essays

Dexterous Acts of Defiance
(2021)

(Originally published in “The Isolation Archives” the 2021 University at Buffalo Bachelors of Fine Arts Thesis Publication)

Members of the first digitally indigenous generation, this graduating BFA class has had more than just the pandemic to contend with; the time elapsed since their birth has seen an erosion of trust in public and private institutions even more profound than that which occurred in the 1960’s. Indeed, the world’s recidivistic retreat into authoritarianism has contributed to the bleak circumstances that have saturated their most defining years, culminating in the unprecedented failure of government that allowed COVID-19 to flourish unabated.

What’s truly remarkable is how little cynicism this has fomented.

Historically, plagues have had a curious effect on the lives of artists, ostensibly the most sensitive members of society. Quarantine, to us, can be a gift of sorts, an imperative to retreat into a sequestered space that we are otherwise forced to continually negotiate for. For many, the impulse to creation flourishes when we are finally left alone to engage in it, and the isolation feared by most of humanity is hurriedly ushered in the back door of the artist’s mind and embraced, as if in an illicit tryst.

Artists are often tasked with making some meaningful sense of the madness that surrounds us, for it seems that only those of us who dwell in the liminal space between imagination and reality are able to tame the inchoate. While the themes of mortality and fragility are far from foreign to our work during the best of times, it is in the worst of times that our particular skills for illumination, interpretation and allegory are most consciously appreciated.

The loss of continuity is perhaps one of those most jarring sensations we all share during a world-wide interruption. A suspension of Normal Time, during which the warp and weft of our social fabric separates, leaves threadbare temporal and ideological gaps that seem to defy the laws of physics, creating a mental Coriolis effect of sorts. We are all continually disoriented, our compasses (moral and otherwise) spinning crazily in the vortex, clumsily conflating flight with fight in our confusion.

Art rights us, somehow. Like a ballerina’s spotting while spinning pirouettes, Art provides us with a sense of re-orientation upon every revolution. Upon both creation and encounter, Art becomes the gyroscope for a culture whose center cannot hold.

Situated at the precipice of adulthood, the graceful creators in (and of) these pages have withstood a double insult: the theft of their last interstitial year, during which the traditional anticipation and embrace of impending agency has been denied them; and the grand convention of commencement reduced to an awkward and sputtering symbol of failed launch.

But by demonstrating the irrepressibility of the creative urge, this capable and defiant group has somehow managed to shrug off their wounds, and ameliorate their anxieties by incorporating methods of self-care into their conscientious work. Inundated by calamity, these young creators exhibit levels of empathy and humanism that resist submersion with a stubborn buoyancy that baffles me. In staying awake and afloat during the world’s convalescence, The Class of 2021 didn’t just search for meaning. They made it.

The evidence is in your hands: The Kids Are All Right.

As for the rest of us, let’s all just hope we Won’t Get Fooled Again.

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The Evolving Aesthetics of Trauma
(2019)

(Originally published in 2019 University at Buffalo Master of Fine Arts Thesis Publication.”)

There is some debate as to whether the current Industrial Revolution constitutes our third or our fourth, but little doubt that we are still caught in its threshing maw, sustaining the injuries endemic to technological novelty. The machines are now being deliberately imbued with ghosts taking on uncanny visages in a Gothic resurrection reminiscent of Mary Shelley and her cohort. We have not yet mastered this creature, and, as usual, any optimistic utopian ideals we may have imposed upon it have been thrown off by reality’s wild gyrations. Once again, “things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

As a society, we tend not to view artists as beasts of burden. Creativity is often perceived as a byproduct of privilege, an elevated state people aspire to, rather than an encumbrance.

The Romantic notion that artists must suffer for their art is perhaps now an error in syntax. Contemporary art is frequently a byproduct of suffering, rather than its cause.

The cruelty of circumstance lacks nothing in terms of variety. There are countless ways to incur trauma, and though many of us tend to engage in a strange sort of self-defeating taxonomy when it comes to classifying our experiences in an attempt to orient ourselves in the hierarchy of anguish, the genus is the same: damage beyond the ability to immediately repair.

