Woman With A Camera: An Underwhelming Exhibition of Women Photographers

I’m swamped with schoolwork, which lucky for you means more writing that should be available soon, but also means I’ve been busy. For now I’m publishing an exhibition review written in September 2017 for my History of Photography class. 

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The title wall for Woman With a Camera at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Author’s photo. Text reads: “Each artist featured in this exhibition turns her incisive eye toward politics, history, or identity. The artists all share two things: they are all women, and they all work in the medium of photography. Nevertheless, they come from diverse backgrounds and multiple generations, and have made work across continents and decades. Through different approaches and subject matter, their works reveal some of the ways a photograph can render the human figure, capture public or private space, or comment on our media-saturated culture. The works entered the MCA collection through the generosity of Jack and Sandra Guthman. Their major gift of fifty photographs – a selection of which is shown here – honors the museum’s 50th anniversary and our commitment to collecting works by women artists. The breadth of work by the women in this collection demonstrates that the camera can be a tool for expression of all kinds.”

Woman With A Camera is an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which includes fourteen women photographers born in the mid 20th century and later.  The work shown spans from 1991 to 2012, so a short time frame in which the artists have been working. All of the works come from the personal collection of Jack and Sandra Guthman who gifted it to the MCA. The oldest photographer is Marina Abramović, born in 1946, and the youngest are Michele Abeles, Leslie Hewitt, and Melanie Schiff, all born in 1977, so all photographers are established and at least 40 years of age. Of the photographers shown, ten are American (one born in Palestine) and one each Serbian, French, British, and Swedish. The diversity is limited to the one of Palestinian ancestry and four Black Americans. The singular unifying factor is that they are, as the title states, all women photographers. Unfortunately, the exhibition design further marginalizes women photographers more than it celebrates them.

The exhibition in presented on the second floor of the museum in a singular small room easily accessed from the staircase or elevator. The Guthman collection includes 50 photos, but only 20 are shown (some of these are multiple photos by one photographer that function as a singular “piece”, such as Carrie Mae Weems’ triptych, but the museum counted them out separate.[1])  It is difficult to understand why the museum would choose to show only a portion of what is, in fact, a small collection to begin with, or why they felt compelled to offer only one gallery room to the exhibit. It is also difficult to understand why, in such a small show, contextual information was only provided for a handful of the photos. With only 14 photographers shown, it would have been nice to see a more expansive amount of information offered for each item beyond just the basic identification label, and this also could have been one way to draw connections between the various photographers and photos selected. Instead, it was difficult to understand or contextualize several photos, and even harder to find any theme whatsoever to the show as a whole other than that the photographers share a gender.

The gallery has three full walls and two small bits of wall on either side of the wide entrance. When entering, I walked to the right where Emily Jacir’s (American, born in Palestine) photo Mahmoud from her 2002-03 series Where We Come From was displayed. Jacir asked Palestinians what she could do for them anywhere in Palestine, and Mahmoud told her of his difficulty getting his phone bill paid because it requires going to the Jerusalem post office. The photo shows a line at the post office, which Mahmoud is forbidden to go to himself. The first long wall begins with Sophie Calle’s Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (1991) where she depicts the absence of his portrait after it was stolen in 1990 from a Boston museum.[2] Below and to the left of Calle’s piece is Weems’ triptych, Congo Ibo Mandingo Togo (1995) which features a photo from the outside view and another from the inside view of Gorée Island, Senegal, followed by the text of the title in the third frame. The wall moves on to Michele Abeles and others. On the central wall is Xaviera Simmons’ 2011 photo On Sculpture #1, which looks more like a mixed media piece because of the texture of the background wood and the open magazine with pages standing up. On the third and final full wall is a Mickalene Thomas black and white print followed by others including Melanie Schiff and two images, hung one above the other, by Laurie Simmons. The wall ends with a rather large print of Marina Abramović’s self-portrait with her back to the camera. The work throughout the gallery is hung at varying levels so that the eyes work up and down the walls as they also work across them.

The question of the “truthfulness” of photography is one way to relate to this exhibition. While Jacir’s photo appears to show a straightforward truth – people waiting in line at the Jerusalem post office – Laurie Simmons’ photos are fantastical images; one in which a small white-like-marble body dangles by the waist out of a small globe, and the other in which only legs lay out from the middle of a book. Melanie Schiff’s photo shows an empty skate park with a single figure lying on one of the curved walls of a ramp, so it seems “true” enough, but likely was staged. Eve Sussman’s photo appears to be a fairly realistic portrait of a 1960s era woman, but was in fact taken in 2005 and is a still from her own video performance of a retelling of Rape of the Sabine Women that she updated and set in the 1960s to discuss sexism across cultures and centuries.[3] Michele Abeles’ archival pigment print looks like a collage and is quite abstract rather than truthful in any conventional sense. Carrie Mae Weems attempts to recreate a historic scene and emotional connection in a location that continues to exist in contemporary times, though seemingly unchanged, and Mickalene Thomas poses contemporary women in a 1970s-drenched scene.

The various photographs seem to have no significant connection to each other at all, but I was drawn to the, perhaps accidental, way Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems were placed on opposite walls from each other. Although they are not quite directly across from one another, and they are at different levels, the moment I stepped in front of Thomas’ photo I felt something tugging me back to Weems’ photo as well. I could imagine a thread running between them, a type of Sankofa (“Go back and get it,” a Twi phrase that refers to looking back to the culture, values, and lessons of the past to carry into the future) whereby the women of the Thomas photograph who represent the present (and arguably, the future) were looking back to Goreé Island in Weems’ photos and deciding what of that past to carry forward. I do not know if Thomas and Weems have any sort of relationship with one another, but I imagine Weems, a Black woman photographer born in 1953, as a living mentor and inspiration of sorts for Thomas, a Black woman born in 1971. Certainly, Weems is a respected photographer whose efforts helped to open doors that Thomas has since benefitted from. The Weems photos differ from her usual reclamation of portraits and slave daguerreotypes, tapping instead into a sense of place but continuing to explore ancestry and how contemporary Black Americans relate to a traumatic past.

