Category: Arts & Letters (Page 1 of 2)

Performing a Seduction: Performance Art Houston’s “Political Seducer’s Diary”

By: By Jeanette Joy Harris and Steven Martz

“The Political Seducer’s Diary,” is an Instagram-based performance art exhibit by Performance Art Houston that ran from November to December 2017 on @PerformanceArtHouston. Inspired by Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary,” the exhibit delved into the question of how “what is beautiful” might determine “what is just” and ultimately affect politics.

Jeanette Joy Harris, the organizer of the project and one of the contributing artists, reflects on it below:

The Instagram handle @kimkierkegaardashian has six posts, most of which would certainly make the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard cringe. One is a picture of one elephant giving another a bouquet of daisies, saying, “Some people won’t love you no matter what you do and some people won’t stop loving you no matter what you do. Go where love is!” Appropriate for Kim Kardashian’s very public romantic life, but ironic for a man who abandoned romantic love for a lifetime of philosophy. In short, @kimkierkegaardasian has used celebrity appeal to promote a philosopher. In this context, it is hard not to envision Kardashian in a tight designer dress, seducing people into attending a Kierkegaard lecture by using the type of banal pick-up line that a hostess would use to woo you into a sidewalk cafe.

As an artist, curator, and writer based in Houston, I am interested in this combination of the aesthetic and seduction, and especially in how it overlaps with public dialogue and politics. This is the goal of my recent Instagram-based, performance art exhibition, “The Political Seducer’s Diary.” Using social media as a platform, I invited eight artists from around the world to consider how aesthetics and seduction affect public life.

Julia Claire Wallace, director of Experimental Action, invited me to participate in the organization’s larger project that explores how performance art interacts with social media. Like me, Wallace is interested in the political possibilities of Instagram, particularly since its image-based platform would seem to make political speech a difficult endeavor. After conversations with Wallace and a recent reading of Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary,” I asked my artists to delve deeper into how “what is beautiful” might determine “what is just” and ultimately affect politics. This resulted in the two-month exhibition, “The Political Seducer’s Diary,” which ran from November to December 2017 on @PerformanceArtHouston. Each artist took control of the handle for one week and looked at topics from assault to consumerism.

My project had two goals: First, to use the term ‘political’ in the classical sense, broadening it to a description of issues that are shared in community. This opened up the possibility for artists to look at social issues beyond party politics. Second, to use Kierkegaard’s articulation of aesthetics in “The Seducer’s Diary” as a starting place to ask the question: what if aesthetics not only guided our personal actions but political actions, as well?

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The Grand Trumpeter

By: Philip James Villamor (Many Thanks to Fyodor Mikailovich Dostoevsky)

Trumpeter (from Dictionary.com) – 4) A person who proclaims, commends, or extols something loudly or widely. And, interestingly, 5) Any of several large South American birds… related to the cranes and rails, having a loud, harsh, prolonged, cry.

Even this immediately recognizable plagiarism of ideas from Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” must have a preface, although I am a poor hand at making one. Nonetheless, as in that incomparable poem, the story to be told here imagines heavenly powers interacting with mankind – albeit something short of the second coming – which allows for some insight into the motives or rationale of otherwise incomprehensible others. In this case, however, you will be spared the insight of characters discussing the merit of those arguments, partly because this is not the middle of a book where those characters’ personalities have already been established and mostly because this author lacks the commitment and actual talent to do so.

The action of the story to be told does not occur in the sixteenth century, where it was customary in poetry to bring down heavenly powers to earth, but in the twenty-first century, where the prospect of heavenly powers -let alone the Messiah- materializing on earth is so far from expected as to no longer merit a poet’s ponderings. Nonetheless, this story is told in the spirit of those sixteenth century tales and one notable nineteenth century one. In an effort to parallel that nineteenth century tale, as well as bring hope to the heart, the story is told as if what is being described is in the distant past and the days described are long behind us.


He came to the United States of America at a time quite different than that of the Catholic Crisis which Dostoevsky had observed in Spain. The prevailing perversion of many Americans was, making use of their democracy as a godly tool, purporting to protect their way of life they viewed as threatened by forces both from without and within by demonizing and pre-judging those forces. The forces being Bad Hombres who immigrate illegally to the country bringing with them crime and drug addiction (not to mention infidels from Muslim nations that want to kill all Americans), and loose laws by tolerant administrations that allowed for morally degenerate groups like homosexuals, transsexuals, and others to claim better or near equal footing in business and government relations.

