Monthly Archives: January 2014

Chair, Redux

(Addendum to my original post:  I’m ambivalent about posting this entry; but I’ve learned that when something deeply moves me, to honor the feelings.  There’s something there, even if the story/stories I’m hearing or feeling differ from the all the people in the know.  Especially on social media, which is where this particular bit of offense got it’s legs and ran, especially among the politically correct, the liberals, the feminists, the social justice crusaders, who know better.

Today, I ran across a term that’s become ideologically popular, “intersectionality.”  From what I’ve read, the term started as a divisive term among feminists.  Yet,  intersectonality was precisely what I was trying to get to in the following, and the narratives woven in this photo, which are many and strikingly complex, have been flattened by social media and the self-righteous.  Returning to the photo, I’m even more convinced that if the thought police hadn’t gotten the upper hand, this particular composition, either intentionally or unintentionally, provides a singularly brilliant portrait on intersections of race, gender, and, most important, class and labor relations.

Thanks to the taste police, that dialogue has been shut down.

All that remains on the Russian website is a privileged white woman staring into the camera.  Irony much?)

The original photo of Dasha Zhukova in Buro 24/7

During the 2012 Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood famously lectured an empty chair.

The evening could not have been a  better scripted summary of the Republican party’s seeming raison d’être — structural patriarchy monopolizing the stage and lecturing into thin air,  remarkably emblematized by Eastwood’s tortuous rambling to a chair.

To see these moments as simply a bizarre Republican convention moment missed the larger point: the status quo is stubborn, and not likely to leave the stage, even when it’s a dying animal.

That seemed the implication of Mr. Eastwood’s soliloquy, an unintentional satirical performance of the status quo, in the theater of convention politics.

 

This past week, we had another chair moment, one whose implications and social perspective were even more stunning.

There was no laughter.  The photo caused massive controversy, the wounds it touched were too deep.  Meanwhile the photo’s deepest revelations of pain and subordination seemed too subtle for the most devout of our thought police, the ones yelling ‘foul-play’ the loudest.

The ones who sit in earnest well intention with just enough information to give them moral superiority, yet apparently not enough experience to dive deeper into the narrative.

Feminists (men and women) were out in droves on my Facebook feed, the predictable social media suspects were ranting about the nasty inhumanity of it all.

I paint with broad brush strokes, so please indulge me.

I first saw the photo on The Guardian.  I thought it was a brilliant and insightful critique; I posted so on my Facebook page.  According to The Guardian, the photo’s subject “Zhukova . . . defended the image in a statement: ‘This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image.’”

I took Zhukova at her word as reported in the article, and her claim corresponded to how I originally read the photo.

The din that transpired on social media left my head in a blur.  I wasn’t sure who the artist was.  I was not certain if the original work in question was the chair or the photo.  I originally thought the photo was the object d’art, but it was the chair.

My concern is for the photo.

Because of my work, I find the photo extremely compelling, be it a conscious or unconscious product.

In my mind, the photo emerges as a kind of emblematic revelation that few are taking seriously because the chair has been summarily dismissed as sexist and racist.  End of story in this version.  Move on to the next controversy du jour for offense consumption.

Unfortunately, it’s not the end of the story.  The stories inhabiting the photo reflect deeply engrained collective ways of being.  Erasing them in an ideological triumph of personal offense won’t make them go away: repression exacerbates the problem.  Moreover, this easy dismissal seemed to me indicative of class privilege.  Some of the loudest and most virulent voices on my feed were the same old players:  white feminists, and the sympathetic to feminists white male, proving yet again their social sensitivity.

Not a single sex worker in the lot.  Nada.

The photo is a not so humorous comedy of errors, the racist — sexist chair being the morally objectionable fulcrum, the photo an egregious editorial decision.

Though photo stands was a horrible editorial choice for a fashion magazine, its composition and elements still demand consideration: its contortions scream for our attention, like a bad dream that we take to our therapist for interpretation.  Or a compulsive fantasy that leaves the imagination senseless to all else, until mitigated by art or intimacy.  It’s a cultural snapshot, a compendium of class-gender-race references, folded into an image with proliferating implications, none of which are being unfolded by the “holier than stilettos,” as I referred to them on my Facebook page, in a quite conscious metaphorical swipe.

The following is only illustrative, representing the salient features that I believe are being buried under political correctness.

