Category Archives: Art

Why a Single-Sex Media Diet is a Bad Idea

These OkCupid guys…. I mean really. It’s one thing to mention that your favorite author is Faulkner. Cool, I dig it. Or Hemingway, or whomever. It’s even NBD to list a couple of books you like that happen to be written by men. BUT, when you go to the trouble of listing 40+ books you love because YOU JUST CAN’T DECIDE, and literally all 42 are by guys… for real?

They probably don’t even notice. If that’s the case, this is highly fixable. If they notice and don’t care/don’t think it’s weird/don’t think women have interesting opinions or stories…. well, that shit is beyond repair. Or rather, it is a problem to large for me to fix with a snarky message or internet essay.

But the fixable ones, the ones who are oblivious but open-minded, these are the ones I write to today, in my new piece for Role/Reboot:

Screenshot_7_3_14_11_54_AM-3Related Post: The last book I loved, The Flamethrowers

Related Post: Breaking down the gender of the authors I read last year

 

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But What About Vivian Maier?

My post this week for Role/Reboot about not taking pictures of strangers is getting some traction. I’m always grateful for that kind of attention not only because it stokes my ego (stoked!) but because the more people who read something, the more likely it is that I get asked some tough, interesting questions. Shocking, I know, that I didn’t think of everything.

To refresh your memory, on the off chance that my words are not indelibly etched in your brain, I argued that the modern habit of snapping photos of strangers in public (at the beach, on the train, behaving badly, etc) and posting them online to mock is tantamount to bullying. I hinged my argument on permission (as always, consent is sexy), suggesting that if what you’re doing is complimentary (i.e. street style galleries, etc), you’d be comfortable asking permission of your subject. If you wouldn’t be comfortable asking, you’re probably being a creep. Note: Not a criminal, but a creep; this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

So what’s the counter argument?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ART????? 

1954, New York, NYWhat about art? What about photography like that of Vivian Maier, the little known, recently discovered photographer who left her nannying job in Oak Park every weekend to come into the city and take photographs? Many of her photos are of average citizens waiting for stoplights, smoking on corners, or, like Instagrams of today, dozing on  buses. Some are head-on portraits that imply willing participation of her subjects, but many are clearly not.

December 2, 1954, New York, NY

Why is Vivian Maier’s “art” more valid than the ‘grammer on the train capturing the guy picking his nose and hashtagging it #digdeep? Can we call one nonconsensual stranger photo art and another harassment? Aren’t both equal invasions of privacy? Our modern age gives us tools to share our invasive “art”, whereas Vivian’s photography lay dormant in boxes for decades. But don’t we think that had Vivian been alive in 2014, she’d be Instagramming along with the rest of us?

In my post, I made a blanket rule “Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission,” and many people pushed back that, if obeyed, my rule would eliminate the work of artists like Maier.

Yes, it might.

April 7, 1960. FloridaBefore we continue down this path, let’s weed out the dickwads who are straight-up bullying on purpose; we can all agree that their intent is to mock.

But many of us fancy ourselves capturers of beauty or longing or the human experience or whatever; we don’t think we’re bullies, we think we’re artists. The only way to justify our invasion of someone else’s space is to convince ourselves that the thing we’re producing is more valuable than that person’s comfort.

Let me give you an example: I just got back from Chile. In the many hundreds of photos I took, there are a few in which I am intentionally taking pictures of strangers without their permission. A handful are of performers, people on stages or performing in parades; though I’m still a little uncomfortable with that, let’s even discount those as potentially justifiable. But what about this one:

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This guy is just hanging out, watching the parade from his house. He didn’t wave at me, we didn’t acknowledge each other, he in no way, shape, or form gave an OK for me to take his photo, much less post it on FB*. Which I did. Without even thinking twice. Am I mocking? Teasing? Shaming? Not intentionally, no. But, as we discuss all the time, I don’t get to decideMy intention taking this photo is not what makes it ethically sound or not; his perception of me is. Does he feel like the gringa is abusing her privilege? Does he feel patronized or reduced or mocked? Does he feel like he’s being treated as a Chilean prop I’m using to commemorate my travels? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Although I didn’t intend the photo to be any of those things, in this case I’m equivalent to the cat-caller/harasser/privacy-invader/slur-slinger who “didn’t mean it that way.”

