My friend recently wrote a blog post in which she shared what she dreamed it would be like as an artist vs what it’s actually been like.
I was in a pretty serious band for many years and have a background in fine arts (with a focus in painting and sculpture) and I definitely wrestled with some of the same issues while trying to figure out how to actually live out a creative profession* (the ideal vs the reality). There are two aspects of the how-to-be-and-be-happy-and-even-be-successful-as-an-artist issue that I want to address here: art vs craft, feminism, & the cult of the amateur, and the current trend collapsing art/craft & consumerism/consumption.
Your Mom’s a Fiber Artist**
(the art vs craft debate from 3rd wave feminism to the cult of the amateur)
In the past 8-ish years, there has been a huge mainstream resurgence in a category of creative activities traditionally considered more “craft” than Art. Knitting, crochet, sewing, etc are experiencing a post-modern renaissance where it has become cool to play with fiber (and knitting has possibly even jumped the shark since everyone and their mom does it). Outside of the realm of fiber arts, activities like paper/printing arts, jewelry/metal working, home craft, and cooking have gained a degree of legitimacy that even 3rd wave feminism couldn’t have imagined.
[As an aside, it is worth doing some reading about the art vs craft debate (or even just on women and art in general) from the perspective of feminist writers. I am not going to pretend that I am academic enough anymore to do this topic justice, but suffice to say that the association of many crafts (and especially fiber crafts) with women’s work/domesticity has historically relegated them to a lower position in the hierarchy of all-things-aesthetic, whereas fine Art-with-a-capital-A enjoys a legitimized (and historically largely male-dominated) position at the top of the aesthetic pyramid.
Here is a poster by the Guerilla Girls and some links for your aside enjoyment.
Back to the explosion of popularity and subsequent mainstream legitimization of the craft-y arts. I am certainly not here to criticize the proliferation of craft-as-art-and-even-Art on the whole, but I do want to point out an unfortunate side effect: much like we have seen with music over the last 10+ years, we are in a period that J sometimes likes to call “the cult of the amateur.” It has become incredibly accessible to become a creator, a maker, someone who concerns themselves with the practice of aesthetics. In a world where you can buy Garageband for you iPad for $4.99, a search for knitting patterns turns up over 8.3 million results, and Urban O*tfitters has a DIY section, how do you determine who is actually Good? What is actually Authentic? How is value/meaning/significance assigned to art now that the angle of participation has widened significantly? I don’t have the answers to these questions (nor am I trying to suggest that we resurrect the cult of Genius). However, I think it is important to acknowledge that as we swing away from the myth of artist-as-special, we risk swinging too far to the other side, where we value the amateur over the professional, the casual over the serious, the mediocre or even crappy over the skilled. And that is not a world that supports and values cultural production by Artists.
(or why Etsy is not all that it’s cracked up to be)
This brings me to my second topic. I have refrained from mentioning Etsy thus far but it is obviously a result of the value of handmade entering our mainstream consciousness. Etsy encourages people to buy items from what they term small-small businesses (“human-scale economies”) and places an emphasis on authorship and provenance in the items marketed there. In theory, Etsy is really, really great and I am wholeheartedly happy that it exists and especially proud of my awesome friends who have shops here, here, and here. But (yes, I just did another “yes, but”).
Here’s my problem with Etsy. It’s cool that it’s rooted in ideas about alternative economies. In practice, though, I see a race to the bottom (after all in capitalism cheapness wins). In an effort to compete (or perhaps out of ignorance about their value as creators or even in spite of their value), sellers must succumb to market pressure and the premium for artisan and handmade gets thinner and thinner. Sara Mosle wrote about the false feminist fantasy peddled by Etsy two years ago. The NYT ran an article questioning the effort required to run an Etsy business as well. Since then, I haven’t exactly seen things get better. Searches turn up a proliferation of listings made with questionable materials (cheap & made in China), questionable authorship (everyone copying everyone else… owls and deer anyone?), and even questionable sellers (is it really a small-small business and is it really handmade if you are clearly outsourcing your labor and production?). I mean, it’s not like all of Etsy is like that, but it’s definitely there as the dark underbelly of the indie commerce machine. At the end of the day, I think that the market pressures you see in play on Etsy might be the undoing of craft-as-Art, and ironically of handmade as a viable creative profession. It’s very disappointing because it’s so tantalizingly Almost.
Finally, let’s not forget that even for the best that Etsy has to offer, it’s still about CONSUMPTION. I’m going to go way out of my league here intellectually and academically and say that my gut reaction is that when Art/art/craft/Craft seeks its validation through consumerism, artists aren’t really coming out ahead.
