Influence

26 08 2012

In the Fall of 2007, I was new to organizing slams.  One night, I arrived at our usual venue early to set up, only to find that the venue (a comedy club that was usually dark on Mondays) had booked an X-rated Hypnotist on our usual day.  I was somewhat disappointed, but I resigned the slam to what I saw as its fate for the evening:  I assumed we’d have to cancel.  When I called the Boise slam-master, Cheryl Maddalena, to tell her the news, she did not hesitate in telling me that there was no way we were cancelling.  “Aren’t there restaurants and other clubs right around there?  Go ask them if we can have the slam there?”

It seemed preposterous, but it happened.  We walked across the street and asked the wait staff at  a restaurant and bar if we could hold a one-night event in their space… you know… right now.  Surprisingly, they agreed and we were back in business.  Never mind that most of the audience was there to eat dinner, not see a slam.  Never mind that a majority of the poets who performed had prepared satirical baby-eating poems, and were now performing them for old ladies trying to eat fish and chips.  This is not the most awkward situation in which I have performed poetry, nor is it the only one to involve Cheryl Maddalena.  In fact, all of them involve her.

We once performed during registration day at the College of Southern Idaho.  The school put us right next to the doors of the registrar’s office and across the path from the LDS student organization.  A group of Boise poets once performed for the city on the sidewalk in front of a parked bus.  The city did not provide us with a PA system or with signage informing passersby why four earnest young people were shouting metaphors at them as they passed.  Maddalena and three other poets were dismissed from the second half of a scheduled workshop and performance by a high school for using the word “dildo” in a poem.  Maddalena had made it a point to clear the content with the school beforehand.  Apparently, it was not sufficient.

Cheryl Maddalena, Isaac Grambo, and Tara Brenner perform “Moustache Poem” at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships (iWPS), Berkeley, CA, 2009

Boise poets have performed at everything from car washes to wine tastings to high-school punk concerts to burlesque shows.  It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always done with a purpose, and it’s always done with heart—and that heart is embodied in the person of Cheryl Maddalena.

Cheryl Maddalena did not invent slam poetry, nor did she bring it to Boise, Idaho.  Maddalena started slamming in Berkeley, California while she was earning her doctorate in psychology.  In short order, she was on teams competing in for National Poetry Slam Championships.  I don’t mean that she was just at Nationals, I mean she was on the Finals stage.

Jeanne Huff and Bob Neal started a slam in Boise in 2001.  As scenes often do, the scene was in a state of flux when Maddalena moved there in 2005.  Some of the novelty had waned, the regular poets were growing out of slam and moving on to other things, and the organization had never been the kind of tightly-run ship that one would see in a slam venue in Berkeley, Seattle, or Chicago.

Cheryl Maddalena is, quite often, the most reluctant organizer I know.  She didn’t want to assert control over Big Tree Arts, Inc. (the non-profit that organizes slams in Boise).  However, she couldn’t bear the idea that a scene wouldn’t send a team to Nationals, or that poets wouldn’t have a way to raise funds to make trips they might not otherwise make, or to not see the kinds of poets she had come to know and love from the Bay Area, New York, Vancouver, and all points in between.  There are times when arts organizing hurts feelings and breaks friendships, and the growing pains of Big Tree Arts left a few former figures of poetry in Boise by the wayside.  This is an unfortunate byproduct of making changes and moving forward, but for any kind of scene—be it slam or visual art, concert venues or literary bongo-circles—changes will ruffle feathers.  Old people will leave, new people will enter.  The most important part is the art, and that is what must be maintained as a constant.

Cheryl Maddalena performing at Neurolux (Boise, Idaho), circa 2010

Sometimes meeting someone who will influence your life is a rather inauspicious occasion.  When I first saw Maddalena perform, I leaned over to a friend who had come to the slam with me and said, “If I EVER sound like her, you have to tell me and I’ll walk away from this whole slam poetry thing immediately.”  At that moment, I had no idea how much she would eventually teach me about performing, organizing, and the inherent value of being an artist.

For all of the crazy things Boise poets have done, Maddalena has been a leading voice insisting the poets be paid in some form or another.  Poets are afforded the chance to work as volunteers for Big Tree Arts in exchange for BTA covering the bill to send them to Nationals, iWPS, or WOWPS.  Poets from out of town who lead workshops are paid $150.  At a time when I was altruistically clinging to an idea that art was priceless, Maddalena was teaching me that even that has a price.  Poets who want to live as poets need to be paid to do so.

Cheryl Maddalena taught me the importance of the audience and how the seemingly arbitrary rules of slam are the key to audience participation.  In some cases, I resisted the lesson, telling her “I will swear at any place at any time—these eight year-olds are are going to hear these words on the playground eventually!”  In some cases, it was a lesson she let me learn on my own, sacrificing her own ego by performing “White Lady,” a poem I had insisted on, in a room full of Black poets and people waiting for a Hip-Hop concert to start.

That performance of “White Lady” didn’t turn out like this, but from the dirty looks and the low scores, it may as well have.

I am influenced by artists long dead and by writers so famous I will never meet them in real life.  I am also influenced, on a much greater and personal level, by artists, writers, and organizers I work with every day who don’t have book deals and will never show up in an Art History survey course.  If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that Cheryl is the second-greatest influence on me and my work, next to my own father.  If this essay reads like a eulogy, let me be clear:  Cheryl Maddalena is still very much alive.  She continues to write, organize, and perform and has the unique ability to both inspire and frustrate me, even when I’m eight months and 500 miles removed from Boise.

