empathetic perspectives

Via podcasts, I heard pertinent reminders about how our lives are subtly and not-so-subtlely shaped by bias. The speakers work within the entertainment industry, but seem to operate as formidable intellects and commentators on their own.

Field Negro Guide to Arts & Culture
Hosted by W. Kamau Bell and Vernon Reid, with producer Alex Thornton
Segment on Jeremy Lin/Linsanity and Asian American race and representation.
Episode 32, “Too Many Turnovers,” 2/20/12, 1:00:13-1:17:47

It should be obvious that the casual, semi-oblivious racism surrounding Linsanity, such as ESPN’s “Chink in the Armor” headline, is unacceptable. But Linsanity might be remembered more for people going temporarily insane—not for a point guard—but with race itself. In the recent hubbub, I encountered classic examples of blaming the victim, in which Asian Americans who objected to racist speech were called “sensitive” “pansies.” Bell and Reid help set the record straight.

W. Kamau Bell: It’s a referendum on how racist is our society, because there’s been all these stories of racism around Jeremy Lin, even people supporting him… The Knicks threw up some thing in Madison Square Garden the other night, where it was Lin’s head coming out of a fortune cookie.

Vernon Reid: Oh, no, they didn’t! … Why would— Who would— That’s just— That’s, like, the worst shit ever. What!?

VR [Commenting on a Black sports commentator’s racist tweet]: Anytime you have a group who dominates in a particular thing, if that dominance is threatened, the ugly comes out…. We [Black people] dominate in the NFL… and the NBA. But … now, a Jeremy Lin shows up, and all of the really, really unfortunate, baiting, racist, outsider stuff starts to come out…

WKB: …It’s people who don’t know. That’s how screwed up we are in America. People who are trying to celebrate him end up being racist.

WKB: …the headline was “Chink in the Armor.”

VR: You’re fucking kidding me!

WKB: …The thing is, they don’t think they’re being— …It’s like they just don’t even see it.

VR: …That’s just— That’s just— …for real? … It’s just appalling. Appalling, appalling, appalling.

Considering Reid’s typically judicious and erudite commentary on all matters political and social, his disbelief says it all for me.

Meryl Streep: The Fresh Air  Interview 

This is a great interview, with many poignant moments. Streep is such a composed, accomplished actor, it was shocking to hear her reveal that she made herself more appealing to dates as a teen by withholding opinions. She also described finding her personality by attending a women’s college in the 1970s (I think we are all better for it). Echoing Bell’s comments above, there’s a litmus quality to Streep’s reflections—that it reveals something about progress—and the unreached potentials that remain.

Terry Gross quoted Streep’s commencement speech at Barnard in 2010:

The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It’s easier for women, because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It’s hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in Peter Pan. Whereas girls identify with Romeo or Peter Pan.

Meryl Streep: It became obvious to me that men don’t live through female characters.

Terry Gross: Do you think that women have that double consciousness?

MS: I think it has to do with very deep things. It might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment.

Heartbreaking. Streep goes on and says that she made movies for 30 years before ever hearing a man say, “I know how you felt.” More often, men’s favorite characters of Streep’s ouvre were of

a particular kind of very feminine, recessive kind of personality…. So they fell in love with her, but they didn’t feel the story through her body. It took, until The Devil Wears Prada, to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization,… for a certain kind of man to— empathize. That’s the word. Empathize.

This made me lament first, for my female actor friends, and second, for the diminished stories available to us all.


Brian May, guitarist, astrophysicist, stereography enthusiast

We were barreling down a long corridor of ivy-covered trees in Tennessee when we finally listened to Terry Gross’ interview with Brian May (Fresh Air, WHYY, August 3, 2010), guitarist of Queen, co-writer of classic songs, astrophysicist and author of a new book on stereography.

It was one of those episodes of Fresh Air that you don’t soon forget.

