Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement

“What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.”—Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s, Los Angeles

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia, called Making Feminist Meanings Across Worlds: Print, Digital, and Networked Feminisms and Women’s Studies. The following is a shortened version of my paper, “The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement.”

Renowned art critic Jerry Saltz says, “You may think your work is about daffodils; I think it’s about scrambled eggs” (1). As a feminist artist, I don’t want to risk this type of misinterpretation, so I rely on language to supplement my art practice. Many artists feel that a one-page artist statement will suffice to explain their work, but to play it safe, I’ve written Artist In Transit, an 85,000-word blog.

Karen Evans writes that in the mid-90s, theorists were generally hopeful about the digital age. They perceived it as a place where traditional communities could be “superseded by open, democratic placeless cyberspaces in which equalities of wealth, class, gender and ethnicity had no purpose” (2). A few years later, blogs appeared, and took on this challenge.

In May 2009, the same month I started my blog, the power of social media to spur social activism was underscored when a blog by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was censored, removing three years’ worth of posts critiquing the government. He was later held in police custody for 81 days, arguably related to his activism. Going back to 2009, feminist art blogging was uneven: that year, Mira Schor lamented that the contributors lacked commitment, professionalism, and accountability (3). My goal was to be an exception, especially because I intended the blog to be a tool for tenure consideration as an academic art librarian. In my presentation, I spoke not from the perspective of a librarian but from the perspective of a feminist artist, touching on the capacity for blogs to promote art and art criticism, to spur new art ideas, and to encourage networking within the real and virtual art world. “An artist’s statement….gives you validation [and] visibility,” (4) and I feel that blogs can function in a similar way.

Before exploring these topics, I started with the basics: What is a blog? What is an artist statement? Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s Director in Los Angeles, writes, “‘What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.” (5) Perhaps an easier definition to start with, then, is that of the artist statement. Definitions of the term ‘artist statement’ are plentiful and varied, but I particularly like this one by curator and art historian G. James Daichendt: “Usually a testimony of the interests, background and goals of the artist, this document explains, justifies, or contextualizes the work of the artist…The best artist statements prepare viewers to enter and engage the work.” (6) When I started my blog, I set out to capture elements that studio professor Deborah A. Rockman associates with artist statements, namely the sources of art ideas, ranging from favourite artists to influential books and articles (7).

Artist statements resemble blogs in several ways, making for a reasonable comparison: art critic Edward Sozanski notes that artist statements reveal the psychology and personality of the artist (8) and curator Lydia Yee feels that artist statements are “an opportunity to tell a story” (9). The story I planned to tell with my blog was how my art ideas developed. Initially, to borrow the phrasing that came out of a study at Rutgers University, I was more of a ‘meformer’ than an ‘informer’ (10). As the scope of the blog broadened to include art criticism of shows relating to my own work, it became something of a feminist soapbox.

The challenge in writing about gallery shows is that as artist Kate Britton says, “social media and networked culture has rendered everyone a critic” (11). Experts waver on whether a blog is a legitimate venue for art criticism and artistic expression. However, the two artists mentioned earlier are indicative of the credibility of blogs: in 2010, Mira Schor received a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant to develop a blog for a year about her art as a counterpart to her latest book, and in 2011, Ai Weiwei's translated posts were released as a book and endorsed by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and by the directors of the Tate Modern (Chris Dercon) and Yale University Art Gallery (Jock Reynolds). My hope is that if I can write well-considered, thorough reviews, people will give my studio work a chance. Although personally, I find that blogging distracts me from creating art, I do believe there’s merit in the strategy undertaken by senior artist Denise Green; long before the 2.0 era, she began writing about art to establish credibility in an art world divided by gender (12).

The blog is a way to motivate myself to keep on top of what’s happening farther afield, but it’s also a way to let outsiders know what’s happening in North Bay’s small but vibrant arts community. I described some of the unanticipated connections I’ve made locally as a result of the blog. These experiences demonstrate the importance of keeping the ‘meformer’ impulse in check, and demonstrate what Hrag Vartanian, editor of the arts blogazine, Hyperallergic, says: “The online world is as much about giving back as it is getting. And if you think you’re going to put something out there because you want it back immediately, then you are not going to get it back. But if you help people online…you’re going to get it back tenfold” (13).

