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A Discussion on Facebook about Feminism

Yesterday the New York Times Sunday Review lead editorial was “The Campaign Against Women.” The editorial focused on a number of recent state and federal laws put forward and passed by Republican legislative majorities affecting women’s reproductive rights, healthcare, equal pay and domestic violence protection, among others (and they didn’t even mention recent laws requiring transvaginal ultrasound probes for women seeking abortions).

I posted the Times editorial on Facebook with the  query “is there still a need for “Woman”-focused feminism or would other theories and political positions be more useful?” This query partially emerges from instructive and provocative conversations I had with some of my students this past semester in a course on Feminist art practice about a range of political and theoretical identifications and positionalities some of which I experienced as being in stark contrast to the actualities of female experience around the globe as well in our own seemingly privileged culture.These conversations suggested more study and rethinking, and, if I’m not sure I can alter some of my deeply held views, I see in renewed focus other points of views that I need to rethink and study further.

The ensuing comments thread is an example of what can occasionally make Facebook an interesting space for discussion among people who are not in the same room and who may or may not have ever actually met, beyond its role monetizing your personal data for the benefit of Facebook. The people who participated, some of whom rarely “speak up” on Facebook to my knowledge, were articulate, informed, and clearly cared deeply about the issues raised. I learned from their comments and responses in this thread, as participants discussed some of the parameters of the impasse in which feminism occasionally seems trapped, between developments and positions on the “left” and the “right.”  With the permission of my Facebook friends who participated  I am republishing this comments thread here, to expand the readership. I have done this once before, in the spirit of extending conversation when it seems worth it: I would encourage anyone who wants to engage in this discussion to do so on the Facebook comments thread and I will add them to this blog entry if they continue the discussion in a productive way.

Fung-Lin Hall: I just posted for John Stuart Mill… he was for women’s rights.

Tracey Harnish: I was just talking about this with another artist. How young women do not seem like to like the term feminism. It seems like something new is needed, but what? This regressive Repub stance is unbelievable!

Lori Ellison: OWS is forming a feminist movement inside of the ideas already percolating.

Ula Einstein: good question Mira! I don’t have an answer yet. and Tracey, I wonder if young women don’t like it because they don’t fully understand the history; although Feminism is not a word I use much either. I am completely interested in who and how we are as women c0-creating change, consciousness and culture. hmmmmmm.

Mira Schor: I may be misinterpreting them but this semester in my Feminist Art Practice course my students and I had a heated discussion (well, I was heated) over a statement made during the conference I hosted at Parsons (*at the moment the conference is partially online–please note introduction for order of speakers which appear as individual videos–but not the discussion segments, when these go online I will link to them), where one participant said she had no trouble with the identification feminist, but she did have a problem with the identification Woman, this was related to a queer identification and queer theory/discourse, adopted by most of the students whether gay, queer, transgender, or straight, & some at least still had some issues with the term feminist although of course they would agree with feminist political points of view. It is most curious. My point was that when the most brilliant minds of a generation in a relatively privileged culture take that position (I’m thinking of people like Judith Butler who many of my students idolize, for her gender work as well as more recent writings on war, non-violence etc) , then when women’s rights are under assault, there is no discourse to defend them, because discourse has migrated, in this case, to queer rights, which are important, but I do not think are the same thing, and so feminist activism seems to be disabled…I could go on and on, as my students discovered with some alarm!!!

Ula Einstein: again, thanks for letting us know the Context: Mira: I don’t think they’re the same thing either. and yes: then when women’s rights are under assault, there is no discourse to defend them, because discourse has migrated, in this case, to queer rights, which are important, BUT I DO NOT THINK ARE THE SAME THING, and so feminist activism seems to be disabled

Lori Ellison: Feminism is more important than ever. I heard an interview with the creator of the TV show Girls on Fresh Air and Terri Gross said at her age they were pressing to be called women. Dunham blithely glided over that. I think there is a gathering storm over the War on Women as the media has called it. And Obama. There will be a lot of women who in earlier times were able to take certain things for granted and never think deeply about feminism that will now.

Donna Ruff: I heard that interview too, and am kind of horrified by the series- I don’t mind being referred to as a girl, having gone through the woman era, but the humiliating and confused actions of the girls on the show- if this is indicative of a generation it makes me very sad. Of course it’s fiction but is this a piece of the anti-feminist, anti-woman zeitgeist?

Lori Ellison: Yes, the internalized backlash.

Mira Schor: Donna I don’t get HBO, but friends have told me about how disturbing it is to see the young women on Girls accept totally degrading sex without question making the women on Sex and the City positive feminists for insisting on their own pleasure! it is worrisome if a generation of women raised during the Reagan/Bush/ and yes the Obama years would allow so much of the misogyny always threatening to overwhelm any civilization to go unquestioned and unopposed. The less clear opposition and questioning there is, the more years to again denaturalize that misogyny.

Monika Weiss: For years I thought in the West there was no more need for “women focused feminism” because we were on a different level of fighting otherness and underprivileged conditions, as opposed to some non-Western countries and continents, where women focused feminism was and is still a necessity. In light of recent developments here on the Right, with their attempts to undermine most of the women rights we have achieved in the 20th century (short of preventing us from voting–but perhaps this is coming as well, since the other legislation debated now is as absurd as voting prevention, perhaps because voting is not good for raising kids, and takes our female minds –if there are any –away from the households) — thus I have to admit that yes, we do need, once again, fully on, a “women focused feminism”, which would be positioned under the agenda of defending human rights as such.

p.s. There are good reasons why so many of our students love Judith Butler and especially her more recent books on war and violence — perhaps because there are connections, some obvious and some more hidden from general view–between oppressive systems that treat woman as an under-class, under-human, and other forms of oppression such as war (which in Butler’s terms is always already a crime) with those “not grievable” lives. I think this is a time not only for “women focused feminism” but a larger critique of a culture or civilization that makes possible a reversal of human rights. This is a great question by the way, thank you Mira for asking it.