Thomas’ 2006 photo is a black and white print of two women sitting in Thomas’ signature riot of patterns. Appearing to be an interior scene, the wall is covered by what looks like a wooden trellis in a loose woven design that creates a diamond pattern in the open spaces. In the far right corner is an indoor ficus tree of the sort frequently found in both offices and homes. A leopard print rug of both light and dark colored stripes covers the floor. In front of the wall is a sofa covered with a tapestry of large embroidered flowers, on which a dark Black woman with an unshaped Afro hairstyle sits in a v-neck fit-and-flare knee length dress. Her dress is a mix of a light colored fish print and solid black. She sits with one leg drawn up and bent at the knee so her foot disappears under the other leg that is bare with that foot planted flat on the floor. There is a bouquet of roses across her lap, and one arm is laid across the back of the sofa to her left. She looks directly at the camera, without smiling, her lips slightly turned down. The second woman sits on a light colored square sofa cushion on the floor in front of the empty portion of the sofa. She is a lighter skinned Black woman and also wears a v-neck knee length fit-and-flare dress, but in a large floral pattern on a dark background. She rests one elbow on the sofa and the other arm on her bent knee, her legs open and the other bent knee resting on the cushion. She wears a shaped Afro hairstyle, hoop earrings, and dark lipstick. Her head is barely tilted to her right, but her eyes cut harder in that direction with an annoyed expression.

The photo’s title, A Moment’s Pleasure, represents Thomas’ characteristic play on song lyrics in which the classic Will You Love Me Tomorrow is referenced. Originally released by Black girl group The Shirelles in 1961, the song was re-recorded by white jazz singer Carole King in Thomas’ year of birth (1971) and re-popularized by white jazz-influenced superstar Amy Winehouse in 2004. The song is a lament in which the singer wonders if the lover is offering a “lasting treasure” when they become intimate, or if the night together is “just a moment’s pleasure.”[4] The photograph suggests two lovers and their feelings upon realizing what they have may be temporary and short-lived. Thomas, a queer woman herself, explores the friendships and more intimate and sexual partnerships between Black women throughout much of her work. Like Weems, Thomas also traffics in a sense of nostalgia, utilizing the clothing, furnishings, hairstyles, and other aesthetics of her 1970s childhood and pressing family, friends, and lovers into modeling for her. Her practice of titles derived from song titles or lines almost exclusively draws from her childhood as well, and may link to her formative memories and emotional terrain. The photo exhibited from Weems speaks her relationship to the past, but Thomas speaks to where Black women are in the present and where they are going in the future. Understanding Thomas’ narrative requires acknowledging that of Weems as well, the history that has led to the point in which Thomas’ models reside.

This interpretive link between Weems and Thomas was the only significant connection I felt between any of the photos in the exhibition. None of the other photos, except possibly Abramović’s felt remotely as personal as these two.  It was only upon finishing looking at every photo, ending with the Abramović self-portrait, that I realized I should have begun by moving to the left upon entering the gallery, as that small wall served as the title wall. The statement utilized a font that made it difficult to read, especially the smaller letters of the statement in comparison to the title. The font letters break apart and though looking quite modern, they were a distraction from the words as well. In fact, as inaccessible as the font made the statement, it was also one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition. The statement claims the photographers turn their “incisive eyes towards politics, history, or identity”[5], but it could be argued those are inherent in almost any sort of photography. While making much of the fact that all of the photographers come from “diverse backgrounds and multiple generations,”[6] the tiny size of the show precludes any significant diversity, and the 20 year span of the images made by women all born within 30 years of each other is also unremarkable. This history of photography is not much represented because of the tight timeframe of the selected photos, though the younger generations incorporate more overt references to and critiques of contemporary media saturation.

The statement goes on to mention the exhibition features only a selection of the 50 images available in the collection[7] but gives no hint as to why these particular photos were selected versus the others. Without any cohesive theme beyond the essentialist sharing of being female among the photographers, the show is underwhelming. If one is local to it, it doesn’t hurt to see it and have the opportunity to view the work of several respected contemporary photographers, but there is little value in going out of one’s way to see it. Perhaps the MCA will consider a more robust exhibition in which all 50 works are shown and a curator is able to draw more meaningful relationships between the photos than the simplistic and further marginalization of noting they were all taken by women and crammed into one small gallery as if insufficient space could be found to celebrate all of the photos, and all of the photographers, equally and respectfully.

 

 

[1] “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2017. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2017/Woman-With-A-Camera

[2] Exhibition Label, Self-Portrait by Rembrandt by Sophie Calle. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

[3] Exhibition Label, Themes and the Island, from Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

[4] Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. 1960.

[5] Title Wall Text. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Viewed in person September 8, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Works Cited:

“Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2017. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2017/Woman-With-A-Camera

Woman With A Camera. Title Wall Text. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Viewed in person September 8, 2017.

Self-Portrait by Rembrandt by Sophie Calle. Exhibition Label. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

Themes and the Island, from Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation. Exhibition Label. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

Goffin, Gerry, and Carole King. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. 1960.

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What Is the Value of Criticism?

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Image description: A screen shot of a Facebook comment that reads “‘The function of criticism is to open doors, not sit in judgement.’ -Elaine De Kooning”

In a previous post explaining my intentions with this blog and answering the question “Why do you criticize everything?” I wrote:

I believe we can learn from the failures and produce better art. The art we produce creates our culture, and our culture creates our future world.

