Loose Talk

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Okay people, so here's the deal. I've decided that I HATE the title of this blog. I've also decided that I need to move it, although it will still be hosted on blogger. So Creeping Credentials is now Loose Talk, and you'll fine me (along with all of the posts so far) over there. If you're the one person who has subscribed to my blog, sorry to do this to you, but I promise this will be it. If you'd be so kind as to re-subscribe at the new site, I'll love you forever!

Lose the Tops, Girls

It hasn't been a good week for swimming pools here in the US, but in Sweden, they've been doing substantially better lately. The third largest city in Sweden, Malmö, has recently decided that if the men don't have to wear tops while bathing, neither do the women.

Chair of sports, Bengt Forsberg is quoted as saying, "We don't define what bathing suits men should wear so it doesn't make much sense to do it for women. And besides, it's not unusual for men to have large breasts that resemble women's breasts." Indeed.

The fact that a woman's chest must be covered at all times, it seems to me, needlessly marks her body as both sexual and taboo in a manner not enacted on the body of men. I'm not advocating for nudity here. (Although I'm not necessarily advocating against it, either, but that's not the point.) I'm merely agreeing with the official of Malmö, if it's not the law for one of the sexes, it shouldn't be the law for the other. Of course, the puritanical leanings of our society would probably shame most women into keeping covered even if we did strike the law from the books. But I think many of us believe that body-shaming in any form is reprehensible.
Continually signaling to women that their bodies somehow deserved to be covered in ways men's don't, that their bodies are shameful and unfit for normal public consumption is one reason why the female form is so easily over-sexualized in today's pop culture. Keep your body under wraps in order to function in polite society, or display yourself and be a whore (albeit a desirable whore). There seems to be no space in our culture for women to exist happily and comfortably in their bodies without choosing sides. So grab your towel, I'm ready for Sweden.

How Not to Be an Idiot when Looking at Art of the Non-West

Okay, before we get started here, let me explain that my field is decidedly Western Art (with those capital letters and all). Broadly, I study European art from the 18th through the 20th century, but my focus is on French drawing of the 18th century. I minored in Islamic art, which means I have been exposed to it over the course of three graduate-level classes, and understand the basics, but am in no way an expert. I know next to nothing about the art I'm discussing today (which is why I'm trying to use mostly Western examples, because that's what I know). But I have some important things to say.

Last night, I attended an event at the Rubin Museum of Art, which is the only (I believe) museum in the Western world dedicated to the art of the Himalayas. We were given a tour of their fabulous collection of pieces from Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, and then watched a performance of traditional dances with music, before enjoying a veritable feast of Nepalese food. But it's the tour and the art I want to talk about now. I'll admit that the tour guide was pretty abysmal, and it was clear she had no idea about any of the art on display. But what really struck me were the comments made by some of my fellow tour participants. Comments such as: "I don't like these paintings. I only like the sculptures because they have more artistic integrity [what the hell is that?] since the painting is so repetitive" and "That goddess [referring to Durga] with all of those arms sure must be able to get a lot of housework done!" And it occurred to me that even seemingly educated and thoughtful people sometimes just don't know how to look at the art of another culture. And both of the (incidentally older white males mentioned above) sure as hell didn't know how. So in order to spare you similar embarrassment and ugly glares from fellow art-lookers, I'm going to give you a few things to think about.

1) We in the West think of art as necessarily striving to accurately represent the "real world." And when it doesn't, such as in the many avant-gardes that developed at the end of the 19th century, we read those styles as rebelling against this ideal. But the ideal is foundational nevertheless. The thing to understand, is that our artistic heritage is grounded in the arts of Mediterranean antiquity, of the Greeks and the Romans. It is specifically to them we owe this assumption that art ought to be realistic and illusionistic. (Illusionism means giving the illusion of being real.) This is not the universal purpose of art.

The Rottgen Pieta, c. 1300-1325. See, not realistic, but definitely emotionally evocative.

Some art (like Medieval art, for example, Egyptian art, and Buddhist art as far as I can tell) is not interested in merely replicating as close as possible a likeness to nature. Instead, art is used as a medium through which to express ideas completely outside the realm of nature. When you look at what appears to be a crude Medieval sculpture, for example, it bears keeping in mind that the intent was not to represent accurately a likeness to Christ, but to transmit through the sculpture itself the essence of a divine being, made human. Thus the emphasis on a suffering Christ during this period. Rather than being in the service of accurate representation, the body is sculpted with an eye toward eliciting emotion.

