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‘Shiny Happy People’ as postmodern placebo

In “The Precession of Simulacra,” sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues for the “murderous capacity of images” (1560). In our postmodern culture, images have killed and replaced reality, he proposes. Just as the symptoms of the hypochondriac are neither real nor unreal, the therapies used to treat our cultural lack of reality also “float on either side” (1558). Postmodernity is a world in which the only cure is a placebo: Happiness must now be constructed in a Disney-like, “hyperreal” realm of “illusions and phantasms” (1564).

The 2009 music video “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. comments on the illusory two-dimensionality of postmodern joy. People dance, clap and sing about happiness on a stage while a crudely painted backdrop with scenes of people in in life rolls behind them. The tune is upbeat and everyone is smiling. The viewer can be swept up in the illusion and enjoy three and a half minutes of bliss.

As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it.

However, unlike Disneyland, which displays its “Happiest Place on Earth” slogan in all earnestness, “Shiny Happy People” gives an artistic wink to the absurdity of produced happiness through it’s self-conscious simulation: the moves are a little too choreographed, the costumes cartoonish and the smiles a bit too wide. Yet, even more revealing of its self-imposed hyperreality, is the way it depicts itself as a production.

Baudrillard criticizes science for placing reality in a museum. “We have all become living specimens under the spectral light of ethnology,” he writes (1562). This idea is reflected in R.E.M.’s video through the staging and construction of the scenes. The video opens with a shot of two mechanical monkeys with symbols on a shelf. The viewer sees an old man’s hand put a coffee cup on a saucer and mount a stationary bicycle. The bicycle cranks the rolling backdrop, and the camera follows it to the other side of the stage where the band performs. The viewer sees that the performance is produced by the man backstage who dwells among his nostalgic furnishings: He has created his own “museum” of shiny, happy people.

Baudrillard suggests that our simulations serve to “save the reality principle” by concealing the fact that society has made all of reality into an amusement park (1565). There are a few moments when R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” would seem to imply that the image can be an effective placebo—the unreal can become real if one claps along with the band. At the end of the video the stage fills with a crowd of real young people, as if they were conjured from the backdrop, and they all dance in unison. As they jump around the stage, the camera turns to the old man’s face. He has stepped around the corner to watch the spectacle, and it’s impossible to judge whether he approves or disdains it from the look on his face as he bites down on his pipe. He is the grandfather of the illusion created for generations to come. If there is no greater good, the character seems to suggest, then let them simulate it—give them the two-dimensional cure because it’s the only “happiness” they have left.

The problem with his conclusion is that the absurdity of the song lyrics, the dance moves, the costumes, and props suggest that the young people know the score. The production within a production serves to emphasize that it’s all just a show. It’s the same problem with the placebo—once the patient knows what it is, it doesn’t work. As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it (1561). R.E.M.’s video reveals that a production of joy is nothing more than a sugar pill.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People.” Warner Bros. Records. YouTube. 2005. Web. November 17, 2013.


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Intimacy betrayed: Nan Goldin’s ‘Nan and Brian in Bed’

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“Nan and Brian in Bed,” Nan Goldin, 1981 (www.metmuseum.org)

In 1981 Nan Goldin took a snapshot of a woman and a man in bed. The photo, simply titled “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became part of an epic artwork she called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which came to represent the post-punk era of hard drugs and sexual indulgence. But the work was intensely personal. The woman behind the camera and in the bed was Goldin herself. The intention of her photography was to chronicle her relationships in all their intimate, stark moments (Goldin, interview). In doing so, she brought to light much more than the details of a subculture. As her camera captured Brian with his back turned and her narrowed eyes watching him, she made public a typically private experience of women as gendered beings. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became the signature image of Goldin’s Ballad, exhibited internationally and published in a book by the same name. Goldin’s photo stands out in a world of representation dominated by the male gaze, in which women want nothing more than to be looked at. In “Nan and Brian in Bed,” Goldin is doing the looking, and what her eyes see challenges universal ideals of gender intimacy.

“Nan and Brian in Bed,” was created in Goldin’s signature style of informal photography using available light and non-posed subjects in intimate spaces. The imperfections—slightly grainy with unlit corners—give the photo authenticity: This is a moment of life and truth. She has invited the viewer into her bedroom where Brian sits on the edge of the bed holding a cigarette to his mouth, absorbed in his unreadable thoughts. The sharpest focus and brightest light fall on his face; the largest shape in the foreground of the photo is his unlit naked back turned to his lover and the camera. In the background, Nan’s reclined body is obscured by a dark robe. Her face on the pillow gazes up at Brian with a hard look of desire.