This past week I wrote an op-ed for a local arts publication. I attended an event and delivered my opinion about the event. It was to some degree a review and in other ways it was just a straight up critique. In fact, I originally wrote twice as much as what I sent in for publication. I cut it back both because of a word count limit and because there were critiques of the event and the people involved that I didn’t feel I could professionally offer without putting myself and the publication at legal risk. By which I mean to say, the event was far worse than I portrayed in my op-ed, far more offensive, and far more pointless. There are things I still don’t feel I can say in writing even on my own blog here without exposing myself and others to potential legal ramifications.

The above image is a quote from the organizer of the event I wrote about. I don’t need to respond directly to it because it is so clearly immature sour grapes. I’ve had to say many a time that in a city where critique has been in short supply for years, too many artists (and organizations) have grown to believe they are above criticism. We sometimes say it’s a function of Midwest Nice – no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, there is a belief that we should “promote what you love” instead of talking about what you “hate” – which leaves no room for “I didn’t necessarily hate it, I just have thoughts/questions about it,” and overall there is a lack of understanding of what criticism exists to do. Which is why you get quotes like above as responses to criticism.

Let’s be clear: Criticism is a judgment. And anyone who tells you they are not judging you, whether they are actually giving you criticism or not, is a liar.

What is the function of criticism?

Criticism/critique has many different functions and forms dependent on several factors that include (but are not limited to):

  • the role of the person making the critique
  • the location of the critique (is it a Facebook post, a personal blog, written for professional media, a fellow student giving required critique in a class, etc.)
  • what and who is being critiqued
  • the purpose or intent of the critique

Critique looks different depending on where, when, and why we are making it. That said, even the most professional, most gentle and kind, most thoughtful critique is still a judgment of sorts.

As I said in a previous post, I have been writing (and also verbally offering) critiques and reviews for a long time. They don’t all look or sound the same. In a Facebook post, I may straight up say that a film was “fucking hot mess of white savior trope, misogyny, and just fuck-shit ideas.” My personal social media is not censored as strictly professional writing. I write what I’m really feeling about something, and I encourage my “friends” to comment with their honest feelings without being censored (as long as they aren’t engaging in any oppressive speech). If I write about that same film on my Medium, it will be more extensive, more polished, and more thoughtful – but it still may be particularly blunt. If I’m asked to write about the film for a professional site, it will be a professional review in which I take under consideration how others may view the film differently and may have already written very different opinions than mine. A professional review will use professional language and less personal connections will be made as much as possible (though I may still name my biases, as I did in the Cultured.GR op-ed when I acknowledged that I am an artist with mental illnesses). In a professional space I may also be constrained by specific needs of the site where I will be published – the editor’s needs and the organization’s mission come into play in how I am approaching the topic.

If I am invested in an organization, art space, community, my critique may well be an opening that offers me the opportunity to better understand intentions and goals. If I am invested, I want them to be the best they can be, and my critique is intended to be constructive. If I am not invested, and especially if what I am critiquing is causing harm, my critique is still constructive but it isn’t about me trying to understand, meeting half way, or caring about them being their best selves. It’s just about me encouraging people and organizations to stop harming others.

The function of criticism can absolutely be about “opening a door” and eliciting conversation. But it doesn’t have to be.

When Critique Isn’t About A Conversation

Sometimes critique is not trying to open a door or engage in a conversation with the person/people responsible for the work the critique is about. Sometimes critique is not interested in “calling in” or patiently walking someone towards growth. Sometimes critique is not about hand-holding someone through the solutions.

Sometimes critique is just about telling someone:

  • You were wrong
  • That was offensive
  • That didn’t do what you thought it would do
  • That could have been better
  • That was a hot mess
  • You screwed up, fix it
  • You’ve been told/given resources, stop doing the same thing like you don’t know

A friend recently posted about how a post-workshop survey’s demographic collection language was offensive, and I shared how I had attended an event a few years ago that had the same language on their survey even though they had board members of that identity that had already educated them on it. When I filled out the survey, I told them about the language issue, that I was well aware that my friends on the board had discussed it with them in advance, and that it was representative of so many of the ways I had felt “othered” and unwelcome at the event (after which I named the other issues also.)

What I did not tell my friend is that I got a response to that critique. I did. I was asked if I could explain why their choice was offensive to me. The problem was

  1. I had explained why in my survey comments already,
  2. Two of their board members had explained why the language was offensive before the survey was ever created,
  3. They could have Googled to understand the appropriate language around the issue and many opinions that exist online to explain why their language choice was not okay,
  4. They were demanding me to, in good faith, engage them in a conversation that I had no desire to engage in, that I was aware they did not really want to hear, and that they were not offering to pay for consulting with them about

My critique wasn’t about “let’s have a conversation” or suggesting that my concerns were up for debate. My critique was made simply to tell them, “You screwed up, you knew you were screwing up and I know you knew, DO BETTER.” But because they decided I was “mean” or had failed to provide them with the conversation they wanted to have, the exact same language was used again for the following two events they put on. They were told they were wrong, and they decided not to bother trying to do better.

Yes, my critique was a judgment. No, it was not me trying to open a door. Yes, they chose to ignore it. No, I didn’t owe them any additional labor.

And no, I’ve never supported them since.

Not All Criticisms Are Valid

There are times when I offer critique that includes solutions, options, or extensive explanation of what I was hoping for/expecting and feel was not offered. I am in no way suggesting that critique can’t be “productive” in that sense. There is a time and place for discussions, conversations, offering solutions, producing resources, and even accepting that our criticism is “just an opinion.” In the “just an opinion” category, there are times when critiques are not even valid and no one is required to learn from them.