2) We in the West assume that the most important person involved in the art-making process is the artist. The artist represents the singular genius, capable of great masterpieces. This is also an idea particular to the Western world, and a relatively recent development, to boot. It has not always been like this, and in fact, it wasn't until the development of the art market (again in the late 19th century) that the artist became the single most important factor. Before the 18th century, artists worked for guilds, which produced objects rather collectively. Even during the 18th and 19th centuries, great artists kept studios where they helped to educate students by doling out relatively unimportant passages of their own paintings to be completed by their pupils. Although the master's name was the only one to appear on the finished work, it was common for pieces to be the product of collective efforts.

So when you're faced with work that originated outside of the Western context, it would be good if you could keep in mind the fact that the artist's identity might not be the most important facet of that piece.

J-L David, Oath of the Horatti, 1784 - David's student Drouais was supposed to paint the figure of Camilla (the most important of the women in the story) by himself. It ended up that David hated Drouais' rendition of her, and completely redid it, but still, Drouais had his shot and the picture would have been no less David's had Drouais' image of Camilla remained.

3) This might be my most important point, and it's related to point number two. The idea of the singular artistic "genius" is bound up with the cult of the artist, which I described above. We in the West have been taught that the history of our art has followed some kind of linear path of development, which culminates in the modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) period. And the way we're taught that is through studying specific artists and the changes they made to the cannon (which, by the way, is a construct to begin with, but that's another post). Not all art is so self-consciously obsessed with development, revolution and originality. Some art is self-consciously obsessed with tradition, continuity and convention. For example, Islamic miniature painters were celebrated for their ability to maintain tradition, and to be so practiced in their specialties that they could paint without the benefit of sight (although that's a bit of mythologizing for you right there). Although artists always put their own mark on their works, it is crucial that you not judge another culture's artistic output based on it's willingness or resistance to constant change. Sometimes, change is not the friggin' point.

4) Please, whatever you do, do not use terms like "artistic integrity" to talk about, well, anything. That doesn't mean shit, and it will single you out immediately as being full of crap. Full of judgmental, self-righteous crap. And we don't want any of that.

In Response

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Thanks for the response, Adel. There are a few comments I'd like to make in turn.

First, I realize you were using the story of the men and their relationship to abortion in order to illustrate that often two people sharing a similar situation arrive at very different ideological beliefs. But I do think there is a fundamental problem when a question so basic to a woman's rights is expected to serve as a vehicle for the compromise of her brothers. Although this was perhaps a somewhat arbitrary example in the service of a broader point, I have a hard time with the image of two men sitting down to haggle over the rights of women based on their own second-hand experiences. And to me, whether or not they ever see eye to eye is irrelevant, because it is not their choice to make. Although in this country, I suppose in many ways it is their choice, but it ought not to be.

I think this series of posts also brings up the issue of different spheres of social engagement and what the responsibilities of each are. Of course, there are many, and multiple spheres, but as someone interested in politics in a professional way, compromise will be very important to you. And thank goodness we have people like you in this world, because (like it or not) compromise is the only way things are going to get done.

However. There is another sphere of social engagement, one that is more abstract, more academic in a way, and not beholden to the rules of civil engagement, of politics if you will. The making of policy and the making of philosophy are, after all, two very different things, although certainly interrelated. So while our policy makers may need to compromise, those of us interested in affecting change through a theoretical reworking of the fundamentals of the system do not. Should not. Were I given a place at that table, I would tell both men that it's not their choice to make, no matter how they feel affected by the ordeal their sisters have been through. I would, actually, refuse to see any point except the one that gives a woman maximum autonomy over her body. And the reason is because I believe that this is the *only* right thing to do.

So perhaps we can agree on this (although I know we actually agree on much). As a participant in our political system, you will foster the kinds of relationships with people that will allow you to empathize with them, to understand them, and ultimately to work with them. As a participant in academia, I will refuse to compromise my fundamental beliefs, and work to construct arguments and analyses that will allow me to deliver and justify these beliefs to a wider audience in the hopes of changing or supporting their opinions. Seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

Response to "Meeting in the Middle"

Hi, I'm the friend that Andrea mentions in her post "Meeting in the Middle." I wrote this response to her, and she has kindly let me guest post it, uncensored.

First, I applaud your decision to share this blog with me, even though it meant making an exception to your anonymity, and even though it was more the result of a slip of the lip than a conscientious decision. Allowing me to read and respond to this post is exactly the type of “meeting in the middle” that I advocate.

