Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan and the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature: The Times are a-Changin'?

I don't think we can be surprised by Americans' strong reactions to the recent selection of Bob Dylan as the Nobel Laureate in Literature

On the one hand there is loud applause, some of it well-considered. In Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield alludes to Emerson's 1850 essay, "Shakespeare; or the Poet," in which Emerson notes that the great that Shakespeare played to the groundlings and moved on, unconcerned with the durability of any particular work or even if it was recorded. Likewise, he thinks, Dylan's ability to keep moving forward, never stuck on past successes, is a laudable strength. Like the Nobel committee, Sheffield is happy to place Dylan in the long literary tradition of bards. 

On the other hand, Anna North writes in The New York Times,"As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever. A big prize means a jump in sales and readership even for a well-known writer." She further points out that music has plenty of awards, and Dylan has already been an acclaimed presence in his field: "Literature needs a Nobel Prize." Literature is books, and Dylan ain't books.

For my own part, I could do very well without the Nobel Prize or any other literary prize. 

What do they do? What do they celebrate? How do they edify us? Prizes are awarded to people who are already well known and oft-honored their accomplishments. Despite carefully organized, byzantine review processes, really nothing is easier than awarding conspicuous success. 

At the top of the literary judging game, what really distinguishes one famous nominee from another? Number of books sold? Number of good reviews? Reviews by whom and placed where? Honors by what organizations? How many translations? Dollars spent by their publisher's marketing department? Market penetration?

For many awards, the judges will be peers who have been nominated for similar awards and who in fact hold them. They are likely to move in the same circles, know one another professionally, have mingled at the same international conferences, spoken on the same panels, and often been competition for the same honors.

In the days when I socialized with honored scientists, they pointed out that the best predictor for winning a science Nobel was the number of Laureates one knew. 

But, people argue, Bob Dylan isn't like that! He's not part of the academic establishment! He's from a different world, fresh and unsullied! The times, they are a-changin'!

The nomination process for the Swedish Academy is long and careful, insuring that the five finalists will indeed be the best of the best in the terms set and honored since 1901. The longevity and tradition of the Prizes is what gives them their meaning and revered status, after all.

The nominators are not chosen from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are chosen from the heads of eminent literary societies, previous Nobel winners, national academies of high cultural purpose, and honored professors of literature. 

People in the position to nominate for Nobel Prizes have exalted positions not merely because they are smart or learned. Professors gain high positions by virtue of their scholarship, but also by their aptitude for academic politics, which allows them to win the competitions at every level of an extremely hierarchical profession; to become the heads of those learned societies or cultural organizations that sponsor their own prizes.

Many wish to assume that the election of Bob Dylan means the Swedish Academy is loosening up, becoming more generous with its definition of literature, and more in tune with the poetry of the groundlings. By its explicit admission, the Academy is emphatically not sending a populist message. Listen to the official announcement by Sarah Danius  and her question and answer session.

Professor Danius tells us that conferring the prize has nothing to do with Bob Dylan's popular culture status. The importance is his link to the ancient Greek tradition of oral poetry. 

Thus, the Swedish Academy has defined Dylan squarely into traditional, vaunted, academic norms: the very norms that we ourselves worship their prizes for maintainingeven those of us who praise their choice because we wish to honor a folk-rock hero. 

Who would care about the Nobels if they weren't considered the creme de la creme, the most prestigious of all, the tops? The Nobel must be the most exclusive: It is crucial to all of us.

If the Nobels were not this way, why would there be such strong opinions about whether Dylan is deserving or not? 

If we really believed that the Academy were diluting the prestige of its award by honoring a body of popular art, it would be the beginning of the end of our interest in the Prize. We depend on our perceived authority of the Nobel Prize. We need it to be arbiter of the Best because without it, we are left to our own standards, and that's not very comforting.

Even knowing that the Nobel "best" comes from a system defined by the least changeable, most entrenched cultural standards, we'll keep it and honor it.

Who's the real winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature? The Swedish Academy, every year. We, the public, are the runners-up, since we depend utterly on the Academy's authority to reassure us that Best exists in literature. 

We love the idea that Standards exist and that an Academy will decide on the standards, even when the Academy's choice redefines the artist most of us know as the person whose voice led the counter culture for years. 

Finally! Dylan has the seal of approval that the grown-ups withheld when he meant the most to the most people. Now he has the very Nobel Prize itself!

The Committee chose whom they wished to choose, by what criteria they wished, against competition we will never know. One thing is sure: They did not choose the folk-rock hero of a generation. They chose an artist whom they deem ready for canonization. 

That's what the Nobel Prizes are for.To ease artists into the canon. To defang what once was fierce; to mainstream what made us dream or change our ways. To enter into the professors' curricula as approved content what once broke hearts and made a really big difference—art that felt like it was ours alone. Art that now can be explained.

