Carrie Mae Weems is Wow, Part III

For my final post on photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see here and here for earlier posts on the recent retrospective exhibition of her work), I want to look at her “Constructing History” series. In it, she reappropriates iconic images from the 1960s to the near present, staging them with her students in tableaux and photographing the result.

At times, her image is fairly close to that of the iconic photographs, Suspended Belief, of Kent State killingssuch as the one from the National Guard-student confrontation at Kent State over the Vietnam War in the 1970s (first two images). Kent_State_massacreAt other times, like one representing the Dallas motorcade in which President Kennedy was shot (second two images), Weems makes a stylized version that foregrounds its very iconicity—it’s an image frozen in time and seemingly partly about its own fame. “Constructing History” shares concerns with “From Here I Saw What Happened” in that both are about a kind of photographic intertextuality:  how do we see these pictures in time?  Who speaks in these pictures, and who speaks back?

Unlike the earlier projects I’ve written about, however, “Constructing History” is fairly recent. The images were made in 2008, unlike “American Icons,” which is a product of the late 1980s, and “From Here I Saw What Happened,” which was done in the mid-1990s. What I particularly like about it is that it makes her concerns very explicit–how we each embody and have our own perspective on history. And, unlike her earlier series, it is not photographic only; the tableaux are available for viewing as well as the images made from them. (Part of the process of making them is shown in a video from Art21, the wonderful site about contemporary artists. The video also shows more images than her Web site does.)

In the tableaux and the photographs, Kennedy motorcadeher students embody and take on the perspective of people from the past; moreover, we see the tableaux in a slightly different perspective than that of the original photographs. The series plays with the literalness of three-dimensionality to make it a metaphor: We each have our own perspective on, and bring another dimension to, events. In that way, her work is not only about inclusion of other perspectives; it is about making inclusion real by literalizing the variance in perspective.

The Art21 video links the concerns of “Constructing History” with her earlier concerns of reappropriating images and telling different stories as a result. The first major blow, about Kennedy assasinationI have to share one of the stories in the video here. When Weems first developed her “From Here I Saw What Happened” series, Harvard University (which owned some of the original daguerreotypes) threatened to sue her. Then, after some legal wrangling, they dropped the suit but wanted a payment each time one of the Weems images was used. And the end result? They bought the Weems photographs.

Good on them at last. What a fitting arc of history.



Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part II

In a recent post, I talked about the photographer Carrie Mae Weems and the recent retrospective of her work, which I had the great good fortune to see, in particular a series called “From Here I Saw What Happened…and I Cried.” But as I said, she has a tremendous body of work and I want to comment on several of them. Today, I’m going to focus on several images from an earlier series, “American Icons.” (Her web site contains links to representations of most of her work, including a lot not in the retrospective; I’ve linked to it through these posts. Go see, reader, go see.)

“American Icons” is a series of photographs of rather ordinary American domestic interiors…with racist figurines placed among them as decor. Mini-models of what were once called minorities, or worse. African-Americans as cooks and porters; Asians as exotic Orientals…you get the drift. Weems’s cultural commentary follows from what I’ve just described here: these figures are casually grouped among the ordinary and quotidian. Interpretation: racism is ubiquitous, ordinary, so common and so casual in the domestic space we don’t see it until it is specifically called out. And, racial Others are commodities for work and amusement: these figurines are their proxies, naturalizing servitude and exoticism.

But. (Or, maybe I should say “and” instead.) One of the things I love about Weems is her ability to comment on multiple levels. I don’t think the (one-time) ordinariness of racism is the only message here. One of the images that struck me most forcefully was a photograph of two African-American cook figurines placed in the kitchen. American icons figure I want to write aboutSomething about the juxtaposition of these figures with the kitchen implements around them seemed extraordinarily meaningful to me. I love the use of everyday objects for their symbolism. So, let me do the meta thing and say what I think their symbolism is, and why.

