Arts

Parental Reality Check

"I want to major in the arts."

This coming from my son, a product of two artists, was no surprise, yet the impact of those words jolted me from artist to parent in a matter of seconds. I always prided myself as being a balanced artist and parent; in the theater on the day of delivery, back in the dance studio with baby in tow days later (after a cesarean section no less), not missing a rehearsal or a parent-teacher conference. I advocate for the importance of arts in education and against the severe budget cuts the arts are currently faced with from the perspective as both art educator and parent. Why then, do these seven words throw me into such a tailspin? Where will he work? How will he survive? The funding isn’t there now; what will it be like in four years when he graduates? Is he prepared for this ever-changing artistic world?

As I begin to breathe and justify my reaction, I am faced with a reality. My son has experienced with me the highs and lows of being an artist and the constant justifications I need to make for dance programming, the lack of funds and the frustration of the lack of support. Yet through living this life he still wants to go into the arts. Don’t misunderstand my concern; I am not disappointed by any means. I am very proud and excited for him that he has chosen this path.

Teaching at a women’s college, I speak to many parents about their daughters wanting to be dance majors, reassuring them that it will be O.K.; I advocate for a liberal arts education where a student can major in the art of her choice and be able to double with something "else." The "else" has quickly become, to me, something "solid." I understand the value of an education in the arts and the strong, positive impact the arts have on society. A college major in the arts provides an opportunity to acquire strong creative thinking skills that will enhance learning across disciplines and a comprehensive study that students will apply the rest of their lives.

I am now living what I preach and the mom in me fears that my son’s undying passion for his art may not be able to support him. On top of all that he tells us he wants to go to study at an arts conservatory, not a liberal arts college. This means minimal to no opportunity for the double major. I put other parents’ minds at ease by telling them their daughter will find success majoring in the arts. Who is easing my mind? Is this hypocrisy? I am now on the other side of the desk.

At the risk of sounding partial, I have always been proud of my son's nature to love life and desire to learn everything about everything. He never hesitates to research what he does not know and excitedly shares his discoveries. He and I will often have conversations about how to synergize his findings with my choreography. His innate ability to think as an interdisciplinary artist is fascinating to me. Where did this derive from? How can he apply this interdisciplinary thought process as a tool for his major?

I quickly discover that he thinks through the liberal arts. It is this synergy that he unconsciously created within him that will guide his process. He is my best lesson in learning how to be an artist in a liberal arts environment. An arts education within a liberal arts setting nourishes interdisciplinary artistic opportunities. Will he achieve this at an conservatory? Art conservatories produce fabulous visual artists. I'm not quite sure that such an intense and narrowly focused program is the right fit for him.

I refer to interdisciplinary art as a collaborative method or perspective among several disciplines; my most immediate experiences combine my choreography with visual art, literature, drama, sociology and feminist studies. Interdisciplinary art, however, is not limited to specific genres of art. Teaching in a liberal arts community has provided me with an opportunity to experience an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum between my dance program and other departments on campus including but not limited to art, music, theatre, psychology, the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. I have witnessed interdisciplinarity among other departments as well, outside of the arts. While this interdisciplinary approach provides multiple outlets for creativity for students and faculty, it also fosters a new vision of the arts, one that peers between the lines and opens communication between art forms as well as between art and academic studies.

As the waiting for college letters commenced, my son had his heart set on a conservatory program as his first choice. Keeping the door of possibilities open, I delicately broached the subject of my realization about him being innately grounded in the liberal arts. His way of thinking and his developing artistic process appeared to crave the interaction of many disciplines. He quietly listened and did not respond. I walked away hoping he was being reflective after my mini-lecture rather than politely ignoring. After many restless nights, after treading on eggshells around the subject, and after all letters were received, he chose to attend a liberal arts college rather than his original intention of a conservatory.

He shared with me that he worried this may pose some challenges for him in developing his technical processes; he was also concerned that he may not fit in. You see, I affectionately refer to him as our vagabond. He wanders, on foot, or bike, throughout the area we live in looking for opportunities to meet new people and draw fascinating things. Material possessions are low on his list of priorities. He lives each day as it comes. Will he fit into an environment that is not entirely filled with other young artists just like him? When will my internal tug-of-war end?

Why did he choose a liberal arts college? After many weeks of weighing the options, he decided that at a liberal arts college he would be exposed to many influences that allow for more subjective and contextual stimulation. His first choice was housed within a large university. An excellent program, no doubt; however, they were not keen on him double-majoring. His love of literature and anthropology needed to take a backseat and he wasn’t too sure he wanted that to happen. Now there is the opportunity for the other major of something solid.

