Butler, Judith · Gender is Burning

Butler’s iconic essay Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion explores themes of gender, performance, sexuality, and power, amongst others. Using the problematic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) by Jennie Livingston, Butler explores how gender is performed and created through the lived experiences of queer Latinx and POC through the drag ball culture of NYC.

What is often seen as subversive of gender and sexuality, say dressing androgynous or in drag, is actually not. Gendered norms are still created as they are simultaneously imitated and parodied, revealing heterosexuality’s assertion of naturalness. Similar to Foucault’s theories on power, Butler writes that we both dispel power and take part in power regimes, as much as we are the objects of that power. Existing in a web of intersecting privileges and disadvantages, we police ourselves and police others.

Nothing exists until we give a name to it. Take virginity, for example. If it had not been given a name, a status, that first sexual encounter would have no importance. Butler gives the example of heterosexuality and how it is a continuous failure to live up to its own ideals. How can drag be misogynist when these norms are unattainable in the first place? Heterosexuality is still seen as natural and original, with everything existing in relation to it. This performing of gender creates gender.

The hegemonies of power, in the end, yield the most power when inscribing identities onto our bodies as seen with Venus Xtravaganza’s death. As much as she crossed the boundaries of sex, gender, race, and class, the hegemonies and regimes of power which ascribe privileges to whiteness and normative femininity sadly have the final say.

Frank Benson. Juliana, 2014. 3-D scanned plastic sculpture

Juliana Huxtable is an artist who defies gender and sexuality norms in her art, in her collaborations with other artists, and in her music, poetry, and performances. Exploring technology and digital realms offers the freedom to play with her hybrid identity.

Kent Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in Dance to Miss Chief (2010) is a video that has the artist dancing next to German movies of “Pretendians”. Miss Chief is a fantastic vehicle for the introduction of indigenous 2-Spirit identity while commentating on the appropriation of cultures and images of indigenous people in the media.

The artist Wu Tsang documents queer spaces and communities with importance given to people of color. In the film Wildness (2012), the historical LA gay bar The Silver Platter is documented.

Advertisement: Homage to Benglis. Part of the durational performance Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, 2011

Heather Cassils is an artist who uses their body and strength as a bodybuilder to confront gender norms and the fluidity and continual construction of being and becoming trans.


Benjamin, Walter · The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Benjamin’s seminal essay influenced so many other theorists covered in this course that they all sort of overlap at times. According to him, a work of art has an aura produced by the hand of the artist. With mechanical reproduction, that aura is easily diminished. All art exists within time and space – time being its physical representation and space being its ownership. Reproductions do not have that and therefore do not have the authenticity or aura that originals have.

Reproductions are not a new phenomenon in art history. Copies exist in a couple different ways. With technical reproduction, a copy of a piece is put into places where it could not normally be, like with a recording of a symphony. Manual reproduction, where a copy is manually made by an artist, is not as harmful either. Process and photographic reproduction are where things not normally visible to the naked eye are enhanced and made visible. It is when a reproduction is made without the touch of an artist through mass production when it becomes really harmful. There is no tradition and no uniqueness and is made specifically for profit.

Benjamin gives the example of a shadow of a branch while lazing on a summer afternoon. Its aura is in part from its unattainability and distance from the viewer. Wanting to see and have things as close as possible are linked to reproducibility and profit. The ritual and tradition of making, its cult value as Benjamin says, is replaced with politics and exhibition value. Making reproductions, like in photography and film, just in order to exhibit and profit removes the artistic function from the work. They are not artists, but machines.

So what makes a work of art valuable and are prints and copies really that bad?

Andy Warhol. Lana Turner, 1986.

Andy Warhol essentially exploded the lines between authenticity and reproductions through the use of celebrity, pop culture, advertising, and the cult of the artist. As much as I tire of seeing Marilyn or that iconic banana and Campbell’s soup can, I recognize the enormous impact that he and his Factory achieved in changing the art world forever.

Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4 (1981), where she re-photographed and appropriated images by Walker Evans is a commentary on representation, the authority of the male artist, and art as commodity. Her work is the definition of postmodernism and conceptualism. Now, according to Benjamin, does her work have artistic or exhibition value? An aura? I wish he were alive to see the art world today.

Daniel Johnston. Oh Shut Up And Look At Me For Once, 2003

What would he have thought of Outsider Art? Art that has been created by self-taught people with no knowledge of the art world? According to Benjamin, is there a hierarchy to the art world with Outsider art at the top and photographic prints at the bottom? I saw Daniel Johnston perform live and it felt weirdly exploitative, like he was performing just to make his guardians some money. Although I love his art and music, just like with a lot of other Outsider artists, are they really that outsider and where are the lines between hobbyist, amateur, and professional artist, if any?

