By Lila Hartelius

 

(This piece previously appeared in the Bi Women Quarterly – at BiWomenBoston.org)

 

The space between feeling and utterance is the chasm we try to weave together with the needle of language towing along the thread of thought. Stitch it too snugly and sentiment is snuffed out by careful words. Bind it too loosely and all feeling is lost in a nebula of self-conscious ambiguity and falls prey to a labyrinth of myriad interpretations. Each garment sewn of heart and breath calls for a fitting needle and stitch that will communicate clearly upon first sight the garment’s intended use and hold together lovingly the fabric of its body through lifetimes of wear and changing of hands.

 

The needle of language acts as a net, luring in fish that may help clarify the intended thread – or obscure it. The size and shape of the needle chosen may change the way the thread of thought binds together the fabric of identity articulated. Synching or slackening the stitching for specific contexts can sometimes render the fit of the garment more comfortable to wear, sometimes less so. For viewers, such adjustments can also clarify or obscure its contours. Unfortunately, sometimes the needle and stitch one likes best can produce a garment that to a viewer looks nothing like what the seamstress had in mind.

 

Bisexual or bisexuelle?

As a bilingual woman, I find that the cut of my garment can shift between feminine and unisex depending on which language I use. In English, I am bisexual. In French, I am bisexuelle, never bisexuel. To articulate or hem in the particularities of my gendered experience of bisexuality in English, I have to add the word “woman.” In French, on paper I am automatically a woman and in speech my voice betrays my biology. In the francophone fishnet of my discourse, I can out myself and catch reflections of my own female scales in just one word; yet in this fishnet I am also caught – gender bound.

 

Bisexual & co.

In either language, I am also caught in a different sort of net. Along with a capacity for attraction to more than one gender, the word “bisexual” (and its French equivalent) can lure in some other, less intended fish: “slut,” “non-committal,” “indecisive,” “confused,” “going through a phase,” “greedy,” “at a higher risk for having or contracting AIDS or other STIs,” or the self-proclaimed more “liberal” one, “open-minded.” Apart from the last one, you would think I had just said, “I’m vice-sexual – with a side of disease.” It looks as though when I invited Robin Hood to dinner he thought I meant all his merry men, too.

 

In social waters where such lexical fish swim in abundance, if I come out at all I sometimes prefer to cherry-pick my fish and describe their fins and scales in specific detail so as not to let them be confused with other fish. “I’m attracted to both men and women.” “A woman who was my lover at the time…” “Yes, I do have a boyfriend right now; but I don’t have a girlfriend – thanks for asking.” In these dark waters, long-needle phrases become labels where labels get me the wrong contents.

 

The trouble with bi

For those more versed in the anatomy of queer lingo, a single fin or scale – such as the shorthand “bi” – may suffice to evoke an image of the correct fish. Broad, gestural strokes of the needle, here, will likely be articulate enough for those who are familiar with the shape of the garment. Yet for those potentially less familiar with LGBTQ jargon, a more precise, elaborate stitch – e.g., “bisexual” – may be called for. For such individuals, the statement, “I’m bi,” might arouse befuddled questions – “You’re by what? The sea?” – or invite alternate word endings – “You mean you’re bipolar?”

 

Putting the x back in bi

While I can breathe a sigh of relief in moments where I can escape the embarrassment of saying the word “sex” and know I will still be understood, there is also in these moments a sense of disappointment in not having to utter that taboo combination of sounds. It feels a bit like putting on a raincoat when I want to dance in the rain. There is something affirmative about saying “bisexual.” Biphobia, and fundamentalist Christian repressive attitudes about sex, have wrapped me in swaths of white, sexuality-less purity and invisibility. Sometimes it feels as though the only way to break out of these suffocating layers is to say exactly what they were designed to hide. In using the word “bisexual,” I am saying, “I have a sexuality! I am a sexual being!” Its dispelling power works like magic.

 

Bi by elimination

Imagine walking into a traditional business meeting wearing fishnet stockings and a mid-thigh dress. Unless it is a particular type of business meeting (for which such garb might be perfectly appropriate), the first impression might shock a bit. In a milieu where blurting out, “I’m bisexual,” could leave both others and me feeling awkward, it sometimes helps to start by describing the stitching of my identity in terms of what it is not. This may spark a dialogue in which I can elicit from the listener an understanding of my sexual orientation without having to speak its name myself.

 

“I’m not heterosexual.” “Wait – but I thought you had a boyfriend…?” “I do.” “But, you’re not gay, are you?” “No.” “So…oh – you like both?” “Yep.” While crocheting in high school I often enjoyed having someone guess what I was making. “Will it be a skirt?” “No.” “A shirt?” “Nope.” “Oh – is it a dress?” “Roger that.” Why tell others what they can figure out for themselves?

 

Queering or disappearing?

On the rare occasion that I have used the word “queer” to refer to myself, I have become a little girl disappearing into one of my dad’s enormous, heavy coats; a mime with a plaster-caked face. In my opinion, too much negativity has come to be associated with the term “bisexual.” I do not want the resulting internalized shame in me to coerce me to shy away from that word because I think it might seem “inappropriate” or “disgusting” to a listener.

 

When it comes to coming out, I’m a verbal exhibitionist at heart (even if not always in speech). If I want someone to know that my sexual orientation is not heterosexual, I want them to know exactly what it is (even if I do so by round-about means), want to let them (and me) deal with the embarrassment, and want to clear up any confusion or misunderstanding about what that word means to me. Sometimes it feels like that is the only way for me to heal and dispel the shame and embarrassment I often feel about using the “b” word.

 

The times when I have caved in and used the comparatively less piercing needle of the word “queer” have mostly been in LG(b)TQ circles or around lesbian women whom I think are /really hot yet whom I fear may have negative connotations with the term “bisexual.”

 

***

 

When, in the privacy of my sewing room, I construct the garment of my sexual orientation, drawing the thread of my self-understanding through the patterns of stitches that best fit my sentiments, my favorite needle – or the word closest to my heart – is “bisexual.” Yet in social interactions, this is sometimes the last term I would use (especially if I am speaking or writing in French). Unless I feel comfortable with my listeners hearing it, am not bothered by the possibility of them misunderstanding it, or just want to break through the assumptions they may be holding about me, the easiest approach is sometimes to simply sail the world in label drag.

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By Lila Hartelius

 

(This piece previously appeared in the Bi Women Quarterly – at BiWomenBoston.org)

 

What belongs with children? Balloons, animal crackers, jump ropes … bisexuals?

 

What belongs at school? Notebooks, pencils, teachers … bisexual teachers?

 

What belongs in the definition of bisexual teachers? Pedophiles, creeps, and perverts? Or ordinary people who earnestly want to make a positive difference in young people’s lives and who simply happen to have the capacity to have crushes on members of more than just one gender?

