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Circus Money | Walter Becker
.     .
  The Circus Money Mask - Part I
The Sad Story of the Sorry Smithsonian

Hello everybody. Thanks for visiting WBU today, and for your interest in the history of Circus Money's package art.


Where to begin?

I suppose we could begin in the middle.

… when, having reviewed a collection of visual concepts, Walter decided he wanted use a fantastic 19th century Yup'Ik mask for his Circus Money (CM) cover.

This hadn't come out of nowhere; we'd long appreciated early Inuit-Yup'ik prints and masks. Mid-century prints from the Cape Dorset area were especially prized, and favorite images and artists covered all the wall space in more than one abode.

We also had a dozen books of prints, masks, sculptures — and had devoured a large collection of images from online.

The Special One jumped out from a book of 19th century masks by unknown Yup'Ik artists. Some of you made the image when CM first came out.

Slide, please.
no, the carousel on the right. On the right. Yup, that's it....

From The Living Tradition of Yup'Ik Masks, Editor: Ann Fienup-Riordan 1996: University of Washington Press. Photo by Barry McWayne

There was something so otherworldly, so numinous about this mask, and it seemed to strike an harmonic with something Walter felt about some aspect of CM itself, or about the process of making it.

So I set about getting permissions — which were quickly and graciously granted by the photographer of the image we wanted to use (Barry McWayne), editor of the book in which the photograph appeared (Ann Fienup-Riordan), and, for good measure, the book publisher (University of Washington Press). More than enough; we had complete and explicit permission to use that photograph in the CD art.

But completest dolt that I was — or was it a fortuitous faux pas that would lead to an even better outcome? — I also wrote to the department of the Smithsonian Museum that currently housed that particular mask (NMNH/SI) — as a courtesy — to tell them of our likely future use of Mr. McWayne's photograph, for which we had secured all necessary permissions.


Shame I can't recount the entire exchange, as a summary could never convey the inanity, the ignorance, the idiocy of what these fine fine superfine caretakers of our (the people's) treasures had to say about this.

Oh Oh Oh!! (pearl-clutching goes here) — this mask was far too sacred an object to appear on a … gasp … CD cover! Oh Oh! — (falling back on the fainting couch) you clearly don't appreciate the seriousness with which Yup'ik artists created their art! And Oh! — Our Decision To Deny is made on grounds of obvious inappropriateness, and our evolved sense of cultural sensitivity!

… but… if we really liked this kinda thing, they had a long list of contemporary Inuit artists who would be happy to have us license their "sacred masks" for the CD art.

Wait. You mean to say these contemporary First-Nation artists don't see their art as all that sacred? — certainly not as much as you just know an unknown 19th-century mask-maker did? Is that it? And that they — the modern artists — don't see any "cultural insensitivity" in having their "sacred" masks and totems used commercially by anyone who pays the fee? … have we got that right? Wow. Turns out we were probably more familiar with these contemporary artists than were these…experts…and no matter how wonderful their art, Walter was not interested in that kind of transaction.

It should go without saying that NMNH/SI had absolutely no legitimate logical, legal, or moral right to approve or disapprove use of a) somebody else's — not their — photograph of this b) anonymously-created mask, a mask c) housed by these glorified security guards for the d) appreciation and enjoyment of the public e) to whom it belongs, broadly understood, and who f) pay for its keep.

In their hubris and cultural chauvinism, they had confused their power as physical gatekeepers to these artifacts with the right to control any use of their image, regardless of how that image was created. That "right", and the role of ultimate arbiters of cultural "appropriateness", were entirely self-appointed and, as became evident, laughably undeserved. [1]


Explaining all this at length was only met with escalating priggish doublespeak. I couldn't shake the image of that classic Sid Caesar bit; an obsequious butler fusses about, dressing an overbearing "German general" in a resplendent get-up of buttons, medals, sashes, etc., all with great fanfare and ceremony. Finally, fully fluffed, the manikin leaves the dressing room to take up his post as ... a Manhattan hotel doorman. [2]

So, thanks but no thanks. We didn't want to fight to use the fucking photograph anymore, not after this. Indeed, their shit-sandwich tasted so bad, the image under contention had become somewhat tainted in our eyes.

So, having become so attached and now a little brokenhearted, we just went back to doing whatever we were doing at the time, with Walter knowing he'd soon revisit a portfolio of visual candidates he had already seen and liked.

What did he know?




The Circus Money Mask - Part II
"F**k The Smithsonian!" - (walter becker)


Welcome back. That line at the ladies' room was brutal, wasn't it? Well, rather than wait for the stragglers, let's get started again now, shall we?


For a good while I sat there glaring at my screen and seething. Not only were these obnoxious cretins stupid as a sack of hair, they aimed to deny Walter the imagery and impact he wanted and deserved — while also suppressing, in the bargain, a wider exposure for this fantastic art they claimed to value oh so much. Quoting a favorite philosopher, I vowed that "this aggression will not stand, man".

Now I was no Photoshop maven by any stretch — barely able to process the kid-pix visuals on the websites. But I was used to diving into novel tools and technologies and muddling along in order to execute the wants and needs of the principles or their interests. I had no idea how it might turn out, or if Walter would even care for it but, channeling Ishmael: into the breach.


First, we needed to create some actual, physical item — one that belonged to Walter — which we could then photograph and digitally alter as we wished. This was largely an ass-covering move; theoretically, we could have started in digital from scratch. But I was through taking anything for granted, and wanted the satisfaction of being able, if challenged, to point to an actual foundational object that was his.


I commissioned Coco Costigan Daniels, a clay artist and teacher in Santa Monica, to create a clay object inspired by the mask image. That turned out to be easier said than done, and even after several revisions the end result fell short of replication. Which was no surprise, after all; the stunning  Yup'Ik art Walter so admired couldn't be just "happened" on demand.

Rubin and WB with Coco's clay
But no matter… the image could be animated, the hope went, through the digital manipulation of our photograph of Coco's piece.



It took a  l o n g  time. It was all trial and error. Each step in the transformation took forever to get even close to right.


But when it seemed it might turn into something good, I showed Walter — whereupon he clapped his hands, let out one of his loud double-yelps (followed by the subtitle of this section) … and sat down to help shape the image into its final form.


(Even this collage was somewhat defensive: a way to document how the final image was derived from a personal photo of a physical object that Walter owned. Besides….it was kinda cool to show it off.)

click to enlarge

Once we had the central image to our liking, the typeface and other package elements came together in (relatively) short order. InDesign was acquired and "learned", the booklet and camera-ready flats produced, and all was handed off to Dan-favored designer Carol Bobolts of Red Herring Design for final submission to press.

click to enlarge

In the end, "our mask" wasn't really a replication of the original and, as we worked, we realized it neither could nor should be. In fact, because it was shaped by the inspirations of the moment, it took on even more mysterious significance for its bastard/virgin birth. We were gratified by the result.

click to enlarge

Still, we remained acutely mindful that any impact the final image may have had flowed directly from the transcendent work of an unknown 19th century Yup'Ik artist and that of his and her fellows, which we were humbly proud to credit and represent — despite the best efforts of "America's Museum".


Questions? Comments? (please post them here)


Thank you all for coming today. And now please join us for coffee and danish at the reception, starting immediately in the Rockefeller Atrium

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