A Roundup on “Relatability”

Ira Glass took to Twitter recently in an annoyed response to Shakespeare in the Park. “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” When I first saw Glass’s tweets, I thought he was being sarcastic. Surely he thinks Shakespeare speaks Truth. Besides, Glass is a straight white male, well-educated, a paragon of 20th and 21st century American artistic accomplishment (having originated the popular public radio program This American Life). Shakespeare is part of the canon to which Glass must admit he’s beholden. This is the canon he must in some way relate to, the canon that told him what storytelling was and helped him think about what it could be. After all, as Tom Jokinen proposes in Hazlitt, This American Life’s story structure resembles that of the Bard’s many plays.

Let me back up: This piece—the one I’m writing right now—isn’t really about Shakespeare, or the ways in which T.A.L. is like Shakespeare, or what did Glass really intend when he tweeted those super-mean tweets about Shakespeare? As Jokinen suggests, maybe these are fruitless interpretational impulses, reminiscent of grade-school lessons on Symbolism 101. Interpretation removes us from the personal, tells us that an emotional response (“Shakespeare sucks”) isn’t subject matter for classroom discussion. There’s purpose in this restriction: to characterize the writer’s style, to understand narrative coherence (or incoherence), to distill broad insights about how humans create meaning in life.

But what of the visceral, emotional experience of reading? How do we read? Why do we read? Who is reading? Last week, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead posted “The Scourge of ‘Relatability.’” She criticizes Glass’s knee-jerk “unrelatable” charge. “To demand that a work be ‘relatable,’” she writes, “expresses a[n]… expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” I thought, yes! When reading, when experiencing art of any kind—heck, when living—we should reach outward. Go beyond what we think we know. Be open. Like the final two sentences of Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams: “I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

But doesn’t this start by flexing our emotional muscle? Giving ourselves over to the knee-jerk because it’s what we feel first? There’s Ira Glass saying, “Shakespeare sucks,” and then there’s a black teenage woman reading, in English class, book after book authored by white men, detailing the exploits of white people, thinking, and maybe saying, “I don’t like this. None of these characters look like me, and none of these stories look like mine.” Do we create space for these things to be said, for this failure of relatability to be teased out? Do the essays we read—in The New Yorker, in the New York Times, in Slate, in Hazlitt—do justice, in their interpretational thrusts, to the multiplicities of reading experience? Really, is there justice done in mainstream-media’s proliferation of essays written by largely white men and women about Ira Glass’s offhand response to Shakespeare?

I spent a long time yesterday reading Jed Perl’s essay “Liberals Are Killing Art.” I didn’t want to, but I fell into the trap, my siren song: the long, controversially-titled essay about art. Perl would claim ‘art and justice’ is a problematic linkage, same as ‘art in education’ or ‘art in society’ or ‘art and politics.’ He contests that art exists in an independent sphere, apart from, say, war or public education or you eating your ham-and-cheese sandwich at lunch.

I find arguments like Perl’s tiresome at best, dangerous at worst. These are the same arguments that use statements like “art has transcendental power” to alienate lived experience from creative expression. These are also the arguments used to justify the egregious underfunding awarded, at least in this country, to artists and creative professionals who labor, just like the rest of us do, for something Perl relegates to the nebulous, the abstract, the “transcendental.” These are the arguments that call art “the imagination interacting with the world” while citing the work of mostly white male artists. It’s a posturing of empathy. It’s also a failure to acknowledge that ‘the world’ is made up of radically diverse people living radically diverse lives, lives that don’t fit into “easy platitudes about getting along and we’re all the same,” as Christian said in a recent Project Change email exchange. 

I’m wondering a lot lately about how we create space in American classrooms for the sharing of stories and experiences that are not accounted for in the canon or in the mainstream. About how I think we have a responsibility to, as a friend said yesterday, a “conscious diversification of what we consume—from food to television to literature.” A responsibility to reach outward, to reject passive, self-reflexive relatability. I’m also wondering whether we can and should legislate the same for people whose races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, stories, ideas, feelings are still not granted significant (read: the space afforded to Shakespeare) space or authorship—whether in a curriculum or in a think-piece about relatability.

I’m wondering about my over-reliance on the “we,” about how it assumes universality. It also assumes that people want to try to relate to one another, to owe each other attention, an eager ear, space to be.