So what now? Let’s say you believe that the world is better with Vivian Maier’s photography in it. I sure appreciate it. I’m pretty uncomfortable with how we got it, but let’s say there actually is small portion of art for which we are willing to make ethical compromises. We do it all the time, right R. Kelly fans?  Picasso fans? Hemingway fans? Roman Polanski fans? We separate our appreciation for art from how it was made or the crimes of the people who made it, especially when those crimes contribute to how it was made (you think when R. Kelly sings about panties and pussy he’s always talking about women over 18? Really?).

What percent of nonconsensual pictures of strangers are worth the ethical compromise? A very, very, very, almost microscopically small percentage. Which ones? Whose bar are we using? Well, obviously, I don’t get to decide, and neither do you. The question is, is the photo you’re about to take one of them? Is the photo I took of the Chilean man in that microscopically small slice of pictures worth the queasy feeling that someone’s privacy is being invaded? Hell no.

The question is, do you think you’re Vivian Maier? If not, then knock it off.

*I’ve since taken it down, ditto any other non-performance pictures of strangers. 

Related Post: My memoir will be called “Is My Optimism Really Just White Privilege?”

Related Post: When you’re feeling attacked, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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10 Days in Chile: A Not Remotely Exhaustive Gallery of Valparaiso Murals

The sunburn faded. My delicate stomach is back to its natural equilibrium. My suitcase is unpacked and back under my bed. It’s kind of hard to believe that less than a week ago, I was here:

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The glacial lake at Cajon de Maipo, outside of Santiago, Chile

I spent 10 days in and around Santiago, from Valparaiso to the Valle de Elqui, traveling with a dear friend and making some new ones. We saw sea lions dozing on harbor rocks, hiked snow-covered peaks, ate sopaipilla upon sopaipilla and palta upon palta, gazed at the Milky Way through the clearest sky in the hemisphere, and even took a yoga class in Spanish (turns out Sanskrit is Sanskrit wherever you go).

In the Museum of Memory and Human Rights I listened to Allende’s last address to the country while La Moneda was bombed around him. In the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity and Resistance, I saw works of art by Miro and Picasso donated to the people of Chile. In the homes of Pablo Neruda, salt and pepper shakers were labeled Morphine and Marijuana, water tasted better in red and green glass, and merry-go-round horses were repurposed into living room decor. In the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, I saw Mapuche grave markers, Andean weaving, and Inca quipus (knotted string accounting tools).

And then there were the murals of Valparaiso. Chicago is not known as a city of great street art (though we do have a few notable exceptions), and so I always find myself stunned by the simple joy of paint on walls in other cities. Not that this is just paint on walls, no, it’s anything but your average scrawled signature or fuck-the-man anti-establishment tagging. This is gorgeous, moving art that nestles itself between buildings, becoming part of the architecture of the city instead of merely hanging on the side of it. A few examples, but believe me, I could go on:

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Related Post: Bringing back lady art

Related Post: On the Inca Trail

 

 

 

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The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

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What will assuredly not be last thoughts on Beyonce

Last week I wrote about my confusion and discomfort with the “Anna Mae” reference in Beyonce’s terrifically catchy and hot-as-hell song “Drunk in Love.” A few commenters wrote some insightful things and I read a few more essays and collectively we have assembled a few other theories. Two, in particular, we should add to the list:

The duh-this-is-about-oral-sex argument: In my last post, I was too overwhelmed by the violence of the reference (it’s taken from the Tina Turner biopic about Ike’s abuse) to observe the super obvious oral sex reference. Although some have pointed out that he’s the one telling her to “eat the cake” if you watch the video, you’ll catch Bey in the background mouthing the direction herself. Though this still raises some problematic conflations of sexual violence and sexual pleasure… well, that shit is nothing if not complicated.

The not-all-hip-hop-is-biographical,-you-idiot reminder: I’m just going to start with a great comment:

“I would say with Rap/Hip-Hop, we tend to assume that artists are depicting themselves, or who they would like to be (exaggerations of themselves). But I would argue this is not always the case, even with Rap/Hip-Hop, and it could maybe not be the case with Drunk in Love. 

