Monday, June 30, 2014

Allow Me to Intervene for a Moment

(As regular readers will know, the term of art "intervention" in academic Critical-Theory writing is one of my pet peeves.)

A friend the other day pointed to this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about the controversy over a sculpture currently being shown in a former Domino Sugar refining plant in Brooklyn.  "A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby" is
a 35-foot-tall, 75-foot-long sphinxlike figure with "the head of a woman who has very African, black features," as the artist told an interviewer. "She sits somewhere in between the kind of mammy figure of old and something a little bit more recognizable—recognizably human. … [She has] very full lips; high cheekbones; eyes that have no eyes, [that] seem to be either looking out or closed; and a kerchief on her head. She’s positioned with her arms flat out across the ground and large breasts that are staring at you." 
The subject of the article is the discussions, even debates, over the meaning and value of the sculpture in social media, especially Facebook, compared to "mainstream" media.  Some good points are made:
That black women differ from one another, or that they are talking about art, stereotypes, or the relationship of gender to economic exploitation, or even that art might mean different things to various viewers, is not nearly as notable as is the fact that outside of Facebook, it is increasingly difficult to hear the voices of black women participating in such robust and nuanced conversations. Indeed, I’m starting to wonder if Facebook matters most because it is one of the few places where black women can publicly speak to and for themselves and with one another ...

Women from the boomer generation are more likely to see the sugar sculpture as an unnerving but powerful intervention to stimulate dialogue about art, culture, history, and representation. However, some millennial women ask if Walker’s sphinx isn’t just a tired trope. They wonder whether we haven’t moved beyond stereotypes of black women, given television shows like Scandal, which stars Kerry Washington as an upper-middle-class professional. And, of course there is the first lady, Michelle Obama. Few spaces other than social media offer black women the opportunity for that type of engagement.
But I wonder how really diverse "mainstream" mass media can ever be.  By their nature mass media are a bottleneck, selecting a relatively small amount of information to disperse to a wide audience.  The professionalism and good intentions of the people who run such media will always be at odds with the limitations of space and time.  Combine that problem with the corporate ownership of most mass media, and the increasing concentration of ownership in the corporate media, and it seems extremely naive (to me, at any rate) to expect much range or depth from them.  It's precisely the rise of the Internet, in fact, which includes not only social media but the comments sections in many corporate media, that have made possible a much broader spectrum of debate and discussion that is accessible (in principle, at least) to larger audiences than ever before.  True, a lot of the discussion in such places is pretty poor stuff, but so is the discussion in the respectable corporate media.  The point is that a range of opinions and voices is there, if you want to look for it.

Looking for more information, I found this article at The Huffington Post.  Besides providing some useful background on the sculpture, the writer reveals some assumptions about what Art is and how it should be used.
The installation is, essentially, layer after layer of historical references, pleading visitors to peel back those layers, lest they mistake the wildly popular art attraction (the opening alone saw 4,000 people) for this season's "Rain Room." While Walker has imagined a sensually appealing construction -- it's a visual feast to say the least, and even the air tastes like sugar -- it's on the viewers' shoulders to educate themselves on what the sphinx's finger gesture means or what the basket-toting children signify. It's not enough to traipse around the ruin relic mouth agape, Walker's sculptures need you to dig deeper.
I take this sympathetically -- I cut my literary teeth, after all, on 20th-century modernists like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, who notoriously expected readers to educate themselves in order to fully appreciate the richness they thought they'd folded into their work.  In the case of those two dead white European males, this would have meant replicating their own idiosyncratic educations, which included supposedly monumental works of scholarship on Myth that have turned out to be ephemeral, and Joyce's magpie-like collection of linguistic lore.  In both cases, such study is arguably not necessary to enjoy their work.  Some critics eventually pointed out that such ideas about art are themselves an historically specific accident, the result of schooling in classic works that needed footnotes and the filling of historical and cultural background for works that originally could be enjoyed without study aids.  The groundlings who watched the original productions of Shakespeare's plays didn't need his slang decoded, because it was their slang too.  Few of them, probably, could compare his versions of certain stories with the source material in Plutarch, Boccaccio, Greek mythology and British history, but even fewer would have cared.  Were they missing something?  Maybe, but since every experience of a work of art will be partial -- both in the sense of biased and in the sense of incomplete -- you could say the same about their more-schooled class superiors.  Only once Shakespeare's work began to be taught did schoolmasters try to fill in the gaps that time opened in the plays like a leaky roof.

I'm wary of artists who are explicitly and primarily didactic.  The qualifiers are there because a lot of art can be understood didactically, regardless of the artist's intent.  But since the artist can't (thankfully) be present every time someone encounters the work, looking over our shoulder and nagging us to see what they did there, it's futile to hope that the work's audience will see it as the artist wants them to.  "A Subtlety" is being displayed with a crew of volunteer "docents" to do just that, but sooner or later they'll go home and the sculpture will have to face its public without their help.  Wise artists know they can't control what even their contemporaries, let alone future audiences, will get from their work, partly because meaning doesn't inhere in the work, it's created by the audience as they experience it.  When I was writing poetry I showed it to different people, curious to see what they'd get from it.  I have the same attitude to my current Comrade Kim Jong Un Affirms You project; I wasn't even entirely sure what I thought my satirical memes meant, let alone how other people would take them.  Satire is especially tricky that way, but so is just about everything people say, write, or make.