the visual arts should be mindful of the mission which was theirs in the Middle Ages. Then art was a matter of conveying through images the contents of the Bible to people who could not read and of rendering the symbols of faith through stones in architecture, thereby exercising suggestion through the eye. Today it is all the more necessary to teach people – people tired of the daily assault of new ideologies and most rooms – to see, so they may become emotionally conscious of the spiritual dangers threatening mankind. In his paintings Chris Britz is endeavoring to go down this path.


Michael Blaine, New York University, NYC

Drawn from World War II era American magazines, the images in Chris Britz’s new work strike the viewer first with their deadpan irony. But something more subtle is going on in these bland encomiums to Scott toilet tissue and Kelvinator refrigerator’s noble sacrifices to the war effort. By presenting the smooth marriage of military propaganda and advertising lingo, Britz exposes the genesis of a stifling, postwar consumerist culture.

As Britz explains, "some images strike me as funny and absurd and I use them in terms of the political message. Of course, I allow myself liberties as far as the painting process." Much of the irony lies in the soft blues and pinks Britz often uses, playing them against fierce military slogans. At times the palette suggests Madison Avenue, as in his rendering of axis boots, "Know Your Enemy". In "Research and Development", the Turner-esque approach to color ironically undermines the martial message.

As Paul Fussell remarks in his perceptive book, Wartime, American advertising/propaganda often show soldiers longing for the products, not just the blondes back home. He points to one ad that depicts an American soldier dreaming of "a day when he can feel the caress of sleek, soft Pacific sheets against his tired body."

The goal of this particularly American approach to selling the war was not simply to suppress the horror of combat but, in the absence of a consoling religion or ideology, to contemplate the happy production of refrigerators and Studebaker’s with buzz bombs and brawny tanks. As soon as the war ends, these ads whisper, we will go on to our higher reward, a Chrysler or curling iron.

Cooking With Gas

Britz captures this sensibility in his homage to Kelvinator, in which the company promises to drop "Ice Cubes" on Japs. In "Cooking with Gas", a stove has transmogrified into a battery of sleek guns. Even his rendering of a mess kit, suggestive of a TV dinner, makes one think of the commercial aspect of the war. And his ideal family in "We'll Walk Barefoot In America To Win This War" will soon pledge allegiance with similar fervor to Kellogg’s Cornflakes. The act of taking these images out of their art–directed magazine settings and putting them on canvas transforms them in a variety of ways. "Most of the images originally existed as drawings, illustrations, photographs and caricatures", Britz says, "by painting them they become subject to the laws of painting. The paintings begin to dictate themselves."

So while the political message of a piece like "Let This Do Your Talking" Let This Do Your Talking which shows a rifle and bayonet thrusting into a baby blue and pink nowhere is apparent, Britz argues that the work is also saying, "let painting do your talking".

By painting the sanitized war of the magazines, Britz also refers to the world off the canvas. "Philosophically, by taking the images out of an advertising or magazine context and putting them into a humanistic context, they (the paintings) become enlarged because what was originally a statement of a political nature now addresses humanistic concerns, the act of painting itself. A transformation has taken place."

The transformation is not simply aesthetic as Britz also manipulates the copy and slogans he chooses. He may draw body copy out of its original context, reposition and blow up the type, as in Scott tissues play on to the democratic distribution of toilet paper. "An inspiring feature of our American standard of living – the highest in the world – is that rich and poor alike share in the use of so many protectors of comfort and cleanliness – such as buttons, pins and paper!"

Or he may let slogans blend with the background, violating primary advertising principles, as in "Research and Development." Britz’s handling of lettering and type work against the very idea of selling, making the paintings as strongly anti-advertising, anti-public relations, anti-commercial, as they are anti-war.

Of course the paintings are about war itself, and are so appropriate to the moment – "oil is ammunition", for instance. This aspect of the work hardly needs interpretation. Except to say that the Orwellian methods refined in World War II have recently reached their apotheosis in the Persian Gulf war which apparently produced no casualties whatsoever.

There is certainly a Britz painting in a Gulf War public relations officer’s formulation, "in continents ordinance resulted in collateral damage." And when General Schwarzkopf’s end of the war briefing became a best-selling Christmas video, a spotless war became the product itself. Britz’s painting of a huge, juicy ear, wedded to the imperative, "Shut Up, America" brings us to the present when a cacophony of ceaseless messages from our sponsors – Coke, the Marines, Smuckers peanut butter, and the makers of "smart bombs" all compete with soothing, blaring, salacious, hieratic pleas for our allegiance. In this noisy, but elegantly edited version of reality, the Pentagon has still not deigned to estimate how many thousands of innocent victims "Operation Desert Storm" manufactured. Figures on General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf’s T-shirt sales, however, are readily available.

