Anxious Objects

According to Suzi Gablik (author of the excellent book Has Modernism Failed?), the term “anxious object” was first used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe modern art that forces us to question whether or not the work is genuinely intended to be art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

The earliest example of  the anxious object is a 1917 piece by Marcel Duchamp called Fountain, which is nothing more than a signed porcelain urinal. Today the work is considered by art historians to be a landmark of the avant-garde. At the time of its exhibiting, however, the piece left audiences feeling bewildered and disturbed.

This is typically the reaction we have in the presence of anxious objects, because the uncertainty we experience demands some limit to the artist’s credibility. Duchamp himself later admitted that placing a urinal in an art gallery was something of a joke. If something is not instantly recognizable as art, then how do we reconcile the creator’s intent as anything but subversive?

Duchamp t-shirt with urinal on the frontInterestingly, the cultural estrangement sought by Duchamp resulted in an unexpected outcome: a new dialogue on how we interpret aesthetic beauty. Some critics, in fact, have favorably compared Fountain to the sculptures of Brancusi and Moore. When it comes to anxious objects, we miss the point while simultaneously (and often tragically) reinforcing it.

This comes to mind because of two stories appearing last week about Twitter, one of them involving the always provocative Kanye West. Mr. West, already known for controversial boasts proclaiming his power and intellect, declared himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” after his set at Glastonbury. The response on Twitter was swift and judgmental, not unlike the vitriol observed when it was leaked that Mr. West had “discovered” a rising new talent named Paul McCartney.

Kanye West on stage at Glastonbury, boasting that his is the greatest living rock star on the planet

What is the social motivation that arouses people into action and gives direction to behavior? While the kudzu-like expansion of Kanye West’s limitless ego may provide wonderful fodder for the TMZ generation, the rationale dictating his behavior is not as easily explained. Our metric for evaluating social motive is often distilled to bizarre justifications. While employing such labels as narcissisticdelusional and outrageous, we openly wonder if Mr. West has a personality disorder and pick apart the structure of his upbringing to explain the inexplicable.

The opinion here is that Kanye West, and his accomplishment as an artist, is simply a manifestation of the persona he intentionally cultivates. In today’s Buzzfeed fueled media landscape, the public life he chooses to expose takes the form of an anxious object. The same motivations that drive all elements of fantasy—magnificent achievements, sexual striving, recognition of power by others—are fundamental to the uneasiness we feel as his story unfolds. The ambiguous and unstructured nature of his outbursts contributes to a growing suspicion that deliberate, cultural resistance is what the calculated art of Kanye West represents.

Subversive tendencies run both ways; if one can maximize higher meaning from something that is not actually a work of art, then it must be possible to reduce artistry from the intention to create. This appears to be the case with a series of Twitter posts reportedly tweeted by the CEO of Frito Lay this week.

According to a story on Medium, the CEO meant to type his tweets into the Google search bar of his browser. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was actually releasing his search queries in a public forum. The result was an amusing (yet unconfirmed) snapshot into the mind of one of the food industry’s top executives.

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What is a Frito?

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: How to be a chips company CEO

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What's the lowest you can pay a potato farmer

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: buy chips on iPhone

It’s possible that the story isn’t true (and it’s difficult to confirm, given that the tweets have either been deleted from the Frito Lay Twitter account or never existed in the first place). If true, however, it can be viewed as a brilliantly self-referential example of an anxious object. Although the tweets are uncomfortably close to being a parody, our archetype of the technophobic, egocentric business leader permeates the suspicion that this story just might be authentic. It might even be good marketing for the Frito Lay brand, given the otherwise stale environment of corporate social media.

All forms of art have the same inherent challenge: determining how much effort is required on the part of the artist to be taken seriously, and to what degree we as an audience are rewarded for pursuing the journey. A culture’s durability often rests upon the interpretive balance between the two, and blurring the lines has never been easier or more immediate.

Artists throughout history have played our tendencies as a social agent, thus promoting their conceptual output in order to suit the demands of the era in which we live. The caricature of celebrity is a textbook example of the indistinguishable demarcation between creator and concept. “We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions,” said sculptor Carl Andre. “My ideal sculpture is a road.”

