The Expressions of Freedom: Contemplating Anger

by Lynn Clement


Despite being immensely inspired by Raquelle’s awesome post on “overcoming writing stalls”, I’ve had a difficult time being productive this week.  Current events have left me angry, distracted, and anxious.  I feel lucky, because many others have had it much worse: anguish, suffering, trauma.  Due to my professional training, I am quick to analyze what I see and, even after listening to hours of testimony, it was the images that lingered: the setting, the people, the facial expressions.

My writing has long centered on women’s involvement in revolutionary political movements and their subsequent punishment, in visual form, for entering into the public sphere.  Honestly, it’s been almost too easy to find topics because history is filled with demonized depictions of women who dared to defy societal norms and demand equal rights and an equal voice.  For so long, I had naively regarded my analyses as study of a distance past.  As an art historian, it’s a strange feeling when your research becomes terribly relevant and attempting to return agency and voice after centuries of vilification and erasure feels like a particularly pressing endeavor.

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By Artist or printers mark looks like “Bernard”. Uploaded by User:Nickpo – own collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3820117

 

My attention had remained on France and their age of revolutions because, again, there was so much to study.  Negative depictions of women revolutionaries abounded.  However, I’ve since turned my attention to how other political imagery, ones that we often consider to be positive or laudatory, might be creating a negative impact.   And I’ve turned my sights to my own country, which is how I found myself picking a fight with the Statue of Liberty.

Well, to be clear, not with the statue itself, but with the way that personification was changed by those who gave, and those who received, her body.  The statue of liberty became a logical image for me given its origins. Although the most recognizable symbol of America, and the liberty and freedom (arguably) found in its republic, Bartholdi’s statue was conceived of by conservative French scholars and politicians who saw the new county as a stabilizing influence against the dangers of monarchy, as well as anarchy. Unlike what comes to mind today, Liberty (since 1792) had worn the Phrygian bonnet (an ancient symbol of the freed slave), wielded a weapon, and had functioned as the powerful, often angry, leader of popular uprising.  Joan Landes’ states, in her book on women’s removal from the public sphere during the years before and after the Revolution of 1789, that “Liberty did not simply appear on the seal of the Republic, nor did she remain fixed on canvas or carved in stone.  She went into the public forum…”  She could be evoked by real women when they asked to be treated as equals.

I thought about this more and more as I saw photographs directly comparing the calm stoicism of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford with the overt anger and frustration of Brett Kavanaugh.

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By Edward Moran – Museum of the City of New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229787

Liberty is someone/something we desire to evoke now, when the status of so many, even as humans, is being tested. (I was going to include a hyperlink, but there were just too many news stories that support this.  You know what I’m talking about.  Just open a newspaper and throw a dart.) However, the idealized depiction of Liberty found in New York’s harbor is a stern goddess with a rational respect for law and order.  Her vagueness denies any relationship with the people who might call upon her protection. Although Linda Grasso’s book The Artistry of Anger focuses on black and white women’s literature, one can apply her theories to the visual.  What emotional freedom would have been available to women and people of color when the Statue of Liberty was designed and erected?  To be allowed anger is to allow a sense of self, true autonomy. “Two unstated assumptions underlie these premises: one, that the rational, righteously angry person is entitled to desire self-satisfaction, pleasure, and just treatment; and two, that the rational, righteously angry person possesses the power to make judgments about one’s own and others’ behavior.  Both of these assumptions have, historically, not applied to women.” Thus, whose liberty is implied in the title of this statue? When the torch was lit rights for women, the working poor, and people of color were being squelched. The Phrygian cap’s replacement with a crown, the removal of her armament, and her composed demeanor seems poignant, to me, in this light, and much less majestic.

My research and writing has been cathartic this year, but it has also reminded me what we are up against: even the strongest visual symbol of this country and its founding ideologies has been constrained. Once celebrated for her righteous anger and willingness to cut down oppressors, she was sanitized for political reasons.  While our bodies are used as symbols of enlightened and universal political ideologies, like Liberty and Justice, our voices, our emotions, and our experiences have also been suppressed.