It was a funny thing to hear May, with his humble and polite demeanor, describe touring with Queen, writing arena anthems, the non-issue of Freddy Mercury’s sexuality, and the pain of Queen’s limited success in America largely due to our homophobia. It was vital. I also relished paying attention to the strange structure of “We Will Rock You,” and May’s nerdy explanation of how he achieved the arena-like acoustics in the studio.

Of course the interview was spurred by May’s recent book of stereography, which is related to his PhD in astrophysics.

To be have a life in the arts, and to achieve the kind of success where your artwork becomes part of the culture, is really nothing short of extraordinary. To change courses and pursue specialized academics, and then share your love of science with a general audience, speaks to an admirable ambition and confidence. What an inspiration!

Art & Development, Citizenship

Shepard Fairy v. the Associated Press v. Mannie Garcia

The lawsuits over the Obama “Hope” poster questions fair use, what constitutes art, and ethics in commercial art ( article). Embroiled are arguably the world’s most famous semi-legal street artist, a previously under-the-radar freelance photographer, and one of America’s most trusted wire services.

WHYY’s Fresh Air attempted to present all sides of the story. Host Terry Gross interviewed Shepard Fairey, the poster artist; Mannie Garcia, the freelance photographer; and a lawyer on fair use. She also read a statement from the Associated Press.

As an artist, I am all for Fair Use and artistic appropriation. I think Fairey’s pre-emptive lawsuit against the A.P. is motivated primarily by self-interest, but he might also harbor a sense of duty and morality — he seems to recognize that few artists enjoy his enviable capacity to fight the A.P.

On the other hand, as a freelancer, I sympathize with the photographer’s right to be credited and compensated accordingly.

I don’t, however, feel for the A.P. Bullying Fairey, disputing their own freelancer*, and sending Fresh Air a statement instead of a representative (what kind of media company avoids other media outlets?) scream, “Evil corporation” to me.

[*Garcia and the A.P. are in a dispute over ownership of the photograph — Garcia claims he was a freelancer and so he owns the copyright; the A.P. maintains that Garcia was in their employ (a good reminder for freelancers to always insist on contracts).]

I’m indifferent to Fairey’s art, but I’m siding with his right to fair use in this case. I see the poster as a new work of graphic art in Fairey’s trademark stylized iconography. Garcia may deserve credit for the source photo, but the case for remuneration seems weak. It would have been polite for Fairey to ask, but I think it would be ridiculous for him to have to license the photo, because he isn’t reprinting or modifying the photo, but using it as a reference to create a transformed visual. If anything, Garcia’s photo has probably appreciated (it’s included in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and prints are available at Danziger Gallery, NYC) because of Fairey’s appropriation.

Illustrators have always used photographic reference materials. In the olden days, they kept file cabinets called “morgues” full of reference photos, clipped from every imaginable (and probably copyrighted) source. Google Images acts as a giant, searchable “morgue.” It’s a bane and a boon to illustration: it’s the largest, most accessible “morgue” illustrators have ever accessed, and it’s one more nail in the coffin of the industry.

One thing hasn’t changed: Fair Use allows for artists to appropriate existing images if the image is adequately transformed.

I reject the idea that digital processes are inherently less skilled or valid forms of transformation than manual drawing. Those old-tyme illustrators may not have had computers, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have copying tools, like camera lucidas, tracing paper and light boxes. Drawing plot points over an photo onscreen is not much different than outlining a photo on tracing paper — both require technical skill, artistic decision-making, and manual dexterity (as anyone who’s tried a Bezier tool or Wacom tablet for the first time would agree).

For better or worse, Warhol and Winston Smith lend Fairey more artistic legitimacy. I think appropriation will never seem as subversive as it was during the emergence of Pop Art, but this imbroglio shows that fair use needs to be better understood by all content makers and borrowers. Democracy isn’t the eradication of difference, but the ongoing negotiations between parties to resolve their conflicts.

Art & Development, Values

Points of Reference

eclipse installation by Pavel Buchler
Pavel Büchler’ Eclipse at Max Wigram Gallery (London)
I love this simple but thoughtful installation.

