Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Tamsen Wojtanowski at Napoleon

by C.J. Stahl

Tamsen Wojtanowski’s new show, imprint, Lost/Found -or- “To make a long story short, I love you.” , is comprised of two small bodies of work. The first, a series of 4”x 5” cyanotype prints, cover a long wall in a hodgepodge of miniature abstractions that Wojtanowski refers to as “maps.” On the wall opposite is a series of 15”x 15” black and white digital, photo-constructions that document the production of the previous series.

B&W Silver Gelatin PrintCyanotype from Cliche Verre

Upon first walking through the show and intentionally not reading any of the gallery’s text for the work, I couldn’t help but be bored to death by the cyanotypes. I have a slight aversion to episodes of “forced whimsy”, and the playful geometrics resting on blue fields just weren’t doing it for me. They felt silly and naïve, yet I knew something was not right because the photo-constructions opposite of them were so alluring. So dark in their nature with areas of subtle grey backlighting black silhouette, the white in these pictures was barely there, as if your eye had mistaken the glare from the gallery lights as the work itself.  Sliding in and out of focus, these works were elusive rather than allusive. They brought to mind the question of what it means for a young artist to be self-reflexive.

As a young artist myself, the territory of self-critique feels close to home. We are taught in art schools to be hyper-aware of our media, practice, and contemporary theories of interpretation to almost a point of paralysis. Wojtanowski’s work begs the question of how is a young artist to operate within the contemporary art world while fulfilling, what can be perceived as, the artist’s responsibilities. While this may be a weighty question to levy, Wojtanowski is successful in showing us what the fruits of this circumstance might look like. The cyanotypes begin to take on a richer meaning while remaining blasè, their value residing not in themselves but separate. They are the young artist, doomed from their inception to exist as an anti-fashion, while across the room are the photo-constructions pointing back at the goofy maps saying, “Look what you’ve made me do!” The feeling that this is all a joke about one big un-joking matter pervades.

Yet I don’t believe in this joke. The works read as sincere, a commentary on their uncomfortable position. Maybe renegotiating our critical values would have a benefit for not only the young artist, but for artists of all professional levels. It is hardly appropriate to consider the moment an artist enters the commercial system as the moment they are capable of presenting their most sophisticated works. It is not Wojtanowski’s cyanotypes that are dark and gloomy, but the constructions that revel in the presence of self conscious anxieties. We’ve been taught to lust for critical jabs, to romanticize the pain. I learn that I am guilty too. Wojtanowski has offered herself as if in ritual, to expose what unchecked aggression can look like.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

An essay on film and philosophy, by William Welty

“She Is Just A Picture”: Fantasy, Reality, and Society in Martha Marcy May Marlene
“I won’t say that even the slightest little gesture to eliminate something bad leaves the way open to something still worse – it always leads to something worse”
-Jacques Lacan, Seminar III

One of the most haunting scenes in Sean Durkin’s recent film Martha Marcy May Marlene (if I may make such a distinction in a film filled with haunting scenes) is when Patrick debuts “Marcy’s Song” to his followers, including the titular character.  He has just raped her a few scenes earlier.  He sings:
            Well she, she’s just a picture
            Who lives on my wall
            Well she, she’s just a picture
            And the reason, reason, reason is so small.
            With a smile so inviting and a body so tall
            Well she, she’s just a picture . . . .
            That’s all

