Thursday, June 27, 2013


How Shocking: Met Unbuttons

Metropolitan Museum Sheds Its Metal Admissions Tags

Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Metal tags will no longer be used as admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The “French Connection” was in theaters. The Mets and the Yankees finished in fourth place. The city referred to itself as the Big Apple for the first time in advertising campaigns. And that same year, 1971, the Metropolitan Museum of Art introduced a colorful piece of metal as its admission ticket, a tiny doodad that came to occupy a large place in the reliquary of New York City, along with Greek-themed coffee cups, I ♥ NY T-shirts and subway tokens.
Now the Met’s admission button will go the way of the token. Citing the rising cost of the tin-plate pieces and the flexibility of a new paper ticket system using detachable stickers, the Met will end the buttons’ 42-year run on Monday, the same time it switches to a seven-day-a-week schedule instead of being closed on Mondays.
“I regret it slightly myself,” said Thomas P. Campbell, the museum’s director. “One of my assistants has a whole rainbow of the colored buttons on her desk.” But he and Harold Holzer, the museum’s senior vice president for public affairs, who oversees admissions and visitor services, said that the buttons had become an antiquated luxury.
“We realize, without sounding crass, that it’s a beloved brand and a beloved symbol,” Mr. Holzer said. But the price of the metal has risen, he said, and the number of manufacturers the museum could go to for competitive prices has dwindled. “It just became too expensive. We saw that it was inevitable.”
Metal admissions buttons are fashion accessories for visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not after Monday.
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Metal admissions buttons are fashion accessories for visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not after Monday.
Over the years of its existence, the button became an accidental tourist totem — evidence not only that the city had been visited but also that high culture had been revered. And the button became a kind of art object in its own right, described once by Met curators as a kind of coin with a “multilayered tissue of readings and meanings.” It has been recycled into artworks like Ji Eon Kang’s “Dress,” made from hundreds of the buttons assembled like chain mail. Its design has been incorporated into Met mugs and T-shirts. And it has been collected by the hundreds by a certain kind of Met devotee. (Collecting all 16 colors could also help you slip into the museum without paying the suggested $25 admission price; the colors are changed daily in random order.)
A guide to the Met's colored buttons.
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
A guide to the Met's colored buttons.
The current design, bearing an “M” adapted from a 16th-century woodcut illustration based on a Leonardo drawing, figures in the Met’s sense of its own identity, including the museum’s internal newsletter, which uses the button in its nameplate. Even the announcement that the Met would be open seven days a week borrowed the familiar iconography; it showed a line of six shiny buttons representing the days of the week, with a seventh added for Monday.
The buttons were introduced a year after the Met instituted a suggested-price admission system, replacing paper tickets and stickpins, and they seemed to capture the spirit of the new admissions policy, acting as a souvenir instead of a receipt.
“That badge became the un-ticket,” said Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. “You weren’t paying to get into the museum; you were making a donation. And in exchange you got this beautiful little thing that also has a control function.”
Metal admissions buttons from the Metropolitan Museum of Art have become dresses.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metal admissions buttons from the Metropolitan Museum of Art have become dresses.
Museums around the world followed suit, with metal (or, increasingly, plastic) badges now standard issue in many institutions. The Met’s own badges have evolved too, in terms of text and typeface (an “M” set in Bodoni and the initials “MMA” are among past iterations), as well as color. Hundreds of shades have come and gone, and those now in use are known by idiosyncratic in-house nicknames — Mole, Hubba Bubba, Piglet, Poupon. The one-inch badges — known in the admissions-button industry as litho tabs — are made by Kraus & Sons, a manufacturing company based in Chelsea that also created the museum’s first banners in the 1960s.
To keep up with the more than six million people who visit each year, the museum orders 1.6 million of the buttons four times a year, Mr. Holzer said, and they now cost about three cents per button, up from two cents only a few years ago. The new paper tickets will cost only about a penny each, and they will give the museum the space to promote shows, new and soon to close, and, Mr. Holzer added, a space “to sell to corporate sponsors” for advertising.
The colored buttons in their storage bins.
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The colored buttons in their storage bins.
The tickets will also be easier on the environment, though the Met does ask patrons to drop their buttons in a bowl on the way out the door, for placement in the city’s metal recycling system.
The new ticket-stickers will incorporate a version of the Leonardo “M,” evoking the button. But in an era in which physical objects seem to be rapidly dematerializing into the digital, the loss of a durable little chunk of the Met will undoubtedly be missed.
“It’s sad,” said Monica Mahoney, a 46-year-old fashion designer who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York but was back on Thursday and paying a visit to the museum, as she often does. “Everyone now will keep these, like they keep subway tokens. But it’s just a memory of New York.”
But other patrons say they will suffer from no postbutton nostalgia. “They always fall off,” said Malcolm Roberts, 66, a retired teacher who grew up in Brooklyn but now lives in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. “And then, walking around the museum, I would feel like the emperor — naked. If it’s the difference between buying a Monet and keeping these, they can buy the Monet.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Print-At-Home Sculptures