He is currently mid-semester freshman year and finding himself questioning the true meaning of liberal arts. Although the college professes its liberal art values, he has found many students to be quite stagnant, fearful of exploration across disciplines. My son is bouncing back and forth with his second major (beyond an arts major) as being either English or anthropology. He has concluded that this decision would be based on what allows him the most room for artistic growth.

My son has given me a gift. His interdisciplinary way of thinking has provided me with an intellectual and artistic opportunity to further my development as a lifelong learning artist. Joining the forerunners in the dance field that recognize the potential of dance as an interdisciplinary art actively engages me in authentic learning and discussion which contributes to the core competencies that new generations of dancers should have. Robert Diamond documents these core competencies as communicating, problem solving, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, the appreciation of diversity and the ability to adapt to innovation and change.

The artistic process and creation, analytical thinking, and the integration of dance into other disciplines are foremost in my philosophy in the classroom and studio. I challenge my students and encourage them to explore all dance-related avenues of learning to broaden their perspectives of dance as an intellectual art form. As a motivated artist and educator I strive to work toward advancing my knowledge of the future of dance by continuing my education in an environment that promotes higher levels of standards for artistic education and research.

In the ‘80s, the movement and visual art worlds grew apart. Everyone was out for themselves trying to find monies to create. Shared venues between artists that encouraged dialogue among the arts became a thing of the past. Meanwhile, dance was trying to find a solo voice that was appreciated and viewed as a respected art form. My son is now entering an artistic world that has been enduring a tug of war with politics for the past nine years. He personally experienced this after working diligently on his portfolio submission to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. After waiting patiently for a response to his submission, he had the rug pulled out from under him. During the week the admission letters were supposed to be sent out, he was told by his school guidance counselor that funding for the school had been cut with the budget changes.

It is time to transfer into the 21st century and strongly merge artistic efforts with other artistic disciplines. Text, media, art; cross-discipline of art forms may open up more opportunities for funding in the 21st century. Dance is beginning to close the gap between the performance and the visual; to reintroduce itself to the other creative arts. Breaking down these disciplinary categories helps those looking for funding.

My son admitted to me that had he chosen an art conservatory, the study may have been too narrow. While a conservatory may have offered him more technical aspects necessary for a student artist, he has found that at a liberal arts college he is receiving the breadth that is necessary for artistic, creative and personal growth. His list of new friends spans the liberal arts academic choices. He can apply everything he is learning from this new environment to his art.

Having peeled back the parental layers to reach my artistic self I found a calming reassurance that my son will be just fine. How interesting that through this my son is the one that taught me the lesson. Yes, being an art major will open his eyes to the world in a way that he has not viewed it before. Yes, double-majoring with something “else” will give him an opportunity to merge his thoughts from discipline to discipline and communicate his new findings to the world. It is not hypocrisy. I am not leading my son or my students astray. I will watch my students grow, along with my son, as educated artists. He will be fine and will flourish as the interdisciplinary artist he is already becoming. It’s time to let go and let him experience. As he so delicately wrote me this past Mother’s Day, "through my individual growth, isolation, stubbornness, mistakes, choices, arguments, beliefs and lifestyle, which are all going to change faster than you can keep up, just know I love you."

Author/s: 
Robin Gerchman
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Robin Gerchman is assistant professor and director of dance at Cedar Crest College.

Photography and Political Violence

In Mark Twain’s bitter satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), the Belgian monarch recalls how much easier it was to control public opinion in the old days. Now all that anyone talks about are the atrocities in the Congo -- where the rubber and ivory trade have been very profitable for the king and his cronies, thanks to the absolute enslavement of the Congolese. “I have spent millions to keep the press of two hemispheres quiet,” he rants, “and still these leaks keep on occurring.”

His most vexing problem, it turns out, is a new and highly mobile bit of technology: “The Kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy indeed…. The only witness I have encountered in my long experience I couldn’t bribe.” Photographs of mutilated Africans -- their hands cut off for the least infraction, and sometimes just for the hell of it -- were ruining Leopold’s good name as a humanitarian.

Trust that photojournalism gives reliable and virtually unmediated access to the truth has taken some hits over the intervening century. But in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press), Susie Linfield, director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, holds fast to Twain’s optimism about the power of images of suffering to create enormous moral and political effects. It was named a finalist in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle awards; my short essay on it appeared at the NBCC blog Critical Mass, which announced the winners in all categories last week.

We met briefly at the awards ceremony, and over the weekend Linfield responded to a series of questions. The following interview is drawn from that exchange.

Q: People used to write defenses of poetry. Your book opens with a defense of photography, and of photojournalism in particular -- particularly against certain strains of photography criticism. Is that really so urgent? Have polemics against photography ever had any effect on anyone? Susan Sontag's critique in On Photography may have been harsh, for example, but she collected photos, and kept on sitting for portraits.

