All posts by Thaddeus Gibson

Maybe we should just let the Jesus museums take over

Since post-Trump is the new post-9/11, I have been thinking about what constitutes activism in post-Trump America. This line of thought was prompted by a combination of our readings for this week and the world-wide March for Science that occurred on Earth Day.

As far as I can surmise, there have always been propositions based in truth and evidence that seem activist or controversial in nature due to entrenched interests: the Earth is not in the center of the universe, for example. Furthermore, for as long as these propositions have existed, entrenched interests have sought to discredit those responsible and cast their ideas as radical and dangerous.

Two of the major examples of this phenomenon in the United States in my lifetime have been Evangelical Christianity’s rejection of the theory of evolution and the fossil fuel industry’s obfuscation of the realities of climate change. Both of these positions are pretty firmly entrenched in the GOP mindset at this point, and the distrust of scientists that both of these positions depend on has permeated the Republican base. Perhaps more worrying is that this mistrust extends to other experts and beyond Republican voters. Vaccines are a good example of something that experts (in this case doctors) view as imperative but are viewed by some people on both sides of the political spectrum as harmful.

With all of this in mind, it seems to me like our readings for today suddenly feel a bit dated (like so many other things). In Chapter 2 of Museums in a Trouble World Janes notes that “the majority of museums have attempted to remain remote from the demands and disorder of daily life of the planet.” I would, like Janes, like to see museums take a more proactive role in educating various publics about things like the existential threat of climate change, but I am currently at a loss as to how to accomplish this without preaching to the choir. In the article “Museums and the Combating of Social Inequality,” Sendall argues that one of the ways to accomplish the goal laid out in the article’s title is the inclusion of differing viewpoints and caution with regards to the authoritative voice in museum work. I see ignorance of things like climate change or the value of vaccines as an issue of social inequality, but I don’t see the value in the inclusion of viewpoints that are demonstrably wrong in such debates. I am also terribly perplexed as to how museums can best present information that is widely agreed upon by experts without alienating certain publics through perceived or actual condescension.

In Defense of Decentralized Cultural Policy

Upon doing the Doris Sommer readings for class today, it struck me that what Antanas Mockus did very cleverly was to use culture to influence culture. Consider, briefly, Richard Kurin’s tripartite division of culture in popular thought: the worlds of entertainment, scholarship and politics. Mockus was able to use entertaining  cultural products to affect change in the political aspects of Bogotá’s culture.  As Sommer articulates, using art to influence how people think is by no means a novel idea, but many examples of such initiatives in the past are heavier on the conformity and lighter on the individualistic whimsy than having mimes directing traffic (see Goebbels, Joseph). In contrast, Sommer is laudatory of Mockus and other leaders that use centralized cultural apparatuses to celebrate individualism and strengthen democratic and artistic institutions in their constituencies.

In the U.S., we have a largely decentralized system for funding culture. It relies heavily on tax deductible donations to nonprofit organizations and the private sector. Even the most direct, prominent means by which the federal government funds culture are not directly controlled by the president or the legislature (the NEA, NEH and Smithsonian). While putting the arts in competition with God, sick children and other charitable causes may seem unfair, it seems that, given the current political landscape, a lot of people are coming around on the idea of a decentralized model of cultural production. However, I would like to briefly entertain my dark imagination and imagine the current chief executive of the United States with a fully-fledged, centralized cultural apparatus at his disposal (constitutional considerations aside).

People throwing yellow flags (ala NFL refs calling penalties) at people with “degenerate” fashion or haircuts.

Creepy dear leader productions in schools nationwide.

Alex Jones on PBS (for any of you that missed it, Alex Jones’ attorney actually tried to help his client in a custody battle by claiming that he is a “performance artist”).

People putting government sanctioned stickers on foreign automobiles or other products.


Vermont Creative Network: an Example of Shared Authority?

During the second half of my time at the Vermont Arts Council, we launched something called the Vermont Creative Network. The idea was to create a network of stakeholders that could provide leadership on issues facing the creative sector in Vermont. It is based on the principle of collective impact which contends that “large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.”