Donna Ruff: The alarming thing is that it’s no longer something to be identified as a movement by those on the Right, because the Right has migrated to the center. As for the series, it’s not just degrading sex, but sex with no feeling whatsoever. Along with a sort of nihilist drifting through life and relationships.

Mira Schor: Donna I don’t think the Right has migrated to the Center, the Right has migrated to the extreme right, and everyone else has moved right accordingly, so that today’s “center” is basically mid 20th Republican or worse. For example many of Nixon’s domestic policies would today be perceived as  left, even socialist by the standards of the more rabid Republicans, whereas many agree that Pres. Obama basically has the policy outlook of a moderate Republican pre. Gingrich.

Donna Ruff: Yes, after I posted that I realized I had worded it badly! What I meant was that these attempts to deny women’s rights through legislation aren’t coming from some right wing extremists, but from the House Speaker and Republicans who should have more moderate, and Representative (ironic use of word) views. So that the so-called Right has spread like a mutated virus.

Monika Weiss: This is of course true-we have lost the Left in this move towards the Right and extreme Right. how to position the feminist movement now, in this context of loss of Left?

Terry R Myers: Mira, I assume you know Monique Wittig’s essay “One is Not Born a Woman”? I’m curious if the student in your class that you mention above knows Wittig’s work?

Mira Schor: Hi Terry, thanks for the reference  to Monique Wittig’s essay “One is Not Born a Woman”. I don’t have a copy of the essay (do you happen to have a PDF?). I can’t speak for whether my students would agree or disagree, though on the face of it, most likely would agree. There just seems to be a very fine line between several verities: one is not born but becomes a woman..yes, since each culture and class interprets that role differently…but hormones do make for gender coded differences>and so interesting now that we have gone from feminism to queer to transgender surgeries and hormonal treatments that reinscribe the body…somewhere between “Woman” being a cultural construct and the loss of an effective feminist activism, there’s been a mutation with political effects.

Mira Schor: In response to Monika Weiss’s interesting comment et al, I think it is certain that this could not be passed now: This UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS passed by the UN in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Elaine Angelopoulos: My position and experience (to this day) has always told me that I cannot separate Feminism from Queer, Class, and Racial concerns. These are threads among many. It’s like atom splitting, and thus nuclear (as in disaster). We may all have our subaltern positions, but we all have to acknowledge the Other. Making fun and denegrating the Other is what falls prey to larger devisive mechanisms rather than moving forward. I may not know Butler from the back of my hand, but I know enough to say that people read what they want into text because they want to identify with it so much, and to believe that it represents their being. I know this is a stance that makes people sigh and roll their eyes in frustration.

Donna Ruff: Not surprising that Butler would be popular with students, who are looking for ways to self-identify with academic underpinnings! Mira, are you saying that this cultural backlash is due to the blurring of gender identification? Fear-based, as these movements usually are?

Something that I honestly never considered, though it now seems obvious to me.

Jen Bradford: Highly recommend this review of Girls (“The Loves of Lena Dunham” by Elaine Blair | The New York Review of Books). Brushing it aside as internalized woman-hatred misses a lot, and will make conversations with students pretty difficult moving forward.

Terry R Myers: Hi Mira – I think I do have a PDF somewhere – searching . . .

Monique Wittig, from "One is Not Born a Woman," 1981, thanks to Terry R. Myers for sending me a PDF so promptly!

Donna Ruff: Jen, thanks for posting that, it’s a good read. I guess removing myself from a literal reading of the show, I’d still characterize myself as, in her words, “admiring but distinctly nervous.”

Mira Schor: ‎Jen, thanks I’ll take a look..actually don’t think my students are watching TV.

Jen Bradford: I don’t mean you (or they) have to watch or approve of the show – but it could tell you something more complex about where they’re coming from.

Mira Schor: absolutely

Terry R Myers: Mira – I just sent you an email (with the PDF of Monique Wittig’s essay)

Monika Weiss: Regarding the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, the problem, the old problem is with our body. When does it cease to be “Everyone” simply because it is impregnated or even “almost impregnated”, on its way to be such, thus the life of a woman as only and mainly the live of a future mother and not a life of an equal citizen [one of the great books on this is “Women and children first: feminism, rhetoric,and public policy” which is a look at policies that make this view dominant] . If according to some, “Everyone” begins in the “seed” itself, and wherever that “seed” lands, is a land occupied by it, so to speak, then women cease to be subjects of such declaration of rights, soon after they have been “landed” … (contraception rights debate being the current example) — this is an old medieval argument (in Western tradition Virgin Mary is a vessel but not a full human being-no other agency–and in my mind I imagine her always already beheaded) — this is all returning full speed now, “the reproductive rights” debate having repercussion for other areas of human rights, including gay rights in a sense that of course if the marriage is an assumed act of an official procreation the it is not a union of two independent human lives… [the question remains, what discourses and actions are appropriate now, in light of the loss of real Left]

Kikuko Tanaka: For me…. feminism is the sets of interdisciplinary knowledge that brings justice to all the people, through the emancipation of the people in the feminine status, including women, sexual dissidents, the poor, non-whites, foreigners, immigrants, children, the insane and the criminalized.