In some ways, Maddalena is a reluctant organizer and, in others, she is a selfish one.  She keeps organizing slams, writing grants, coaching troupes of younger, less experienced poets to perform in front of audiences as foreign to native Boiseans as performing for Martians, and writing, writing, writing.  She keeps organizing because she can’t bear the idea of slam not being there for her.  Luckily for me and for the rest of Boise, keeping it around for herself has kept it around for us as well.

photo by Benjamin Lzicar, LZ Photography

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Legend, Myth, and Street Cred in the Image of the Artist

2 06 2012

In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life.  I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.

Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam.  Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves.  They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it.  As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.

6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) performing “Her Name”

This is not something that is limited to slam.  We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs.  The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work.  In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.

Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people.  When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering.  The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other).  Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.

An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House.  Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago.  The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson.  He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain.  Everyone in the audience has experienced pain.  Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological.  Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain.  Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture.  However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience.  He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.

Yet, House is a fictional character.  Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent.  We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain.  We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took.  We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about.  As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.

In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat.  He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York.  He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11.  His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone.  His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.

Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous.  It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle.  This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.

Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for.  Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton.  But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:

Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it

No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references.  But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.  Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.

Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell.  His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father.  Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.

Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer.  Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances.  Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets.  The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.

Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem.  A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view.  The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder.  The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience.  But even this can backfire.

Alvin Lau

In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam.  One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister.  As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister.  It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from.  It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.

Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?”  McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation.  To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself

I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post.  Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article.  Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.”  Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.”  DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer

Sierra DeMulder

As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis.  My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others.  We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it.  Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence.  No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit.  It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer.  To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist.  To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.





Inside/Outside

18 03 2012

Howard Singerman opens the sixth chapter of Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University by pointing out not only the primacy of language in university art education, but also the place of the artist in the work and in the instruction of art itself.  In an age of conceptual art, with language being a large factor in both the construction and understanding of a work, the artist’s statement and the artist’s talk are not just addendums to the work—they are the work.

Rirkrit Tiravanija speaking at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010.

Universities and museums become a sort of circuit for conceptual and alternative media artists, like night clubs for a band or book-signings for an author. Since large municipal museums are unlikely to show the work of lesser-known artists, and galleries have a hard time promoting their work due to a lack of physical commodities to sell in many cases, the most ephemeral, most conceptual kinds of artwork are promoted through the institution of the university.  In these cases, artists come with the work—it’s not just a bunch of paintings in a crate.  They help with the installation (in some cases the work is actually produced at the university), visit studios of upper classmen and graduate students, and typically give a presentation on their work.

This kind of interaction with the artists has a powerful effect on students.  When they are so intimately involved with the artist and with the creation of the work (when that occurs), the possibilities of conceptual and non-object-based work can seem very exciting.  They are, indeed.  It is those possibilities upon which this blog is based.

The problem with this model for art legitimation is that it ends up being a circular system.  Conceptual artists have too small of a market on which to sell their works, thus getting them into the primary market of collectors, the secondary  market of the auction houses, and finally the legitimization that comes with the acquisition of their work by a noted museum and the textbook recognition that comes with that. They, in effect, cut around the market part of that system and are injected directly into the legitimization of the curriculum by becoming an active part of it.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971

The market for conceptual work is not the art (commodity) market.  It is the university.  So students inspired to work this way then go into the market that exists for it:  the university from whence they came.  They want to become an artist like Chris Burden (see page 161 of Art Subjects for an amusing example of one of Burden’s artist’s visits), getting stipends for artist’s talks.  They want to become university art instructors—to be able to make a living involved with art while producing the kinds of work they themselves are legitimating.  Quoting Raymond Parker, Singerman states, “The taught art world determines the status of the teachers in the eyes of the students:  ‘The teacher distinguishes himself from the student by the authority with which he acts as a part of the art world (p. 158).’”  While Burden was teaching at UCLA, a student (not in one of his classes), payed homage to this iconic performance by seeming to run out of the classroom and commit suicide as a performance. Burden resigned as a result, not wanting to inspire further and perhaps more reckless actions by students. The incident highlights the kind of influence instructors have over students in what they produce and in what they promote.

The problems with this system are twofold, but they both center on the insularity of the system.  First, the legitimation of artists taking place within the university alienates those outside of the university, more specifically—those outside the university art department.  While the intimate interaction with the artists is indeed powerful for the students, faculty, and the relatively small number of community attendees involved, it is not a part of the experience of those who just come into the gallery to see the exhibition.  A video projected on the wall of crowds of people bustling about their day might have been an intense and rewarding work of collaboration for a visiting artist and a group of students, but it has no power for the pre-med major wandering through between classes who wasn’t present for the artist’s talk the day before.  To her, it may just be another weird video installation in the art department—they’re always doing strange things over there.  As I’ve stated elsewhere in this blog, when art is treated as a curiosity rather than as essential, its place power in the larger society is greatly diminished.

Secondly, this system produces graduates who are trained to make artwork for this insular system.  Students get BFAs in order to get MFAs.  They get MFAs in order to teach.  They teach students working toward BFAs, and the circle continues.  This system may not be a problem, if not for the small size of the pool of instructors.  At the university where I taught for five years, there were over 900 declared art majors Fall Semester of 2012.  There were 24 full-time art faculty.

