Thursday, January 31, 2013

Back in school -- more on death images

Yesterday I posted an essay that I wrote for my art history class about the power of images to shock viewers, and mentioned specifically how images of dead bodies have such mojo in today's world.  To illustrate it, I went to Google Images to find a photo of flag-draped coffins coming back from Iraq, considered so inflammatory that for many years the Bush Administration was able to ban any such pictures from being taken.

To my amazement, when I typed in "flag-draped coffins Iraq" I found on the first page of images a photo that looked quite familiar -- it was my own quilt, Kentucky Graveyard (Iraq).

The quilt indeed featured flag-draped coffins.  I made it in 2006 and I had written about it in my blog at the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  The next thing you know, there it is on page one of Google.

Heck, the only way I knew of to get on page one of Google was to type in my own name, and even then, other people show up.  On a more serious note, it's only because there were so few photos made of the flag-draped coffins from Iraq that my quilt had the slightest chance of being noticed.  I guess that proves the original point: images of death have immense power.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back in school -- sex and death

I wrote last week about how I'm taking a graduate-level art history class, after an extended absence from the classroom.  We're writing every week, and I thought I might share some of my work with you.  Here's a slightly edited version of my first paper, based on an article that riffed on Titian's Venus.  

The author writes at length about images that are sexually arousing, and suggests that we of the 21st century can barely imagine how transgressive and shocking these subjects were in early modern times.  I am reflecting on a class of images that have taken the opposite trajectory: far more transgressive and shocking today than they were five centuries ago.

I’m talking about images of dead bodies.  Death has always been a subject for art; images of Christ on or just taken down from the cross, and of martyred saints were mainstays of churches, Bibles and devotional books.  Sarcophagi of nobles and high clergy were customarily crowned with sculptured corpses.   The Black Death brought a plague of artworks of horror and disruption following that vast series of epidemics.   The danse macabre, showing partying skeletons, was a common image. 

Michael Wohlgemut, Danse Macabre, 1493

Slightly more subtle, but still firmly focused on the inevitability of death, were the memento mori and other still life paintings that came later.  The dead bodies might be rabbits, pheasants and fish rather than people, but the message was the same – you’re next. 

People who saw art, whether as paintings, sculpture or book illustrations, had to be familiar with images of death.  They probably took the images seriously as come-to-Jesus reminders, but I suspect their emotional responses were more awestruck and solemn than shocked.

Even as the centuries passed, images of death stayed at the forefront of consciousness.  Early photographers frequently took pictures of the dead (a big plus in those days of long exposures: the dead could really hold still) and it was fashionable to wear lockets with little death photos, perhaps along with a lock of the deceased’s hair. 

I don’t know exactly how public attitudes (at least American attitudes) toward death images changed, or how quickly.  Perhaps it started with the advent of “real” death images instead of mere artist representations; if so, the extensive photographic documentation of the Civil War surely was an important first step.

The horrors of subsequent wars were even more closely covered.  And yet there was a consensus among photographers to withhold the most disturbing images of battlefield casualties in the World Wars, at least until years later.  The American public saw photos of the dead at Dachau but not on the Normandy beaches.  The very fact that television news of Vietnam showed same-day carnage is credited with changing the public view of that war.  

It’s not as though we haven’t seen plenty of images of death, primarily in wartime.  But in the last half-century those images seem to me to have become more shocking, more taboo, even as sexual images have become more commonplace and less shocking.

I’d like to know more about how contemporary artists  have depicted dead bodies, and how these images were received by the critics and by the public.  Warhol’s images of car crashes and suicides, and Serrano’s images of bodies from the morgue, would be high on the list.  A bit of googling reveals that critics and public alike found it easy to disapprove of these artworks, and I suspect these were not the only such cases.

Andres Serrano, Morgue Photos

Andy Warhol, Green Disaster Twice (sold for $15.2 million last year)

More recently the public was shocked by images of people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Readers protested when newspapers published photos of falling victims.  Eric Fischl’s bronze statue, “Tumbling Woman,” inspired by the event, was installed at Rockefeller Center but within days it was covered up and subsequently removed after people were upset.

Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman

Not high art, but certainly important in the public consciousness are many disturbing death images from the war in Iraq.  The Bush administration was so aware of the power of images to shock and galvanize the public that it banned any photography of flag-draped soldiers’ coffins returning to the US. 

Journalists have gone through immense self-flagellation over whether and how they should present notorious death images such as the video beheading of Daniel Pearl, and the US contractors ambushed by crowds in Fallujah, then killed, burned and hung from a bridge.  Almost always their readers and viewers rise up in protest when such images are published, accusing the editors of sensationalism, and perhaps political motives.

