A Middle Way: Adichie and Heffernan

Last week I had the pleasure of reading two very powerful books. The first, A Bigger Prize by Margaret Heffernan, is about the dangers of too much competition. Balancing sociology with real-life vignettes, Heffernan makes a well-documented argument against the damage we do ourselves, each other and the planet when we experience life as a constant race. The second, the much-lauded novel Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about love and identity. Reading them back to back, I felt the two doing a delicate waltz, their exploration of ideas syncing gracefully. Impelling both, with a gentle rhythm, were underlying themes of loss and redemption.

Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan: Click here to read my analysis of her TED talk.

Heffernan’s book is about organizational structures, its narrative a latitudinal examination of poorly functioning organizations, followed by examples of successful, sustainable ones. That tidal pattern is important: for all the destruction competitiveness wreaks, Heffernan also offers examples of how an integrated focus on cooperation, in big and small institutions, is part of an emerging counterforce, a reversal of profit-over-people thinking that signals hope for our future. With all the attention global warming is receiving, Heffernan’s book is timely because the possibility for change is real. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, for example, is being rejected by Canadians despite all the jobs promised to come with it. Residents in Fort St. James B.C. voted against it in favour of protecting their communities and the environment. Those instances of voting for change, one hopes, are the start of a broader movement toward acknowledging just how interconnected we all are. Heffernan’s book is signatory in that sense: she herself worked collaboratively to fill the book with inspiring examples.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie’s Americanah gives us an outsider’s view of the United States, and later Nigeria, via her young protagonist Ifemelu. The opening lines of the novel, where Ifemelu compares the smells of American cities, establishes her critical distance from her surroundings, emphasizing her observer’s detachment and ironic gaze. This vista allows her to write about being black in America, her anonymous blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, becoming an outlet for her struggles with racism, the victims of it and those non-blacks who struggle just as hard (sometimes to rather comic effect) not to be offensive. Adichie’s conceit of blog entries, written by Ifemelu, allows her to explore the various status levels accorded blacks, skin tone being the barometer by which they are judged. It’s all about competition too, a competition that for people of colour starts the day they are born.

Pecking orders then, preoccupy both Heffernan and Adichie and it’s not surprising that those on the bottom rungs, in both books, suffer most. In one of Heffernan’s chapters, titled “Angry Birds,” what starts off as a literal discussion of the pecking order of hens, by pioneering zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, turns into a discussion of its human equivalent.

A fascinating observational study of high school students mapped their pecking orders to try to identify which of their friends were on top, falling, moving up, in the middle, at the bottom, or cast out. Quite voluntarily, they described their social world as inherently vertical and they could “recognize, differentiate and label their peers in terms of status, prestige and popularity.” From the information they received, the researchers could map the teenagers on the same diagrams, with the same accuracy, as Schjelderup-Ebbe had applied to his chickens. 

The Columbine High School  shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris
The Columbine High School shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris

The anxiety felt by those in closed social systems, like those found in high schools, is worst at either end of the social scale. Those at the bottom are anxious about being cast out and those at the top worry about what they might lose. It’s a pattern played out in many school shootings. Like the Columbine shooters, it’s those at the bottom — social outcasts like the Trenchcoat Mafia — who aim their anger at that perennially favoured group, the high school jocks.

It’s not surprising then that students in the middle of the social scale experience the greatest security. It’s this sense of security and belonging that Ifemelu searches for her first few years in the U.S., and it’s the same search that prompts her to lie to her fellow Nigerians about how long she’s been abroad:

Americanah CoverYears ago, she had been asked a similar question, at a wedding of one of Aunty Uju’s friends, and she had said two years, which was the truth, but the jeer on the Nigerian’s face had taught her that, to earn the prize of being taken seriously among Nigerians in America…she needed more years. Six years, she began to say when it was just three and half. Eight years, when it was five. 

Ifemelu’s desire to be more American comes at the cost of being less herself, a dilemma experienced by all immigrants. So goes her search for identity, a search that becomes a long process of elimination, an ongoing discovery and rejection of what she is not. As an African woman, she is not what her American boyfriends think she is, and as an Nigerian-American, she is no longer what her fellow émigrés imagine either: Ifemelu is loathe to fall into script when another Nigerian woman, working at a hair salon, asks her for romantic help of the sort best left behind in the old country.