She’s totally right. I think I mistakenly assumed some degree of biographical integrity, which is a ridiculous place to begin when you’re parsing lyrics. There was a great interview on NPR the other day about prosecutors using lyrics to try to sway juries into guilty verdicts when rappers are accused of crimes. See? He rapped about murder, so he obviously committed one…

The interviewed expert on the show pointed out that the credit we give other artists to be able to sing non-biographical lyrics and emote non-biographical emotions we don’t extend to hip-hop and rap artists. As he pointed out, we don’t assume that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

If we then do extend the same courtesy to rap artists, it’s possible to read “Drunk in Love” as a depiction (not an endorsement) of a certain kind of relationship. The commenter above continued:

Is Beyonce singing about herself here, or as a character who is experiencing a brand new, passionate kind of love? If Beyonce is playing the woman who is drunk in love, Jay Z, likewise, could be playing the man who equally drunk in love, not necessarily playing himself. And unfortunately, there are men out there for whom passion and violence are intertwined, like Ike Turner.

In case you missed it, here’s Bey and Jay’s Grammy performance of it:

Got any more theories to add to the list?

Related Post: Beyonce at the Superbowl

Related Post: Guest post, the problem with “Blurred Lines”

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History Pockets – The House of Dance and Feathers

The first time I was aware of the Mardi Gras Indians was the second episode of Treme when Clarke Peters emerges from a waterlogged bar to petition his neighbor for help. He is dressed like this:

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I honestly thought it was some HBO magical realism shit, a dream sequence, perhaps, because it didn’t seem possible that black men of New Orleans actually don epic suits of beads and feathers and parade and dance through the streets of the Crescent City. Wouldn’t I have heard about it if they did? I’m pretty well-read, I took a bunch of African-American studies classes in college, I know some stuff….

Apparently not. Between the white privilege bubble and the we-only-care-about-what’s-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon bubble, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians managed to fall through the cracks of my liberal arts education, despite majoring in what my mother semi-jokingly referred to “oppression studies.”

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Beadwork from Mardi Gras Indian suits

The Mardi Gras Indians have been masking in New Orleans for over a century. The origins are rather hazy, but the oral history passed down suggests that the first masking tribes were honoring the Native Americans who resisted the European infiltration of New Orleans and assisted escaping slaves. Every year, hundreds of black New Orleans men and boys spend 11 months sewing by hand phenomenally elaborate beaded and feathered suits. On Mardi Gras, they parade through the city in tribes, battling each other with song and dance and prettiness.

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans and between all the fried things I ate (including a truly outstanding crawfish beignet) we visited the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum created by Ronald Lewis (featured in Dan Baum’s Nine Liveswhich you should read) to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. 

In the small trailer in the Lower Ninth that Lewis has packed with beadwork, photos, newspaper clippings, and feathered pieces, I was struck by how easy it would have been to go about my entire life and never be aware of the Mardi Gras Indians. What a fascinating and important subculture I would have missed learning about! What beautiful artwork I would have missed seeing! What stories I would have missed hearing!

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

From there, I started wondering about all of the other little hidden pockets of history and culture that I will likely never encounter. It seems safe to assume that New Orleans, though unique in oh-so-many ways is not the only city to house bands or tribes or communities of people doing surprising and surprisingly delightful art and work.

There must be dozens of subcultures and cultural institutions in Chicago that in seven years I’ve never even heard of. There are huge swaths of this city that I’ve never set foot in. I left the House of Dance and Feathers wondering how to go about exploring my own city better. What do you think? How do you find, learn about, and appreciate unique and little-known cultures in your city?

P.S. Want more on Ronald Lewis, Mardi Gras Indians, and The House of Dance and Feathers? Read Kim Green’s post over at The Greenery

Related Post: Many of the untold stories in history of ladies. I know, you’re shocked!

Related Post: How have I never seen Thelma and Louise? 

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Vagina Love!

Sorry for the AWOL-ness of late. Busy busy with travel and “real” work and side projects.

What better way to celebrate a return to the blog than with some quality vagina-time?  A long time ago, I wrote an essay about why oral sex was so often a one-directional exercise and many of the respondees to my survey wrote about feeling like their vaginas were ugly, unclean, or “too private.” How something that you use to have sex with is too private for the person you’re having sex with is kind of beyond me, but I allow that feelings towards one’s genitalia can get complicated.

