Monthly Archives: December 2007

Art Imitating (Unreal) Life

Living adjacent to Williamsburg which boasts a growing community of starving artists in $3,000 a month lofts, I’ve come across not only a population of artists, but also their social havens that feature their work and their undulating poems.

The social spots are considered by many to be a brewing pot of progressive thought where the next generation goes to nourish its mind and soul and yet some how the “art work” displayed consisting of red spray-painted bare-breasted torsos and vintage prints of pointy-bra pulp women just don’t seem progressive at all in my eyes. But these poor souls and their interpretation of acceptable art work does not only dwell in casual settings featuring $4 beers, but on top of the most elite mountain of art as well.

Upon my last visit to the MoMA, I passed by one abstract exhibit after another, ascending floor by floor to what I believed would be art bliss. On my journey, I heard rumors of the featured Venezuelan artist that tickled my curiosity. This interest peaked once I reached the top floor where his exhibit was stationed as I passed by a group of white-haired socialites donning Burberry trench coats.

“Mmmm, it is very fascinating.”

“I absolutely adore his work.”

“It’s a thrill to have his work displayed here.”

As I walked through the exhibit, I was met with the awkward greetings of boobs. In fact, there were so many of them that I walked around the exhibit counting on my fingers how many paintings there were with bare breasts for no apparent reason, and had to switch my tally to how many paintings featured women who were actually covered. My tally proved to be disheartening, and the bare breasts won 10-1.

Of course, this argument is met by defense from individuals saying “But, the female body is beautiful.”

Well, this is true. The human body in general is a wonderful thing to celebrate, but there is a sharp distinction between using art to celebrate and empower versus usurping. One must ask what type of role the female is playing in the art piece. For instance, is she taking a part in a significant action? Does she have a character? Does she even have a head? Is she a subject or an object?

In this case, the woman’s breasts splattered across the canvas took away any sort of subjectivity this woman might have and instead objectified the woman for her two circular commodities. In many paintings, the woman was headless, lurking naked in the background. In some pieces, there was a male character, dressed of course, but always accompanied by the two perfect and perky bulls-eyes, which, all ladies know simply don’t exist in reality. Keeping all this in mind, one must ask what kind of position do these paintings place women in? What story is being told and most importantly, whose point of view is this story being told from?

According to the Guerilla girls, only 3% of the artists in the Met. are female, where as 83% of the nudes portraits are of women. This does not mean that there are less female artists in the world it means that male artists are more likely to gain recognition. Not only are these males picked to share their works with the public and gain publicity, they are the ones who get to choose what images will be shared with the public. The nude portraits, therefore, are mostly created by males who, no matter how many times will study a nude model, will never quite understand how the female body works and who many times, have a distorted notion of sexuality.

There are still individuals who simply don’t see the harm in any type of imagery, seeing an invisible line between fantasy and reality that can never be breached. Art, in this case, is the vessel for imagery where the imagination can go off to play with no expense, yet this holds no verity. Every image and every piece of “art” whether its meant for one’s twisted fantasy or not has an impact on what our society deems as normal and acceptable. Not only this, it paves the way for sexism to survive in a helmeted shell as carrying the “art” label usually puts the skeptics glances at ease.

A perfect and fairly extreme example of life imitating “art” comes in the form of a December 1984 issue of Penthouse that featured a photo-essay by photographer Akira Ishagaki. Ishagaki basically played into a necrophilia fantasy entitled Sakura which he explains:

Sakura is the word for the cherry blossom. From my childhood . . . I recall the resemblance between the petals of the cherry blossom and a woman’s body. In the spring of my twelve years, I caressed the petals with my fingers, kissed them gently with my lips.

His words pave way for what one would think to be a flowery and beloved portrayal of women. Instead, his images depict an array of women’s bodies in sexually charged post-mortem positions. The images, all taking after Asian influence, are bleak and reek of death. One picture in particular, had a woman with a Japanese-looking outfit hanging limp from a tree, her arms bound behind her back, her head slumped forward, her leg exposed up to her thigh.