We don’t live in a vacuum. Our opinions come from our own life experience, education on a topic, and people who put the labor into clueing us in when we were being wrong. Our opinions may be very well informed, or not informed at all. Sometimes our reaction to something is just a feeling we may not even be able to explain, other times we have put a great deal of thought into how we feel and why.

Sometimes we try to give an opinion without knowing the full context or without understanding what the artist, playwright, or speaker was trying to do. Take, for example, the Goodreads reviews of Dominican novelist Junot DÍaz’s first novel, The Brief & Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Scores of white readers argued that the language (Díaz mixes Spanish and English without providing translations or a glossary) was impossible for them to understand, that it was “crass,” that they couldn’t even understand the protagonist’s motivations, etc. They couldn’t step out of their bubble and enjoy being out of their own knowledge base or comfort zone. Nevermind that people for whom English is a second, third, fourth, etc. language are required to read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare in school as if that should be their comfort zone. Some of Díaz’s readers were not versed in the context in which he was writing and they weren’t interested in trying to understand what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. They critiqued it, but their critique was ignorant and self-absorbed.

I could not write a review or op-ed about a panel talk intended for an audience of medical professionals and discussing the latest methods of neurosurgery to treat a condition that disproportionately affects a particular population. The only possible “critique” I could make of it would be that the conversation was not accessible and understandable for a general audience, but knowing the context was that it was not meant for a general audience would make that critique unreasonable. I might also be able to critique that the location did not meet accessibility standards (no elevator was available, there were deaf participants on the panel but no ASL interpreters had been provided, etc.), or there was no diversity on the panel as if only white surgeons are experts on neurosurgery and as if there shouldn’t be representation of some sort from the population most likely to need the particular surgical intervention. But I would have no business critiquing the quality of the information presented because I don’t know anything more about neurosurgery than what I have absorbed from binge watching Grey’s Anatomy, and what I do know is Shonda Rhimes probably gets some of that information wrong.

Ok, But What Is the Value of Criticism?

Critique and criticism provide an opportunity to learn, to re-evaluate, to do better. That’s it. When one reads or hears critique, they are not obligated to accept it, nor to accept it on face value. The person whose work is being critiqued should consider things like

  • The expertise of the person offering the critique
  • The intentions and potential biases of the person offering the critique (not to be confused with saying every critic is just a “hater,” but sometimes when you assess things that’s the real situation)
  • The form the criticism comes in – consider whether it is just stated critique or if it is intended to open a conversation

Frequently one needs time to process a critique. Your work is personal, it is meaningful, it is vulnerable to put it out there into the world. Receiving negative or challenging feedback can hurt. But one isn’t required to respond to criticism in all cases, nor to respond immediately in most cases where one does need to respond.

Critique offers opportunities for growth. That is the value. In naming what is wrong, we are able to begin to envision what doing it “right” would look like. I believe we can learn from the failures, whether they are small or large… We can do better.

I also believe that art is often a conversation with previous art – not always of the same genre – and that contemporary culture is built on reaction to, critique of, and nostalgia for previous times. Art is powerful and helps to set the stage for how the future will understand us – and what kind of future we have created. As an art historian and culture critic, I try to bring to bear the information that helps us to place work within its historical context, its relevance in our contemporary time, and what it means for our future. (“Why Do You Criticize Everything?”)

Best Writing Advice

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A selection of books from one of my shelves, including Xenogenesis, Octavia’s Brood, Independent Women, Women of the Way, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, GRANTA’s Love Stories, Assata, Our Voices Our Lives, Borderlands/La Frontera, Last Standing Woman, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Tar Baby, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Creation Fire: A Cafra Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, Speaking for the Generations, and I Ask the Impossible

Last week The Guardian published a piece of “top 10 writer’s tips,” drawn from a new book written by Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon (Being a Writer: Advice, Musings, Essays, and Experiences From the World’s Greatest Authors). Not surprisingly, the list is very… white. And the advice, while not bad advice by any means, is also pretty plain. I certainly didn’t feel like I learned anything I hadn’t heard before or that inspired writing fervor in me. Perhaps the problem is that it comes from “the world’s greatest authors” and how “great” is being defined in such a limited scope. The 10 pieces of advice are offered by fiction writers, for example. Not even one poet is included, though some of them are also essayists (generally secondary to their fiction writing). The advice offered is unoriginal, though perhaps that is no fault of the authors themselves and only leads to  questions about why this is the “best” that could be collected. In some cases the advice is outright hypocritical given what we know of some of the authors included (“Don’t write and drink,” is advice gleaned from F. Scott Fitzgerald), though generally “good” advice. I imagine the book must be far more interesting than the article, as one has the opportunity to delve deeper into the thoughts of various writers on their craft – both successes and failures. The most useful part of the article isn’t the actual advice, but this sentence in the preamble:

“Researching the book, it quickly became obvious that there isn’t a correct way to set about writing creatively, which is a liberating thought.” (Travis Elborough)

There is no “correct way.” There are many ways, and writers should find the way that works best for their individual needs. One thing we are rarely, if ever, advised is that your method may need to change as your life changes. Maybe you’re an up-all-night person in your 20s, but after becoming a parent you discover your most functional time to yourself is getting up before dawn for one hour of writing. You may discover you have a pattern of “productivity” where certain months/seasons of the year you are able to be hyper-disciplined, and during other months or seasons you get nothing done at all. There is no “correct way.”

If you could give a few key pieces of writing advice to others, what would they be?