Art makes a highly idiosyncratic bandage, for both producer and consumer. In a nostalgic, neoliberal capitalist culture that increasingly instrumentalizes imagery, our improvised field dressings are transformed into fashion and fodder through the alchemy of social media: Healing as Entertainment in a Pageantry of the Positive. The public has an insatiable appetite for victory. A mandate therefore exists to plumb private afflictions in order to offer up ever new redemptive spectacles of resilience. A costly tonic to make, sold cheaply.

As many of the artists in these pages can attest, a Master of Fine Arts degree can exact such a toll from its pursuer. An expensive commitment to self-confrontation, the process of subjugating media to will is a bruising reminder of how control is elusive and fleeting. Conquest only lasts as long as we can maintain our grip, and muses tend to wriggle and squirm, deserting us completely when throttled. It takes a long time to foster the humility necessary to fully realize a curative vision, and even then, the specter of inadequacy may arise from what we thought was finished work.

The Sisyphean aspect of building a fine art practice has never been more apparent than now, where all of our feats and failures routinely exist in the public sphere from inception. The level of endeavor demanded of those who would devote their lives to competitive Making has always been high, but in the current climate, the required altitude seems particularly daunting. What constitutes “success” in the art world is a confusing labyrinth of contradictions, seldom reconciled to the possibility that the very act of creation is a triumph unto itself.

We are mired in a culture whose myopic propensity for self-gratification and crippling aversion to defeat may be leading us all to oblivion, and the event horizon is beginning to emerge, exerting a pull we can feel in our bones. The rumble in the distance sounds suspiciously like a call to service. Is it the artist’s lot to act as shaman, rendering apotropaic representations of accelerating scenery as we orbit the Technological Singularity, or is it our responsibility to expose, indict, and lampoon those who would traffic in technological snake oil passing itself off as reparative?

The Romanticists’ lofty regard of artists-as-heroes grew from the trauma of witnessing the scourge that technology could unleash upon the Earth. In many respects, the original industrial-age artists were conscripted into the fight against the alienation of machines, and their elevation corresponded strongly to the growing rate of cultural distress and a need to tame (or at least name) the chaos.

In these anxious times, people are once again desperate for champions, and the mettle acquired through the aesthetic vivisection we artists employ to mend to our injuries may, wrongly or rightly, be interpreted as bravery by a populace still addicted to the futility of winning.

One thing is certain: the coming days will require a Homeric effort to redeem our humanity.

Artists, don your armor.

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THE MILF MANIFESTO
(2010)

A deconstruction of two 30-second, back-to-back commercials aired in the spring of 2010

In a tight tracking shot, a pair of shapely bare legs clad in red patent-leather high-heeled pumps clicks along an urban sidewalk at a brisk pace. The shoes are the bright, liquid red of newly-applied expensive lipstick and hold just as much sexual promise. As the camera angle widens, however, it encompasses another pair of feet: first the running sneakers, then the gangly legs of a young boy.

Ah. She is a mother, and on her way to forty.

As the child darts around her confident long stride, the ever-widening shot presents them as a unified front, laughing gaily as they playfully negotiate their way down a commercial thoroughfare. The dark-haired beauty doesn’t wear the double-knit sportswear “mom” uniform to which we have grown visually accustomed, but rather a stylish trench coat, tightly cinched at a trim waist, and sufficiently buttoned as to reveal nothing of what hides beneath. She could easily be nude under there, or resplendent in hot pink silk lingerie. The mystery is deliberate, her initial signal is broadcast as “sexy professional,” and her expression light-hearted and indulgent, not at all redolent of the bemused exasperation that usually adorns the faces of television’s ever-patient Modern American Stay-At-Home Mother.

She is a MILF.

As the pair comes to a steep curb, the boys jumps delightedly off, beckoning to his mother, whose serene countenance has been utterly shattered by a lurching stop so sudden one can only assume she has seen something horrible.

And so she has. Old age is staring her in the face in the form of a curb too steep to blithely hop off of in a pair of hot red fuck-me pumps.