The London Shard
The London Shard

But even with her rigorous pursuit of authenticity, Adichie’s heroine occasionally finds herself in competitive channels that distort her intentions. Similarly, it’s the unchecked momentum cultivated by the need for success that distorts much of what passes for progress in the West. That template of behaviour, of one-upping one’s own or others’ successes, can edge an individual, an industry or a discipline onto the debit side of a balance sheet. Heffernan uses the example of architecture to illustrate her point:

The age of austerity…hasn’t produced an aesthetic of austerity; in the West, architects are left feeling quite confused. They learned to compete, but the visual vocabulary of size they created to do so didn’t lead anywhere. In the context of the economic crash, these huge, expensive buildings suddenly look irrelevant and crass, oblivious to the inequality they have come to symbolize. Renzo Piano’s Shard may be the biggest building in western Europe, but it’s hard to see what other role it plays in the London landscape. Once architects proved that they could build very big, very strange shapes, there has been nowhere left to go.  

This is what happens to a discipline when it cannot put the brakes on its own momentum. Oversized buildings may not be the most harmful example of competition gone amok, but they are certainly the most visual. Dubai, the Emerati city in the center of the Gulf Region, has become the darling of architectural hyperbolists, with a city-scape that reflects the postmodern trend of spectacle replacing experience. According to Guy Debord, a French theorist, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” Dubai, Disneyland and Las Vegas are places that compete precisely in this way and on this scale. They typify the vacuousness that Heffernan also writes about, the existential contest that, when it comes to taste, is really a race to the bottom.

Adichie writes about this too. Eager to put her American experience to good use, Ifemelu returns to Lagos and comes up against forms of classism that mirror the racism she experienced abroad. Although it’s clear that Nigeria is progressing, the cost of this progress is a subtle form of social corruption. In a conversation about Lagos restaurants, she thinks:

the bigger prizeThis was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had: a “they have the kinds of things we can eat” kind of person…Fred was talking about Nollywood, speaking a little too loudly. “Nollywood is really public theater, and if you understand it like that, then it is more tolerable. It’s for public consumption, even mass participation, not the kind of individual experience that film is”…they were not supposed to watch Nollywood, people like them, and if they did, then only as amusing anthropology. 

What’s not amusing for Ifemelu is her job writing features for a women’s magazine called Zoe. She interviews Nigerian society matrons, the kind of women who reflect an insipid aspect of Lagos’ culture, one that is spurred on and supported by economic competitiveness.

A servant or child would let her in, seat her in a living room of leather and marble that brought to mind a clean airport in a wealthy country…all of them…boasted about what they owned and where they or their children had been and what they had done…

So as Ifemelu’s love life heats up, so does her professional restlessness. She eventually leaves the magazine and starts a blog, one that will provide a middle path. Calling it The Small Redemptions of Lagos, the posts “would be in a stark, readable font. An article about health care…a piece about the Nigerpolitan club, a fashion article about clothes women could actually afford.” Ifemelu’s authentic voice is one that forges connections between Nigerian women, not one that draws on their distinctions.

Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe
Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe

Heffernan’s text closes with literal races to economic bottoms: the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,146 workers, the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K., and the institutionalized abuse of animals in America, especially those destined for the slaughterhouse. In all three of these cases, the power-distances — the emotional distances between the powerful and powerless — are vast. Heffernan’s overarching concern, that we are losing the ability to connect with one another, is most compelling in these discussions.

But then both Adichie and Heffernan, in their own ways, are urging us to foster connections and build communities. And both are expert at showing us how we lose authenticity and harm one another when all we do is compete. Their messages are not novel or strange, but are deeply relevant, poignantly rendered and worthy of heeding.

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The Abstractions of Nicke Gorney

Above: Nicke Gorney’s 21st Century Blues No. 5 – 42″ x 42″  oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar @ Galerie D, Montreal.

As a student in Toronto, I had a disconcerting conversation with a group of healthcare workers. I worked as a temp in the office of an oncology ward and the staff, mostly women, were complaining about the cost of a sculpture. It was an abstract, newly purchased by the city to grace a public square. The commission for it ran into the millions and frontline healthcare workers – nurses, receptionists and doctors – thought the amount obscene. It could be, they argued, better spent on upgrading city hospitals.