Mine are:

  • Read, and read variety. I never understand people who call themselves writers but say they can’t find time or don’t enjoy reading. Reading, in a broad sense, helps writers to learn sentence structure, new vocabulary, and what “works” or doesn’t for the reader. You should definitely be reading within your own genre/form, so you know what has already been (over)done, what about your story is unique, and how others are addressing the questions your work is trying to answer. But you should also read outside of your comfort zone to broaden your perspective.
  • Write when you can. Beyond finding the “time of day” that your brain can best function in, you should write when you have ideas, even if you only have a few minutes to jot down some notes. A lot of advice is about “making time” and not waiting for inspiration to strike – sit down and get working. This is valuable advice if you are the type who procrastinates a lot, but it’s not practical for everyone. Keeping a notebook (or note making app) to scratch down a bit of dialogue when it occurs to you, a thought that crosses your mind in the middle of your workday, or a few poetic lines about something you see is a legitimate part of the writing process. You’ll also likely find that you have weeks or months when you can’t write anything, and most writers feel horrible about those times because capitalism has told us we must “sit your ass in the chair and write every day” and that productivity and word counts matter. The fallow times are when your back brain is collecting ideas, images, etc. to prepare to write later. It’s also true that real life can get in the way, and being honest about that is better than beating yourself up.
  • Even the “greatest” writers write a lot of crap. So many writers I know have a lot of anxiety about how their work should be “great” all the time, and generally in the first draft. If only we could see the original book a writer sent in to their editor we would have a better idea of how much revision matters. And the draft sent to the editor is after any number of drafts at home where the writer discarded whole chapters, re-wrote a lot of scenes, worked through a singular poem for three months. In the article above, Miranda July is quoted as saying, “I didn’t realise I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it – doing a million drafts and things changing radically…” In the digital age, we often don’t even see a lot of our own changes in the process anymore because once we overwrite something it’s just gone. We are losing perspective of how much writing is about the revisions, not the first draft. And even the greatest writers threw out a dozen or more attempts before they got to what we like so much in the final product. Even the greatest writers set manuscripts, stories, and poems aside, dissatisfied. Even the greatest writers haven’t even begun to write something that has been sitting in their head for years because they don’t feel like it’s “good enough” yet.

Why Do You Criticize Everything?

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Close up of painting “Untitled” (2013) by author. Image is a gold background with texture, a rough turquoise circle that does not fully close, and small silver dots around the inner edge of the circle.

You may consider this a manifesto of sorts. The title question is something I am frequently asked, and I understand that those who read this blog will eventually ask it too. This past week I watched the new Will Smith film Bright on Netflix and posted about it on my personal Facebook.* While most of my responding friends agreed with my take or had not yet watched it and appreciated the heads up at least one completely disagreed with me, and seemed to think he needed to convince me of his viewpoint. I didn’t wish to argue or even persuade him, so I didn’t engage the questions much, but it did make me realize how necessary it is to create a post early on in the life of this blog to explain why I do what I do.

What I Do

I’m a working artist, a freelance writer and editor, and a poet. I’m also a student of art history (entering my senior year in undergrad, applying for Visual and Critical Studies programs for grad school), and consider myself a culture critic. Other people use terms like “media criticism” and “art critic,” but those terms are both specific/particular skill sets I am not trained in, and limited to not fully encompass what I see myself as doing. I’ve been writing book and film reviews for several years, and also have been writing art exhibition reviews for a few years now. Beyond “media” I have been writing about how television, films, books, music, and art create and inform culture and vice versa.

I have always believed that art (in the broadest sense of that term) is a reflection of society, but also can help to show society what it could be. I believe art has a responsibility to be both socially aware and socially conscious, and I believe all art is inherently political even when it is trying its hardest not to be. This does not mean that all artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians are required to be intentionally political through their work at all times – it means that work is still created within a political context and viewers are going to engage it through a political lens regardless. Work does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the culture, socio-political, reality in which it is produced and then viewed. This is why when we look at historical art we interpret it both in relation to what it might have meant in its original time and how we see it through our contemporary lens as well.

I also believe that art is often a conversation with previous art – not always of the same genre – and that contemporary culture is built on reaction to, critique of, and nostalgia for previous times. Art is powerful and helps to set the stage for how the future will understand us – and what kind of future we have created. As an art historian and culture critic, I try to bring to bear the information that helps us to place work within its historical context, its relevance in our contemporary time, and what it means for our future.

How I Do It

There are many sites where reviewers and fans prefer to write about things they love. In fact, there are some art-based sites where that is exclusively what they do – provide positive reviews and encourage people to check something out. There are other sites that are constant critique, where things are torn apart to look at everything that goes into creating its whole, and often a lot of academic theory is used to discuss it. Both of those are valid methods, but neither is my method.

Some of the things I will share on this blog will be writings done for classes. This means I may not always have had a choice about what art exhibition or film I am writing about or which article, philosopher, or author I am referencing (See my review of Frida, for example. I reference an article by Oriana Baddeley because we had two readings that week and were required for the assignment to choose only one and connect it to our review.) Other assignments are much more open ended, and I am able to determine the artist, art works, and which research I reference, as well as the questions that guide my research. Sometimes I am offered an opportunity to write a review of an art exhibition for a particular media source, and I have to consider their methods, audience, and needs in producing that review. I may have additional thoughts I prefer to write up here where it is safe for me to say what I really think. On other occasions I will post things I’m thinking about outside of school – such as discussing “current events” in the art or literature/poetry worlds, or musings about a television show or movie I’ve just watched. Whether I “like” what I am talking about or not isn’t necessarily the point to discussing its themes, potential meanings, and failures or successes. Consider that Frida review again, where I tell you that is one of my absolute favorite movies ever, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking critically about it as well.

My goal is to discuss things in a way that are relatively easy for people to understand. I’m not interested in intense philosophical debate, so when I have to reference philosophers and other academic thinkers, it is my intention to break those ideas down into meaningful and understandable forms. I may well critique the philosophers and their arguments while I’m applying their argument to the media or art work I’m discussing. The point is, I’m trying to create and provide space to a broader group of people to feel a part of and able to engage with the critiques and discussions.

