Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Madonna, Mad Men, and mediated exchanges

The year: 2012
The place: Facebook
The subject: Madonna

Once again I find myself getting up on a virtual soapbox and passionately engaging with people I have never met. Vagner + Madonna = cliché, I know I know... sprinkle a dash of drama and the set up is complete.

The situation started yesterday, when a Facebook friend (a person I've never met but have talked on the phone a couple times, a real life friend of a friend) posted that Lionel Ritchie was #1 on iTunes, followed by Madonna. It is funny or sad (you decide), that I already knew that piece of information, because I had just visited the iTunes store then... I actually was mostly shocked that Ritchie had anything out right now, but good for him for still having an audience.

author unknown

As it always happens with Madonna, many derogatory comments about her age and behavior surface. She seems to be notoriously irrelevant to some, which we are all too often reminded of. One particular poster caller her a granny and said she should retire. And that got me going. First because I do not necessarily think that a woman that is 52 years old (Madonna is actually 53 now, but in the discussions the 52 was constantly referenced) is old enough to be a grandmother. My maternal grandmother was born in 1913. She was 30 when she had my mother (who was born in 1943), and 60 when I was born (1973 baby over here). While technically she was a grandmother at 52 (I am the second-youngest grandchild in that side of my family, my mother the third youngest child out of a total 7), my beloved grandmother Zilah was married at age 15 to my grandfather Osório when he was 18. Those were different times. In contrast, both of my older sisters had first kids in their 30s (I believe 35 and 38 respectively), which is not uncommon for their generation and the generation before theirs, most likely unusual in the preceding generations of my mother and grandmothers. Madonna is not a grandmother yet, she will probably be a grandmother "for the very first time" in her 60s, like my mother.

my beautiful grandparents in a digital composite (from the 90s) portrait of the year they married.

I responded to the commenter's post that it is insane to expect any person to retire at the age of 52, that people, and in special creative people, can lead incredibly fulfilling careers for many more decades, and told her to look up Louise Bourgeois (though I completely misspelled her name there) - Bourgeois being, in my view, the patroness saint of all obscure-artists-who-never-give-up-on-the-notion-being-famous-one-day. At 98 her death to me was still untimely. I personally feel like I have something to look forward to in my 80s. 

what is she holding? © Robert Mapplethorpe (1982)

This notion of forced retirement made me think of all the aging male musicians still singing about the girl, their summer times, etc. How come Barry White could still not get enough of your love, baby until the bitter end and beyond? The living ones still seem to be at it (and some of them look pretty scary, the Brits do not seem to age well for some reason), and nobody seems to question their motivation to keep on creating, keep on working, and even keep on marrying people that were born two decades later than them (including Sir Elton John). This also made me think of all the protests in France last Fall when the president changed the date of retirement from 60 to 62, and how people in the US thought the whole thing was absurd. If this ageism in our society will persist, maybe people should indeed retire at age 60 and enjoy their free time doing nothing (no sex allowed either), since there can be no productive life after a certain again (in this day and age, good luck on finding a new job if you are 55). Perhaps the French had it right all along?

Thibault Camus/AP

On Facebook I also said that there is no reason why anyone at 52 should also stop being sexual at that age. My fellow commenter eventually replied (I read it this morning) that perhaps she should act like a 52 year old, and not a 25 year old boy toy hunter (a paraphrase). I then wrote back that a 52 y.o. should decide how a 52 y.o. acts (I have no idea how old the responder is, but she looks to be about my age at most from her small picture, age undetermined). My true belief is that people should have the freedom to lead their lives they way they best sit fit. Telling a woman she cannot be sexual in whatever age is like saying a gay person should act less gay or a Black person sound less Black (whatever those two things are - who makes those decisions?) so that they can better fit into a societal mode that is not theirs. This way of thinking is retrograde and dangerous. We should get used to being uncomfortable as the world moves forward, get used to the changes or get used to not being with our times.

author unknown

[since I began writing this there have been two comments posted on that thread, which I will look at when I am finished here and perhaps comment as as post script to this entry, if necessary]

Last night I watched the third episode of Mad Men's Season 5, which I believe to be the most recent. In it we see Betty (the main character's first wife) for the first time, and her looks are very different from her usual 1960s Norman Rockwell perfection. Mostly due because, I suspect, the actress January Jones was late in her pregnancy during the taping, her character's weight gain was a subject of the episode. Her condition was associated with a thyroid tumor, and as someone who has gone through the same situation, I could not but parallel Betty from Season 4 and 5 to myself in the years 2000 and 2001. Without revealing what happens, one scene that stuck to my mind was an interaction between Betty and her new mother-in-law.I could not find the exact clip on youtube, but in it her mother-in-law, who is overweight, says that at her age she does not need to worry about being attractive to men anymore. She had been nullified by society on a default, her age, which then allowed her to nullify herself physically (her view, not mine). What I love about this show is that it reveals the absurdity of their times (to most of us), and yet it still connects to some people who believe we should still live like that.