The photo’s most abhorrent feature is the privileged white woman sitting on the dehumanized, fetishized, sexualized black female mannequin, white privilege comfortably bolstered by exploitation of the black woman — it’s a straightforward racist narrative.  It is also the racism implicit in the exotic other, a trope too long populating the collective imagination, and still unshakably rampant in popular culture: the sexualized exotic.

The exotic other transverses gender, as I hear over and over.   The black male or female as highly sexualized and existing for the consumption of white pleasure is so old and deeply woven into the collective unconscious, that I don’t need to elaborate it here.  Google if you need.  If we can understand the sexualized, fetishized, and dehumanized other as being gender neutral, and a function of deeper social anxieties and realities, perhaps you’ll allow me to enlarge the interpretive lens.  Let’s assume that race is one construct buttressing the class system, privilege and economic power being the invisible, ubiquitous culprit.  As Toni Morrison writes, “[t]here is no topic on anybody’s table which does not involve black people. . . . And when that disappears in time, then they have to do what they have been avoiding, which is talk about poor people.”  Race and gender are the most obvious constructs that keep the economic status quo self-perpetuating, but without a broader lens, we diminish what’s at issue.

Because of my work, when I first saw this photo, I immediately saw (or projected) the systemic Madonna – Whore trope, which is an economic and class structure, not a race or moral issue.  Race narratives often obscure class narratives; morality stories give authority to these class structures, leaving the whore socially invisible.  In this particular photo, race, class, and morality strikingly collide: the well-bred white girl is the Madonna, the black woman is the sexualized, fetishized, dehumanized doll on which privilege asserts its moral high ground and economic comfort, embodied by Zhukova and her princess countenance.

The dehumanized fetish doll, i.e., the underclass strikingly typified in the bound, black exotic other, supports the class system’s comfort and morality, typified in Zhukova’s unsullied demeanor.  But there’s an important caveat here, because Zhukova herself unintentionally emerges as one dimensional, a passive, cosmetically flawless, asexual creature whose existence and comfort depends on the bound, fierce, sexualized woman on whom she sits.  One commentator wrote on a Marie Claire blog, “[e]ven if the skintone was [sic] different, the photograph would still be offensive. Women seem to be the brunt of society, and no one deserves to be sat on,” the implication being that what is at risk isn’t necessarily race, but something deeper.  Unfortunately,  the writer stopped here.

The photo is a snapshot of the status quo, a construction dominating all women: in its specificity, art carries a universal message, arguably then, this photo unintentionally rises to the level of meaningful cultural artifact, a rendering of a near universal invisible system that casts women one dimensionally, be it Madonna or Whore.

Let’s draw the interpretive lens back a few more inches.

The photo’s most powerful character is the one who remains invisible; the narrator-photographer, the one framing this story.  Who frames this picture?  Who frames this woman of privilege, the dehumanized fetish object on whom she sits, and who has the most to gain by remaining unseen while flattening out these two embodied cultural constructs?  I would argue that patriarchy’s invisible structure dictates the overriding narrative, a structure which still knows only two ways to understand women: the Madonna and the Whore.  The safe women is rendered asexual, obsequious to norms, a mannequin of civilized milquetoast engagement; her counterpart is the fierce, sexual being full of so much strength that she must be strapped down, controlled, and made plastic in sacrifice to the anemic caricature who sits on her.

I’m going further than expected, so I beg your indulgence, just a bit longer.  No, I am not black.  But I have still been that woman who has been strapped down by economics and class privilege, the one who has taken care of other women’s homes, other women’s children, other women’s men, a familiar trope in the “black” experience.

Defending the photo, an African-American woman wrote in The Guardian comments section on Facebook, “Don’t tell me how to feel.”

Indeed. Please don’t tell a woman who has sold sex how to feel about a photo with an objectified, fetishized, plastic doll who is portrayed as a comfortable chair for a privileged woman.

“Don’t tell me how to feel.”  I know how I have felt and what I have experienced, and this photo captures it.

Yet the taste police are doing just that, telling me how to feel, informing me of the photo’s real racist and sexist meaning, all in the name of moral indignation.

No human is a mannequin of privilege or subjugation, rather, they are part of a system of nefarious cultural forces that seeks to support itself through flattening narrative histories, the repression of what doesn’t support its world view, and good old morality, which usually does little more than temporarily displace our cultural demons.

Narratives that love to create victims, narratives that repress histories for a moral greater good which is no greater good, just an indignant posturing that conveniently buries a poignant snapshot of how far we haven’t come.