I don’t know if I can say that I’m glad this is a writing project I’ll be working on more and more (to examine and include depictions of America, Freedom, and Lady Columbia), but it feels necessary to fully research and consider. I’ve been seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s depictions of Judith and Holofernes making the rounds on social media.  Perhaps it’s time to design a new colossal national monument…

 

 

 

 

The Smart Woman’s Writing Desk, Part IV

By Lynn Clement


Even though Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about the importance of creative space for women (both public and private) was published in 1929, it wasn’t until 2013, after the birth of my daughter, that I finally claimed a room of my own.

I lost myself a bit after becoming a mother and I struggled while my body, mind, and purpose felt as if they were no longer fully my own.  Personal space suddenly became more important as I grappled with identity and nagging doubts about career and choices, in general.  So I staked a claim in my home to help me retake my place in the world.  This was also important for legitimizing my work, to others and myself.  My contingent faculty career status had often been maligned, and this often made me question my place and worth.  Both became stronger after I added “mother” to my list of jobs.  “Maybe now you should focus on something more worthwhile?” “Maybe this could be a chance to switch careers?” “Are you even going back to work?” “When?”  “How?” “Why?”

I did go back to work because I love what I do, and I didn’t switch jobs because I’m also good at it.  However, I needed to find equilibrium between my career and my new role as caregiver. To do this I needed space. I found a tiny section of my already cramped home and tried to carve it into something. I ripped up carpet, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, stripped wall paper, patched walls with joint compound, painted newly sanded surfaces and trim, hauled books, dragged furniture, hung curtains, and remade the space as I tried to remake myself.

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It’s not perfect, and it’s a bit chaotic, but it reflects me: who I have been, who I am despite the changes I have undergone, who I may become.  My actual work space, a narrow desk with an obsolete X-Files mouse pad, is surrounded by objects that make me contented: books, art, notes, papers, mementos, trifles.  Tomes on art, popular culture, programming, science, culture, politics, and religion are stacked below art made by my grandmother, my sister, my students, and my daughter.  (The drawing by my daughter depicts me, fighting a dinosaur with a sword.  Totally bad ass.)  Mismatched bookcases and sills hold some of my most prized keepsakes.  An antique typewriter found at a img_20180804_171120236garage sale was given to me by my parents.  They had high hopes that I would write my first book with it.  I won’t, but it is a sign of the support I have from family and friends.  img_20180804_171106780A guitar built by my great-uncle from an old stump that was half rotting in the backyard of my childhood home serves as a reminder to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, and to make something beautiful and useful.  My collection of running medals, all earned during road races of varying distances, reminds me to put in the work no matter how tedious.

Not everyone has the luxury of a room of their own and sometimes I still don’t.  I began writing this post on one of those yellow legal pads because my daughter had commandeered both my desk and my laptop.  In addition, my office now temporarily houses her new kitten and all his kitten accouterments.  However, the process of making that space my own resulted in an important change of mindset about room and my need to make some for myself in the world.  It’s okay to take up space.


 

The Smart Woman’s Summer, Part 4: The Siren Song of Summer

by Lynn Clement


As with the season itself, my summer themed blog post has gone through a lot of edits.  Most recently it devolved into one sentence that started with the letter “A” followed by countless “H”s: a primal scream to express the despair induced by the summer of 2018.  Like my colleagues, I had begun the summer with high hopes to do what was important, professionally and politically, because summer is an occasion to carve out time for the work that gets neglected during the year.

