Monday, February 20, 2017
This was another winner of a documentary on HBO. The plot is relatively simple: the director Marc Levin interviewed kids who attend the Avenues school in Chelsea, and juxtaposes their thoughts with those of the kids who live in public housing across the street.
The title is apt, and describes the new culture of NYC. When I moved here, in 1993, I hung out with a lot of kids who had grown up here, and a lot of kids who moved here to go to school. Because I moved here when I was so young, I ended up hanging out with a lot of kids who were still in high school. I met kids who were rich, super rich from my perspective, and I would be amazed at the opulence of their homes. I also met kids who lived in the projects, kids who were homeless—all types of kids.
At that time in New York, it was considered extremely corny for a teenager or someone in that age range (early 20s, etc.) to associate their identity with the wealth or with the poverty of their parents. New York truly felt like a melting pot, and whether someone was rich or poor really felt inconsequential to their “cool factor.” If someone’s parents had bought them a little apartment to live in while they attended NYU—great, we have a place where we can hang out. Tell your parents we say thank you. If someone is struggling with money—no big deal, we’ll buy you a bagel.
I felt extremely saddened to watch this film and see that, at least from its arguably limited yet valuable perspective, that this no longer seemed to be the case for New York. I am not someone who views wealth as lucky and poverty as unlucky. I often tell my documentarian students that someone should figure out a way to visually document poverty and abundance in the realm of the spirit—such a rendering would offer a way more intriguing analysis of "success." I am also not someone who yearns for the good old days and views New York through a nostalgic lens. I’m an adult, happily so, and it doesn’t really matter to me what teenagers are getting up to in NYC these days.
However, I AM someone who believes that the class divide in this country has reached a breaking point, and analyzing the signifiers of this breaking point is something I find value in. I would never want my child to attend Avenues. This school seems so lost to me. While I understand that it is preparing rich children for global domination, it feels like the most soulless place on the planet. I have often felt like the new Whitney museum represents the crystal palace from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, but in actuality it is the Avenues school that is the true crystal palace, a place of quietly deadening rationalism:
You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.
I’m sure the students of Avenues are taught how corrosive racism and classism are to humanity. I’m sure they are given canonical texts to read on these subjects, and then have lively debates on these texts in their roundtable discussions afterward. BUT THAT IS NOT HOW YOU EVOLVE INTO A HUMAN BEING WHO IS NOT RACIST OR CLASSIST. I’m a writer and I read like a banshee, but the texts I read and write only carry meaning because of the human experiences I’ve had to correlate to them. Had I not spent my formative years mixing and mingling and living with people whose experiences were nothing like my own, I wonder if I would be able to see the value in all humans, be they homeless junkies or CEOs.
Class Divide depicts such an airtight segregation between the kids who live in public housing and the kids who attend Avenues. This suggests to me that the minds who came up with Avenues in the first place never once entertained the notion that any knowledge could be gained from the community that they plopped their “Crystal Avenues” directly across the street from. This is so sad to me, and so not what I want to think of the city I call home as evolving toward.
But, in all fairness, Crystal Avenues is simply a mirror. This film does an amazing job analyzing how Chelsea has changed and continues to change exponentially with regard to its real estate. It isn’t simply “gentrifying”—it’s becoming a 1% playground. And the children who attend Avenues are unfairly saddled with the knowledge that they are basically the progeny of these elitist land grabbers. Teenagers rich and poor have a hard time acclimating to their own identity, and melding that insecurity with the pressure to be a success story on an international scale has given these children a discernably neurotic countenance. Where the kids across the street might be financially unstable, the kids at Avenues come off as psychically unstable—unsure whether to revel in their rich kid identities, or apologize for them. They appear so woefully caught in the in-between that every social interaction seems fraught with the specter of their wealth. And, intriguingly, they never once consider the alternative: simply not identifying as a rich kid at all (and instead, say, identifying as a young New Yorker—something that would be both true and an interesting way to recalibrate who they "need" to be to the world). A part of me wants to take them to a really nasty apartment, give them a forty, and entice them to make out with someone extremely inappropriate (and arguably gross, but in a hot way). While that experience might not look good on someone’s dossier, I believe it is very good for the soul. It's what I equate with being a kid in New York.
That they haven’t had the experience I had as a teen in New York—being exposed to kids from all walks of life and pushed (sometimes quite aggressively) into adopting an early and lifelong acceptance of ALL PEOPLE as valuable members of our social fabric—seems super sad to me. It doesn’t bode well for NYC. This city was once a fun, rough and tumble melting pot, where rich kids fought to prove their street cred and poor kids hustled to scrape enough money together for cool new sneakers. The push and pull of those opposing forces, united in youth to teach each other about city life, was a sometimes risky but always extremely fun way to grow up, for me. I know it still exists, but I wonder for how long.