 

In my encounters with scholastic environments in the West, I have often come across what seems to be a phobia about young children hearing the word “sex” or any words that contain it. The name for my sexual orientation happens to include that very word. In the debate about whether to come out at work, I am confronted with the awareness that I may be contending with not only homophobia, and not only biphobia, but also sex phobia.

 

Most of my work-time interactions in schools are with students ages five to ten. Coming out to my students would be out of context and uncalled-for. I am there to help them learn English, not to tell them about my personal life. My interactions with staff and other instructors are brief, time-constrained and focused primarily on the immediate pragmatics of my or their job. Commuting and a full schedule render after-work socializing with colleagues a moot point. These factors leave little room to create any ground from which coming out at work might even seem relevant.

 

Even if I took precious time out of my schedule to get to know some of the staff or instructors, the risk in revealing to them that I “like both guys and girls” is that, even if I express it in a roundabout way, there is a good chance their thoughts will lead them around to that term that has the word “sex” in it. If I worked in an office where all interaction pertaining to my job happened between adults only, I might feel more comfortable coming out to co-workers (and I might even use that scandalous word to do so). My colleagues, however, know that I work with children – indeed, the very same children they endeavor to protect and look out for. Needless to say, I, too, endeavor to protect and look out for those children. Yet misconceptions about bisexuality (e.g. that it is synonymous with pedophilia or sexual perversion) can sometimes unfortunately open the door to co-workers casting a wary eye on a colleague known or suspected to be bisexual.

 

While I am reluctant to risk my co-workers assuming an attitude of mistrust toward me if I were to come out to them, I am driven to ask myself, “Am I O.K. with keeping my personal and professional lives separate?” At times, I think, “I am at this job to do something I do well and love to do. My sexual orientation is none of your business.” Yet behind this self-assured thought I often sense in myself traces of fear, insecurity, and a longing to be accepted by my colleagues for who I am without having to monitor or edit what I say to them. A feeling that I am leading a double life or “waiting in the wings” (for a more accepting workplace, perhaps) plagues me with anxiety and discontent. Hiding is exhausting.

 

Perhaps the stress I feel in keeping my personal and professional lives separate comes partly from the fact that I am still in the process of coming to accept my bisexuality. My longing to be approved of by others may come to feel less painfully urgent as I become more self-affirming.

 

At the same time, feeling that one is accepted in their community is often important to maintaining a sense of personal well-being. Someone who is fearfully hiding aspects of themselves from what may incidentally be one of their primary communities – their work team – may feel anxious or unhappy as a result.

 

Conventional wisdom (a.k.a. “common sense”) counsels against mixing the personal with the professional. However, has it not been discovered in many a workplace that colleagues who feel themselves to be part of a cohesive team do their jobs better? And wouldn’t the element of co-workers getting to know one another be a fundamental part of creating a sense of cohesion among them?

 

True, in many workplaces, sexuality may not be the most relevant topic to broach. Subjects such as dating and relationships, however, do tend to come up from time to time in “water cooler conversations” (or the equivalent, in absence of a water cooler). If while at work a person has no desire to talk about their love life anyhow, then this separation of personal and professional may be a self-empowered choice and pose no problem. If, however, they feel they are deliberately withholding or altering information about themselves for fear of being viewed negatively because of misconceptions about bisexuality, this separation of personal and professional may reflect the person’s sense that they have to pretend, to a degree, to be someone else in order to be accepted at work. This may create an invisible rift between themselves and their colleagues.

 

Rifts tend to be counterproductive to team building and job performance and are generally something to be avoided in the promotion of an effective workplace. On top of that, something in the quality of one’s performance may be lost if one is “hiding in the wings.” Of course, in coming out at work, the invisible rift caused by hiding in fear may simply be replaced by a visible one – that created by confronting hostile or alienating attitudes in one’s colleagues.

 

“Pick your poison” (or “pick your rift,” as the case may be) is the theme of the day for me at this point with regard to coming out to colleagues or staying in the closet at work. The lesser evil currently seems to be that of remaining in hiding, yet it is still a poison. The detrimental effects of this poison reside not so much in the actual act of hiding, however, as in the fear with which it is done. It is this fear which can eat a person alive, or at least hinder them from feeling a sense of belonging and contentment.

 

While coming out to my colleagues is something I would like to feel comfortable doing, the person to whom I feel it is the most important for me to come out while at work is myself. Many schools have felt to me like hyper-heteronormative, sex-shaming environments, where the volume is turned up on unspoken homophobia, biphobia, and sex phobia. Putting on a self-protective, asexual “straitjacket” when I walk into work has become so automatic to me that the detrimental effects these internalized cultural phobias have on my happiness and well-being often slip under my own radar.

 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with actually being straight or asexual. However, any persona one assumes because one is afraid of being oneself can feel pretty claustrophobic. What I do internally in order to assume this persona sometimes even feels like an act of psychological violence against myself. I effectively cut myself off from my own sexuality. It feels like holding my breath. Of course, this does not mean that I feel the need to deliberately express my sexuality at work. It simply means that, whatever I do or do not tell my co-workers about myself, I need to feel that, while at work (or anywhere else, for that matter), I am being honest with myself about who I am.

 

Still, it does get a bit lonely if I am the only one at work with whom I can be honest about the person I am without fearing hostility or alienation. What a sad thing it is to live a life confined to what one’s fear allows. What an unfortunate thing it is that living a life unbound by fear evokes too often the unfounded suspicions of others.

 

My only hope is that as I continue to cultivate self-acceptance with regard to my bisexuality I will either feel more at peace with keeping my personal and professional lives separate or care less how my colleagues respond when I act on a resolution that feeling free and whole is more important to me than being accepted for something I am not.

 

Until then, I’m waiting in the wings.

By Lila Hartelius

 

(This piece previously appeared in the Bi Women Quarterly – at BiWomenBoston.org)

 

“Gender doesn’t matter to me.”

 

Have you heard this phrase before? If you interpret it like I do, you might suppose whoever said it does not feel that gender limits who they could be attracted to, fall in love with or develop intimate relations with. But does this necessarily mean that, while partnered with someone of a given gender, one will never miss sex, romance or intimacy with members of another gender?

 

One person alone can hardly be expected to fulfill another’s every need and desire. The person might be great in bed but a poor conversationalist, or a fantastic cook but a pitiful housekeeper. But whatever the complaint, how often have you heard gender cited as a reason for discontent within one’s relationship – in mainstream, heteronormative society? I am not talking about heterosexual frustrations with one’s partner that might inspire a wishful longing to be gay.

 

Even in LGBT circles, is it taboo to crave sex/romance/intimacy with members of a different gender than one’s partner? Sure, someone might miss or desire a particular individual who is coincidentally a different gender than one’s partner. But is it OK if a want one feels in one’s relationship is explicitly about gender? Does such a sentiment inherently mean one is with the “wrong” gender or that one is losing even temporary interest in the person or gender of their partner?