Maureen Dowd recently remarked in the New York Times that Barack Obama’s election somehow signified that Americans are post-race. What a tremendously privileged point-of-view to take. Artist Kerry James Marshall doesn’t think we’re post-race, and neither do I. Cheers to SFMOMA for commissioning Marshall, and the two for pulling no punches.

I really appreciated Philip Tinari’s “OPENINGS: CHU YUN” in this month’s Artforum as well. It takes a lot of confidence — more than I’m naturally disposed of — to make works that are authentically minimal at the risk of seeming slight. As Tinari puts it, there’s

something subversive… about making works that were barely works.

Visit Chu Yun’s website. I really love the Constellation installation.

Paul Morrison’s exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery is pretty good. I enjoyed the giant 75′ wide b/w hard-edged mural, which combines source images from 19th-century-style engraving and 20th-century cartoons (I think I saw some Smurfs’ flowers?). I don’t think the shifts in scale is as dark or menacing as the curatorial statement suggests, however. And while I appreciate the white-on-white high-relief picture of dandelions, which is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, I also found the white-gold-and-black-acrylic-on-canvas paintings to slip too easily into collectible luxury items. As I learn more about gold and how, like diamonds, its mining and refinement is inseparable from issues of colonialism, inequality and environmentalism, I can’t see how Morrison justifies his use of gold leaf. Terry Gross’ interview with Brook Larmer on “The Real Price of Gold” is elucidating (Fresh Air, January 8, 2009).

Tomorrow, there’ll be a march on Washington against the use of coal. Writing from Manchester — a city spawned by the Industrial Revolution, whose skies were literally blackened by coal smoke, but has since embraced everything green — coal seems like such a 19th-century phenomenon, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s still a necessity today. Stranger still is how the myth of “clean coal” can persist in America today, despite a relatively educated populous.

Podcast of Joseph Kosuth’s Meet the Artist lecture at the Hirshhorn Museum. I’ve found this podcast series extremely inconsistent, with some poor audio quality of in-gallery recordings. But Kosuth excells in providing a smart, well-prepared lecture about his work and Conceptual Art. Cheers for artists talking with precision about art!

The work of two Mancunian conceptually-oriented object-makers:
Nick Crowe
Ian Rawlinson
and their work as a collaborative team

Citizenship, Research

Who gave us the right

Some of my more darker-themed artworks were inspired by the sort of pessimistic malaise seen in some recent contemporary art shows, and the related idea of the end of the American Century. More than just a form of liberal cynicism or the fatigue of constant moral outrage, I’m much more interested in an intellectual inquiry into why Americans should be skeptical the direction of our country, especially as both presidential candidates envision the US being the leader of the world.

So I was intrigued by Andrew J. Bacevich’s interview on WHYY’s Fresh Air (Sept. 11, 2008).

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

He argues that pragmatic realism has always been the core of American foreign policy, and current politicians would do well to remember that.

Bacevich is both a military man and a Boston University professor. He speaks candidly about how he didn’t develop a political consciousness until after he left the military. His position, now, though, is one that opposes the US’ continued Cold War-style military “strategy” to dramatically reshape the greater Middle East, and how the American public is confusing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the more sinister War on Terror—in which the role of this country is more like one that polices the world, rather than coexisting in it with others. He was also highly critical of the Legislative branch for giving up so much power to the Executive branch. And in one exchange that was a welcome validation of leftist values, when host Terri Gross pressed the professor on what the US should be doing, in addition to diplomacy, he mentioned increasing student exchanges and cultural exchanges to improve the perception of the US and work against our isolation from the world.


ADDENDUM (added 9/26/08):

Roger Cohen’s op-ed, “Palin’s American Exception” (, Sept. 25, 2008) is a great primer on why exceptionalism is a suspect position these days. Cohen proposes that behind Palin’s emphatic embrace of exceptionalism is an enraged response to the decline of American power. He promotes universalism instead of exceptionalism, interconnectedness instead of separateness, and realism not rage.