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Always Ask "Why"?

Art, history, and “Kim Kardashian. Break the Internet”

“Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976″

Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude "Jungle Fever" (1983)

Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude “Jungle Fever” (1983)

The above portrait by Jean-Paul Goude is a pretty loaded image both in terms of its history, recent and and distant, but also because of its composition.   As a result, it challenges the way in which we not only define “what is art” but also how we view it.

Aesthetically and technically, “Carolina Beaumont” is striking.  The color balance, lighting, and composition pull you in.  It’s has a wonderful relationship with space that I enjoy in photography.  Personally, I find it much more hypnotic that Kim Kardashian’s homage in Paper, also shot by Jean-Paul Goude.

Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude.  "Paper" (Winter, 2014)

Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude. “Paper” (Winter, 2014)

Historically, culturally, and socially, it’s problematic.  It is a black body on display for a (presumably) non-black audience.  It is also a pose that recalls a specific individual, Saartije Baartmen, and the ways in which her own body was displayed and depicted.

Moreover, this type of viewer/subject relationship between white viewers and black subjects has been going on for centuries in western art, as medievalpoc demonstrates again and again.  With that history comes all sorts of ideas and practices about how that body can be displayed (and the ways in which it can’t), the language that’s used to describe the pose, and who ultimately is making the image and for what market.

Because this image is both aesthetically beautiful and historically and culturally problematic, us the viewer is in a tough spot. To what extent are we culpable of consuming and perpetuating racist and racially-charged imagery?  To what extent can we be excused for our historical ignorance?  When we feel uncomfortable, what should be that trigger?  Is it the way that nudity has different associations and language based on race and power?  Is it nudity within American culture? Is it because the apparatuses that produced and police the image are rooted in traditions and practices that objectify women of color but honor white women with the exact same pose?

And when we decide that the image of a black woman in a pose that relies on historical degradation and cultural stereotypes is problematic despite how visually striking, aesthetically pleasing, technically innovative or just plain satirical it is, what does that mean in terms of artistic license and censorship?  Should the imagined ideal of “art for art’s sake” take precedence over the historical reality?  If so, what does that mean for our preservation and interpretation of the past and our understanding of the present?  Do we step in as moralists and point out all the ways in which our ancestors were horrible — in a manner not unlike the sanitizers of the Victorian era (to name just one example), who used their own ideas of moral propriety to colonize those who lacked it?

Moreover, is the moral argument the only way in which people can examine, critique, and criticize inequality and racism?  After all, inequality exists because there is a cultural system underpinning it, not because people simply have different things or experiences.  Those experiences mean nothing unless there is a cultural lens assigning a particular meaning or interpretation.  After all, having a different skin tone the the product of biology. Having a different life because of that skin tone is the product of culture.

Thus, in order to process both images we need the ability to read images from multiple perspectives all at once.  One can’t read “Carolina Beaumont” through a single lens, just like one can’t read “Kim Kardashian” through a single lens either.  We have to appreciate the aesthetic and technical compositions while remembering the social, historical, and cultural differences at play in each one in order to understand how the image came into being, was discussed, and ultimately, resigned to history.

Otherwise, we end up staring at both our past and present, ignorant of our own surroundings and unable to understand the conversations.  It’s a position of the powerless, and it’s one that the powerful go to great lengths to maintain.

It’s how you also end up on display, clutching a champaign bottle and balancing a glass on your ass.

The Slipperiness of History

Not to put to fine a point on it, but there has been a lot written about the 2013 US Government shutdown.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 3.02.29 PM

My Pocket reader is stuffed with articles from the New York Times, New York Magazine, Red State, and Al-Jazeera, most of which I will probably never read unless I want to relive the haze of the last few weeks.   Instead of reading through them all and trying to analyze what exactly went on and why, the focus of this post will be on one particular article and the points it raised.  I do this because this article combined two things that I not only like — contemporary perspective plus historical imagination — but this combination is not in any way unique.  It appears not only in much of our contemporary journalism but it occurs throughout history.  More importantly, the combination of the contemporary and the historical underlies the way in which we use (and misuse) history, namely to make a point that relates to today’s society.

The Furies Never End

Frank Rich published a piece entitled “The Furies Never End” on October 13th in New York Magazine, four days before the end of the government shutdown, in which he argues that we’ve seen this mess before — and hints that it will come again.

Furies

He starts out by debunking the idea that the more extreme members of the Republican Party who called for the shutdown are not a fringe minority of their party and don’t come from areas of the country all that demographically different than other Republicans or Democrats.  Even the fact that most of this radical group are white men doesn’t exactly shake things up. To counter the argument that right-wing Republicans are the majority, Rich notes that it’s really the moderate Republicans –“of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion”– who are the smaller (and dwindling) minority of the party.