 

In a society that didn’t worship monogamy as the only proprietary expression of love, respect, and commitment in sexual/romantic/intimate relationships, longing for sex/romance/intimacy with people of a different gender than one’s partner might not be so taboo. It might be easier, in such a context, to act on such feelings without having to breach or painfully negotiate the issue of fidelity in a relationship or leave someone behind entirely. It might be easier to voice such feelings to one’s partner if one were not taught to expect that one’s partner might feel hurt or respond negatively.

 

Writing in regards to individuals who, as she put it, “come close to equally preferring partners of [their] own sex and partners of another gender,” Relationship Coach Dr. Lori Bisbey, including herself among those who fit this profile, stated: “Some of us find monogamy very difficult … since we are not able to get our needs met physically when we’re monogamous.” Perhaps it might also or alternately be getting one’s needs met emotionally that some such individuals find difficult in monogamous relationships.

 

Unfortunately, mainstream society in many countries seems to have a rather disfavorable regard for anyone who does not pick one sole person – and with them one sole gender (preferably the “opposite” one) – to spend the rest of their life with. Even if such societies didn’t have a stake in which gender one chose to have and to hold for “as long as you both shall live” (or at least for as long as you can stand one another), monogamy requires selecting a gender, and with it a side: gay or straight. Choosing either side mandates that one renounce – or at least keep in check – all feelings that fall on the opposing side of the proverbial fence, along with all actions that might be inspired by such feelings – unless, of course, they might be titillating to one’s partner …

 

This monogamous bias also often precludes the ability to imagine non-monosexuality. The comment, “So you’re gay now,” and its counterpart, “So you’re straight now,” implicitly ask the listener to choose a side simply so the speaker can wrap their head around the person’s sexuality. In other words, “Pick a side so I can understand you,” or, perhaps more aptly, “Pick a side so I can pretend to myself – and to my friends and family – that I understand you.” Other approaches are more explicit: “If you had to choose … ”

 

Can you imagine someone displaying this attitude when it came to, say, nutrition? “It’s impossible to like both calcium-rich and iron-rich foods – at least at the same time.” “People who want both iron and calcium are greedy.” “People who want iron and calcium in the same meal are perverts.”

 

It seems natural to recognize that we get different nutritional needs met by different nutrients. Does it seem all that far-fetched to entertain the possibility that some (while perhaps not all) bisexual people might get different sexual/romantic/intimacy needs met by different genders?

 

Imagine for a moment that you have a penchant for cheddar cheese, a food high in calcium and low in iron. Let’s say that, from time to time, you find yourself particularly craving iron-rich foods. Yet all the while, you continue to need calcium and to enjoy eating cheddar cheese. But what if someone found out about your craving?

 

Now imagine, for example, a bisexual woman partnered with a woman. Let’s suppose that, on occasion, she finds herself particularly missing or craving sexual/romantic/intimate relations specifically with men. Yet all the while, she still loves and is attracted to her partner. But what if someone found out about her craving?

 

Why does this question seem so absurd in the first context yet perhaps not in the second? Let’s take the analogy further.

 

Imagine you are particularly fond of beef, which is high in iron and low in calcium. If you were to go long enough without sufficient calcium intake, you might develop a calcium deficiency. In turn, this deficiency, if not treated properly, might contribute to eventual health problems, such as osteoporosis. Increasing your calcium intake might help remedy some such health problems. Doing so through foods you like may make the most sense. If you presently do not like any calcium-rich foods, or if you cannot realistically consume such foods (due to religion, allergies, health considerations, etc.), you might find it helpful to seek out a calcium supplement. Overdoing nutrient supplementation, however, might take a toll on your dietary health. At the very least, acknowledging your deficiency will be more helpful than ignoring or denying it.

 

Now imagine, for instance, a bisexual woman partnered with a man. Let’s suppose that, if she goes long enough without sufficient sexual/romantic/intimate interaction with women, she might develop a gnawing need for such types of interaction with women. In turn, this gnawing need, if not properly attended to, might contribute to eventual health problems, such as anxiety or depression. Increasing such types of interaction with women might help remedy some such health problems. Doing so with women she has sexual/romantic/close feelings for may make the most sense. If she presently does not have such feelings for any specific women, or if she cannot (due to religion, past abuse, relationship agreements, etc.) realistically become involved with women for whom she presently does have such feelings, she might find it helpful to seek out erotic/romantic/intimate images or narratives of women partnered with women. Spending too much time engrossed in such images or narratives, however, might take a toll on her relationship. At the very least, acknowledging her feelings will be more helpful than ignoring or suppressing them.

 

You may feel it goes without saying that a deficiency in calcium eliminates neither your need for iron nor your desire to continue enjoying beef. Similarly, the bisexual woman in the example just above may feel it goes without saying that a need for sexual/romantic/intimate interaction with women eliminates neither her need for sexual/romantic/intimate interaction with men nor her desire and intention to continue her relationship with her partner.

 

Does the comparison seem so absurd?

 

While guidelines exist for calcium and iron intake, sufficient sexual/romantic/intimate contact with members of a given gender is a highly individual matter. And just as iron and calcium are not the only nutrients, the gender(s) with which one feels one needs certain types of interaction may be other than simply “man” or “woman” (as may one’s own gender). (This may not, however, stop attempts to place the person, conceptually, on one side of the fence or the other.)

 

For an individual who feels that sexual/romantic/intimate relations with different genders fulfill distinct personal needs, the mandate of monogamy may be asking of them something akin to demanding one choose between iron and calcium. It may be analogous to requiring that they dedicate the rest of their meals (or at least the rest of their time in a given relationship) to only one nutrient while renouncing the other from their plate ever after (or at least for a relationship’s duration). Wouldn’t that make you depressed?

 

No one deserves to be stigmatized for having or meeting a personal need – nutritional, sexual or otherwise – as long as one meets one’s own needs in a way that respects relationship agreements with one’s partner. And even if one’s longing for sexual/romantic/intimate contact with members of a specific gender is simply a matter of desire rather than of basic need, what’s wrong with a strawberry fanatic craving citrus fruit? Does a citrus fruit craving inherently mean the person is losing interest even temporarily in strawberries or should stop eating berries?

By Lila Hartelius

 

(This piece previously appeared in the Bi Women Quarterly – at BiWomenBoston.org)

 

When I was six years old, my dad sat down with me and walked me through the creation of an age-contingent “life goals” document. “Age 16: Learn to drive . . . Age 18: Become an adult [whatever that means] . . . Age 30: Get married.” Yikes. I just turned 30. As much as I can say to myself, “Scrap that stupid document – my dad was out of his mind imposing that on a six-year-old,” these societal expectations still ring in my ears even when I’m not looking. It is a ring so close and so imperceptible that sometimes even I don’t hear it – not until I turn around and notice how much of it has taken the liberty of setting up house in my psyche.