And so, as different as the circumstances and nature of the institutions involved in the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries might be, the choice between security and happiness or complete freedom was still the conflict of the day. The difference, an important one to be sure, was that it was no longer one or a few members of an institution making the choice to take away freedom and provide security and happiness but the masses themselves proclaiming the virtues of this argument, hoping for and then electing a politician brazen enough to take on the task. Such was the situation when He came again.

And, behold, He came once more in a human shape similar to that in which He walked among men for thirty-three years twenty-one centuries ago. He came down to the hot pavements of the streets of Yuma, Arizona, the very same as which, on the day before, almost a hundred illegal immigrants had, Ad majorem Trump gloriam, been rustled up by a local town’s sheriff and deported back to Mexico. And, as luck – or fate – would have it, He came on a day that President Trump was to hold a rally at the local arena for the Trump faithful – those neglected, tried and true Americans who had for too long waited for a leader to bring law, order, and patriotism back to the United States of America. He came on a day when Donald Trump was locked and loaded, ready and willing to expound on how to Make America Great Again.

He came, at least in appearance, as an undocumented Mexican American, moving through the crowds of Trump supporters as comfortably as might a white representative of Breitbart News. He wore beat up jeans and a stained tee-shirt. His face was unshaven, with a week’s growth, and His hair was slightly disheveled, thick as if with dirt from recent labors. At first glance, one might assume that He had come straight from the fields, but the grace with which He moved through the crowd and the steady gaze of His eyes belied the aforementioned details. The masses parted for Him as he made His way from the back end of the arena towards the front, as the presence they felt was not that of a common field worker. He was unrecognizable, yet somehow entirely different from anyone with whom they had ever come into contact with, and many seemed to know exactly who He was…

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John Dewey and Art

By: Alaina Hammond

John Dewey (1859-1952) was perhaps the leading educational philosopher of the early twentieth century, and viewed humanity as a creative force when interacting with its environment. His 1934 book, Art As Experience, expounds upon this belief system.

A large part of Dewey’s purpose in writing this book seems to be saving art from the pedestal of the museum. “The factors that have glorified fine art by setting it upon a far-off pedestal did not arise within the realm of art nor is their influence confined to the arts” (p. 4). The word “glorified” used here in a derogatory sense is parallel to his dismissal of the Platonic ideals of beauty. To glorify something is not to improve it, or even to elevate it in anything but an artificial sense. Rather, it is to imbue it with a false identity of the ethereal, or the other.

Moreover, there is no formal art that is inherently superior to the other. To use a contemporary reference, a graphic novel is not less noble, or automatically worse, than a literary one. If both are well-written (and in the former case, drawn) they should be judged on their own merits rather than compared to each other. On the other hand, as television is not inherently worse than literature, a good show surpasses a badly written book.

Dewey examines the specifics of art’s place in the world. He wonders: If artists are a kind of interpreter, are they interpreting the world to themselves? Or interpreting something to something else? What are they doing, besides participating in the physical process of making art with physical materials found in space-time?

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Harvey Weinstein and the Aims and Structure of Hollywood

Howl of the Day: Oct 13, 2017

Political scientist Corey Robin has an interesting take on the current Harvey Weinstein debacle. Robin observes that power relationships leave little room for morality:

In virtually every oppressive workplace regime—and other types of oppressive regimes—you see the same phenomenon. ….

Those at the bottom of the regime, these less established actresses who need the most, look up and wonder why those above them, those more established actresses who need less, don’t speak out against an injustice: The more established have power, why don’t they use it, what are they afraid of?

Those higher up the ladder, those more established actresses, look down on those at the very bottom and wonder why they don’t speak out against that injustice: They’ve got nothing to lose, what are they afraid of?

Neither is wrong; they’re both accurately reflecting and acting upon their objective situations and interests. This is one of the reasons why collective action against injustice and oppression is so difficult. It’s Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at work (in both senses), without the happy ending: everyone pursues their individual interests as individuals; the result is a social catastrophe.

This seems true, but at the same time, focusing on the power dynamic at play as opposed to the ends for which the power is used obscures something essential about the problem.

