Tag Archives: art

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Re-Membering

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Re-Membering coverI began teaching for the BLS Program in Spring 2007.  I taught my “Photography: Contexts and Illusions” class and was developing another BLS course, “The Art of Life,” as well as an Introduction to Art class.  I was supposed to begin teaching full time the next Fall, but life interfered.  While traveling with a friend in San Francisco in May, I had an accident and suffered from traumatic brain injury.  I did teach Photography again Fall of 2007, but it would be another year before I could resume all my teaching.

Bob Hansen was kind enough to cover my “Art of Life” course for me until the Fall of 2008.  When I first began teaching it, it was all new to me, because my accident had caused significant memory loss.  I did not recall how the class was conceived or why I chose the specific examples and readings for it.  However, I felt an eerie sense of fate or destiny teaching a course based on the idea that art emerges from everyday life, and that specifically art may be considered, ultimately, as an accident.  Much of the subject matter of the course surrounds how accidents can lead to insight and inspiration, and I began teaching it while I was still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of my accident.  One of the writing assignments my students had to complete was an essay on the theme of loss and discovery, which resonated with a lot of what I was going through – dealing with my own losses (of identity, memory, time, etc.), as well as discovering new aspects of myself.  I felt inspired to write a response to my own assignment about my accident and its effects on my life, both its consequential losses as well as its discoveries.  This is the essay I now post each semester that I teach the course:

For most of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost.  I had lost weight, lost hair, lost part of my skull, lost much muscular movement and fluidity, and lost my mobility.  I had lost my memory, my history, my sense of security, and my identity.  I had lost my mind.

Backing up…In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my friend, Anna.  We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street.  According to Anna, I was not drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this.  It was unexplainable.  I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, or even planning it.  I have blocked the whole experience out.  I have blocked a lot of experiences out.  Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of being there.  I don’t have any flashes of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives).  I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.  I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember.  Slowly, my strength and endurance came back.  I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

"Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy," 2011

“Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy,” 2011

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically.  Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest.  But I digress.  I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of which I was supposed to be teaching full time that Fall.  My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely, got stronger.  I was able to concentrate and exert authority, more and more over time.  I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember.  As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off.  I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again.  But I was still lost.

Backing up further…I have been physically disabled since birth, and I have incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I know how to teach myself to do things and how to adapt to do anything I want to do.  I am (was?) independent.  I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD.  I was, for better or worse, fearless.  Now I feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store.  But the anxiety about injury lessens over time.  The anxiety over being lost is still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods oscillate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember people, places, and personal things.  I sometimes have to laugh, as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but that people just look alike.  I can laugh at my loss, at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened, and why.

I have learned many, countless things from my accident, about myself and the world I live in.  But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes.  They are states of being, always in flux.  They collide, overlap, and intertwine.  Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning.  And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

The responses of the students to my essay were ones of admiration, respect, and identification.  Many shared with me similar experiences of their own or of others they knew.  I believe students also felt more open with me and shared more of themselves with me and with fellow students in their writing.  They also encouraged me to write more.  I did.  Over the next few years, I drafted four more essays or chapters about my experiences in hospitals and with multiple channels of recovery, including physical, craniosacral, and art therapies.  Eventually, I had a book – a memoir that incorporated research as well as personal narrative.  The structure and range of subjects in the book, I felt, echoed how my brain works; in it, I switch between various subjects of interest to me and forms of writing, I go off on tangents, and often I compose text from fragments of information and memory.

Once I felt the book was nearly completed, I submitted proposals to publishers and got many respectful and complimentary rejections, as I was repeatedly told that they simply did not publish memoirs.  I wanted to see my work assembled and distributed, to complete the project so that I could share my story with others, and to perhaps provide them with hope.  I chose to self-publish with CreateSpace through Amazon.com.

Here is a link to its listing.

I did all the formatting of the manuscript myself, which was, admittedly, a pain; I hired my sister who was a journalist to edit; and I paid a professional to design a cover.  I am proud of the project and hope readers of this blog will be interested in it.  It really epitomizes the intersections between art and life, as well as the various intersections between life and online education.

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Dr. Millett-Gallant at her computer

Life Becomes Art: Modeling for Joel-Peter Witkin

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Joel-Peter Witkin, "Retablo (New Mexico)" (2007)

Joel-Peter Witkin, “Retablo (New Mexico)” (2007).