The odds of becoming a big, rich, rock star are recognized as small—there can only be one Metallica out of the millions of metal bands playing shows in dive bars in small towns.  The odds of becoming an art star are similarly small (maybe even smaller) and even art students, as optimistic as they may be, understand that.  Of the tens of thousands of MFA graduates in the United States every year, there are under 1000 graduate programs, and each may be hiring one to three full-time faculty in a given year, if any.  The turnover rate for tenure-track professors is not high.

As an undergraduate, I was inspired to work in conceptual and performance art by the work of my Alternative Media professor at Eastern Washington University, Tom Askman.  Visiting artist Rirkrit Tiravanija got me excited about exploring the experiential and the idea that anything—even cooking for strangers—could be art.  A studio visit from Juane Quick-To-See Smith encouraged me me to go to graduate school.  An extended graduate studio visit from Joanna Frueh and the knowledge that the artists I most admired—Allan Kaprow, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Enrique Chagoya—had experience teaching while producing art stoked my optimism when I graduated.  It seemed very possible that I would one day be able to have a stable income while making art and even potentially making a difference in art.

For all the talk of conceptual, interactive, alternative media-based art and its potential to reach outside of the institutions of art and engage the larger population, both the inspiration and the occupational stability for those artists comes from within the institution.  Here, the university has replaced the gallery and the museum.  An art artist creates work within the educational setting, which inspires students to work in similar ways in order and end up legitimized by that educational setting.  For all my rhetoric about operating outside of academia (yes, I talked about it even as a student), my plan was to seek employment within.

I was not doused with confetti when I graduated from BSU. Now I feel cheated.

For five years, I taught as an adjunct instructor at the university where I earned my MFA.  In those five years, I applied for so many tenure-track positions, I lost count.  In those five years, I was never so much as interviewed for a position.  I do not know the reasons for my unemployability in the academic field, and to guess at what they may be would be misguided.  The point is that I have finally moved to a different field.  Last week, I got a “real” job.  Outside of the university, outside of the art world—this job is far from thinking about how everything and everyday can be an art experience.

My training and expertise in Derridean Deconstruction and Semiotics mean little in my current position, and by “little” I mean “nothing.”  After twelve years as either an art student or an instructor, it’s strange to go to work every day in that “real world” I always talked so passionately about.  My challenge is to continue to incorporate the ideas of Kaprow, Singerman, James Elkins, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur C. Danto, Lucy Lippard, Suzanne Lacey, Rachel McKibbens, Cheryl Maddalena, Nick Newman, and the other artists, writers, theorists and poets who influenced me into my own experience of everyday life.

The cliché goes, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”  For five years, that was my life.  Now, I have to work.  Make no mistake:  this is not a self-pitying blog post.  I am not resigning from performing poetry, writing blogs, organizing events, or critiquing every form of cultural production that crosses into my field of vision.  I will continue to make art.  I now have the challenge of making art truly outside of academia—in the “real” world.

Works Cited:

Singerman, Howard.  Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.





An Extended Conversation

26 02 2012

This week I was interviewed by Wyatt Trull of Spoke Journal, a start-up literary magazine here in Spokane. The interview was conducted by email, which has produced a record of the conversation in full. Topics ranged from the open-ended themes of the journal’s first two issues to discussion of ideas I’ve put forth on this blog. The point of this blog is to think about art as something different than an object-making enterprise, but an endeavor of meaning-making between artist and viewer. Sometimes the line between the two parties blurs, as it does here. For more information on Spoke, please visit the website: Spoke Journal.

Topic: Place/Displace

Trull: What constitutes one’s place or origin? How does your concept of origin or place mold your identity and art?

Grambo: “Place” is the community an artist (or any person) identifies most closely with. This community is shaped by the landscape, climate, and culture of its physical location. At times the community sets itself against these factors, and at times it is in cooperation with them. The relationship is similar between my own identity and my identification with a place or community. At times, I identify with the prevailing attitude and create work in conjunction with it, and at other times I create work to satirize and critique that prevailing attitude. As much as I love the people and poems that come from slam poetry, I enjoy skewering the tropes and cliches that are employed through satire.

Team Boise performs the satirical "Rape is Bad: The Musical" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009. For a time, the identity of Boise poets was linked heavily to high style and sarcasm.

Trull: What is the process of this interaction between a place and a person? How does each entity change as the relationship ebbs and flows?

Grambo: I had a professor in graduate school who would ask, “What about your work is original” in critiques. It’s a very frustrating question, especially when one is 23, in graduate school, and thinks they are the most unique artist on the planet. There isn’t a very good way to answer that question, because, in a postmodern view, nothing is original. Originality isn’t a prerequisite for art status. Nonetheless, the modernist ideal of uniqueness is still a part of how we view art and artists, so the question is pertinent. The only answer in a postmodern era is that the work is original because I am making it–not a person who made it before.

In that sense, a person can impact their community (or place) by being present and being involved. In some cases, there is a firm and identifiable effect on a community by an artist. In Boise (where I lived for eight years), the music scene is undeniably effected by Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. The sound, stage demeanor, and even fashion of indie musicians in Boise are all influenced by Martsch. Of course, they are all also influenced by each other, and by the community of Boise at large, just as Martsch was. Sometimes, people embrace their regional identity as part of their own. Other times, people want to distance themselves from their own region as much as possible.