As she teeters on the brink of oblivion, her fading image is overlayed with an animated line graph, its arrow-shaped head snaking ever lower as it moves from upper left to lower right across the screen. The caption announces that we are looking at the deteriorating bone density rate of the Typical American Female. As the arrow nears its nadir, it drops with a sickening jolt, like a bird whose wings have been clipped just as it was coming in for a landing:

You’re gonna break your hip one day, lady.

Cut to the creamy, white, glistening texture of a spoon overflowing with yogurt filling the screen, and then disappearing into a soft, feminine mouth. The satisfied smile that ensues as the camera pulls back to reveal the woman’s ecstatic face is jarring. The suggestion that she has just swallowed semen is difficult to ignore, and her intimation of pleasure is inescapable. Yoplait’s previously unseen logo is prominently displayed at this climactic moment, and the lasciviously piggy-backed brand is rather effectively burned into the retina.

We return to the woman at the curb, her terrified grimace soothed by the thought that yes, she does indeed imbibe enough of the creamy white stuff to protect her fragile bones from premature devastation, and yes, she may sail off that precipice with impunity, secure in the knowledge that she is going to stick her landing, as young, sure and strong as a twelve-year-old Olympic gymnast.

The screen briefly fades to black.

I blink, realizing that my eyes are dry, as they have not even fluttered since the red shoes hit the screen thirty seconds ago.

I’m about to attempt to process what I’ve just seen when I’m confronted with a flipping Discover Card logo set to the jaunty tickling of piano keys and jazzy brush work on a snare drum. The aloof face of another lovely dark-haired woman appears, whose indeterminate ethnicity, short stylish haircut, demure pearls, slim capri chinos and practical ballet flats suggest the fashionable but pragmatic attitude of another Modern American Mother (even though there is no child to be seen) hovering near thirty-five, and browsing in a shoe store. The voice-over, a smart-sounding woman with a slightly sexy, scratchy voice and a sassy lilt announces: “Discover gives you a cash-back bonus on every single purchase.” The woman’s lips part slightly at the sight of an eminently impractical mint green suede spike-heeled ankle-strapped sandal sitting atop a singular pedestal. The voiceover continues: “What you do with it is up to you.”

The woman gazes at the useless shoe longingly, her head tilted slightly, her dark expressive eyes and charmingly freckled face shifting quickly through a dozen emotions, each a more subtle variation on desire than the last. She appraises the shoe as the left side of the screen is emblazoned with the headline: “GET CASH BACK,” which then morphs into “GET WHISTLES BACK” as she takes a deep breath and smiles. In close-up, for a split second, she looks us straight in the eye before she is trapped inside the Discover Card that sucks her back into its flipping surface.

This poor woman. She has lost the whistles. Wherever did they go? And at what point did those beloved leering catcalls fade from her quotidian existence? And if she, a stunningly beautiful specimen of womanhood if there ever was one, has lost the whistles, what does that mean for me?! For the love of God, woman, find the whistles! Get them BACK! BUY THOSE GODDAMNED SHOES!

Because, now, they mean everything.

That these ads aired within a half second of each other was enough to send me fumbling for the DVR remote so that I could watch them both over and over, slack-jawed. The closer reading of the Discover Card commercial is possible thanks to YouTube, but unfortunately it appears that all evidence of the Yoplait woman’s narrowly-avoided but inevitable run-in with gravity has been efficiently wiped from existence. Even a phone call to Yoplait’s corporate marketing division was met with an icy rebuff after I revealed the academic slant to my curiosity, so I will have to depend on what is surely a faulty recollection of it for my analysis.

***

There is but one aspect of marginality that eventually engulfs us all, and that is age. The now-ubiquitous and proliferating anti-aging propaganda endeavors to neuter the elderly, rendering our future selves sexless, powerless, and mute unless we assent to its life-giving ministrations. This insidious campaign, its interests centered on perpetuating our terror of decline, and unheretofore seen in its scope, taunts us with impossible images of eternal youth, while simultaneously robbing us of the facilities with which to cope with that impossibility. We are left with choices that are no choices at all: adapt or perish.

And adaptation is a bitch.