I see the model of collective impact as being a sort of transorganizational take on the kinds of shared authority practices that Robert Janes advocates in chapter 3 of his book “Museums in a Troubled World.” The most glaring similarity is the interdisciplinary nature of the collective impact model.

More specifically, many proponents of the collective impact model are also disciples of Results Based Accountability (RBA), which is a framework developed by Mark Friedman and articulated in his book “Trying Hard is Not Good Enough.” RBA is all about (you guessed it) results, an approach that Janes advocates on page 76 when he says that “the key point is for management to focus on results , rather than any particular process or means for achieving those results.” The VCN is heavy on RBA.

I also think that VCN fulfills Robert Janes’ exhortations of the benefits of primus inter pares (first among peers) management style over hierarchy. In the Collective Impact model, there is a “Backbone Organization” that is responsible for convening all the other involved organizations. Without being entirely familiar with the Collective Impact Model, I would guess that, in an ideal world, the Backbone Organization is supposed to function as a first among peers. The reality of the VCN when I was at the Arts Council was that we were doing most of the heavy lifting to get the project off of the ground, but we did try hard to get input and buy in from our constituent organizations.

Where is the Line Between Relevance and Pandering?

After preciously reading many little bits of Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, it was nice to finally sink my teeth into the whole book. One question that stayed with me as I encountered Simon’s work in the past is the title of this post: where is the line between relevance and pandering?

Upon reading the whole book, I was eager to see if/how she addressed it. In short: she doesn’t, at least not directly. I was frustrated because she briefly mentions the issue in her introduction, but then dances around it from that point forward.

I would certainly buy the argument that “community-first program design,” if executed properly, can help prevent (or entirely prevent) pandering being the MO of a cultural nonprofit, but I would like to see that argument made explicitly.

The last time we met as a class, we talked about the ongoing controversy at the Whitney over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till. In that case, as far as I can tell, the Whitney tried to be relevant and wound up being called out on insensitive pandering. I would have been pleased if the Art of Relevance had some other examples of institutions aiming for relevance and landing on pandering, as well as analysis of those situations and their pitfalls.

Totally CRAZY Examples of Cultural Appropriation (Only 90’s Kids Will Know #6)

1.) “Wise Guy” by Joe Pesci

I bet you didn’t know that Joe Pesci could spit bars! Oh wait, he can’t. Let’s back up: Pesci was a lounge singer before he got into acting, but he refused to give up music after he made it big time. “Wise Guy” is off his second studio album, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, which is somehow based on his 1992 hit film My Cousin Vinnie. Don’t miss clever rhymes like “and I’ll take your eyes/’cause I’m a wise guy.”

Appropriation of black music was a big theme in the readings for class this week and while I think I was supposed to be thinking about Eminem and Elvis, my mind kept drifting to this ridiculous song and video, with its awkward and technically underwhelming shoehorning of Italian-American gangster culture into a rap format.

2.) The 1992 Superbowl Halftime Show

If you only watch one video on this list, make it this one. The fact that this show actually happened is hard to believe. Organized around the amorphous theme of “Winter Magic,” this show was one of the grandest, most incoherent pageants ever witnessed.  Watching the video is really the only way to appreciate it.

Cultural appropriation highlights at 2:33, 3:34 and 4:33. The final one is a hip hop inspired number that implores Frosty the Snowman to “Pump it up!” Other lyrical highlights include “Go Frosty, Go Frosty, Go!/Yo Frosty, Yo Frosty, Yo!” Directly following, Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill do a figure skating performance on two surfaces that appear too small for a board meeting, let alone a Lutz.

This halftime show was so poorly received that the NFL completely rethought their process, which resulted in Michaela Jackson delivering one of the most iconic halftime performances of all time at the next Superbowl. This set the stage for the pop extravaganzas that we are familiar with today.

3.) Eurovision

There are all kinds of Eurovision acts out there ranging from famous ones like ABBA to things that are impossible to differentiate from parody (I’m looking at you Ukraine). As far as cultural appropriation goes, check out “Watch my Dance” by Loucas Yiorkas and Stereo Mike, Greece’s entry from 2011. Blending hip hop and b-boy with Corinthian columns and what I can only assume is some sort of traditional Greek song, this act is bizarre (not to mention dreadful).