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

In that area, Spokanites seem to be somewhat split. There are many who lament the “smallness” of the city—who think the conservative politics that affect local government, the limited number of artists within the community, and the lack of large-market media exposure. They want to get out of Spokane. Boiseans wanted to go to Portland. Spokanites want to go to Seattle (at least that was the “Xanadu” when I was here as an undergrad from 1998-2002). I like the smallness of the market. I like feeling like I have an opportunity to be on the inside of the scene. There are many Spokane artists (especially ones I’ve met since I returned) who feel like Spokane is a great place to make an effect and to be effected. They are creating co-op galleries, having basement exhibitions, reading poetry in bars and burrito shops, and publishing photocopied Zines like crazy. What is the deal with Zines in this town? While I’m thinking of it, what’s the deal with photocopied (rather than printed) handbills for benefit concerts and underground shows? I’m not putting it down, but it’s certainly something that is cool in Spokane that is not visible in Boise.

Trull: What makes Spokane unique as a place or origin? What role does the artistic community play in generating the essence of this place? How can the art community as a system be improved to better suit this role?

Grambo: A small city like Spokane can be at the same time very accessible and intimidating because of the small size and high familiarity of the people within each community–be it athletics or business or art. As in other areas of cultural production, the self-pride of the artistic community is the engine that drives it as well as fuel for the pride of the city at large. Spokane artists have the opportunity to set Spokane apart from other cities and define Spokane itself. Spokane is great because it isn’t Seattle, and it isn’t Portland, and it isn’t Chicago or New York or anywhere else. Spokane can be whatever its artists make it, they have to do just that: make it.

Topic: Signal/Noise

Trull: How do you differentiate between the concepts of signal and noise?

Grambo: The purpose of a signal is communication; noise is purposeless.

Trull: What role does noise play in your art? In your identity?

Grambo: Noise is essential, but it must be controlled. A performance or poem or painting can seem to be haphazard and purposeless, but that is in service of the overall message–there must be purpose to purposelessness.

Trull: How does Spokane, as an artistic community, manifest both signal and noise? Does art need to be louder? Or simply expressed through a better forum? Is the problem systemic?

Grambo: Art should be loud–volume can get attention. Noise for the sake of noise alone can be alienating, however. It is the task of artists to walk along that line in order to make the most impact with their work. Since I am new to Spokane, I can’t say how well this community balances signal and noise with any authority. I will say that I don’t think it’s a systemic problem–it may be something that artists must experiment with before they can find where they fit on an individual level, and that in turn affects the outlook of the community as a whole. In what I’ve seen of the performance poetry scene, many poets are trying to find their voice–in large part due to the fact that they are at the dawn of their careers. As a result, the anarchic noise that is performance poetry in Spokane has become a kind of siren for young poets and artists–a Bacchanalian refuge of chaos. This isn’t a “problem,” it’s simply the identity of Broken Mic.

Mark Anderson, organizer of Broken Mic

Trull: You’ve written a lot on your blog about the qualifications of great art. I find it quiet amusing that we’ve both used Miranda July to clarify our conceptions of art (that may be an overstatement on your part). (Unintelligible ≠ Poetic) Watching Me, You, and Everyone We Know and The Future completely transformed my conception of art. I had a profound inexplicable reaction to that film. I actually felt a profound confidence in my reception of her film, though I walked away unable to articulate a single theme. In fact, that experience is what ignited some recent passion for the dichotomy of Signal and Noise. So along the lines of this shared experience that we’ve reacted to in seemingly opposite ways, I have a few questions: for you, what is the nature of meaning? Do you think there is a type of meaning that is ineffable (an essence, shape, or flow of thought) or a type of noise that can be meaningful without any relation to a signal? Does one have to understand to perceive the articles of communication?

You wrote in a blog post that “one of my maxims in art is that ‘presentation is everything.’”(A Tale of Two Exhibitions) You also make the distinction between the existence of art and the potential for art. Can one quantify the leap that is made to bring art into existence? What is this leap in your artistic process?

Another one of your qualifications for great art seems to be the idea that great art is only exist in dialogue, or the communication between the artist (piece of art) and the viewer. Is it possible that a piece of can born from signal but develop into noise as this conversation proceeds? Is this undesirable? If so, what’s the artist’s burden?

Grambo: I’m going to the three previous questions (or paragaphs of questions) here. I think there is absolutely the possibility for open-endedness in art. Art as communication can be art as dialog, without a set “message” to be delivered, and I prefer this approach to art. It can work with one-way communicative art forms (like films or paintings or poems), though in a different way than in a truly interactive art form (like interventionist performance, or even a discussion via emailed questions). The lynchpin is intent. What kind of meaning are you trying to create as an artist or a writer? Are you intending to be inclusive and provoke thought, or are you intending to be perceived as clever or deep in your opacity?

Isaac Grambo performs "Airport Love Affair" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009

My problem with this approach is that it is alienating to a broad section of potential art viewers–those who don’t like art because they don’t get it. It appeals to a small subset of society that seeks out the hard-to-understand and the open-ended. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad, but it does add to the perception of high art as being outside of society–something for the rich or the over-educated or the weird. This is the small subset of society that deems art important, but still regards it as nonessential. (If it’s something only for a few and not for everybody, it is not essential). When artists themselves contribute to the notion that art is not essential, they are self-defeating. This attitude contributes to the greater marginalizing of art in school curriculum, in federal and private funding, and in the place of art within culture. When budgets get slashed, the arts are the first to go, and when arts budgets get slashed, visual art is the hardest hit. Nobody complains about movie stars getting paid millions of dollars because their profession is culturally thought of as important (if not completely essential). The marginal position held by art leads to frustration and dismissal by a greater public who wants to know why any of their money (tax or otherwise) should go toward something “that my kid could do.” I’m not saying that we have to make Norman Rockwell/Thomas Kinkaide crap. I’m saying we have to meet the public halfway if we expect them to be willing to understand and support performance art or installations or interventions.