Jun 26 2013 @ 9:22am
They’ve arrived:
In his living room in San Diego right now, Cosmo Wenman has two life-sized reproductions of the British Museum’s Head of a Horse of Selenea magnificently life-like sculpture with nostrils flared that dates to around 432 B.C. The original in Britain is made of marble, about three feet end-to-end. Wenman’s copies, created with an older digital camera and a MakerBot 3D printer, are clearly reproductions as soon as you lift them up. Created out of plastic, coated in a bronze patina, they weigh about 8 pounds each. For the last year or so, Wenman has been casing some of the world’s great sculptures for at-home replication, photographing them from every angle in plain sight inside the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate Britain, the British Museum and a few others.
Wenman thinks 3-D printing could change the way we learn about and experience art:
Art museums have been scanning pieces like this for archival purposes for years. What’s new is that just about anyone can now walk into a gallery—assuming that photography is allowed—and do this, too. “To me,” Wenman says, “it seems very analogous to the potential behind the Napster-like free-for-all of unauthorized reproduction and sharing and remixing of music.”
Schoolchildren, he suggests, could reproduce their own art instead of flipping the pages in a text book. Artists could use the 3D designs to create modern sculpture inspired by famous antiquities, in much the same way that musicians sample each other. Smaller local museums, in particular, might use this as a way of drawing attention to little-known collections. And, of course, any 3D printing amateur could download these files to experience art that lives thousands of miles away.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Andy Warhol and the Persistence of Modernism

The Stone
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
The June 20th issue of The New York Review of Books contains a devastating portrayal, by the art critic Richard Dorment, of the activities of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and its (now dissolved) sister institution, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. The foundation was established, according to Warhol’s will, to provide for the “advancement of the visual arts,” and was to be funded by the sale of a large number of works the artist left to his estate. The board was assembled for the purpose of deciding whether a given work was an original Warhol. As I’ll explain, that task is hardly straightforward.
Dorment’s fundamental accusation is that members of these overlapping organizations were in a position to profit from the authentication process, and that this affected their decisions. Whether these accusations hold up or not, the Warhol situation epitomizes a curious fact about the art world since the postmodern period.
Postmodernism in the arts repudiated many of the basic teachings of modernism: the myth of individual genius, for example, and the concept of originality. Yet arts institutions continued to operate throughout the postmodern period, and do so right up to the present moment, as though that critique never happened. Museums, foundations, government endowments, and university art departments all effortlessly absorbed a movement which was more or less devoted to destroying their conception of the arts. They treated the postmodernists exactly the way they’d treated the modernists.
The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board proceeded as if the postmodern era that Warhol crystallized never happened at all.
As the ur-postmodernist, Warhol’s entire artistic practice and persona stood, quite intentionally, in opposition to modernist ideas. He was the very antithesis of a Van Gogh, a Picasso, a Pollock. Where they (it was held) re-made the world visually and emotionally in the smithies of their tortured souls (to paraphrase James Joyce), Warhol blithely swiped subject matter from mass media. He presented himself as a kind of empty mirror for the images that were already all around us in advertising or entertainment or packaging. And his persona was famously cool and withdrawn, or even blank: just the opposite of the outsized, impassioned personalities of Picasso or Pollock.
Nevertheless, like the arts establishment generally, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board proceeded as if the postmodern era that Warhol crystallized never happened at all. The board stamped, in indelible ink, works it rejected as original Warhols. Their decisions make a substantial difference in the art’s value.
Warhol left behind tens of thousands of items, many of which he never touched, except in some cases to add a signature. Both prints and “original paintings” were instead more or less designed by him and executed in various shops around town, which Warhol typically didn’t even bother to visit. The whole thing could be interpreted as a pointed demonstration that “originality” is over or pointless in the era of mass media.
What is and is not an original Warhol, in the Authentication Board’s definition, seemed to depend on what Warhol was aware of as it was being made: mere awareness is analogous, in Warhol’s case, to the hand of Pollock. Now the hand of Pollock may be difficult to distinguish from the hand of, say, a copyist, but an expert or true connoisseur could tell the difference. Discerning the direction of Warhol’s fleeting awareness in 1973, on the other hand, would be a challenge for an omniscient deity.
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.
Yet remarkably, the entire discourse and institutional context which was developed in relation to Manet, Kandinsky or de Kooning, and explicitly attacked by Warhol and the postmodernists, is simply reproduced by the foundation, the board, and indeed by virtually all institutions that deal with postmodern art. It’s roughly analogous to scientists trying to account for the latest results in physics using the intellectual equipment of medieval theology.
Why is that? If modernism died in actual art practice, why did the art market and museum system go on as though nothing had ever happened? First of all, modernist ideology is extremely effective commercially. Once you jettison ideas like originality and genius, there is no justification for prices in the millions.
It is quite plausible to assert that, unlike most modernist masterpieces, a decent reproduction of a Warhol is as a good as an “original,” or for that matter is just as original. In virtue of what, precisely, would you distinguish them aesthetically? Is it that the original was brushed at a distance of some miles by Andy Warhol’s awareness?
Warhols are, to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms, “works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Benjamin famously asserted that, in a situation in which images could be copied cheaply and en masse, works of art were losing their “aura”: the sense of mystery and transcendent value that attended them. But aura is associated with rarity and preciousness: it limits supply and hence enhances or exponentially increases price. So, for those who stand to profit from postmodern art, the aura has to be imposed, invented, or (dis)simulated.
Second, whole generations of art lovers have been trained in modernist dogma, and arts institutions’ access to various forms of state or foundation support depend on it completely. One goes to the museum to gasp at stunning works of incomparable, super-human genius by beings who are infinitely more exalted and important than the mere humans staring at their paintings. That’s why ordinary people staring at a Picasso (allegedly) experience a kind of transcendence or re-articulation of their lives and world.
This quasi-religious approach was questionable enough with regard to the objects around which it developed, but it seems merely ridiculous when you are staring at a Warhol Brillo box, a Lichtenstein comic strip, or a Jenny Holzer text. You are definitely going to need experts to explain how these things could possibly be appreciated this way. And if they can’t be or shouldn’t be, or if they appear ridiculous or incomprehensible when they are, the institutions that house them stand to lose the justification for their existence and funding.
The institutional economics of art — public or private — depends on what the postmodern art theorist Rosalind Krauss called “the originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths.” It doesn’t matter what you do: if you are an “important artist,” arts institutions will portray you and market you as an original genius and your work as the high-water mark of human transcendence, which not incidentally increases its price. The canvas on which you have someone in Bangladesh stencil “this is not a work of original genius” will be “authenticated” as a work of original genius, and probably turn out to be more valuable than the Bangladeshi economy as a whole.