That's what literary prizes are for in general: to tame with rewards and to affirm the authority and standing of the granting organization. Without their wisdom, what would we ever figure out? What would we know about literature, on our own, unguided and without category?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Sensorium of Sight: "The Blind Photographer"

The Blind Photographer: 150 Extraordinary 
Photographs from Around the World
edited by Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding, 
published by Princeton Architectural Press, 
When the Princeton Architectural Press offered me a copy of 
The Blind Photographer: 150 Extraordinary Photographs from Around the World I leaped at the chance to review it. This wonderful book expands my concept of sight and has encouraged me to consider—as I never have—its sensory sources. 

The ideas alone would be enough excitement, but the one-hundred fifty photographs themselves are genuinely remarkable: You won't have to be a student of philosophy to be smitten. These are all different, and not in the way of freakery—curious extension of the limited capacities we attribute to persons we deem deficient. Even did we know nothing about the artists' blindnesses, their unusual perspectives and the concentrations—the committed, bullet-like deliveries of life—make any viewer's heart leap in a new direction. There is indeed a lot more than first meets the eye!

The Blind Photographer, edited by Julian Rothstein and Mel Gooding, is introduced by an essay, "Eyes That Feel," by the Scots novelist, Candia McWilliam. It is a superb piece of art writing, poetic in a way that, I venture, clarifies and informs more successfully than a "scholarly" essay could. Her success lies in leading viewers into the hearts of the artists' goals and challenges. As she discusses a single one of them, McWilliam teaches us how to travel through the surfaces into the images and into the mental and sensory worlds of the photographers.
Untitled. Copyright Ramón Jiménez.

One photo she describes as "a rainbow-fibred mop head with its alert handle and attendant bucket; two bottles, one water, one maybe bleach; the distinction comes into our sinuses as we imagine sightlessly drinking from the wrong one." 

I see a composition with three centered circles (their volume isn't apparent) of decreasing circumference, shot from an unusual perspective, straight down. The pole appears very securely upright, but by what means? It's too far from the cameraman for him to hold it. We see the artist's feet: It takes two hands to grip the camera and shoot straight down.

If we with sight put ourselves in the blind photographer's shoes—which we are certainly invited to do—the image is transformed. Then, off course, drinking from a circle makes sense. If I were blind, I would lack the perception of volume. A circle and a sphere would look the same to me. Jimenez was informed by that smell of bleach: In fact, for him, this whole composition is formed around the sensory perceptions of standing on a freshly-mopped, possibly wet, tile floor. 

It's not only the smell of bleach, but the feel of the floor under his feet, something he is sensitive to in ways we sighted can only begin to imagine. Will he slip? The stability of the mop pole takes on a significance beyond, "How did he do that?" The floor, which few of us think much about, must be the center of the world for the blind. Jimenez shows what he knows about the floor from the smell, and from the shapes he perceives both literally and poetically. In his shoes, the photograph is a different work than the one we see at a distance, with vision only. We are welcome to a new way of knowing, and a new, enriched way of seeing.

Untitled. Copyright Alicia Meléndez.
"To look closely at these photographs is to be humanly remade by the refusal of these photographers to objectify an atom of the experienced world, recorded here with what we could call felt sight," McWilliam writes.

That's a fascinating thought: that these photographs don't objectify their subjects but bring them to us through direct experience. If we experience Alicia Melendez's photograph of her shoes rather than look at it, it becomes almost tremblingly intimate. I'm used to seeing images of women's shoes as glamorous and sexy products that place their wearers miraculously "above" any impediments that the earthbound suffer. 

Melendez's shoes are shown at floor level, on the floor, as if they walk toward us motivated by the power invested in them by their wearer, or as if they have become pets that come when called. They are scuffed, stretched out, water-worn and yes, we can smell them too. The shoes are a self-portrait in the sense that they communicate their importance and the experience that creates their importance. They are solid on the floor and through puddles; they are durable and flexible and dependable. They are important to her security and to her ability to move independently in the world, photographed as they are on a rooftop, in a space between the outdoors and indoors.

Untitled. Copyright Gerardo Ramirez Pfizer
Gerardo Ramirez Pfizer shot his hand of bananas in much the same way as Alicia Melendez portrayed her shoes: nose-to-nose. This extreme close-up is seen a lot in the book and no doubt reflect the necessity of the partially-sighted to hold things close to examine them. This results in unusual and striking perspectives, like this one of looming, aggressive bananas. Are they sighted with black eyes that are examining us? Are they creeping up on us? These are experienced bananas, fruit to which we bear a relationship. It's not sitting
Untitled. Copyright Aaron Ramos. Another fine example of
the close examination. Did sound lead Ramos to the subject?
Imagine the patience and slow movement required to get
this shot.

there waiting to be consumed. It's something individual out there in a world where objects do not automatically have value or precedence one over another; most are experienced singly. Right now, it's bananas. Let's close in. Maybe they'll open up to us.