From where I sit, in my warm apartment, on a comfortable couch, listening to patriarchy’s sexual repression in between the moments I take to wrestle amateur stories from my imagination’s rough waters, this photo stunningly captures multiple realities, including the vapid weakness of privilege, which is as much of a trap as being an objectified fantasy object.  There’s nothing to admire in a woman who reclines and finds comfort on another woman’s plasticized pain, a woman whose raison d’être is blankly staring in Stepford perfection waiting to be consumed by camera and audience while reclining on the depiction of another woman’s exploitation.

The social censure of the narrative changes nothing, and, like sexual repression, makes the problem worse.  Because of the social media outrage, the photo has been cropped, all that remains on the Russian site is a beautiful white woman of immense privilege sitting in serene beauty with a pair of stilettos bizarrely waving in the air next to her.  Society’s invisible woman remains, quite literally, invisible again.  She’s not even allowed her plastic pain in all its objectified glory, because she offended the taste police, who know better for us all.

To the taste police I say:  fuck your moral indignation.  You’re now literally talking to an empty chair, pontificating like Clint Eastwood, lecturing me about my feelings, and the feelings of those who have been radically objectified, flouting your censoring status quo, successfully eliding any alternative narratives in your the shrill of well intentioned empathy.  I would love to know more about your personal experiences of radical objectification, but for the time being, you have shut that dialogue down, and made me suspect of you, whom I now see as a privileged animal, protests not withstanding.

Meanwhile, Zhukova is getting all kinds of flack from the feminists for this editorial faux pas.  She’s not even the chair’s artist.  Dasha’s a woman sitting in a photo who has a billionaire boyfriend, a woman more than likely rendered for what she is, a trophy, probably psychologically miserable for it, but materially comfortable in her gilded cage, and getting shit because the thought police have a story and they are sticking to it, morality forbidding a deeper dive into meaning.

The chair’s artist is Bjarne Melgaard, a white male who describes himself as “a worn out faggot,” an artist who relishes controversy, and who gets mixed critical reviews.

I’ve not been able to find out who took the photo: no surprise that the most important player in this photo narrative remains conspicuously invisible.

 

 

 

References:

‘Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway,’ an interview with Toni Morrison, published in The New York Times, July 8, 2008.
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/28/arts/design/28benc.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=tonimorrison&

‘Russian Fashion Site Apologizes for Outrageous Chair Modeled After Black Woman: Apologies are apologies, but we can’t unsee this one,” Llana Satanstein:  http://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/buro-24-7-chair-dasha-zhukova?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1449_40959396

‘The chair man:  meet Bjarne Melgaard, the artist behind the Dasha Zhukova seat.’
http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/the-chair-man-meet-bjarne-melgaard-the-artist-behind-the-dasha-zhukova-seat-9079716.html

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The House Of Imagination

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.  —  Gaston Bachelard

 

I’ve had a recurring dream, that I remembered clearly this morning.  The dream started awhile ago, I think it’s been going on for months.  In the original dream, there was a house that I liked, that we used to hang out at in the evenings.  It was like a large café, but with lots of enclaves, private seating areas, and it extended for blocks.  People just hung out and enjoyed themselves, under the evening sky.

In the first dream or second dream, I heard that the owner was selling it.  Everyone was sad that they may not have this cool, casual hangout anymore.

I had just sold my book, so I bought the house with my book contract, even though it was a considerable expense.

I was concerned that folks might not show up with the new ownership, but no one seemed to care.   Some acquaintances warned me that some of the folks who frequented these casual get togethers may not be safe.  “Are you sure you want to entertain everyone?  We’ve heard of problems with drugs and violence,” was the forewarning.  It seemed more a class bias than a reality — I’d never had personal problems with anyone.

Last night, I dreamed that I had traveled to Europe for a long visit, and I returned home.  I wondered if anyone would be showing up for the evening soirée.  The party had grown, and not only were the old regulars showing up, but all these folks whom I had never met were hanging out.  The gathering was enormous.

There were also old family members — great aunts happily greeted me — old family friends, some of my dear friends now were there, and there was an odd lot of folks who sitting and standing around who really just needed a place to hang out so they didn’t feel alone.  On the pavement, on the balconies, just hanging out.

I understood that because they were here, they weren’t feeling alone.

Kind of like “Au Bon Pain” in Harvard Square, or The Last Exit On Brooklyn café in Seattle, during its heyday, only much, much larger.  City blocks large, with podiums and chairs and little terraced areas for people to sit and visit.