The clip below refers to Betty is middle-aged (I believe she is supposed to be less than 30 in the show), and the "friend" she mentions is actually her antagonistic mother-in-law. SPOILER ALERT, do not watch if you still have not seen episode 3:

Given the current rhetoric of our times, when women's reproductive rights are yet again being put into question, where only "sluts" have sex, where presidential nomination candidates believe the role of a woman is that to raise kids and support their husbands, where marriage can only be about opposites and procreation (and not about love), where an "other" can be shot and killed for not looking and behaving like the rest of the neighborhood, where we might be strip-searched if stopped for a traffic violation (remember to ALWAYS wear a red jockstrap from here on, no matter your gender, just in case), I find is insane that people still want to control other people's bodies and behavior to fit a particular model nobody is able to fully articulate without sounding like a bigot. Or that best fit the US in the 1950s. But sadly this does not surprise me.

Mad Men reminds me of when I found myself in a coffee shop, in Brazil, about 5 years ago, seated between two pregnant women in a coffee shop in the middle of a hot summer day, my sister and her friend drinking sodas with me. On her 7th or 8th month of pregnancy, my sister's friend at one point pulled out a cigarette and discretely smoked it, while I tried not to let my jaw drop off too much. Later when we were alone, I brought it up to my sister how surreal the whole scene was, and she bit my head off telling me how difficult it was to be pregnant and how I would never know how that would be. True, I will never know the experience of motherhood, but I had quit smoking by then, so I knew all about craving something. And of course smoking while pregnant has been a no no for the majority of my life. Of course I was the villain in the story. I could have asked her where does common sense ends and personal experience trumps it all, but decided to drop the subject. If I followed her line of thinking I should assume that, as a psychologist, my sister needed to have had all sorts of metal disorders in order to truly understand and sympathize with her patients. To what extent is common sense culturally grounded, and not absolute? Does this mean that living in a police state 20 years from now will be socially acceptable? (if that is the case I will probably burn at the stake way before that).

Of course one does not need to have experienced everything in order to understand it, this is where studying, observation and wisdom come into play (which I know my sister has extensively and turned into a successful practice). 

wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier horned skull cap at the gift shop at DeYoung Museum in San Francisco a week ago

Yesterday I also found myself talking to a student I recently met at a conference about his work, via Facebook IM. This is someone whom I barely interacted in person last week, but since then had exchanged a few emails. Yesterday he asked me to give him some feedback on his work, and though I do not find virtual interactions proper or even professional enough, I said yes. The result was disastrous. I thought I was giving him some honest, constructive feedback, but he ended up feeling very wounded, even hurt, depressed he said. One comment that stuck with him was that his work was boring. I do not recall exactly if I called it "boring" (I don't think I did, but I might have, I probably said it was not too exciting), but I did tell him I thought the work should reflect more his age (he is 10 years younger than I am), that it was a bit old fashioned and not dialoguing with today's world. He disagreed with me, which is completely fine, and my only hope is that he will eventually realize that I was trying to help him out. 

This exchange made me consider the paradox I find myself in: how come I have an issue with someone who thinks they know how a 52 y.o. should act, but I have no problem in telling it to a 28 y.o.? Does the fact that I have been 28 y.o., in college, studying photography, allow me to speak from experience? Or perhaps the 11 years of college teaching experience? Or in fact, does the majority's opinion matter more than an individual one? If all the student's professors said his work was crap (his words), is his work then actual crap? If everyone thinks Madonna should hide away and never express herself again, should she?

I have no answers to these questions. What I can say is that most of my closest friends are 10 to 20 years older than I am, and these are the most wonderful, caring, loving, intelligent and accomplished people I have ever had the chance of calling "friend" in my life. They live life to their fullest, they have not stopped being exciting, creative, productive, and dare I say, sexual beings. They live to their fullest potential and will do so for as long as they are able to (which I hope is for ever, because I want them in my life for as long). To each its own may not be enough vis a vis all the bullying and hate crime around the world (god bless you, your family, and your country, Daniel Zamudio). We need to make sure people are allowed to live their lives in their own terms. Each person should go through their own life journey in the best way they deem fit, and our role should be that of a supporting one, to the best of our abilities.