Benjamin’s essay has me thinking about how art is circulated and reproduced through technology, i.e. in the form of memes. There is no exhibition value, no money being made, but it is accessible and everything is all at once and not at a distance. What would he have thought?

Lyotard, John Francois · What is Postmodernism?

According to Lyotard, all art is at first postmodern because it is reactionary to the movement previous. Postmodern art is not just what is beautiful or up to taste, but that which causes the viewer both pleasure and pain upon viewing. What postmodern art aims to do is to capture the unpresentable – that which is a concept with no object. Some of the most interesting and thought-provoking art is art that tries to make visible the invisible – the sublime, as Lyotard would say.

Bruce Nauman, one of my absolute favorite artists, is a more approachable introduction to postmodern art because he incorporates humor through a play on words. From Hand to Mouth (1967) references the literal hand to mouth sculpture and the experience of living hand to mouth on a low income. Literally nothing else is there except the journey from one end to another. Nauman exists on the borders of modernism, minimalism, and conceptual postmodernism and that is what makes his work so interesting and engaging.

Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68) is one of my favorite artist performances and changed my view of art and art-making. Referencing the contrapposto pose in art history, the film questions what is considered art and broke new ground with performance and non-narrative film-making.

Ken Lum’s I Can’t Believe I’m in Paris (1995-2011) has made the invisible feeling of achieving a life-long goal visible with the repetition of awe-struck words that melt the heart of the viewer. It’s so relatable that I can imagine myself as this woman, experiencing the joy of finally making it to Paris.

Anish Kapoor. Cloud Gate covered in Vantablack, 2006

Anytime I see a work by Anish Kapoor, I think of Lyotard’s understanding of postmodern art. His use of the disturbing, light absorbing Vantablack paint makes the viewer visualize a feeling of oblivion and nothingness. To me, it is horrifying to see this lack of color and I have only seen it through a digital screen. I could not imagine what it looks and feels like up close.

David LaChapelle. Amanda Lepore, 2002.

David Lachapelle’s photographs are disturbing and funny and over-the-top. They are not about what is beautiful or tasteful, but that which causes us to be uncomfortable existing in that in-between state – Lyotard’s pleasure and pain.

Making it through Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) videos is a feat. His work is disturbing, confusing, beautiful, pretentious, and you just can’t look away. His work is postmodern to the T.

Lacan, Jacques · What is a Picture?

Lacan explores the ways in which we interpret art through the use of mathematical formulas. In essence, he believes that how we read a picture or a person is not just about how it looks visually, but the assumptions we place on it. When gazing at others we also gaze at ourselves. I, in part, am determined by how others see me.

In the act of looking, there is the gaze, the subject of the representation, and that which comes inbetween the two. We can tell ourselves that what we’re looking at is a representation and that there really is a thing beyond that representation, but with our limitations we will never really know that “thing beyond”. As nihilistic as that is, Lacan mentions lightheartedly that that is ok, everything works out for the best because why is it important to see the truth when it is subjective already?

We project our fantasies onto our partners, romantically speaking. It’s all just a bunch of masks and we can’t change how others view us. What is a Picture? has been one of the most interesting reads of this course, as it appeals to the negative side of myself. Or should I say, my nihilistic mask?

In the context of art, Lacan speaks to how when we interpret art we are in part projecting what we want to see instead of seeing the piece as it is. If we were to follow his logic, then the artist would not be entirely responsible to how viewers interpret the work. If we will never be fully understood by one another then how does our art fare?

The projections we place on others and on art reminded me of Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket (2016) painting. As much as I despise that she rendered a lynched young Black man as an abstract painting when his disfigured face was meant to be seen as the result of an act of hatred, art is in part what we project onto it. She may be projecting her excuse of empathy onto the painting, but that is definitely not what the majority reads.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, (1926).

O’Keeffe’s large, detailed paintings of flowers are constantly interpreted as vaginas and vulvas and anything to do with female anatomy. Unfortunately, I feel that this conception about her work undercuts her value as one of the most talented painters of the 20th century.

Wendy Red Star’s White Squaw (2014) series pokes fun at indigenous representation in pop culture by inserting herself into old harlequin romance novels. Her art explores the ways in which indigenous people are gazed at, how we gaze at ourselves, and how we continue to exist and thrive.

Wendy Red Star. Grandmothers (I Come as One, I Stand as Ten Thousand), 2017.