Crispin Sartwell teaches in the art department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. His most recent book is “Political Aesthetics.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Idealism and Blindness Of flaking paint and blemishes

Many years ago, as I was leafing through a book in which I had no interest, I found one of the saddest stories in the world. It was a new edition of a textbook on visual perception, the psychology and physiology of the eye, and there I discovered “the case of S.B.” S.B. was an Englishman who was blind from infancy to middle age, when, at the age of 52, he received a successful corneal transplant. “All his life he tried to picture the world of sight,” Richard L. Gregory wrote. “He longed for the day when he might see. ... But though the operation was a success his story ended tragically.” With his sight recovered, S. B. managed to identify animals and objects correctly on the basis of the prior knowledge that he had gained from touch and the reports of sighted people, “but he found the world drab, and was upset by flaking paint and blemishes.” I will let Gregory complete the tale: “[He] said that he noted more and more the imperfections in things, and would examine small irregularities and marks in paintwork or wood, which he found upsetting, evidently expecting a more perfect world. He liked bright colours, but became depressed when the light faded. His depression became marked and general. He gradually gave up active living, and three years later he died.”
I never forgot S.B., the man whose heart was broken by the ugliness of the world. In my unceasing and unsuccessful attempt to work out the relations between idealism and realism, he exemplified most purely the disappointed idealist, and also the chronic connection between idealism and blindness. How much can an idealist know about the world and still not be defeated by it? Consider love: blind love is surely an inferior sort of love—the expression of the fear that the object of love may not be sufficient to justify it; but hope, too, must face the problem of ignorance. With too little knowledge, hope may be a delusion; with too much knowledge, hope may be destroyed. To some extent, idealism is always a defiance of the facts—but defy too many of the facts and you court disaster. People who wish to change the world have a special responsibility to acquaint themselves with the world, in the manner of scouts or spies. The realist, by contrast, has no conscience about being complicit with the world. For the realist, the world is all there is to work with. He sees no virtue and no glamour in adopting a standpoint outside reality: it would only diminish his efficacy, which is his highest wish. He does not promote his goals into ideals. Aspiring to less, the realist may accomplish more. Aspiring to more, the idealist may accomplish less.
And yet even the failed idealist adds to the store of the world’s sense of possibility. Idealism is futural: it is never completely defeated because it is never completely satisfied. The aspirations of the realist nourish only his own time: they are premised on the actualities of the present, and so they bequeath nothing to those who will live in a different present with different actualities. But idealism is an activity of the imagination, which is less than vision but more than blindness. It is visionary, in that it beholds what is not yet there. The facts surpass only the poor imaginations. The world may thwart our efforts to improve it, but it cannot thwart our conceptions of it improved; and that is our advantage over it. We can always resume the struggle.
S.B.’s mistake was in not regarding the ideal temporally. He believed that the world was already perfect. What he could not see must therefore have been perfect: perhaps this was his private theodicy, his way of conferring significance upon his blindness. He might have found more comfort in the thought that the world was not worth seeing; but he aspired to sight. How can the blind not believe in beauty? I thought of S.B. last week as I stood before The Great Piece of Turf, Dürer’s heart-stopping watercolor of 1503, in the National Gallery. It depicts only a homely clump of grass, with plantain and dandelion, in a muddy patch of dirt. This picture is a miracle not only of the artist’s hands, but also of the artist’s eyes. When Dürer saw those weeds, he saw the occasion for an apotheosis of naturalism in Western art. In the marginal he perceived the monumental. But S.B.—would he have seen only more drabness, more irregularities, more blemishes? And not only S.B.: it is fine for us to marvel at the picture, but would we have marveled also at what it shows? We, who are always still learning to see, would not even have noticed it. It was dull, after all, until Dürer demonstrated that it was exciting.
The Great Piece of Turf is a masterpiece of the morality of noticing, a genuinely thrilling example of the redemption of the unperceived world by perception. Realism in art is not like realism elsewhere. In art, realism, too, is an accomplishment of the imagination. What is imagined is the world as it really is; or the world as it would appear if it were totally visible, or if we were totally able to see it. (I first grasped this on a delirious autumn day in Bruges, where I stood for hours contemplating the detail in van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele.) Dürer’s picture, with its meta-empirical precision, was produced not in the mud but in his studio, and shows a low-to-the-ground perspective that could not have been his own—“a worm’s-eye view of heterogeneous nature,” as Joseph Koerner calls it. So the painter’s eyes were only the beginning. The verisimilitude with which he rendered the dense scene—the almost microscopic clarity of the soaring or languid blades of grass in this humble thicket—was not the mere record of a man’s optical observations. The uncanny likeness is a fantasy of the actual. As such, it is a lesson in looking; and also in the collapse of the dichotomy between the ideal and the real. They are barren without each other. Realists can also be blind and idealists can also see. I left the gallery dreaming of recovered sight.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

Monday, June 10, 2013

When Artworks Crash: Restorers Face Digital Test

Paintings fade; sculptures chip. Art restorers have long known how to repair those material flaws, so the experience of looking at a Vermeer or a Rodin remains basically unchanged over time. But when creativity is computerized, the art isn’t so easy to fix.
Lehman College Art Gallery
A detail of the Web page of Douglas Davis’s interactive computer artwork “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence.”