Things We Want To Forget But Can't Remember -- 36" x 24" oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on frosted archival mylar
Things We Want To Forget But Can’t Remember — 36″ x 24″ oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on frosted archival mylar

The arguments for and against art are alive again, largely due to reproductive mechanisms provided by the internet. Why pay for a work of art when an upload of its image does the trick? This is sacrilege to artists, of course, as much as it is to anyone who can appreciate the value of experiencing art on a visceral level. But in a country seeing an upsurge of fiscal misconduct on one hand, and arbitrary budget cuts on the other, how can we justify expenditures on art? What exactly can it do for us?

Nicke Gorney is a Montreal artist who has spent most of the last 30 years living and working in New York City. Her work is part of a show, Montreal Inspired, that opened at Galerie D last week. 

Gorney’s paintings are abstract, lush and challenging. They ask us to take another look at the world and to do so through the artist’s investigations of colour.

Generally speaking, abstract art does not have a goal. According Josee Bélisle, curator at Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art,

Abstraction is often defined in terms of what it is not: the absence of figurations, the intention not to refer to the real world, a lack of specific guidelines for interpretation, the elimination of all anecdotal content.

Despite these absences, abstraction is still a powerful art form: it brings us to a higher awareness of our responses to all things visual; it makes us think about thinking and it does so through our eyes.

It can also make us think about being. The tundra, in far north and southern hemispheres, has been described as a forest in miniature. That is, as our boots settle into the earth, we put our full weight down on a forest, albeit a forest not of towering redwoods or oaks or maples. That mossy greenery an inch off the ground is the tundra’s forest, one shaped, defined and supported by a climate that is by turns harsh and enticing. We are the giant interlopers in that world and that’s because it’s a world that challenges our conventional ideas of scale. Were we to replicate that spatial relationship in a city, we would become that B-movie standby, 50 foot women (or men).

 Divine Line No.1 - 17" x 22" oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on frosted archival mylar
Divine Line No.1 – 17″ x 22″ oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on frosted archival mylar

Gorney’s paintings, with her layerings of oil, gouache and acrylic, bring to mind that interplay of scale. It’s a process that invites close inspection, an inspection that causes us to wonder, also, why her colour palette stirs us and why her patterns of horizontal and vertical lines, rendered in deep and lightly textured brushstrokes, emerge so naturally.

Do these colours and patterns speak to a deeper shared reality? Do we really, as many pop theorists like to say, have hive minds that fall back on default patterns, thoughts and beliefs about reality? It’s a question raised by Gorney, albeit one I suspect emerges indirectly and in analog, just as visual memories often do.

It’s art like Gorney’s — art without echoes of configured reality — that puts our usual way of seeing on pause. Through her abstractions she brings our perception back to the level of pure colour. These are paintings that slow us down, stop us from seeing the world in blur, if only momentarily, and remind us of the primal importance and pleasure of perceiving.

Why is this relevant today? Those healthcare workers may not realize it, but it’s the speed at which we live that often shapes our thoughts. It’s our response to reality that creates our moods: our angers, our joys and our beliefs. A nurse’s practicality may seem reasonable, but what are its limitations? More importantly, have those limitations led us to create government and civic institutions that are now desperately in need?

Demographers and economists suggest it’s our graying population that’s putting pressure on services. This pits the young against the old and creates the kind of dissension that benefits those in power, both in governments and corporations. What art can do for us is simple: it brings us back to ourselves — it can help us see those damaging patterns.

And these moments of reflection are necessary: we throw off our fraying selves and stand in front of a canvas, asking: what do I feel? It’s this position of mental repose that can awaken or restore us.

It’s also a place of clarity where, in a perfect world, we might retreat to make our decisions — decisions for ourselves, our government and our planet.

Nicke’s work is part of the show Montreal Inspired which is on at Galerie D until November 1st. Galerie D is at 1200 Amherst, Montreal H2L 3K8. For more information see www.nickegorney.com

21st Century Blues No. 3 - 18" x 14.5"  oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on paper
21st Century Blues No. 3 – 18″ x 14.5″ oil, gouache, acrylic, OilBar on paper


Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked in the airline industry, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Canada’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, led by Ed Broadbent.