In 2010, I published my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.  In it, I analyze the artworks of contemporary disabled artists, many of which are self-portraits and performance, in comparison with images of disabled bodies by non-disabled, contemporary artists.  I also place such contemporary work in comparison with images from the history of body displays in art and visual culture, such as fine art painting, medical photographs, freakshow displays, documentary photographs, and popular culture.  I was very proud when the book was called the first to cross the disciplines of art history with disability studies and am happy that it has been adopted as required reading for courses on a variety of subjects related to visual culture, disability studies, and cultural studies.

Joel-Peter Witkin, "First Casting for Milo" (2005), as used for the cover of The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

Joel-Peter Witkin, “First Casting for Milo” (2005), as used for the cover of Ann Millett-Gallant’s book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

The book overlaps with subjects of many of my online courses at UNCG.  In it, I discuss the work of Frida Kahlo, which, although it precedes the time period on which the book focuses, set much precedence for the self-portrait and performative work of contemporary disabled, as well as many non-disabled, women artists.  We discuss such work in my online Art 100 course in a unit about feminist art and notions of arts and crafts.  Much of the artwork I analyze in my book is photography, which relates directly to my BLS course: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.  I also discuss performance, which is a major subject of my BLS course: Representing Women, as well as The Art of Life.  The Art of Life course focuses on the intersections between art and everyday life in a variety of ways, which is also a theme of this book.  In all three of these BLS classes, we debate the implications of self-display on the part of artists.  I delivered a talk about my book for the art department of UNCG in Fall of 2010 and again at the Multicultural Resource Center in Fall of 2012.  At both meetings I received a lot of interested feedback and compelling questions, as well as generous praise.  I am interested in teaching an online course centered on the subjects of my book in the future.

Frida Kahlo in 1931

Frida Kahlo in 1931, six years after the bus accident that left her in lifelong pain.

The subject matter of this book has proved to be personal to me in more ways than one, and in some ways unexpected.  I have been physically disabled since birth, involved in studying and making art since childhood, and interested in bridging these subjects in my teaching and writing as an academic professional.  And there is more.  While researching the beginnings of this book in New York City in the Fall of 2004, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibit (examples of Witkin’s work may be viewed at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Etherton Gallery).

I viewed the gallery and met the photography curator, Sarah Hasted, who was as enthusiastic about Witkin’s controversial work as I was and was also a personal friend of his.  She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet and collaborate on a photograph.  I was eager to serve as his model.  I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people, as well as other individuals, can be a liberating personal and political act, I felt that I should have the experience, or in other words, I should put my body where my mouth was.  After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet him and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaux.

WitkinSelf1995

Witkin self portrait (1995).

I wrote about my many experiences in my journal and later in my book.  The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Witkin’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots.  Covered in body paint, I almost felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models and in front of photography professionals, I felt less self-conscious.  Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque.  I remember how Witkin would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with almost orgasmic excitement.  Yet it was all business for him.  He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were actors playing roles.

The resulting photograph is titled Retablo (New Mexico) (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo).  The image was conceived when Witkin saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above the following retablo prayer:

San Sebastian, I offer you this retablo because Veronica agreed to come live with me. We are thankful to you for granting us this happiness without having to hide from society to have our relationship. Sylvia M. (translation)

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer.

Witkin’s photograph also contains this prayer and, of course, fabulist imagery.  It is based on this and other similar retablos, printed in France, of homosexuals giving thanks to God and to saints for graces received in their lives. In Witkin’s version, Duccio’s Christ resists Lucifer’s temptations after viewing the future of the world, which includes the tragedy of 9/11.  Witkin’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her.  We are staged on a pedestal covered in flowing drapery and in front of an elaborate backdrop, which includes a photograph of the same model in a characteristic St Sebastian pose and a painted, shadowed, and winged form confronting a hand of salvation.  An iconographic reminder of death and a warning symbol of righteousness, a skeleton, lounges comically on the left side of the scene.  I cannot logically explain the photograph, as it defies a central narrative.  It is far more sensory than sensible.  I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms.  The female figures are opposing in the positions – one flaunting the front of her nude body, the other much smaller and flaunting her back.  The two bodies complement one another and complete a disfigured, heavenly narrative. Witkin said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose.  This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back.  Like the other models in my book, I perform for my readers/viewers.  Life becomes art.  The photograph epitomizes the Art of Life for me.

Today, a print of the photograph hangs in my living room, while another image of Witkin’s graces the cover of my book, I refer to the photographer as Joel, and Paul, my companion on the trip who served as Joel’s assistant, is now my husband.