McWilliam's "felt sight" has particular interest for the blind photographer's relation to human subjects, of which this collection has many wonderful examples. I'm fascinated by this photo of a seated female. It feels very traditional and
Untitled. Copyright Mickel Smithen
 formal: Just look at her pose, her position within the picture frame, and her contemplative, far-away expression. But I find her expression a little odd because the pupils of her eyes are unusually dilated. Possibly she too is blind.

Once more, the possibilities of blindness—now on the parts of both photographer and subject—reorient our view of the image. Is it or is it not a formal portrait, for instance. 

Did the subject "dress for the occasion?" Are the brightly colored clothes special, or what a partially-sighted woman chooses on a daily basis? Is her expression the expression she assumes when she is between tasks or waiting, since she may not be acquainted with the wide variety of facial signals the sighted use for tiny distinctions of mood or occasion? To the photographer, this may be a woman in a chair and not at all a formal portrait. Did it matter to her that she was being photographed? Would she be interested in the resulting picture—or vain about the outcome?

On the other hand, McWilliam points out that blind photographers never point and shoot; that all of their work is accomplished over a longer period of time than most sighted photographers take. Setting up the equipment, let alone the shot, is especially time-consuming without the aid of vision.

So we may be sure that Smithen at least had the chair waiting for an occupant. For her? For a series of people? For whoever sat down? This shoot was purposeful, but to what degree the shoot depended on this subject is uncertain, particularly since the image is untitled.
Untitled. Copyright Tanvir Bush.
The variety of photographs in The Blind Photographer is surprising and wonderful, far too many to touch in a review. But it would be a pity not to share this from a series of photographs of this young man lifting this weight. There are several such series, in which a sighted subject playfully performs some act of athletic skill for the photographer. They "show off" and as they do, and they keep their eyes directly on the camera in a way I suspect they would not if they were certain that the photographer could see them. In this shot, the young man seems to be measuring the photographer's capacity as much as he is demonstrating his own strength. He appears to have no doubt about the latter: It is a means for getting a peek at the blind person with the camera. Which is looking at him? The person or the machine? Is either more imbued with sight than the other? Or does each confer sight upon the other?

The photographer's blindness is disinhibiting for the sighted subject here and in other photographs. They express their curiosity, their swagger, their uninhibited joy in their accomplishment and activity in ways I haven't experienced in other photographs. Go to the library and ask for this book: Take a look. It is so much fun!

Not being familiar with Candia McWilliam, I looked her up. Her writing in The Blind Photographer is exceptionally fine and insightful. I shouldn't have been surprised to find that she is blind. Apparently her eyes function, but ten years ago she contracted blepharospasm, a disease that makes it impossible for the eyelids to open. She writes by holding an eyelid open with one hand and typing with the other. Her memoir, What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (2010), is on my list.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Aminah Robinson's Presidential Suite, 2016

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hot Boiling Sun,
watercolor on paper, study. Photo courtesy of
Hammond Harkins Galleries

"Hot Boiling Sun comin' down on me," is what Aminah Robinson wrote on this watercolor study for a the much larger work, Hot Boilin' Sun. So much of what characterizes Robinson's enduring hold on us is condensed into this single sheet.

Look at this woman's right arm, how it travels between muscular and emaciated to end in the huge, sinewy hand. Notice not only the expression of concentration and restraint on her face, so succinctly laid down with unhesitating brush strokes, but the form of her body—the breasts dangling and twisted, the spread of hips and legs that balance visually and literally the vessel of cotton on her slanted shoulders. The position of the figure on the paper is askew, emphasizing the sense of slow, falling; of a moment between stumbling and rising. The twisted body doesn't determine the direction: It's that implacable face that will.

None of the condensed effect of this single study is lost when Robinson transfers and multiplies it to her magnificent, rich, multi-paneled painting, Hot Boilin' Sun.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hot Boilin' Sun. Mixed media and collage on paper. Courtesy of Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Detail of left panel, below

"Hot Boilin' Sun Comin' Over Me from Sun-Up to Sun-Down Slaves Picked Cotton," is Robinson's inscription. In this complex composition of women and children in the cotton fields, the writhing and twisting of the study's one body is dispersed across the whole, rhythmic panel. The pain and effort are embodied by the group in which each individual is (literally) entwined with her neighbor. Any chains here are the chains of community, shared labor and sisterhood.