It’s my bedtime but I plan to read more about this last point (this, this, and some good old marx seem like decent starting points), to make sure I’m not being full of sheep. Please call me out if you disagree, I’d love to have the conversation or some links to read.
*It turns out that I became a UX designer, which was a good fit for me creatively, but trying to figure out how — and whether — I wanted to “make it” as a musician or a fine artist took a lot of soul searching.
** Dear Mom. I don’t mean this as a dig against moms.
Posted: September 13th, 2011
Comments: 1 Comment
[I wrote this a little while ago so the days are off. I have been scared to post it, because I don’t know if I have made my point ____ enough…]
Exactly 29 days from today, I will be boarding an airplane with J to fly to Reno for our first ever trip to Burning Man.
Exactly 25 days ago, I got a head full of human hair extensions from my oh-so-very generous stylist, who offered them at cost* because she is building her portfolio.
Jenna and I once had a conversation about how we have “librarian hair”. I don’t mean this as a knock to any of my awesome librarian friends, some of whom probably have incredible hair that belongs in the category we labeled “fertile”, but really we meant this as a joke to say that our hair is thin, unruly, and in my case, constantly frizzy (clearly with such frumpy hair it is amazing that I have gotten so far in life). In reality I was simply not blessed in the hair gene department (I blame Grandma, but the tradeoff was that I got her long neck so I think it’s fair). So anyways, my stylist offered extensions, I jumped at the chance, and voilà, my hair grew 10 inches overnight and is now the longest it has ever been.
There are all kinds of considerations to keep in mind when it comes to human hair extensions.
One is where the hair comes from. My extensions are made from what they call temple hair, which is gathered from women in India who participate in a ritual called tonsuring to show devotion to god. I will admit that I did not read much about temple hair before I underwent this process other than to read the extension company’s website, which claimed that the profits from temple hair sales go to local schools, hospitals, and orphanages. As it turns out, the practice is far more controversial/questionable than all that, and I can truly say that I am uncomfortable to be participating in the temple hair industry and likely won’t ever do it again.**
Another important consideration for wearing hair extensions is the amount of maintenance required. I now have to brush my hair 3 times a day with a special boar bristle brush (lest it get matted in the bonds) and I have to use special shampoo and can’t wash every day (the no poo movement would tell you that’s a good idea anyway). To look like I did when I left the salon with silky straight hair, I also need to blowdry and straighten and use a lot of expensive “product” (not usually part of my daily routine thank you very much).
I have a complicated relationship with beauty rituals. Let’s just say that the version of me in the above picture is a version of me in drag. The high-femme me who wears sparkly makeup including blush and eyeshadow, paints my nails, carries a trendy-looking purse and wears high-heel shoes (well, not so much anymore because the stairs at work are treacherous) is totally playing with the idea of a fluid identity that I can put on and take off as I please, a costume. (But, I have been thinking about how this self-described version of “being drag” subscribes to the notion of what is pretty and a socially acceptable self-presentation of my gender. And maybe it’s a just “pretty mask” that I get to put on as protection against the world. Y’know, like that Crass song called Reality Whitewash. Whatever. I just wanted to reference Crass twice in a row.)
Back to Burning Man. I will soon be spending five days in Black Rock City, a highly alkaline prehistoric lake bed desert environment where whiteout dust storms are common. The playa is not kind to hair, and I am trying to figure out how that all works now that I have elected to take part in this oh-so-high-maintenance world of hair extensions. According to a variety of posts on the eplaya boards such as this one, since I have “high-profile” hair I should probably shave my head before I go, or plan to spend hundreds of dollars building a playashower,*** or plan to come back with dreads. Or not even go because I’m a “high maintenance sparkle pony”.
(Hm. Love those kinds of assumptions about people who pay attention to their hair. Cause it’s just so much more shallow than this or this, which are admittedly cool but no less sparklepony. And what’s wrong with ponies anyway? I love ponies!)
The reality is that I am not really worried about the idea of not showering for 5 days and getting dirty and uncomfortable but I *do* work in a professional field and like it or not, there are certain standards of upkeep that I have to maintain. Extensions aren’t one of them, but dangit a lot of blood, sweat, & tears have gone into this virgin hair from the developing world that is currently glued to my head and I feel guilty enough about having it already and I don’t really want to come back with my extensions matted to my skull. I want to have my cake (go to Burning Man) and eat it, too (not come across as too much of a hippie to be taken seriously/professionally).