Two months later after the issue hit the shelves, Jean Kar-Har Fewel, an 8-year old Chinese girl, was found raped and murdered hanging from a tree.

Once a piece of art meets our society’s artistic standards, that piece, the image it beholds and the story it tells sets up invisible social structures and defines the norm. The norm, in many cases, seems to be that women are itching to be topless, and as Ishagaki portrayed, disposable. The Venezuelan exhibit told me that women are dispensable. All of the portrayed women are alike, have no character and submit to any sexual advances. The most likely cause of the problem is that this is the story that men are telling. These men are setting the roles and putting the pieces into place from their point of view, and it comes to no surprise that there are both men and women out there that believe many of these images are true and normal because they’ve been handed a set script of how they should act at a very young age.

Every aspect of media has a consequence on our society, and the art world is no exception. The usurpation of the female body is all too commonplace, and many pieces of art illustrate this quite well. Just because an individual is an artist, does not make that artist all-knowing or that viewpoint the truth. For the most part, the images we see of women are through the eyes of men, and those works created by women are too far and few between. In this case, art is not imitating life, but changing our lives to imitate a lie.

-written by Elena Gaudino

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Who Owns Americans?

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Affordable Housing on the Ropes

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[photo courtesy of the Associated Press]

Christmas came early for developers last week, as the New York and New Orleans City Councils approved two large-scale redevelopment plans with ominous ramifications for affordable housing in both cities.

In New York, Columbia University’s controversial Manhattanville expansion, a $7 billion project that will last an estimated 25 years, was green-lighted by a 35-5 Council vote approving the rezoning of 35 acres of Upper Manhattan. Columbia’s expansion, which will include student and faculty housing, a biomedical research lab, and several new faculty buildings, will take up 17 of those acres, from 129 to 133rd Streets between Broadway and Riverside Drive.

While Columbia says the Manhattanville expansion will revitalize a “blighted” neighborhood and provide much needed jobs to the area, many local residents and business owners oppose the project and consider it a “land grab,” a perception exacerbated by the University’s refusal to rule out the use of eminent domain to evict holdout businesses. Neighborhood leaders agree there is a need for development in the area, and drafted an alternative development plan that would allow for Columbia’s expansion AND permit local businesses to stay open – crucially, the City Council decided not to review the alternative plan at the session, a testament to the clout of Columbia’s $1.6 million lobbying campaign.

The scene at New Orleans City Hall was far more raucous last Friday, as a City Council that is palpably whiter since Hurricane Katrina approved a federal plan to raze 4,600 units of public housing while police tasered and pepper-sprayed protesters in and outside the council chambers. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) argues that the current housing stock is beyond repair and favors “mixed income” developments along the lines of its HOPE VI program, which is responsible for the net loss of approximately fifty thousand affordable units since 1992. Although many buildings suffered minimal damage from the storm and are fit for rehabiliation, HUD is set on replacing the sturdy old stock with a yet to be determined design that will house 3,200 mixed-use units, with fewer than a third available to former public housing residents.

And who will live in these lovely new houses, at least some of which will resemble some of the low-density (and undoubtedly more expensive) designs in the Lower Ninth Ward commissioned by Brad Pitt? Rents are spiking and former residents displaced or relocated by Hurricane Katrina are paradoxically moving away or unable to return, a dynamic that could lead to a profound shift in New Orleans’ demographics, with a projected loss of 80 percent of the African-American population without a concerted government effort. The “smaller footprint” being pushed for New Orleans is “a massive redlining plan wrapped around a giant land grab,” according to former mayor Mark Morial.

Gentrification is at the heart of both these events, as Manhattan’s white flight in reverse phenomenon will bring a new wave of condo-hunters and landlord harassment to the neighborhoods surrounding Columbia’s expansion, some of the island’s last affordable areas. Cities are becoming the new suburbs, and the combination of forced displacement with the duplicity of elected officials towards community involvement in urban development will only widen the gaping disparities of class and race in America.

-written by Ali Winston

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Dissent=Terrorism?