Rich then goes on to argue that the real shift in the Republican party was the addition of Southern Democrats during the second half of the 20th century.  It was this group,  fed up with Johnson’s “Great Society” and the expansion of the federal government, that caused the Republicans to adopt their hostile stance against government.  In addition, the fact that this group was largely Southern helps to explain the animosity towards those who are Southern but like the Federal Government (Bill Clinton) and the open racism towards non-male, non-white, (and presumably non-Christian) politicians (Barack Obama).  Once this point is introduced, Rich spends the rest of the article bouncing back and forth between contemporary events and politics of the anti-Bellum and Reconstruction eras to make his point:  crazy people in politics trying to shut down the government isn’t new, and it’s all because of the South.

The Uses of History

The “cherry-picking of history” is not a new phenomenon. As far back as written record (and probably in pre-written time as well) we as humans have been shaping and interpreting selected sections of the past.  As such, the consensus on such behavior is not positive.  Those who “cherry pick” facts are derided as uncritical, manipulative, and deceitful.  As a public, we often counter such cherry-picking with the claim “but you missed the context.  Anyone can just create a perfect picture (or data set) and say that it reflects reality.  How do we know your proof is real?”  With such a critique, one would be tempted to conclude that people would shy away from the use of history or historical examples in proving a contemporary point.

Herodotus_Beaton

Yet despite this, we humans still do this all the time.  What is illuminating about Rich’s article is that it is a perfect example of the past is commonly used to prove a present point — and how that past only becomes important to us when it relates to the present.

Arguably, Rich is setting out to convince the reader that “the radical Republicans” are not a new phenomenon and they’ve been trying to shut down government since the beginning.  His use of John C. Calhounv, the anti-Bellum senator from South Carolina who was deeply suspicious of the Federal Government and believed that the minority should be able to thwart the majority (as well as Calhoun’s nickname “the Great Nullifyer”) is meant to drive home the point.   Likewise the reference to Jefferson Davis’ arguing that seceding from the Union is a means of preserving the Constitution, also fits into this boat.  So far, nothing too crazy.

JohnCCalhoun

You may remember John C Calhoun from your US I History Class. He and Andrew Jackson pretty much hated each other.

Yet Rich doesn’t use this evidence to show that ideas about the Federal Government, Congress, or the Constitution have always been contentious.  He doesn’t give us a detailed (or even a short, succinct) description of how some members of Congress tried to counter laws or policies they didn’t like.  Instead, he uses examples that fit his particular argument and leaves the reader to fill in the rest.  Since Calhoun famously hated Majoriatarianism and since he was a Southern Senator who defended slavery, he is just like other contemporary Southern Senators and Representatives who are racist, anti-Government, and thought that their minority views were enough to hijack the majority.

The same tactic is then used to discuss the creation of the Republicans as a far-right, socially conservative majority.  According to Rich, Southern Republicans came into being as a result of Barry Goldwater.  Before Goldwater, all those racist anti-Federal Government Southern Congressmen were Democrats.  After Goldwater and the LBJ years they moved to the Republicans, taking their crystalized hatred with them.  Thus, we have the Tea Party. Again, Rich doesn’t give the readers a detailed history of a progression (if any) from those who supported Goldwater to those who supported the Government Shutdown.  Instead what we have is a simple substitution, as though each component is equal in every respect.

That is what strikes me as fascinating regarding our general use of history. We look to the past to find similarities that help us to explain what is going on in our present.  We also pull people, places, and events out of their respective times and project them onto ours, as though historical context  wasn’t an issue.  Yet if we tried to write a history of the Tea Party (or the Government Shutdown) without talking about our contemporary surroundings (say, without mentioning the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election), it would be pretty useless.   We’d be left with nothing but a bunch of holes.

Ultimately, Rich is not writing history.  He is writing an essay in which historical people and events are used to make his point.  What is interesting is that, Rich’s article already is history in and of itself.  It is one person’s attempt to understand and explain to others who the Tea Party is and their reasons for shutting down the Federal Government, a move that many others thought (and still think) was a pretty dumb one.  It’s one of the reasons why I saved it to Pocket. If Rich is lucky, some version of the article will still be around in 50 or 100 years.  Then it will be the chance for new readers to mull over Rich’s words and, perhaps, point to them as evidence for their own understanding of contemporary times.

caution-diamond_history

Or maybe not. Perhaps you’ll just use it to prove your point.

Complex Ideas Take Time: Sequestration Edition

Back in 2011 as we were all sifting through the pieces that was the Occupy Wall Street movement and the (first) debt ceiling crisis, I wrote a piece arguing that these issues were not simply going to disappear and that we needed to be patient with this long transformation.  Though I didn’t have a plan for solving specific issues, I argued that the various dialogs and protests that characterized the second half of 2011 were key parts of the problem-solving process.  Even the failure of the SuperCommittee to modify previously agreed to deficit reduction cuts was part of this dialog.