Sources:

(1) Qtd. by Wojak, Angie and Miller, Stacy. Starting Your Career as an Artist. New York: Allworth Press, 2011, 18. Print.
(2) Evans, Karen. “Re-thinking Community in the Digital Age?” Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Eds. Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 79-89, 82. Print.
(3) Schor, Mira, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
(4) Wojak and Miller, 131.
(5) Neil, Jonathan T.D. “Can I get a Witness?” Art Review, Oct. 2011, 139. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(6) Daichendt, G. James. Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research. Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., 2012, chapter 4. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(7) Rockman, Deborah A. The Art of Teaching Art: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Foundations of Drawing-based Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 131. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(8) Qtd. by Grant, Daniel. The Business of Being an Artist. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth Press, 2000. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(9) Nieves, Marysol, ed. Taking Aim! 1st ed. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011. Print.
(10) Naaman, Mor, Boase, Jeffrey and Lai, Chih-Hui. “Is it really about me? Message content in social awareness streams.” CSCW ‘10. February 2010: 189-192. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(11) Britton, Kate. “Social Media in Contemporary Art.” Das Platforms Emerging & Contemporary Art, 21, 2011. Web. Aug. 17, 2013.
(12) Green, Denise. Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
(13) Nieves, 229.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Anita Steckel at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

“Not one to mince words…”

This week, Exposure: Anita Steckel’s Fight Against Censorship opened at the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center within the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC). En route to a conference in Atlanta, I made a four-hour detour to visit this archival exhibition. Steckel (1930-2012) was a Second Wave feminist artist and educator. Her personal papers were donated to the NMWA, and excerpts are on display until May 9, 2014.

Steckel was an easy target for censorship, because of the directness and brazenness of her work. Consider the collaged piece from 1971 in the exhibition: a colour reproduction of the American $1 bill, it had ‘Legal Gender’ handwritten along the top and Washington’s face enclosed in the shaft of a sketched penis. Equally ‘to the point’ is a photograph with an altered New York skyline (click here for a similar image). Skyscrapers are extended by Steckel’s hand, their rooftops converted into phallic heads (each unique, not unlike the approach of her colleague, Hannah Wilke, to vulvic imagery). The writers of the TV show, How I Met Your Mother* would be pleased, as architect Hans Hollein—who also made a phallic architectural sketch—must have been.

At Steckel’s 1972 exhibition at Rockland Community College, “one of the less controversial works,” as The Journal News put it, was a Statue of Liberty postcard, on exhibit now at NMWA, containing a hand-drawn female symbol emerging form the fiery torch. The paper included an image of said work, but not the more contentious images featuring male and female genitalia. Legislator John Koman wanted to shut it down for its pornographic nature, but after a closed meeting of trustees and pushback from students, the artist was victorious. In an unsurprising move based on the show’s title, The Sexual Politics of Feminist Art, Steckel used the experience as a springboard for forming the Fight Censorship Group. Its members included Wilke, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and others. In its ten years of activity, they did things like pressure curators not to follow Koman’s lead, and petitioned major New York museums to open Adult Galleries, where the fig leaf could be ripped off. Like the Guerilla Girls, they were angry about the disproportionate number of female nudes to male nudes in museums, appealing to the male gaze. Steckel writes in a statement for the FCG, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums—It should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.” Not one to mince words, she wrote that artists must operate in absolute freedom from censorship, to protect the right to produce works like “the open-legged whores of Toulouse-Lautrec.” She writes of the “white-gloved hypocrisy—which pretends we [women] don’t even know what is meant by a ‘dirty joke.’ Don’t know—hell—we’re the entire subject matter of all those ‘jokes’ we’re not supposed to know the meaning of.”

Her 2006 journal indicates that her dedication to the cause never wavered. She wrote, “Don’t turn lemonade into a lemon” and “Risk Everything/ Be a Warrior.” Although she did not receive critical acclaim in her formative years as an artist, in 2006 she was mentioned in the catalogue for the high-profile exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, even though she wasn’t included in the show itself. The NWMA wall text notes that this catalogue essay revived interest in her work. Indeed, in 2007, the New York Times described her as having been overlooked for too long (1). The wall text also credits the Fight Censorship Group with having created a more accepting atmosphere for women artists’ provocative works.” To Steckel et al., I say thank-you.

*in which the character Ted gets his big architectural break by pitching an alternative to a design that looks like a penis with its pink colour, apex, and bulbous forms at the base.

Sources:

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/09/arts/design/09art.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0 March 2007. Museum and gallery listings.