Neither are these slaves actually depicted under the hot boilin' sun. To the contrary, they don't stand, but float angelically against a clear blue sky in which they appear to gather not literal cotton, but soft dollops of cloud. These women have crossed over Jordan yet remain in community with one another through a river of shared relationship represented by the graceful, flowing composition of the entire work.

Both of these works, on view through October 9 at Hammond Harkins Galleries in Columbus, are among a vast show of the late Robinson's breathtaking, Presidential Suite, a vast work comprised of many pieces—her unique RaGonNon fabric collages, watercolors, paintings, and writings

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, President Barak Hussein Obama from Presidential Suite. RaGonNon: mixed media: fabric
embroidery, buttons, music boxes.
This RaGonNon, Book of Revelations (with its subject, "President Barak Hussein Obama" inscribed on the top panel) is the centerpiece of the Hammond Harkins show: There's more at the Columbus Museum of Art. Any work in the gallery, in any medium, is an offshoot of this magnificent tree. 

In her Presidential Suite, Robinson finds a consummate home for the passions unfailingly embodied in her tremendous body of work: justice, community, and hope that knowledge of the past can inform a better future. For her, President Obama presented the best hope for a future in which the accomplishments of African-Americans would be allowed to shine through the narrative of slavery and repression, fertilizing the ground for more and more to come.

It's central to Robinson's lifetime of work and thought that deep historical knowledge must inform the on-going quest for a better world; without knowing history, one lacks models, mores, and power. This central theme has been reported here in several reviews of her work (see March 8, 2015; May 3, 2012; August 24, 1011.) President Obama's election was not only a political event, but a climactic one in the history of African-American history and culture. The shining history she recorded with such loving passion across her entire career could reassert itself now under a government led by a new exemplar. The point of the Presidential Suite is of past and present joined for a just future.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hope is to Remember from the Presidential Suite. Mixed media on hand-made paper.
Image courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery. Detail below.

With the same flowing motion and interconnection of figures as in her scene of slaves translated to Heaven, Robinson connects Past, Present, and Future in one surge of humans reaching across to one another, forging a chain of hope.
Note the arm and hand gestures here and in Hot Boilin' Sun. The scooping gestures in Hope is to Remember are hand-offs between figured generations; the hands don't curl as the cotton pickers' do. They extend, even though the final (future) gesture is the dropping of—cotton. Throughout the Suite, I think Robinson uses cotton as a symbol that changes with time. Once the subject of forced labor, it becomes part of cultural continuity, softened and imbued with meaning by the laying on of millions of women's hands. Laid however low, slaves and their ancestors have made beauty and meaning even from the depths of direst experience.

Hot Boilin' Sun and Hope is to Remember are works that would dominate any gallery by themselves. In this show, they are among the several pieces that detail the universal messages that Robinson worked into her vision of President Obama's election and years office. (Indeed, she worked on this until her death; a needle and thread remain dangling from a panel. I doubt, however, that Robinson would "complete" anything as long as there was history to investigate and tell, and a future to hold hope for.)

Robinson dedicates the Presidential Suite to family and community, two threads that she saw embodied in Barak Obama and his presidency. In this RagOnNon panel, she brings those ideas together in the most natural way, celebrating the conferring of the Nobel Prize on Obama on the same day as the equally happy occasion of family pet Bo's birthday.

In the panel above this salute, the entire Obama family is depicted enjoying a stroll in the White House Rose Garden, gaily painted in full bloom of red and pink flowers. Pet dog Bo is indeed a family member and, at the end of his leash—represented by festive, patriotic ribbon—pulls the colorful family forward. Notice too that his feet are made of cotton.

Throughout her huge Book of Revelations, The Family and Community Suite, Robinson presses intimate and international together, history with the present day. The history of slavery is literally built into the history of the White House, as Michelle Obama observed, and scenes in Robinson's great work illustrate this. The suffering and the daily joys are all part of the same fabric. Represented by drawing in the left panel, we see slaves making bricks to build the building, their brethren chained together above the title panel. They are part of the African-American family that inhabits the House now, in a better life with a Rose Garden.

Finally, Robinson moves along in the motion so characteristic of her inner and manifest vision, reaching forward into the world. The strip of vignettes at the bottom of the RagOnNon relate the First Family to the Chileans buried alive in a mine as the world watched and prayed for their rescue. "Providencia Street" is one of several panels devoted to relating the Chilean mining disaster rescuees to our President through the generous and unifying world-view the artist took as such a blessing. Here people and animals walk down the colorful town street, awaiting or celebrating the moment of rescue that united the world in relief and joy—the emotions and the vision that Aminah Robinson expressed so magnificently in this unparalleled work of homage, promise, and love.

All photographs in this post are thanks to the excellent work and generosity of Hammond Harkins Gallery.