Update: according to Boing Boing, the Frito Lay CEO tweets have been generally confirmed to be satire. When the above post was written, the word “satire” did not appear on either of the two articles reporting the story. One might argue that shrouding the line between satire and reality is, in execution, an anxious object depicting another anxious object. Modern art goes meta.

Inevitable Accidents

Lisa McElroy, Drexel Law Professor

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

So says Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. England has developed a mathematical formula that he believes explains the fundamental components of how life begins and evolves. Put simply, when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy.

Which bring us to the story of a Drexel University law professor, her careless job of copying & pasting a simple URL, and the crucible of public judgment. Lisa McElroy, teacher and professor at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, used the University’s network earlier this month to share a link with her students about writing legal briefs. Unfortunately, the link took students to a Pornhub video, which (as one can detect from the name) streams explicit sexual content for free.

Email sent by Lisa McElroy to her students

A number of McElroy’s students allegedly complained about the email, which McElroy insists was delivered in error. Some of McElroy’s supporters suggested that her system was hacked. Still, Drexel administrators felt compelled by the incident to conduct an investigation to determine if McElroy’s actions should result in sexual harassment and misconduct procedures. As of this writing, according to a Drexel spokesperson, McElroy has been “cleared to continue her academic and research responsibilities” and still holds her teaching position at the University.

Lisa McElroy on MillionaireLisa McElroy is no stranger to the public spotlight; you might recognize the name from her appearance as a contestant on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She is also well regarded in her profession, having earned a doctorate from Harvard Law School and authoring several children’s books about Supreme Court justices. And she knows how to use the media. In an op-ed piece appearing in the Washington Post last week, the professor says she was “mortified” upon discovering what she had sent to her students, yet called the incident “pretty trivial” compared to the public shaming she received when the story went viral:

“I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me … still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained. No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories [and] called my unpublished cellphone number.”

Beyond a desire to cause ridicule or suffering, there is nothing ideological about the way digital mobs organize themselves at the first hint of a public figure’s downfall. The digital mob’s most distinctive attribute is the speed at which thousands of participants can be spontaneously whipped up into an irrational frenzy. Once released, the ensuing tidal wave of damage is nearly impossible to contain. In the days before social media, such activities would take place within the geographic constraints of a street corner, city park or town square. Today it takes only a single, well-timed tweet or an anonymous blog comment to publicly eviscerate someone’s reputation.

SocratesLisa McElroy’s piece in the Washington Post resembles a latter-day version of Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates declares that the wisdom of all philosophy begins with a sincere admission of ignorance. Her most poignant statement is one she never makes: how or why she had access to that link in the first place. Perhaps that’s not the point, as some journalists have suggested, if we choose to believe that what happens in the privacy of one’s own home or IP address is nobody else’s business. Still, we can always expect conjecture to play a strong role in identifying why and how these things happen. David Lat of Above the Law offers an interesting hypothetical: perhaps McElroy’s gender and personality contributed to the story becoming a bigger spectacle than originally warranted:

“One can’t help wondering whether the schadenfreude surrounding ‘Beadgate’ reflects student antipathy towards a less-than-popular professor, whether ‘tough’ women professors get a bad rap, and whether students would have tattled to the administration about a more well-liked member of the faculty … we all have our private vices and we all make mistakes.”

At worst, one could argue that McElroy’s “mistake” was to reveal herself as a sexual human being with poor proofreading skills. One could also argue that McElroy’s piece in the Post smacks of self-righteous opportunism. (Comparing the recovery periods of public humiliation and cancer, while well-intentioned, may not solicit favorable empathy from all members of her audience.) That said, these supposed transgressions certainly don’t position her accusers on a higher plane of moral immunity. Wrong behavior should be punished; however, the consequences of wrong choices worsen inexorably under heightened examination and scrutiny. The fairness of that social dynamic is as questionable as the acts that inspire it.

entropyLike all forms of energy, the attention surrounding Lisa McElroy’s email will disperse in time. Physicists tell us that energy is more likely to diffuse into the atmosphere than be concentrated into one location; they call it “the arrow of time.” They also tell us that entropy occurs naturally, allowing for a degree of randomness in terms of how and where thermal energy will next be collected. This is an overly scientific way of saying that what happened to Lisa McElroy could potentially happen to anyone. At least she had the benefit of being part of an academic community, limiting the field of propagators to an identifiable group. This was an opportunity that Socrates did not enjoy:

The main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought … all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.

