Weekend

Required Reading

This week, Kehinde Wiley creates dignified portraits of Tahiti’s Māhū community, how Sackler became the most toxic name in philanthropy, real-life Bambi, and more.

Kehinde Wiley’s new Tahiti series takes on Paul Gauguin directly, challenging the French Postimpressionist’s exoticism and misogyny with proud portraits of Tahiti’s Māhū community, a group of Polynesians classified as a third gender between male and female. See more paintings on Colossal (via Colossal)

Orientalism, in Said’s description, is a discourse of the powerful about the powerless, an expression of “power-knowledge” that is at the same time an expression of narcissism. The syndrome is very much in evidence today. Orientalism is a foreign ambassador in an Arab city belittling popular concern about Palestine and depicting Arabs as a docile mass who only woke up in 2011, during the Arab revolts, and then reverted to being a disappointment to a benevolent West that merely seeks to be a good tutor. It is a Western “expert” reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated, then telling an Arab critic of the Westerner’s work that he is being emotional for objecting to a presentation purely based on scientific data, and finally flying into a rage at being misunderstood by this stubborn Oriental.

So, Orientalism is still with us, a part of the West’s political unconscious. It can be expressed in a variety of ways: sometimes as an explicit bias, sometimes as a subtle inflection, like the tone color in a piece of music; sometimes erupting in the heat of argument, like the revenge of the repressed. But the Orientalism of today, both in its sensibility and in its manner of production, is not quite the same as the Orientalism Said discussed forty years ago.

Orientalism, after all, was very much a product of the Vietnam era, when America’s “best and the brightest” had led the country into an intractable quagmire in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A new generation of Ivy League-educated experts, as Said saw it, were legitimizing America’s deepening confrontation with the Arab world, especially over the question of Palestine. Orientalism is, at its core, a critique of the expert, the producer of knowledge about the Arab-Islamic world, from Flaubert and Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes. The cast—and quality—of characters changes; their aim, however, remains pretty consistent.

Not all of them will be pleased by the way that new research rewrites old understandings. In traditional historiography and common lore, southern Arabia is believed to be the primeval homeland of the Arabs and the source of the purest Arabic. In this telling, Arabic was born deep in the peninsula and spread with the Islamic conquests; as it made contact with other languages, it gradually devolved into the many Arabic dialects spoken today. Classical Arabic remains the preëminent symbol of a unified Arab culture, and the ultimate marker of eloquence and learning. To Al-Jallad, the Safaitic inscriptions indicate that various ancient forms of Arabic were present many centuries before the rise of classical Arabic, in places such as Syria and Jordan. He argues that the language may have originated there and then migrated south—suggesting that the “corrupt” forms of Arabic spoken around the region may, in fact, have lineages older than classical Arabic. Macdonald told me, “His theory will inevitably meet a lot of opposition, mainly for non-academic reasons. But it’s becoming more and more convincing.”

This is a problem for a very particular class of people: You have a lot of money, or a piece of artwork, or a patch of earth. The source of this money/artwork/earth is from a generation older than you, or it’s your generation but you married into it—you’re a beneficiary—and there’s a problem with the source. They were Nazis, for example. Or slaveowners. Or, in this case, made highly addictive opioids, and allegedly marketed them as safe. You weren’t a part of this, but now, like it or not, it seems you are. What, exactly, are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to act? How much of your life must you devote to apologizing, justifying, defending?

What happened to Kirstein’s political passions of the 1930s isn’t quite clear. Perhaps the onset of war put a new perspective on things. But his equal affection for leftist social realism—in North or South America—and an ostensibly more apolitical magic realism should make one question Greenberg’s insistence that the latter had to be not just artistically but also politically reactionary, favoring “sentiment, pleasure, and certainties” over “convictions, activity, politics, adventure.” “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” suggests that Greenberg’s dichotomy—though it is not only his, since many critics have used similar terms ever since to brand what they reject on aesthetic grounds as, worse yet, politically indefensible—was too rigid. Kirstein had convictions aplenty, and if anything was too self-assured in what Igor Stravinsky called his “bellicose dedication to the beautiful and a contempt for the sham” (the sham as he saw it, of course). The architect Philip Johnson once observed that Kirstein “was so very, very violent in his feelings,” and that this was “his charm as well as his difficulty.” Ironically, in this, Kirstein had much in common with Greenberg.

We tend to lionize artistic and cultural institutions, but the history of museums especially has been twinned with the display of wealth. It was the French Revolution, the rise of democracy, secularism, and the professionalization of art history as an academic discipline that brought the advent of the public art museum, moving art away from religious and monarchic spaces. This shift was sustained by colonial expansion and capital accumulation in the colonies: that is to say, the pilfer of non-European territories. In other words, art is not and has never been pure, but the contemporary charade of social justice has attached a violent bewilderment to art-showing.