 

I’ve heard some self-identified bisexual people profess that they don’t envision having any problem being in a life-long monogamous relationship – they don’t feel they would miss being with someone of a different gender. I’m not one of those people. I’ve always felt torn between, on the one hand, a desire to find a life-long partner and, on the other hand, a very clear sense that whichever gender such a partner happened to be, I’d always miss being with individuals of other genders. Polyamory is something I’ve considered – and even dabbled in – but I fear my jealous and clingy heart is too fragile for such a multifaceted relationship dynamic.

 

In the heat of a romantic moment, I sometimes get the notion that marrying the person I happen to be sharing the moment with would be a deeply satisfying thing. But in my everyday-laundry state of mind, I usually feel altogether quite uninterested in the idea of marriage, partly due to its gender-confining partnership nature. This feels strange as I launch out into the uncertain waters of a decade that, according to my culture, is supposed to be defined by holy matrimony and child-rearing. And if the idea of marriage seems at least mildly repulsive to me, the question of children is off the charts.

 

With respect to my decision not to get married and not to have kids, the only name I’ve found to describe what I am (and intend to continue to become) is “spinster” – not the most complimentary of terms. Add to that the fact that I might want to date people of other genders than male, and I start to disappear completely.

 

Being bisexual in high school and college was easy – well, as easy as it could be. It was cool to be something that happened to be “outside the box” or “risqué” – especially when nothing more than support for “coming out” was needed or provided. Being bisexual in my 30s – and a bisexual spinster, no less – is downright effacing. Not in a shaming sense, but in the sense that there is no identity I’ve found for someone of my bent who happens to be in this stage of my life with respect not only to my age bracket but also to the progression of my relationship to my bisexuality.

 

Coming out was easy. There were support groups for that. After that, what was there – a cliff? A sign saying, “We gave you the tools, now go build your own life”? Sorry, the tools you gave me weren’t made for the rough societal waters of my 30s. What’s worse than coming out to people who expect you to rebel because you’re young? Coming out to people who don’t even see you because they don’t have a name for what you are.

 

In my last weeks of being 29, I was terrified of either being swallowed beyond recognition into the conventional death-grip of turning 30 or adopting a new-spangled transparent identity. I frantically scoured my memory for women I’ve known in their 30s who embody the unconventional, passionate boldness I want to finally give myself permission to embody in rebellion against the usual “be responsible” mantra of one’s 30s. Looking over the list of women I came up with, I gasped to realize they were all bisexual.

 

Being this bold, unconventional self, I realized, has a lot to do with embracing my bisexuality. It would be so easy to overlook this aspect of my identity and instead generalize that the unconventionality has to do with embracing the uniqueness of “who I am” (whatever that means). But in a society to which I’ve responded by hiding my bisexuality (in order to avoid naïve comments that are frustrating at best, disheartening at worst), I cannot ignore the role bisexuality plays in my experience of myself. It is essential. It forms a great deal of my sense of myself as someone who has always wanted to be “different,” to “break out of the mold” – someone who feels the most vivacious when she embraces the differentness in her that she relishes.

 

So, at the end of the day, it’s not about making sure I get enough time in bed with people of a variety of genders (although that would be nice). It’s about holding a vision in my mind and heart of the kind of person I want to be in this phase of my life. Rather than fall prey to the conventional identity that could so easily creep up on me, I’m creating my own identity for my 30s – an identity that’s about loving and celebrating the beautiful, blazing incongruence that I know I am and love to be: bisexual, spinster and downright contrary!

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.”

–Richard Bach

Article: “Born Again in a Second Language”

An article by Costica Bradatan about changing languages.

By Lila Hartelius

Benjamin opens his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” with a quote by Madame de Duras: “‘The true is what he can; the false is what he wants’” (Madame de Duras, quoted in Benjamin 19).  This quote may have interesting implications when considered alongside contemporary virtual communication technologies, such as Skype, blogging, and social media.

One notable thing about Skype is that it eliminates or overrides to a certain degree, at least temporarily, the need or desire for reproduction, for the making of a copy, because it is “live.”  It is not “the real thing” (in-person interaction), but it does simulate it, and because one can access it at any time one has access to the internet, one has constant access to a simulation of “the real thing”—a moving, talking, personally responding, real time simulation!

Another unique thing about Skype is the fact that it employs the use of, in essence, a two-way camera.  While in a movie theater or home theater, the viewer is in nothing more than the role of audience, who you are seeing on Skype is also seeing you!  This turns the proverbial camera back on both viewers, forcing them into the mode of performer while also holding them in the role of audience.  In this sense, Skype could be considered as being in some ways analogous not only to the watching of video but also to the creation of it.  Skype, in this way, becomes a kind of creative endeavor, an art form.

While Skype has taken us a step further (toward “the real thing”) from the recorded video and two steps further from the photograph, there are some things it cannot reproduce, perhaps the most significant one being the human sense perception of touch.  One is forced to rely on the visual and auditory senses to establish and create rapport.

This same limitation, however, might also potentially open the door to increased human closeness.  In the same way that email’s or blogging’s lack of visual and auditory interaction might help some to open up by expressing him- or herself through the written word, the restrictions on tactile feedback might help some individuals to feel more comfortable talking about and sharing things or experiences that they might feel more reluctant or self-conscious to talk about or share in person.

Those for whom this distance created by Skype might facilitate a greater level of comfort and candidness in expressing themselves might find themselves coveting this aspect of Skype over what they may perceive to be a comparatively more vulnerable experience: in-person interaction.  The same might be true with regard to blogging and social media.  The amount of time spent by the modern person on such types of virtual correspondence seems notable, especially considering that the idea of in-person interaction being the penultimate form of human interaction seems still to hold a place among contemporary societal values.

Relating de Duras’ quote to what was proposed in the paragraph directly above, I would like to offer the idea that in-person interaction might correlate with “the true,” while virtual correspondence might correlate with “the false.”  Assuming that in-person interaction is easy for a given individual to obtain, one could say that this type of interaction represents what the person “can.”  And assuming that the comfort of distance afforded by virtual modes of communication may be preferable for the person in question, this latter type of interaction might represent what he or she “wants.”

Bringing together this idea with the two polar opposite ideas, dealt with in Benjamin’s essay, of “original” (21) and “reproduction,” (20) or copy, one could argue that in-person interaction is a kind of “original,” while virtual interaction is a type of “copy.”  In his essay, Benjamin makes the point that, despite the “aura” (Benjamin 22) surrounding the regard of the “original,” with the advent and popularization of technological methods of reproducing art, society’s demand for the “copy” has only grown (Benjamin 23).  An original (in-person interaction with “the actual person” and not a simulation of them) may be “the real thing,” but sometimes the real thing might seem too threatening and volatile for one to feel safe pursuing their need for human connection and interaction.  A “copy,” by contrast—such as Skype, blogging, or social media—might allow one, in various ways, semblances of greater control over aspects of the outcome of a given interaction.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, & Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge: HUP, 2008. Print.