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Show Me the Money: Amanda Palmer and Dale Chihuly

Amanda Palmer, a singer-songwriter, and Dale Chihuly, a master glassblower, are two successful artists who have been the targets of criticism: Palmer for not wanting to pay back-up musicians and Chihuly for over-producing his work. In this article I discuss the controversies dogging them. (Length: 1777 words)

On August 21st, 2012, Amanda Palmer made a lot of people angry. She posted an ad on her blog looking for local musicians to play with her band while they toured. She wanted them to work for free:

Wanted: Horn-y and String-y Volunteers for the Grand Theft Orchestra Tour…We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.

Amanda Palmer, for those of you who don’t know her, is a singer-songwriter who forms one half of punk-cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls. The act is Berlinesque, with the requisite Sturm und Drang expressed via chiaroscuro make-up and perverse lyrics. Their music is not for everyone, as Palmer herself has said: the Dolls explore our darker natures, modelling performances on the more depraved aspects of Teutonic life.

The Dresden Dolls
The Dresden Dolls

Palmer has been on my mind lately because of another controversial artist. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a show by American glass artist Dale Chihuly and even a cursory search on the internet reveals he is a frequent target of art critics. It’s his populist appeal that’s the problem, a problem that can be explained, in part, by the non-challenging quality of his work. It’s pretty rather than thought-provoking, but Quebecers don’t always distinguish decorative from avant garde art, so he’s getting a warm reception here. It’s a fitting response – challenging or not, his work is certainly a pleasure to behold.

The common link between Palmer and Chihuly is money. Both have become wealthy from their art and that has triggered some resistance from critics and fellow artists. It seems that what artists do with their money affects how they are received once they enter that exalted state of artistic success. It’s a treacherous path, as I suspect both Palmer and Chihuly have discovered.

The problem for Palmer was the internet. She’d split from her record label and, reading the landscape of social media correctly, she made a bold move. Instead of selling her music, she published it online for free, encouraging its dissemination in any way possible. Instead of forcing fans to pay, she asked them to contribute. Her strategy worked.

A Kickstarter campaign she launched brought in over $1.2 million when all she was asking for was $100,000. She became an internet phenomenon and was asked by TED organizers to give a talk at their 2013 Long Beach event. In a display of solipsism that got music insiders riled, Palmer stepped onto the TED stage and made her plan sound simple. In truth, it was anything but.

(To see my other articles about problematic TED talks click here  and  here.)

Writing in The New Yorker, Joshua Clover notes that Palmer’s actions create “a set of problems about art and work in an age when the mechanisms for valuing them have broken down.” The internet is making our lives easier, but it’s also changing our ideas about value and ownership, particularly when it comes to intellectual property. Palmer’s defiance — she says she “fought her way” off her record label — adds one layer of romance to her TED talk; her successful use of crowdsourcing adds another.

But Clover’s observations about art go deeper. Musicians were angry because of the romancing of Palmer’s methods — of receiving money and asking for unpaid help. She is another musician taking advantage after all, which makes the situation even worse. However, in a manner requiring some sleight-of-hand, she tried to make herself sound the victim. The end result? Hearing how she bested an unsupportive record label should have felt right, but strangely her talk didn’t have that effect. Instead of appreciating how she succeeded without corporate support, I wondered if she understood her audience was made up of wealthy individuals, many of whom run corporations. But then, I think she probably did. Her Doc Martins and painted eyebrows aside, the narrative she spun was pure Disney, complete with an evil stepmother (her record label) and evil stepsisters (her fellow musicians). I only wondered why she, like a fairytale princess, was telling her story to an audience of wolves.

A Kinkade print
A Kinkade print

When it comes to Dale Chihuly, I had initially set out to write a review of his exhibit at the MMFA. However, when I did a bit of research, I found a substantial body of criticism, some of which mocked his success and pointed out the repetitiveness of his work. I suspect it’s his medium of glass which is partially to blame. While he does wondrous things with it — his chandeliers alone are worth seeing — I did get a sense of repetition in the forms he’s created. One critic likened Chihuly to Thomas Kinkade, the painter whose cloying paintings became staples in bespoke retail outlets, outlets no self-respecting critic would enter without a blindfold. I thought it was an interesting, if savage, observation, and set out to find out more about Chihuly’s work. The comparison to Kinkade, I realized, was really a statement about Chihuly’s own tendency to produce work in bulk.