Martha watches with a mixture of horror and enjoyment, a combination of emotions further complicated a few scenes later when she (willingly?) seeks out Patrick’s bed.   Martha may be “just a picture,” but the question remains: What is she a picture of?  Like another famous cinematic picture – the woman on the beach in Barton Fink – this picture raises a phenomenological question of the gaze and the reality it rests upon.  Martha as a “picture,” and the film itself as “pictures,” raise the issue of what is being framed: is the picture framed by its surroundings, or is the context framed by the picture?  The frames here are fantasy and power: fantasy structures (and is structured by) our reality, and power relationships (re)structure that reality.  And as the film progresses and Martha’s memories are increasingly clouded and reframed by her past traumas, it becomes impossible to separate the frame from the picture, just as it is impossible to separate the actual frame of the cinematic shot from the shot itself.  Indeed, cinema is the perfect medium and metaphor for these psychic and phenomenological issues, for what else is cinema in theoretical terms other than psychoanalysis?  That is to say, the frame and shot, or the screen and the projector, are perfect analogues to fantasy and repression.  Through these complex, multifaceted frames, the audience is pushed to call into question its own perception, and by implication, its own understanding of our society and the way it is framed as “just a picture.”    
            The film follows Martha, a young woman who has recently run away from a rural “collective.”  She flees to her sister Lucy’s vacation home, where she tries to deal with the past and readjust to “normal” life.   Throughout, she is hunted by her memories, which intermix with her current experiences.  From early on in the film, the way that the camera moves establishes the film’s preoccupation with subjectivity and perception.  The first few shots are objective: we see various images of the cult “as they really are.”  That is, the camera is steady and unmoving, an “objective” eye.  Soon, however, characters begin to enter the frame from off camera, from behind it, and the camera begins to move and follow along behind them.  This simple stylistic switch has important implications.  What we first think is an objective shot is quickly revealed to be subjective: it does not see everything, and by implication, neither do we.  As Walter Benjamin writes, “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.  Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.  This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed” (229). The simple experience of watching the “moving pictures” of the camera is actually a multifaceted phenomenological experience of competing identifications.  This imagery creates a paradox: the actor (or audience) becomes analogous to the camera as an objective reality; she is “just a picture,” an objective viewpoint, something that can be grasped in its entirety.  However, at the same time, the pictures are not “just pictures” because the audience actually identifies with the camera. The images are subjective, both in the sense of non-objective and subject to a test by the audience.  And as Benjamin points out, this is not the type of test to which cult value may be exposed. (Though Benjamin likely means something different by cult, the correlation to Martha Marcy is at least a happy coincidence, if not more).  This is the exact paradox that the film explores: subjectivity vs. objectivity.  Is reality an objective frame for the individual’s subjective experiences, or is the frame itself subjective (or in Lacanian terms, Symbolic), object-ifying the individual?  As with most paradoxes, and as suggested by the camerawork, the answer may be both.        
            This duality is examined further in the cinematography as a visual metaphor for the return of the repressed.  Just as the characters come from off-screen and into focus, so too does repressed trauma come from the unconscious – from “off-screen” - and into the conscious – “into focus.”  But just like with the cinematography, this return and its relationship to “reality” is highly ambivalent.  In his case study of the Wolf Man, Freud describes repression and its return in relatively straightforward terms: the patient experiences a trauma in early childhood, which is repressed some years later, and still later returns in his adulthood in the form of a symptom.  However, in a footnote, Freud continues, “The patient justifiably disregards the three periods of time, and puts his present ego into the situation which is so long past” (“History” 415).  Isn’t this exactly the experience of Martha?  The film alternates and blends two different and very separate time periods, so that the cult and her sister’s home become intermixed in a continual present.  This blending is so intense that, oftentimes, neither Martha nor the audience can quite tell whether the images and experiences are past, present, or fantasy.  And indeed, Freud was led to the same conclusion.  He writes, “It does not necessarily follow that these previously unconscious recollections are always true.  They may be; but they are often distorted from the truth, and interspersed with imaginary elements, just like the so-called screen memories which are preserved spontaneously” (“History” 419, my emphasis).  In other words, the screen, whether cinematic or fantasy, distorts the images, whether from the unconscious, the film projector, or “reality” itself.  Thus, we are led back to the paradox that “she is just a picture.”  On one hand, the return of the repressed is just a picture: an unconscious fantasy that only has a subjective relationship to reality.  But at the same time, the return is an objective recollection; Freud writes, “Indeed, dreaming is another kind of remembering” (“History” 419). 
            This paradox is most clearly enacted at the film’s end.  In the penultimate scene, Martha goes swimming, and sees one of the men from the Cult (possibly Patrick) silently watching her.  In the final scene, Martha sits in the back seat of her sister’s car as they leave the cottage.  The camera maintains a focus on her in the foreground, while a second car gradually comes into focus in the background.  Martha’s face is difficult to read, but the sense of anxiety and threat grow as the car keeps coming closer.  But is this fantasy or reality?  Is the car coming out of the background as a very literal “return of the repressed,” or is it a paranoid projection, like Martha’s breakdown at the party?  The cult may have finally located Martha, but her vision of Patrick could be only a fantasy; as already suggested, it is often impossible for her and the audience to know what is “really” happening.  And perhaps the car is just an obnoxious motorist, speeding up to pass a slower car.  Of course, the best answer is both.  The two are intimately linked; the repressed places the present in a frame of trauma and anxiety, but fantasy re-frames the repressed in those same terms, so that Martha is caught in a continuous loop of subjectivity and objectivity, fantasy and repression.  For the subject caught in such a loop, the “truth” value of the situation, what is “actually” happening, is irrelevant.  Durkin’s larger point here is that this infinite loop of fantasy and repression is characteristic of contemporary society: we are all “just pictures hanging on a wall.”    That is, society is founded on violence – rape, murder, indoctrination, etc. - that must be repressed, but that repression is ultimately doomed to failure.  Freud writes, “[R]epression does not hinder the instinctual representative from continuing to exist in the unconscious, from organizing itself further, putting out derivatives and establishing connections” (“Repression” 570, my emphasis).  Despite being “repressed” and possibly only existing as fantasy, the violent trauma continues to re-frame perception and to try to invade the conscious mind.  To put it in Lacanian terms, the repressed returns from the Real, which likewise is continually threatening to invade Symbolic reality.  Just as Martha’s repression continues to frame her reality, society’s repression also “continues to exist” in the form of the Real, the horrifying remainder of the Symbolic order.  That being said, a paradoxical truth emerges: society is then more Real than real, or to put it another way, society is more Cult than the cult. 
            On the surface, it would seem that the cult has more in common with the Real than does society.  After all, cults are hidden, secretive, mysterious, forbidden; the list of adjectives goes on and on.  However, this is not (necessarily) the cult that Durkin portrays in the film; on the contrary, this cult seems amenable, receptive, straightforward, etc.  Patrick repeatedly encourages Martha to “let her guard down” or “let us in,” suggesting his desire to be rid of cult-like qualities of separateness and secrecy.  Additionally, the sexual taboos that exist in society are nowhere to be found in the cult, as evidenced by the orgy scene, presided over by Patrick, the cult’s father-figure.  To use the truism, the cult “is what it is.”  On the contrary, the secretive, hidden, and rigid – qualities usually associated with repression and cults – are actually found in society.  Shortly after arriving at her sister’s, when Martha strips naked and dives into the lake, Lucy is horrified and immediately rushes to cover her with a towel.  To put it in Cult terms, she moves to cover her, to make her hidden, to repress.  When Martha asks why she can’t swim naked, Lucy responds, “You just can’t . . .  .We don’t, just don’t.”   Later in the film, when Martha comes into Lucy’s bedroom while she is having sex with her husband Ted, a similar exchange takes place:
MARTHA: It’s been hard to sleep alone … .
LUCY:Why would you think it was okay to come in like that?
MARTHA: I don’t know. It’s a big bed, you guys were on the other side.
LUCY: You can’t come into our room when we’re having sex, that’s not normal!                        It’s private.
MARTHA: Sorry.                                                                                   
LUCY: Don’t apologize, I just want you to understand why it’s not okay (emphases                        added).