First, these figurines are tiny. As you can see from the photograph, they are only slightly taller than the counter molding. Their tininess doesn’t seem like a simple representation of actual size: it seems, given the way they are juxtaposed against the molding, a meaningful element in itself. (The molding almost serves as a way to measure their height vis-à-vis the ordinary kitchen items that surround them.) The extreme miniturization gives them a slightly uncanny quality when they are frozen in a large photograph. A companion photograph shows another cook who is even smaller. american icons, even smaller mammyThe placement of the photographs together gives the impression that these figures—and the racism they symbolize—is static or shrinking. Frozen. Not growing, even if being named (in a sense) through this portrayal.

Then there is that juxtaposition. The first thing that struck me, actually, was the placement of the two figures underneath the common kitchen item known as a whisk. Why did it strike me? After all, it’s commonly used to mix things together (eggs and milk; flour and water; and so on), so it’s in almost every kitchen. However, in my childhood my mother more commonly, colloquially, called it a beater–as in “hand me the egg beater.” This may be a regionalism (egg beaters are more commonly the electronic kind, I think), but I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, 100+ miles away from Carrie Mae Weems’s birthplace of Portland. So if it is a regionalism, it may be one she knows as well.

So the African-American figurines are placed below something whose reference term reminds one of slavery—a beater. Once that leapt into my mind, the other implements—again, very common—seemed designed to make viewers think of the cruel treatment of African-Americans under slavery: the iron (given the context, it made me think of the “branded with red-hot irons” in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom), and other kitchen implements that are about tearing and mangling—the grater, for example. These images seem to work almost in the way poetry does, leading to a chain of associations. In this case, the associations are not about the nuture a kitchen could evoke, but about punishment: beatings and branding. The flesh (of the cantaloupe) cut open.

If the groupings seem poised next to things whose name and function could evoke slavery, they seem, of course, frozen in some time before the Civil Rights Movement. (As indeed they are in a larger sense: the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s rendered the casual domestic placement of such figurines unacceptable.) Why?

I think it’s because they seem to be always underneath a light source that they can’t seem to reach. A light source—the electrical socket—is insistently in the pictures, but not in a way meaningful or accessible to the figurines. It’s only visible, in fact, to the viewer. Particularly in the photograph of the couple, the beater is their closest element, not the light sockets. If we draw out the chain of associations, light (the Civil Rights movement as new dawn, illumination, power) is just out of reach for these characters. One could even extrapolate a harshness: they are unable to plug in to a power that is there, but not within their grasp.

Again, it is a tribute to Weems’s work that this chain of associations can be so evocative. Soon, I’ll post a third observation, about her representations of history generally.


The Case of Philosopher W, Part II: The Feminist Moment

Yesterday, I wrote about W, a philosophy PhD whose tenure-track offer was rescinded when she asked the hiring institution for a number of goodies.  Much of the commentary on W’s case has focused on the perils posed to women by negotiating. (See yesterday’s links to the philosophy graduate student site Philosophy Smoker, which contains run-downs on the media responses.) Many articles about it use Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to lean in and negotiate hard as the journalistic hook. (Women negotiate far less than men–7% versus nearly 60% .) I’m concerned that much of this commentary on W’s situation misses a few points. Let me say why.

W did negotiate. Her statement about why is a poignant testimony to how much feminism has worked in making young women highly aware of the need to proactively ask for more: “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them…I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

Yes, absolutely right. But the lack of reasons in the e-mail leads me to believe perhaps advice to women about negotiating has done, to date, only part of the job. She knew to ask. But she could have used advice on how to ask effectively. I think that educating young women about negotiating sometimes leaves out the “articulate the benefits and be attentive to the [institution’s, other person’s, whatever] needs” portion of the process because (the thinking goes) women need to put themselves first. To think about the other’s needs might lead to people-pleasing and scanting yourself, many women’s pitfalls.