By Lila Hartelius

Reflection on a series of prints in the Small Gems: A Winter Group Show exhibition at Crown Point Press

On a wall in the Crown Point Press Gallery hangs a series of 8 prints, arranged and displayed in two horizontal rows from top left to bottom right (Lewitt, Small Etchings/Black & White).  The first of the prints is divided into four equal fields, each filled in with close parallel lines going in one of four directions: (clockwise from top left field) horizontal, vertical, diagonal from top left to bottom right, and diagonal from top right to bottom left.  Each successive print appears to be an increasingly chaotic iteration, or liberal re-tracing, of the lines in the pattern of this first print.

This simple series of 8 successive prints evoke so many different allusions for me as a viewer—mazes and maps reminiscent of prints by James Siena (Suzuki 53); labyrinth; fruit; muscle tissue; DNA; tree rings; whorls of bark or hair; flowing water; distressed patterns of voluptuous, intense humanness; cubism in reverse–yet one idea in particular stands out: that of how an image changes over time through the process of “transfer.”  In this series of prints, the transfer is present in the process through which the original pattern of lines is retraced and, to a greater or lesser degree, altered somehow.  Somewhat like the children’s game “Telephone,” an original gets transferred from one surface to another, over and over again, each time losing a bit of something it had and gaining a bit of something new, until the original may not be recognizable in the final iteration at all, yet its echo may be discernible if one considers it alongside its long-lost descendant.

The progressive alterations from one print to the next in this series seem to speak to a kind of formulaic approach to art-making that repeatedly shows up in Lewitt’s work.  For example, his wall drawings (which were temporary, impermanent works painted directly on entire gallery walls for an exhibit) consisted “of a set of the artist’s instructions, something like a musical score, with the actual execution carried out by someone else” (“Sol Lewitt”).  One particularly interesting example of this is his Wall Drawing #232, which is actually a set of written instructions for the drawing, written from left to right in a square block configuration (Lewitt, Wall Drawing #232; see fig. 1).  It is almost as if the instructions, the formula, are themselves the work of art.

Even with the sometimes dramatic shift in pattern or line density among the series of eight prints, the signature of each print can still be detected in its successor.  This makes me think of memory foam, un-compressing itself after the sleeper has arisen.  It also makes me think of how memory gets imprinted, over time, with each new association that is created to it through new experience; how whenever one expresses a memory it is already changed, even in one’s psyche—the expression of it is the invasion of it.

An article in the New York Times, published the day after Lewitt’s passing, offers a piece of information about the late artist that may present an interesting compliment to the idea of transfer as recognized in this series of 8 prints: “He took an idea as far as he thought it could go, then tried to find a way to proceed, so that he was never satisfied with a particular result but saw each work as a proposition opening onto a fresh question” (Kimmelman).  This inclination of his seems to show up in the way in which each of the eight works in the series is a stop on the journey to the next one, and the next, and the next…

I would like to return to the idea, which I touched on earlier, of cubism in reverse.  Cubist abstraction breaks a complex image down into its basic linear components, focusing on the four directions represented in the first of the 8 prints in Lewitt’s series.  Inversely, each successive print in the series almost, in a sense, complexifies, or diversifies, the simple, rudimentary directionalities of the pattern in the first print, taking advantage of the capacity of the printmaking method of etching to “facilitate the creation of tight grids and dense areas of parallel, looping, or hatched lines” (Suzuki 52).  It is like a morphing, a complexifying abstraction of something that might have resulted from a process of cubist abstraction of a given subject.

In a way, this process could be compared to a kind of organic-izing of order, like a vine growing over a tree or a trellis.  The vine becomes the trellis, in that it takes it over so much that it owns it, so much that it eventually is the trellis, and in that sense the trellis itself in effect becomes—transforms into, morphs into—the vine.

The image of a trellis evokes the idea of structure, something Lewitt seemed to have an affinity for in his work.  More specifically, he seemed interested in “reduc[ing] art to its essentials, ‘… recreat[ing] art … start[ing] from square one,’ … beginning literally with squares and cubes” (Kimmelman).  This can be seen in a piece he created called Wall Grid (3 x 3), which consists of a grid of painted wood forming a complete square of 9 smaller squares (Lewitt, Wall Grid (3 x 3); see fig. 2).  Another example of this can be seen in Four Part Brushstrokes, in which the four congruent fields of parallel lines seen in the first of the series of eight prints are arranged horizontally adjacent to one another, the lines—here broken—rendered in an array of bright colors on a dark background (Lewitt, Four Part Brushstrokes; see fig. 3).  This second example could almost be seen as a further deconstruction: of geometric shape into essentials of line, angle, and direction (which, contrary to the cubism-in-reverse analysis above, is actually reminiscent of the deconstructionist aspect of cubism).  It is with these four fields of lines that we begin our journey through the series of eight prints in question.

Like a trellis, a vine, too, is a structure; and, as can be seen in the series of eight prints, Lewitt’s methodical investigations of structure also encompassed the phenomenon of irregularity.  Another example of this can be seen in his Wall Drawing #132 (Lewitt, Wall Drawing #132; see fig. 4).  The subtitle of this piece reads, “A 36 in. (90 cm) grid covering the wall. All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, straight and not straight lines, systematically.”  Despite this formulaic-sounding description, the drawing itself has an appearance of somewhat chaotic randomness.  It—as well as the series of eight prints—could perhaps be thought of as a study of randomness, a systematic deconstruction of “order”—or what might be easily recognizable as such—into “chaos”—or at least apparent chaos.

It is as though Lewitt was engaged in a process of deconstructing visual form into fundamentals of order, and then deconstructing the tenants of order itself into a kind of self-organized chaos, taking art out of the hands of the individual artist and allowing it to speak for itself, removing art from the realm of the “individual touch” (Kimmelman) so characteristic of Abstract Expressionism (of which he saw the waning at the dawn of his career as an artist) and placing it squarely in the hands of idea (the fulcrum of Conceptualism, a movement which Lewitt helped to establish) (Kimmelman).

A parallel to the idea, as seen in the vine and trellis metaphor, of one thing transforming into another, can be seen in printmaker Ernesto Caivano’s portfolio “Knight Interlude (2005; pls. 52-53)” (Suzuki 53), which “depicts a knight who, over the course of one thousand years, becomes a tree” (53).  The portfolio tracks “the knight’s conversion in twelve progressive states that themselves evidence a process of transformation” (53).  The transformation that happens in the series of prints by Lewitt suggests a similar kind of organic morphing.  What is distinct about them in comparison to Caivano’s portfolio, however, is that the destination of the transformation process does not necessarily seem to be reached by the time the viewer arrives at the final print, nor does it seem clear what, if any, such a destination might be.

