Sunday, April 20, 2014

The kitschification of abstract expressionism


Is there a term for the process whereby art that was once avant-garde becomes bourgeois kitsch? I had a minor epiphany yesterday at the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum, an exhibit spanning Western art from Post-Impressionism to Pop Art and focusing on "20th century icons." Walking through the show, I suddenly realized I'm no longer moved at all by Abstract Expressionism, which I used to love.

The disenchantment is twofold: First, most of the Abstract Expressionist paintings have taken on the look of bad hotel art. I think this movement (once so radical!) has been "appreciated" to the point that it's the realm of contemporary hack artists, basically the same thing that happened to Impressionism 40 years or so ago, where the style became a symbol of bland "good taste," so commodified I associate Van Gogh with coffee mugs and mouse pads; not the museum but the museum store. That's what so many of these Abstract Expressionist masterworks look like to me now: calendars.

Second, I despise the rhetoric of the artists from that era. Part of the project of this exhibit was to display quotes from the artists alongside critics' remarks from the time (invariably they quoted conservative critics who hated the work). The artists' quotes were all about feelings, along the lines of "A painting succeeds if you understand how the artist felt." I'm suddenly appalled by this. Who cares how the artist felt? And how simplistic: We don't experience movies or music this way, as a one-time "guess the emotion" puzzle. I don't look at a Kandinsky and say "Sadness. Got it" and move on. (I'm reminded of Mary Karr's claim that the primary purpose of poetry is to "stir emotion," as if most people need help having emotions.) Then there was Rothko's suggestion that people should "weep" before his paintings. Really? This feels cultish to me. Would anyone weep before an orange canvas if we didn't know that Rothko committed suicide?

There should be a term, also, for this effect: you come to hate a type of art or an artist not because of anything inherent in the work itself, but because of its fan base. As with the Eagles or the Grateful Dead or Dave Matthews Band, the fans are arguably more annoying than the music itself. So much iconic art gets ruined through association this way; Dali, for example, has been ruined by the kind of entitled nerds who had Dali posters in the their dorm rooms, somehow always the same guys who loved A Clockwork Orange and wanted you to know they did drugs.

All that aside, it was a really good show. They also had a great, small exhibit of Polish posters for American westerns.


Who knew?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tenets of My Feminism

Have you noticed that I'm a militant feminist? I think once a long time ago someone asked me in a comment to outline my definition of feminism or my beliefs about feminism. That sounded like a lot of work. But I'm going to try to do it here, in rough fashion. I'm not going to bother listing out the dead-obvious stuff about feminism that everyone already agrees on. (That is, everyone who is a thinking adult; the average schmo doesn't even know the denotation of the word feminism. In 2011, I talked about the difference between a new usage and a misusage of a word, and why "feminist" is so often misused. Sorry guys, but feminism isn't sexist.)

So here are some of the tenets of my personal feminism:

1. Anyone can be a feminist. There's no required reading list. You don't have to major in women's studies or even go to college.

2. I believe in counterintuitive solutions. Orchestras used to be primarily male. They closed the gap by moving to a blind audition process, not by telling women to play more like men. Be suspicious when the proposed solution to any gender gap problem involves telling women to behave more like men:

  • When the VIDA numbers come out, editors claim they get more submissions and pitches from men, so everyone tells women to submit more. Be suspicious. Maybe men need to submit less. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and most of what they're getting is crap. 
  • What about the pay gap? The standard line is, men get more promotions and raises because they ask for them; there's a confidence gap; women need more self-assurance. Again, the problem is always with women, not men. Maybe men are over-confident? Maybe they ask for too much, and end up hording all the resources? It's also easier for them to take the risk of asking for more, since other men are making most of the decisions. A big part of the problem is that we define success in terms of male characteristics. Men are more aggressive, therefore aggression=good. (Kind of like how humans are the most intelligent species, since we define what "intelligence" is in terms of what we can do.) Question the status quo and the value system. It's not just that women aren't paid enough; it's that men are paid too much. (I'm not talking about your buddy at the next desk; look to the top.)

3. With regard to charges that "feminism is for white women": I don't think feminism is particularly racist. Has feminism, historically, as a movement, excluded women of color? Yes, of course, but this is a general rule, not a particular one. We (people) are racist as a whole and we need to change that. I do not think it's productive to pit feminist activists against race activists as though their goals were mutually exclusive. Let's do both at once. If you see a feminist being racist, call them out, but don't blame it on feminism. Blame it on racism. (Note: I remark on this because I think men can use charges of racism as a way to undermine feminism and derail feminist conversations; it's a form of the "always a bigger problem" fallacy, i.e. racism is more important because it affects men too! Naturally I take these concerns much more seriously when they come from women of color.)