It is sad that the Universal Declaration of Human Right still remains our goals to be achieved, and despite the UN’s declaration and its humanitarian efforts, the UN itself has also functioned as an another form of empirism: western domination of the racial others.

Republicans are too backward in the country presumed to be advanced. We have more and more knowledge about how oppression and domination work. But how can we make real changes? Voting and protests are important, but they do not seem enough. What do we do?

Mira Schor: Monika and Kiko, so we are at an impasse? (I mean if the Declaration of Human Rights is seen as a flawed document by the global “left”, and honored mainly through being ignored and breached, because if I understand correctly, it is the product of the Enlightenment, which itself seems devalued by all sides, from the left because it was a product of the patriarchal, colonialist West and by the right for all the reasons we can imagine (poor stupid enslaved people make it easier for rich people to have total power)…not expecting any of us to have an answer

Kikuko Tanaka: I don’t want to think that we are at an impasse! though sometimes, I cannot escape that feeling…

Yes…Universal Declaration sounds right and comforting on the surface, but idea of “right” itself presupposes the existence of an “individual autonomous being” who are entitle to possess “property.” It is true that idea of human rights has helped to improve general work condition, but with an intention to prevent the rises of socialism….

Emily Caigan: I am joining late, but if it’s ok – I’ll jump in. I usually start teaching Feminist Art and Culture by reading The Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention. The 1st wave feminist issues helps ground the conversation – especially since men and women of color were very active ( the race issue became problematic later). Gender Studies is an important topic mostly for third wave and LGBTQ for second wave. Basically it reminds us about many rights that we did not have 100 years ago and that women in other countries don’t have today. THEN we get into art and culture. I may do this in order to keep my sanity :).

Mira Schor: Emily, very interesting to hear how you organize your course. I’ll keep it in mind. As you say, start with life and general history, not with art. I have thought about starting a version of this course next year with statistics relating to women’s rights from beginning of second wave and from now, to focus on actual rights and lack thereof, actual facts about women’s lives, because I think that there is a sense of “the way it was” and now with huge gaps of knowledge about life for women at both ends of the time frame.

A thirty year old woman today may find it hard to really understand that 40 years ago she would have had no significant women teachers in graduate school and few role models in the art world, but at the same time she may also not realize to what degree sexism still exists at the center of what seems on the surface like a much improved world. This is something I myself find surprising: 40 years ago I never dreamed that at this point in my life I would be up against deeply ingrained patriarchal operations within my most inner circle in the art world, despite so many gains, and that it would be so much harder to cope with because it is embedded within networks of friends and supporters, and because it is unspoken, even with a strong support network of like-minded women: the lack of a larger movement makes it impossible to point to something and say, look, look at what is going on here. And of course I’m no longer protected by the gloss of youth, which always helps a lot and may insulate the student generation, as it did me to some extent: but I came of age during the women’s movement and very significantly I had seen in my teens how my mother fared when she was widowed, young, how society had favored the man and the couple, and how difficult it was for a woman alone, and how heroic any woman is who battles through on her own talent and wits.

Monika Weiss: The UNSPOKEN is the key word here, I agree, and the impossibility to “point at it” because of the apparent lack of a larger movement (although I would like or hope to believe that we don’t need a glow of youth to deal with this). Yes, there has been some progress and female graduate students today have some wonderful women role models to look up to. But there is a new kind of resistance to this “progress” within graduate environment– and the art world in general — some, the opponents, point out that this thing, let’s call it feminism at al, is “not so interesting” anymore, or as that which “has been done before”– this despite the Wack! etc. and other recent exhibitions resurrecting early feminisms in art). There is an uncanny level of reversal embedded in this process too akin to the political reversal going on today. But somehow I still maintain a basic trust in the promise of education. P.s. and yes, I also agree with Emily Caigan that we need to teach Feminisms [in any of the contexts of contemporary art] by first discussing the main historical and socio-political contexts etc.

Emily Caigan: I should mention that my course does not exist in Art History dept., but instead in Women’s Studies, along with a course that is called Performing Feminism. I was once called a “threat” because of my teaching and my students only receive AH credit if they are BFA majors. I appreciate these conversations immensely on FB. Mira, your story about your mother would be vital to an intro in any women’s studies class. It’s moving to me. My mom was a young widower and right up until she died in 2010, she said to me, ” You have no idea…”. Monica, ( hi, btw) It is absolutely the ” problem that has no name.” Here we are trying to name it.