Secondly, I am well aware that some of what I say may reinforce some of your points, which is fine by me, because I mostly agree with you and therefore wouldn’t aspire to negate what I hold to be truths that you elucidate.

Thirdly, the point I was making had nothing to do with the men whose stories I told and everything to do with their stories. I was trying to illustrate the power of story-telling to overcome otherwise insurmountable barriers between two people, or at least elevate their fields of vision above the barrier that stands between them for the sake of realizing that there is indeed a person on the other side.

It reminds me of that TV commercial about driving safely, in which children are playing on a major highway, and families are barbecuing, and you keep thinking they’re going to be hit, and you’re cringing. The ad made the point that there are people inside those cars. They’re not just cars. Likewise, we have to remember that there are people behind their opinions. They’re not just opinions. And when we recognize the people and not just their opinions, we are more inclined to give each other the respect and compassion that a productive debate requires.

Had I known that your ears might close to my point once men and not women were revealed as its main characters, I could have changed the casting. But that wouldn’t have held the authenticity of the story intact, and I think that’s important.

The point wasn’t about voicelessness. It was about finding a voice that someone else will listen to, especially when that someone else vehemently disagrees with you.

The point was that we all have personal reasons for believing what we do. This is evident even in your own blog. Some of your best posts, in my opinion, begin with a personal story that illustrates why you hold the beliefs that you now do. I’m inclined to believe you tell these stories because you recognize the efficacy of sharing something personal to give validity and momentum to your political opinions.

The point was that two people, regardless of their genitalia, can arrive at completely opposite points of view from an identical catalyst. Yet we rarely talk about the reasons, the stories, the personal narratives that inform our points of view. If we more often encouraged, perhaps even demanded, personal narratives in policy-making or even simply public discourse about divisive topics, we might realize we have more in common than we thought. And even though you may continue to abhor the point of view of another person, you may begin to abhor the person less.

The point is that if we can find a common ground, we are exponentially more likely to strike upon a solution that transcends the divided battlefield upon which both sides are entrenched and unmoving.

Fourthly, perhaps I am being sensitive, but I cannot help but feel an undercurrent in this post of "how could my smart, articulate female friend argue such an implicitly patriarchal point?" I will admit that I may unknowingly use or accept patriarchal rhetoric from time to time, that I am susceptible to arguing within the constructs of the only society I have ever known, even as I aspire for it to be much more tolerant, inclusive, informed and dynamic, which I believe only happens when we abolish the systems that subjugate certain people as second-class citizens. However, the anonymity of your blog is just as indicative of how pervasive those constructs are – that you would voice your story, but not identify your voice.

Let me be clear that I am deeply troubled that women’s bodies are politicized. I agree with you; it’s totally fucked up. And you’re right to ask where were the women in these stories before, during, and after their abortions. You’re right to ask what are their stories, and what are their opinions of abortion. The truth is I don’t know their stories. But I know mine. And when I discuss the topic with someone who disagrees with me, I will let them know why the politics of it are personal to me.

Bloggers and Journalists

Via Open Salon, this video of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Reader Rep Ted Diadiun whining about how bloggers aren't *real* journalists and just steal the content that *real* newspapers (read: dying newspapers) produce.

If you get through this incredibly dry video, you'll see that there's much to take issue with. Anyone who suggests the limiting of any access to information should be met with fierce skepticism. But I think this is merely the siren song of a dying and ever less-relevant medium, and the proposed limiting of rights merely a silly, last ditch effort. It's like those old time movie execs trying to stifle the advent of sound in film out of the fear that it will limit their audience. Sorry buckos, it's inevitable.

And Ted here, seems to be all bent out of shape because no one is paying him for the research he did when they reproduce that research. Man, am I ever glad I don't have to pay out royalties to all of the authors of all the books I've used for research over the years in college and now in graduate school. Yet in the same breath, Diadiun's little crony interjects that even when information does originate in a blog, such as "some of the videos with some of the candidates" as he vaguely mentions, he maintains that the public doesn't really find out about it until it's picked up by the newspapers. Now hold your horses for just a moment. When information originates with newspapers, they should have special rights to it, but when information originates with blogs, the newspapers get to latch on and disseminate it more widely? Really? And did you *pay* the bloggers for those stories? Okay, then you'd better get over that particular complaint.

The point journalists like Diadiun don't seem to understand is that there is, in fact, room for all of us. It's just that those used to claiming the lion's share of power and influence are going to see their sphere reduced in the future. And it should come as no surprise to those of us conversant in issues of feminism, race and class that the big boys at the top merely want to maintain their power. But here's my point. Blogging is often, maybe even usually, not about breaking news. Blogging is not, as it turns out, journalism. Blogging is instantaneous revisionism.