The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art.

The composition and title of Goldin’s photo leads the viewer to imagine the actions that led up to this moment: the quintessential post-sex cigarette. Once intimately entwined, one imagines, the two figures are now separated and introspective. Brian has moved on to his next kick, and Nan contemplates the object of her own “dependency.” The look in Nan’s eye, and the view from her camera, imply the duality of dependence: desire and guilt, love and hate. This duality is echoed in the two predominant colors of the photo, black and golden red.

The casual nature of Goldin’s photography can be attributed to her own attitude toward her documentary project. In a 2013 video interview recorded by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Goldin says, “I didn’t really care about good photography, I cared about complete honesty.” She traces that focus to her family’s reaction to her own sister’s teen suicide when Golden was eleven. “The family was very revisionist, so what happened didn’t happen,” she says. She decided she wanted expose what happens in private spheres. Goldin’s Ballad became the “proof” of her experiences that “no one can revise” (Goldin, interview).

Based on this personal crusade for truth, her work is intentionally and fearlessly autobiographical. Goldin ran away from her suburban home at fourteen and subsequently found a new family among drag queens and underground club subcultures of Boston and New York City (Garratt). The friends she lived with during this period and their uncensored lives of sex and drugs were the raw subjects of her photos, which probe the limits of relationships in all gender variations. A pivotal connection in this urban tribe was with her boyfriend, Brian, the central figure of her 1981 photograph. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” literally represents a moment in Goldin’s life, when Brian turned his back to her to smoke a cigarette. The image illustrates a mundane yet poignantly familiar scene between men and women, and it heralds the ultimate fate of the lovers who were torn apart by the “conflict inherent in relationships between men and women” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy).

The unflinching autobiographical approach to her photograph allows her to articulate the mechanics of gender that normally remain in the darkness of the bedroom. In the introduction to her book, Goldin writes, “The friction between the fantasies and realities of relationships can lead to alienation or violence.” The fantasy of “happily-ever-after” romantic love between men and women is challenged in the recognizable moment of tentativeness captured in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” The positions represented in the photo are antithetical to the promise of enduring passion, yet so familiar they are stereotypical: A man has sex and turns away, while the woman wonders if the love she feels is returned or only leveraged for sex. The photograph represents a moment of doubt and incompatibility between the sexes that is typically unacknowledged in mainstream imagery.

Nan, in the photograph, is the dependent female, gazing up at her prince of the urban underworld with a mixture of need and regret. Yet, the fact that Goldin is also behind the camera demonstrates female agency: The viewer sees this break in romantic narrative through the woman’s own eyes. She is the active viewer and recorder of her own life. The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art. Brian becomes the “alien other,” the object of a woman’s gaze (Adams 99). However, Brian’s nudity is very different from that described by John Berger in “Ways of Seeing.” Unlike the reclining, receptive female nude, “offering up her femininity as the surveyed,” Brian is turned away from the observer, unaware and unavailable (Berger 55). What Goldin captures in “Nan and Brian in Bed” is the difference between male-created fantasy and feminist reality: Men portray the world as they wish it was, but this woman shows it the way it is. By making public the honesty of this intimate moment, Goldin demonstrates the strength of her own vulnerability in acknowledging the duality of dependence.

Although she claims no motivation beyond the desire to document her life and relationships, the power of Goldin’s honesty is proven in the enduring relevance of the photo (Garrett). The power of her truthfulness is also evident in the violent rage it caused in same man who claimed to love her. “The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote in the book’s introduction, “My written diaries are private; they form a closed document of my world. . . ” Her relationship with Brian ended after he read her “private” diary, burned it, and beat her up. In another photo from the series, Goldin looks directly into the camera with curly hair, bright red lipstick and bruises around her eyes. “Confronting my normal ambivalence had betrayed his absolute notion of romance” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). The photographer was brave enough to show the world that love is not always the romantic love of male-dominated social narrative. Sometimes love is hate, and sometimes it is a bad habit—an itch one cannot scratch because it is fabricated by chemistry and fallacy. After the beating, Goldin slid into the depths of drug dependency, a period of her life she characterizes as “very, very dark” (Garratt).