Chris Britz’s cool renderings of vintage sales and marketing victories keep our eyes fixed to where they should be, on what the paintings don't show, and what we are no longer allowed to see.


Peter Sloterdijk, Lectures in Frankfurt

Most of mankind communicates only through its own geographically-based language. National languages are historically the foundation of aggressive panic stricken communities bound together by fear. Communications racists mark out territory, and tried to establish global dominance of the language and thus its native speakers. This conditions the future binding together of people in linguistic communities that can continue the discourse of hate against those with other tongues. Only release from the single language-based community can lead to the passing on of less fateful models of how life can and should be lived. Only on this proviso would oral nationalism be redeemed from its potential for violence – but where will this happen?

Increasingly, aren't speaking beings persuading each other to create a new partnership of hate and anxiety against enemies old and new? The thrust towards internationalization, which characterizes our age can only escape from its entanglement in hatred between the communication groups that exist now when internationality leads to linguistic internationality. Only then will multilingualism be a medium for delivery from the violence of national languages.


Simon Wiesenthal

Those who have been victims of violence or have lost relations, friends and acquaintances through violence naturally have particularly strong views on violence and its attendant mean problems. During my work I have the opportunity to talk to people of all ages. An important part of these conversations is the subject of violence in the past and how to deal with it.

Young people often turn trustingly to me for advice to accompany and guide them on their path through life. In these conversations I always talk about the destructive effects of violence, not just in the past but also in our times. I was touched when I received a letter from the senior class of the school in South Tyrol asking me to write a sentence to serve as a guideline for their future lives. I wrote them: nobody should allow any movement, political party or person to misuse or take over his or her conscience.

As I was writing down the sentence, I remembered a postcard from the Nazi period on which this slogan was printed: "The Führer thanks for us, we simply have to obey him". I remembered the result of this propaganda in the form of the many young defendants whom I observed at trials after the war. They had given away their consciences when they had put on the Führer’s uniform. I am convinced that violence would be reduced if people were reminded never to let anybody touch that innermost part of there being, their conscience, and if people could again be persuaded to consult their consciences sincerely and earnestly.

Today we are seen how violence, particularly on television, is it affecting young people, arousing in them and aggressiveness that they cannot handle. Every day, in schools, teachers are confronted by this potential violence. To teach children to live in peace with each other is often beyond their power. Because of the absence of role models in families where both parents are working and provide no time to develop their children’s consciences, young people lack the moral principles and guidelines that would help them find their way.

Propaganda

Young people nowadays are influenced above all by television. They want to imitate, in the absence of their elders, the idols they see on the screen. For them brutal violence, gunfire and explosions our daily TV entertainment, unfortunately, something to be admired and emulated.

Because of their responsibility for children, parents and media, schools and youth organizations need to act together now to reverse the trend. Young people’s potential aggressiveness as well as their enthusiasm must be channeled into meaningful activities and positive challenges. For adults this is a duty that we must not shirk.


Reinhart Koselleck, The Political Cult of the Dead

He wrote actions are no longer guided by a requested or voluntary willingness to die; i.e., to die for one’s country, but by the deliberate, planned and conscious annihilation of the other; that is, murder directed by the state. A neighbor is declared an enemy, whether fellow citizen or foreigner, and their degradation into something inhuman – something that needs to be eliminated – lead few demises fatal actions. The archaic modes of behavior that predated states are revived and, at the same time, augmented by modern technology and ideology. The annihilation of the evil that the imagined in enemy embodies has become the maximum of the deed, not violent death in battle which for centuries was based on reciprocity. This maxim recognizes no successes, only final victory – an apocalyptic vision in secular dress.

The history that was extruded from this mixture of technical and bureaucratic perfection and ideological blindness lead to catastrophe. There are indications enough that this catastrophe, mutatis mutandis, is being repeated. With it – to some extent – the iconic, I cannot logical and icon a graphical configuration of monuments is being changed. Women and children, civilians, deserters to, refugees and missing persons have become suitable subjects for monuments. Victory is no longer sought, only elusive safety that can no longer be found or refused. Abstract monuments are erected which cry Propaganda for answers without offering them. Tributes to the process of dying and disappearing are created; hollow forms are cast for the vanished corpses. Holocaust memorials around the world seek forms that renounce traditional modes of expression. Finally, monuments are devised that have their own disappearance as their theme in order to come closer to a reality that can be grasped only in moral and philosophical reflection.

Man’s potential for killing has become inexpressible. In modern times the technically perfect elimination of innumerable millions of human individuals overwhelms language and leads to speechlessness or silence. Only the visual arts can offer a narrow way out: they alone can provide a symbolic representation of that which can no longer be put into words. Only a few artists – they can be listed by name – have managed to visualize this turning point in our experience. Their potential contribution to a change in behavior should not be underestimated, even if, as is customary in the course of history, it is perceived too late.