PS: what I can say is that all is good between myself and the aforementioned commenter on the Facebook thread. We will probably send out friend requests soon! What can be frustrating in that forum is what makes is so interesting to me as well. To paraphrase Madonna, "[Facebook] makes the people come together"... Like most good discussions, all involved can disagree with one another and still remain civil and friendly, respecting each persons' opinion.

if you remove all the hot men and the music, and replace Madonna with me, this sort of looks a bit like my videos from the late 90s

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Museum is a museum is a museum is a museum...

[this article was originally written for The Oakland Press, February 23, 2011. Because of editorial differences - they wanted to split it into two, I did not, and so forth, it was never published. I decided to make some minor content reviews, mostly around its timeframe, and post it now.]

My parents have a habit I imagine is quite common. When faced with a photograph of unfamiliar nature (or one from a time they are starting to forget), they tend to name, out loud, the things and people they see in it. This is especially evident when the photograph, in parts or in its totally, is out of focus. “That looks like a rock, but maybe it is a mountain,” or “I don’t remember that day, but I remember that hairdo and sweater,” or “who’s that?” or “are you sure that is Uncle (…)?” For some reason I correlate this to when I am on a road trip and feel the need to say, out loud, what the billboards “say.”

Once I found myself at a cocktail party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City. Aside from its iconicity - the MET has probably been pictured and featured in hundreds, if not thousands, of movies and televisions programs worldwide - this museum holds to me that persistent moving image of someone arriving in a limo and going up the front steps in fancy dress. Though I got out of a yellow cab (another NYC icon), and did not wear exactly a suit, the interior experience also matched what I had seen on the screen. That was obviously not my first visit to the MET, but it was the first time I went there at night, and drank cocktails from an open bar. The reception I was invited to took place in the main lobby and, through a heavily guarded and velvet-roped set of pathways, at the Temple of Dendur in the Egyptian Art department. To imagine the scale of this museum, picture a supersized DIA. I often refer to that particular display as the “pyramid inside the museum,” though of course it is neither a pyramid, nor there is one (full scale) inside the museum. The setting for that temple, a fragment from a larger structure that was given to the US in the 60s, is quite breathtaking (in my view one of the most beautiful museum interiors in North America), especially that night, with dramatic lighting, candles set low by the water, and hundreds of people wearing black.

As I sipped my Pinot Grigio and scanned the crowd for familiar faces, I could not but think of another party at a museum I found myself in, a week before then: the opening reception for the LifeStories and Miracle and Jokes, Circle Disk Rotation and 22 Lost Signs of the Zodiac exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The crowd there was decidedly younger and more colorful, both in attire and appearance. The mood was way more festive and inclusive, perhaps due to the affordable drinks at the cash bar and the music line-up for the evening. I smiled wondering what the reaction at the MET would be if I began dancing as I did at MOCAD, when DJ Spooky was spinning.

Traditional Art museums, such as the MET (and the DIA for that matter), have a particular mission and format they follow. Museums are generally know as repositories of knowledge and artifact, with exhibitions open for the public at large. Museums have their focus on a particular discipline and/or revolve around a particular theme or collection (a Natural History museum, versus a Hall of Fame for example); an Art museum usually collects and displays art, artifacts, art objects and/or objet d’art (and Art). Many museums began as private collections (think of a curio cabinet, again supersized) from wealthy patrons that, because of an increasing number and/or lack of space, ended up building stand-alone structures to house their beloved possessions – a situation that occurs even today (Miami is known for such family holdings in the U.S. but I bet they exist in every major city in the world). Eventually many of these collections get donated, combined or added to public or semi-public institution, a old practice that still happens today (if you read the labels beside an art work, its provenance might be attributed to a family or a private archive).