Today I was at the coffee shop across the street from work and these two crusty/gutter punk girls came in, set down their packs in one of the booths, and ordered croissants with egg and cheese. One girl had bleached out dreads with shaved sides and furry pits and really dirty legs. She bought breakfast for the other girl who had blonde, clean, spiky hair and seemed a bit self-conscious when she ordered (“I don’t know what to get, uh, I’ll have what she’s having,” she said. “I have 15 dollars” said the first girl, “you can get whatever.”). There were two guys in line staring at the hair on these girls’ legs. I found myself constructing a narrative in my head about these girls based on their hair (one butch/strong/savvy, the other femme/vulnerable/naive).
I don’t think the gutterpunk look would go over very well in the office but it has appeal. I know it comes across as very unkempt but it is so deliberately and carefully put together.
When I was in college I dyed my hair green, then pink, and then had my friend Regina cut it all off for $5. She listened to Le Tigre while she cut it and her roommates talked about making a vegan dinner for the house. My short hair signified babyfeminist. When I turned 30 I had a crisis and cut it off again; I then hated it because I felt**** like a soccer mom or female politician, where you can’t have long hair as you age.
I’m so tired of women’s hair as a politicized space, especially when it is politicized by other women. It’s a lose/lose situation when women silently or not-so-silently judge the appearance of other women and what their coifs signify: the players on both sides of the equation are never ____ enough. (Fill in the blank — feminist, natural, cool, pretty, feminine, butch, traditional, fertile, healthy, well-kempt, etc etc etc).
It’s enough to make me want to shave my head. But you know what *that* will mean… ::eyeroll::
*For those of you who don’t know, getting extensions put in takes 6–7 hours of labor.
**This is not the first time I have purchased human hair, though. When I was working on my New College thesis I had friends donate their hair and teeth for use in sculptures and paintings, but I also purchased at least one blonde ponytail on eBay. I think at the time (2001) it was marketed for creating dolls and I don’t really know the origin. Here’s what I wrote about using hair as a material for art at the time:
The Function of Bodily Materials
Materials layer one’s work with meaning. I have become increasingly concerned with materials in my development as an artist, finding myself drawn towards that which is organic and from the body. I am able to say more with a piece of horsehide or a vial of spit and hair than would be ever possible with line, form, color, and word. My choice of materials warrants discussion here, although to essentialize the way any one particular material functions in my work would be to trivialize that material’s power for layering and transcendence.
I am attracted to horsehide, leather, hair, and glue because they embody the horse. The relationship between these materials and the animal is both one-to-one and more than one-to-one, the part standing for both the whole and much more than the whole. A piece of hide represents the horse as a physical object, represents the specific horse it once covered, represents the fact that it “once covered” (past tense, signifying the lack of horse present and simultaneously the presence of the horse in spirit), and represents the process of death (a temporal event involving the passage from one physical form to another). The presence of hide, leather, hair, and glue in my work makes physical that which is not – death, time, and decay. The metonymic relationship of these materials to the animals they once were is especially significant. Susan Stewart points out that “the possession of the metonymic object is a kind of dispossession in that the presence of the object all the more radically speaks to its status as a mere substitution and to its subsequent distance from the self.”[i] The inherent coming apart, separation, or fragmentation in a relationship between part and whole represents conceptually the physicalities of death and decay; when I cut into the pieces of horse myself, I double and explode these layers of meaning. Other materials such as human hair, blood, fingernails, spit, claws, teeth, and bones can similarly evoke the coming apart or fragmentation of bodies. As souvenirs of the mortal body, they mark death and “the end of the sacred narrative.”[ii] Although such materials may not signify directly on horses, they can augment, complement, and stand in for materials which are harder to come by. The inclusion of these elements in my work also plays on the blurring of boundaries between artist (human, self) and subject (horse).
[i] Stewart 135.
[ii] Stewart 140.
***No greywater dumping on the playa please! It’s a leave-no-trace kind of event.
****This is not the first time I have written about hair here. Note the ponies.
Posted: August 14th, 2011
Comments: No Comments
“You are my heroine! And by heroine I mean lady hero. I don’t want to inject you and listen to jazz.”
—Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
Right now my lady hero is my friend Chanelle, who is writing an awesome blog called The Modern Failure. In it she explores “the areas in which the modern woman may feel like a failure (the workplace, the workout, the home, pregnancy, being ‘green’, etc), the origins of the modern woman’s expectations of herself, and why we wake up every day feeling like we are already behind.”
I pretty much think that if you have ever been, cared about, or even met a modern woman human being on this planet, you should probably read it. Right now.
Posted: February 17th, 2011
Categories: things i like
Comments: No Comments