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

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No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

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This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

SECAC Art Conference: Coming to Greensboro in 2013

by Ann Millett-Gallant

SECACSECAC, the Southeast College Art Conference, was founded as a regional arts organization in 1942 and now hosts an annual, national conference for artists, art educators and scholars, and art museum professionals.

The organization also publishes The SECAC Review, presents awards for excellence in teaching, museum exhibitions, and artist works, and posts opportunities and jobs for art professionals.  I have attended and presented at numerous SECAC conferences in the past, in Little Rock, AR, Norfolk, VA, Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA.  The 2012 conference was held in my hometown, Durham, NC and sponsored by Meredith College.  Conference panels are proposed and selected by panel chairs, and this year, I chaired a panel titled “Disability and Performance: Bodies on Display.”  This topic is central to my research and especially my book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

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The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art

My panelists gave presentations on independent films; the canonical painting by Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875, and comparable images of disabled war veterans; and the collection of freak show photographs in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CN.  This was my second experience chairing a panel on disability and disability studies at a SECAC conference, topics that are still somewhat new for art historians and professionals.  The panel went well and sparked much interest and lively conversation.

I also attended a panel on Doppelgangers, or images of doubles or identical pairs, which engaged art historical examples from diverse contexts and time periods, as well as a panel on self-taught, or outsider artists.  This latter panel was of special interest to me, because my good friend from graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Leisa Rundquist, presented a paper on the work of Henry Darger (the link is to works by Darger in the Folk Art Museum, whose administration and education employees hosted the panel).  Leisa is now a professor of art history of UNC Asheville, so the conference was also a chance to see her.  I especially enjoy SECAC conferences, because I see a lot of old friends and usually meet new and like-minded people.

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

I didn’t attend as much of the conference as I usually do, ironically, because it was too close to home.  On the day before my presentation, my refrigerator broke, so I returned home right after the panel to wait for a new refrigerator to arrive.  I attended two panels the next day and caught up with friends over glasses of wine at the bar.  I didn’t participate in any of the organized tours of local museums and art venues, as I can see them whenever I want.  It was nice not to have to pack for and travel to the conference, especially in light of how stressful and expensive flying has become, but there is something nice about going to conferences out of town, staying at the conference hotel, and immersing yourself in the atmosphere and activities.

This Fall, the conference will be held in Greensboro, NC, so hopefully I will see many of my colleagues from UNCG and the Weatherspoon Art Museum there, as well as, perhaps, my students.  I will be chairing a panel titled “Photographing the Body.”

Medici: Money, Murder, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and More!

By Wade Maki

Early in the 15th century an ex-pirate enters a small shop in Florence. A visit to the shop is not his goal. In the back of the shop is a small family bank from which the ex-pirate hopes to gain a large loan. The man running the bank, Giovonni de’Medici, grants the loan. The ex-pirate uses the money to fund a new career in the church and within a few years he becomes Pope John XXIII. As a reward the Medici become the bankers to the church expanding Medici Bank’s reach across Europe.

Giovonni represents a successful business career. Of course, during this time in Florence business, family, and politics (including murder) were all interconnected. To promote and protect the family, more than just money was needed. To rise in social standing without noble blood required a different display than business success. The Medici began to fund the arts making themselves patrons of the Renaissance.

Giovonni’s son, Cosimo, had the luxury of a classical education in literature and philosophy. He also grew up in the banking business. Cosimo continued to run the bank, fund the arts, and collect classical texts which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Medici became patrons to the architect Brunelleschi who would create the largest dome in the Christian world. In addition, Cosimo commissioned works from many artists such as Lippi, Donatello, Michelozzo and Gozzoli.  The Medici even took in a young boy and raised him with their own children because of his artistic aptitude. That boy was Michelangelo.

Santa Maria del Fiore - Brunelleshi

Late in the 15th century, Lorenzo de’Medici, known as “the Magnificent”, would go on to run the city of Florence and commission work from Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. All of the Medici successes, the Renaissance they helped create was not appreciated by all. In 1492 Lorenzo was murdered and the family driven out by religious fundamentalists who then held a “bonfire of the vanities” to publicly incinerate classical “pagan” literature and non-Christian artistic works.