Perhaps sex and death have changed places in the public's visual universe in the last fifty years.  Where one used to be seen as shocking and pornographic, now the other one is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Back in school

I'm auditing an art history class this semester, my first time back in a formal classroom in several decades.  Although I've taken a lot of workshops in the last decade, many of them quite rigorous in terms of workload, expectations and critique, these have all been studio courses, so to speak.  This one is pure academic, complete with assigned readings and weekly papers.

I told my son recently that it seemed a lot different than the last time around, in particular that I found it more difficult to concentrate.  He said he thought it would be the other way around, that my more aged mature self would be better at such tasks.  I speculate that something about computers has altered my brainwaves.  (A much more comforting diagnosis than early dementia.)  I know that even when I'm engaged in something interesting and engrossing, such as writing my blog or reading a thriller, I'm likely to switch over, at the least provocation or maybe no provocation at all, on an expedition to the kitchen or laundry room or to check my email.

So imagine my potential for distraction when reading such sentences as "The work of art as a sinth├┤me on the other hand, is a unique response, that contains the enigma it corresponds to and, that brings it about, an enigma that resonates a lacuna of quite different status in the Symbolic; it does not correspond to lacks defined by the phallic mechanism of castration but to whatever is not there, to what is yet to come, to what resists the Symbolic and to the mysterious and fascinating territory of that which is not yet even unconscious or to what is impossible for cognition."  Don't you need some microwave popcorn right about now?

I have taken to rating the assigned readings along the lines of the Michelin Guide, except where Michelin awards stars for culinary excellence, I am awarding dictionaries.  (A five-dictionary article means I had to consult the dictionary five times.)

But enough snark.  Although art critics and scholars seem to have taken a sacred oath never to say "originality" when you could say "originariness," never to say "essence" when you could say "quiddity," they do have some interesting things to say once you decode the messages.  I'll let you know when I learn anything worth passing on.  I have a fine teacher who can effortlessly translate artspeak into English, and between his slides and Google Images I'm getting to look at a lot of art, some of it familiar, some of it new.

One of our first week's readings featured Titian and his "Venus of Urbino."  Today, we may yawn, because we've seen the reclining nude a bazillion times, but in 1538 this was hot stuff.  In a subsequent post I'll give you the ten-cent version of the paper I wrote about it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cute little crafty things

My sister found three wonderful little doodads at a Christmas bazaar and we oohed and aahed over how clever they were and how easy to make, should the spirit move you.

Here's a tiny felted wool bowl, about three inches across.  The bowl was knitted, then tossed into the washer and dryer to felt and shrink it.

Here's a rose made from a man's tie.  This one is fitted as a hair clip, but it could be made as a pin or maybe even strung on a cord for a necklace.  Check out the bottom view for a clue as to how it's put together.

Finally, here's a sink scrubby, crocheted from strips of nylon tulle, cut from a roll.  (Don't know how wide the strips were, sorry.)

I know Christmas is over, but Valentine's Day approaches.  Could there be a more romantic gift than a handmade sink scrubby?  Probably you should do it in red.  And if you're really good at crochet, maybe you could make it heart-shaped.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Recurring motifs 5 -- Venn diagrams

Technically a Venn Diagram shows overlapping circles, thus helping explain the mathematical concept of sets and how an element can be a member of more than one set at the same time.  But I used that name for any array of overlapping shapes, a motif that I did many times during my 2012 stitching project.

Sometimes I would put some french knots into one or more of the enclosures.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Recurring motifs 4 -- sunbursts

I guess sunbursts are a subset of circles, so I'll show them to you this week.

Sometimes I used a single round of stitches; other times I interlocked more than one round.

Sometimes the sun was bursting with french knots.

Sometimes it was filled in with needleweaving.

Update -- I'm linking to Off the Wall Friday -- you can check out what a bunch of other fiber artists are up to.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sign of the week

plenty of advance notice

Friday, January 18, 2013

Recurring motifs 3 -- circles

Among the shapes that came back most frequently in my year of hand-stitching was the circle.  I wrote earlier this week about featherstitched branches that wrapped around into wreaths, an overachieving version of the circle, but I also made plenty of just plain ones.

At the start of the year I had a hard time making good circles, since I was working freehand.  Often my circles had flat spots, as though they had fallen from a high place and hit the ground too hard.  But as the year went on they improved, becoming reliably rounder and more graceful.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Recurring motifs 2 -- wreaths

I wrote yesterday about featherstitching and how frequently it appeared in my daily art project last year.  Many times the branches wrapped around into wreaths, especially as I got better at stitching freehand circles.

Here are some of them:

Update:  I'm linking to Nina-Marie's weekly blog, where you can see what other fiber artists are up to.  Check it out here.