  • Artist Camille Billops abandoned her four-year-old to become the artist she knew she was meant to be. This is the story, as written by Sasha Bonét:

Jim respected Camille’s decision to give up Christa. But he also suspected that Camille was leaving the child for a life he could not promise her; he was still married to someone else, after all. (“Don’t give Christa up for me,” he told her.) A few months after Camille abandoned Christa at the Children’s Home, Jim was offered a Fulbright appointment to teach at the High Cinema Institute in Cairo, Egypt—one of the centers of the 1960s Pan-African movement, in which young American artists and activists like Maya Angelou and Malcolm X developed stronger ties with African nations. He invited Camille to visit before his wife and kids arrived, and she went without hesitation. Before heading back to the United States, Camille told Jim she would not return to visit him unless he left his wife and children; he did. “We chose each other and entered into another life,” she tells me. “That’s when the world opened.”

After joining Jim in Cairo in 1962, this time for good, Camille began experimenting with sculpture; her first exhibition at Gallerie Akhenaton, in Cairo, comprised a small collection of ceramic pots and sculptures modeled on those close to her—especially Jim, who would become her muse. Camille had a voracious appetite for exploring any medium she could get her hands on: photography, painting, printmaking, and eventually filmmaking. She spent many years creating and showing her work in Egypt, Germany, and China before returning to the US with Jim, only to find her own country less than welcoming to black women artists.

The biggest problem with the logo will be its implementation as it’s an odd composition that requires a lot of real estate, especially vertically, to work. The photo style (and the logo colors) hint at a decent color palette that is not the typical colorful approach. Once this gets fully rolled out there might be a benefit to doing a follow-up — we’ll see.

  • There’s something called “botanical sexism” and it might be the reason your allergies are so bad:

Male trees are one of the most significant reasons why allergies have gotten so badfor citydwellers in recent decades. They’re indiscriminate, spewing their gametes in every direction. They can’t help it—it’s what evolution built them for. This is fine in the wild, where female trees trap pollen to fertilize their seeds. But urban forestry is dominated by male trees, so cities are coated in their pollen. Tom Ogren, horticulturalist and author of Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping, was the first to link exacerbated allergies with urban planting policy, which he calls “botanical sexism.”

“Trump Approval Edges Down to 42%,” read the headline from a May 17 Gallup review of its latest polling on the president’s appeal.

Three days later, Gallup reported that “43% of Americans say socialism would be a good thing for the country.”

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

Now more and more Christians in the region were deciding to leave. The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years transformed from a steady downward slope into a cliff. The numbers in Iraq are especially stark: Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain—an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.

Some of the residents of Karamles view ISIS as an extreme expression of a hostility that predated the terror group’s rise, and remains after its defeat. In Iraq, discrimination is written directly into the constitution. Drafted two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the document declares Islam the country’s official religion and forbids any law that “contradicts the established provisions of Islam.” This shapes life in mundane yet meaningful ways. ID cards designate citizens as Muslim, Christian, Mandaean, Yazidi. Non-Muslim men cannot marry Muslim women. Children of mixed parentage are automatically classified as Muslims if one of their parents is Muslim, even if they are born of rape. For many Christians living in northern Iraq, discrimination is a part of life: Many non-Christians won’t hire Christians at their businesses. Families closely monitor their daughters out of fear that they’ll be targeted for sexual violence.

Q: Where did the model minority myth come from? What is the harm in describing Asian Americans as smart and quiet and good at math?

A: Asian Americans have long been portrayed as the model minority since William Petersen’s 1966 New York Times Magazine article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” and a myriad of subsequent studies of Asian socioeconomic attainment that crystallize this image.

Recent research, however, has been critical of such “acclaims” of Asian Americans as the model minority, contending that the socioeconomic success of Asian Americans has been exaggerated. For ‘substantive’ measures of success, including median individual income, wage returns to education and representation at the managerial level, Asians actually fare worse than whites.

The model minority image also conceals the fact that the poverty rate among Asian Americans is higher than that of whites. Additionally, the success stories of selected Asian groups are often not a result of individual efforts rewarded by a fair system, but rather a “success” of the American immigration policies that have targeted highly skilled professionals since the 1960s.

The model minority image also obscures the racial subordination of Asian Americans. Despite the group’s perceived socioeconomic success, the typical Asian is also often viewed as an outsider or a perpetual foreigner. Studies in history, sociology and psychology have provided strong evidence that almost all segments of the Asian American population, including first and later generations, youth and elderly, English and native-language only speakers and across most ethnic groups, suffer from this stereotypical image.

— Jun Xu, professor of sociology at Ball State University, and Jennifer C. Lee, associate professor at Indiana University, in “The Marginalized ‘Model’ Minority: An Empirical Examination of the Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning ET, and is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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