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Detail of South Wall, Detroit Industry, by Diego Rivera, 1933, fresco, photo taken by author at the Detroit Institutes of the Arts

I tried. I really did.  I had a manageable, organized schedule of all the significant (and some insignificant) things I was going to accomplish.  I was going to update all my syllabi early and set up all my courses’ online components in May. I was going to do the bulk of my research for lecture improvements and attend important protests in June.  I was going to teach two summer classes in July.  I was going to do independent research in August.  I was going to arrive at the fall semester feeling prepared, having had a fulfilling and productive summer.

I’m going to say something that may shock those who work in fields that do not “observe” summer break, and it may even seem controversial for those who do:  I dislike summer vacation.  I equate summers to holidays like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and ones 21st birthday.  Expectations are too high, you never end up doing what you really wanted, and most of the time it ends with you sweaty, stressed, and either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my summer did not turn out how I had planned. Syllabi remain unfinished, I have yet to read a book in its entirety, another adjunct was kind enough to take my classes, and August is shaping up to be a real shit-show.  Despite the stress to come, I am glad I made this decision. Time with my family has been invaluable.  Most of my summer days thus far have been filled with a different kind of valuable work: trying to keep my daughter busy and happy as I help my mother take care of my father.  I never thought I’d be dealing with a dying parent at this point in my life, but here I am, living in my hometown, something I haven’t done since I was 18.  Although there have been picnics, crafts, sprinklers, and quality time with loved ones, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the weight of those unfilled expectations is staggering.  The thought of extending and postponing my to-do list until next summer is crushing.

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The Blue Gown, by Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1917, oil on canvas, photo of original taken by author at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Being forced to slow my life to a screeching halt has been an incredibly tough adjustment, but it has given me some clarity and a new plan for summers to come.  I’m giving up the summer to-do list, possibly forever.

I do so with a happy heart, to honor my father because it’s time for me to find a better work-life balance in all seasons. Most of my memories of my dad revolve around labor, projects, and things that needed doing.  Running a successful family owned and operated heating and cooling business in a small town meant working hard…always.  Despite his large circle of friends, countless creative hobbies, and an aggravatingly optimistic personality he spent most of his life elbow deep in work.  It wasn’t until he was forced to retire due to the cancer that he was able to enjoy his “summer” and even then he spent much of his time on building projects.  I wish reconnecting with friends, traveling, and playing in a band had not been left to, what would become, the last years of his life.  I’ve inherited his work ethic and I’ve realized that I don’t want to sing karaoke as a pot-bellied 60 year old.  I want to do it now, as a pot-bellied 40 year old.

Like most everyone, I still have to deal with normal life constraints, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give up on the idea that at some magical point in my year, or life, the stars will align and I will have the opportunity to get everything done.  The promise of summer often allows me to put off until tomorrow what should be today, and this is my trouble.  I have to strive to make time for what is important at all times, so that life may be fuller, rather than just busier. This will be more easily said (typed) than done, I know, but I can try.  I’m throwing the summer to-do list out and instead, each month I plan to do at least one thing I’d normally save for summer. It could be as small as finally reading that book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a decade, or big, like finally taking that research trip to Paris.

All the things on my list cannot not, and should not, wait until a literal or metaphorical summer.  Lectures will be re-written, research will be done, articles will submitted, Python and SQL will be learned, cabins will be rented with friends, parties will be planned, canvases will be painted.  It will all be done, but not if it is relegated to side projects to be executed during vacations and holiday breaks.

I look forward to the experiment of interspersing the year with greater flexibility for all important activities and opportunities.  If you don’t mind indulging me, I’ll tell you sporadically of the successes and failures in future posts.

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Grasslands, painted by the author, July 2018, acrylic

 

Tools for Resistance: The Importance of Art, Research, and Writing

by Lynn Clement


Although I’ve always tried to take an activist’s approach to art history and fought against the notion that it is inconsequential, there have been times that I have succumbed to the denigrations of my profession.  In the wake of the 2016 election, with attacks on immigrants, refugees, the LBGT community, the rise of violence against people of color, and the return of the white supremacist public voice (to name a nauseating few), my job felt particularly frivolous.  I am lucky to have a circle of friends who are avid do-gooders.  Through their chosen careers they fight for voting rights, for reproductive rights, for clean energy and natural resources, and for fair banking practices (to name a brilliant few).  Being surrounded by such people gives me an enormous sense of pride, and an enormous inferiority complex. What could I do to make a difference?