As shown in these scenes, society emphasizes repression: sleeping alone, a rigid concept of normality, privacy, etc.  A cult is supposed to be founded upon strict adherence to some sort of code, but it is in society when these cult-like prohibitions are found: “you just can’t”, “it’s not ok,” “that’s not normal,” etc.  Thus, it is the cult that is based on lack – the absence of repression – whereas society is based on added prohibition: something extra, the traumatic stain of the Real. 
Obviously, this comparison doesn’t exactly work.  Though the cult might present the illusion of freedom and openness, it is really also based on repression, following rules, and submitting to the Law-of-the-Father.  But the comparison (both mine and Durkin’s) of the cult and society is a juxtaposition designed to highlight a degree of difference.  I am not arguing that the cult isn’t a cult; rather, as I have already suggested, I am arguing that society is more Cult than the cult.  That is, rather than the cult being the remainder and the repressed of society, i.e. The Real, it is precisely the opposite: society is the remainder and the repressed of the cult.  Or to risk repeating myself: society is more Real than reality. 
Given the dreamlike quality of the film, perhaps dreaming itself can help elucidate this concept.  In discussing the Real, Slavoj Žižek argues “But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside” (15).  Within the film, the inside/outside dichotomy corresponds to the cult and society, with the cult intuitively representing the “outside” of society.  But Žižek doesn’t argue that the real erupts from the outside to the inside, but rather, that it erupts at the border between the two, i.e. when Martha’s past collides with her present.  Moreover, the precise way in which this actually happens often reverses what we would expect to be the inside and outside.  The surplus would seem to exist in the outside, but rather, the inside often exists as the surplus, the Real.  Regarding a man who dreams that he is a murderer, Žižek writes, “[W]e could say the professor awakes in order to continue his dream (about being a normal person like his fellow man), that is, to escape the real (the “psychic reality”) of his desire.  Awakened into everyday reality, he can say to himself with relief “It was only a dream,” thus overlooking the crucial fact that, awake, he is “nothing but the unconsciousness of his dream” (16, emphases in original).  This is Martha’s exact experience.  Throughout the film, her memories/fantasies of the cult take the form of dreams.  When she escapes from the cult, she precisely “awakes in order to continue her dream.”  That is, the Real erupts from the dream of society, not from the cult.  Rather than being sane, peaceful people who inhabit a rational society where a violent repressed cult is the dreamlike remainder, Martha’s experiences demonstrate that, in the Real, we are all violent, sexually uninhibited individuals who only dream of living in a safe and orderly society.  Indeed, the same actions and events are often repeated in both spheres of activity.  Isn’t Martha’s experience of rape in the cult repeated later in the film when Ted and Lucy try to “calm her down” at the party by holding her on their bed and drugging her?  Isn’t the difference here their “dream” that they are acting rationally, normally, “in her best interest”?  Once again, the boundary between inside/outside and frame/reality is turned inside out through the action of the Real.
This inversion represents the mental state of psychosis, which Martha moves closer and closer to as she more closely approaches the Real.  Žižek writes
It would be difficult to invent a better metaphor for psychosis: in contrast to the “normal” state of things in which the real is a lack, a hole in the midst of the symbolic order . . . , we have here the “aquarium” of the real surrounding isolated islands of the symbolic.  In other words, it is no longer enjoyment that “drives” the proliferation of the signifiers by functioning as a central “black hole” around which the signifying network is interlaced: it is, on the contrary, the symbolic order itself that is reduced to the status of floating islands of the signifier, white iles flottantes in a sea of yolky enjoyment” (40, emphases in original).              