What sets MOCAD apart from this traditional understanding of museum is the fact that MOCAD does not have a permanent, or even semi-permanent, collection. Much of it is due to the young age of this institution, its current facility (an old, retrofitted car dealership on Woodward Avenue, south of the DIA), as well as its mission and commitment with the “now.” But there are other areas in which MOCAD stands out from the rest (at least around here). This is not common but present in museums world-wide, usually at their infancy (the MCA in Chicago did not begin acquiring a permanent collection until the 1980s). Another somewhat similarly atypical museum in this region is the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills. Cranbrook has a collection of its own, but its focus is deeply rooted in its Academy, programs and community, which altogether engenders a particular vibe to the place (Cranbrook could be seen as an analogue to the School of The Art Institute of Chicago+The Art Institute of Chicago, but Cranbrook’s extensive educational community component sets it apart from any categorization). We have commercial art galleries, such as The Butcher’s Daughter Gallery  and lemberg Gallery in Ferndale, that operate almost as a museum, with curatorial, thematic exhibitions (as opposed to exclusively artist-proposed ones) and salon/presentation discussion events. We also have patrons whose extensive Art collection are managed by full time curators. The blurring of traditional lines also cut across our regional University Art galleries, Art Centers, non-profit organizations, alternative spaces, and so forth.

Back to MOCAD, I imagine that in the past, before 2006, the many conversations around town on the need for a contemporary art museum sought the creation of a mini contemporary DIA. I also suspect that its off-the-beaten-path stance has become a choice and source of identity, perhaps forged under its circumstances. Since MOCAD’s opening I have been to a variety of events there (performances, screenings, discussion panels, fundraisers, receptions, private parties, masquerade balls, etc), and have encountered many others by chance (poetry reading, children and family afternoons, and even a green/organic/sustainable food presentation). The physical space of the museum has also gone through many configurations, but it seems that the current set up, with an arch of large exhibition rooms surrounding a central, multipurpose core, will remain – for now. 

It was at this central room where I danced to DJ Spooky (né Paul D. Miller), who himself defies categorization. I first encountered him in a record store while in graduate school (back then I collected CDs instead of art); a few years later I saw him present at a national arts conference in a panel on the relationship of Art and Sound. A couple years ago Spooky performed and lectured at the DIA (Rebirth of a Nation, a visual and auditory reworking of the historical and ever controversial 1915 movie of similar name), and signed copies of Sound Unbound, the anthology book he edited. And later again (a recent past that is now a somewhat distance past) I re-encountered his music in that central museum room, taking me 12 plus years back, where many of Detroit metro communities wonderfully collided: the art types, the music types, the students, the socialites who let their hair down, the gays, the nerds, the punks, the scenesters, the old, the young, the wannabees and the has-beens. As a gathering place of the diversity of our region, MOCAD really operates as a community or cultural center. At this edge of somewhat conflicting positions (elitist Art or inclusive of everyone), I find myself in an uncomfortable but inspiring mental space: what is a museum supposed to be?

But Vagner, you may ask, how about the Museum of New Art (MONA) in Pontiac? Hasn’t that non-collecting institution, which carries the word “museum” in its name, served as a community center, based around contemporary art, inclusive of many forms of expression, for quite some time now? So here lies the difficulties of holding on to old definitions and traditional perceptions of things, because everything seems to be in constant shift. Lines are constantly being crossed and blurred – which is very analogue to our current economic situation and the many reconfigurations our communities and industries will have to undergo in the years to come. The Detroit metro art scene, however confusing in my view, is also very intimate, and in my personal experience, very welcoming, even nurturing. It is complicated to speak of institutions in such a public manner, as this blog is, because along with institutions come the individuals behind them – and that line, and the line of criticism, of what or who is being critiqued, is also difficult to discern. I have personal and professional connections to some extent with all the aforementioned Art places. What is wonderful about MONA is also what in my view holds it back. MONA has the paradoxical position of always being on the fringes, and as such, it enables generations of artists and experimenters to articulate their expressions, which is what this region, actually any region, needs. MONA becomes in a sense a stepping-stone for bigger things to come, a place and space to work through ideas and possibilities. But unlike MOCAD, MONA has not been able to retain its performance and visibility in the public eye. While there are many reasons for that, and as many theories, rumors, speculations and stories, one remaining factor is economical (it is funny how the economy really cuts through every layer of society). Another difference between MONA and MOCAD has to do with latter’s goal of being at a center (geographically at least, even if MONA now was a space at the Russell Industrial, its location is still tangential).