The question of mass production (and reproduction) of artistic works led me back to an essay I’d read in university, Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin’s focus is primarily on film, but he also touches on how reproduction affects other forms of art. Written in 1935, it’s a text that continues to inspire imitation and controversy. One idea of Benjamin’s seems apt here, particularly when it comes to Chihuly:

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin

That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art…by making many reproductions [the process of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. 

This might sound like a simple set of ideas, but what is significant, for the purposes of this discussion, are Benjamin’s ideas about aura and the space “beyond the realm of art.”

In a spin-off essay, “Artwork in the Age of Electronic Mutability,” Krzysztof Ziarek takes the idea of reproduction and its implications further, arguing that:

…this de-aestheticization does not simply mean stripping art of the ‘patina’ of the beautiful but involves more revolutionary disinvestment of art from aesthetics, that is divorced from the very idea that art is constituted primarily as an aesthetic object of experience.

Ziarek describes the point at which an avant garde object of art loses its aura of originality and becomes mere decoration. He uses the term “disinvestment” because digital technology, which gives everyone the power to reproduce things, can diminish art’s novelty and power even more than, say, a printing press. In Benjamin’s terms, an art object reproduced in the aggregate enters a realm beyond art and becomes something less meaningful. Ziarek brings Benjamin’s theory into the digital age, prompting questions like “If I have Monet’s lily pads on my iPhone, will the aura of his original paintings still move me?”

Krsysztof Ziarek
Krsysztof Ziarek

The difficulties experienced by Palmer and Chihuly boil down to one word: authenticity. In Chihuly’s case, it’s the authenticity of his works, which, while visually stunning, are ubiquitous and follow a limited set of templates; for Palmer, the question of authenticity concerns her personal conduct, conduct that is challenging, but in ways not related to her artistry. If good art is meant to provoke thought, then what are we to make of these two? Is it fair to compare them on the basis of how they do their work?

Ziarek comments further on the relationship between art and technology, observing the extent to which technology, with its reproductive functions, has in some ways subsumed and displaced art:

With intensifying social and cultural changes in view, it seems almost inevitable that art would continue to lose its social and cultural status and find itself even further marginalized in relation to techno-scientific, consumer-oriented, and entertainment-driven society…

Has art died or have reliable frames of reference for it simply vanished? One answer is that the privileging of technology over art has created an imbalance that sees corporate interests capturing myriad sources of creativity. Schools, universities, museums and art galleries are increasingly funded by a cadre of ultra-wealthy patrons, patrons who have little interest in cultivating art that challenges the status quo. It’s a state of affairs directly linked to privatization and deregulation, the same economic forces that have destabilized the U.S. Artists are part of a new class emerging from that rubble, an educated and under-employed class known as the precariat. This makes them proverbial canaries in a coal mine — artists and those associated with them are usually the first to suffer from economic downturns.

One of Chihuly's glass shells
One of Chihuly’s glass shells

I think this is the real reason so many musicians responded badly to Palmer’s behaviour. She used her moment on stage to trounce them, which was bad enough, but then she geo-locates them firmly outside the camp she shares with her techie friends. She’s in a cozy environment, but since many artists see themselves as challengers to groups that dominate society and, in turn, culture, her alliance with them, from their point of view, raises doubts about her authenticity. I’m sure that to some she’s like a punk rocker who’s only a punk rocker on the weekends.

Dale Chihuly, by contrast, is difficult to place when it comes to the American arts scene. Although he has his supporters — Jeff Koons and David Hockney among them — his prodigious output and willingness to promote himself has won him a host of critics. However, his workaholism is based on need. His struggles with bi-polar disorder are well-known and he admits it’s his work that sustains him. Where he differs from Palmer is in how he spends his time and money. Chihuly is known for cultivating the talent of young glassblowers and also for making large donations of the quiet sort to hospitals, museums and arts groups. Another happy by-product of all his work is that Washington state, where he is based, has the largest population of glassblowers in the U.S. It’s become a haven for artists like him, a fact that points to his generosity despite his discretion.

Is it fair to judge Palmer and Chihuly on the basis of their ethics? Of their behaviour? Is comparing a musician to a glassblower just? It’s hard to be sure, but the question of authenticity, in all its variations, seems appropriate here.

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