“We who?” This is Teju Cole’s Twitter biography. It is also a sly, biting mandate to be open. To call out postures of empathy and universality as, well, postures.

Twitter is an exercise in relatablity, in experimental empathy. I think it bends toward openness. Glass himself is a Twitter neophyte; he just “joined” this year. And with his Shakespeare tweets, Glass pouted, in the same way that many people (myself included) do from time to time on Twitter. Life is messy for all of us. For some of us, that messiness is compounded in ways that are, thanks to history, policy, curricula, social systems, media, et al., left dangerously dim to those of us who say “our canon” and think it represents the U.S.’s—and the world’s—actual demographic breakdown. I like to think Glass’s tweets were actually sly mandates to be open, to grant legitimacy to the idea that Shakespeare’s work could, for someone, feel unrelatable. That that feeling, and its articulation, are worth attention. That one day, that essay is the one we’re (emphasis on the “we”) sharing.



Ethics Around Campus: ‘Americanah’ at the Nasher Museum of Art

Blogger’s note: As we move into the fall, I’m going to use the Insider space occasionally to investigate “Ethics Around Campus.” This includes events, talks, exhibitions, performances, and general Duke campus happenings outside of Kenan that align broadly with our thematic programming and focus on engagement, analysis, and debate of ethical issues. If you’re savvy with our website, you’ve likely seen “Ethics Around Campus” highlighted before—it’s at the bottom of our main page, in RSS feed form. Throughout the semester, as usual, the feed will be updated with links to various campus events. I’ll highlight a few here—partly out of my own curiosity for what ethics can be and look like at a university, and partly to connect Kenan’s work with other campus work, and vice versa. 

Adichie’s novel. Image courtesy of NPR.

I, like many others at Duke right now, am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. It’s kind of a neat feeling, to read a book alongside a huge network of people, many of whom I don’t know, as we all spend our 9-to-5s doing and studying ostensibly quite different things. Doing something in common—like reading a book, or, say, playing on a kickball team—can blast us out of isolation and into the sudden, personal sharing of something. You dog-eared that passage, too? How did it resonate with you?

David C. Driskell, Woman in Interior, 2008. Screenprint with mixed media on paper, 37 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (94.6 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Gift of Franklin and Sheila Jackson, 2008.12.1. © David C. Driskell. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

If we’re lucky, we can come together through these mutual realizations. Duke has done something clever in the past few years by building the Summer Reading selection—typically reserved for first-year bonding exercises during orientation week—into a university-wide conversation. Faculty and staff book clubs (including Kenan’s), as well as initiatives like DukeReads, read and discuss the book together. The author comes to campus for a lecture in the fall. And beginning with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (the 2011 selection), the Nasher Museum has curated a small exhibition in tandem with the Summer Reading Book’s themes. This year, the exhibition—on view in the Nasher’s Academic Focus Gallery—includes works from the Nasher’s permanent collection, ranging from West African wood tools to contemporary paintings, photographs, and mixed-media works by the likes of Jasper Johns, the Guerrilla Girls, and Henry Clay Anderson, among others. The curated collection gives life to Adichie’s story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerian lovers growing up in recent decades between Nigeria, the United States, and the U.K. Together and apart, the pair navigate displacement, immigration, race, and identity. The novel takes its title from the term “Americanah”—used to refer to a native Nigerian who emigrates (often to the U.S. or U.K.) and returns to Nigeria with foreign affectations. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after several years abroad—during which she becomes famous as the blogger behind “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”—some friends call her, mockingly, “Americanah.”