Monika Weiss: responding to the earlier question about our condition of suspension inside an “impasse”–yes, I believe we are. It

It is still the same old problem with modernity and its multiple shadows. The Declaration offers a pretty good path, but we still disagree on the subject of who is a human being and who is not. Or perhaps, what it exactly entails and for whom. There is still a problem with our shallow and diversified understanding of equality of human rights–which are acceptable when they are offered within our own circle but not so crucial for “others” and elsewhere. And then there is again the problem of body, especially body marked by otherness, thus the body that is female, gay, colored is still an “obstacle” for the individual who inhabits such marked body–since white male and straight body is still being Privileged. This has also economic consequences. So the battle for gender equality as the battle for human rights, is and has always been the SAME with all other battles that take on otherness and power structures. Why this impasse though? Perhaps because we somehow managed to convince younger generations of women (and workers and some of the third world etc.) — that the battle has been won, at least on the policy level, or at least in the “developed” world. The level of shame or ‘threat’ that comes with even those words “feminism” or “socialism” is the unexpected twist or result of the lack of vigilance. I guess I am going in circle here, where all roads lead to Left, and the Left is being mourned by us in this conversation. [Meanwhile Chicago is demonstrating, and, as I said before, I still have some trust in education, in universities and in cities, as places that a certain potential is honed…]

Susan Silas: re: Girls, it seems pretty generation specific. My daughter, who is about 5 years younger doesn’t seem to relate to it….I still think there is something meaningful in the category “Woman” despite the theoretical discourses that put emphasis elsewhere because 51% of the world’s population is considered biologically female and the political backlash is against all of those persons no matter how they self-identify. Some of the stratification in the women’s movement developed because of insensitivity to the concerns of women with different identifications and experiences due to race and class and that splintering has never really been mended or adequately addressed but it allows some male intellectuals to dismiss feminism as a form of identity politics by listing it along with a list of very the specific identity concerns of much smaller groups when the overall concern is one of over half the population. Somehow, the question needs to be reformulated but not by letting go of the entire category unless there is really a better one to supplant it strategically.

*

The conversation above took place May 20. Today’s New York Times featured the following front page story, above the fold, “THE NEW AMERICAN JOB: More Men Enter Fields Dominated by Women.”

More than a few men said their new jobs had turned out to be far harder than they imagined.
But these men can expect success. Men earn more than women even in female-dominated jobs. And white men in particular who enter those fields easily move up to supervisory positions, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator — as opposed to the glass ceiling that women encounter in male-dominated professions, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Georgia State University.

For men, the glass escalator, instead of women’s two traditional possibilities in that fragile material, the glass slipper and the glass ceiling. Yes, let’s all get on that.

 

 

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The Imperium of Analytics

In my previous post, “Invisibility and Criticality in The Imperium of Analytics,” I discussed the personal background and implications of the rating of Criticality 95, Visibility 5 that I received from artist William Powhida this past winter. In this post I examine further some of the conditions of writing and publication for me when I first started to publish and today.

The Imperium of Analytics

Because of the instantaneity of online publication [particularly the case for self-administered blogs with no editorial filters beyond the blogger], there is an expectation of instantaneous response. If you don’t get it, you’re incensed–at any rate I am, that is until I remind myself that I don’t read most of what comes my way via links on Facebook and email because I can’t keep up, I don’t understand how anyone else does (more on that in a minute). Or, put another way, you can see right away if you have not gotten  instantaneous response, since you can track reception and readership by the day, even by the minute: how many “likes” clicked on Facebook, how many views, shares, and comments on Huffington Post, Google +1, how many re-Tweets, and finally, the daily Google Analytics graph that tracks blog readership.

As you can see, in the case of this blog, the graph drops abruptly within a day or two after a post. If you don’t write anything for a few days, it flatlines.

When Susan Bee and I published the biannual journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s (the history of our friendship, our collaboration on M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and the reasons for founding the journal are detailed in our “Introduction” to M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism), we would work on the final proof of each issue in a concentrated fashion for a couple of months, having gathered material for a couple of months before that, following up on questions we and other artist/writers around us had about artmaking and the artworld of that time but with no artworld schedules in mind.

Our magazine was distributed partly through a small-journal distributor whose public manifestation was Niko’s Smoke Shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th street, a tiny crowded space that could well have doubled as a CIA drop, and partly by Susan and I ourselves lugging heavy, filthy Post Office mail bags filled with our subscribers’ copies to the nearest Post Office that would accept the non-profit permit we were able to use, where after a clerk would put us through the maximum of bureaucratic hell in his or her small power, we would leave feeling we had just thrown our hard labor down a well. In fact one time early on we had to leave the Post Office after we had deposited our magazines after much bureaucratic interrogation and corrections, paid but not yet gotten our change or receipt, because they thought the station was on fire and when it turned out it wasn’t, they decided to close the station anyway so they could get the rest of the day off! A worker took pity on us and handed us our change through the half-shut back door to the street.

After this thoroughly analog ordeal in the distribution process, reader responses were equally analog, if any: a short note scribbled on one of our subscription slips, the occasional out of the blue phone call, or actually running into one of our readers in the street.

When our first issue came out, containing my essay “Appropriated Sexuality,” in which I critiqued both David Salle’s representation of women in his paintings and the complicit critical apparatus supporting this work, the phone rang and a woman introduced herself as Carol Duncan, one of the art historians I admired tremendously and held as a model for my writing: “Who are you?” she asked. What a thrill.

Shortly after we published my essay “Figure/Ground” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G #6 in 1989, an essay in which I posited that a primal, somatized disgust with the “goo” of paint underlay the supposedly objective critique of painting as a relevant medium for contemporary expression (in the process attacking some of the powerful critical voices of October magazine as “aesthetic terrorists”), I ran into a fellow painter, Guy Goodwin, in the Canal Street Post Office at the end of my block in Tribeca: “I just love that essay about goo,” he drawled in his deep Alabama accent.