This open-ended progression seems to be present elsewhere in Lewitt’s work as well.  Muybridge II is a sculpture which includes a row of frontal photographs of a seated nude woman, each photograph zooming in progressively (Lewitt, Muybridge II; see fig. 5.).  Why the final photograph stops at the degree of zoom at which it does is not necessarily apparent; one could expect the process of magnification to continue.  This sense of incompletion is also present in his sculpture Incomplete Open Cubes, which features a rectangular platform on which varying portions of cubic frame structures are arranged in most but not all of the squares plotted out in a grid on the platform (Lewitt, Incomplete Open Cubes; see fig. 6).  This sculpture might evoke the idea of incomplete structure falling into chaos as a result of its incompletion, an idea that seems to be echoed in the apparent randomness in decision of the form with which to end the viewer’s journey through the series of eight prints.

Despite an apparent nebulousness about where the transformation within this series of prints is going, there is present in the series an inherent documenting, if you will, of the transformation of image—a documenting afforded by the practice of printmaking itself.  This could perhaps be compared to the way in which, “[e]xploiting printmaking’s capacity to document the creative process, Rembrandt printed multiple intermediate impressions as he developed a given composition” (Suzuki 51).

The progressive change of line interplay in Lewitt’s series also reminds me of how a young tree, as it ages, gets more and more gnarled, whorls growing, shifting, tightening, setting in, with the turning of each sun around the wheel of the year.   This might perhaps speak to a deconstructing of order, such as was mentioned above—decomposing the tree into its original components so one can see where it came from … and/or where it might be going.

In contrast, the process of change suggested by the series of prints also makes me think of the idea of a creation of the universe—how so many things, patterns, different variations of one iteration, can come from something so simple—a blueprint with many permutations, many evolutions.  (Lewitt’s work often engaged the factor or idea of variation [Kimmelman]).  Evolution!  It belies an evolution!  Or perhaps a devolution in the eyes of those who see the decomposing of man-made things as a threat to “progress.”  Either way, I find it interesting that—together and in the order in which they are displayed—these eight simple prints can evoke themes of both creation and destruction.  In fact, many of the allusions I named at the start of this reflection—allusions evoked by the series—seem to be related in some way to primal ideas or experiences of life, death, existence, or humanness.

In addition, the very mode by which this series of prints was made—intaglio—speaks both to the idea of creation as well as to that of destruction.  In What is a Print?, Suzuki explains that the term for this mode of printmaking “comes from the Italian verb intagliare, meaning ‘to carve,’” (49).  If one considers the act itself of carving, one might conclude that the act is often synchronous with the creation of one thing or another—such as, perhaps, a wooden spoon.  At the same time, to carve something requires the death of the form from which one carves.  In other words, to create a wooden spoon by way of carving, one must destroy a tree and use the wood from that tree with which to make the spoon.

I find it fascinating how something so simple can evoke so many different things and of such profundity.  Lewitt spoke to this idea: “‘The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable’” (Kimmelman).

What I find interesting as well is that, despite the fragility and impermanence suggested by the shifting from one iteration of the pattern to the next, it is the concept of fragility and impermanence—along with all the other concepts these works evoke—that remains with the viewer.  Said Lewitt: “Objects are perishable. But ideas need not be” (Kimmelman).  Even through the process of transfer, though some formal elements may be lost, what is transmitted to the viewer through the morphing of pattern is inviolable.

Figures

Figure 1. Lewitt, Sol. Wall Drawing #232. 1975. Installation: graphite and crayon; dimensions variable. © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 2000.438. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/27141

Figure 2. Lewitt, Sol. Wall Grid (3 x 3). 1966. Painting: painted wood; 71 in. x 71 in. x 2 in. (180.34 cm x 180.34 cm x 5.08 cm). © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 2011.87. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/139323

Figure 3. Lewitt, Sol. Four Part Brushstrokes. 1994. Drawing: gouache on paper; 60 in. x 240 in. (152.4 cm x 609.6 cm). © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 95.114.A-B. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/15415

Figure 4. Lewitt, Sol. Wall Drawing #132: A 36 in. (90 cm) grid covering the wall. All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, straight and not straight lines, systematically. 1972. Drawing: pencil and crayon; 144 in. x 708 in. (365.76 cm x 1798.32 cm). © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 92.1. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/194

Figure 5. Lewitt, Sol. Muybridge II. 1964. Sculpture: painted wood, photographs, and flashing lights; 9 1/2 in. x 96 in. x 10 1/2 in. (24.13 cm x 243.84 cm x 26.67 cm). © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 2000.437. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/103006

Figure 6. Lewitt, Sol. Incomplete Open Cubes. 1974. Installation: painted wood structures, gelatin silver prints, and drawings on paper; Sculptures: 8 x 8 x 8 in., framed works: 26 x 14 in., base: 12 x 120 x 216 in. © The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 97.516.A-KKKKKKKKKK. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/20228

Works Cited

Kimmelman, Michael. “Sol Lewitt, Master of Conceptualism, Dies at 78.” New York Times. 9 Apr. 2007. Web. 21 Feb 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/arts/design/09lewitt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Lewitt, Sol. Incomplete Open Cubes. 1974. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. SFMOMA. Web. 12 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/20228

—. Muybridge II. 1964. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. SFMOMA. Web. 12 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/103006

—. Small Etchings/Black & White. 1999. Crown Point Press, San Francisco.

—. Wall Drawing #132: A 36 in. (90 cm) grid covering the wall. All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, straight and not straight lines, systematically. 1972. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. SFMOMA. Web. 12 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/194

—. Wall Drawing #232. 1975. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. SFMOMA. Web. 12 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/27141

—. Wall Grid (3 x 3). 1966. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. SFMOMA. Web. 12 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/139323

“Sol Lewitt.” SFMOMA. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. n.d. Web. 13 March 2013. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artists/427

Suzuki, Sarah. What is a Print? New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Print.

By Lila Hartelius

      While considering the impact the advent of “mechanical reproducibility” (Benjamin) has had on the public’s relationship to art, Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (also known as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”), seems to draw on a Marxian critique of the fetishized commodity and apply key ideas therein to introduce a discussion of what he saw as the decline, with and as a direct result of this advent, of an important feature in the way in which art itself is regarded. At the same time, however, Benjamin’s discussion illuminates an insight that is not only distinct from but also directly inverse to a Marxian one. This insight deals with a distinct way in which social complacency (or, in other words, the willingness—to whatever degree it is either chosen or incidental—to accept the conditions placed upon an individual by the society in which he or she operates) is maintained among the public through the ways in which they relate and respond to the phenomenon of the commodified product in attempts to fulfill certain perceived needs in themselves.