What seems psychotic and unreal – the cult – is actually real, and what seems “normal” and real – society – becomes psychotic and Real (in the strict Lacanian sense).  The Real is not the lack but rather presence: “The real functions here not as something that resists symbolization, as a meaningless leftover that cannot be integrated into the symbolic universe, but, on the contrary, as its last support” (Žižek 31).  To put it simply, in terms of the metaphor we have been working with, the frame and the picture trade places: the symbolic content becomes the frame, and the Real becomes “just a picture.”     
The issue of the cult vs. society takes the form of the Lacanian choice père ou pire: the father . . . or worse.  In this case, what Lacan means by père is the Name-of-the-Father, the signifier that solidifies the symbolic order: ‘it is around the one who unites, the one who says no! that there can be founded, that there ought to be founded, that there cannot but be founded everything universal” (183).  Indeed, it is prohibition – the no! – that characterizes the father.  Lacan points out since we have an adverb pire, we must have a verb to go with it: “The verb, as it happens is not difficult to find, it is enough to tip over the letter which begins the word pire, and that gives us dire [to say] . . . . By getting rid of this verb then, I am making an argument of it, namely, some substance; it is not saying, it is a saying [un dire]” (4-5).  And of course, this saying is the father’s no!  That is, the father’s no! is a necessary juxtaposition against the worse.
              Therefore, this “no!”, though it is a prohibition against enjoyment, is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, the prohibition is what creates enjoyment (jouissance) in the first place.  When that prohibition is removed, the individual is confronted with the terrifying Real of their desire.  Freud tells the story in Totem and Taboo.  In some primal state, a singular father had all the women for his enjoyment.  Driven by desire, his sons murder and eat him, but they soon discover that the absent, dead father is much worse than the living one.  Freud writes, “A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group.  The dead father became stronger than the living one had been . . . . What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves” (“Totem” 501).  This is what Lacan means when he speaks of the father or worse.  The father is the only support and defense of the Symbolic order: without him, we are forced to confront the Real of guilt, taboo, and our own violent desires.  Bruce Fink puts it quite succinctly: “if we view the father as the lesser of two evils, to reject the father is to opt for the worse [pire]” (111).  This is in fact the choice that Martha makes: she rejects the Name-of-the-Father, represented by Patrick, and opts for worse.  Fink suggests that this type of decision may lead to psychosis, and indeed, this seems to happen to Martha as she becomes more and more removed from the cult; or to put it another way, as she moves further from the father and closer to the worse; or still another way, as she rejects the Symbolic in favor of the Real.     
            From the very beginning of the film, Patrick has been characterized and defined as a father, and not just in a metaphorical way as the leader of the cult.  When newcomer Sarah arrives at the cult, Martha is charged with showing her around, which includes the cult’s nursery:
SARAH: He’s beautiful. Who’s the mother?
MARTHA: Katie’s, but we all help out. 
SARAH: Is Patrick the father? 
MARTHA: Uh huh.
SARAH: They look just like him. All the kids here are boys?
MARTHA: He only has boys. 