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Penelope’s Choice

By: Michael Grenke

The Odyssey’s Penelope is a Thinker, a person who is effective in facing her world and its problems by thinking her way out of them. She is, perhaps, even more of a thinker than her much-devising husband, as he is still, occasionally, given to “solving” his problems with brute force. It is in Penelope that Homer more purely explores the possibilities and limitations of Odyssean cleverness. The emblem of Penelope’s cleverness is the device by which she tricks her suitors for three years, her weaving. She uses the weaving to buy herself time, but the weaving is itself an image of time. Time is a weaving and unweaving; it makes and unmakes beings and relations. In her deception, Penelope gives the impression time has no consequence for human beings. And understood thus, time poses a great difficulty that attends and deforms the kind of thinking in which Penelope engages.

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Trump’s Banality of Evil

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

What does fascism smell like? It’s a question the late Christopher Hitchens used to ask, and one that’s worth revisiting. In 1945 it might have smelled like Zyklon B, whose reportedly almondy aroma rose with the ashes from the brick chimneys of Nazi death camps into the skies of Europe. In 1988 it might have smelled like the sick yellow waves of chlorine gas that swept over the northern provinces of Mesopotamia during the Halabja massacre, when the Baathist regime tried, not for the last time, to eliminate the Kurdish people of Iraq. Americans in New York and Washington DC certainly knew what it smelled like in September 2001. Last Friday though, it took on a seemingly more innocuous smell, one that could have been synonymous with any other summer night in America: the bitter odor of a thousand citronella torches in the streets of Charlottesville. 48 hours later, the President proved himself incapable of performing the most basic of moral duties: to stand behind a podium for a scripted ten-minutes and call this stench by its name.

I’ve scanned enough Facebook fights to have seen the word “Nazi” appear somewhere in my feed at least once a month, and I’ve been to enough rallies to have seen a black toothbrush mustache smeared on the face of at least every major world leader, regardless of context. The problem with throwing around hyperbolic clichés so lightly is that they lose what little currency they already have in discourse. Indeed, what makes clichés so tyrannous is that they’re true but useless. As a writer, I have a visceral aversion to platitudes perhaps more than the average person, and the reductio ad Hiterlum approaches the very top of my list. But the cliché of calling someone a fascist is somewhat supported by the fact that fascism is itself a cliché. The irony of the events in Virginia last week and the President’s colossally mishandled response to it, was that this banality was conspicuously absent precisely when it was called for.

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Women Rule – How They Took Down a King

By: Elizabeth Larkin Bouché

As inauguration day approaches and women ready themselves for the Women’s March on Washington, I am reminded of Europe’s most remarkable uprising of women against tyranny—The Women’s March on Versailles in 1789.

It was a major, dramatic event on a par with the storming of the Bastille. A food riot in Paris, led seven thousand women, transformed into an armed march to take flour from the king’s stores 12 miles away in Versailles. Revolutionaries seized the opportunity to join the women and forced the king to sign the recently composed “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” so ending his absolute rule.  The king and his entourage were dragged back to the capital as prisoners. It was a turning point in history, signaling a shift in power from the nobility to the common people.

The Women’s March on Versailles is a reminder of the power of popular protest movements. Following the election of Trump, and spurred by growing unease with our own Versailles-like oligarchs, similar protests are now cropping up at grassroots level in the United States. The Paris women were driven by famine; they and their children were hungry. Women today are mobilized by threats to hard-won advances made since the Enlightenment. The ordinary women who have organized the March on Washington are unleashing what is perhaps a primal and formidable maternal fury once again.

The comparison between revolutionary France and current events is not so far-fetched. Civil unrest in Paris was fueled by paranoid plots in the press and fake news. It was also the result of basic needs becoming unaffordable, market deregulation, widespread distrust of government, huge national debt, and deeply divided political opinions. One key factor was the staggering inequality of the ancien régime, in which the clergy and nobles, or first and second estates, held vast wealth and paid no taxes, while the third estate, or 97 percent of the population, were heavily taxed for foreign wars. The parallels did not escape the notice of “Time” magazine. Its person of the year cover featured Trump seated on a tawdry carved chair decorated with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. Indeed, Trump draws the comparison himself when he chooses to be interviewed while seated in a gilded throne in his French Rococo-style dwellings.

Considering all this, and with large numbers of women taking to the streets, it is interesting to look at what drove French women to insurrection at a powder keg moment in history.

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Life is More Binary than Fiction: A Writer Reflects on Political Polarization

By: Shannon Kirk and Political Animal

Shannon Kirk is a novelist, a practicing attorney and law professor in Massachusetts, and also an avid follower of politics. She, like many of us, finds Trumpian politics incredibly distracting. In a world where the President-elect is constantly saying new and outrageous things on Twitter, how are news junkies supposed to get anything done?