1. A Brief Account of Marx’s Critique of the Fetishized Commodity

A fetishized commodity is an object with a price tag attached to it, where a fantasy, associated with the object and intrinsically bound up with issues of social status, becomes mistaken for the object itself. Marx discusses this idea by articulating what he sees to be not material but “social relations between things” (Marx), arguing that a factor at work in the fetishization of commodities is the phenomenon, which Marx postulates, that “the social character of labour” (Marx), which “stamp[s] products as commodities” (Marx), is mistaken for “an objective character of … products themselves” (Marx). In other words, the value attributed to a given product is seen as being an immanent and “immutable” (Marx) property of that product’s nature, while the socially contextualized forces that contribute to the specific value attributed to a given product and that thereby influence a product’s perceived value go unrecognized and unacknowledged. “Value,” in Marx’s words, “does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” (Marx).

Coupled with this social quality given to the relations between things, Marx claims that when the phenomenon of the fetishized commodity becomes a dominating force in society, it also has an inverse effect of causing people to relate to one another and themselves as commodities. He asserts the concept of “a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx). Pointing out that those who produce commodities encounter one another only when they are exchanging their respective commodities, Marx makes the claim that, to those producers, “the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons” (Marx). He goes on to say that the experience of producers is that “their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them” (Marx).

This fetishization of commodities can only come about, claims Marx, in societies in which the mode of production has risen at least to the level of being one “in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange” (Marx). Delineating this mode of production as the “most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production” (Marx), he compares to ancient and primitive production modes (e.g., those of ancient Asiatic and primitive tribal communities) in which “the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place” (Marx). In other words, the fetishization of commodities can only take place where the commodification of products has become a dominant social force.

A hypothetical experience that serves as a classical metaphor for Marx’s critique of the fetishized commodity is that of looking into a shop window at a collection of items, each of which has a price tag attached to it, where the glass of the shop window both allows you to see through its physical substance and view the items inside the shop and simultaneously stands as a barrier between the objects and yourself. Furthermore—and this is key to an understanding of Marx’s critique—the glass acts as a reflective agent, showing you an image of yourself superimposed onto your view of the items for sale in the store window, taunting you with an image of who—and, more importantly, what (in terms of social status)—you could be if you bought those things behind the glass.

Another key element to the conversation about the fetishized commodity is that when it is a dominating force in a society, it brainwashes people to mistake delayed gratification for gratification itself. This concept can be illustrated in the hypothetical example of an evocative article of clothing seen on display in a store, and the anticipation its image elicits in a viewer/consumer, coming to represent and actually embody, for the viewer/consumer, the gratification to which it alludes. If we return here to the metaphorical shop window, the reflected image of yourself superimposed onto your view of the sale items behind the glass becomes a fantasy, a kind of icon, almost, that becomes more consequential than the items’ use values. In other words, the idea of what one might become in others’ eyes (and, consequentially, in one’s own eyes), with regard to social status, should one come to possess such objects becomes more compelling than the items themselves as objects with functional purposes. Yet the price tag, for many, keeps at least some of these items out of reach, creating a perpetual longing for an elusive fantasy attached to those products, which longing comes to be known as and, ultimately, to replace, gratification itself.

2. How Benjamin’s Discussion of “Aura” is Indebted to Marx’s Critique

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin discussed the impact he believed the advent of mechanized reproduction of art had on people’s conception of, regard for, and relationship with art itself. He felt that the popularization of the reproduced art image effected a “decay” (Benjamin) of a significant element he felt to be historically present in art, which element he termed “aura” (Benjamin). He described this element as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” (Benjamin), arguing that, by contrast, the increasing demand for access to reproduced art images was impelled by “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (Benjamin).

Offering further articulation of what he means by the concept of “aura,” Benjamin compares the idea of the aura of “historical objects” (Benjamin) with that of “natural ones” (Benjamin): “If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (Benjamin).

A Benjaminian concept of aura exists by nature of the fact that an original work of art intrinsically possesses an element of tradition in precisely the way that any reproductions of itself cannot. An original work of art possesses a one-of-a-kind uniqueness, along with a personal history (who created it, who has owned it, where it has been publicly displayed, etc.) made special by the singularity and originality of the work of art, neither of which a reproduction of itself, no matter how graphically accurate, could ever hope to fully and truly embody, simply by nature of the very fact that it is just that: a reproduction, an imitation (Benjamin). The function, therefore, of a reproduction is that, according to Benjamin’s insight, in being able “to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (Benjamin); that is to say, it brings to life, with an increased expediency and accessibility, a certain degree of the experience one might have if one were actually beholding the original object in person.

One could argue that, in effect, Benjamin’s articulation of the idea of a “decay” of aura amounted to an allusion to a kind of commodification of art itself. With a decrease in public interest in beholding original works of art in person (which Benjamin’s view seems to suggest), the replaceability of original works by their reproductions was becoming, according to Benjamin, more acceptable to and demanded by the public (Benjamin). Benjamin’s observation of this replaceability, I propose, is precisely indebted to Marx’s criticism of the fetishized commodity, in that, with the decay, according to Benjamin, of aura in art, reproductions—themselves a commodity (an item whose purpose is to be for sale at a price)—in essence became fetishized, that is, in a sense, mistakenly given the significance that, in a Benjaminian view, should rightly be given (albeit with additional reverence that, sadly, seemed to be fading) to an original work of art, and not to an imitation that serves merely to “reactivate” it. For, in a sense, the fetishization of a commodity enables in a “beholder or listener” (Benjamin) of a commodity, “in his own particular situation” (Benjamin), a reactivation of the (perhaps otherwise distant or elusive) socially contextualized fantasy associated with the commodity beheld.

3. How Benjamin’s Discussion Departs in a Key Way from Marx’s Critique

As has been discussed above, Marx’s criticism of the fetishized commodity has introduced discourse revolving about a critique of the public’s confusing of a longing for gratification—that of a fantasy of apparent social status symbolized by a given sale item—with actual gratification itself. Inversely, Benjamin’s discussion of aura proposes, I would argue, a critique of the public’s replacing the longing for contact with something that possesses innately a quality of being at a distance (something that, in other words, possesses “aura”—and in this particular context an original work of art) with a more immediate (yet, it seems Benjamin might argue, nonetheless more superficial) gratification of such longing (through the more readily accessible viewing or possession of a reproduction of an original work of art). As was mentioned above in reference to Benjamin’s criticism of the decay of aura in art, there was, in his view, an increase in the public’s demand for access to reproductions of original works of art, which was fueled by their wish to “bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (Benjamin). In Benjamin’s words, “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by was of its likeness, its reproduction” (Benjamin).

The emphasis, in public interest, away from direct encounters with original works of art and toward possession of easier and easier access to mechanically reproduced art images in a sense, one could argue, alludes to a kind of entrapment in an illusion of gratification (through viewing or possession of a reproduction), which illusion may function to obscure an underlying, unfulfilled longing for contact with that which is innately at a distance, that which possesses an aura (namely, an original work of art, which possesses its distance by being singular in its uniqueness.