Ruining All the Fun

And here we get to the crux of the title question. Personally, I find breaking things down and discussing their intricacies and possibilities fun. I know not everyone does. Sometimes you just want some mindless entertainment, and that is okay! Please believe me that I also love many “problematic” things. Here are a few examples, so you can believe me that I’m not trying to tell people what you are allowed to like or why (or, so you can laugh at me and my terrible taste):

And yes, I am both aware of the critiques others have made and have many critiques of my own of all of those things. I still enjoy them regardless, without pretending they aren’t wrong, offensive, and even damaging in certain ways. We all love things that are severely flawed, and thankfully other people have written/talked about how we can continue to enjoy things while still being aware of what is wrong with them. (1) (2) (3)

I’m certainly not demanding intellectual purity and that people give up everything they enjoy. I am almost certainly going to rain on your parade, however, by continuing to talk about what is terrible about things. I do this not to spoil your fun, but because I believe we can learn from the failures and produce better art. The art we produce creates our culture, and our culture creates our future world. Let’s build something better.

*  My short review of Bright: It’s terrible. The storytelling is practically nonexistent and nonsensical, the jokes are offensive, the racial tropes are simplistic and demeaning, and there’s little woman-empowering anything anywhere in it. More substantial reviews by others: (1) (2) (3)

Illustrating the Life of Frida Kahlo in a Beautiful Vacuum – A Review of Frida, the Film

Frida Working on Las Dos Fridas_Nickolas Muray
Frida Working on Los Dos Fridas. Photo taken by Nickolas Muray.

Last week Salma Hayek wrote about the horror of trying to get the film Frida, her passion project, made under Harvey Weinstein. While he did not sexually assault her or demand sexual favors as he did dozens of other women in the industry, he abused her in many ways before, during, and after the making of the film. It seems as good a time as any to share that I wrote a review of the film for my Latin American Art History course in October. It remains one of my favorite movies, even as I have critiques of it. My review could not, due to space constraints and needing to answer specific questions for the assignment (including discussing it in conjunction with a specific reading), address every possible “issue” with the film. Hayek wrote about the particular scene of Frida in Paris with Josephine Baker, and how Weinstein was the reason for that full frontal sex scene that caused her, as an actress, to have panic attacks. As a queer person who appreciated that Frida’s queerness was not hidden in the film, that scene has always seemed gratuitous and excessive. Now we know why, and what it cost to the actress to do it. The film is terrifically important and valuable, but as with all films only so much can be properly contextualized in a short span of time, and the hope is it opens people to do further research on the life and work of Frida Kahlo. It is most unfortunate, and yet unsurprising, that Hayek has had to endure trauma in order to bring this film to us. 

Here is the text of my review:

In her article “’Her Dress Hangs Here’: De-frocking the Kahlo Cult,” Oriana Baddeley writes:

“This ‘appropriateness’ of Kahlo’s aesthetic to contemporary debate has tended to remove her work from its historical context, to stress the collective and the cross-cultural… More problematic is the way in which such a dislocation has led to the acceptance of her ‘Mexicanness’ as mere decoration of the essentially feminist themes of her work…”[1]

Baddeley is referring to the commodifying and co-opting of Frida Kahlo’s Tehuana clothing as inspiration for contemporary women, devoid of its original intent and context, and allowing for a superficial understanding of Kahlo’s life and work that requires no care for the modern Mexico Kahlo was living in and reacting to. Kahlo has become a feminist icon for her independence, open bisexuality, and how she truly lived by the credo later popularized by 1970s feminists that “the personal is political.” But contemporary invocation of Kahlo, primarily by non-Mexicans, tends to center the aesthetic as if it is cross-cultural exchange available to all, rather more than the radical politics she espoused.

Julie Taymor’s 2002 film, Frida, based on Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book that is widely considered the definitive biography of Frida’s life and work, participates in the tradition of cult development with emphasis on the superficial aspects of Frida that are removed, to some degree, from their true context. It is a visually remarkable film that lovingly eulogizes Frida Kahlo, bringing her to a new audience and creating intrigue about her as a person and artist. It also contributes to the ongoing gentrification of her style and imagery without offering a significant understanding of the cultural and historical context in which she was living and working so that fans can properly understand the depth of her work. It is a film of great aesthetic and emotional value, but true fans will want to delve deeper.

The film begins in Frida’s teen years, showing her as a mischievous schoolgirl who teases Diego Rivera while he is working on a fresco at the National Preparatory School of the University of Mexico, just prior to the bus accident that changed her life at 18 in 1925.[2] The film ends with her death in 1954. It condenses a hefty tome (Herrera’s biography) that covered her entire life and context into the intense 30 years of her life and relationship with Diego Rivera, and presents it in less than two hours. According to the film it was her marriage, divorce, remarriage, and everything in between with Rivera that encouraged her politics, helped her to define her own identity and style, and led to her most complex art.

Prior to meeting Rivera, Frida was already deeply interested in radical politics, including socialism and communism. The movie shows this through her discussion with her boyfriend on the bus just before the accident. The film also shows her challenging gender norms and connecting with her supportive father in her early years prior to accident. The accident is shown as the turning point, and important influence on her life and work. It was while recovering in bed for months on end that she began to paint, something her parents encouraged by providing her tools to accommodate her limited mobility. By the time the grown Frida approaches Rivera seeking his guidance for her art, she has already demonstrated the strength of her character and resolve by teaching herself to walk despite medical claims that she would not, teaching herself to paint, and determining that she will have to work to support herself. This gets to the heart of the film’s thesis: Frida Kahlo was a badass, a revolutionary for her time, and a far more interesting and committed artist with a political/social lens than most of the male artists who prided themselves on their own revolutionary politics while continuing to engage in patriarchal and hypocritical behavior (this is lightly touched on in the film through the rivalry between Rivera and David Siqueiros). While Rivera supported and strengthened her political beliefs, and it may be argued that through him she found greater access to the Communist Party and Leon Trotsky, she was already on that path without him. Throughout her life, the film shows her taking risks that were not considered the norm for women of her time, culture, and social class. She balanced being a disabled and chronically ill woman with being independent and forcing others to engage her on her own terms, while producing a remarkable amount of challenging art.