The awareness of the artist’s personal journey through sexual and drug dependency, and the significance of her photography in relation to a history of male-centered imagery, lends deeper meaning to Brian’s turned back in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” It signifies society’s cold shoulder turned on those who had expected deliverance through the myth of male/female intimacy, a myth which often leads people into small, dark rooms only to find the ambivalence, isolation, and violence Goldin articulates.

“When I was fifteen,” the artist writes, “the perfect world seemed a place of total androgyny, where you wouldn’t know a person’s gender until you were in bed with him or her. I’ve since realized that gender is much deeper than style” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). In a similar sense, “Nan and Brian in Bed” reaches beyond its iconic nature as a symbol of an era of irreverent youth. The photograph demonstrates how some rules of behavior are so deep that it takes a brave and honest diary of intimacy to tease them out.

Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010. Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972. PDF.

Garrett, Sheryl. “The Dark Room.” The Guardian 5 Jan. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Interview by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” MOCAtv on YouTube, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Introduction. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture. 1986. PDF.

Fine Art 1750-1800 timeline

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David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates

The Death of Socrates, David, 1787

The second half of the eighteenth century, known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a period of revolution on multiple fronts. Mysticism gave way to empirical science; aristocracy to democracy; rural, agricultural existence to urban industrial life.

Artists responded with Neoclassic works that emphasized the values of antiquity: logic would advance Western civilization for all who embraced rational thought regardless of their station in life.

Toward the end of the century, Romanticism rebutted by celebrating emotion, intuition, and natural instinct. These two sides of humanity conversed through this period as the modern world was born.

Here is a timeline I created for fine art of 1750-1800:

http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/580624


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A Black Mole Comes to Tea with Artist Fleur Spolidor

“Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

fleur Spolidor Alice and the Bubble acrylic on canvas copy

“Alice and the Bubble” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with artist Fleur Spolidor at her sunny Peninsula studio to learn more about her work. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and we were sipping peppermint tea at a her work table, smeared with a satisfying coat of clay and paint, when she spotted a small creature scuttling across the pavement outside and disappearing down a hole in the grass.

“Is it a rat? No, it’s a little mole!” she cried, recognizing its long pink snout. We went to investigate.

It was a deliciously serendipitous beginning to a two-hour dive into the fantastical, beautiful, and sobering “Alice” series. Lewis Carroll’s famous girl in a blue dress who fell down a rabbit hole takes on multiple personas in a set of acrylic paintings, digital images, and mixed media pieces.

One of the things I love most about Spolidor’s Alice in her varying forms – girl, woman, half-sea creature – is what she shows us about life in the Bay Area. All the ironies that have probably made us all, at times, feel like we have fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in some nonsensical non-reality: housing prices, tech versus culture, fighting for women’s rights in the 21st century, just to name a few.

Fleur Spolidor Real Estate Rabbit Hole

“Real Estate Rabbit Hole” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

The themes are thought provoking, but the artist says that she invites people into her artworks with beauty. “People need pleasure to approach the vision,” she says. “If you make people feel at home with some aspect of an artwork, you can get them to listen to what you want to say.”

What could be more familiar and likable than Alice and her adventures? A girl who is a little off kilter but never truly undone by even the maddest hatter?

Spolidor generously spent the morning with me explaining how she creates the beauty in her lush backgrounds, the strong lines of her figures, and the joy she finds working with brushes or iPad and printer. We talked about the playfulness in her works, but also their context in our experiences as contemporary women.

My goal is to write and publish more about her work. I’m looking forward to following her Alice on many more adventures. Hopefully there will be more visits by small burrowing creatures along the way. And tea parties, of course.

Spolidor_Sweet Tooth

“Sweet Tooth” by Fleur Spolidor. Digital painting.


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Dancing with uncertainty

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is dependent on the limitations of human existence: it is the confrontation with borders that inspires people to push against them. “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem,” he writes (114). The partners in this tension can be envisioned as imagination and trepidation, energy and lethargy, life and death. May describes them as freedom and restriction—the infinite possibility of the imagination and the unyielding reality of mortality and all the lesser restraints (115). At the meeting of these unlikely consorts emerges the struggle that bears the most beautiful fruits of human activity: art, science, design, and all other occupations that generate new directions in the way we think, express ourselves, and live our lives.

