Jeanette Winterson- Art Objects

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Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. – Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

I’ve been rereading the essays in this book slowly this time around, the last time being 3 years ago.  I’m thinking about my favourite essays in more details and meditating on the content. This review is on the titular essay, Art Objects, an essay which discusses what happens when one discovers art and allows it into their lives and hearts, and how one must look for a language in order to express one’s feelings.

I had fallen in love and I had no language.

Winterson likens looking at paintings to travelling to a foreign city, and for me that really illustrates the fact that we expect to understand certain  things quickly but art, like visiting a new place, takes time to reveal itself to us, and so patience, and a desire to learn, is crucial. The first time I read this essay 3 years ago I was actually struck by the fact that Winterson said she’s willing to spend an afternoon with her favourite painting. As much as I love art and certain artists, I can’t imagine looking at a painting for even 5 minutes, so I started wondering what it is I’m not getting about art. I think more than anything, it is that our society that doesn’t encourage slowness of living, and it is up to the individual to slow down and appreciate things slowly and on a deeper level.

Another thing that resonated with me was the importance of having someone to accompany you on a journey. It’s not always possible to have a physical person to do so, even if you are surrounded by people, because people are on their own journeys, so I did appreciate Winterson illuminating the fact that even dead writers can be a guide, or someone to engage with on a certain topic:

I knew my Dante, and I was looking for a guide, someone astute and erudite, with whom I had something in common, a way of thinking. A person dead or alive with whom I could talk things over. I needed someone I could trust, who would negotiate with me the sublimities and cesspits of regions hitherto closed. Someone fluent in this strange language and its dialects, who had spent many years in that foreign city and who might introduce me to the locals and their rather odd habits. Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, wither by taming it or baiting it, cannot success. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Having just visited a giftshop with my friend and seeing how famous art can be used to sell souvenirs (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on a thermos, Monet’s Water Lilies on a wallet), I really did get to thinking about how the ubiquity of famous art pieces everywhere causes us not to really see the art, or just assume we know the art because we see its image everywhere. Related, Winterson talks about how we see out through “the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer.”

Canonising the pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.

One of my favourite recent articles is “Take Your Time: The Seven Pillars of A Slow Thought Manifesto” by Vincenzo Di Nicola . In it Di Nicola says “Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present.” I may not be able to spend an entire afternoon with a painting, but I will attempt to spend at least 5 minutes on one.

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Widow Basquiat: A Love Story- Jennifer Clement

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 “He smells of leather, oil paint, tobacco, marijuana and the faint metallic smell of cocaine. He wears handmade wool sweaters and long Mexican ponchos. He never walks in a straight line. He zigzags wherever he is going.”- Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat

The 1980s in New York were some interesting times, and Basquiat had maybe one of the most colourful lives I’ve ever read about: shopping  with Madonna, hanging out with Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, selling paintings to Debbie Harry.”Widow Basquiat” is a very unconventional love story, then again Basquiat, from what I’ve learned about him, epitomized unconventionality.

The “widow” in this case is Basquiat’s great love, Suzanne Mallouk, and the book goes into the strange, unique, often abusive relationship they had.  Suzanne seems to have been Basquiat’s muse and perhaps one of the few people who got closest to really knowing him. We get a sense of who Basquiat was through his “widow’s”  short reminiscent vignettes.

I guess from my vantage point where I’m exposed to black art and have some knowledge of black artists, it might be easy to forget that black artists were rarely accepted in the mainstream, very white, art world not so long ago (and there are obviously still structural barriers). One line regarding representation said by Basquiat himself really spoke to me: “This is why I paint,” he says.”To get black men into museums.”A lot of this book goes into the issues Basquiat experienced with racism in the art world.  There is talk on the double standards of white versus black artists, for example:

“He is furious because people are writing about his ghetto childhood and call him a ‘graffiti artist’ and ‘primitive.’ “They don’t event a childhood for white artists,” he says.”

I could see his internal struggle: on one hand he was trying to make black art mainstream and respected, on another hand not wanting to accept labels. But he always remembered his past and his influences.

“His paintings were inspired by the jazz musicians and he felt akin to them. A lot of the early jazz artists, of course, couldn’t even walk through the front door of the hotels and clubs they were playing in and had to enter through back doors and kitchens, and I think Jean felt this was a metaphor for his place in the white art world: he had entered through the back door. He broke into the white art world in a way that had never been done before by a black.”