The film attempts to show these complexities of Frida’s life and work, but most often falls back on romantic and superficial matters, implying that her work came only from personal suffering rather than the intense political beliefs she possessed. In the film her clothing choices are merely aesthetic, with no effort made to discuss them as anything more than a superficial choice designed to impress Rivera and help her to stand out. In fact, her clothing choices were shocking in their time for their embrace of Indigenous identity and how that was tied to a proletarian social and economic class as well. They are not just pretty clothing for the sake of prettiness, as Baddeley discusses in her article. Kahlo’s clothing choices represented the post-revolutionary Mexico – embracing Indigenous beauty and strength, empowerment of the “lower” social and economic class (the workers and peasants, who were disproportionately Indigenous), and the collectivity of a socialist community.[3]

Baddeley discusses how “In those paintings where Kahlo wears European dress she is passive, weak and unable to control her own destiny, but in the Tehuana costume she is strong, powerful, hopeful.”[4] This is mirrored in the film where it shows Frida in a dark suit, clipping her hair off, then drunk and screaming through her apartment for everyone to leave when her life feels out of her control after she first left Diego for sleeping with her sister. Her painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1942) was the artistic result of that scene in the film and demonstrates Baddeley’s point. The film does not, however, directly address the deeper political implications of this distinction as Frida representing the colonized body of Indigenous Mexico, but does imply some degree of feminism in her choices.

The film showcases Diego as Frida’s primary influence, but there are others such as her father and Trotsky who also impacted her political and artistic outlooks. It was her father who encouraged her to be herself and to be independent despite that going against the social norms of Mexico at the time. The influence of Trotsky is, perhaps, overplayed in the film while leaving out how short their affair was and creating a much more romanticized ending to what was in fact more cruel (on Frida’s part) than portrayed. Throughout the film Diego’s complicated and adversarial relationship with the Communist Party is mentioned repeatedly but Frida’s membership, which preceded her relationship with Diego, is never addressed.

The film expresses repeatedly that Frida’s work is explicitly tied to her emotional state, so that while the film traces her life through her art, it is traced through her relationship with Diego. While showing her affairs with Trotsky, Josephine Baker, and others, the film does not show her producing work during or related to those affairs. It is well known that Kahlo had lengthy and emotional relationships with women such as the singer Chavela Vargas, so if her work is almost exclusively tied to her emotions and relationships, one would expect to see work related to those other affairs and endings. The film does a disservice to her by portraying her work as exclusively a series of emotional reactions to her tumultuous relationship with Diego. Certainly there are other highly emotional instances, such as her mother’s death, that would have impacted her work if that were the only impetus. It also disregards the larger feminist and revolutionary context of her work.

While she addressed content such as her surgeries (Tree of Hope, 1946 and The Broken Column, 1944) and miscarriages (Henry Ford Hospital, 1932) in her work, as well as explicitly confronting lineage (My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936) and identity (My Nurse and I, 1937 and The Two Fridas, 1939), these were also revolutionary topics for the time and had little to do with Diego directly. As a woman to put these issues in front of the public was shocking. The way that she tied these personal issues with the history and roots of Mexico (Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939), its larger needs (The Bus, 1929), industrialization and Mexico’s relationship to the U.S. (Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, 1932), and socialist leanings (Moses, 1945 and Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954) makes her work strikingly different from the work of the male artists around her. Although the film shows her minimizing the value of her work and receiving no recognition for it, this was not entirely true either. She did, in fact, show work in the U.S. and Paris during her lifetime. The film limits both the scope of her works, its influences and intent, and the recognition she received during her life, as these choices help to perpetuate the myth of suffering, tragically beautiful artist.

Baddeley’s article challenges that myth, tracing the way Frida’s style has been co-opted by fashion and popular culture since Herrera’s biography brought Kahlo back into the public imagination. Baddeley focuses most on the emphasis upon Frida’s sartorial choices, which have become mere “fashion” and inspiration for people with no connection whatsoever to Mexico, Indigenous culture, or revolutionary politics. The film encourages the idea that Frida was colorful and intriguing in her clothing, but without ever explicitly naming her choices as personal or political or making much effort to contrast her to others around her at a time of the modernization of Mexico when women were moving from conventional conservative dress to embrace modern options. While Frida exemplified the modern Mexican woman – indeed, she was still radical even by modern standards – she chose to delve further into the past for her clothing choices, bringing Indigenous identity to the forefront not to be fashionable but to stake a claim to the inherent Indigeneity of modern Mexican culture and demand respect and revolutionary love for the most marginalized of her society. She was appealing to the revolutionary ideals of collectivity and fraternity, placing herself as a visual representation of the people being left behind despite those ideals post-revolution. Baddeley explores how those choices have been removed completely from their revolutionary context, and without naming the film (the article was written a decade prior), it is easy to see the film continued to do what Baddeley was critiquing.

In relation to Mexican art history, the film provides a beautiful story that should encourage viewers to learn more. While it is a romantic storytelling, Frida’s life is provocative. The film techniques that place Frida inside her paintings, combining seeing her working on the paintings and her directly experiencing them, is interesting and brings the paintings to life. The use of craft, including collage and sugar skull/calavera animation (seen post accident in what appears to be Frida’s dream before she wakes up in the hospital, and seen again at the end when her 1940 painting The Dream is animated to represent her death) adds an additional layer that showcases traditional Mexican art forms. The film juxtaposes Frida’s work with Diego’s large scale industrial murals, but does not show what other art was being made in Mexico or elsewhere during the time period covered, so that it is difficult to contextualize Frida’s artistic choices with the larger movements and interests going on around her. This contributes to the hyper-personalized interpretation of her work and undervalues her influences and political statements that lend additional context to the work.