The line I just mentioned, as far as being crossed by me in view of criticism, is also a line that is blurred. Perhaps the apple does not fall too far away from the tree. Like my parents, I like to figure out what I see before me. Much like an out of focus photograph, deconstructing its components is a good place to start, but not the definite and only possible way of interpreting it. The same way one photograph may mean different things at different times (picture a photo of a loved one that is no longer around), the same could be said of these institutions that aim at both preserving and presenting expressions of a time. Writing about it parallels reading aloud billboards on the road – writing becomes a way of finding a ground from which to stand, a strategy for situating oneself and one’s thoughts. Perhaps the way to think about all this is that right now everything is up for grabs. New understandings of old standards are actually the norm. As such, we can think that there is room for everyone, and even more room for more to join in. There are some rules to be broken but many more to be (re)written. Maybe I will dance at the MET next time I am there.

Who's Art for?

[this article was originally published at The Oakland Press on February 19, 2010]

It never ceases to amaze the how many people in the metro area have never been to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). When I moved to the area in Fall 2005 the DIA was on top of my list of reasons why I would want to live here. Having a world class, encyclopedic museum a few miles away from my home sounded like a dream come true. My surprise increased when I realized that many, if not most, of my students (I teach undergraduate Studio Art New Media courses) had never been there either. Since then, as often as possible, I incorporate field trips and/or homework assignments there and other regional institutions (such as MOCAD and Cranbrook) to encourage student engagement with the local art scene. Aside from historical issues between the city of Detroit and the suburbs, one nagging impression I have gotten from the people I talk to is their feeling that Art (with a capital A), is not for them. Many people think that Art is for other people, of a certain social class or background. While there is some truth to that notion, the fact is that art (and Art) is available for everyone who decides to pursue it.

It may come as a surprise to many people that know me (I’m a notorious art nerd), that I did not grow up in an environment where art was necessarily visible or available. Museum trips were not a family pass-time for sure. My access and interest in Art, however, came by through my education, which in turn became a passion. I began taking art classes in kinder garden, and continued all the way to high school. Eventually I graduated from an art college. To this day my parents’ home still have very little artwork on their walls (two or three pieces of original art given by friends); the majority of the stuff they display falls either in the category of craft or family keepsakes. Empty walls prevail. They do not have any artwork of mine. They have never asked and I have never offered, because I have the suspicion they’d say yes only to be polite.

My impression is that my parents also understand Art as something that only other folks should enjoy and own. Their existence is way too practical and straight-forward to indulge in such leisure. Whenever we are in the same city I try to take them to museums and galleries, which they actually enjoy very much. But by choice they would rather go to a restaurant or cinema with their free time, and money.  Because along with the feeling that Art is for other people comes the impression that Art is very expensive. Many times that is the case, but not always. Unlike most Western European countries, in the Americas (and specially North America) the share market for art purchase for the middle class is almost non-existent. While I do not have statistics to back this up, I would guess that there is a huge probability that most middle class art collectors are artists themselves (or their families). And even then, I have heard more than once in an art opening that an artist finds someone else’s work too pricey.  The fact is that many if not all of us spend the majority of our hard-earned money with nothing to show for at the end of the day.  Consider the amount of money you spend every year on your cable bill, or mobile bill, or car lease. If I canceled my cable television, I could probably save anywhere between $360 and $1200 per year (depending on what specific items I decided to go without). Now consider how much money you spend, per year, buying home decorating items, such as knick knacks and mass-produced art (with the small a), that you may find in the mall or chain/big box stores. Again the dollar range will vary from person to person.

You may ask me in turn, why should I go without all those things? My answer to you is that you don’t need to go without anything, because you should choose to spend your money in whatever way you see fit. But I would ask you to consider the following: will these things matter to you in 5, 10, or 15 years from now? Will the Pier 1 figurine from two seasons ago still be something you want to look at for the rest of your life? Will you reminisce about all your phone conversations and text messages as good ol’ times?  Chances are you will not, but a good piece of art could be something that will persist and prevail your times, while simultaneously provide you with much enjoyment.

With a little work, some time and plenty of curiosity you will find Art that speaks to you, that you can afford (yes, there is good Art out there under $500, even $200), and that you will want to live with. Investing in art will change the way you will relate to your living environment (you will own something unique, special), expand and strengthen your ties to your community (opening receptions are fun), and help the local economy (galleries, art centers, fundraisers, artists, etc). The over-used adage “buy American” could be adapted to “buy Oakland County.” Or simply “buy local Art.” And everybody benefits at the end.

P.S.: Funny enough, I am in the process of completely revising my finances, getting rid of many of the extras above mentioned in order to further invest in art pursuits... At one point in my life I lived without television, mobile phone, internet, and even a car... Hoping that I somewhat replicate that to some extent. Wish me good luck =-)