What can this scene signify other than a very literal recreation of Freud’s primal scene?  Patrick is the virile Father who possesses all the women, so virile in fact that he only has male offspring.  Compare him to the childless Tom.  Whereas Patrick has sex with all the women of the cult, and even supervises when they have sex with the other men, Tom’s sex with Lucy is frustrated by Martha.  Furthermore, he doesn’t seem all that interested in being a F/father.  When Martha asks him if he wants a child, he responds, “I want what Lucy wants. If she’s happy, I’m happy,” to which Martha retorts, jokingly but with more than a grain of truth, “So you’re unhappy!” Tom’s paternal failure is reinforced by Lucy’s maternal shortcomings: Martha laughs at the thought of Lucy holding a child, and even tells her, during an emotional breakdown, “You’re going to be a terrible mother.”  If Patrick is the Father of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, then the “family” situation represented by Lucy and Tom is without a doubt Lacan’s or worse.    
Therein lies the heart of the film: a critique of a contemporary society where worse is a forced choice, where power and violence structure relationships, families, and the culture at large.  As the truism goes, “Capitalism is the worst system there is, but compared to the rest, there are none better” (many systems, such as democracy, modernism, etc. could be substituted for capitalism without really changing the sentiment).  In other words, through the juxtaposition of the cult and society, the film suggests that society itself is the worse.  However, we must be careful to note that Lacan’s seminar is not actually titled “The Father or Worse,” but rather, simply “…or Worse” […ou pire].  In fact, Lacan says in his opening remarks “These three dots refer to usage, to ordinary usage to mark – it is curious, but we see this, we see this in every printed text – to create an empty place.  It underlines the importance of this empty place and it demonstrates moreover that is is the only way to say something with the help of language” (1, my emphasis).  Thus, the choice is not a simple either/or – society or the cult – but a more complex interaction between an empty place and a something, between the frame and the picture or between the Symbolic and the Real.  Lacan, in a moment of lucidity, writes, “Ou pire, in short, is what I am always capable of doing” (1).  In other words, society is not worse than something, it is simply the worse, as suggested by the joke about capitalism.  And in the end, this is the reality of the film: the cult, with its violence, suppression, and rape, is not a better place than society, which is why Martha leaves it.  Society simply contains the same obscene violence as the cult, but merely as its underside, as its frame, rather than its manifest contents.
It would be easy, as other films have done, to point out these flaws directly, to criticize the Symbolic or society as such: films like Crash, The Departed, and Avatar spring to mind. (Indeed, this type of critique seems to be a formula for Oscar-winning movies).  However, by placing his directorial finger on the Real - the internal, unsymbolized inconsistency of society - Durkin can level an even more cutting, though more subtle, critique.  As Lacan writes, “But I already said that truth can only be half said . . . . [W]hat is in question, when all is said and done, is that the other half might say worse” (5).  