I was the hostess, even though they didn’t know or care that this was my home.

I played the part, going around saying “hello,” making sure that people felt welcome to those who weren’t otherwise engaged.  I looked with a quiet satisfaction that such an assorted lot of folks could hang out, the bikers and street people with the more urbane, equal under the night sky, in the space I created for them.

As I started to wake-up, I asked myself “what does this mean,” and in a rare moment of instant insight, I understood immediately that the house was my imagination, and that these were the folks who peopled my life, clients, friends, everyone that I’d allowed into my life experience.  They may not know me, but they had come into the safety of my imagination, and had found a safe place to hang out under a clear night sky.  It didn’t matter that they didn’t know me — and I rather enjoyed freely and anonymously giving them a space to be themselves.

Of course, this is a metaphor for my work, but life and work and life were all mixed up.  The house was clearly an umbrella metaphor for the imagination, and I as the dreamer was a conscious, rule free hostess for those choosing to show up, allowing them to be themselves.

It was an act of generosity, a conscious decision made by me, for this lifetime, and I saw with clarity that this is what I really wanted during this life, allowing people to freely do want they wanted to do, providing a space in which to be themselves, and not feel alone.

And that’s really all that life is, a series of experiences in imagination’s house, during this lifetime, consciousness being a construct that we carry with us, an imaginative space in which we entertain those who we meet, in whatever way we do.  Or something like that.

One takeaway is that the house of my imagination is a sprawling open air café, with a near limitless cast of wanderers who sit and laugh and visit under a night sky.  And karmically, I am the creator of this space, a conscious crafter of nonjudgemental connection.

For some reason, I am thinking this specific metaphor needs to make it into the book, though I don’t know how or why.

As an addendum, there was a girl there who seemed vaguely familiar.  She seemed sad and by herself, an outsider.  I introduced myself to her, as the house owner.  She said she was meeting someone.  I didn’t believe her.

I plan on making sure she knows that she is safe and loved, something that I am guessing she is ready to hear, next time we meet.

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The Year Of The Horse

According to Chinese astrology, 2014 is the Year Of The Horse.

Not coincidently, I received a card in the mail from my godfather, New Year’s Eve day.  “Thought you might enjoy this,” he wrote, “I found it while packing boxes, and decided to send it on.”

Tucked inside the card was a note written to him from my mother when I was three months old, thanking him for agreeing to sponsor me at my baptism.  I pushed the single page back into the card, her loss still unbearable when confronted with it head on.  “Not now,” I thought, “I can’t do this, now.”

After a few hours, I returned to read it, and, taking a slow deep breathe, I let her cadences rise from the words that she wrote decades ago.  The note was brief, but on the last day of the year, the final lines managed to find their way into my hands, “. . . and I told her that they had a little girl cousin she could play dolls with and she laughed like she knew exactly what I was talking about.  Last night her and Walt carried on quite a conversation.  I must close now.”

A conversation.  I once had a conversation with my father, three months before he left my mother, six years before his death.  For the first time, I see myself as his infant daughter.  He’s cooing in an affection laced gibberish, prattling on with the child who carries his DNA and these buried moments in her, even today.

That this bit of my mother’s storytelling arrived on the day before New Years as we enter the Year of the Horse, shimmered with epiphany.

Allow me to explain.

Over a decade ago, my journaling transformed while working with dreams and unconscious imagery.  What persistently appeared, the image running through my journal for almost a decade, was a black horse.  This animal was a beautiful untethered creature, running on an ocean beach as though its heart were ready to burst, mane and tail flowing, nostrils flaring in rushes of wind, scorching sand under its gallop, eyes burning in the sun’s glare.  Reminiscent of Coppola’s cinematic images in “The Black Stallion,” my unconscious creation was an animal of remarkable power and beauty.

I viscerally sensed something about this animal, and wrote, “I am the horse,” a line punctuating my journal pages, over and over through the years.

“What does it mean?”  I had no answer, and, over time, I began castigating myself for my overactive imagination, these silly exercises of unconscious journaling, and my obtuse assertion about my identity. I increasingly came to loathe the decades of journals haphazardly stuffed in my bookcases, hodgepodge documents of the inconsequential, chronicles of mania, ruminations on suicide, too soulful love poems, aphorisms wanting context, meaningless affirmations, uncompleted sketches, banalities in the extreme.