For psychologist Carl Jung this struggle operates on a societal level: the artist is a conduit for the vision of mankind, which rebalances the collective psyche. He describes this as an enormous and difficult task: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (230). Creativity is the harder choice, but it’s also the more rewarding path for the individual and for society at large. To deny creativity is to go to the eight-grade dance and stand against the wall. To practice “creative courage,” as May calls it, is to navigate an awkward body under the lights and eyes of our peers to the groove of life—to dance with uncertainty. All people experience pain due to their limits; the artist transforms pain into joy. The dancer creates grace through movement; he defies gravity with his own volition; he smiles in the face of his own immortality.

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Me dancing in a park in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2007 with my group beebop-n-butoh.

But the dance of creativity is not a dance of chaos. It requires a frame, a practice, the daring of disclosure, and the willingness to express. In other words, creativity demands the contributions of both partners in the dance: discipline and freedom. The four elements above are key to the creative process: the artist must begin with a dedicated space, fill it with a structure that nurtures openness and intention, take the real risk of exposing her deepest and most honest impressions, and offer the resulting creation to the world that gives it a life beyond the inventor.

By frame, I refer to the practical, physical aspects of the creative space. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Implied in Woolf’s political statement about creativity as opportunity, is the fact that the creative act requires time (money) and space. More specifically, space represents solitude and silence, which are imperative as a basis for creative inspiration. Mozart writes, “Where I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly” (34). A writer’s frame may be a room, as Woolf suggests, or a laptop on a table for a dedicated hour. While writing poetry for my creative project this semester, I found the space I needed by opening my computer, setting my intention to write, and tuning into my own body. Even at busy times in a home with children, I found a quiet corner and projected an air of solitude that kept distractions at bay. In Fearless Creating Eric Maisel calls “hushing” the most critical exercise in his book. “Find a quiet place,” he advises. “If there is no quiet place in your environment, that’s your first task, to make a haven in which silence is available” (5).

I propose that this quiet place is both the physical space the artist occupies, as well as her own body, which houses all the psychic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of creativity. As Yeats implies in his poem “Long-Legged Fly,” creativity must originate in the individual: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (109). The silence from which creativity is born requires a physical frame of space and time that is dedicated to the creative act and has multiple layers, beginning with a quiet mind, a still body and a calm haven—a room, a table, a yoga mat, or an open road. With practice of internal silence, a skilled creator can find solitude wherever she roams.

“Hushing,” as Maisel calls the kind of silent, meditative state that opens a channel of reflection and inspiration, is one of the disciplines or methods of creativity that fill the creative space. Silencing the mind and tuning into the body, allows the artist to sample fuller dimensions of experience that encompass all the senses. In “Three Pieces on the Creative Process,” Yeats reflects on “The Thinking of the Body” and his own response to two paintings in his house: “Neither painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art” (106). Art demands a physical presence and a physical response, which requires less emphasis on thinking and more focus on feeling and sensing. For most modern people, this is not a natural state of being, but one that must be sought and practiced.

Silence allows creative inspiration to emerge from the subconscious: the words of poetry come through the physical senses, the deep gut feelings into the quiet mind. As I practiced silence of mind and sensation of body in writing poetry, I thought about the poet A.E. Housman’s description of the process of poetry making as a “bubbling up” of sensation: “…so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss…the pit of the stomach” (91).

But listening is just one half of the practice of creativity. As writer and artist Jean Cocteau suggests in “The Process of Inspiration,” it is all too easy for inspiration to remain in the half-shadows of sense perception: it’s the work of the artist to drag the vague beginnings of creation from the dark into the light. “To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying around the dream of a play or a book,” he writes (80). This is why the artist must fill the creative space with tools and techniques for acting on what he senses. In the case of poetry, the active half of writing requires putting down words; arranging, rearranging and substituting them; reading them aloud, acting them out, drawing them in shapes on paper, or typing them. Conscious effort must add the spirit of “whatever it takes” to give birth to art from the deep amorphous pool of subconscious experience. Passive listening and active articulation make up the two aspects of practice required in the creative process.