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt,                        Brace & World, 1968. Print.
Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique.                                    Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. "From The History of an Infantile Neurosis." The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter                        Gay. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1989. 400-428. Print.           
--. “Repression.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1989. 568-571.             Print.
--. “Totem and Taboo.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1989.             481-513. Print.                       
Lacan, Jacques. "Seminar XIX: ... Ou Pire." Trans. Cormac Gallagher. The Seminars of Jacques                        LacanLacan in Ireland. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. <            -content/uploads/2010/06/Book-19-Ou-pire-Or-worse.pdf>.
Martha Marcy May Marlene. Dir. Sean Durkin. Fox Searchlight, 2011. Film.
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture.                        Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991. Print.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What artists must do?

By Scott Schultheis

Today, two thoughts, aside from the usual pleasurable or pesky ones, like should I have one egg or two for breakfast, or should I floss this morning or evening…or both??? have been on my mind.  One is from Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Decay of Lying” that he wrote in 1889, in which he says “What we have to do, what at any rate is our duty to do, is to revive this old art of lying”.  He is talking about what artists must do.  
The second is a thought from New York artist Shannon Plumb: “I like that my work’s universal.  It’s silent.  I don’t get art that makes people feel stupid”.  
Plumb’s video work is disarmingly funny and I am looking forward to perusing her website.  However I was caught a little off guard when I read her statement.  First, she seems to be making a connection between the lack of dialogue in her films and its universality.  Second, by way of this inference, she opines that she doesn’t get (Understand? Enjoy? Support?) art that makes people feel dumb, and the unwritten but implied conclusion is that art that is not universal often makes people feel stupid.  At its most harmless, it is just an opinion-driven reflection on one’s own artistic practice; but otherwise, it is shoddy logic.  I think the ‘universal’ quality of Plumb’s films is not simply derived from their lack of spoken word.  And there are innumerable examples of video and film that have universal appeal and dialogue too.  But the end of her remark is the more misguided, because it illustrates a deceptively straight line from artist to viewer: it says that some artists make people feel stupid, without the possibility that people might feel stupid in front of art that had no intention of making them feel that way.  It also stresses legibility and illegibility in art, which does more harm than good to a collective understanding of art making and looking.  It is true- many people, especially those without a background in the arts, feel confused, unworthy and out of the joke as it were, in the presence of certain types of art.  But this is rarely, if ever, the intention of the artist(s).  Rather I think it is a symptom of the unsatisfactory means and ends of art education.  More often, our feelings of intellectual inferiority- with art or any other body knowledge- come from a lack of exposure to that realm.  Some students do have to take introductory survey courses in art history in high school, but evidently these do very little to diffuse the perceived opacity of modern and contemporary art for people at large.  
Feeling inadequate in front of a piece of art, literature, music, etc. is a very disarming and unsettling experience, but I think it comes from two related things: one is the comfort of ‘what we are used to’, and another is the inherited expectation that art is, like a text, going to tell us something.  Both of these lead to regrettable consequences: unwillingness to discover enjoyment in what is strange and new, and disappointment with art that is not didactic, clear, linear or easy.  
I am likely being unfair to Shannon Plumb, who may not have meant to imply half of what I infer.  But I would have hoped that a fairly successful young artist would first focus on how art can make people feel smart, before using the negative logic that Plumb does.  I think her response warrants a discussion about artists speaking about art; if artists have any stakes in how the perception of the arts evolves, they should be caring about the words they use, when they use them.  
I invoked Oscar Wilde’s essay because of what it might suggest in response to Plumb’s thought, and the way we look at art.  His thought is that artists must abandon any faith in fact and accuracy and give themselves unto the realm of the false, the illogical, the idealistic, the imaginary to make truly touching work.  As Josh Blackwell, another New York artist, summarizes Wilde, “Art doesn’t have to abide by the rules of reality – its logic is unique, even fantastical”.  This of course puts it at risk – a worthy risk – of being misunderstood, or even not understood at all.     