Inelegant excursions strewn on pages whose end eluded me.

Then there was the horse.

Irredeemable tripe.  What would-be writer puts pen to paper to write, “I am the horse?”  I tried imagining any self-respecting, or respected, author so doing.  My inner critic reprimanded me, “you’re an unskilled, talentless neurotic wasting her time, spewing self-absorbed psychobabble onto the page.”  The hoard of journals, and this strange imaginative creature appearing on their pages, became emblematic of my self-loathing, and a life that I imagined was beyond my reach.

A shift in my critical declarations would come.  One clear New England autumn afternoon, about a week or so before my birthday, I came home and found a box on my porch.  I opened it.  “You seem to want to know about your father.  I found these.  Maybe you will want them,” my father’s younger sister scribbled on a loose piece of paper, with no salutation or signature.

Wrapped inside crumpled newspaper were two items.  The first was a tooled and painted leather purse made by my father, with two handsomely executed large black horse heads facing each other on the front flap.  The second was a copy of “Black Beauty: The Autobiography Of A Horse,” given to him for Christmas when he was seven, inscribed by his uncle.

As I removed newsprint from handiwork and book, an inscrutable bond between my father and myself revealed itself.  I had never before held objects caressed by his hands, yet these two objects, now tenderly stroked by me, mirrored that animal appearing in my journals, a creature unconsciously forged, and with whom I instinctively if disparagingly identified.

I didn’t know what it meant — I only recognized an enigmatic tie between my father and myself, peculiarly embodied in a splendid black equine.

I set the revelation aside, though not forgetting it, and regarded my journals with a kinder if still skeptical eye.

Fast forward. A little over a year ago.  I am leaving Cambridge in a whirlwind exodus.  On the surface, all was chaos — a pending eviction, a pro se bankruptcy, selling everything that could be sold, giving away what could not.  All in less than two months.  I shed most of what I owned.  Reluctantly, I even sold my mother’s diamond from her second marriage.  Though I received less than a fraction of its value, I needed the cash.

Yet I was calm and conscious.  I felt my mother’s presence.  I felt her assurance that the ring’s only value now was to serve me.  When I write, “my mother’s presence,” I mean a knowing, an awareness, a shimmering behind immediate sense experience.  This elusive perception was connected to a larger one: everything unfolding in my life was a necessary dissolution.  The circling storm of circumstance was merely an illusion — life was changing, a new landscape emerging.  There was room for drama, but no need or desire to fill it.

In that rapid flux of conditions and choices, with little time to think through details, decisions seemed unfamiliarly random and arbitrary.  Seemed random.  Seemed arbitrary.  What I failed to recognize is what we tell ourselves and life when we’re pulled along by something larger than ourselves.

Not until I received the letter from my godfather New Year’s Eve day did I see the significance of my decisions a little over a year ago.  Everything gone.  Yet I saved my journals.  Those chaotic chronicles filled with embryonic dreams survived the dissolution, because I chose to save them, above all else.

I see clearly now that they were the reason for the dissolution, or, rather, the dreams and desires nestled in their pages were the reason for abandoning a life not worth hanging onto, and entering a new one.

By keeping decades of pages filled with myself, that self-absorbed, neurotic animal whom I had loathed for so long, I embraced my deepest self, a creature whose power and beauty I have yet to understand.  I never saw the depth and breadth of those decisions before that note — humans being expert at burying life’s brilliance under the mundane and inconsequential.

In saving my journals, deep in my psychic recesses, I decisively chose to become the strangest of all animals, a writer.

I have felt painfully alone in these decisions, too often reaching for my comfortable blanket of self-loathing and insecurity while second guessing myself, wondering about my judgement, or lack thereof.

Financial pressures and uncertainties press hard.

Skills and creativity want.

But a note written when I was three months old traveled through time and landed in my hands, arriving on New Year’s Eve.  In its lines, I feel my mother standing behind me, smiling.  My father with whom I share an obscure connection appears and urges me on.  Storyteller and artist stand together behind me, and they are as perceptible to me as that creature who for years ran on an ocean beach, sun burning its eyes, heart bursting in an untethered stride, a singularly magnificent beast forged in my unconscious that found its way into my journal pages.

A note written decades ago arrives on New Year’s Eve, and I understand that I am not alone.

Then, in a moment lit by an epiphanic sun, and bitten by the mysteries of sand, wind, and water, I realize that 2014 is the Year Of The Horse.

And I understand, I am the horse.

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