4. That said, being white makes feminism easier. Being attractive makes feminism easier. Being rich makes feminism easier. That's because being white, rich and attractive makes everything easier! Privilege is additive. Being a "hot feminist" is not subversive.

5. To me, feminism isn't about honoring personal choices, i.e. "I'm a woman and I do whatever I want and it's my choice." Feminism is about seeking equality. If you're a woman and you make anti-feminist choices (like, say, editing a magazine and only publishing men), you can't then use "feminism" as the justification for your choices.

I think those are the big ones.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Frank O'Hara Cento

The angriness of the captive is felt,
The apple green chasuble, so
The avalanche drifts to earth through giant air
The best thing in the world         but I better be quick about it
The black ghinkos snarl their way up
The blue plumes drift and
The blueness of the hour
The Cambodian grass is crushed
The cinema is cruel
The clouds ache bleakly
The clouds go soft
The cold  now, the silver tomb, separates
The cow belched and invited me
The distinguished
The eager note on my door said "Call me,
The eagerness of objects to
The eyelid has its storms.
The flies are getting slower now
The flower, the corpse in silhouette
The fluorescent tubing burns like a bobby-soxer's ankles
The forest sprang up around me
The geraniums and rubber plants
The going into winter and the never coming out
The gulls wheeled
The guts that stream out of the needle's eye
The heat rises, it is not the pressure
The hosts of dreams and their impoverished minions
The ice of your imagination lends
The ivy is trembling in the hammock
The leaves are piled thickly on the green tree
The light comes on by itself
The light only reaches halfway across the floor where we lie, your hair
The light presses down
The lily and the albatross form under your lids. Awaken, love, and walk
The little dark haired boy whose black looks
The little roses, the black majestic sails
"The mind is stifled." Very little sky
The night pains inhaling smoke and semen.
The only way to be quiet
The opals hiding in your lids
The pursefishers have flaunted their last
The rain, its tiny pressure
The razzle dazzle maggots are summary
The root         an acceptable connection
The rose, the lily and the dove got withered
The sad thing about life is
The scene is the same,
The sender of this letter is a mailman
The sky flows over Kentucky and Maryland
The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
The stars are tighter
The stranded gulch
The strangeness of palaces for a cowboy
The sun, perhaps three of them, one black one red,
The Sun woke me up this morning loud
the sunlight streams through the cold
The trees toss and plunge in a skyblue surf!
The two slept in a dark red armory
The weight must at above.
The wheels are inside me thundering.
The white chocolate jar full of petals
The wrinkled page of the sky swells

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Today is where your book begins. The rest is still well-written?

So, I just realized that I went on two unrelated twitter rants (what my friend Chris calls trolling) in the past 24 hours that both hinged on the term "well-written." The first started with this:
The second started with this:
Let me expound on these a little bit more (oh ha ha ha). The first is an Ezra Pound line that is always getting thrown around in MFA workshops and whatnot, up there with "Kill your darlings" and "Show don't tell." I just saw it somewhere again this week, and it's like when you delete 40 emails from some company before one day you remember you can just unsubscribe. Suddenly I had a deep urge to say WTF: This statement makes no sense! Why do we keep quoting it like it makes sense? The implication is that prose has to meet some bare minimum standard of "good writing," but that's not even true of published prose. "Poetry" and "prose" are just categories, they communicate nothing in themselves about the quality of the writing. People who have quoted this: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

FWIW, I think that version is a misquotation; this appears to be the correct quote in context (a letter written to Harriet Monroe):
Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant's best prose, and as hard as Stendhal's.
I still don't agree with it, natch; poetry can do whatever the hell it wants to, go ahead and invert your book words.

As for the second rant, I was reacting to a comment I saw on a Roxane Gay essay about shame and self-denial. Obviously I think a lot about standards of beauty so I was interested, and the essay was striking and discomfiting in that it wrestles with how it feels when one's body "does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like":
My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people.

I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.
This makes me feel awful, in part because I hate our sexist, racist, body-shaming culture, but also in part because so many of the things she denies herself are things I allow myself without thinking. Like painting my fingernails (actually something I almost never do, but I engage plenty in the equivalent) or eating on a plane: "My best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I said, 'People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,' and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said." Our own privilege is usually invisible to ourselves, and though I detest our beauty standards, I reap the benefits of meeting many of them every day.

Anyway, complicated feelings. And the first comment under the article was "This is very well-written." And I just did this massive eye-roll. Like ... isn't that totally missing the point? I mean, duh, don't read the comments, but this is part of non-comment discourse too; I've seen praise this bland in book blurbs. This is how I feel:
  • "This is well-written" suggests that the writing is a superficial layer on top of the content, or that the writer had the content and then did the work of translating it into good writing. Maybe so. But if that is the case, I'm much rather read really interesting ideas with so-so writing than "good writing" and boring ideas.
  • In a great piece of writing, the content is the writing, you can't separate it into layers. This is why people say you can't translate poetry, but really you can't translate anything w/ 100% accuracy, you can only approximate the effect in another language. (Not that I'm against translation, we do what we can do.)
Basically, I can't imagine any writer taking this as a compliment. If you're a writer, "well-written" should be your baseline, no? I mean, comedians don't want you to tell them their jokes are well-written, they want you to laugh. Presumably writers are trying to accomplish something other than producing passable examples of writing.