Monday, November 21, 2011

What’s the Deal With Curators?

by C.J. Stahl

In Roland Barthes' From Work to Text, the author draws distinctions between what he refers to as work and text. While a work may result as the product of creative energies, it is bound to its physicality. The work exists in and of itself, we may consider genre novels in thinking of work. The text transcends the physicality of the surface of the page. The text is traversal in its existence, originating in dialogue prior to any particular work; it is not constrained by authorship. Furthermore, the text finds continuity in the active dialogue of others. While there are other particulars Barthes uses to distinguish between work and text, the traversality of text and its rejection of filiation, speak directly to the inherent nature of text. As an artist, Barthes' thoughts have moved me to consider the relationship of the artist's practice to that of curatorial practice. 

What is the function of the curator within the context of Barthes essay? While the traditional role of providing a theoretical framework to a particular exhibition may still stand as an expectation, one may be inclined to accept the notion that curators are artists working within a theoretical media. Likewise, it is becoming common for artists to dabble in curating exhibitions. Is the artist-as-curator different from the curator-as-artist? Some might argue yes, insinuating the artist-as-curator is first a producer of the art/art object, but if we are to conform to Barthes’ notion of text, it is not the object that carries meaning but its context. Is it time to renegotiate the titles of artist and curator? Will the text persist without the curator, or is it time to do away with the title of artist?

You can find a full text version of From Work to Text at:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Blogs Are Easy

by C.J. Stahl

This truly is the digital age. With Amazon “generously” allotting eligible Kindle e-books to be shared for a one time period of fourteen days, it seems like the tradition of actual book sharing is coming to a slow death. That’s not to say you can’t borrow Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus off a book buddy for a period of time until they forget about the arrangement and you walk away book in hand, scot-free. It does mean, however, that all of you fancy individuals with the newest, weirdest book readers will be substantially limited in your sharing abilities. I’ve never been good with, or cool enough to, keep up with the latest in technology, but I did just start using Google Reader, so today we’re going to talk about blogs.

Blogs are sharable, can be incredibly content-heavy and/or just really enjoyable. Let me take a moment to shamelessly ask you to PLEASE SHARE THIS BLOG! Okay back to business. Few trivial things truly make me feel as good as when I’m able to recommend a blog to someone who’s never heard of it before, or when someone shares a blog with me that I end up loving. This of course is dependent primarily on two necessary factors: the blog is actually good and it is relevant to the individual’s interests. As I’d stated earlier in regard to technology, I’m never at it’s cusp. Throughout my life this has also been true for most art and culture as well. When I really think about it, most of the art, music, and culture that I truly identify with has come as some type of inheritance.

Most of us were probably taught long ago about the importance of sharing. It’s likely, in these silly economic times, that deep in our hearts we are at once scared to share for fear of running out of our necessary resources. Now, we have been moved to share, because it’s getting easier and easier to see that we are all in this together (at least 99% of us are in this together) not to mention we want our voice heard and we have realized we need to share to have this happen.  
So without further adieu, here are a few of my favorites blogs:

Edward Winkleman is incredible, hands down. He is the owner/gallerist of Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea ( this is the gallery site), and he is incredibly close to his blog. You can typically expect one substantial post a day, with the exception of weekends, ranging in topic from contemporary art and its institutions to politics. Other than being wonderfully intelligent, the greatest characteristic about Winkleman’s commentary is that there is always a well developed sense of personal ethics that you can pick up on, whether he’s discussing the Occupy Wall Street movement or the commercial art market (in which he is quite comfortable critiquing and in giving his insider perspective). If you aren’t already familiar, do yourself the favor and check out Ed’s blog.

Art Fag City, voted the Best Art Blog by the Village Voice for 2010 is another excellent choice. Led by widely published editorial director Paddy Johnson, Art Fag City’s focus is New York art news and reviews. This could sound limiting but AFC has a pretty wide range with a lot of fresh, young voices writing for it. Multiple posts a day and a “links” post from Ms. Johnson will add up to enough daily content to make your eyes burn.