A: Well, there are different kinds of urgency. I wouldn't say my defense of photojournalism -- and of photographic truth -- is as urgent as, say, stopping mass rape in the Congo, or as protecting Libyans from the madness of Qaddafi. But yes, I think that the attack on photojournalism -- Sontag was most prominent exponent of this, but the critique goes back to the Frankfurt School critics and forward to the postmodernists -- has given us too many alibis, too many excuses. It's very, very easy to simply not look at certain kinds of photographs, and therefore to not consider the phenomenological experience of certain kinds of violence. And, moreover, to feel virtuous in not-looking, since we've been told over and over that photographs exploit, manipulate, seduce, mislead, oppress, commodify... Even a teenager now can glibly tell you, "All photographs lie" or "There is no such thing as truth." But neither of those statements is accurate.

Q: You define your approach, not just against certain currents in photography criticism, but in continuity with other work -- James Agee's and Pauline Kael's writing on movies, for one, and Kenneth Tynan's on theater. Would you say more about that? And is there really no "usable past" in photography criticism itself you can draw on?

A: Yes, there is a wonderful "usable past" in photography criticism: including, certainly, Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Brecht. The fact that I have criticisms of all these writers doesn't mean that I don't also think they've done invaluable, indeed brilliant, work. But what most photography critics lack (though Benjamin is actually an exception to this) is a passion for the form itself. And it is this passion for -- this cathection to -- the form that animates critics like Agee and Kael vis à vis the movies, and Tynan for the theater. It was also the animating force for the young critics who came of age in the mid-1960s and began writing about rock music: Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, James Miller. Those music critics had read a lot of theory and history and criticism, and they were all highly analytic. But they also considered themselves part of the mass audience -- and of the larger counterculture -- in ways that many photography critics simply haven't. They weren't populists, but they were democrats, and -- like Kael -- they were highly invested in the question of what a democratic culture of excellence might look like.

In his book The Company of Critics, Michael Walzer argues for the importance of the organic critic: the critic who considers herself a part of the society that she critiques. He cites a wide range of examples, from the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament to George Orwell and Antonio Gramsci. It is this kind of organic criticism that many photography critics scorn, or at least avoid. They start from a position of suspicion toward, not love for, photography -- and, sometimes, from a position of contempt for the general audience.

This is in part why the language of photography criticism -- I am thinking of the postmoderns now -- is often so clunky, even ugly. But to read Kael or Agee is a joy. They weren't writing about "the enemy," which is, alas, the stance of some photography critics. Look at Agee's reviews of Preston Sturges's "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," or of Olivier's version of "Henry V," and you'll see what I mean.

Q: Can a photojournalistic image of atrocity have aesthetic interest? Should it? It would be one thing if Stuart Freedman's photo on page 146 -- showing a child in Sierra Leone sitting in an otherwise empty room, looking at his father's detached prosthetic limbs -- were the work of a surrealist artist. But to find it beautiful, as I did until reading the caption, seems pretty horrifying.

A: Yes, such pictures can -- and do -- have aesthetic interest, I think. There's no getting around that: photographs are aesthetic objects. They are a documentation of something; they are not the thing-in-itself. What makes photographs so bewildering, and so bothersome, and so discomfiting, is that they record something that actually happened, and at the time it actually happened (unlike other aesthetic objects, such as paintings and sculptures).

Lots of people hate the idea that photographs of violence and suffering can be beautiful -- and by beauty I mean aesthetically compelling. But of course they can be. So, for that matter, can literature, including nonfiction literature, that documents violence and cruelty (think of Primo Levi, though one can easily come up with many other examples). Is Paul Celan's "Deathfugue" a beautiful poem? It is, although the beauty is quite terrible.

I think that people often feel guilty looking at visually powerful, formally accomplished photographs of war and atrocity; hence the vitriolic critiques of Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, and others. But the formal power of their photographs is, precisely, part of what allows them to convey the experience of suffering; and to convey it in ways that make me, at least, think harder and deeper about what they are showing. The guilt that some viewers feel when looking at these photographs is, I think, misplaced -- and rather narcissistic to boot.

And the truth of the matter is that even in the world's worst situations, beauty -- that is, visual power, grace, dignity, formal coherence -- exists. In 1944 -- a very bad year -- Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem in which he said that the scent of a flowering tree "is like an insult/To suffering humanity..." And so it is. But I think we just have to live with this contradiction. The alternative -- to make messy, visually incoherent photographs -- makes no sense, and would do absolutely nothing for the victims.