The Nasher exhibition interprets these themes broadly and pulls together a sharp collection of works. The hallway is spatially tight, which gives the exhibition a conversational effect: Dan Perjovschi’s Postcards from America sits opposite Vik Muniz’s American Flag; a Nigerian Janus Headpiece looks diagonally toward Dan Driskell’s Woman in Interior. Pieces talk across time, as if saying, hey, this is what being an outsider in America felt like to me then, and here’s what a barbershop—in London, or Durham, or Lagos—looks like to me now. The gem for me, though, is the accompanying gallery guide. A handful of Duke administrators, faculty, and librarians were asked to respond to various works in the exhibition, drawing in their experiences reading Adichie’s novel. The respondents, and their responses, are wonderfully diverse. Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of  English and Professor of Law, unpacks Driskell’s painting via quotations from Toni Morrison, Destiny’s Child, and Ralph Ellison. She likens Adichie’s Ifemelu to the “quilted concoction,” the “diasporan woman” of Driskell’s painting. Li-Chen Chin, Director of Intercultural Programs, writes—in response to Vik Muniz—about immigrating to the United States from Taiwan. “The last thing I did before I left Taiwan was learn to ride a bike because in many university brochures I had received, the ‘American’ students were always smiling and either standing next to or riding their bikes on campus.” Her words push us to consider what it means to “look American,” or to “be American.”

Guerrilla Girls, Pop Quiz from the portfolio Guerrilla Girls’ Most Wanted: 1985-2006, 1990 (printed 2008). Print on paper, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Museum purchase, 2011.6.1.12. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

The final work on the first wall is Hurvin Anderson’s 2010 Barbershop Print. Ben Adams, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, wrote a long anecdotal piece in response, recalling trips throughout his childhood to the hair salon with his grandmother. He ties in one of the main plot points of Americanah: Ifemelu travels to Trenton, NJ from Princeton (where she is on a humanities fellowship) to have her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. “What Ifemelu had hoped would be an afternoon of braiding,” Adams writes, “turns into a detangling of hair, race, and the immigrant experience in America.” Adams then talks about his grandmother’s own conflicted salon experience, and the function of the salon or barbershop generally: it can be a space of both community formation and community unraveling, where the individual can “literally or figuratively look in the mirror” and draw a distinction between “‘us’ and ‘them.'” In similar ways, Americanah—both the book and the exhibition—remind us of both the precariousness and power of community. It dares us to form our own, too.


Americanah is on view in the Academic Focus Gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art through October 12.

Kenan Summer 2014: A Bear Fellow Abroad

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers,

Before the story and before the prose, the nitty-gritty.

(Note: the above is most certainly not an Irish proverb).

For the next few weeks on the Insider I’ll be sending you stories from Dublin, Ireland, where I’m stationed to assist with the DukeEngage Dublin program. You’ll also be hearing—through our Student Engagement Journals site—from the seven undergraduates participating in the program, with whom I’ll be working on their summer letters home as well as collaborating on documentary representations of the city and of their DukeEngage experiences.

Beyond the Insider, it’s a slightly different, though not disconnected, story. In reference to Ireland’s long history of emigration and new quandaries of immigration and multiculturalism, the DukeEngage Dublin program poses the question, What happens when a country of ‘senders’ becomes a country of ‘receivers’? I participated in DukeEngage during the summer of 2011, when the unemployment rate hovered around 14.7% and emigration of Irish nationals rose sharply to around 40,200, only slightly surpassed by the 42,300 immigrants entering Ireland that same year.


I return to Dublin this time around, three years later, with a documentary eye aimed at what has changed and what has sustained. Mostly, I’m interested in how life feels—for everyone living here, in tandem with the larger forces of migration, cultural integration, austerity, and national identity. Though “everyone” is hardly a feasible focus group, and “larger forces” can quickly become too abstract for the documentary medium. The medium, at least in my case, fuels itself from stories shared—which I’d, with great care, cluster and accumulate around general statements: I was here, it felt this way, it’s important to me because. And within the stories nestled within these statements, I’m interested in the unexpected, the digression, the spontaneous architecture of conversation and sharing. I seek ways to build this architecture into my documentary approach, to compose “a compass by which to get lost,” as Rebecca Solnit writes.

Three summers ago, my DukeEngage cohort devised a public survey project that set itself up, comfy chairs and all, in various spots throughout the city. We asked Dublin residents to tell us how they felt about cultural integration in the city, about race and ethnic relations. One of those spots was The Exchange, which describes itself on Twitter as the following: “Volunteer-run all-ages non-profit arts-cultural-social over-hyphenated open space in Dublin – currently in Limbo…” When I visited The Exchange in 2011, I noticed its demographic diversity; its volunteers eagerly chatting with one another; its literal and metaphorical openness: rooms cascaded into more rooms, large glass windows opened to the streets of Temple Bar. Galleries also served as performance spaces, hangout areas were spaces for discussion, workshopping, advocacy. Since its inception in 2009, the consensus-based, inclusive venue has been known as a vibrant community space in Dublin. It’s also committed to connection and learning through the arts, offering classes and exhibition space for the creatively inclined.

