Why Do You Criticize Everything?

Screenshot 2017-12-26 19.04.33
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)

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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.