Q: Sometimes photography does not simply document political violence but participates in it. The Cruel Radiance discusses several examples of this -- pictures of atrocity taken by Nazis, mug shots of Khmer Rouge prisoners taken at a torture center, and the digital snapshots from Abu Ghraib, among others. At one point you contrast the photojournalist's "ethics of showing" with the "ethics of seeing" incumbent upon viewers of images of political violence. But what are the terms of such an ethics of seeing when the act of taking a photo is meant to degrade and dehumanize?

A: I think these are the most difficult photographs to contemplate -- or to know how to contemplate. There is no doubt that there is there are times and circumstances when photography itself becomes as an act of cruelty: we see this with thousands of Nazi photographs, the Abu Ghraib photos, and many others. Among the most egregious contemporary examples are the many torture/beheading videos made by Islamic terrorist groups (the video of Daniel Pearl's murder is most famous, but there are, alas, many others).

There is no good way, or pure way, to look at such photos or videos or films. And I think everyone has their breaking point: for some it might be some of the Nazi photos, for others the beheading films. (I myself have never looked at the latter.) On the other hand, even the most horrific photos can be, and have been, used in ways their makers never intended. During World War II, for instance, the Polish Underground, Jewish partisans, and the Soviets flooded the Western media with photographs of Nazi atrocities that had been taken by Nazi soldiers; the anti-fascists wanted the world to know what was happening, and most of the documentation of Nazi barbarism came from the Nazis themselves. Alas, few of these photos were printed by Western newspapers at the time -- they were regarded as Jewish or Soviet "propaganda," and therefore as untrustworthy. But the point is that photographs can be used in ways their makers never intended. We can subvert the intent of the perpetrators.

A recent example of this is a series of four photographs taken last year by a Somali photographer for the AP named Farah Abdi Warsameh. They show, in gruesome detail, the stoning to death -- for the crime of adultery -- of a Somali man, by the Islamist militia Hizbul Islam. The photographs are very controversial: among other things, they could not possibly have been taken without the permission of Hizbul Islam. And I have no doubt that Hizbul Islam is circulating these photos -- which are truly disgusting -- with pride: they are propaganda of the deed. But I also have no doubt that Warsameh took them with other motives in mind (I've seen other examples of his work). And I think we should look at them, hard as that may be: they show what Shariah law looks like in practice. I should add that Shariah is now legal in Somalia -- which means that what we are looking at, up close, is "justice," Islamist-style.

Q: I have to question your formulation here. Treating Shariah law as some kind of homogeneously vicious thing is simply wrong -- there are reactionary forms of Shariah, and modernizing forms. Saying this is one way to get both Islamicists and Islamophobes mad at you, of course.

A: It's possible to have Shariah law that doesn't condone, or legalize, stonings. But I don't think there is such a thing as a truly modernized Shariah, because I don't believe the rule of law can be based in religious texts. (Ask women in Iran about this.) And the point is that, in the places where the introduction, or reintroduction, of Shariah is being debated (such as in Afghanistan, as part of a possible deal with the Taliban), the form that will be instituted won't be too modern, or permissive, or tolerant. Nor have I ever seen any form of Shariah that, in practice, does not discriminate against women.

My point about the Somali photos, though, is that: this is what Shariah looks like in practice -- or at least in too many practices -- and we should look at it. Debates about this are often rather theoretical, or based on "could be's" (as in, "Shariah could be modernized"). What we see here is not theoretical at all, nor is it a rare exception.

Q: Is there a particular image of political violence that you've found impossible to come to terms with -- to recover from viewing?

A: I'm not sure I've "come to terms" with any of the photographs in my book; I don't think they can be "mastered" (in much the way that Adorno wrote that Germans could not possibly "master" the reality of Auschwitz). For me, the hardest photographs are not those that actually depict violence, but those that depict its preview or aftermath: that show the victims before they were victims, or at least before they were dead victims.

There's a photograph in my book taken by Mendel Grossman, a Jewish photographer who was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto (he died on a death march at the very end of the war). It's an "underground" photo, i.e., taken surreptitiously. It shows two women kissing on the mouth -- their lips pressed together through a mesh fence -- before one of them is deported to a death camp. I have a lot of trouble recovering from that. Similarly, the photograph of the girl on the cover of my book -- a Cambodian child, photographed before execution (and probably torture) in a Khmer Rouge "prison" -- is very hard for me to look at, and very hard for me to look away from.

I feel that I owe her -- what? life, safety, salvation -- yet I am acutely aware that I can do exactly nothing. We look at her as she looks at us: but we are way too late. Even worse: when we were not too late, we did nothing. This is a very calm, serene, sober photograph -- with no overt violence whatsoever -- but it is a very powerful J'accuse.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

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