Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thinking (un)Critically: An Illustration

I am a literary scholar and a feminist. I study popular or “fringe” literature like comic books and science fiction, and am an avid gamer. I believe in a feminism that is pro-women instead of anti-men, and because change is made when the marginalized teach the dominant group to care about the rightness of their claim, I believe that the future of gender equality is only possible if we move from a ‘women for women’ feminism to one that wields the collective power of all people against misogyny and hypermasculinism (which are as detrimental to men as they are to women).

Based on those factors, it should make sense that I am deeply invested on both a personal and professional level in representations of women in popular media., a (debatably) “feminist” website with a somewhat eclectic publishing history, recently linked to a TED talk on how we need more movies that feature strong, smart girls. It was given by former actor Colin Stokes, and glimpses of the studio reveal a mostly male audience in attendance.  By all appearances, this should be something directly in my wheelhouse, right?


One of the chief benefits of humanistic study is the fact that, somewhere in the years of school, you learn how to question everything, especially the things with which you agree. Apart from allowing you to hone a crucial skill (i.e. analytical thinking), humanistic study can give you the resources to challenge your own convictions and keep yourself from falling into an uncritical acceptance of either ‘traditional’ or ‘nontraditional’ values.

I’ll use the TED talk to illustrate what I mean. Though the general premise is one I accept as true—we do need more movies that represent real, complex women—there are several issues with Stokes’ project that prevent me from finding it a ‘good’ talk.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Banksy Effect

[NB: The argument could be made that including performative disciplines like art, music, or theater under the heading "Humanities" is categorically incorrect. However, I am of the opinion that the specifically creative arts face many of the same challenges that disciplines like 'Philosophy' or 'Cultural Policy' do, and therefore should be included when talking about the wider issue of value judgments on non-scientific disciplines. Also, if English and 'Creative Writing' both fall within the Humanities, then I don't see why 'Art History' and creative art-making cannot be held up to that level, too.]

            It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a blog about Art and what it does/can/will do would eventually have to address “the Banksy effect.” While treatments of the subject of ‘street art’ have glutted the Internet almost to the point of nausea in the last decade, very few of them have dealt with the larger question of subversive humanistic expression (and its shelf life) in a meaningful way.
            In case street art is an unfamiliar concept, let me briefly contextualize this discussion. The term ‘street art’ technically refers to a form of graffiti, though it also simultaneously attempts to distinguish itself from ‘traditional’ graffiti that, for most people, connotes juvenile vandalism or hints of gang affiliation. Ironically, ‘traditional’ graffiti actually dates back to cultures like ancient Rome, and literally includes any drawing or writing that was scratched into a wall or other surface. It was also a technique for decorating pottery. In any case, street art is a style of graffiti that generally has a political, aesthetic, or cultural message of some kind, and the (anonymous) person known as ‘Banksy’ is currently the most popular figure of the movement. His paintings are authenticated by their shared characteristics, most notably the stencils he uses to expedite the spray-painting process (or by the name he signs—he’s evidently not interested in full anonymity).
            Most of Banksy’s Internet supporters argue that he is accomplishing something that is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as a society—i.e. dissent. The idea that he is making necessary cultural comment is not, however, an entirely contestable argument. Take his series done prior to the 2012 Olympics, for instance. The set featured, among other things, a stencil of a javelin-thrower preparing to hurl a missile instead of a javelin, which everyone has since agreed was a dig at the surface-to-air missiles that were installed on residential buildings in London. In fact, it is obvious from the variety and locations of his work that Banksy has a knack for seizing these opportunities in such a way as to consistently make pointed and relevant comments on current world affairs. Simply put, his work makes a lot of people and institutions uncomfortable.
Except when it doesn’t. Banksy’s Internet detractors have delighted themselves in recent commentaries by gesturing to his gallery exhibitions and the sales of his paintings (to celebrities for exorbitant prices) as the classic example of a subversive artist ‘selling out.’

Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Introduction

Googling “U.S. military burn pits” is a chilling way to start researching for a blog that is, in part, about censorship. Knowing I was ‘merely’ looking for a particular story I had heard of Qur’an burnings did nothing to lessen the feeling. Images of mass graves and horrible Holocaust-era crimes came to mind, but I’m honestly not sure I was at all relieved to find what I was looking for instead of what I imagined. I am not suggesting that the destruction of a book and the loss of a human life are equitable, but we often forget that books—especially books that deal in the depths of human faith—and human lives are bound up in a complex, affective relationship we sometimes only barely understand. For instance, when U.S. soldiers at an Afghan prison made the alleged mistake of adding up to 100 Qur’ans to the refuse in a ‘burn pit,’ the ensuing riots and attacks on U.S. troops killed more than thirty people.

It would perhaps surprise a great deal of people to know that book burnings still occur in the U.S. today, and no one even bothers to pretend they’re accidental. One of the more popular targets of these bonfires is the recent E. L. James novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has spawned criticism from anti-domestic abuse organizations as well as average readers who object to its glorification of sado-masochism. Cleveland rock radio DJs Chad Zumock and Alan Cox, for instance, held an impromptu burning outside a local restaurant, inviting people to toss their personal copies on the fire. (A controlled book burning overseen by the local fire department, which probably does not qualify as strictly revolutionary). Curiously, the DJs didn’t feel that they were engaging in a long and fraught tradition of suppression: “This isn’t censorship, it’s completely voluntary. … We weren’t criticizing it from any literary standpoint because that’s not why anyone’s reading it” (Source: NY Daily News). Of course, as one blogger noted, the DJs’ antics likely did more to boost book interest than anything else by making it more taboo.