For instance, when a Web-based work becomes technologically obsolete, does updated software simply restore it? Or is the piece fundamentally changed?
That was the conundrum facing the Whitney Museum of American Art, which in 1995 became one of the first institutions to acquire an Internet-made artwork. Created by the artist Douglas Davis, “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” functioned as blog comments do today, allowing users to add to the opening lines. An early example of interactive computer art, the piece attracted 200,000 contributions from 1994 to 2000 from all over the globe.
By 2005 the piece had been shifted between computer servers, and the programmer moved on. When Whitney curators decided to resurrect the piece last year, the art didn’t work. Once innovative, “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” now mostly just crashed browsers. The rudimentary code and links were out of date. There was endlessly scrolling and seemingly indecipherable text in a format that had long ago ceased being cutting edge.
“This is not how one uses the Internet now,” Sarah Hromack, the Whitney’s director of digital media, said. “But in the ’90s, it was.”
For a generation, institutions from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Pompidou Center in Paris have been collecting digital art. But in trying to restore the Davis work, which was finally debugged and reposted at the end of May, the Whitney encountered what many exhibitors, collectors and artists are also discovering: the 1s and 0s of digital art degrade far more rapidly than traditional visual art does, and the demands of upkeep are much higher. Nor is the way forward clear.
“We’re working on constantly shifting grounds,” said Rudolf Frieling, a curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has been at the forefront of sustaining online art. “Whatever hardware, platform or device we’re using is not going to be there tomorrow.”
“Frankly speaking,” he added, “it’s a huge challenge. Not every museum is set up to do that. It takes huge technical expertise.”
The riddles are only solved by “actually doing it,” Mr. Frieling explained.
At the Whitney, a team of programmers and curators spent more than a year debating and tinkering with the restoration of “Collaborative Sentence.” Mr. Davis, a pioneer in technologically enhanced art who is now 80, was unable to take part in consultations on rebuilding his piece, and without a creator’s blueprint in place, almost every meeting turned into a conceptual debate.
“One of the biggest philosophical questions,” said Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of new media at the museum, “was, do we leave these links broken, as a testament to the Web” and its rapid development?
Like much early digital art, “Collaborative Sentence” is still valuable, Ms. Paul said, especially as a harbinger of the future. By allowing interaction across cultures and countries, “it anticipated so much of what happened in Web 2.0,” she said.
But many artists, curators and patrons are now reconsidering whether such art should remain unchanged, said Pip Laurenson, the head of collection care research at the Tate Gallery in London. “It’s no longer the model that a museum acquires something into its collection and tries to fix it into the time it was acquired or when it left the artist’s studio.”
The Whitney considered several options. One was to simply let technological extinction take its course, and view Web-based art as “ephemeral, like a performance,” Ms. Paul said.
Another tactic was to let the new generation of Web-based creators and everyday Internet users help with the maintenance. Or the Whitney could attract more viewers by modernizing the design of the piece. But, Ms. Paul said, “that seemed too radical an intervention.”
After much deliberation, the curators decided on a nearly unheard-of artistic solution: to duplicate Mr. Davis’s installation and present it in both original and updated forms.
One version is the frozen original, with broken code, pages of oddly formatted, garbled text and instructions for users who wanted to fax in their contributions (including the number for the Lehman College gallery, which first showed the piece). Links were redirected, through the archiving site the Wayback Machine, to their 1990s counterparts.
“The idea is that it’s sort of a time capsule,” said Ben Fino-Radin, a digital archivist who helped rebuild the work.
The new version, which the Whitney calls the live version, looks similar but has some new links. Users can’t contribute to the historical site, but they can add to the live one — albeit not by fax. The Whitney also open-sourced part of the original, hoping that users would contribute to its upkeep.
In 1995 Mr. Davis’s piece was shown in a biennial in South Korea attended by the celebrated video artist Nam June Paik. It has hundreds of comments in Korean, but the code for the characters was so degraded that Mr. Fino-Radin was stumped. If other viewers fix it, he said, seeing those messages “will be a first for Western audiences.”
With new digital art being created ever more rapidly, the debate over sustaining it will continue, just as surely as the technology leapfrogs ahead of it. Over the last decade, experts at the New Art Trust, the Tate Modern in London and the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco started Matters in Media Art, a consortium dedicated to studying these issues. Another group, the Variable Network, was started by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology.
Aided by organizations like Rhizome, where Mr. Fino-Radin is based and which works with emerging artists and art forms, they have helped spread the word about the urgent need for conservation.
“For institutions that early on committed to Net art, a lot of that work is now vanishing,” Ms. Paul said.
And the proliferation of online culture, social media and smart gadgets — and whatever the next tech revolution brings — will make preserving those visionary moments “more challenging,” she said. “Not less.”