This kind of analog response made us feel that we were part of a real community. It was small but tangible in a way that gave a stable and organic basis to what we were doing. And for me, those few interactions with individual readers were present and precious, but aside from that I had little idea of who was reading what I wrote and little expectation of finding out. Time was longer. In fact, as an amusing aside, I wasn’t absolutely sure that Salle himself had read “Appropriated Sexuality” until 7 years after its publication, at which point I felt I had lobbed a canon ball by hand and it had taken 6 or 7 years before it finally landed behind enemy lines.

At the same time the relative paucity or slowness of response was not always a good feeling, but it also insured, it almost enforced a private space for the development of ideas, a move onto new research rather than an absorption in what I had just written.

“Figure/Ground” lurked in my mind for a couple of years and then took more than a year to write and it came out a year after a previous essay in M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Now if I let two weeks go by without writing something new I feel a biological impulse and a commercial imperative for some kind of author’s equivalent of first aid biofeedback to keep the graph line up. The longest I’ve worked on a blog post on A Year of Positive Thinking has been about two months, though of most that just thinking about it on the back burner, with the actual writing compressed into a few days, and even the quickest entries require a full day’s work chained to the computer all day, in my nightgown, without ever leaving the house. I’m not sure I could write an essay like “Figure/Ground” today, but I’m certain I couldn’t do it in two weeks or two months.

Even though I’ve embraced the challenge presented by the blog format and the time frame of the web to try to keep in the current discourse as at close to its requirement of instantaneity as possible, it’s likely that I’m trying to do something perhaps antithetical to this ecosystem: I’m drawn to creating a hybrid text in which a contemporary spark, my penchant for associative thinking, and my enjoyment of research are compressed into an accelerated research and writing process in order to hit the stream of the web within its time frame. I’m trying to get to what I want to say as quickly and as succinctly as I can but the nature of my particular intervention even when compressed and accelerated may go against the grain of its current medium.

Granted, blogs are meant as a vehicle for instant commentary, less formal than even the newspaper article or column so that increasingly even professional journalists who already work in a much tighter relation to the time frame of the news cycle are adding a blog to their newspaper or journal profile for even quicker, though possibly less digested or edited reaction to news. Blogs get better analytics stats if they come out everyday or even several times a day, to establish a brand presence, and I would guess that it hardly matters what the content is, although many are interesting and useful to their audience.

I appreciate the aplomb or maybe it’s the sang-froid of someone like Raphael Rubinstein on his blog The Silo: Rubinstein’s stated aim is to, occasionally and according to no apparent calendar or exhibition schedule, write usually quite short texts that “challenge existing exclusionary accounts of art since 1960 and to offer a fresh look at some canonical artists” that you may or may not have heard of such, from Daniel Spoerri to Biala. At the same time, I appreciate blogs that keep me informed about a wide range of art and art news, such as Hyperallergic; painter Sharon Butler‘s blog Two Coats of Paint; and critical writing that does keep current with art exhibitions but in an idiosyncratic way, like painter Bradley’s Rubenstein‘s reviews on Culture Catch.

Expectation of instant response is paired with expectation of instant reading. As a reader it is hard to keep up with the surfeit of material that comes at you everyday from every source and of every register of writing, from academic research to news editorials to entertainment gossip. I don’t understand how anyone keeps up. But it’s clear that shorter is better, you maybe can read a few things online a day if they are 100 words long, 700 is the limit recommended to its bloggers by The HuffingtonPost, you are probably not going to be able to read 2000, much less 4000 (this post weighs in at a hefty 2672, so if you’ve gotten this far, dear reader, you are definitely above average!). Oh by the way, Google analytics also tells you the average time people spend on your site:

Oops! Now I know how people keep up or try to with the daily flood of links. A minute is about enough time to find out that Arnold isn’t giving Maria alimony. No, actually that took about 5 seconds, so I guess a full minute is a web eternity. The Huffington Post Arts page launched a “Haiku Reviews” section last year but checking the site today there seems to be some slippage from the definition of 17 syllables, because in classic form the haiku requires rigorous and exquisite concentration of ideas into each word–a reduction that takes time to refine, distill, and compose. In 2000, curator Stuart Horodner put together “Haikuriticism – 17 Art Reviews (in 17 Syllables) by 17 Writers,” in Art Issues #63: he sent me a couple of the Haikuriticisms today. About “Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt at Met” I wrote : “Little girl mummy/ ‘Why can’t you grow when you’re dead?’/ Encaustic flesh can”; Amy Sillman on Will Cotton: “Photorealism?/Audrey Flack was much better?/(Not a cute boy, though.)”; and Katy Siegel on Chuck Close: “Agnes said to Chuck,/”I’m ready for my close-up.”/They know grid is good.”

Of course, the analytics graph rises highest when the post is about things, people, artists that everyone already “likes” so their likability will rub off on you, or things that have a frisson of the prurient or the scandalous. Links to names that attract search engines and to websites with a lot of traffic will bring traffic to yours. It also is important that the post be in response to the immediate news cycle. This focus on the immediate shrinks the writing time further because you know that if you don’t intervene in a timely manner, now, another story will push this one aside. Add to that the preference for the known and already liked and alternative stories or ways of thinking–or “think pieces”–are of course even more likely to be pushed aside, especially if they are not likable, that is to say, not positive–hence the title of my blog, which is at once perfectly sincere in its goal but inevitably ironic. The impact of this system on art discourse and politics is quite evidently disastrous, since both political events and artworks are quickly dropped before their meanings are really sorted out while the implications of the “old news” continue to influence the present, whether we see it or not.