The Exchange made news recently when the Dublin City Council—also The Exchange’s funder and landlord—suspended the venue for a three-month “review” period due to claims of “anti-social behaviour” in The Exchange’s vicinity. Supporters of the venue argue back: isn’t closing a community arts center an act of anti-social behaviour? They point toward larger social issues: the perceived lack of safe and productive social spaces in Dublin for especially young people, the presence and direction of arts funding in times of austerity, the odd urban plan of Temple Bar, which joins at the hip progressive arts venues and tourist bars (and which I wrote about for Recess in 2011). If “anti-social behaviour” exists, the supporters say, it does elsewhere, and for other reasons that won’t be solved, let alone addressed, by closing The Exchange.

But still, the venue is closed for the time being, under “suspended inanimation,” The Exchange’s Change.org petition terms it. I’m hoping to unpack some of that inanimation and hear from members of the Exchange community about how that inanimation feels. What has changed? What has sustained? But also: What brought you to this space? What does it give you that other spaces do not? I want to hear from community members elsewhere: City Council members, neighbors, young people in the creative industries. What function do creative community spaces serve? How do we ensure our citizens’ access to productive, meaningful lives? What do changing demographics mean for urban organization? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posing these questions. Over the next few months, I’ll be producing a series of audio documentary portraits from these interviews, as well as writing a longform nonfiction piece about my time here—both over the years and in the present-tense. I continue to grapple with what it means to participate in and identify with a community; for me, this community typically intersects with the arts in some form, and thus I find myself here, with lots of questions.

I invite you to join me as I myself reflect, over the next few weeks, about what it feels like to be here.

How to Not Think Alone in the Anthropocene

By Michaela Dwyer

Sometimes I like to envision all of us sharing a groupthink of early-week rituals, cleansing our minds from days past to begin each week anew. Mine recently has been reading “We Think Alone” every Monday morning. The multi-media artist and writer Miranda July has been running the curated email project, which just ended this week, since July 1. The premise is simple: anyone can subscribe, and every Monday July sends a giant email made up of already-sent messages from a diverse group of variously famous people like Lena Dunham, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lee Smolin, and Kirsten Dunst. Each compiled email centers around a certain theme: “an angry email,” “an email about the body,” “an email with a song in it.” More than a ritual, these emails are confirmation that people—people I’ve never physically met—continue to exist in the world and think similar thoughts, write emails in the same formal and informal ways I do. The project is called “We Think Alone” but its format does the exact opposite, intentionally mashing up different voices and contexts along their points of connection.

It’s been harder for me to do this—this Monday Cleanse—recently, and especially as last Friday blended into Saturday-Sunday and then Monday of this week. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines beginning on Friday and the death toll has since risen dramatically. On Sunday night I read Roy Scranton’s piece in the New York Times about the Anthropocene—a recent buzzword geologists and humanities folks alike have used to refer to “a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force.” His contention is that as humans, we’ve already done our part in destroying the natural world and must now learn to live within this destruction—and to do so, crucially, with the understanding that we’re already, in a way, dead. On Monday morning I drove to work and pulled into campus to the sound of scratchy BBC reports from the Philippines. A reporter was interviewing several small children, asking them if they were hungry. “Yes, yes,” they kept repeating, their high-pitched voices in stark contrast with the reporter’s deep British accent and trained newspeak. It was desperate in-the-moment journalism, pulled straight from the field, nothing polished. I suddenly felt physically ill. How do you go to work when this is happening in the world? How do you open your email and read “an email about a problem you’re having with your computer”? My thoughts were spiraling in the second-person, and fittingly so. During times like these I want an instruction manual for ethically being. I want someone, or something, to tell me if it’s okay to read and enjoy July’s email as I usually do. I want to know how long I can put thoughts about the typhoon on hold as I sit down at my desk and organize my daily tasks, post-it-notes, highlighters.