Hyperallergic describes themselves probably best: “a forum for serious, playful and radical thinking about art in the world today.” I just recently started following this blog, and so far I have not been disappointed. Hyperallergic covers a broader geographical range than Winkleman and AFC, and tends to be more inclusive of what can be recognized as subcultural influence. If you enjoy both high contemporary and that which is influenced by street art and illustration, Hyperallergic does a fantastic job of covering various trends seamlessly. Multiple posts a day and a touch of mouthy commentary makes reading about sometimes heady work really refreshing.

If you’d like to share any of your favorite blogs with the staff at IN THEORY, we’d love to receive your suggestions. Feel free to email us at
Who knows, maybe we’ll put together one of those lists.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jayson Musson: The Language Weapon

*This Thursday, November 10th, 2011, The Visiting Artists Program will be hosting Jayson Musson in the Hamilton Auditorium of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he will speak at 11:45am.  Email for more information.

"Mastery of language affords remarkable power."

“The basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anti-colonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”

“I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos -- and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo.  I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia.  I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”

These three quotations come from two major texts of psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skin, White Masks.  His lifelong searing criticism of colonialism is as relevant today, and we ought to see artist Jayson Musson's project as an illuminated subplot of Fanon's work.

Musson, a.k.a. Hennessy Youngman is, to borrow a colleague's phrase, like the Ali G. of the art world.  Except where Ali G. thrives off the veil of being the stupid guy in a room of 'important' people in order to highlight his victims' prejudice, Musson intersperses an ignoramus 'hood' persona with moments of lucid, shaming intellectual diatribe.  To speak to the first Fanon quote from above, Musson's project grabs hold of language as a weapon to be mastered and controlled.  Language is a subject itself in his performances.  Ali G's is a mastery of social behavior: his comments are the seeds that unleash the clumsy human folly around him.  The domino effect takes its course.  It is a brilliant act of foresight and leaded questioning.  But Musson does not have the same privilege that Sacha Baron Cohen has, for the art world is a subtler beast for a provocateur.  There are very few white supremacist skinhead arts leaders; not many campaigning pro-life gallerists; relatively few extremist evangelical artists and curators.  Musson has to go straight for the throat in his online Youtube channel Art Thoughtz and most recently in his satirical audio tour, titled The Grand Manner in the Historic Landmark Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  His comments on certain paintings, many of which depict events or people in early American history, include, "The cross is boss", and "A white man gotta do what a white man gotta do" (on the slave dealings of Governor Morris and Robert Morris).

His most recent public appearance was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.  This particular comment  made by Hennessy was answered with a fairly icy silence:   

"Museums should heed this trend [of alternative marketing plans] and begin aligning themselves with causes in order to work against decades of bad PR from institutional critique which have painted museums as self - interested institutions, a place where hedge fund managers donate their art collection in order to boost the value of their own collection, and that’s bad, that’s not good…"

In conversation with the second Fanon quotation above, Musson's indictment of the greedy runoff bred within the museum is particularly apropos in light of the ongoing Occupy protests.  One of the problems with these protests, however, is their vague handling of language and message.  At this stage in the game, language is not being used to its maximum, debilitating effect, and neither is action.  Fanon says "no matter how devastating the consequences may be" action must be taken.  His project was filled with irreconcilable rage; he never hid it.  Musson's institutional critique begins to get at that sensibility, but I wonder which end he is after exactly: comedic satire, or foundational change?

Musson is black, and this is the central tension in his project: his exaggerated routines push us to ask the question that embodies the stain of racial exclusion in art: why should the Art World (read upper middle class, educated, white people) trust the art history lessons of a rapping, Ebonics- speaking black man from the hood of Philadelphia?  That we ask this question illuminates our own conditioned prejudice and the inherent racial and socioeconomic inequalities in the commercial and academic quarters of fine art.  Like Fanon, Musson's character is defiantly proud of his blackness, and highlights the gap in understanding between the intellectual white man and black culture; his caricature widens that threshold.  But where Fanon describes the black man in "total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth", Musson seems to say through his alter ego Hennessy that urban black culture is, through most lenses, a complete aberration in the Art World.  We are forced into the opportune position of reexamining where, and from whom, we get our information from, be it a scholar, a text, or a museum label. 

Works Cited
Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961
Ibid, Black Skin, White Masks, Editions de Seuil: Paris, 1952