Of my writings published online on this blog and The Huffington Post since last April 2010, the ones that have in any small way gone viral, very relatively speaking, were those in which I wrote fast enough about current hot news items or ones relating or engaging with artworld celebrities: as one example, “My Whole Street is A Mosque,” written within 24 hours of the news cycle surrounding the proposal for a Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, was picked up by various web aggregators; “Looking for Art to Love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos” also did very well because of my speculation about how or whether Marina Abramovic peed during her performance “The Artist is Present” at MoMA,  a subject of much prurient curiosity (interesting speculation was illustrated online at New York Magazine and resolution of the mystery came in the Wall Street Journal’s blog, “Speakeasy”); “Anselm Kiefer@Larry Gagosian: Last Century in Berlin,” where I tucked a critical response to Kiefer’s recent show into a bit of reporting about how Gagosian Gallery was using the NYPD as its private police force, also created a spike on my Google analytics; more recently I could perceive a noticeable uptick in my readership as well as in the number and enthusiasm of my Facebook friends’ comments for “Should we trust anyone under 30?,” most likely because it was written in relation to a piece by Jerry Saltz and because Jerry participated in the comments discussion to this post on Facebook, bringing his devoted fan base with him.

As I write this blog post I’m reading Give My Regards to Eighth Street, the quite delightful collected writings of the American composer Morton Feldman. A wonderful sentence at the beginning of his 1965 essay “The Anxiety of Art” falls into my lap. The essay caught my attention today, the day the awful debt ceiling agreement has been reached in Washington, D.C., because Feldman begins with the figure of Dr. Zhivago as a figure whose “identity is crushed by history,” and here we are in a summer which feels to some of us like the summer of 1939, a fake calm after war has been declared, a summer of the most glorious weather in European history before the cataclysm, though for us the cataclysm is of a nature that perhaps is more like the summer of 1929 or maybe that of 1933, economic and ideological wars on the individual and ideals of an egalitarian society. Shifting from the large scale cataclysms of history, Feldman shifts to the impact of history on art:

We see it in life; why do we fail to see that in art too, the facts and successes of history are allowed to crush all that is subtle, all that is personal, in our work?

Yet the artist does not resist. He identifies with this force that can only destroy him. In fact, it has an irrisistible attaction for him, in that it offers him known goals, the illusion of safety in his work, the tempting knowledge that nothing succeeds in art–like someone else’s success. In a word, because it relieves the anxiety of art.

Mira Schor, Sketchbook Drawing, August 2, 2011, in sympathy with Morton Feldman’s distinctions between sound and noise

If your eye is on the imperium of the news cycle and of the instant tracking number capabilities of analytics, market /entertainment/promotion/herd positivism dominate.  The subjects that take hold on the web are news about news, news about celebrity, already tied to the market’s tastes and schedules, feeding the known rather than exploring the unknown, critically or otherwise. To maximize your “like” clicks and keep your analytics from flatlining, best to write about things that everyone already knows and likes.

One of the nicest responses to A Decade that never made it into a review was from a fellow painter who wrote to me, “you are writing things I feel like I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time but didn’t know it.”

It goes without saying I hope you have “liked” this post.

*

The conditions of contemporary publication on the web that I’ve touched on here have made me interested in researching the conditions of the writing and publication of two essays I particularly admire and yet whose publication has always seemed in some sense mysterious to me. These are two essays by John Berger that are among my favorites, both included in Berger’s 1988 book of collected essays, The Sense of Sight: “The Moment of Cubism,” originally published in the 1969 book of the same name, and “The Hals Mystery,” originally published in the British journal New Society in December 1979. I will discuss these in my next and third post in this three part series, “The Berger Mystery,” coming soon.

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Invisibility and Criticality in The Imperium of Analytics

I will complete the third part of “Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves” with a consideration of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, currently on special view at the Frick Museum, soon, but not yet.  I am compelled to interrupt that thread with another one, about criticality and some current conditions of writing and publishing, particularly on the web (this is projected as also a three part thread). My regret at interrupting a “positive” line of thought, one that is about some artworks I love and that is not polemically driven, with one about criticality is tempered by the fact that this kind of interruption, caused as it is by competing directions of thought in a fast moving discursive atmosphere, is a component of some of the conditions of writing for the web that I will discuss in this new thread.

I am currently in what passes for my “desert,” that is to say the one place and time in the year when I am  lucky enough to be able to retreat from the fray of the world into the life of a studio near the sea where with the least distractions from daily duties and professional obligations I can struggle with my work during an intense few weeks. I can’t count on revelations from any deity shining down on me from stage right, just the few hard-won moments of deep engagement with my work that make it possible for me to survive the rest of the time. But, just as in Bellini’s painting, where not just the beneficent signs of civilization signaled by the tiny shepherd and his flock in the middle distance, but also the fortifications of various small city-states set on various Tuscan hilltops beyond are clearly visible from the rocky encampment where St. Francis receives the stigmata from an unseen divine force, the voices of the world beyond my studio intervene daily, though with far less divine purposes or effects.

Today, for example, the desperation of some and exasperation of others commenting on one of my posts about Obama and the debt ceiling fiasco on Facebook makes me want to write a longer note there so part of my brain is occupied with that. Meanwhile I also want to publish the following A Year of Positive Thinking blog posts about writing this week so they are online in the time frame of Arts Writers Convening , a conference to be held this coming week in Philadelphia sponsored by the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program (whose generosity helped me start this blog). In keeping with the paradox of St. Francis in the Desert, I have with regret chosen to not attend the Arts Writers conference because I so need these irreplaceable few days of the year that I can devote entirely to my own work, yet I still have in view these exterior markers and schedules while, as I will discuss, being perfectly aware that few if any may read my words in the right or indeed in any time frame.