Friday, February 17, 2017
I’ve been waking up each morning for the past few weeks feeling an intense urge to write, like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Writing has always come easily and naturally to me—expressing my thoughts, however, hasn’t always been quite so easy. This is perhaps because I feel like, especially over the last ten years, thinking itself has been so repressed and circumscribed that I didn’t really care to try to push the envelope with expressing my views on politics and society, which tend to be a little (or a lot) Avant Garde. No one would publish it, few would listen to it, and far fewer would agree with me or even entertain my thinking, so what was the point?
To wit: a few years ago, I was writing a review for Art in America. At this point in time, I think there was a mutual sense of the ending of a relationship. I was growing restless with producing what I felt to be boring writing for them, and they were seemingly growing restless with me always trying to push the envelope with my language and ideas—never conforming. It wasn’t working, and I was also feeling bored with the shows on view at galleries in general. But I was still writing for them, so I pitched writing a review on the work of an artist named Meschac Gaba, who was showing at a gallery in Chelsea. I, by the way, always pitched reviewing shows I felt had some value to a world beyond the art world. In retrospect, I think that was my litmus test for what I shows I would pitch reviews on.
This show was no different. There was a lot of work in the show. A few of the pieces were foosball and billiard tables the artist had painted to look like the flags of certain countries. One of these game tables was titled Iran.
SIDENOTE: I know I am not an Einstein-level genius. I often feel like the way my brain works is something more along the lines of the structure of the television game show “Wheel of Fortune.” When I am presented with a question, my subconscious brain kind of automatically “sends up” letters to my consciousness—often the first initials of each word of the answer—and those letters kind of clue me in to the answer. This is how my thinking works in general, but most especially in a visual context. I have an extremely strong visual memory that reveals itself to me in these textual forms. For example: I had never studied art history and honestly knew very little about it before I attended grad school, but because my visual memory is the way it is, in grad school I could be shown a painting and “know” who painted it. If I could recognize the style of the painting—say, Neo Geo—the letters “NG” would “float up” to my consciousness. From there, more letters would index the practitioners in my intellectual mind, and I would choose the one that seemed most likely—“PH”: “Peter Halley.” This instinctual modality of thinking often feels highly “objective” and unrelated to my more personal memories of experiences. Perhaps because of this, this modality often yields the correct answer to questions.
When presented with a question, I often say, “hmmm, I can see the letters…” I wonder if anyone else thinks about things (or experiences knowledge) in this way.
BACK TO GABA: I was at the show, and looking at a game table piece titled Iran. My brain instantly knew that this piece had not been painted to resemble the flag of Iran. I cannot tell you, right now, what exactly what the flag of Iran looks like. But I knew, in the moment that I regarded this table, that this was not the flag of Iran. I looked at all the other pieces, and I saw that their titles all matched the flags they were depicting. I questioned myself, like: Aimee, why would this piece be any different than the others? I looked at Iran more closely, and the letters “AFG” floated up to me. Afghanistan. I then googled “Afghanistan flag” on my phone, and lo and behold: this piece depicted that flag.
This made the show perhaps ten million times more interesting to me than it had been before. I liked the work well enough, and thought I could write something nice on it, but this piece took it to another level for me. But, I thought, surely other people would have noticed this, especially since this is a New York show, and Iran and Afghanistan are countries that have had serious conflict (to say the least) with the United States.
I began to look through all the writing I could find on Gaba, to see if this type of switcheroo was something he did often. I am a nerd, and when I would write a review of a show, I would read EVERYTHING I could find on the artist’s work. I always wanted to start writing with the most substantial knowledge base possible—plus, this research was what made the assignments fun for me. I did not find any writing suggesting this was something the artist had done before. More intriguingly to me, when I asked the gallery why Gaba had done this, they hadn’t been aware of the disconnect between the title and the flag depicted.
After pondering this for a second, I found that this was completely understandable and actually not very surprising, simply because I don’t think everyone has the same kind of visual memory that I have. I did not find it shameful or negligent that people didn’t recognize this flag as an imposter, mostly because in this country the intellectual cultural elite is not really asked to think very deeply about the people we go to war with. Why would we know or care what the flags of Afghanistan or Iran look like?
SIDENOTE: In some ways, I think the intellectual cultural elite in this country is treated almost in the way the rich Southern women were treated in Gone with the Wind. “Soldiers” go off to fight the war, while “the women” stay at home and keep themselves entertained with beautiful dresses, ignorant of the suffering taking place outside of their limited view. It is only when Tara begins to burn that things start to get “real.” This is no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. I’ve benefitted from this protection as much as anyone.