For those with little to no knowledge of art, Mexican culture, or history Frida does provide an entrance to the broader complexities of her work. The film is colorful, visually engrossing, and emotionally moving. Finding an emotional connection to the artist can encourage people to want to know and understand more. The film could not possibly cover all areas of her life in such a short period, and knowing it is based on a biography may encourage viewers to read the book as well as to consider other sources that offer additional insights into Frida’s life and work and the context in which she was living and working in.

[1] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult.” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (January 01, 1991): 10-17. doi:10.1093/oxartj/14.1.10. P. 14.

[2] Diego Rivera, and Gladys March. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. P. 72-77.

[3] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here.” P. 16.

[4] Oriana Baddeley. “Her Dress Hangs Here.” P. 14.

Sources

Baddeley, Oriana. “Her Dress Hangs Here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult.” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (January 01, 1991): 10-17. doi:10.1093/oxartj/14.1.10.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Rivera, Diego, and Gladys March. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991.

Review: Goddess Supreme Box by Love & Light Healing

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Hello! This may not be what you expected from my first blog post on this new arts blog. I know, I know, you are expecting to read reviews of art shows and essays about art. I promise you, there will be lots of that too. But I am very excited to inaugurate my blog by giving big ups to two of my real-life artist friends, and recommending others support them. So, let’s get started…

Love & Light Healing launched their Goddess Subscription Box through CrateJoy, with the first box shipping this month. Their description reads:

The Goddess Box is a curated box of handmade jewelry, metaphysical tools, & natural skincare products created for the goddess in you! Our body care & apothecary items are made with all natural, organic, & ethically sourced ingredients. We also highlight a new artist each month from around the world. A portion of proceeds goes to a charity.
  • Mindfully sourced
  • high quality
  • holistic care
  • curated care

They offer two options. The $35 Goddess Box features “a piece of jewelry handmade by us from our line or from another artisan, body care products from our line, and metaphysical tools like crystals, incense, and other resources.” The $45 Supreme Goddess Box includes additional items. One of the things that I really appreciate about the Goddess Box is the creator’s commitment to supporting independent artists, which means she commissions (and pays for!) small items by artists/artisans to include in the box.* Not only is she directly supporting artists this way, but it offers those artists the opportunity for their work to be seen and owned by people who might not have otherwise known of them. Included in every box is sheet that explains the items and offers information about the featured artist.

The December 2017 Goddess Supreme Box is pictured above. It included:

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A 4oz bottle of Love & Light Healing’s Honey-So-Sweet Body Wash – As you can see from the ingredient list, it is all natural goodness, and it smells great too. My skin has never been softer.

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A bookmark created by Love & Light Healing. This photo shows you both sides. The front shows the moon phases, and the backside gives the dates and signs for the full moons and new moons of all of 2018. This is very handy because I read a lot and use just about anything as a bookmark, so it never hurts to have the real thing. But of course it is also very useful information as well. I have an app that I can check for the moon phase, but I am terrible at remembering what sign the moon is ever in!

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A box of Gabrielle Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back inspiration cards. The artwork Micaela Ezra and is beautiful. Watercolor designs with bright colors make the deck a pleasurable pick-me-up when you need to be reminded there is beauty in the world. The simple, short, inspirations may seem trite at first but often these are the very things we need to hear/be reminded of to get ourselves unstuck. I will be offering one card pulls from this deck to clients to accompany my intuitive tarot/inspiration readings.

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Finally, there was a good size chunk of Palo Santo, which the insert tells us is “‘Holy Wood’ Ethically sourced from Ecuador. It is used to cleanse your energy field/space. Highly Protective energetically. Burn like you would Sage. A little bit goes a long way.”

The large-bookmark sized original art is a moon phases print by an artist local to me, Sarah Sun. Sarah is an artist who works in printmaking and stitch/fiber work. She is also a tattoo apprentice who did a moon phases tattoo on my forearm. She is a fierce mama raising amazingly creative girls who also inspire me. This piece of art is a hand-pulled print on heavy fiber paper, signed and numbered as part of a limited edition of prints.

Last, there was a necklace made by Love & Light Healing as part of their jewelry line. This necklace features an amethyst chunk on a silver chain. Amethyst is one of my personal favorite stones and the insert reminds me that it is a “Crystal of protection and spiritual ascension. Connects with your Third Eye, Crown, and Etheric Chakras. Helps to develop spiritual and psychic abilities.” It’s also just plain pretty, and because it is so simply displayed it is perfect for everyday wear. It is lightweight and feels comfortable.

Overall there is about $60+ of product for $45, attractively packaged, shipped quickly, and supporting a Black/Queer business that provides high quality and ethical products. There are lots of “similar” options available on CrateJoy and the price point is about average, but looking at some of those other options I noticed questionable ethics from the use of appropriated racial slurs for the Rroma people by sellers who probably aren’t Rroma, to smaller and less substantial products for the same price. The owner is also available and very responsive if you have questions, concerns, or want more information about things in the box.

Ratings:

  • Interesting & Relevant – ♥♥♥♥♥
  • Useful Items – ♥♥♥♥♥
  • Quality – ♥♥♥♥♥
  • Price Point – ♥♥♥♥♥
  • Customer Service – ♥♥♥♥♥

* Full disclosure, I am one of the artists whose items will be included in a future month’s subscription box.