There is a real risk of that, yes. But, real life negotiations aren’t simply expressions of healthy proactive interest either. After all, a request for a reduced teaching load might well have genuine negative repercussions for the department. (The department in question was tiny–a 4-person department split equally between female and male.) It’s an implicit request that another faculty member take the course , or that they ante up for an adjunct, or not have coverage. (I know adjuncts are poorly paid, readers. So I’m not trying to say it’s a big ante. But in a small college, it might make a difference.) I’m sympathetic to W’s situation, but I also can understand the reaction of college faculty and administration who looked at the e-mail and, if they were expecting a full-time colleague whose tenure track began next fall, saw that she was asking for nearly 50% time spent otherwise in the usual 6-year pre-tenure run.

It also wouldn’t have hurt to explicitly state up front that she was opening negotiations and knew they were counter positions that the institution could take, rather than simply sounding as if she was giving a laundry list that would have left them without an instructor for at least a year and a half. That could read to a committee thinking that they wouldn’t have coverage in the very area it’s trying to cover.

There is no harm in educating yourself in being smart in the negotiating process, as one of the better business commentaries points out. The list sans reasons makes me wonder if it doesn’t hide tentativeness, still; to give reasons is more bold than simply to ask. For a young post-student, especially, buttressing one’s own case with reasons might seem a bridge too far. So I think that the how of negotiation needs to be stressed, both as feminist point and student point.

I sometimes worry, too, that the emphasis on gender inequality as a causal explanation leads young women to worry needlessly, as if their gender is an implicit trap. It minimizes the very real progress that has been made in women being able—expected –to negotiate. The recursion of a gender explanation often assumes that women need basic advice they have in fact been receiving for decades now. (The advice to women to negotiate did not start with Sheryl Sandberg—she’s a bit new wine in an old bottle. I’m in midlife, so I have vivid memories of being told in the 1990s and even the 1980s to be assertive. Classes were given in this and everything.)

Perhaps what we need is parsing elements within gender more attentively. Sadly, recent studies show that women who negotiate are perceived much more negatively than men who do. Well, I’ll certainly keep the studies in mind, but because I also know a lot of women who negotiate successfully, so I wonder if the data couldn’t be broken down and parsed in different ways. Is there a difference in negotiation styles that women could learn from? Do men give more reasons, or more fully assume that they will be in an institution that wants their contribution and thus articulate that contribution as a matter of course? I’d love to hear other ideas on this.

In a final gesture of solidarity and education on this issue, I’ll give an example of a recent negotiation I did, and one in a very male world. (I owe my own negotiating stance to feminism; in fact, I could echo W that “this is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it.”) The old car I’d been driving around during graduate school died, and I had to buy another one. This was a big deal to me, as I’m in transition between graduate school, don’t have full time work, and don’t have a lot of money for a car. (I’m not trying to equate a tenure-track offer with a car; I realize it’s big apple and smaller orange, or bigger and smaller potatoes.) Still, a car is a major life purchase.

So, I researched used car prices, read a book (seriously) on buying a car which included a chapter on negotiating, and researched going prices for my old model. I managed to knock a substantial amount off the asking price of the new vehicle by and get more than initially offered for my old one by citing Kelly Blue Book values for similar cars. In each instance, frankly, the prices asked were already reasonable, I just managed to get a better deal. And the people involved did not fall over, or act as if there was anything unusual in my negotiation.

So we know to negotiate. We need our reasons and our evidence.

The Case of Philosopher W, Part I: A Teachable Moment

If you follow academic news at all, you have probably heard the tale of W, the philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, negotiated her offer, and, as a result, saw the offer very quickly rescinded.

I’m going to use this case as a teachable moment in this post, but before I do, let me sketch in the background. Briefly, she asked for a raise beyond the first offer, a reduced teaching load, a sabbatical prior to being granted tenure, a year off to complete a postdoc, and maternity leave. (Non-academic readers scratching their heads at 4/4: it means teaching 4 courses each semester. In small liberal and community colleges, the standard is 4/4; in larger research-oriented institutions, the standard is 3/3, with concomitantly higher demands to publish research.)