I am curious about Loucas Yiorkas and Stereo Mike’s contact zones vis-à-vis hip hop. Stereo Mike’s Wikipedia page mentions that he studied in the U.K. and worked with British rappers (who themselves appropriated hip hop). I gleaned no similar insights from Loucas Yiorkas’ Wikipedia page. I suspect that in both cases

4.) Aunt Jemima’s

Where to begin? I mean aside from the caricature of Aunt Jemima herself.

A few things strike me about this ad. First, it tells men to ask their wives to serve them Aunt Jemima’s, which seems about the most patriarchal way to try to sell something possible. Second, Aunt Jemima’s is nasty and made entirely of corn syrup. It was the fist think that sprang to mind when I read about Korean’s taking offense to Japanese imitation kimchi in the Scafidi reading. This is because where I come from, syrup is made from trees and not cornstalks, but we have to contend with the cheap imitation (I realize that this might be the most privileged gripe about cultural appropriation ever).

5.) Taco Bell

Taco Bell’s marketing has incorporated various levels of cultural appropriation over the years. On the mild side: this 70’s spot which, as far as I can tell, only perpetuates the extant appropriation of the restaurants themselves, namely the food itself and those strange uniforms that the staff wears. I can’t tell if the music is supposed to have some sort of Latin flair, mostly it just seems like a soulless corporate jingle. On the high level of appropriation end of the scale we have Gorditas, the taco dog.

6.) “Numb/Encore” by Likin Park and Jay-Z

That’s right. The ultimate early 00’s crossover appeal track. The story behind this song (and I’m totally making this up, but I’m pretty sure it’s right on the money) is that a record label exec thought: “Hey, how can I make an album that appeals to two gigantic but distinct fan bases? Hmmm… I should combine nu-metal and hip hop.” The sad thing is that that person was right: mindlessly titled “Collision Course” went platinum.

This song was so popular while I was a freshman in high school that was able to compete with “Yeah!” and “Hey Ya!” for the distinction of biggest crowd pleaser at school dances. Now, of course, everyone realizes that “Numb/Encore” is just a terrible piece of music. I’m proud to say that it was never on my iPod Mini.

An interesting and completely ridiculous angle on this is whether nu metal represents a marginalized community who had their cultural products ripped off for corporate profit. If this is the case, I think we can all agree that Korn were the first sellouts.

How would you Prefer your Interpretation Sir: Nonexistent or False?

In watching the video and doing the readings for class this week, I found myself constantly comparing the 1990 LA Festival of the Arts as related in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s Destination Culture with Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance piece entitled The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West.

A particular point is how the organizers of the LA event went to great lengths to organize and promote the event very carefully, with a particular point of emphasis being the avoidance supplying “gratuitous meaning” to the performances. In so doing, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett claims that audiences were better able to appreciate the “pleasure of the unfamiliar and the incomprehensible” and did not try to assign their own western meanings and values to the performances. It seems to me that a big part of the removing of “gratuitous meaning,” in this case, is positioning the Festival outside of the academy and the museum in public places and community organizations.

In contrast, the effectiveness of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West was based on the various meanings ascribed to it by its audiences, due in large part to it being performed in authoritative venues such as the National Museum of Natural History. Also, the artists made a conscious decision not to promote it and to interpret it in a way that was not just “gratuitous,” but completely fictional in the form of interpretive text indicating  that they were natives of a nonexistent island. These choices had much to do with the audiences thinking that the performance was “real” and creating meaning accordingly

A final point is how wonderfully “90’s” both these artistic endeavors were. They were conceived and executed in a world that was globalized and wrestling with western cultural hegemony, but not interconnected like it is now. Today, the smart phone would have challanged both events. In the case of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, people would be looking up the exhibit, discovering that it was a “hoax.” In the case of the L.A. Festival of the Arts, people would be looking up acts before, after, and during performances, inundating themselves with a flood of “gratuitous meaning.” They would also be livestreaming with their phones, which presents a layer of complication beyond the scope of this blog post.


Representations of the Future

The big news today in the art world seems to be “Defiant Girl.”

