Janet Bloch. Self Portrait as Shakti, 2004. Acrylic & Mixed Media,  16 x 16 in. © Janet Bloch. Reprinted with permission.

Janet Bloch. Self Portrait as Shakti, 2004. Acrylic & Mixed Media,
16 x 16 in. © Janet Bloch. Reprinted with permission.


Full Disclosure:  I am a feminist.  It never crossed my mind that there might be anything problematic about labeling myself this way since I have openly articulated my interests in gender issues and social, political, and economic equality since my early undergraduate days.  Of course, I knew that researchers had shown women today often reject the term “feminist” (McRobbie 2004; Rowe-Finkbeiner 2004; Levy 2006). However, I somehow had convinced myself that these individuals were just not informed.  I truly believed that if men and women could critically examined the social construction of gender, see the ways in which gendered notions impact their lives, and take the time to critique these forces there could be greater understanding, acceptance, and embracement of feminist politics.

Last fall I found myself working on a project on women’s art.  I met with several female artists whose work examined, questioned, and challenged cultural gender expectations.  What I found utterly shocked me; within the art world, there are a number of female artists that use art as a vehicle to challenge gender inequality but are cautious, hesitant, or dismissive of being labeled as “feminist artists.” I found that many female artists believe that term “feminism” is so deeply connected to a stigmatized social movement that strongly reject the label even while creating feminist art.


Yellow, Red, Blue Oil Painting by Rothko

The economic crisis of 2008 changed the way that many markets operate, their pace, size and reach. However one market that has not slowed is the art market. In November, Sotheby’s enjoyed the most successful night in its storied history, selling almost $375 million worth of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art.[1] Like many markets, the art market is based in word of mouth and on the knowledge and history of previous sales. There is an aura created around an artist and their works based on these prices as well as in relation to supply or, uniqueness of the works of art based around ‘security.’ As Adam Davidson argues, “art isn’t gold, or any other commodity in which units can be evaluated objectively.”[2] Yet, is the way that the art market functions really that different from other markets? What is it about the art market that has allowed it to remain relatively insulated from other markets and experience growth during this downturn?

In order to examine the way the art market functions I want to look at two examples, and in particular to explore how key determining factors (such as uniqueness and ‘security’ of investment) alter the works of art and how they are sold (or not) within the current art market.  I want to firstly focus on the works of Mark Rothko. In 1967, a red Rothko sold to the National Gallery of Berlin for $22,000.[3] Over the last few years, Rothko’s work has sold at auction at extremely high prices. For example in May 2012 Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow sold for nearly $87 million.[4] There are many explanations for Rothko’s increasingly high sales. One is the suggestion that Rothko was born in Russia and that is works are being bought by new wealth in Russia.[5] Another notion is that the large size and blocks of bright colors appeal to people as objects to hang in their homes and, as such, his work is easily recognizable. The high prices of Rothko’s works have fuelled even higher prices in later auctions and have been supported by the inclusion of much of his work in permanent museum collections (Tate Modern, National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art). His works are now deemed ‘safe’ for investment at a moment in time when many investments are not.


On October 30th, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian opened an exhibit featuring the art of gay and lesbian artists entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Among the works featured was a video short by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, whose work commented on the suffering of AIDS patients. Embedded in the video was an 11-second segment showing a small crucifix covered with ants. In late November, incoming House Speaker John Boehner and the Catholic League President William Donohue decried the piece as “hate speech” and a misappropriation of public funds and threatened to decrease federal Smithsonian funding if the video was not removed from the exhibit. The gallery’s president, Martin Sullivan, promptly removed the video, while stating that although the museum did not want to shy away from the controversial, it wanted to focus the discussion on the “strengths” of the exhibit. (The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2010).

Where does removing distracting material and distracting political debates from publically and privately funded exhibits cross the line into censorship?   How should art and politics play together?  Or, are art and politics one, fused together by their very nature?

On one hand, one could argue that the political debate sparked by the video distracted from the larger message of the exhibit. From this viewpoint, the Smithsonian’s decision to remove the video protected the rest of the exhibit from political or religious scrutiny. The religious and political controversy sparked by the video arguably detracted from what the artist was trying to convey about suffering, and removing the artwork from the exhibit insured that the video would not be misconstrued as anti-Christian. From this perspective, the Smithsonian’s decision could be seen as protective of the artist and the artwork from being attacked and misunderstood.