Because this event is so unusual (rescinding an offer almost never happens) and so public (W, rightly perceiving its academic interest, posted the e-mails), it created a firestorm of commentary among academic media (Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed). But it also attracted attention from the larger media world, because of the attendant issues. Was the offer withdrawn because W was perceived as an uppity young woman? Are women who negotiate perceived as overreaching or overly aggressive? Is the advice promulgated by books like Lean In setting women up for failure by urging them to always negotiate? Was it part of the power differential in academia generally, where the low number of available tenure track jobs has created a buyer’s market to beat all buyer’s markets? (To quote the wonderful Rebecca Shuman’s summarization of buyer’s market attitudes: “In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: ‘Should I bring my own snorkel?’”) Did it reflect the divisions between larger research institutions (who may have more negotiable goodies) and small colleges? Lack of job market acumen on the part of advisors, who may not advise on how to negotiate? Was it ethical to rescind a job offer to a candidate? Should the institution have counteroffered or discussed the matter with W, rather than simply grabbing it back from the table? (There is so much commentary, in fact, that rather than link to all of it here—my preferred educational method–I’m giving links to Philosophy Smoker, a blog about the philosophy world, which carried the story, posted W’s thoughts about it, rounded up and linked to the commentary, and responded thoughtfully.  (These posts also contain the original e-mail and response, plus a lot of comments from the field.)

However, when I read these original e-mails on Philosophy Smoker recently, what struck me most forcefully was the bare bones, list-y quality of W’s e-mail. The English teacher in me rose much more mightily than the feminist, the grad student, or the job-seeker. (Not that these are entirely separable categories within me, mind you, but you get my drift). Like most English department PhD candidates, I spent a number of years as a writing instructor to college students. The foundational triangle of college writing? Purpose, audience, and genre. Think about your purpose in writing, we urge. Do you want to persuade? Inform? Analyze? Entertain? Think about your audience, we entreat. Appeal to their interests. Their concerns. Find the commonality between your interests and their concerns. Think about your genre, we say. A research paper is very different than a blog post. They require a different voice, different levels of evidence.  So my teachable moment is to point out how much this e-mail could have benefited from focusing on purpose, audience, and genre

To get the bare bones quality across, I quote the e-mail in its entirety:

“As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

It’s just a…list. There is no attempt to contextualize why she wants these things or to explain how a negotiable point might contain potential benefits to her future institution. For many of these points, it seems to me that the articulation of benefits would have been pretty easy to do. For example, would the postdoc completion allow her to have publishable research already in the bag (so to speak) when she arrives on campus? (Which many small colleges would greatly love, despite the emphasis on teaching.) Is the sabbatical request to do further research, ditto? Is the 3-course teaching load so that she can teach the best course ever on ___, which the college currently has no offerings in and which students love to learn about, if only they can benefit from her methods? And so on.

Some of them (the higher salary, the maternity leave) don’t have specific benefits to the audience. But there would also be no harm, folks, in letting them know that salary survey X indicates an assistant professor’s salary is on average Y (so please meet that average) or that guaranteed maternity leave is standard at Z% of institutions (if it is, of course).

A counteroffer (I’m back to genre here), whether delivered by e-mail, letter, or phone call, to be persuasive (purpose), has to take into account the benefits to the audience. The search committee itself has to be persuaded by the research and the justification.

In a sense, a counteroffer is a type of thesis statement. Like many English PhDs, I spent years telling students that each thesis statement has to be supported by reasons, and the reasons, in turn, by evidence (facts, research, examples, case studies, etc., etc.). A thesis analogy might have helped W make her case.

In my next post, I’ll talk about women and negotiations, the other part of this case to particularly interest me.

Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part I

For the past several years, a retrospective of the works of the photographer Carrie Mae Weems has been traveling the country, opening at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, traveling to Portland, Cleveland, Stanford, and ending up in 2014 at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Your Meta-ist recently saw it there.

And what a head-blow-back experience it was.

Some overall context first, gentle readers. Weems is an African-American photographer who has been showing her work since the late 1970s. Her work is sometimes autobiographical—she is frequently her own model, and her family was the subject of an early photographic series represented in the retrospective. One of her most famous set of photographs, The Kitchen Table seriesweems_untitled_woman_playing_solitaire_1024, charts a relationship through love and breakup using herself as a central figure, and she has said that it is an attempt to show “the other of the other”—black women.

Her stated mission is to make African-Americans stand in for the human, rather than being marginalized and relegated to standing for just one cultural group. One of the mind-blowing things about the retrospective is how much she succeeds. Her work is also—more importantly—concerned with the larger realms of culture and history. (And, she generously places much of her artwork for viewing on her web site, which shows entire virtual galleries, including much that was not in the retrospective. So, lucky you, reader! Hasten on over.)

So, I want to focus today on a series from the late 1990s entitled “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” This is a series of reappropriated and recontextualized photographs, anthropological debate(mostly) 19th-century daguerreotypes of black people that Weems has framed, tinted with a wash of red, and superimposed with text. The photographs are bookended with photographs of an African princess, who is the putative speaker of the text. It is she who pronounces the title in the series, opening with “From Here I Saw What Happened”—she is gazing upon the US African diaspora from a stance in Africa, presumably. From there, the viewer walks through a group of photographs that are cultural stereotypes for the most part, reading variously “you became a scientific profile…a negroid type…you become Uncle Tom, John, and Clemens’ Jim” and so on—ending with “And I Cried,” as the princess bemoans the plight of her people.

As we move in time through the photographs, though, the princess’s “voice”—the text—refers to black achievement along with victimization. The photograph of a relief of Civil War soldiers, for example, is superimposed with “restless after the longest winter you marched & marched & marched”; a photograph of the 1960s Civil Rights protests carries the line “In Your Sing Song Prayer You Asked Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” However, achievement is mixed with struggle and a resistance by a dominant culture that does not yield easily, if (according to these photographs) at all.

Except for one. The African princess’s voice falls silent in one photograph, where the superimposition is not text, but music notations, song girlover a picture of a young woman in a starched dress. The net effect is of a wonderful, music-filled silence: it’s almost shocking that suddenly the voice of the text goes missing. A host, literally, of possible interpretations sprang into my mind. First, it seems the first time that the portrayed person is granted an inward subjectivity that is not defined by servitude or the African diaspora. Second, it implies an inward space of art that is not about struggle or pain, but about something beautiful and burgeoning. Third, it brought immediately to mind the chapter headings of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which are characterized by a musical staff and notes along with lyrics of spirituals and, of course, the text of the book (see example below). It’s a beautiful moment of intertextuality, a kind of homage to DuBois and his insistence that music was one of the treasures of black American life—and that African-American-created music Chapter opening of Souls of Black Folkwas as dignified an art form as writing. (Weems was instrumental in the creation of a peony dedicated to DuBois, so let us keep that in mind as we analyze.) Fourth, it marks, I think, the place where the “American” in “African-American” becomes dominant. The young woman portrayed is conversant with Western music; it defines her as much as ancestry.

Of course, darker interpretations come to mind as well. It is the first time a character is unvoiced, which could be interpreted as a photograph about a robbed identity, not a burgeoning one. One could read the photograph as the superimposition of Western culture and attendant false consciousness over the African roots of the people—the silencing of the princess, as it were.

One could, but I don’t. There is such a dignified stance and level gaze in the photograph that I think we are to admire and observe her subjectivity and pass by with silent respect. The point to me is that Weems’s work offers such a multiplicity of reads. So, more to come.

I would love to know what the music is. Any reader having an idea, please e-mail me!