People look at a statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull in the financial district of New York, March 7, 2017.

“Defiant Girl” is a statue by Kristen Visbal of a young girl facing down “Charging Bull,” the iconic sculpture associated with Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. The placement of the statue was facilitated by State Street Global Advisors (yes, they actually spell “advisers” with an “o”). According to the company, which manages almost 2.5 trillion dollars in assets, “Defiant Girl” is a rallying cry for the placement of more women on the boards of financial institutions.

An except from a statement by CEO Ron O’Hanley: “Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards, and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action.”

The firm negotiated with the City of New York beforehand to ensure that “Defiant Girl” will remain in place for at least a month, and hopes that it will remain in perpetuity (in class today, I will be taking bets at 1:3 that it does).

This story struck a chord, at least in my mind, with a couple of the readings for class today.

First, it reminds me of the Marian Anderson concert performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, as both events seek to influence the political and social meaning of an iconic image. Anderson’s concert tipped the scales slightly towards Lincoln primarily as emancipator as opposed to Lincoln primarily as preserver of Union. “Defiant Girl,” on the other hand confronts directly (quite literally) Wall Street’s reputation and legacy as a place dominated by masculinity and testosterone. In a sort of sculptural aikido, it deftly turns “Charging Bull” against itself. It is worth noting here that “Charging Bull” was sculpted by an Italian, Arturo Di Modica, and appeared on Wall Street in 1989, during an era characterized in popular consciousness by hyper-masculine and sub-moral  characters such as Gordon Gecko and Jordan Belfort.

With regards to Doss’ “Memorial Mania,” I see “Defiant Girl” as belonging to the category of public art rather than memorial or monument. In her first chapter, Doss argues that public art and memorials are “practically synonymous”, but doesn’t elaborate much. Later, she contends that the distinctions between monuments and memorials are “tenuous” but proceeds to articulate at length the differences between the two. I would like to suggest one distinction between public art and memorials: while they both are reflective of subjectivity and play to identity politics (as Doss articulates), public art has the potential to look forward, urge change and acknowledge agency, while memorials by definition look backward and remember loss.

I was instantly taken by the straight forward meaning of “Defiant Girl” (achieved, in large part, through the currently out-of-vogue mode of representationality) and I think it has much potential as a piece of art. This potential is due in no small part to its aptness in the current political climate.

Some lingering questions for me:

Is State Street Global Advisors being hypocritical? According to their website, they have 23 men in senior leadership positions and only five women (also, as far as I can tell, all of their senior leadership team, save one, is white).

Considering this organization’s vast financial resources (the amount of assets they manage is roughly on par with GDP of India), what else are they doing? Are they doing enough?

Does the choice to depict a representation of women as a child a child in a skirt play off of existing gender stereotypes or play into them? Would an adult woman in a suit be more appropriate?

A Less Nationalist Verse about America’s Founding

This week I was feeling creative and decided to take a stab at creating a less glorified rap about the founding of our nation. Undoubtedly this is the first step in my creation of a smash-hit, Marxist musical entitled “Das Khorale.” All rights reserved.

Now here’s a different take about a popular myth

About a bunch of dudes now commonly seen as a monolith

Lawyers, merchants and one pretty good silversmith

You see they all wanted to make bank, get the cheddar

But their king needed dough too, he also wanted treasure

“I gotta lot colonies and I can’t just treat one better”

So these dudes they got pissed, started raising a rabble

Declaring independence, and other such prattle

Spoke highly of liberty and throwing off shackles

‘Course simultaneously they played down their own wealth

Built off the subjugation of a whole race and its health

And got the common man to risk his own damn self

You see these men perpetuated the same old paradigm

Poor, uneducated people believing their cause was damn fine

Showed up to the fight, put their lives on the line

Believing they were killing for good, doing something divine

Tragically, what these poor sods never realized

Was that despite the liberal ideas that were being theorized

In the nation they created, wealth disparities would be maximized

After a bit of gun play, the whole mess shook out

These rich white men stood victorious, and proceeded to shout

“This land is ours and we’re gonna ball out!”