To begin with, the growing use of the “MILF” archetype has generated some interesting imagery, none more so than in the bizarre “Cougar” phenomenon, the highly sexualized forty-and-over female demographic of which I find myself a chagrined member. Under the guise of female empowerment, this meme has all but consumed the airwaves of late, and not so surprisingly, its least vulgar incarnations populate the frames of prime-time television commercials, while its most vulgar tend to anchor the shows these commercials support. You are supposed to identify with the women in the ads, but you are encouraged to alternately envy, ridicule and/or objectify the women in the dramas and reality shows.

One cannot ignore the societal impact of these programs. With stunning efficiency, “Sex and the City,” an arguably misogynistic spectacle of tits, tart talk and shoes that ran a total of six seasons on HBO from 1998 to 2004, transformed the rules by which fresh transplants to New York City would play when they landed. It may have well single-handedly engineered a whole new demographic, ushering in a legion of spendthrift, sex-crazed, fast-talking career gals bent on parlaying sexual promiscuity into a good table at the latest trendy restaurant so as to capture the attention of the ever-elusive Alpha Male and begin the brutal process of diamond ring extraction.

Lest we make the mistake of thinking that this genre confines itself to the heterosexual world, there was “The “L” Word,” which also ran for six seasons and served to fulfill much the same commercial function as its hetero counterpart. Its ensemble of gorgeous bed-hopping lesbians took their sex, status, clothes and money just as seriously, and the exhausted sensible-earth-shoe-wearing-stingy-lesbian stereotype was nowhere to be seen, except as punctuated moments of comic relief.

That such imagery is quickly resexualizing a previously marginalized group (women over forty) is surprising enough, but the accompanying implicit endorsement of egregious self-mutilation and body modification in the interest of resurrecting Woman from what had been tacitly understood in the ad world to be a period of sexual dormancy during which the children are reared and cared for, is staggering.

One of the more stinging ironies in all this is that ‘Mature Woman’ had only been desexualized by the media in the first place. The cycle was self-sustaining: the commercial promotion of self-adornment from an early age encouraged Heterosexual Girl to become her own plaything. Play makeup, jewelry and clothing were engineered to train female children in the pursuit of male attention; male attention ensued, often prematurely. Self-worth was quickly pegged to the Male Attention Index. Subsequent years were spent in mating rituals until sufficient sexual maturity was attained, at which point reproduction took place, swiftly followed by beatification and canonization. Thus robbed of her youth, (but not without virtue!) the ensuing images served to then soothe her anxiety at her ever-diminishing returns, and the products marketed to her endeavored to reflect a sense of the serenity to be found in the vast array of practical sublimations with which she could content herself during her waning years: clothes, crafts, decorating, child rearing, and “higher education.”

Which is to say, Woman, in her ingénue phase, is essentially represented and objectified in the mainstream commercial culture as a receptacle for semen. As she matures, she is magically transformed into a receptacle for children, and any hint of her desire, sexual or otherwise, is swiftly subsumed under her role as mother, life-giver and guide. This representation remained fairly static for decades, ignoring the sexual revolution entirely, and was only rarely interrupted by infrequent forays into the lush gardens of Isabella Rosellini’s pubis and David Lynch’s fecund imagination.

But now, as her maternal ministrations begin to be rejected by her over-precocious ‘tween children, Woman must somehow transform herself back into a semen receptacle, and pursue this aim with all the fervent intensity she can, indefinitely. There can be no more graceful embrace of the inevitable and a master’s degree in sociology. Society now wants her to go forth into that dark night, kicking and screaming in the throes of a never-ending orgasm, preferably in the arms of a man at least ten years younger. Of course, her failure to attract the attention of said younger adequately virile specimens yields a further array of merciless self-recrimination, and further drastic attempts at the reclamation of a lifestyle that, truth be told, probably wasn’t hers to begin with, anyway.

That a rampant and wanton sexuality is being asserted as something that must now be urgently recovered by any woman who bears even the slightest hint of a laugh line or a crow’s foot is simultaneously alarming and comforting. Alarming in the suggestion that a woman’s reclamation of her sex is impossible without substantial, expensive and frequently painful intervention, but comforting in the notion that mature women are suddenly being regarded by the mainstream culture as sexually viable at all.