The intent of the artist has to be inclusivity, not exclusivity by power of opacity. This goes for arts patrons, too. I performed a satirical poem last Wednesday that was laden with metaphors. I purposely wrote the metaphors to not make any sense. Three people (the three people who had been to a national poetry slam and seen the precise kind of work I was satirizing) got the joke. On the one hand, the audience was all-too ready to look for and find meaning where there was none. On the other hand, my satire fell short, because there was a meaning: a critique of gratuitous metaphoric imagery.

The artist’s intent is made apparent through the presentation. If the intent is clear, the communication can be clear, too–even if that communication is open-ended.

Trull: In another post, you write that in modern world we can “communicate with everybody and yet we talk to nobody.” (Musing on Methods of Communication) Each successive advancement in communication makes our language more and more sterile, but our message remains just as human (though that’s debatable). I think this a great example of the logical extreme of the typical western understanding of noise. I would like to think that as artist we reject this sterilized conception and affirm a human condition, but how can we be sure? When does the intricacy and density of one’s message turn into a disordered clutter? Does a line even need to be drawn?

Grambo: I think I’ve addressed this a little bit in the previous answer. Too much intricacy, as you put it, leads to confusion. Reading even friendly correspondence from eras of flowery language drives me to distraction–it becomes tough to remember what the writer is trying to get across.

That said, your mention of advancing forms of communication as a contributor to noise brings another thought to mind. I can’t cite an author on this idea, though I’ll mention that it isn’t mine. The more freedom of speech we assert, the less we seem to be saying and the less communication seems to happen. It’s apparent in politics. Even in the age of up-to-the-minute twitter feeds acting as short news releases, nuances in politics in America get assigned to Right or Left. Once a given politician or person aligns him or herself with one side, the rhetoric becomes more and more shrill in order to try to be noticed above the din of similar soundbites. You get the mouth-foamers: Limbaugh on the Right, Maddow on the Left; Hannity and Olberman; Fox and MSNBC. While the two sides have plenty to say, they aren’t saying much of anything. Neither side listens to the other, and those in the middle are ignored on-air and alienated in their living rooms. For all the advancements in communication, American politics haven’t changed since the days of partisan newspapers and Tammany Hall.

To “affirm a human condition” in terms of communication, I think we have to communicate on a personal level. I think this happens in poetry. I think it happens in emails. I think it happens on Facebook and I think it can happen on twitter. I think that communication–that mutual creation of meaning–is art, so I think all of these are art. As before, intent is the key. If we seek to use these methods to include each other, we create art. If we create art, we are affirming the human condition.





Unintelligible ≠ Poetic

10 02 2012

As one might expect of a performance poet, I go to many poetry performances.  As with art, or movies, or, say, basketball, when one sees a lot of a certain thing, the individual utterances of that thing can start to blend together in one’s memory.  At a given National Poetry Slam, I will easily witness the performance of 150 poems—and that’s just at the official events. Upon returning home from NPS, I’m often hard-pressed to relate a story of a single poem that struck me. Keep in mind that these poets are the top poets from their respective cities from all over the world.  After a week of poem after poem after poem, their similarities and “slamminess” start to blend them together.  The list poems, the persona pieces, the team performances about rape or cancer all merge together in memory to become one massive lump of slam. For a particular poem to stand out at an orgy of performances like NPS, it needs to be exceptionally unique.  In this way, the poems that make impact are often either very good or very bad. The following poem is the best poem I have ever seen at Nationals.

I once had a photography professor with a peculiar grading rubric.  There were five total points possible for any given assignment.  One point was issued based on “impact,” two points were possible for “theme,” and three points were possible for “technique.”  The impact point was the most interesting part of the rubric.  If there was something about the photo that made it stand out, it got a point.  It could be that the photo was the most original out of the group.  It could be that it was mounted on colored matte-board.  It could be that the photo was obviously over-exposed.  It could be that it was egregiously offensive.  The impact point could be assigned if the photo was very good, or if it was very unique; it could also be granted if the photo was very bad.

Since poets have to qualify to compete at NPS, there are very few examples of very bad poems that stick out there, and the predominant “good” poems are what blend together over the course of the week.  This doesn’t mean that all memorable poems at Nationals are “exceptionally good.”  Sometimes they are memorable for being unique.  Sierra DeMulder’s “Mrs. Dahmer” is a good poem, but when I saw it first in West Palm Beach in 2009, it was the first true persona poem I’d seen.  In a form that is predominantly viewed as true-to-life confessions of the performer, it was refreshing to see her speak about someone other than herself while remaining within the first-person narrative convention of slam poetry.  It stood out because it was unique.

Uniqueness is not necessarily synonymous with good.  A truly unique and high-quality poem or artwork has the capacity to make the viewer think—to ponder the possibilities of meaning and the connection to his or her own experience.  However, poets and artists often confuse “thought-provoking” with “unintelligible.”  Some seem to think that to be poetic, one must be obtuse.  Metaphors can be used to help communicate an idea, but too many too thick can obscure any cohesion whatsoever.