This is a very intense book, it really is. I’m not used to reading books that are very heavy on drug content and self-destruction, and despite already knowing the outcome to Basquiat’s story it was really a tough story to wrap one’s head around. My heart especially went out to Suzanne and what she was forced to go through.

What I got from this book is what I already knew and then some; Basquiat was a multifaceted, complex spirit. This book didn’t try to make excuses for him, it just stated the facts.  Definitely a must-read for any Basquiat fans.

Here’s a link to the documentary:  The Radiant Child

Art on my Mind: Visual Politics- bell hooks

“Does man love Art?
Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts.
Art urges voyages-
and it is easier to stay at home.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks

hooks sees a dearth in the area of black art critique and she issues a call to arms for more critique and also for a new vocabulary for this to happen.This book is such a great look into the state of black art, especially as it relates to the dominant male Eurocentric art. Although the book was less accessible than hooks’ other books, the relatively slow speed that I read it at meant I took more time to ruminate on what I had read and think about the role that art has played in my life.

I was struck by quite a few of bell hooks’ quotes, primarily about the politics of seeing. hooks says how we see things  and relate to them depends on our worldview. hooks laments  the fact that art is often seen as superfluous in so many black people’s lives just because there might be so many other pressing issues at hand. She finds that worrying for a number of reasons, primarily because of the transformative power of art.
Reading on hooks’ own experiences with art, I thought of my own. Seeing as the majority of the art I’ve viewed is European art, that probably formed the lens through which I view art. It doesn’t help that black art, African in particular, is often called “folk art”, a term that devalues the art both intrinsically and price-wise. Having visited several African countries on vacation with my family and wanting to buy African art for souvenirs,  I was always looked at with some  bemusement as the art was created for (Western) tourist consumption, not for a “local” such as me. I find it interesting that without this Western demand for art, perhaps the art would not have been created but it does beg the question of how authentic the art is as African art as it was created with a western audience in mind. Either way, I liked it and I bought a lot of it.  When I bought batik in Zimbabwe or malachite carvings in South Africa, what I saw was its beauty and the fact that I could buy art I could actually touch, art that wasn’t hung in a gallery somewhere, and art I could relate to on a deeper level because of my heritage.

I have seen some great African diasporic art collections in Toronto and Vancouver and I’m often left thinking why aren’t the artists better known, and why aren’t more journals and magazines writing about their work?  I attended Chantal Gibson’s art talk at the Vancouver Public Library during Black History Month and her discussions on her works Tome and Historical In(ter)ventions: Altered Texts and Border Stories were truly insightful, although it needed her explaining her vision, process etc before I fully understood what she was trying to portray.

Black artists as “image-makers” was a profound point for me. About photography hooks says: “I think about the place of art in black life, connections between the social construction of black identity, the impact of race and class, and the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images, to the process of Image making.”

Photos are seen as a “disruption of white control over black images.” I think of the gollywog on Robertson’s jam labels when I was growing up and  how amazing it is that giving a black person a camera lets them create their own images to counter the negative ones:

“The camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentations well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”

hooks touches on black male art, but her focus is on the feminine. I enjoyed her thoughts on Lorna Simpson‘s work in particular, an artist who uses images of black female bodies that counter stereotypes:

 “Whereas female bodies in this culture depict us as hard, low down, mean, nasty, bitchified, Simpson creates images that give poetic expression to the ethereal, the prophetic dimensions of visionary souls shrouded flesh.”

Although bell hooks is talking mainly about African-Americans and their experiences with art, I feel it’s very similar to the African diaspora’s experiences with, and perceptions of, art.In fact, there is a lot in the book about collective memory of the diaspora. It’s definitely not an easy read but I personally found it very rewarding.

Some Diasporic art:

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Recycled South African art from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. No artist’s name was available.
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The Merger- Mario Miguel Gonzalez, Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino “Remember” (2012) Museum of Anthropology
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“Aguas del Rio” (2009)- Manuel Mendive Hoyo Museum of Anthropology
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Malawian mahogany art on display at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unfortunately no artist names are available. The one on the left is a candlestick holder, and the one on the right is a popular abstract rendition of the African mother and child.
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El Anatsui, a Ghanaian contemporary visual artist who created this piece using recycled bottletops. On display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
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More Malawian art: tea coasters.