But winning is cake and ruling ain’t easy

They tried out some articles, but the product was measly

And so that experiment lasted only briefly

But they made something more beefy, a constitution they called it

It wasn’t an easy process, with some trying to stall it

Insisted on amendments before they would install it

Even so, the document they forged was morally reprehensible

It ignored women and kept treating black folks as vendible

And just had many points that were quite indefensible

Now despite all its flaws this doc proved quite formative

And laid the basis for America, a nation superlative

With impacts on history that were most reverberative

Since then these men all have been canonized

Their images and stories revised and stylized

And in all, these days, they are quite hard to criticize

Still, some are more well liked or remembered than others

For example, Big Gee-Dub always polls with good numbers

And my inspiration for these rhymes has led to many Hamilton lovers

But our national myths gloss over a whole goddamn lot

And I hope to the powers that be that one day they do not

But I doubt I will see the day, when to our first graders we say:

“When Columbus landed, ninety percent of natives never even had a shot.”

Fake News and Revisionist History

During this week’s readings, I found myself thinking a lot about so-called “fake news.” This terminology has always bothered me a little bit because it seems to me that “propaganda” would be just as apt. Why create a whole new term for something that already exists?

As I was reading Troulliot, I started to think more about the relationship between “fake news,” “revisionist history,” and “propaganda.” I’m still not sure if they are all, at their root, the same thing. My dilemma seems to have something to do with what Pierre Nora refers to as “the acceleration of history.”

Troulliot’s rejection of contructivism is rooted in his belief that history is not just one narrative among many due to the fact that it embraces special methodology and has a disproportionate moral impact on society. I would argue that the same is true (and possibly more so) of the news. My former roommate’s Journalism degree from BU seems to have taught him at least as much methodology as any of my friends that graduated with a History degree. Similarly, it is the case that the news media has a large moral impact as well.

Both the authors that we read for this week consider (to different degrees) the relationship of memory to history. However, given that the news media now is grappling with many of the same issues that historians have been for some time, the question seems to be more accurately characterized as that of epistemology to collective understanding, or something like that.

Some Thoughts on Snippets from Caclini’s Hybrid Cultures

I have recently been paying close attention to US politics. More accurately: I have long paid close attention to US politics, but recent events have resulted in me spending an unhealthy amount of time and energy staying up to date on this roller coaster ride of an administration.

As I was trying to distract myself with the reading for this week, I grew listless as I trudged through Calclini’s theories on the hybrid of modernity and traditional culture. Then, at the end of Chapter 3, I found several digestible theory nuggets that I think have a lot of bearing on the current nature of things in this country.

To whit:

“Is it the basis of a democratic society to create conditions in which everyone has access to cultural goods … in order to understand the meaning conceived by the writer or the painter?” To I which I was tempted to reply: “Obviously!”

However, Calclini then goes on to astutely point out that “there is an authoritarian component in the desire that the interpretations of the receivers and the meaning proposed by the transmitter completely coincide.” I had never really considered this before, but it very much rang true for me.

I have recently been keeping tabs on the movie “Dear White People,” which currently only exists (publicly at least) as a trailer. The show is pretty clearly a “biting satire of racial politics” (in the words of Jada Yuan of New York Magazine). However, many members of the so-called “alt-right” have been taking the show’s content at face value, despite the fact that it satirizes precisely the kind of identity politics that that many of the alt-right claim to abhor (I am of the personal belief that the alt-right is totally based around a white identity politics, but I digress).

I am very much interested in living in an America where a movie like “Dear White People” doesn’t elicit the kind of reaction I have described. Is my desire for everyone to recognize this movie as satire “authoritarian?” At one point in my life, I would have been confident in our democratic traditions and the “moral arc of the universe” (to quote Martin Luther King) to make it so. In Calclini’s words, however, “differences based on inequality are not settled by formal democracy.” This is becoming increasingly apparent to me, as it seems that elections clearly have been exacerbating our cultural fault lines instead of “healing” them.

Caclini continues: “It must be asked if the predominant cultures … are capable only of reproducing themselves, or also creating the conditions whereby marginal, heterodox forms of art and culture are manifested and communicated.” Let’s hope it’s the latter.