Anis Mojgani is an example of high-quality obscurity.  His work is popular; he has won national individual competitions, and is an incredibly nice and intelligent person.  It may be that I am the one falling short in terms of understanding.  Miranda July is an artistic jack-of-all trades, but it is beyond me to try to elucidate what exactly she’s getting at in her work.  Her website is as open-ended and confusing as anything (mirandajuly.com).  The entry page asks for a password, “You know the password, just clear your mind and look within… If that doesn’t work, try looking at a candle for a few seconds.”  No password is actually needed.  On the next page, the bold heading announces that, “You obviously know what I’m talking about.”  There are two videos clips from “’It Chooses You,’ wherein I share with you the part of my life where I was interviewing people selling things through the Pennysaver classifieds as a sort of open-ended visionquest that I secretly hoped would help me finish my screenplay (The Future) and teach me how to be a better liver of a finite life.”  No offense, Ms. July, but I really don’t know what you’re talking about.

This kind of non-sequitur amalgamation of words or images or metaphors or symbolic actions can seem to be the stereotypical requirement for qualification as art. Performance artists and poets seem to prepare by standing around in a warehouse with a methed-out David Sedaris, asking questions like “When I bleat here on page seventeen, do you want me to just bleat or really let go and ‘bleat, bleat…’ I feel like ‘bleat, bleating,’ but if Mother/Destroyer is going to be crawling through the birth canal of concertina wire, I don’t want to steal the focus, you know what I mean.”  Bizarreness and shock value can be harbingers of uniqueness, but they can also be ultimately alienating to a larger audience.

Shock performance artists like Bob Flanagan (pictured) and Carolee Schneeman paved the way for the stereotype. Yes, Flanagan is hammering a nail through the head of his penis.

Slams have a built-in qualitative evaluation mechanism.  If a poem doesn’t connect with the audience, it won’t score well.  There are those who disapprove of this kind of evaluation of art, but any viewer or concertgoer or reader of poetry is evaluating the work, whether or not it is publicly attached to a numerical value.  In slam, poets who lay on the metaphor too thick or become incomprehensible in a Gordian knot of aphorism won’t get past the first round.

In other art forms and in other venues, the dictates of politeness limit how demonstrative audiences can be in their evaluation.  I have never heard an audience openly boo a poet at an open mic.  I have, however, seen audiences with their heads down, desperately looking into their phones waiting for the convoluted epic monotonously recited onstage to come to its conclusion.  Perhaps the most effective evaluation is the strange silence between when the poet has stopped speaking and the audience starts politely clapping—not yet realizing that, yes, the poem is over.

I have been to multiple open mics where the audience looked exactly like this.

I have said repeatedly that art is communication.  For communication to work, both artist or author and viewer or audience must understand the message.  In a presented form like poetry or painting, it is up to the artist to make sure that message is at least understandable. The audience can only meet them halfway.

The David Sedaris quote is from “Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist,” in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).





Semiotics, Fashion, and ‘The 99%’

21 10 2011

“70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say.” — Eddie Izzard, Dress to Kill, 1999

As a transvestite stand-up comedian, Eddie Izzard should know a thing or two about the importance of appearance. As humans, our primary method of perception is through sight. We are also a species that seeks meaning in the things we experience. Our ancestors turned to religion to explain the mysteries of the world, and we continue to seek the meanings of our everyday experiences. For us, what we see tells us something because it means something. The signs we see tell us just as much as the words we read or the speech we hear, and in many cases, even more.

Semiotics is the study of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure defines a sign as consisting of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the part of the sign we see (or read, or hear). The letters “m-a-r-m-o-t,” put together, are the signifier “marmot.” The signified is what we understand that signifier to mean. The signifier is “marmot,” and the signified is “medium-sized, furry rodent.” A red octagon on the side of the road is the signifier, its meaning is that cars should stop at that point on the road.

Words and road signs are not the only methods of signification. Everything we see is a sign, we attach meaning to parts of existence we might not even be aware of as we are doing it. Our appearances are ready and apparent signs that others use to evaluate who we are. From our dress to our hairstyles to our posture, we make choices that align us with certain groups of society, which I will refer to as “tribes.”

The tribe in 'Hair' is readily identifiable.

In contemporary American culture, it is perhaps easiest to associate the term “tribe” with fans of specific sports teams. They will paint themselves the team’s colors, they will wear jerseys and other team-license clothing, laden with logos. Each tribe is distinct from other tribes—one wears red, another wears black; one wears foam blocks of cheese on their heads, another holds their hands up with the index and pinky fingers extended to imitate longhorns.

Of course, tribes exist in other venues as well. In the 1960s, men with long hair, flowing clothing and sandals were easily identified as hippies. In the 1990s, men with long, dyed-black hair, flowing black jackets and high leather boots with multiple buckles were easily identified as “Goths.” In assigning those identifications to these individuals, a multitude of other assumptions can be made. As a hippie, we assume that the man from the 1960s listens to The Grateful Dead, smokes marijuana, and enjoys casual sex. As a Goth, we assume that the man from the 1990s listens to The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, drinks red drinks with frilly names like “The Vampire’s Kiss,” and is obsessed with the occult. We attach connotations to these men that go along with our classifications of them: the hippie is lazy, the Goth is apathetic.

While outsiders make generalizations based on appearance, those who choose the appearance are identifying with many of those generalizations already.

The assumptions and connotations we make from our primary sensory intake—sight—dictate how we then understand any other signs we find in the person. Anything they say is colored by our attitude of them as a hippie or Goth or yuppie or hipster or “outdoorsy person” or jock or whatever. Our attitude about any action they might make is seen through the lens of our own classification of them. We might dismiss a political point of the hippie as being to simplistic, idealistic, or liberal. We might presume that the Goth works at Burger King because he’s too lazy or dumb to go to college. Maybe the person we’ve classified as a hippie is making a political point in support of the policies of Richard Nixon. Maybe the Goth has a master’s degree. While our opinions of people can and do change as we get to know them as individuals, the initial impression made by our visual assessment is long-lasting.