Invisibility and Criticality

One evening in the 1990s I was walking down LaGuardia Place and ran into Leon Golub as he was putting out the garbage. This was some time after we had both been on a panel at The Cooper Union, “The Erotics of Painting,” organized by Lenore Malen, (May 6, 1992), during which I had made mincemeat of a critic who currently writes about art for a legendary weekly journal. I’m told that during my remarks Hans Haacke nearly fell out of his seat laughing and Brice Marden, who was sitting next to me on the panel and had just read four or five cryptics words that he had written on a napkin, something like “beauty…space…” (and I mean, only those few words), turned his head suddenly as he realized something unusual was going on (my comments from that panel are published as “The Erotics of Visuality” in my book Wet).

The evening after the panel Leon had called me up and said, “now, you’re a player.” Beyond being absolutely thrilled by his attention I think I was also slightly alarmed. I can’t retrospectively be sure what I thought. I can’t be sure if I really understood what it meant to be a player. I certainly thought I did and wanted to be one, but judging from my whole career to date and from a recent art document I will soon discuss here, I would hazard a guess and say, not really. But Leon was hopeful for me and during this chance encounter on the sidewalk in front of his house, in discussing this further, he said something to the effect of, “it’s good, you should attack as many important people as you can.” His vivid eyes gleamed as he relished the prospect of any valiant battle which he also apparently felt was a path to success or, indeed, a kind of power, although he knew as well as anybody how difficult and frustrating that path was (why won’t this show come to MoMA? [MoMA lists 9 works by Golub in its collection, however all are prints, they do not at present seem to own a major painting]).

Leon was a great painter, and a great, indeed a necessary man, he is much missed. It was a privilege to know him at all and he had been very supportive of me, of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and of my co-editor the painter Susan Bee. However his predictive powers as to my being a player were a bit shaky: I had already at that time and have since then attacked my share of powerful people yet, in one of his recent visual/textual analyses of who is who and what is what in the artworld, “A Biased and Incomplete Guide to Some Critics in New York (where I live and make art),” William Powhida gave me the highest rating on the criticality factor–95 out of 100–and the lowest on the visibility scale–5! Powhida’s amusing piece came out during the time I was involved in the major move I’ve described on this blog in the post Orbis Mundi so that I was unable to address these ratings until now. So here now are a  few thoughts on criticality and visibility or the lack thereof.

For a more legible view click on the title link above

First of all, a belated thank you William Powhida for the kudos…and the visibility!

And secondly, before I say another self-serving word on the subject (reader alert!), note that Powhida has set the bar for criticality pretty low– “Criticality: arbitrary # based on word count, description, register, analysis, news items”– so it would seem that you don’t have to be a new Adorno to make a high grade, pretty much any text which is not a direct press release and has some content other than entirely gossip- or market- related would seem to apply to one’s criticality score.

It is symptomatic, or syndromatic perhaps, of the power structure of the artworld, really of any power structure, that I have addressed this issue before, notably in my February 14, 2006 lecture at SVA, “The Art of Nonconformist Criticality,” as well as in “The White List,” written for M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online‘s 2002 issue “Is Resistance futile?,” so that not only can I refer to my previous writings and lectures, but I might as well do so because they are relevant to the discussion at hand, including the reflection that for the most part no one remembers what anyone says enough for such self-cribbing to be a problem.

That I have to bring these up is only to state the obvious that the point is, and the point that I make in these texts, that the easiest way for power to deal with non-conforming criticism is to ignore it. Whereas, to use Guy Debord‘s terms, in the Soviet/Fascist epoch of the “concentrated spectacle,” power felt that it was necessary to literally disappear the inconvenient person by killing them and erasing their image from a photograph (China remains in the antiquated Soviet model, putting dissidents in jail and even making Googling the word “jasmine” or selling jasmine branches a crime for fear of contagion of the so-called “jasmine revolution” started in Tunisia this winter), or, under McCarthyism, blacklisting them from employment or access to an audience, in the “integrated spectacle” of free-market global capitalism, extreme rendition and Patriot Act aside, power can simply follow the golden rule of ignoring something entirely. Only what is visible is important, and if it isn’t visible it can’t possibly be good, and what has thus been rendered invisible must at the same time be bad and most likely does not exist.

I named this most effective weapon for silencing alternative views “The White List,” a less violent or visibly oppressive version of “the Black List.” Let me take as an example my first published essay, “Appropriated Sexuality.” In “The White List” I note:

My essay on David Salle, “Appropriated Sexuality,” was published–because Susan and I started our own magazine instead of accepting the status quo and getting depressed! Although overall I can’t complain about getting my writing published, nevertheless my ideas have encountered a subtle form of resistance. Thinking about the “blacklist,” I realize that what I am up against is something that doesn’t have a name. I’ll call it the white list. The white list not only makes it difficult to get alternative points of view published or exhibited, but even if you can get the work out, you still don’t get referenced or credited. After “Appropriated Sexuality” was published, people who I knew had read it wrote articles about Salle in which they would say, “some feminists say” or in some other vague way suggest that there were dissenters to the party line, but they would never actually provide a factual reference. The first favorable mention of this essay appeared in a 2002 Art in America book review by Raphael Rubinstein of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism–a full 16 years after the original publication of the Salle essay! Thus, the nonconforming point of view can be taken out of history.