Birth of Venus – Botticelli

Exiled from Florence, Lorenzo’s son Giovonni, a cardinal in the church, sought to reclaim Florence, which had become a republic. Giovonni found the Pope sympathetic and with papal support raised an army to march on Florence. One of the young advisors to the republic arranged a citizen army to defend the city. This defense would not succeed, as Giovonni’s tactics were so brutal (massacring an entire village) that the leaders of the republic surrendered rather than risk a more violent end. The young advisor who led the resistance to Giovonni de’Medici was arrested, tortured, and exiled. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli who went on to write a book, The Prince, dedicated to the Medici in the hopes of regaining a government job. This did not earn him a job, but the book has made him one of the most infamous political writers in history.

Macchiavelli

After retaking the city, Giovonni went on to become Pope Leo X by 1513. His financial mismanagement of church funds led to the selling of papal indulgences (you simply paid for a document forgiving various sins). Pope Leo’s actions caused a little known German priest to protest church corruption. The Priest’s name was Martin Luther who started a little thing called the Protestant Reformation (maybe you’ve heard of it).

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

During this period, Medici patronage allowed Michelangelo to complete the statue of David (which was damaged during an anti-Medici revolt in the city), paint the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgment (which included nude people, who the church had another artist paint undergarments on the exposed genitals).

The Last Judgment – Michelangelo

Other Medici ruled Florence as Duke, became Popes, and one even went on to rule France as Queen (with a belief in the writings of Nostradamus). In the 16th century the Medici hired a tutor who taught three generations of Medici students. The tutor was especially skilled in science and astronomy. His name was Galileo and he remained with the Medici until the Pope sent the Inquisition after him for writing that the earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could save Galileo from the Papal Inquisition.

We often talk about interconnectedness and complexity within the human experience. This is reflected well in the lives of the Medici. Their motivations were very human. They desired wealth, power, and status and found business, religion, and the arts useful methods to achieve those ends. They also had a sincere appreciation for history, philosophy, and the arts—especially for the classics—which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were greedy bankers, ruthless rulers, corrupt Popes, patrons of the arts, promoters of science, preservers of culture and essential to the Renaissance. All of these things connect to a single family within a 200 year period. It doesn’t get much more human than that.

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

A Day at the Museum

By Ann Millett-Gallant

The renovated NC Art Museum

Last weekend, my husband and I visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.  Over the past few years the museum has undergone major renovations, as the main East Building was reorganized and expanded with an education wing was built, and a new, state of the art exhibition building was erected.  This 127,000-square-foot West Building, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, allows for natural light to enhance the color and detail of the works in the space and enhance the ambiance of the environment for the museum viewer.  Most of the museum’s permanent collection resides in the West Building, including the museum’s vast collection of Rodin sculptures, many of were acquired after renovations were completed.  The building contains both the Rodin court and the Rodin garden, where the expressive, early modern figurative sculptures embrace, stretch, and coil in moments of intense thought or meditation.  I have explored all the rooms and collections in the Museum’s new spaces, but for this visit, we concentrated on two exhibits in the East Building, Presence/Absence, a collection of photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, and Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver.

The idea that “presence” and “absence” are  important characteristics in the essence of photography has long, theoretic and poetic origins, yet here the exhibit chose to focus on landscapes and domestic spaces in which the human body was physically absent, yet where life forces were profuse.  Dimly lit houses glow in the moonlight of a rural vista, spilled milk expands on the floor in front of densely stacked convenience store goods, and stains on the wallpaper in front of an antique headboard hint of ghostly inhabitation.  I was drawn to the works by photographers whom I know; Jeff Whetstone is a professor at UNC at Chapel Hill and Pamela Pecchio, who is now a professor at the University of Virginia, also taught at UNC-CH when I was in graduate school there (I graduated in 2005).  The exhibition was small, but very intriguing for me.  I write about photography in my work and teach an online class about the diverse contexts in which photography is found, as well as some of the theories surrounding the role of the photograph as evidence and as illusion: BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.

The museum also featured an exhibition of the portraits and self-portraits of North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.  Many examples of her work can be viewed here.  McIver was born in Greensboro and now lives with her developmentally disabled sister in Durham, where she is currently the Suntrust Endowed Chair Professor of Art at North Carolina Central University.  Many of McIver’s works are about roles for African-American women according to racial, gender, social and occupational identities, and they therefore directly to relate to my class Representing Women, in which we study roles for women in society and representations of women in diverse forms of visual culture.