BACK TO GABA: I wrote my review, and while doing the same old boring stuff you have to do when writing a review, I chose to focus one section on this Iran piece, simply because it was the most interesting thing to me about the show. A few days after I gave the first draft of my review to my editor, got my edit back. The portion about Iran was cut, and I was given the comment: “Yes we know you are very clever for being able to detect that this was the flag of Afghanistan.” Even writing that now, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. Nothing about my interest in writing on this piece was meant to reveal me as being “very clever.” If I were “very clever,” my life would be a lot different than it is, trust me. This comment made me feel like the one thing that I felt was special or interesting about MY particular reading of this show was valueless. Still, I fought on (which was not my normal approach when writing reviews, but I was very frustrated by all this). I asked my editor to please include my analytical writing about this piece, which included the fact that this switcheroo was not noticed or written about in the gallery’s press materials, etc. Again, I was not trying to say that other people are stupid and I am smart. I don’t feel that way. I was trying to say that the artist did something sort of slippery and interesting with this piece—it was the Barthesian “punctum” of the show: “that accident which pricks, bruises me.” I was trying to reveal this slipperiness, and give my reader the old school “point to ponder.” That the point to ponder had a political dimension made it all the more important and interesting to me. My editor put the information I asked to be included back into the piece.
When the review was published, however, it had been removed.
I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth after this. If my visual acuity and the way I digest information isn’t good for art criticism, then WHAT THE FUCK IS IT GOOD FOR???? I am still trying to answer this question. It hurts me, a lot. There is nothing about the review of this show that I would have done differently. I wasn’t trying to make myself look good by making someone else look bad. I would never do that, having been, in the past, so often the victim of that dynamic myself. I wasn’t trying to get myself invited to the gallery’s dinner. I am not friends with Meschac Gaba. And yet my writing was viewed as problematic, seemingly not for negligence, but for looking at things too closely.
This is not the world I want to live in. I want my intelligence to be valued. I want people who are capable of looking at things differently to be valued instead of ostracized. We cannot live in a world where everyone is scared to take a risk. Where the enemy is always somewhere “out there,” and never within. Where conformity is better than criticality.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
I’ve been noticing an intriguing and disturbing phenomenon happening. Before I get into this, I will backtrack to the 90s, when I was in college. I went to a school (Eugene Lang) that was STEEPED in 90s feminist and queer theory, and overarchingly defined by Derrida’s decontructionist model. Our mantra was race, class and gender, and we analyzed everything we came across with this purview at the forefront. I would interrogate EVERYTHING related to culture through that lens—which, at that time and place, was new and necessary. I remember, comically now, a fellow classmate becoming very frustrated that I had produced a feminist reading of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast for a film class. He felt like I had not analyzed anything in the film beyond the patriarchal dynamic. And he was right. No art was safe from my feminism.
I think whenever you are young, and you learn something new, the tendency is to apply it to everything. However, I now feel that the world I live in is basically in the throws of the mindset I had when I was seventeen years old. EVERYTHING is superficially deconstructed, analyzed and judged for its implied sexism and racism.
For example: I read this morning that the model Karlie Kloss offered a written apology for being dressed up like a geisha on the pages of Vogue magazine this month. While I do think fashion needs to ask itself many more questions with regard to cultural appropriation—guess what? MODELS do not often choose how their likeness will be represented in photo shoots. The very term “model” gives you an inkling of this. So pressuring someone who is arguably the LEAST responsible for the content of this image to apologize for that content simply because she is the most recognizable aspect of the image suggests to me that people don’t actually care about the cultural appropriation inherent in this image. They also don’t care about looking at the power structures that are responsible for producing these images. Or even analyzing what it means to represent the aesthetic of a geisha in an American magazine. They care about the power play of making someone famous apologize for something. They care about the witch hunt. They care about the fact that THEY can identify and label cultural appropriation where others presumably cannot or will not. This is the setting up of straw dogs to make someone feel better about their own superficial politics.
When you are a teenager, you are your surface. There is no distinction between identity and representation, because your identity IS your representation.
When you grow older, you (hopefully) become aware that representation is actually a fairly inconsequential aspect of identity. It is only the surface. We are living in a time where people are becoming overly self-satisfied (and politically satisfied) with question of representation, at the expense of true critical inquiry and change.