  

However, I failed to address two key issues related to this process.  First, I offered no insight or suggestions on how to deal with the frustration that comes with a long, rambling dialog.  Second,  I also neglected to divine as to when these conversations (small and large) start to add up to something substantial.  The only explanations I can comfortably offer with any sense of (imagined) certainty is that I too, was in the thick of it and was still in the fact-finding stage of problem solving, and that since history does not follow a linear path,it is impossible to guess the future based on the present.

Neither excuse is meant to be a throwaway,  since they are directly related to the human limitations that govern us all and indirectly affect the choices we make.  Moreover, it is in these limitations that we can find both the means and methods of coping with the long process of problem solving.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the only thing standing between us and the inner peace needed to deal with the stress of complex ideas is an understanding of how we solve these types of problems. If we know how something works, we can then recognize the limitations and carefully select which ones to push, and which ones to just leave be.  This is a philosophy that governs much of our live, from self-improvement manuals to religion  and even business optimization.

By far the most fundamental problem facing us is that we as humans move only so fast as our surroundings and abilities allow us to.  The more pieces in the air and the more complex and abstract the problem, the slower we will move and the more energy it will take to solve said problem.   Planning and problem solving –as opposed to execution of a solution– appears to be a function that overly taxes our mental abilities, requiring greater attention to the task at hand at the expense of everything else.  It also burns tremendous amounts of energy and taxes our brains in ways that require longer periods of rest and recovery.

Note everything that goes into the problem solving process - and how multi-directional it is.

Note everything that goes into the problem solving process – and how multi-directional it is.

On top of that, this function can be easily derailed by unrelated matters (like say, a personal event or even a piece of chocolate cake) especially when there are more factors to consider in the planning and problem solving process.  Not only are we trying to deal with the long aftershocks of a financial crisis but we’re also trying to fit this crisis into our own accepted world view and belief systems.  If your a member of Congress, you’re also trying to hang onto your job at the same time. All of this is an incredible amount of information to review, process, prioritize, and act upon and sometimes we  veer away from that task at hand.  Thus, all this back and forth over the debt ceiling and sequestration, with long gaps between problem solving brainstorming sessions, proposal submission, and execution, may have every bit as much to do with our own mental limits and how we grapple with complex problems as it does “political gridlock and the climate in Washington”.

In addition to biological limits, there is also the question of time.  We should remember that it’s been almost five years since the economic collapse of several major investment banks, the argument over deficit spending and budget reduction has been playing out for four, and that this “sequester” was both presented as a solution and agreed to by both political parties over 20 months ago.  Finally, it’s worth remembering that the  direct effects of this proposal will last 10 years, giving us a time span of 15 years within which to continually reevaluate our past actions, brainstorm news ways to solve the problem, and possibly bring several more solutions into play.  In short, the shear scale of this project coupled with our very limited biological abilities prevents us from solving and resolving it in a quick, orderly fashion.

  

This is a very bitter pill to swallow, even if one is not  looking (or hoping) for a quick fix.  The historical consolation that it took 16 years for the United States to recover from the Great Depression.  Given the fact that this Great Recession has been noted as one of the worst financial collapses since the Depression, this long period of recovery makes (some) sense, though it still remains to be seen where things will be once 2023 rolls around.

For once, Africa and Asia are the economic bright spots.

For once, Africa and Asia are the economic bright spots.

To return to the second oversight in my original post, the issue of “when does it all add up” is one that can only be gauged in hindsight.  Again, almost five years have passed since the market first collapsed both here and abroad and much has happened since then.  There have been two Presidential elections (and more than two Congressional) that offered us the opportunity to decide which party — and by extension, which philosophy and action plan–we though would be the better remedy for these problems.   Various pieces of legislation, from the Emergency Economy Stabilization Act of 2008 (a.k.a. The Bailout), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (2010), and various extensions of long-term unemployment benefits (see: 20092010, 2011, and 2012) have been drafted, passed, and slowly (if fitfully) put into action.  The economy, while contracting, has started to grow very incrementally, and employment rates appear to have been holding steady, which is a nice change from the incredibly dramatic (and swift) free-fall.

At least our job numbers are not falling like they used to.

At least our job numbers are not falling like they used to.

Even the sequester, which everyone has been wringing their hands about for months, was something that has been in place for the past 20 months — and something that we can point to as an example of both problem solving and puzzle pieces “adding up”.  Let’s remember that the sequestration’s purpose is to trim federal spending and reduce the overall deficit over 10 years by 1.2 Trillion dollars — and that this was something everyone agreed needed to happen.

So, five years into this post-recession world, we can objectively point to real pieces of evidence and see that yes, things are coming together.  The long and frustrating process of problem solving is starting to bear fruit.  Yes, we do have a long way to go before returning to a pre-recession economy but we are working at it.  We are not standing still, twiddling our collective thumbs, and just waiting for things to happen.  We are thinking, discussing, arguing, and testing.  We are doing this as best (and as fast) as our human brains can allow us to do.

We are moving forward; we just need to remember that it all takes time.

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