When Eddie Izzard first introduces the idea that ”70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say,” he is talking about the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. If you look like you’re into it, and you sound booming or impressive, it won’t matter if you forget the words. He brings back the idea when pointing out that John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement would technically be translated to him saying he was a pastry, not a citizen of Berlin. But the audience was supportive. He looked presidential, he was standing at a podium, he sounded passionate and confident—the actual words were of little consequence in the understanding of the meaning.

70% how you look, 20% how you sound, 10% what you say

In order for a person to be a truly successful in getting across their desired point—in transmitting the meaning that they mean to communicate—they must take into account more than just their speaking points. Everything about their appearance is taken into account by their audience in evaluation. In the world of Slam Poetry, the scores are supposedly given for the individual performance. However, the understanding of that poem is colored as much—more—by the poet’s dress, posture, gestures, hairstyle, and cleanliness as it is the spoken words of the poem. When the dress and behavior line up with the purpose of the words, the poet can accurately communicate what she had originally intended.

The protesters involved in Occupy Wall Street come from a large cross-section of society—from many different tribes. Their demographic, like their message, is passionate but not necessarily unified. The very first story from a major news outlet that I heard was a radio interview on NPR. The interviewer was asking questions about the meaning behind the protests of one man who was part of a small band of people dressed as “corporate zombies.” The zombies were described in detail, and the man answered all questions in-character, as a zombie. He made statements like, “Must… get… more… money… Never enough!”

The end result was that the story came across less as hard news or even an informational interview, but as a personal interest piece. “What are these crazy kids up to? Dressing like zombies? How fun!” It seemed like something you’d see at the end of the local news telecast—a waterskiing squirrel or an old lady who taught her dog to bark John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Some see this as deliberate omission or censorship by the “mainstream media” (a term I don’t like to use). The interviewer seems to have deliberately picked one of the more campy groups involved in the protests in order to dismiss them overall as frivolous or without any real substance—it’s just costume games and play-acting.

But I think there’s more to this episode than that. The interviewer, even though the format was radio, wanted something that was a strong visual image. It’s 70% how you look. The zombies caught her eye, the descriptions of the zombies provide a visual to create in the mind of the listener. The zombies had her attention, and subsequently she had mine. Perhaps the person who was interviewed made a mistake in continuing the satire. Once he had our attention, he could have dropped the act and given a more plainspoken explanation. The 70% was completed, and the remaining 30%, the sound and the statement, could have been less theatrical. Of course, I can make this statement from 2,500 miles away and in hindsight. Chances are, I would have approached the interview like the zombie did—wanting my look to line up with my speech and my words.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are operating, arguably successfully, within the 70-20-10 ratio of appearance to sound to speech. The groups are relatively large, peaceful and spreading to towns all across the country. Perhaps the most unified of the visuals for these protests are the photos of people holding hand-made signs explaining why they are part of “The 99%.” In these photos, there is no sound: they are images and words. They are purely visual, capitalizing on the primacy of role of sight communication. While the action that goes with understanding is still to come, they certainly have my attention.





On Connoisseurship

2 09 2011

Connoisseur.  The word itself reeks of snobbery. It brings to mind men in sport coats with leather elbow patches wearing ascots while sitting in overstuffed leather chairs smoking pipes and holding snifters of 100 year-old scotch.  Connoisseurs are experts, people who enjoy, appreciate, or critique something based on knowledge of details and subtleties.  Connoisseurs know why 100 year-old scotch is superior to others, what separates a good work of art from a bad one, and the difference between a masterwork by Tennyson and the vulgar work of a slam poet.

The Ladies Man knows a lot about wine... you might call him a "Wine-Know."

The difference between a connoisseur and a layperson is, supposedly, one of education and taste.  In theory, one must be taught to appreciate the subtleties of fine scotch—one must know the details of the process of production, how to detect the smoky bouquet of flavors provided by the aging process and the burnt layer inside the oak barrels, the consistency of the fluid against the roof of the mouth, blah, blah, blah.  What is required to become a scotch connoisseur is the ability to speak eloquently to justify his opinion, and, above all, access to the high-end scotch he is justifying his opinion about.  Why is it expensive?  Because it’s good.  Why is it good?  Because it’s expensive.  It’s exclusive.  Not everyone has access to it, therefore it is rare, therefore it is something to be coveted, praised, and held in high regard.  Connoisseurs can afford it, so they only drink “good” beer and “good” whiskey.

The rest of us, in the words of poet Kristen Smith, know in our heart of hearts that “no beer or whiskey is ever bad!”  Whiskey, beer, steak, art, poetry—the common attitude of laypeople is that they like what they like.  To each his own, in the case of matters of opinion, on what he might prefer.  This is, at the heart, a pluralist attitude.  What is good to one person may not be good to another, but neither opinion has any more cultural weight.  I like the Beatles.  A former student professes to hate the Beatles, but likes Jazz.  I am not going to convince him that the Beatles hold a higher cultural place than Jazz, just as he isn’t going to convince me of the reverse.  So we just leave each other to our own opinions and move on with our day.  What each of us prefers is dependent on our own personal tastes.  A connoisseur might see this statement and remark, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

While populists might not want to acknowledge it, the statement is true.  There is no accounting for personal taste—it isn’t quantified, justified, or legitimized.  Those are all key components provided by connoisseurs and institutions to answer questions of taste with definitive categorizations.  I could argue until I’m blue in the face that Rolling Rock is just as good as Samuel Adams Boston Lager, but the continued awards won by the latter prove that it holds a higher place in American beer culture.  It is the institutions of legitimation of art that arrange the strata of artistic output—the museums, galleries, and auction houses identify, define, and quantify what art is good and how much it is worth.  In this case, it is the role of the critic, acting as publicized connoisseur, to educate the wider public on how these works fit in to the overall picture of quality that has been painted by these institutions.  Much like the Samuel Adams TV ads in which the CEO and brewers tell you how the beer is made and that you should appreciate it, the role of the critic in art is that of marketing.