Now, the term "revisionism" may have been turned into a dirty word by the conservative right (those traditionally in power), but that's because it's their version of the story that's being revised. The adage goes that the winners write history. True. They get the first shot. For example in art history, my field, the old vanguard constructed a narrative which is not only euro-centric, but Mediterranean-centric, and which largely leaves out the voices of minority populations and women. That was the first generation of historians, and they were all European men. Now, we're revising history. We're opening it up to include feminist voices, Marxist voices, non-Western voices and the voices of those largely disenfranchised.

Blogging serves a similar purpose. Only it's much more immediate. We don't have to wait for the glass ceiling to crack to have a platform. We don't have to be hired by newspapers to present our interpretations of what's going on. Or to emphasize stories and events that might get short shrift in the mainstream media. And we must be doing a pretty good job of all this revisionism if we have the establishment all up in arms.

Of course, there's plenty of crap out there as well. But if you think the mainstream media is immune to crap, you've obviously never seen Fox news or had the pleasure of having your ears defiled by Rush Limbaugh. And anyway, isn't it immediately suspicious when you see or hear some old white guy try to claim that he has special priority in reporting and interpreting the news? Sends my red flags up a mile high.

Okay, so here's the take away message. We still need journalists who have the ability, training and recourses to gather information in the first place. For an historian, this is the equivalent of working in the archives. But once you've reported your story, it's fair game for alternative voices to offer alternative interpretations and to emphasize alternative points of view. If my advising professor had decided that all of the primary sources he'd gathered, translated and compiled were off limits for the generation of historians that came after him, well we'd be fucked. And our field wouldn't get very far.

So to Ted Diadiun, stop acting like there's some kind of Platonic absolute out there called History or News, to which you and people like you have privileged access. We bloggers don't care about your opinion anyway.

Woman Blaming as Art Form

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Let's talk art, for a moment. Artomatic, which has been running since May in D.C. is an art festival, free to the public, and boasting nine floors of visual and installation art, as well as performances. I'll admit right away that I've never been. One of the exhibits that's been given a bit of press, is Deb Jansen's installation titled Catharsis & Karma: An Open Thank You Letter to a Homewrecker, which features a quite vitriolic (and there's nothing wrong with vitriol, mind you) letter addressed to the "other woman" with whom her husband had an affair. In their column The Reliable Source, from the Washington Post, on July 3rd titled "Pardon Me, Your Heart Is Showing" (I'm giving all the specifics because I can't seem to find a dedicated link to the article), Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, suggest that if Mark Sanford had seen the piece, perhaps he would have thought twice about straying. But whatever, Mark Sanford, I actually don't care too much about you. What I want to talk about is the piece itself.

Roberts and Argetsinger quote the letter as beginning, "Thank you from the bottom of my heart for [sleeping with] my spineless narcissist of a husband. But he was my husband -- not yours. You had no right." Jansen goes on to describe this other woman as a "chubby, boring...jan brady wanna be" and goes so far as to reproduce a photo of her next to the letter, granted with eyes blacked out.

Now, as far as I can tell, it was her husband who did the cheating, not this other woman. And if the other woman was cheating as well, it would have been on her own husband, not on Ms. Jansen. Last I checked (which was actually about a month ago, when I got married myself), that promise is made between two very specific people, and they're the only ones with the power to break it. Not only does Jansen displace the burden of blame which should be falling on her husband onto this woman, but she uses fat-hating language as though by labeling her "chubby" the artist is justified in her attack. As though this other woman's body, through both that descriptor and the use of her picture, can be hijacked and used as a weapon for attack against her.

At the end of their post, Roberts and Argetsinger attempt to elicit discussion by writing: "Compelling stuff... but is it art?" When they posed that question to Jansen, she said, "If art is something that channels right out of your soul, and if creativity can heal then yes. But no, I wouldn't want it over my couch, either." Umm, are you kidding me? Is it art? How is this even a question? It's not. It's a silly question for silly minds to debate because it doesn't friggin' matter. Is it art. Give me a break. No one gives a shit of you think it's art or not (that can't be defined anyway, so shut up about it before you even begin). The real question is why does this woman, this artist, feel the need to so publicly blame another woman when she should be blaming her husband. Sure, she blames him, but it's not his picture reproduced next to the letter. He's not the one being taken to task here for his behavior.

So, since I subscribe to the broadest possible definition of what constitutes art, I'll tell you this. Yes, it is art. Bad art.