The frame and practice elements of creativity relate to the discipline side of the dance – they are the banks of the river, to use May’s metaphor. They are the tools an artist uses to tame and shape the wild rush of imagination and inspiration. But without the spark of spontaneity, the daring of uncovering the less civilized impetus of art, creativity would not produce its many splendid things. Maisel addresses “wildness” as a fundamental element of creating without fear. It’s “many faces,” according to Maisel, are “passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions” (12). He literally encourages artists to create while naked the way Georgia O’Keeffe was found painting in the nude. Getting naked in the creative process is a way of tapping into the reality of who you are. It’s about allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of yourself to be revealed in your work. The artist who dares to expose her authentic truths must confront and move through the anxiety of uncertainty. She must ask tough questions: what will I find out about myself; will it be accepted and understood by others? True creativity cannot skirt these questions without denying its products the power they deserve. Poetry often taps into those unsaid thoughts and intimate feelings that are too frightening to express in everyday conversation. It challenges the poet and the world he lives in, by pushing at the borders of the mundane and acceptable. As I worked on my collection of poems, I found that their entire force was aimed at dredging up, exposing, examining and crafting the perceptions that I otherwise carry silently in a secret part of myself. As May writes in The Courage to Create, the essential element of creativity “is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play” (76).

Yet, it’s not enough to put the most beautiful and honest revelation in a frame and hang it in a basement. Creativity is not complete until it is shared. As Valéry writes in “The Course in Poetics,” art is the very exchange of voices—“It is the performance of the poem which is the poem” (99). One of the biggest revelations this semester came from sharing my poetry collection and receiving the responses of readers. How could so many different interpretations, impressions and meanings be evoked from one poem? What sprang from a deeply personal experience of a single individual grew exponentially as it was experienced and processed by those who were on the receiving end of this sharing.

Both these last elements—exposing yourself honestly and sharing the inspiration you have crafted with the world—take a lot of courage. They are the elements that require freedom despite our uncertainty.

I return to the significance of May’s statement about limits and creativity to define a few parameters of the human condition related to creativity. People are emotional creatures: they love deeply and feel strongly despite the fact that nothing in life is permanent. Furthermore, humans have limited knowledge and free will but limited powers—they act but cannot know if their choices are right and cannot control the outcome of their actions. As people move through life they gain knowledge and experience, but if they are open, they also become more acutely aware of how little they know or control as they move steadily toward the ultimate limit of life. The question emerges: what will a person do with her finite time on earth?

To live creatively is to embrace these margins, to live passionately knowing the value of time, health, love, and giving. Experience tells us the difference between love and hate, warmth and aloofness, kindness and greed. As people age they get harder or softer; they brace themselves to avoid pain, or they open themselves up to the experience. Grandparents shower their grandchildren with love; they express their love more easily because they know how precious it is. Creativity is expression—it’s action, but it’s also receptivity. Like breath itself, creativity is taking in and giving out. It’s being open to the unknown, to the spontaneous, the unpredictable—embracing the unforeseen. It’s dancing with the limits of life and the fears those limits evoke. But the dance of creativity is more like ballroom than a rave: you have trained all the moves in the studio and know your partner well, but you must let the passion guide you into unknown territory to be great. You have to dance on the edge.

Works Cited

Cocteau, Jean. “The Process of Inspiration.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 79-80.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychology and Literature.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 217-232.

Maisel, Eric. Fearless Creating. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “A Letter.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 34-35.

Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 92-105.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The University of Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/index.html&gt;

Yeats, William Butler. “Three Pieces on the Creative Process.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 106-109.


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A visual world

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From A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliés, 1902

 

Theorists might argue that film influences and reflects cultural presumptions and biases. Contemporary culture is saturated with visual information: film, photography, and video. I often think we are rarely conscious of how visual our world has become and how many snippets of narrative we come in contact with daily, through television, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. Film is artistically constructed narrative. When we go to the cinema, we expect to be thrilled by a fictional work. In theory, much film (other than documentary) does not purport to convey reality, whereas other visual media, such as news, video clips, and commercials are presumably based on reality. However, with advances in technology, much of what is produced for television and the Internet has become more cinematic. When our day is filled with moving, clamoring pictures, are we able to distinguish the real from the embellished? Can we learn the devices filmmakers use to create their effects? Can we understand their connection to history, philosophy, and politics? Film theory sheds some light on the connections between culture, the work, and the viewer.

A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions.