Rose Valland

In the wake of this election I have read more than ever before because when I am in doubt, I do research. I turned to articles and books to guide me to an answer, to guide me out of inaction and uncertainty.  I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I read This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark and Paul Engler.  I read Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hoschchild.  I read Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis.  I read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  I read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  Most recently, I read Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens.  While each of these books have been immensely important and helpful, it is the last in my list that I would like to expound on because of its resonance for those of us who might feel they are ill equipped to be part of the movement against the growing tide of injustice.

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Beth Pickens’ book is an open letter to those working in the fine arts, but her advice could be used for anyone. The passage that will likely reverberate wider than what the author may have originally intended reads:

“The lesson I took away—and that I access during every natural and human-centered crisis—is that I can start exactly where I am, with what I have, to work toward justice and be of service to someone more vulnerable than I am.  I don’t have to wait.  I don’t need to become somebody else or wish for difference skills.”  (Pickens, 28)

This is the passage from the book that most inspired me.  What are my skills?  What is my passion?  What is my creative outlet?  What do I hope will impact others on a micro or macro level?  For me, it is my research and my teaching.  I had my answer; this is what I could do.

I could find ways to expand the discourse and challenge the status quo. I could strive to think even more critically about what I see and read, and I could teach students to do the same.  I have long been in the process of rewriting my lectures to be inclusive of voices of those that had been marginalized throughout history; I could double, triple my efforts.  I could create more assignments that challenge long time ascertains about art, art making, and art seeing. I could give to my student food bank and reach out to students in a greater way. Many would now be dealing with less assistance and would be dealing with family members (or their own) threats of deportation.  I could also support writers and scholars working to improve the inclusiveness of my, and related, fields.  This is how I could channel my fear and anger.  “Anger is real and necessary, and it can be transformed into fuel.” (Pickens, 37)

“When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.” (Pickens, 104)

Art is often in service to those in power, however, art has always had a purpose beyond that.  “I read about artists making work during war, in times of violence, and despite systemic neglect.” (Pickens, 10)  Art has power and it can give voice to the powerless.  I think this is one of the reasons that art is viewed as dangerous.  It can easily be used to tear down the false narratives that our nation was built on.  I could address those false narratives in my approach to history and how it has been recorded in visual forms.

“Your art will help you navigate the world, and it will light the way for others.” (Pickens, 9)

As I look to those working in the fine arts to light my way, I can say the same for fellow scholars working in the humanities.  Again, to make this change I’m doing my research and finding likeminded teachers, scholars, and historians.  They are making a difference and they are helping me to strive for the same.  A tumblr page entitled People of Color in European Art History provides outstanding resources for addressing race in the visual arts. LaTanya S. Autry has created an invaluable resource regarding museums and social justice. Smarthistory.org has amazing resources on myriad art historical subjects, but their Seeing America theme is particularly helpful in addressing notions of a more inclusive National Identity in the visual arts.  Angela Sutton and her colleagues at the Vanderbilt Center for Digital Humanities working on the Slave Societies Digital Archive have inspired me to address hard histories in my classroom despite the risk.  Pickens’ book offered additional people of action like Marcia Chatelain who created the #Fergusonsyllabus, a resource for educators teaching “every age group in every discipline, to share resources for bringing racism, policing, urban history, civil rights, and black history into each of their classrooms…” (27)

I still feel inadequate and ineffectual most of the time, but the more I read, the more I learn, the more I see others in my field resisting, the more I feel better equipped to help.  “We have a vision for the world we want to live in, and we have the tools for resistance.” (Pickins, 25)