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Friday, June 7, 2013

The NEA Four Revisited: Karen Finley Talks Sexting

Karen Finley reading a sext as part of her "Sext Me If You Can" project at the New Museum (image via the New Museum's Facebook page)
Karen Finley reading a sext as part of her “Sext Me If You Can” project at the New Museum (image via the New Museum’s Facebook page)
Of the four artists known by history as the NEA Four, Karen Finley is the one whose full name many people remember, even if they know little else about the situation that led to the artists’ lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It’s easy to speculate about why Finley’s name is more remembered than the others — it could have to do with the fact that the lawsuit bore only her name (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley); that she posed for Playboy, a move that garnered quite a bit of media attention, not long after the Supreme Court ruled against the artists’ challenge of the “decency clause” that allowed their grants to be vetoed; that American society, still grappling with the AIDS epidemic and entrenched homophobia, was more comfortable making her the face of the case instead of John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, because of her heterosexuality and traditional beauty. It could be all of those things, or it could be other things; it’s impossible to track it down precisely.
Regardless of the reasons for it, that extra limelight appears to have had a major influence on Finley’s work, particularly in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2010 she created a number of performance works that took on the issues of celebrity and public scandal, borrowing from the mediated lives of such women as Liza Minnelli, Laura Bush, Terri Schiavo, Silda Spitzer, Martha Stewart, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Many of the texts of these performances were published in the aptly titled book The Reality Shows.
That title seems particularly fitting because there’s something about Finley and her work that touches on the ways in which young reality television stars today, specifically women, become briefly famous for heavily sexualized moments of notoriety and then have to navigate and negotiate their relationship to that notoriety for years after, while also leveraging it as a way to maintain a public presence. Finley is obviously in a very different position than those women, operating within the art world, not having consciously entered into the NEA Four scandal, and sometimes making work that specifically resists sexualization; but there’s something about her movements through the arts and popular media, as well as her evocation of subjects like Silda Spitzer and Martha Stewart, that speaks to a larger conversation about the limits of female celebrity, the ways in which notoriety and sexual scandal impact women in particular, and the consistency of public expectations and assumptions once a woman has been marked by scandal.
Like the other members of the NEA Four, Finley is a highly individual artist whose work prior to and following the lawsuit has taken its own idiosyncratic path, despite the symbolic status the group was reduced to in the 1990s. Known primarily as a performance artist, she situates herself firmly within the visual arts and considers herself to be working in a conceptual vein, choosing her medium based on the demands of the ideas she’s developing — anything from performance, writing, or painting to public sculpture or installation. One week before her work Sext Me If You Can opened at the New Museum, I chatted with her by phone to learn about the new piece, and also to reflect back on her career more broadly as part of my ongoing series of interviews with the NEA Four artists during their residency at the New Museum. Given the subject matter of her work, public perceptions of her and her art, and all the ways that sexuality remains a deeply fraught subject in the US, our conversation wasn’t always an easy banter. But it was interesting, and it highlights the fact that simple boundaries can’t be drawn around artists or their work.
*   *   *
Poster from Finley's 2007 show WAKE UP!.
A poster from Finley’s 2007 show “WAKE UP!”
Alexis Clements: I want to start with the project you’re doing for the New Museum, “Sext Me If You Can,” which involves collectors purchasing the opportunity to send you a sext, which you will then receive and use as inspiration for a painting that you’ll create during live “studio” hours at the New Museum, with the paintings going back to the collectors who sent the sexts. Can you talk a bit about what led you to create this work?
Karen Finley: I like to look and see what’s going on in society, what’s in the culture, and I was really taken by how people get so bent out of shape with sexting. You know, let’s say with [Anthony] Weiner, people were acting as if it was World War III. The person is supposed to be made to feel guilty. I was thinking about the body, in terms of life drawing, and so instead of demonizing, I kind of have this sense that you’re looking at the figure, posing the figure and drawing the figure. It’s like a playfulness — trying to take away the taboo, the guilt and shame.
AC: One of the things I think of when I hear about sexting is the fear around the mistaken delivery.
KF: I think there’s a fear of being caught. Isn’t that something, too — being found out with sexuality? And so I think that’s what this is supposed to be allowing. That shame and fear and criminality — I want to expose that. In some ways, we’re supposed to be so much more open [today], but I think that some of the issues still pertain as if it was the 1950s.
AC: Another aspect to the work that I’m curious about is the involvement of both the collector and the public. The public will be able to watch you working in the temporary studio that will be set up at the museum. But there’s also a transactional nature to this, because a collector purchases the work and purchases the opportunity to send the inspiration for the work to you, in the form of a sext. I’m wondering about that choice to make it both public and transactional.
KF: I think it’s layered, and I think that what the artist does is to subvert a thinking, to offer a different perspective. I feel that this dynamic I’ve created kind of opens up a new discussion or awareness about this societal trend that’s very private but that’s part of our technology — it’s a way of relating. Not everyone is always going to be sending me texts; they’re going to really range. But you’re going to actually watch me watching, and I think that is fascinating — to see the woman watching. Because in terms of the male gaze, traditionally, it’s more of the female nude that is going to have her presence in the museum rather than the male. I’m interested also in demystifying it — the intimacy and the transmission of it within technology. Looking at them, gazing — that’s very intimate, but isn’t that what art making is about? You’re looking at the model, but it’s being sent, and I’m interpreting it. That’s what many artists have been trained to do, since the caves of Lascaux. And then the idea of acquiring it — for people to really value what they’re making, to have the sense that it’s an artwork.
Two of Finley's sext paintings
Two of Finley’s sext paintings (image via the New Museum’s Facebook page)
AC: Because in our culture, as you’re pointing out, sexting is so often seen as transgressive or private or something that one needs to be furtive about, I’m also interested in the idea that the collectors are purchasing the opportunity to do this publicly, to send a prominent artist some sort of sexual imagery or sexual words. It makes me think about other artists who are making work about the relationship between artistic labor, sex, and the marketplace. One of the first pieces that comes to mind is Andrea Fraser’s “Untitled” (2003). I know that you’ve offered critiques of the art market in other pieces you’ve done in the past, so I wonder if this is also, in some way, challenging the relationship between sex and the marketplace and the role of the artist?
KF: I’m thinking about Mr. Weiner’s sext. If he had printed those and put his name under it and had titled it, Here’s My Junk, and he did an edition of ten, within different contexts, you can see it in different ways. I was interested in the private and public. But in terms of the history, I think it is important to be looking at artists that have challenged sexual norms or dynamics. So yes, you can think about it that way. Another piece that you could be thinking of is Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” or Carolee Schneeman’s “Interior Scroll,” Annie Sprinkle’s work.
But I also actually think of it in terms of looking at [Henri de Toulouse]-Lautrec and drawing at that time — that was considered to be very radical, when he was painting the dance-hall women in Paris. I’m also thinking more of Egon Schiele, whose work was highly erotic and sexualized. I feel that I’m playing within life drawing.
AC: One other aspect of sexting and the transmission of sexual images over devices, especially given recent news headlines and picking up on some of your past work that has touched on sexual violence and the exploitation of women, is incidents like the Steubenville rape case. Rather than mistaken delivery, there are so many instances these days of the exploitative delivery of sexual images over technology — particularly instances where a young person sends a sext to their partner and that partner exploits the image, sending it on to other people. There have been a few prominent cases like this in the past year, focused on young women who have been bullied for images that they originally intended to be private or were coerced into taking. Which makes it hard for me to think about sexting and not also think about the fact that, right now in particular, the public taboo is tied up in these experiences of young people being exploited, in part, through the use of technology.