Don't drink the beer to see if it's good! Shove your nose in hops! That's how you know it's good!

Clement Greenberg exemplifies this role in regards to Abstract Expressionism.  As America’s “art critic laureate,” he was able to not only see for himself the qualities that made the work of Pollock and de Kooning  “good” art; he was able to write the justification of why convincingly enough that, in the end, the greater American public agreed with him.  They acknowledged the primacy of abstraction in painting and the position of the galleries, auction houses, and museums was now the accepted truth in regard to quality in art.

However, Greenberg’s formalist criticism and attachment to a universal idea of beauty in art, regardless of historical period, led him to be the model for the caricature of the out-of-touch, snobby art critic.  He wanted no knowledge of the person or process of making in a work (or so he claimed), and would not look at a work until he was viewing it all at once—as if expecting it to overwhelm him with its greatness, if it indeed possessed it.  He would stand with his back to a work and wheel around to view it, or cover his eyes until he was ready to take it in, or simply have the lights off in the room so he couldn’t see it until they were turned on and, like a flash, the painting overtook him.

To see this in action, view a scene from the film Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?  The documentary follows the path of a painting discovered in a second-hand store by a truck driver that may or may not be by Jackson Pollock.  To help to solve the dispute, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, is called in.  The painting is installed in a room, and Hoving walks in, covering his eyes.  He sits in a chair directly in front of the painting and looks at the floor for a few seconds before abruptly raising his head, eyes wide open, in order to have the presence or absence of Pollock-ness hit him square in the face.

This is Thomas Hoving.

From his actions to his dress to his manner of speech, Hoving personifies the stereotype of the connoisseur.  The film ultimately brands the art establishment as snobs and hypocrites—using Hoving’s and other’s refusal to acknowledge the painting based on lack of provenance pitted against a CSI-like forensics investigation that seems to place the painting in Pollock’s Long Island workshop itself.

But, to dismiss connoisseurship in favor of pluralism is problematic.  Whether it is based on marketing, public relations, or personal involvement, people have opinions and a collective group will ultimately pass judgment on a given cultural product one way or another.  Groups that are more invested will be more passionate in their arguments, groups with more education and skill in persuasion will be more convincing, and groups with access to funds or institutions of legitimation will ultimately make their opinions into acknowledged classifications.  Legitimation comes with the acquiescence of the greater public.

Inevitably, in discussions on connoisseurship and legitimation, an artist will eventually argue that he or she makes work for him- or herself, not for any general public or for anyone else at all.  This is a lie.  A work of visual art is made to be seen—to be seen by someone other than the artist.  If it were not, the artist could just think of the image, never execute it, and be happy with it.  A work of poetry or prose is written to be read or performed to be heard.  All art, from writing to painting to film to music, is, at its heart, communication, and communication must take place between at least two people.  This is true of traditional artworks focused on communicating beauty, and equally true of artworks based on sharing experience.  Once the work in question is in the public sphere, the general impulse is to evaluate it.  Enter the experts; enter the judgments; enter the machinery of legitimation.

The second a work is on display, the process of judgement begins.

Still, a painter or poet may argue that they don’t ever show their work to anyone, that they write it and leave it in a notebook, or they paint it and put it in a closet.  Surely, this kind of masturbatory production of art occurs.  However, these artists then make the argument that, because they don’t exhibit to any public, their art shouldn’t be judged as “bad.”  I suppose that is valid.  I can’t say an artwork is bad if I haven’t seen it.  However, it is inconsequential.  It has no place in the greater cultural discourse that is art.  Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re good or bad in the realm of sex, it means you aren’t a part of sex.  Making work only “for yourself” doesn’t make it bad art, because it isn’t even involved in the rest of art.

Connoisseurship is ubiquitous, and it happens even in areas of cultural production deemed “low” by experts of high standing.  Slam Poetry is a niche art form, widely dismissed by literary poets as too easy, too steeped in cliché and too obvious to be considered high art.  Even so, there is connoisseurship within slam itself—audience members who go to as many shows as possible and have opinions on one poet over another or even rank poems by a single poet.  A certain type of “hostage poem” (one that uses topics that stir universal emotions; topics such as rape or cancer) is generally panned by poets, but often scores well among audiences.  The structure of slam itself is geared toward qualitative evaluation:  there are scores, there is a winner.  Even for an artist outside of the kind of art accepted by so-called experts, to dismiss evaluation doesn’t work.  Within every kind of production—artistic, cultural, or otherwise—there are experts, there is evaluation.

From art to poetry to metal, any cultural product has its share of connoisseurs.

A connoisseur can be Thomas Hoving, all houndstooth jacket and condescending speech.  A connoisseur can also be an expert in street art, or carpentry, or Norwegian cooking.  We see critical writing and opinion on everything from video games to symphonies.  Our cultural output seems to be built to be evaluated, and we look to experts to help us classify what is and isn’t worth out time.








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