Reminiscing (Beverly McIver, 2005)

This collection on view currently at the NCMA focuses on McIver’s portraits of her family, especially her mother and sister.  Captions on the museum walls present bits on McIver’s biography, including how her mother was such a strong role model, who lovingly cared for McIver’s sister, Rene, who had developmental impairments that, according to the text, caused her to behave as a child.  From my background in Disability Studies, I was at first critical of the museum’s texts that described Rene as “mentally disabled,” but was fascinated by McIver’s numerous portraits of Rene.  McIver’s characteristic, expressionist use of color and bold, thick paint strokes highlight Rene’s colorful and multi-dimensional personality.  Portraits of Rene show a range of intense facial expressions, as well as Rene’s love of expressive costumes.  McIver’s self-portraits also exhibit ranges of emotion and identity.  For example, Reminiscing, 2005, shows McIver’s vibrant and dramatic face in three different facial expressions, created with bold brush strokes of reds, oranges, yellows, and, with smaller flashes of blue and green.  Reminiscing suggests that the artist is musing over her personal and professional history, as an African-American woman and artist, yet the title also signifies a long history of the works’ form.  The selection of three canvases is reminiscent of a triptych, an artistic form that originated in Greek art, consisting of three panels that could be closed.  Later Christian altarpieces adopted this triptych form for depicting saints and Biblical stories.  It is in these sacred traditions that McIver paints her ranges of identities.

McIver’s work is included in the permanent collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the NCCU Museum of Art, the Asheville Museum of Art, The Crocker Art Museum, the Nelson Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Arizona State University, the in Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNCG.  I would recommend anyone to see for themselves.

Adults Say the Damnedest Things

By Ann Millett-Gallant

Ann at UNCG

I am scholar who studies and teaches about representations of the body in visual culture.  I am the designer and instructor for 3 BLS courses: Art of Life, Photography: Context and Illusions, and Representing Women.  These classes include examples from fine art, film, television, advertisements, medical images, and so on, and in my own writing, I focus specifically on these representations of the visibly disabled body.  I also consider everyday social interaction as a form of visual culture.  As a woman with very noticeable physical disabilities, I know a lot about the stare.  And often for me, daily life can become a theater for performance.  At the Kroger near my house, I have been stared at, mainly by children; asked how long I have been disabled or what “happened” to me; told various stories about other disabled people; and told I am admired, because if the person speaking were “like” me, they wouldn’t want to leave the house.  Now, it’s always good to be called amazing, but it’s not so great when that term is based on low expectations for what I can and should so.   I always have to consider whether to use the moment as a teaching tool or whether to blow it off and not waste my time.  I like to respond to children, for example, by telling them I was “born this way,” or that I don’t have legs because I don’t need them.  I didn’t know how to respond when the cashier at CVS asked me how long I had been doing things for myself, as if implying the question “how long have you been out of the hospital?”  I wish I had had a better come back, but I just declared, “Since birth!”  Sometimes these moments amuse me, but sometimes they make me angry and sad.  Not so much sad about myself, but sad that disability has such a bad rap.

The other day, after I left the doctor’s office, I scooted across the parking lot to Rose’s discount department store.  I was happy to find 2 pairs of cute, inexpensive sunglasses, since recently it seemed that all my other cheap sunglasses had been breaking.  I thought I should call my husband to come to pick me up, but then I realized I had forgotten my cell phone.  I asked the woman at the checkout line if there was a phone nearby I could use, and I explained my predicament.  She responded that I better get a hold of him soon, because what if I were to get abducted.  I found this to be an odd response, because we were in a public space in a nice neighborhood.  I scowled and said in a joking tone that I wasn’t worried about that, but I just wanted to get home.  She then told me I should worry about that (being abducted), because “they go after all kinds of women.”  I scowled again, in more anger.  Was that supposed to be some sort of twisted compliment, that even though I was disabled, that I was still attractive to abductors?!  And in the first place, the fact that she was talking about me as being abducted meant she was classifying me as helpless, dependent, childlike, or somehow already vulnerable.  I don’t think all that people think before they speak, and certainly don’t realize the assumptions and stereotypes that are communicated through their utterances.  And, I realize their comments have much more to say about their own ignorance and insecurities than mine.

And all these interactions aren’t negative.  In some ways, I feel like a celebrity.  I stand out in a crowd, and I attract attention.  I do exchange many smiles and hellos with people around my usual haunts.  In some restaurants where my husband and I eat often, the wait staff may even remember what I want to order.  Sometimes the comradery is nice, yet at times, I wish I could remain incognito.  I’d love to hear from others who have these experiences.