In a great column on The Thrill Begins, Kirk addresses this problem, and outlines the system she’s using to try to stay focused. We highly recommend reading the whole thing.

One particularly interesting point is her observation that our current political climate encourages people to sort ourselves into two hostile camps based on our political identity. From a novelist’s perspective, this is maddening. Depth and contradiction make characters believable–because human life is complex. So why are we so attractive to binary extremism in our political life?


The following Is an excerpt from The article originally published in The Thrill Begins:

A good friend has a great response to try to chill me out every time I get spun up about the current political environment: “Is this going to impact the happiness of your cats?” Meaning, is this really going to lead to something that will change your life in a catastrophic way? I wish I could have this outlook on politics. I used to. I used to be able to tune most of it out and concentrate.

Now?

I confess. I have a problem. I’m addicted. I am distractified by Trump. But since I acknowledge this serious weakness, I’m hoping to fight my way back to my old ways and not let him win. I have devised a system, which I include at the end. No idea if this will work.

The distractification of Trump has impacted my writing in three ways: To lose time. To wallow in the quagmire of arguing about the fallacy of binary extremism. To resist bullying.

Distractified by Binary Extremism (frustrating my notion of character development)

Let’s first set the table and acknowledge the objective fact that we are living in La La Land right now. Nothing is normal, and, yes, nothing is logical. If your objective is to disagree and say that things are logical, then you are trolling this article; please move on.[1]

The reason it’s easy for me to get distractified by all this is actually nothing new; it’s something that’s always been a gripe of mine, even before Trump—just now more acute and in my face every single damn day, and in alarming ways. It is indeed a core issue I try to battle in my writing: the pushing of people into simplistic, binary camps. Example: Your character is a scientist, so she must be an atheist. I battle this notion, I reject it.

Here’s where we are, I liken it to the Fruit Loops vs. Cheerios Political System. Each Fruit Loop represents a position on an issue, and each Cheerio its “opposite.” If you are on Team Fruit Loop, you MUST accept and agree and support all Fruit Loops, likewise with Team Cheerio. Never may a Fruit Loop cross-pollinate the Cheerio world, and NEVER EVER may a Cheerio contaminate a Fruit-Loop-protected zone.

This is a binary system.

This is bullshit.

We would never allow such simple sorting for fictional characters, so why is it being pushed in reality?

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What is “Fascist”? Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Howl of the Day: Nov 30, 2016

There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

In 1995, the late Umberto Eco wrote an essay on what he called “Ur-Fascism”. What he meant by this term is the fuzzy constellation of ideas and feelings out of which fascism grows. “[B]ehind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” In the case of fascism, this is Ur-Fascism.

Eco’s essay is as relevant today as when he wrote it. Indeed, with the election of Trump, and the debate over to what degree it is fair to call him or his positions “fascist,” it is extremely timely. (A topic we have covered a number of times before.)

The key insight of the essay is that fascism, and the underlying mode of thinking that gives rise to it, are impossible to clearly define, because they embrace many contradictory elements. “Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

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Chuck Klosterman and Relative Morality

Thoughts on “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past”

By: Matt Ryklin

When I was fifteen I had ridiculous opinions. Of course, at the time I didn’t think they were ridiculous, I thought they were well deliberated, intelligent, and insightful.

Everyone looks back with some disgust and amazement at how they behaved when they were younger, but the opinions I’m talking about weren’t only related to music, or fashion, or how to get girls. When I was fifteen, I was of the opinion that we shouldn’t legalize gay marriage. Now, I couldn’t imagine holding this opinion, and I even look disdainfully upon those who do. How could you not legalize gay marriage? It has no effect on anyone except for the positive effect it has on people in love who want to be together. I can’t possibly imagine not being for the legalization of gay marriage. And yet nine years ago, I didn’t think it was necessary.

This is where my head went when I first heard of Chuck Klosterman’s newest book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. He seeks to explore how future society will look back upon the time in which we currently live. To do so, he first explores how we look at the past and how our present morals and values shape our perception and distort reality. Then, he examines how predictions about future society are almost always wrong, because we naturally employ present-day values in order to create these predictions. Klosterman then uses this analysis as reason to question nearly everything we think about ourselves in the present, asserting that our present is draped in an unavoidable relativism that makes it difficult to reckon with right and wrong, and makes it almost impossible to attempt to understand how future societies will think about their past – our present.

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