In his piece, Scranton accuses us precisely for living this way: “…humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.” He says our desire for livable stability—put another, more ironic way, sustainable living—orients us toward disaster. And maybe this desire will come to define this era of the Anthropocene as an era of accumulated self-destruction. If any solution is possible, he posits it’s more serious groupthink: “learn[ing] how to die as a civilization.”

But an injunction like “hey, we need to collectively think a little more about the state of our [already-dead] existence” doesn’t seem to do much—and even seems deleteriously unethical—when more than 2,000 people die and 600,000 are displaced from a disaster, natural or not. Reading a think-piece like Scranton’s won’t solve this tension; reading Kant won’t do it; reading the compiled-and-curated emails of public figures won’t, either. But thinking about these issues and approaches in tandem—in connection, and in balance—doesn’t have to be wrong.

“We Think Alone” was commissioned by Swedish gallery Magasin 3 as part of a larger exhibition called “On the Tip of My Tongue.” The curators’ statement says that the collection of art projects “aim[s] to trigger situations and experiences that linger as if ‘just out of reach,’ to generate encounters that keep growing— in thought and through conversation—long after each actual event has ended.” In reality, on this day in November 2013, traveling either to the Philippines or to a white-walled Swedish art gallery is out of my reach. But I could, just like anyone else in the world with an email address, sign up for “We Think Alone” earlier this year (and, as you know, I did). I wanted to see what happened when I placed myself—my email-correspondent self—in the space of sustained technological connection with people I wouldn’t typically encounter. I often feel consumed and subsumed in buzzwords others attach to “my generation,” to “people like me.” We’re being trained to see something so pure and so distilled—ourselves in relation to each other—in emphatic balloon-type: collaboration! co-working! sharing! empathy! With “We Think Alone,” I (somewhat warily) drafted myself into a test-run of contrived global community. It wasn’t perfect. And it wasn’t enough to sustain me throughout the week, every week. And it’s not enough to sustain me when events in the world feel beyond my control. So maybe Scranton would applaud this ethos of self-aware unsustainability, though I’m not looking for his moral approval. I’m looking for more mechanisms to think and talk and be together, to live and die as ourselves, with each other, and outside of isolation, to figure out what we can change—alter, bring to light, frame in a new way— and what we cannot. And perhaps we can change that, too—we’re all living in this muck of uncertainty, after all.

We Who Tell Many Stories: Gender and Representation in a Postmodern World

By Michaela Dwyer

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about gender, art, and ethics, and this week more than usual. So think of this, if you’d like, as a piggyback post—at least in the art and ethics sense—to Nathan’s consideration of photographer Anthony Karen’s fascinating documentary photography of the Ku Klux Klan. This is part of a larger conversation about whether art is and should be political or politicized, which eventually, inevitably, circles back to that dreaded Philosophy 101 query: “what is art?” (see also: “what even is art anyway?”).

These are complicated and increasingly abstract questions already so I’ll jump back into the muck of the tangible. This past weekend I traveled to Boston and to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the photography exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. The exhibition description gives it to us straight: “These prominent photographers have tackled the very notion of representation with passion and power, questioning tradition and challenging perceptions of Middle Eastern identity. Their provocative work…provides insights into political and social issues, including questions of personal identity…in images of great sophistication, expressiveness, and beauty.” It’s worth noting that expressed as-is, these descriptive statements about the exhibition collectively evade its most (least?) common denominator: women—both artists and subjects—occupying space in a public (artistic, cultural, political) discourse largely dominated by men.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Roja,’ 2012.

Immediately after leaving the exhibition, I purchased the anthology Women Artists at the Millennium. It’s structured as a follow-up to art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 critical essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—which I recall annotating intensely last year. Then, Nochlin wrote at the precipice of postmodernism, the eve of a seismic academic and cultural shift toward the recognition and discussion of identity politics—gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, et al—in a new global society. As a 20-something of the 21st century, I remember my disappointment in Nochlin’s original essay: despite her feminist concerns, Nochlin hadn’t yet gotten with the postmodernist program to deal with contemporary aesthetic practices that were beginning to articulate feminism and women’s experience in new ways—practices like conceptual art, body and performance art, and photography. In the current anthology, Nochlin is still tethered to a white Western artistic canon populated by painters and sculptors; only, this time, a few more women artists are highlighted, and photography gets a mention.