It’s bad enough that Americans seeking genuine political reform are hamstrung by a stagnant two-party system in the thrall of corporate interests, an electoral college prone to district gerrymandering and in desperate need of reform, and a Supreme Court whose thumbs-up to election theft would warm Vladimir Putin’s cold, cold heart.

Now Americans who ascribe to dissenting political ideologies or oppose goverment policy run the risk of being branded “homegrown terrorists” or “violent radicals,” if the Senate ratifies a bill currently circulating in Congress.

On Oct. 23, the House of Representatives approved the Prevention of Violent Radicalization Act, intended to combat homegrown terrorism by establishing an advisory committee and a university-based center of excellence (linked to the Department of Homeland Security) to study the “radicalization” process. Sponsored by Representatives Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and David Reichert (R-Wash.), the bill, also known as H.R. 1955, passed by a 404-6 margin. A companion bill, S. 1959, was introduced by Senator Susan Collins (D-Me.) and is being deliberated by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, a committee chaired by known hawk Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Critics have raised red flags on H.R. 1955 for its cloudy definitions of “homegrown terrorism,””violent radicalization,” and “ideologically based violence” that could lead to government targeting of certain ethnic groups and political activists deemed subversive.

Kamau Franklin, a Racial Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, warned the “grave ramifications” H.R. 1955 could have for civil liberties. “The bill uses extremely broad strokes to say that any group which uses a potential threat of violence or intimidation could be labeled a terrorist,” Franklin said. “If you’re anti-war or anti-globalization, those things could be considered ideologically violent,” and be subjected to terrorism statutes if the commission advises Congress to classify such views as threatening.

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[photo courtesy of Diego Cupolo]

Currently, the government has no set definition for what constitutes terrorism.

According to the text of the bill, violent radicalization is defined as the promotion of extremist belief systems that advocate ‘ideologically based violence for political, religious, or social change.” “Homegrown terrorism” and “ideologically based violence” are even more loosely defined. Furthermore, H.R. 1955 views the “planned” or “threatened” use of force for political or social purposes in the same light as violent acts of terrorism, and cites the internet as a key tool of radicalization.

In the context of the Bush Administration’s unpopular wars abroad and rising unrest at home with a faltering economy and nonexistent social policies, this bill can be viewed as a preemptive strike on dissent, a revival of McCarthy-era persecution with the operative terms slightly modified.

‘This bill uses terrorism as a code word like the government used to use ‘Communism’ as a code word,” said the CCR’s Franklin. “If you dissent, they start yelling ‘terrorist, terrorist,’ and everything else gets blocked out. Who’s going to take the chance of being labeled a terrorist?”

While the Prevention of Homegrown Radicalization Act has attracted fierce criticism online and even led to a protest outside the permanently unoccupied Harlem office of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), it has gone virtually ignored by major media outlets.

That isn’t surprising when one looks at the government’s success in branding unconventional ideologies and certain types of activism as “terrorism,” and prosecuting those acts accordingly. In 2001, Jeffrey Luers was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison for burning three SUVs at a Eugene, Ore. dealership in June 2000. Although no one has hurt, Luers was charged with 13 felonies and given a longer term than Oregon law stipulates for murder or rape.

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[photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Indymedia

Luers was closely associated with the Earth Liberation Front, a group of radical environmentalists who use “direct action,” including the destruction of private property, as a means of protest. The FBI includes “special interest extremist movements” like the ELF and animal rights advocates among their “highest domestic terrorism priorities, according to 2005 Congressional Testimony by FBI Deputy Assistant Direct John Lewis.

“Homegrown terrorism” is also considered a threat in New Orleans, as demonstrated by the following excerpt from a New York Times article on controversial plans to tear down 4,600 affordable housing units:

“Meanwhile, James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office here, confirmed that its domestic terrorism unit was investigating the source of small posters reading “For Every Public Housing Unit Destroyed a Condo Unit Will Be Destroyed.”