When I look at the world we live in, I see many women who identify as feminists, and yet do not “live” their politics in their personal lives. These are what I would term REPRESENTATIONAL FEMINISTS. They care about being seen as feminists. They care about being able to identify obvious displays of representational sexism. And they care about displaying a feminist identity to others. I recently watched, funnily enough, a Vogue video with Lena Dunham, and I found her performance intriguing. She made sure that most of her responses to the questions asked heralded women. It didn’t read as an authentic devotion to females or femininity, but instead seemed almost like a marketing ploy for “female power.” Like, gotta plug women! Gotta make it obvious that I am a capital F feminist. It read to me as so calculated to her own identity that I wondered what the Jungian shadow aspect might be. Because, guess what: there is always a shadow aspect! And it usually is quite destructive.
So what is wrong with this? In Dunham’s case, I don’t know enough about her to say that anything is wrong at all. But in general, I would say that the biggest problem with representational feminism is that it glosses over deeper and more abiding truths relative to sexism. For example: in the recent United States election, the voting public was given a choice between two candidates that both represented horrible things about America. But because one of the candidates was female, she became not just the lesser of two evils, but (seemingly overnight) a GREAT CHOICE FOR PRESIDENCY. And she fit the model of the representational feminist to a tea. Even her recent adoption of “the future is female” slogan suggests this.
And yet. Here’s one thing I specifically remember about Hilary Clinton: her reaction to Monica Lewinsky. I remember that she called Monica Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon.” Now, it might be normal that someone would be angry at the woman who had an affair with her husband. But when that “woman” is 22 years old, and about to have her life ruined for the foreseeable future by not an affair so much as an abuse of power by the President of the United States, which took place IN THE FUCKING WHITE HOUSE—is there room for something akin to empathy? Is that woman really a loony tune—or is she maybe a kid who got involved in something way over her head? Is any public blame of this person really appropriate, given the circumstances? Does a feminist “stand by her man” and blame the other woman when an affair takes place? Cuz that sounds like some pretty old-school male/female power structure stuff to me.
Which begs the question: what kind of women do representational feminists actually like? Not Monica Lewinsky. Not women who make mistakes. They like women who march march march. Women who raise their voice. Women who “think like them.” Women whose opinions always fall in line with their own. Women who represent a very surface-level ideal of feminism.
But that is not “feminism” so much as it is feminist posturing. Feminism, from my understanding, was not initially about one type of woman who is deemed acceptable. It was about all women. And I think it should be about asking yourself tough questions relative to your own biases. About your own relationship to your identity as a female. About your own relationships with other women.
This is what I am calling ONE-TO-ONE FEMINISM. We are in a new era, and it is one that demands authenticity. REPRESENTATIONAL FEMINISM could be defined, quite simply, as the pressure to prove that you are adept at identifying sexism at the level of representation ONLY. And when that skill set is one that ANY women’s studies major is adept at—I don’t see it as very useful or forward-thinking. What are the less obvious manifestations of your own inherent biases relative to your gender? How do these play out in your interpersonal relationships? In your work relationships? Do you compete with other women? Don’t just answer “no” because you don’t want your answer to be “yes.” I’ve been forced into competition with too many women (and men) who would answer no to that question. Recognize that you are competitive, and ask yourself why. What does it mean to me if another woman has what I want?
This is my question: are you a one-to-one feminist? Meaning, do you wish for the best for all of the women in your life, no matter if their success makes you feel jealous or insecure? If you feel jealous or insecure or competitive in your relationships with women, I would like you to consider that perhaps you are a feminist in name only. Believing that the problem is “out there” somewhere, with “the patriarchy,” is bypassing your own responsibility to create a culture that analyzes its own sexism and gender bias. Thinking that “the patriarchy” is a condition relative to "white men in power" exclusively is a hallmark of representational feminism. It suggests that a person cannot grasp the more nuanced aspects of how a society functions. Time to dive deeper.
Because they are of and about the surface, political representations often do not represent or align with deeper truths—they often serve only to mask or prettify these truths. True changes in representation occur only after deeper changes within a culture are made. Representational changes are not the spark that ignites an evolution. They are the natural by-product of that evolution. I’m tired of witch hunts relative to sexism and gender bias when they serve to reify someone’s feminist identity versus to actually bring about and nurture change. When a culture feels like “nothing has changed” with regard to sexism—well, it’s because nothing has changed! Change is not made on the surface. Change happens within. And it is really hard—it’s not marching in a parade with your friends, or taking a day off of work. Shining a light on the stuff inside you that’s ugly, and that doesn’t align with your more positive belief system about yourself, sucks. But if you truly want that change, truly, you have to this. If not, you can just go about your day pointing out the endless examples of sexism and gender bias you find in video games and ads for coca cola. And then you can watch your society rot inside its own false, hypocritical, representational prison.