KF: It’s always fascinating to me that artists, when they’re doing one work, immediately, it’s the worst-case scenario. You know, I can’t answer all the questions in the world.
AC: I’m not implying that you’re involved in that …
KF: I know, I’m not saying you’re saying that. But at the same time, I would like to bring up, as an artist who’s been doing work and been interviewed many times, that the artist is supposed to bring an awareness. This isn’t a class-action suit; this isn’t a legal case; this isn’t lobbying; this isn’t for Planned Parenthood; this isn’t for NOW — this is an artwork. And yes, it’s complicated and it’s complex and there’s going to be contradictory levels to it. I am one person with one artwork here. I just don’t know — how am I supposed to answer that? That’s horrible that that happened.
AC: You’ve written a lot about experiences of sexuality, but also about trauma, and I think it’s all in the pot. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
A publicity shot from Finley's 2000 show, Shut Up and Love Me. (Photo: Donna Ann McAdams)
A publicity shot from Finley’s 2000 show “Shut Up and Love Me” (photo by Donna Ann McAdams)
KF: Yeah, my work does have that. I’ve also done work about young women. In this particular work, though, this is what I’m dealing with. But I’m also dealing with that, too. Some people will feel uncomfortable. It exposes that. But isn’t that the complication of creating art — all the different aspects? It’s probably something that I’ll either be accused of or that I’m not thinking about. If it brings that up or if someone feels exploited, they don’t have to necessarily participate.
AC: To build on a separate thread, you did an interview  almost two years ago about The Reality Shows book, and you briefly brought up the complicated relationship between your public identity and you as a human being and an artist. You were talking about the experience of 9/11 being very traumatic for you, and you felt that speaking as Karen Finley, the public persona, wasn’t as useful at that point for tackling the subjects you wanted to tackle. So you adopted these other characters, built performances using these other public personas. There’s something interesting to me there about the connection between trauma and disembodiment, and it seems like the characters you chose for those Reality Shows performances — Terri Schiavo, Martha Stewart, Silda Spitzer, and Jackie O, among others — those women have that experience of being disembodied very publicly, of being turned into political symbols and media figures rather than being allowed to be fully human. I just wanted to talk a little bit about that, because I think it’s fascinating, from a feminist angle. Also in the context of the NEA Four thing, in which the four of you were reduced to symbols, and your individuality was taken away a bit.
KF: Yeah, you know, you lose your privacy. But I think that happens with all public figures. I think there’s a sense that there was already a kind of iconic understanding of who I was, and an expectation. And that expectation would usually disappoint because that version of what Karen Finley was didn’t exist anyway, because everyone was just reading or imagining. So yes, in some ways, when I was performing, my image got in the way. That was a way I kind of negotiated that.
AC: That gets at something else that intrigues me about your work — that tension around the fact that the four of you were all symbolically associated with “perversion” and sexual deviance, or public deviance. I’m interested in the ways your work grapples with how to negotiate public sexuality, as well as individuality and personhood in the context of having this highly sexualized public image. As you say, you can’t ever really be the person people expect you to be. It seems like you’re exploring that through a lot of your work, but I like the idea that you did it through these other characters.
KF: I’m using or appropriating public figures. I think society selects individuals to then work out their — they project onto these individuals. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m just using a process that’s been used for probably thousands of years. Shakespeare, when he’s doing a play about Anthony and Cleopatra, that isn’t about Anthony and Cleopatra, it’s about other  issues about human nature. And that’s what I do. That’s what I’m trying to look at. Everyone has a familiarity with the archetypes of these known figures, and that’s what I was doing.
Now what I’m interested in are actually scenarios that happen in communities — events that happen to the common person, and then they are put into the limelight.
AC: Can you give me an example?
KF: There was a woman who was on a plane singing different versions of a Whitney Houston song over and over and over again until they had to land the plane and have her removed, because people couldn’t stand it. That’s what I’m thinking about. A person who is an everyday person, just part of a group experience, and then they deviate out of that experience to challenge and to heighten the situation.
AC: I’d also like to ask about the role of vulnerability in your performance work. Specifically in light of the discussion about being a public persona and being very clear about the fact that people have unrealistic, or just incorrect, expectations and assumptions about who you are. I know you don’t just do performance, but you’re present in front of an audience in a lot of your work. What, for you, is that about — placing yourself in a very vulnerable position as a performer?
KF: My daughter just went skydiving today, and she put herself in this position that’s very vulnerable, right, and exhilarating — the feat of being able to go and do that. But I’m just going to bring a different point of view now. When I first started performing and doing work, I would actually get physically ill. But then at one point in my career, it was just so difficult, with everything going on. I came to a point where I had to sit down and talk to myself, and I thought, you know, I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I was looking around in the world, and I made a decision that I was going to feel the joy and the generosity. I wanted to change and transform my pain into compassion. So when I go and perform my work, I’m really considering it as a gesture — being with the human race. That I’m there, that I have — whether it’s my ability or my talent — this connection. So I’m going to participate in the human world with my art. I look at it as an act of kindness or generosity, and I feel the joy that I can be there and participate. I try to bring my soul and my heart and my fingertips with the love of the human condition. And it’s really a wonderful feeling. So I don’t feel vulnerable at all. I feel how joyful I am in my life, that I’m able to be here to work with the people.
AC: I wanted to end by talking about the ways in which you seem to have been able to move across different areas of the arts over the course of your career. My understanding is that you started your artistic career, in part, in the punk scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then moved from there into gallery settings and pursued performance work. It seems like you’ve taken in a wide spectrum of the arts: you’ve been in punk clubs, I saw “The Jackie Look” in a cabaret space here in New York, this work at the New Museum isn’t the first time you’ve been in a museum setting.
From a 1986 performance piece by Finley, performed in Dallas. (Source)
Finley during a 1986 performance in Dallas (image via the Dallas Observer)
KF: I grew up in the Chicago area, and I’ve been doing, if you want to call it, performative conceptual work since I was in high school. And then I moved to go to the San Francisco Art Institute, and one way that I paid for myself to go to college was that I worked as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. Then there was this kind of mixture of the music scene and the art scene. Many of the musicians — new wave or punk — were going to art school as well. You would have that interplay of who can be an artist, who can be a musician, and performance was supposed to be a way to subvert or destabilize economic dynamics or the market — the gallery system and collectors. And so that’s also what “Sext Me If You Can” is doing. The prices are pretty low — they’re not $5, but it deals with marketplace, it looks at who is the artist, who is going, and who is acquiring.
I like to play with those kinds of things, and that was part of the original impetus, part of what was coming out of post–Vietnam War and earlier performance — challenging the object, that only those with wealth were able to have art. So that’s what ["Sext Me If You Can"] is supposed to be doing, too. It’s supposed to sort of destabilize that. And you know, it is about sex, but I think, more so, it’s about the transmission of images and drawing images, and for people to really look at what they do have. It is an art. There is a communication, there is a value, and we kind of just look at these images and we don’t spend time with them. I’m going to be spending time with these images. Isn’t that what we try to do in a museum? We really try to look and spend some time with an image. If we can spend more time, to think about them and to connect with images, that’s what part of art criticism and theory and vi