Which brings us back to those shoes. Did I mention that the ones in the Discover Card commercial were green? Yes, green, that luscious color of newness, youth, fertility, regeneration, envy, decay, and money, all of which are represented here: A pair of tottering suede sandals in a minty shade of green, its most creamy incarnation, evoking ice cream, indulgence, and perhaps even a hint of hedonism, given the invitation suede extends to the touch. On this pedestal sits the perfect instrument of sublimation, the straight changing of a solid yearning to a nebulous delight, do not pass liquid, do not collect $200.

But, there’s a problem.

This isn’t about the shoes at all. It’s about the whistles.

Remember the whistles? They’re still lost! And must be found! So what has happened to our healthful friend, good ol’ sublimation? These shoes aren’t an end in themselves, they are being put into service! They are the bait with which our ethnically indeterminate milf/heroine is going to get those whistles back. She is not sublimating anything. She will be out tonight, swinging her ass down sixth avenue, courting lust outright, ostensibly embracing her sexual self.

What’s more than a little terrifying about this is that it’s largely emblematic of what’s happening across the board, media-wise. Our dependable old sublimations are being cast aside in favor of the long-buried desires they were meant to inoculate us against.

So, to what end? If our commercial culture of capital is endeavoring to resurrect our sexless, wrinkled, desiccated old corpses to re-enroll them in the graceless ranks of the economy of desire, what exactly has it discovered about us that makes us worth the effort? Why go to all that trouble? For, to be sure, waking the dead is bound to invoke the law of unintended consequences…

Well, to begin with, grace is inexpensive. By the time we finally capitulate to the grim slide, Capital wants to have extracted all there is of us to suck out.

To hear told, age is supposed to come with a certain perspective. A certain embrace of the inevitable leading to a certain emancipation. Contented, serene, crotchety old women who are comfortable in their skin don’t spend much money on gussying up. And this is a problem, since a large portion of the population of the United States is about to get old.

An advantage of promoting an assertion to an everlasting sexuality would be the potential meteoric growth of the supporting industries. Cosmetic surgery alone is projected to exceed $40 Billion in global revenue by 2013, and forecasted to grow in the US at a rate of 8.1 percent per year. America’s “longstanding obsession with youthful appearance, an aging population, greater societal acceptance of cosmetic surgery and an increasingly competitive work force” are cited as contributing factors.

So, say you buy those shoes, and then, while you’re at it, since “every single purchase gets you cash back” at the trough, you get your eyes done, and your lips plumped and your boobs lifted and your anus bleached before your vaginal rejuvination surgery, and then you get your makeup applied and your roots done, and now you’ve got the damned whistles back and you’re actually getting laid regularly. Exactly how long can one maintain this headlong capitulation to desire? At a certain point, the well is going to run rather dry (read up on lubrication!) and staring you in the mirror in the morning will be a face that may very well defy all recognition. What now?

Why, pills, of course!

The number of Americans taking antidepressants has doubled in ten years, according to Archives of General Psychiatry, while the number of people seeing psychiatrists continues to fall. The stigma of stapling your face until your ears meet has faded, but woe unto thee for seeking a face-to-face conversation with someone versed in the art of psychological mirror-holding: 80% of patients receiving antidepressants are treated by doctors other than psychiatrists and the percentage receiving psychotherapy has fallen from 31.5% to less than 20% between 1995 and 2005. Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer antidepressant advertising has increased from $32 million to $122 million.

The media are manipulating women into becoming consumers of ever more costly interventions later into life. Essentially, our traditional, less expensive sublimations are being slowly subtracted from our contemporary experience and replaced with carefully calibrated images of truly unattainable physical and emotional ideals: a parade of inedible, indigestible, deeply toxic carrots on sticks.

A chronically deferred old age will have consequences. The media’s strident call to action to upend nature’s insistence on decay will leave us feebly fighting the inexorable stink of decline with ever-diminishing dignity and capital in a gerontological war. Terrified of death, we will be left aspiring to a neoteny that reeks of ill mental health.

Yogurt will not fix this.