Film theory can help us be more conscious consumers of the experiences we seek in film, but it can also wake a more general tendency to ask why, what, and how when presented with any product of art or culture. As Nealon and Giroux convey in the first chapter of The Theory Toolbox, theory prompts us to ask questions about what we might otherwise accept as “natural” (5). Moreover, they write, theory invites us to think and act, not merely consume (5).

It’s natural to be swept away by the cinematic experience; this is certainly one of the joys of film. However, film can be a powerful conveyer of messages. It functions very similarly to our own minds and memories in its rich presentation of images and sounds, its emotive impact, and its manipulation of time and space. A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions. Today we have movies in 3D; tomorrow we will have virtual reality movies. It seems that critical thinking about film is becoming ever more important as film becomes ever more engulfing and enticing.

Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that signs now precede reality—technology has become so astute at simulation that it has replaced the real (“The Precession of Simulacra”). When I first read Baudrillard several years ago, I reflected on a tangible experience that supported his theory. Upon returning to America after 13 years of living abroad, I noticed that people had begun to speak to each other in sarcastic manner that was similar to the way Americans in sitcoms spoke. It seemed to me that they were imitating the imitation of their lives. Since then, I have assimilated, and it’s no longer noticeable to me, but the question sticks with me: how much of what we have become can be traced back to the media we consume?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts For The Humanities, Arts, And Social Sciences. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.


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Freeing the Body as revisionary art

 

freeingbodysketch

Sketch inspired by Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Body, Angela Anderson

In 1976, performance artist Marina Abramovic danced for eight hours until she collapsed.

It was one performance of a three-part conceptual artwork called Freeing the Body, which sought to empty the mind, body and voice of the artist. Although Abramovic has rejected the feminist label, Freeing the Body demonstrated a revisionist spirit that was central to second wave feminism (Baker). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write about the dynamic that historically lead women artists into “a battle for self-creation” in The Madwoman in the Attic (1929). Women who dare to write or create in a patriarchal society are forced to revise their own image, they argue. In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom. This conscious reduction of self symbolizes the female artist’s “revisionary process” (1929).

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom.

According to Gilbert and Gubar, the woman writer’s struggle “ . . . is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization” (1929). In Freeing the Body, Abramovic covers her head and dances naked to an African drum until collapsing. The viewer sees her female form in motion, driven on by the beat until it falls. The faceless body is “freed” through the artist’s command—to dance until it can no longer function. Symbolically, the body represents Hegel’s slave to the mind’s master, which is set free through work (Phenomenology of Spirit). Abramovic has rendered her working female form useless, thereby reaching a state where new purpose can arise. It is a radical demonstration of redefining the self, which Gilbert and Gubar say is essential to creation of a new vision, one that must reach beyond female anatomy.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar quote Adrienne Rich on feminist revision: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . an act of survival” (1930). In the second part of her artwork, Freeing the Memory, Abramovic sits in a chair with her head tilted back while she speaks a free-flowing stream of words for one and a half hours until her mind goes blank. In this performance, the artist traverses her memories until she bankrupts yet another part of her self. She reaches back in her mind to come to a place where she can “see with fresh eyes” through emptiness.

Women artists on the quest for recreation are the girls in “The Red Shoes” of Anne Sexton’s poem who illustrate the “hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” by taking apart their bodies, say Gilbert and Gubar (1935). The third part of Abramovic’s work, Freeing the Voice, the artist lies on her back and screams for three hours until she loses her voice. To the audience, the artist might appear mad, the performance an exorcism of the hysterical female Gilbert and Gubar refer to in their text (1932). Yet, her aim is to exhaust yet another instrument of expression—one that is clearly connected to both mind and body as evident in the physical and mental effort involved as she pushes out each cry.

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic dismantles her own body to reach a point she calls freedom—a freedom of all that has been written in the nerves, muscles and brain tissues of her body. Her art is conceptual, but she uses her own flesh to make her point. The fact that the artist did this performance piece in the 1970s during second wave feminism is significant. She showed the world that a woman with red shoes could dance herself to freedom: She could take control of her own identity—her self—and traverse its realms to find a new place free of their influences.

Works Cited

Abramovic, Marina. “Four Performances 1975-76.” YouTube. July 15, 2013. Web. November 10, 2013.

Baker, Katie J.M. “Marina Abramovic Isn’t a Feminist.” Jezebel. July 30, 2012. Web. November 11, 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1923-1938. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 541-547. Print.