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Iron in Egyptian relics came from space

Meteorite impacts thousands of years ago may have helped to inspire ancient religion.
The Gerzeh bead (top) has nickel-rich areas, coloured blue on a virtual model (bottom), that indicate a meteoritic origin.
Open Univ./Univ. Manchester
The 5,000-year-old iron bead might not look like much, but it hides a spectacular past: researchers have found that an ancient Egyptian trinket is made from a meteorite.
The result, published on 20 May in Meteoritics & Planetary Science1, explains how ancient Egyptians obtained iron millennia before the earliest evidence of iron smelting in the region, solving an enduring mystery. It also hints that they regarded meteorites highly as they began to develop their religion.
“The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians,” says Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, UK, and a co-author of the paper. “Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.”
The tube-shaped bead is one of nine found in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh, around 70 kilometres south of Cairo. The cache dates from about 3,300 bc, making the beads the oldest known iron artefacts from Egypt.
A study in 1928 found that the iron in the beads had a high nickel content — a signature of iron meteorites — and led to the suggestion that it was of celestial origin2. But scholars argued in the 1980s that accidental early smelting could have led to nickel-enriched iron3, and a more recent analysis of oxidized material on the surface of the beads showed low nickel content4.
To settle the argument, Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopy and computed tomography to analyse one of the beads, which they borrowed from the Manchester Museum.
The researchers were not able to cut the precious artefact open, but they found areas where the weathered surface had fallen away, providing what Johnson describes as "little windows" to the preserved metal beneath.
Microscopy showed that the nickel content of this original metal was high — as much as 30% — suggesting that it did indeed come from a meteorite. Backing up this result, the team observed that the metal had a distinctive crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern. This structure is found only in iron meteorites that cooled extremely slowly inside their parent asteroids as the Solar System was forming.
Using tomography, the researchers built up a three-dimensional model of the bead's internal structure, revealing that the ancient Egyptians had made it by hammering a fragment of iron from the meteorite into a thin plate, then bending it into a tube.

Gifts from the gods

The first evidence for iron smelting in ancient Egypt appears in the archaeological record in the sixth century bc. Only a handful of iron artefacts have been discovered in the region from before then: all come from high-status graves such as that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. "Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power," says Johnson.
Objects made of such divine material were believed to guarantee their deceased owner priority passage into the afterlife.
Campbell Price, a curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum who was not a member of the study team, emphasizes that nothing is known for certain about the Egyptians’ religious beliefs before the advent of writing. But he points out that later on, during the time of the pharaohs, the gods were believed to have bones made of iron.
He speculates that meteorites may have inspired this belief, the celestial rocks being interpreted as the physical remains of gods falling to Earth.
Johnson says that she would love to check whether other early Egyptian iron artefacts are of meteoritic origin — if she can get permission to study them.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Gif[t]s from the gods

Mandarin Graffiti

A Chinese teenager defaced the Luxor Temple. That’s bad, but scribbling on Egyptian antiquity is as old as tourism itself.