OK, whatever, end of rant. Now I have this song stuck in my head, and you will too!



P.S. Thank you to Ray McDaniel for this review of The Self Unstable. I have admired McDaniel's reviews at the Constant Critic for a long time so this is especially exciting to me. Example sentence: "Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into a very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach – the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance – conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition." Thanks also to Jacob Spears for the recent review in Pank! Example sentence: "In a world turning increasingly to the virtual, the brief prose poems in Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable read like postcards or dispatches from a new frontier in which the map is just as much a part of reality as the territory." Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shinkichi Takahashi is the Zen Wallace Stevens

Check out this poem by Shinkichi Takahashi, translated by Lucien Stryk:

Snow Wind

There's nothing more to see:
Snow in the nandin's leaves
And, under it, the red-eyed
Rabbit lies frozen.

I'll place everything on
Your eyeballs, the universe.
There's nothing more to see:
Nandin berries are red, snow white.

The rabbit hopped twice in the cool
Breeze and everyone disappeared,
Leaving the barest scent.
The horizon curves endlessly

And now there's no more light
Around the rabbit's body.
Suddenly your face
Is large as the universe.

Holy crap!!! I feel like this is the best translation from Japanese I've ever read. It sounds like Wallace Stevens! The line breaks (by which I mean the lines) are so perfect in English, and the sounds carry meaning -- see "I'll" and "eyeballs." Plus I feel like this encompasses ideas of nature that are both ancient/timeless ("snow in the nandin's leaves") and postmodern, post-Einstein (light, the universe, fractals, etc.) WOW. Good poem.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

10 items that are on this list

"Poetry readings were like early teevee in that everyone had their own little show. Though teevee got more sophisticated (worse) poetry never did. It remains stupid, run by fools." - Eileen Myles, from Inferno

Happy April Fools' Day/National Poetry Month! In honor of the occasion(s) I wrote a listicle for Open Letters Monthly's Title Menu feature: 10 Books that Might Be Poetry.


It's a list of some of my favorite weird books of prose poems or poemy prose, including Max Jacob, Aram Saroyan, Russel Edson, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Boyer, Khadijah Queen and more.

And if you're interested in all this genre bullshit, you'll enjoy this interview (from 2012) between Maggie Nelson and Ali Liebegott from the Believer Logger:

AL: I was surprised when I saw Bluets—that it doesn’t say poetry on it, it says Essay/Literature. Do you consider it poetry?
MN: No, I don’t really, but I just don’t care. There was a long review of Bluets that was all about Is this poetry or prose? A lot of the book came from poems, and I took out the line breaks. At first I wrote a lot of blue poems, but there was something about this collection of blue poems that was really irking me. It was too precious or too weird. When I wrote Jane, it was okay that each individual poem was in a different form, because the story was going to hold it all together. When I wrote Bluets, blue as a concept was not enough to hold all these individually shaped poems. I didn’t like the way it was looking, and it wasn’t interesting. Then when I realized that numbered passages could do the same work that poems could do—with juxtaposition and speed and moving in and out of different kinds of voices, I thought, Oh, wow! And when I took a lot of the line breaks out of a lot of the poems, I didn’t feel like they lost anything. A lot of reviews of the poems I’d written recently were like, Why is this even poetry? She just put line breaks and stuff into what should’ve been prose. I felt like, Fair enough, maybe that’s exactly so. That didn’t cut to my quick or anything.
It sounds kind of dippy, but Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is written in numbers, was the main book I saw my book in conversation with. I love the way he’s writing philosophy, but it also kind of sounds like a sad, confused person just talking to himself. “Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?” and “Why can’t a dog feel pain?” “Can a dog simulate pain?” Just all these questions and people treat it—as they should—very seriously as philosophy. But it’s also a form of madness, and I felt very alone and in a form of madness.
I was probably very kinetically unhappy while I was writing Bluets—but I still felt pleased as a writer, because I’ve worked a lot as a scholar, and I like doing research, and I like facts, and I like philosophy. So I felt like I could put everything I knew about rhythm and movement and juxtaposition into this book, but I didn’t have to be precious, like if I was making a poem. I could say, “Here’s what Mallarm√© had to say about God,” and I could put in all my facts. I loved this. It’s a good form for me. It’s a kind of poetic prose, but I wouldn’t call it a long poem.