However, even if we accept this argument, the way in which Benjamin’s discussion of aura departs from Marx’s criticism of the fetishized commodity is that, while a Marxian critique addresses the public’s willing (albeit largely naive and unaware) trading of true gratification of human needs and sensibilities for an illusory longing evoked by the fetishization of commodities, Benjamin contends the public’s willingness to trade a kind of worthwhile longing—one that might enrich our experience of life as could beholding a mountain range’s horizon line or the branch of a tree in whose shade you are sitting—for an immediate and shallow gratification obtained by beholding or possessing an imitation of that with which you long to have immediate contact, yet the space between which and yourself, by right of the very nature of that one-of-a-kind thing, you can never fully close.

4. Conclusion

In effect, Benjamin’s analysis of how the advent of mechanical reproducibility has impacted the public’s relationship with art (namely, through the decay of aura) parallels, and, I propose, is indebted to, Marx’s critique of the fetishized commodity in that Benjamin seems to suggest that this impact has brought about not only a commodification of mechanical reproductions of original works of art but also a fetishization of those commodified products through a kind of substitution of those imitations for the effects of their original. At the same time, however, Benjamin’s discussion of aura departs in a key way from Marx’s critique in that a Marxian discourse illuminates a way in which social complacency (even if it is not recognized as such by those complacent) is maintained through a delay of gratification, while Benjamin’s discussion brings to light a way in which social complacency is maintained through an expediency of gratification—which, even if it might, in a Benjaminian view, be somewhat shallow in its substantive content, still functions socially as a real kind of gratification effective enough to hold that title in its respective social context.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Transcribed by Andy Blunden (1998). n.p., 1936. Source: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Proofed and Corrected Feb. 2005. The Point Is to Change It. San Francisco Art Institute. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://thepointistochangeit.blogspot.com/&gt;.

Marx, Karl. “Commodities,” in Capital. Transcribed by Bert Schultz (1993). Html Markup by Brian Baggins & Andy Blunden (1999). Proofed and Corrected by Andy Blunden (2005). Vol. 1. n.p., n.d. The Point Is to Change It. San Francisco Art Institute. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://thepointistochangeit.blogspot.com/&gt;.

Review of an Art Piece in Frontrunners,

An MFA finalists exhibit at the SOMA Arts Gallery,

San Francisco, CA

For “Multidisciplinary Collage” Class, with Carlos Villa

Lila Hartelius

SFAI

Fall 2011

During my visit to the Frontrunners MFA exhibit at the SOMA Arts Gallery on Saturday, September 3rd, 2011, my curiosity and admiration was piqued by many of the submitted works included in the exhibit.  There was, however, one piece that particularly caught my eye.  It gave me a sense of “inversion,” a sense of things as they normally seem, or would be expected to seem, being turned, metaphorically speaking, on their heads.

The piece was no less than a 10’ x 10’ x 26” floating lamppost, made entirely of a shell of masking tape, suspended by helium-filled, red latex balloons tied to its apex, so that it hovered no more than an inch off the ground.

This piece, by Michael Koehle, labeled in the exhibit as Untitled (Floating Lamp-post), evoked for me the idea of being anchored from above.  One would expect a lamp-post to be anchored from below, rooted in concrete or earth; but this lamppost was anchored from above.  As such, it turned the lamppost’s center of gravity on its head and defied gravity.

As I write this review, the thought comes to me that perhaps the artist’s intent in anchoring the lamppost from above was to draw the viewer’s attention to how much we as a human race are looking down or at eye-level most of the time.  Because, in art, as well as in other facets of human life, such as in religion, the direction “up” is often associated with a sense or idea of spirituality, I wonder if the artist of this piece is asking us to question how much and how often we remember the spiritual aspects of everyday life—in other words, how much we recognize the spiritual nature in which even mundane things, like lampposts, are rooted.

I wondered if the artist designed the piece to be just barely off the ground so that one might not immediately notice that the lamppost was not touching the ground.  Certainly, I did not notice that phenomenon right away.  In fact, I even first walked right past the lamppost without noticing it at all.  A few minutes later, when I came to notice its presence, I realized that, in that moment of initially walking past the lamppost, I had had a vague, subconscious awareness of something like a pillar or column in the room, which I was passing on my right.  I realized I had probably thought it was part of the architecture of the room rather than an art piece.  Perhaps it was the artist’s intention for this sort of dynamic to happen, maybe to make the viewer think about and notice other instances in his or her life when he or she walks past things but takes them for granted as part of the “architecture” of a surrounding environment and does not really notice them.

At first, I thought the lamppost was completely free-floating; with glee I imagined the thing drifting ever so slowly around the room with the happenstance currents of air that normally would not be recognized by human senses.  This thought made me wonder if the artist feels like a vagabond, or if the artist wanted to convey to viewers a sense of what it feels like to be a vagabond or to live some of the qualities of vagabondishness.

As I continued to stare at the lamppost, trying to see if I could catch its infinitesimally slow meandering throughout the room, I realized that it seemed to be caught in an eddy of airflow, moving a little bit but not really seeming to go anywhere.  This made me ask, in my mind, the question: does this lamppost float around the room freely or does it get stopped up frequently by airflow eddies?  And when it hesitates, gets caught in an eddy of air, is it stuck or is it stabilized; how would the artist regard those moments?

Looking across the room at the base of the lamppost awhile later, however, I caught a glimpse, under the rim of the base, of what appeared to be a metal chain anchoring the lamppost to the floor.  I was disappointed at this discovery, as this took away, for me, some of the magic of the lamppost.  In addition to the idea of a vagabondish lamppost, I had been intrigued also by the idea of attaching just the right number of balloons filled with just the right amount of helium, no more, no less, as to make the lamppost hover just exactly one inch off the ground.  Perhaps this was indeed what was happening, as the chain appeared to perhaps have a tiny bit of slack in it.  But even still, discovering the lamppost’s anchor to the floor destroyed the magic of the idea of a wandering lamppost in an art gallery where all the other art pieces were localized, fixed in place, as well as the very real way that the lamppost seemed to embody the idea of being anchored from above instead of from below.

As the gallery was about to close, I learned, from the man attending to the closing down of the space, that he had had to anchor the lamppost to the floor because it was drifting about the room.  The drifting had not occurred to me as something that could be perceived as a nuisance, so this man’s experience of it as being such was a surprise to me.

Through all of this, I kept wondering, “Why a lamppost?”  Besides its possible function as a metaphor for mundane things in their rootedness in something spiritual, what was the overarching, underlying reason for the artist to choose a lamppost?  What could this mean socially, culturally, metaphorically, or psychologically?  Or perhaps the artist was just fascinated with lampposts and did not know why.  Whatever the case, I am left with these questions, as well as with the mesmerizing, enchanting memory of the stupendous imaginativeness and mind-boggling, magical, enigmatic phenomenon of…of all things…a floating lamppost.