Tourists take pictures as they walk inside the Luxor Temple in Luxor city, around 650 km (404 miles) south of Cairo, December 4, 2010.
Tourists take pictures as they walk inside the Luxor Temple in Luxor city, around 650 km (404 miles) south of Cairo, December 4, 2010.
Photo by Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
China is very sensitive about its international reputation. That explains why a single act of tourist vandalism—committed by a Chinese citizen while overseas—has created a social-media uproar in the country. The controversy began last Friday, when a Chinese traveler named Shen Yuwen logged on to the social media site Weibo and posted a snapshot of a 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple carving that had been scratched over with the phrase, "Ding Jinhao was here." ("It was the saddest moment during my stay in Egypt, and I felt ashamed," Shen lamented.) The photo quickly went viral, prompting online outrage, and in less than 24 hours netizens had publicly identified "Ding Jinhao" as a 15-year-old middle school student from Nanjing. Amid online declarations of national disgrace and social-media death threats, Ding's family came forward to express their regrets in a local newspaper. "We want to apologize to the Egyptian people and to people who have paid attention to this case across China," Ding's mother stated, adding that the boy had "cried all night" out of shame over the incident.
Ding should be ashamed—but he’s hardly the first. Indeed, the teenager’s defacement of a priceless piece of Egyptian antiquity is merely the latest expression of a tourist tradition that is nearly as old as tourism itself. In Travel in the Ancient World, historian Lionel Casson notes that evidence of the practice dates back at least to 2000 B.C., when Hena, a high official under Mentuhotep III, chiseled his name and accomplishments into the sandstone of Wadi Hammamat, near the Red Sea. Elsewhere, at Giza, scratchings on a temple wall, dated to 1244 B.C., read: "Hadnakhte, scribe of the treasury, came to make an excursion and amuse himself on the west of the Memphis, together with his brother, Panakhti." Scribes, perhaps unsurprisingly, accounted for the bulk of such graffiti, and Casson notes that their inscriptions follow a fairly standard formula: "Scribe So-and-So … of the clever fingers came to see the temple of the blessed King So-and-So." Most such messages were painted onto monuments with a brush or scratched into the stone with a sharp point.
The Golden Age of graffiti on Egypt's tourist-circuit monuments coincides with the heyday of the imperial Romans. In Pagan Holiday, a travel-themed account of the ancient Roman Grand Tour, author Tony Perrottet observes that travelers of the era regarded the Great Pyramid as "a vast, open visitor's book, where every tourist could chisel his or her impressions. This was not considered defacement, but a grab at immortality—an effort by visitors to join their own fates to the most enduring of mankind's creations." Many inscriptions read, simply, "I was amazed!" One Roman tourist visiting the Valley of the Kings took a cue from Julius Caesar's famous line and enthused, "I looked, I investigated, I arrived, I marveled."
Touristic graffiti underwent a modern renaissance in the 19th century, as Industrial Age European travelers fanned out across what came to be known as the "Near East," leaving thousands of inscriptions in their wake. So common was the practice of scratching one's name into Egyptian monuments that French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, having no time to visit the pyramids during an 1806 Egypt sojourn, sent an emissary out to engrave his name for him. ("One has to fulfill all the little obligations of a pious traveler," he noted in his journal.) Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni is as much remembered for his prolific graffiti as he is for his contributions to Egyptology—and the large "Belzoni" inscription he left on the walls of the Ramesseum can be viewed not far from the serif-engraved surname "Rimbaud," allegedly left by the French poet, on the sandstone walls of Luxor Temple.
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert was not impressed by the graffiti he found during an 1850 journey through Egypt. "One is irritated by the number of imbeciles' names written everywhere," he wrote, noting that the name and address of a certain Parisian wallpaper manufacturer had been written, in black letters, at the top of the Great Pyramid. "In Alexandria," he added, "a certain Thompson, of Sunderland, has inscribed his name in letters 6 feet high on Pompey's Pillar. You can read it from a quarter of a mile away. … All imbeciles are more or less Thompsons from Sunderland. How many of them one comes across in life, in the most beautiful places and in front of the finest views!"
Ding Jinhao's graffiti
Ding Jinhao's graffiti
With the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century, Flaubert's chagrin was echoed by upper-class travelers alarmed by the spectacle of tour buses at ancient monuments. Soldiers and sailors famously indulged in tourist graffiti during the World War II era ("Kilroy was here" inscriptions, left by American GIs, have been found everywhere from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Marco Polo Bridge in China), but by the mid–20th century, travel guidebooks were specifically condemning the practice, which fell out of favor among middle-class travelers.
In Egypt, defacing monuments is a serious offense. The crime can carry a fine of more than $20,000 and up to 12 months in prison. It's unlikely that young Ding Jinhao will ever face prosecution in Egypt. (The country’s local tourism authorities have announced that the marks made by Mr. Ding were superficial and have been removed.) Still, the issue has catalyzed an important discussion among Chinese travelers. In the wake of the uproar, China's National Tourism Administration has stepped up its efforts in promoting a new set of guidelines for countrymen traveling abroad. Asserting that "being a civilized tourist is the obligation of each citizen," the government agency is urging Chinese tourists to refrain from touching or writing on cultural relics, and avoid engaging in uncouth habits such as spitting, littering, jaywalking, vandalism, and cutting in line. Even before Ding's shaming, well-publicized reports of Chinese boorishness in places like France and Hong Kong compelled the nation's officials to draft new tourism laws that give tour companies the power to "revoke the contracts" of misbehaving clients. Meanwhile, Xinhua News Agency reports that the nation's netizens have begun to investigate incidences of domestic graffiti, including a tourist etching on an ancient iron jar in Beijing's Palace Museum and an inked message in a Xia Dynasty grotto in Gansu Province.
What makes this all significant lies less in the specific incidents than in the fact that China is on the cusp of a travel boom that may well dwarf all previous waves of tourism to places like Egypt. One teenager scratching his name into Luxor Temple is hardly remarkable, given the history of the site—but the reality of 100 million Chinese citizens expected to embark on international journeys by 2015 means that a little public shaming could ultimately do us all some good.