Anyway, those responses made me sad, because the idea of folks missing out on pleasure and intimacy out of vagina-shame seems like such a waste. Apparently, I am not alone in these feelings. Three cool vagina-friendly things for you to peruse this week. Probably not the safest for work, but I don’t know what your work is like, so use your judgment:

1. Vagina Posters: Debbie Herbenick, sex educator and all-around fan of vaginas is launching a Kickstarter to fund her beautiful poster series What Do You  Like About Your Vulva and Vagina. Go support her and her team and also get postcards or posters as a thank you gift!

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2. Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: Production company Kornhaber Brown made this little video cleverly replacing genitalia with genitalia-shaped food to illustrate the differences between porn sex and real sex. Given that I am a porn fan and that I also don’t think porn is going anywhere even if I weren’t, I like content that contextualizes porn as performance and helps create boundaries between the sex that most people have and the sex that porn stars have.

3. Female Reproductive Organ posters: I found this in a secondhand store in Provincetown, MA, this past weekend. It’s a poster about menstruation and reproduction that was made by Tampax to hang in doctors’ officees. I loved it instantly but I left the store without buying it. Half an hour later, I made my group return so I could make it mine. It shall hang in the bathroom:

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Related Post: My favorite body-positive pornographic tumblr (NSFW)

Related Post: Do you find my breasts offensive?

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Sunday Scraps 107

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1. GENDER: Dude writes for Quartz about adding a Mr. to his gender-neutral name and suddenly having doors open. Kind of a duh piece, but reassuring nonetheless.

2. BOOKS: Highly useful and equally addictive tool that recommends books based on other things you’ve read.

3. INTERWEBZ: Fun game from MIT where you map all of your email over all time and see how you email the most.

4. MERMAIDS: Excellent NYT essay from the excellent Virginia Sole-Smith on mermaid shows.

5. ART: Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls is awesome in her musical rebuttal to the idiotic Daily Mail who ragged on her for an exposed breast (NSFW).

6. MILLENNIALS: CNN.com comic by Matt Bors about why ripping on millennials is a) old news and b) boring.

Related Post: Sunday 106: Dustin Hoffman, Sex Ed, and Roxane Gay on a race-based VIDA test

Related Post: Sunday 105: Bodies that matter, isolated islands, literacy tests, etc.

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S(Monday) Scraps 105

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1. TEXAS: This is a long and beautiful piece by Amy Gentry for The Rumpus about abortion, body politics, and who we’re really protecting.

2. BADASS: Senator Claire McCaskill replies to James Taranto’s horrifying essay about how the fight against sexual assault in the military is actually a “war on men” and male sexuality. Taranto: 0, McCaskill: ALL OF THE POINTS.

3. TRAVEL: Fascinating essay by travel writer Simon Winchester about a tiny island of 300 people, Tristan de Cunha, and how he got banned from visiting for violating local customs.

4. HISTORY: In the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Slate has an example of the dizzyingly confusing literacy tests that were used in the 50s and 60s to prevent black people from voting.

5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD: In case you ever forget what Planned Parenthood provides, a lovely essay from the blog What Are You Doing Here, Are You Lost?

6. CITIES: Chicago Magazine has an awesome series of panoramic shots of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, pre- and during industrial development.

Related Post: Sunday 104 – Books in pie-chart form, awesome ASL translators, what is a bro?

Related Post: Sunday 103 – Awesome people reading, pin-up presidents, Rich Kids of Instagram

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Sunday Scraps 104

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1. MUSIC: The sign-language interpreter steals the show at this Wu-Tang performance (Gawker). 

2. DATING: If you’re familiar with the sniveling “Nice Guys” who are very upset that their “niceness” doesn’t make girls want to sleep with them, you might enjoy this bit of satire from Insert Literary Reference.

3. HEALTH: Why is a colonoscopy 26x more expensive in the U.S. than in Canada? It’s complicated, says Mother Jones. 

4. BRO: What exactly is a bro? Venn diagrams to the rescue! And who is at the middle of it all? Lochte, of course.

5. VOWS: I thought nothing would top the wolf wedding announcement, but I was wrong.

6. BOOKS: Publisher’s Weekly explains some big name books in pie-chart form.

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Founding father pin-ups, rich kids of Instagram, authors annotating their first editions.

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Soldier portraits, cartoons about depression, Rihanna’s hairdresser

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