Weekend

Required Reading

This week, art’s role in the creation of Asian American identity, the best and worst of graphic identities in 2019, gentrification and how it dehumanizes us, directory of culturally specific US museums created by people of color, and more.

Taku Inoue makes curious sculptures based on the cartoon high-jinks of Tom and Jerry. They’re pretty great and you can see a lot more on Colossal. (via Colossal)

Chin and Ching weren’t the first people to debate the merits of Asian-American assimilation, though Chin might have been the first to put this debate in such colorful terms. He felt that many Chinese-American writers were interested in being “prizewinning poodles” answering the beck and call of “the master race.” What’s more, he thought the literature that Bridge occasionally published was “shit.” “If the purpose of BRIDGE is to bind me to the immigrants,” Chin wrote, “I’m not interested in being bound.”

Chin felt bound, instead, to other writers who were eager to explore this new identity. One of his early advocates was the black writer Ishmael Reed. Chin had befriended Jeffery Paul Chan and Shawn Wong, and, in 1970, the three met Lawson Fusao Inada at a party that Reed hosted. Chan and Wong wrote fiction; Inada was a poet. Alongside their own writing, they dug for older works, scouring libraries and used-book stores for predecessors. They felt as though American culture had wrecked their brains, leaving many of their peers awash in self-contempt. In the process of excavation and creation, they were testing out their own theories of what this new identity could mean. Reed called them the Four Horsemen of Asian-American literature. Chin, Chan, Inada, and Wong founded the Combined Asian American Resources Project in order to preserve the literary history that they were piecing together. They soon felt that they had found as much as anyone had.

I weep for my city; it is committing urban suicide. I am a daughter of Gotham, born and bred. My lifelong interest in the vitality of the city included a thirty-year friendship with famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, with whom I, and a small group of activists, founded the Center for the Living City to build on her legacy. My knowledge, writing, and activism also put me on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for seven years.

This is a New York story only for now. Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country. When it comes to real estate, New York City may lead the way, but others follow in time.

Fame is a condition of being widely seen, while also not being seen in particular, human terms. It is a nonreciprocal transaction of interest or attention, on unequal terms of exchange. Bateman writes about what happens to celebrities, constantly exposed to people who keep asking them about themselves to keep them talking one-sidedly, so as to prolong the interaction: “The celebrity, the famous person, gets used to this. They get used to it and come to expect it … and you then stop asking anyone else about themselves. You just forget. It’s not part of the exchange anymore.” Bateman writes: “And you get used to this performance to such an extent that you forget to behave any other way.”

Now anyone with a smartphone has access to something like this, without needing to audition and be cast in a sitcom that reaches tens of millions of people each week. Everyone is on view. Did we volunteer for it? Yes, but also not really. I present my work in public, but I can count on one hand how many times a stranger has told me they’ve recognized me, anywhere outside a professional context. Possibly two hands. On the rare occasions it happens, it’s so uncomfortable I quickly put it out of my mind. The point is I’m not famous.

Hollywood often works hard to convince us that older women aren’t appealing, that they are boring, and worse, they don’t really exist, with considerably more opportunities afforded to their male counterparts. But that might be changing. In 2018, 11 of the 100 top-grossing movies starred or co-starred women who were 45 or older, according to a recent University of Southern California study. In 2017, it was just five movies. Even measured against an already low bar in the movie industry — where female-led films about women’s lives often struggle to get off the ground — this does signal progress.

What’s more, at a time when there are more American women over 50 alive today than at any point in history, several movies this year zeroed in on their experiences. There were releases that appealed to a mainstream audience like “Otherhood,” “Juanita” and the unfortunate example of what not to do with such women, “Poms.” These middle-of-the-road titles tended to attack head on society’s longstanding indifference toward older women, sometimes overdoing it with an obvious rush to immediately hook the audience lest they grow well, indifferent. But there were also indie films like “Clemency” (due Dec. 27), “Gloria Bell,” “Frankie,” “And the Birds Rained Down” and “Diane” that found room for bolder storytelling that was as subtle as it was confident.

I have learned, for example, that the most bloated and moneyed institutions are the ones that will haggle most insistently over actual cents. (Recently, someone from the procurement office of no less than the country’s premier private university called me after receiving my email to ask, in a wheedling tone: “Can’t you give us a discount, like un geste, just for us?” as though they were a down-and-out family member asking for just a little something to tide them over until the next paycheck.) I have learned that international NGOs, when mobilizing to provide relief and aid in an emergency crisis situation will rarely, if ever, take into consideration the demands of local organizations working on the ground to find out precisely what sort of relief and aid are actually needed (despite being sent letter upon translated letter to detail exactly that). That think tanks will hire the most corrupt and entrenched apparatchiks to write reports about corruption and nepotism. That some writers, seeking to validate a point or two, will make up quotes wholesale and ascribe them to various famous people, so that you have to read entire essays by Kazimir Malevich (after spending hours tracking down free English translations of them) to realize that no, he likely never said that he “longed for exile from the sea” (though interestingly, he did say that “aestheticism is the garbage of intuitive feeling”). That some artists, forced to speak a language they don’t fully understand, will often undercut, misrepresent, or overburden work that would have been better left to stand on its own, and, conversely, that other work has no leg to stand on without the crutch of discourse. That, forced to speak the same homogeneous language, local artists are continuously encouraged to turn the volume up on their own “otherness,” whatever it may be, to crow it from the rooftops in the hopes of being heard above the cacophony, thus further exoticizing/centering that otherness. That many artists (especially the foreign ones), seeking perhaps to justify aestheticizing poverty, war, displacement, and other experiences they have not taken the time to consider fully, will often declaim some grander idea of moral purpose. I have certainly learned to be mistrustful of any piece of art that pretends, in any which way, at moral purpose. That moral purpose is to art what eggs are to a cake. If you can taste them or smell them or see little scrambly bits of them infiltrating the sponge, then this is a failed cake, and eating it is not treat but punishment.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, 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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