Alternatively, the Smithsonian’s decision could be viewed as outright censorship and as bowing to political and financial pressures that are not only inappropriate, but also unnecessary, as this exhibit was largely funded by private, not public, funds (The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2010). Reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), in which politicized “firemen” burned books for a living, this viewpoint positions the removal of the artwork as a troubling trend in which cultural productions are dictated by political and religious forces. From this perspective, no censorship is good censorship, and the political debate sparked by the exhibit is productive and part of the artistic process. Proponents of this viewpoint would argue that controversy over art is one of the public goods that art provides; a forum for people to debate values and perspectives.

A study by Lambe and Reineke (2009) suggests that public opinion on governmental censorship is mixed. Their work found that three different groups of opinion emerged: those who want government to stay out of censorship debates entirely, those who want the government to actively ensure the free expression of ideas, and those who want the government to censor certain expression in the favor of the greater good. In this case, censorship was justified as being for the greater good of the overall exhibit, but by removing the video, the museum was potentially limiting public discourse on the nature of suffering.

Washington Post coverage of the ant-covered Jesus

Public Attitudes about Government Involvement in Expressive Controversies

subg by NickieWild

What are the limits of free expression in the United States today? Are we still living under what many would consider a theocratic state? Although the “Protestant Ethic” as defined by Weber is often thought of in terms of the realm of work, it includes other moral dimensions. The U.S. has often been mired in controversies about what role religion should play in the formation of law. Abortion, school prayer, displaying religious symbols like the 10 Commandments on government property, and the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are all contentious issues that have been present in the national dialogue for decades now. In fact, there are few openly atheist lawmakers in the U.S., the highest ranking being Rep. Pete Stark of California.

Yet despite all this, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when one hears about women having their children taken away from them for being non-Christian in 21st century America. There have been cases where, in the course of a child custody battle, Wiccan women have had their children removed by superstitious judges. But perhaps no case stands out more than that of Rachel Bevilacqua, who was called a “pervert” in open court and had her child removed for little other than appearing in a skit mocking the pro-Catholic movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Over the course of nearly three years, and after tens of thousands in legal fees, Mrs. Bevilacqua regained custody of her son over an ex-boyfriend who had no job or income, and whose legal representation was paid for by the taxpayers. The main reason custody was awarded to the birth father was because Mrs. Bevilacqua had the unfortunate luck to get a Catholic family court judge who didn’t take too kindly to her satirical artistic pursuits.

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square-eyeObscenity and Censorship by David Bradshaw

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800px-ape_skeletons_bgby theoryforthemasses

A recent book written by philosopher Dennis Dutton draws from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology to explain the biological foundations of creativity.  Dutton attempts to synthesize Darwin’s theory of evolution with culture, suggesting that creative capacities have been passed on from one generation to the next as a mode of survival.  Storytellers, for example, would have been able to work out “what if” scenarios through making up stories, a practice that would keep them from risking their lives by attempting dangerous activities.  According to Dutton, these individuals, along with their attentive listeners, may have had better of odds of survival.

What Dutton and other evolutionary psychologists seem to ignore, however, is the issue of power.  They seem to suggest that “survival of the fittest” implies that some people or groups naturally have more power than others.  This could be the case if all humans were able to reach a state of natural, uninhibited production.  Mechanisms and conduits of power, however, are unequally and often arbitrarily distributed (on the basis of such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ablebodiness, geographic location, etc.).   An “evolutionary” explanation of creativity may therefore be nothing more than a sociological one.

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square-eye3 E. Burnstein and C. Branigan on evolutionary analyses

liveby kiddingthecity

… Is s/he British? Is this person happy? Intelligent? These are some of the strong questions participants were asked to cast their vote about when faced with the anonymous picture of a stranger in latest Christian Nold‘s provocative installation. Over 14,000 people in one month cast their vote in the ‘Community Metrics’ in  Nottingham (UK) and decide ‘live’ who of the volunteers should be deported: a sort of ‘friendly fascism’, a dystopian version of Facebook, a tease out of many reality TV shows.

The installation prompted me to read again (that’s what is good about radical art!) Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas on ethics: for the French philosopher, whose family was wiped out by the Holocaust, ethics begins with the direct encounter with the face of the Other. This action is ethical because, rather than knowing, and hence objectifying the other, by way of static representation, in the face-to-face encounter, ‘The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves in me…the Other signals but does not present themselves’.

This opens a big problem for representation, especially visual, to the extent that the object of representation ‘always falls under the power of thought’. There is a sense in which, by making an image of this overflowing, by reducing the Other to a set of conventions, a-priori categories, and image-repertoire, we might be perpetrating a form of violence, which hence deny the alterity expressed by the face of the Other.

square-eye7 Watch Nottingham ‘Community Metrics’

square-eye7 Read Calhoun’s critique of Online Communities