Increasingly, it appears that the “terrorist” label is being employed to shape a new underclass of Americans where certain populations are to be under constant scrutiny. Muslim Americans, who have been under heavy government scrutiny since 9/11, are undoubtedly a target of H.R. 1955. Police in New York City and Los Angeles have undertaken and proposed, respectively, studies of Muslim communities and their potential for radicalization. Both departments were accused of racial profiling, and last month the LAPD abandoned their mapping efforts after vociferous protests.

Law enforcement agencies are employing terrorism statutes in increasing numbers to members of street gangs. On Dec. 10, Edgar Morales, a member of a Mexican-American gang in the Bronx, was sentenced to 40 years on terrorism charges for murdering a 10-year old boy, the first time such statutes have been successfully used to prosecute gang-related crime. Couple that with the use of GPS technology to track known “gang members” (almost always minorities), and we’re fast on our way to a society where “good” cops hunt terrorists/gang members/political dissidents/environmentalists through the streets of an American Fallujah.

Or are we already there?

-written by Ali Winston

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“You spelled my name wrong”

“You spelled my name wrong”

Those were the opening words shot at me during what I had wrongly assumed would be the best interview of my entire life. I quickly tried to recover, noting that I knew perfectly well how to spell her name and that spell check must have automatically changed it. I apologized a dozen times for such a rookie mistake and crossed my fingers that the rest of the interview would proceed a bit smoother . . .

It only got worse.

As I left the interview almost in tears, I retreated to the floor bathroom post analysis and came across one of the interviewers who had treated me well.

“Baby boomers have this . . . thing . . . against the millennial generation.” She explained during our surprise re-encounter. I thought about those words as I walked out of the building and back onto Broadway where I retreated back into my thoughts.

So because of my date of birth my value is seen as virtually non-existent? Or was it because I did not have a superior amount of credentials? I am, after all, quite fresh out of college sans graduate student status. Regardless, never before had I felt so gutted and worthless. There was no sense of respect whatsoever. I expected this from a large financial firm questioning me for a high-income job or some hoity-toity socialite not pleased with her caviar dish or . . .

“Heyyyy sexy,” a loiter called out to me. I looked to the loiter then back to the grey building that entrapped the recent memories and saw no difference. Except, inside that building was an organization geared towards empowering women. After all, it was a non-profit feminist journalism organization.

Seeking a career in feminism came natural to me. I had always considered myself a feminist even at the age of six when I transformed our class “Bug Book” by placing an “S” in front of every “He,” discouraged by the lack of female characters introduced to me. Of course during the course of my life there have been foggy definitions and misinterpretations, but as I became more aware of the downright landfill placed onto the face of women because of our patriarchal societal structures, lies and the power of the almighty dollar, I not only became passionate to seek more information and disburse it amongst others, but to destroy the perpetrators.

But of course my efforts for this noble fight in college via television, print and radio meant nothing once I graduated. A community of professors, directors and students eager and willing to support one another and help save others had disappeared like water escaping through cupped hands. I thought coming into New York knowing a city so big should have organizations of every interest, I would be sure to find a home and begin a fruitful life changing peoples’ lives as a living, even if only a little. Instead, in this instance, I saw a modern day girls club who turn their noses to those who are not of their stature.

I am ashamed for them. They’ve lost touch with their roots and the reason they exist. Feminism was born to give women a spirit and a soul and take them out of their physical definitions. Feminism knows no boundaries of material possessions and wealth, knows that those dwelling in a lower status were placed there by unfit powers and grabs their hands and pulls them up. Feminism takes in all women, wraps them into a blanket of support and empowerment, feeds them the truth and forgives their mistakes. We have to support one another. If we cannot, then no one will.

I do believe one of the women that I had met that day had lost touch of the meaning of her organization’s existence as well as the ideals upheld in feminism. I also know that there are organizations, and have interned at one, that are warm, welcoming and ultimately dedicated towards a better future for all women. I just find it sad that I, as a woman, who had so much hope and reverence and so quick to give my dedication, was ridiculed and trampled on by an organization whose mission it is to raise up the status of women around the world.

- written by Elena Gaudino

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