In fact Nochlin cites Iranian-American photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, whose large-scale portraits of Iranian women overlaid with Persian calligraphy are heavily featured in She Who Tells a Story. Neshat’s work explores Iranian expressions of womanhood in the context of strict social, cultural, and religious codes; this treatment is complicated, however, by Neshat’s self-imposed exile from Iran. Nearby in the exhibition is Iraq-born artist Jananne Al-Ani’s 1996 pair of photos (Untitled 1 & 2). Similar in scale to Neshat’s, Al-Ani’s two pieces line parallel walls that the viewer must stand between. When I encountered Al-Ani’s work, I had the distinct physical sensation of entering a potent women’s space. Each giant photograph shows Al-Ani, her three sisters, and her mother in successive stages of hijab—all facing the camera directly, all staring back at us, consigned and compelled viewers, as we meet their gaze.

Jananne Al-Ani’s ‘Untitled 1 & 2,’ 1996.

“Gaze” is an operative word here because, in a way, the work displayed in She Who Tells a Story collectively bucks traditional methods of making and viewing art. There is, crucially, the women-photographing-women dimension, a representational approach that systematically upends what Nochlin and other feminist scholars decry as the “male gaze.” As a woman and as a feminist viewer, I got the most out of the exhibition through this schema; I felt an intimacy with visual narratives that were not my own, but which felt connected to my experience as a woman in a society that I believe continues to be male-dominated. “Seeing is believing,” right?

And the works are indeed nuanced in both their content and mode of expression; what you’re seeing, or what the curator hopes you’re seeing, is not a prescriptive program on the oppression of women in the Arab world, but rather an illumination of their diverse lived experiences—political, politicized, and not.

But I’m uncomfortable even with the direct reference to this possibility of oppression. I’m not only a woman and a feminist viewer, but a white Western woman and feminist viewer standing in a Western art museum and looking (gazing, even) at Middle Eastern women seen through the eyes of Middle Eastern women artists. My understanding of any oppression I feel as a woman in Western society seems to clash with their lived experience—in hijab, in an Iraqi or Iranian town, in families where the role of a woman is clearly defined as subordinate to a man.

A while back, I talked with Caitlin M. Kelly, Kenan’s Graduate Arts Fellow, about what influenced the theme of the exhibition she’s curating this fall. She mentioned Wendy Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. In it Hesford discusses the tendency and danger of Western human rights campaigns understanding and deploying the “‘third-world woman’ as a singular monolithic subject”—a woman in hijab, devoid of context told in her own terms.


Newsha Tavakolian, ‘Dont Forget This Is Not You (for Sahar Lotfi),’ 2010

I feel a bit paralyzed in the gap here—similar to how I felt standing between Al-Ani’s pair of photos. Do I have a “right” to connect to these women because I’m a woman? Do our separate cultural experiences preclude empathetic understanding? Hesford advocates for  “scrutiniz[ing] the objectivist model of visual evidence” that “seeing is believing.” And I think it’s here, in this impulse toward the conscientious absorption of art—and thus our world—where I take comfort. To take serious interest and pleasure in experiences with which we are unfamiliar, and not to automatically believe them as ‘true’ according to a single cultural or political narrative. What we get when we pay for and shuffle through the museum are these complicated layers of representative experience(s); it is our responsibility, despite and in light of our own identity politics, to be critical, to open ourselves up to them, be free within them, and begin to grasp at what feels familiar inside the stories and images of others. In the words of another, one of the exhibited photographers, Newsha Tavakolian:

“I was raised with people trying to tell me what to do and think. Now I want those looking at my work to have their own opinions. I don’t want to enforce any ideas or views upon them. They are free.”

Nudity is Okay…Only after Dark

According to a recent Reuter’s article, a New York artist was arrested on lewdness and indecent exposure charges for painting (on) a nude model in the middle of Times Square.  His lawyer argued that that public nudity is acceptable in the name of art, and as a result, an interesting compromise has been reached.

Charges against Mr. Andy Golub (the artist) will be dropped if he agrees to:

  1. Only paint bare breasts during the day.
  2. Instruct the model to keep her g-string on until after dark.
  3. Not violate conditions 1 or 2 for the next 6 months.

This contract raises two interesting questions. Continue reading “Nudity is Okay…Only after Dark”