Actually, Rubinstein‘s was more or less the first mention of this essay at all, and for all I know the last.

In fact part of what makes the white list so effective is that it is itself invisible (the black list was hush-hush in that people were too afraid to even speak about it openly for fear of being suspected of being “fellow travelers,” but it was only semi-obscured, people spoke about it with fear, in hushed tones, public hearings/American version of show trials were held, names were placed on actual black lists, people were imprisoned or forced into exile and eventually even network television news found its conscience).

In “The Art of Nonconformist Criticality” I go into further detail about the Salle essay because it marked my entry as a “player” into the critical field:

I started writing in the early 80s when I observed major changes in art and art theory, a reversal of attitudes about studio process, and of values about feminism, which had just barely had a decade to develop into art. These changes were epitomized for me in the work of someone I had gone to art school with and who was suddenly extremely successful financially and critically, that is, David Salle. No one was writing what I thought, although they might have been saying it in private. So I started to work on an essay eventually entitled, “Appropriated Sexuality” about the misogyny of the depiction of women in Salle’s work and the complicity of the critical apparatus that supported him.

I began with no ideas about publication. But as the essay came into its final form over a period of two years, I began to send it around, to other artists and to various magazines. It was the subject of many letters of rejection from both mainstream and high academic journals that were quite informative about the parameters of art writing. At one point, it was actually accepted for publication by a middle stream regional art magazine, but dropped at the very last minute. Meanwhile my manuscript had been shown to another writer who then published in the same journal a more wishy-washy text in which my ideas were vaguely alluded to as “some feminists say”, a typical example of the kind of balanced writing that is very common in much mainstream media and whose true agenda is the devaluation of opposing views. So that was Karybdis. A thoughtful rejection from October taught me one of the principal methods society deploys to deal with resistance: they tell you that are doing something wrong, even if you’re right. They didn’t like Salle anymore than I did but the enterprise of critiquing him must be approached with “great caution.” My error was in focusing on his representations of women because that was based on an erroneous essentialist premise that such a thing as “women” could still be considered a viable category (as opposed to the theoretical point of view that “women” was a social construct), whereas from their point of view the real problem was not what he was painting, but that he was painting.

I will freely state that the Salle article started my public life, setting me on the dual path of painter/writer I have been on since, so that in some way whatever visibility I have may stem from that initial act of criticality, in keeping with Golub’s advice. (And I will parenthetically state that obviously there is a complication here: the visibility I seek is a dual one, artist/writer, but in this I am not alone and I have powerful predecessors in such polemically inclined visual artists/writers as Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Smithson, Adrian Piper, and Mary Kelly, to name just a few of many significant artists/writers).

However what I didn’t fully realize and still find hard to believe, though it is most likely one factor in the nature of my “career,” is that Salle had powerful friends and adherents and they surely did nothing to help me, if they did not go out of their way to harm me. I’m not a Pollyanna but I tend to find it hard to believe that people actively do bad things on purpose, although I know that many people who are interested in power do exactly that all the time. Nevertheless I began to realize that something had been going on when on two occasions in recent years, long after the publication of that essay, powerful men of my acquaintance in the art world made the casual (but dead serious) assumption I was “tearing up” or “ripping up” something in whatever work I was doing now. The first time was about 20 years after the publication of the Salle ssay: I was having a lively conversation about something completely different with someone at a party when one of Salle’s friends came up to us and said with a shark-like grin on his own face, “Who’s she ripping up now?” And then again just last year, I mentioned to an eminence grise of the New York artworld that I had a new book coming out (A Decade of Negative Thinking) and he said, “Who are you attacking now?”

Esprit de l’escalier: I should have told him.

[And I haven’t even talked here about my  calling some of the editors of October “aesthetic terrorists” (!) at a time when they had more real power than they may have now, as the critical organ of an aesthetic program shared by an international institutional network including major galleries and museums.]

You’d think that a reputation for critical ferocity would be a good thing, from let’s call it a business point of view. Speaking of October, a number of its editors and authors over the years, some of them initially Clement Greenberg’s disciples, have been thought of as art world Savonarolas, and that level of very serious but also often exclusionary criticality gave some of them power in part because they managed not just to be critical but to arrogate to themselves ownership of the correct language of criticality itself. And it was, for better and worse, part of the Clement Greenberg legend, but perhaps because he had most importantly backed a couple of the right horses, Jackson Pollock in particular, his criticality had the positive potential monetary value of a good stock tip, despite its destructive side–telling artists what they should or shouldn’t paint, dismissing all art with so-called literary content, and in later years being a bit of a caricature of himself, siting around with a scotch in his hand saying that’s not a good picture. At some point and for a long while, he could make artists in the market and he could break artists in their studio, a power I obviously do not have and don’t seem to have sought out despite my alleged propensity for “ripping people up.”

So who you attack, on what theoretical grounds, as well as who you back or are associated with, and how interested you are in power, all matter and Golub’s advice that I attack important people has had limited viability in terms of developing visibility. A tree can fall in the forest but those trees around it who are interested in power can determine that they will not give that particular tree the power of their admitting that they heard it fall.

At least for me there seems to be an inverse relation between criticality and visibility. I think this was Powhida’s point in including me in “A Biased and Incomplete Guide to Some Critics in New York (where I live and make art),”.

Coming next: The Imperium of Analytics

 

 

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