 

In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

I am woman, hear me roar,” sang Helen Reddy over thirty years ago. Based on two recent developments involving high-profile women, that roaring comes at a price: the risk of public shaming via social media.

Monica Lewinsky and Ashley Judd
Photo of Monica Lewinsky by James Duncan Davidson of TED/Reuters from the TED website. Photo of Ashley Judd by Dave Martin of AP from an article on USA Today.

In a TED talk delivered on Thursday, Monica Lewinsky described herself as one of the earliest victims of cyberbullying. She also called for more compassion from Internet users, joining the large number of those already looking for solutions to online harassment. Four days earlier, actress Ashley Judd received an “avalanche” of sexually abusive tweets for remarks she made on Twitter during a University of Kentucky basketball game.

Monica Lewinsky is a curious name in American history, given the events that made her famous and her resulting legacy as a media figure. Her reemergence as a compassionate spokesperson is unfairly overlooked, however, particularly her efforts to raise awareness of issues relating to digital abuse. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she told the TED audience on Thursday, asking that Internet users exercise judgment where the efforts of tech companies to police abuse have proven inadequate.

The case of Ms. Judd is interesting, because she is a respected actress and humanitarian who also happens to be a die-hard University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. While watching her team play on Sunday, she posted a since-deleted tweet suggesting that the Wildcats were being subjected to “dirty play.” The responses she received were violently sexual, often resorting to vulgar name calling and threats. And yesterday, she was ridiculed for bringing a working dog to the game.

Later in the week, Ms. Judd announced on CNN that she would press formal charges against the Internet trolls harassing her on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write and not allowing this misinterpretation and shaming culture on social media to persist,” she said. In a subsequent article on Identities.Mic, Ms. Judd (herself a survivor of sexual assault and incest) detailed the level of verbal abuse to which she was subjected:

I read in vivid language the various ways, humiliating and violent, in which my genitals, vaginal and anal, should be violated, shamed, exploited and dominated. Either the writer was going to do these things to me, or they were what I deserved. My intellect was insulted: I was called stupid, an idiot. My age, appearance and body were attacked. Even my family was thrown into the mix: Someone wrote that my “grandmother is creepy.”

In a bullying culture that reserves its most vitriolic ammunition for the female gender, misogynistic cyberattacks are rising with alarming velocity. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience severe types of online harassment (with a quarter of cases being of a sexual nature), and 26% have been stalked.

Chart demonstrating the disproportionate number of sexually charged online harassment cases against women. The key figure represented here is the 26% of women who claim to have been stalked, versus 7% of men and 8% overall.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to severe forms of online harassment, with 26% having been stalked and 25% sexually harassed. From a Pew Research Center study on online harassment.

While it’s easy to attribute female-directed cyberbullying as another in a long line of masochistic atrocities, there is something deeper and perhaps more sinister in digital harassment. We are living in a time where online interaction is learned at an early age, often before interpersonal skills can be cultivated as a form of common etiquette. As a result, abhorrent behavior can be explored anonymously, free of the consequences we risk when behaving badly during face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has done little to improve online decorum on user-generated content sites; even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged this week that “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform.”

Possibly the most disconcerting aspect of the Judd case is the demarcation it exposes between male and female sports fans. Consider this hypothetical: if a man had tweeted the exact same remark at the exact same time, would it have been subjected to the same level of vitriol? Or would have been viewed as exactly what Ms. Judd intended: an innocuous comment by a passionate, loyal sports fan in support of his favorite team.

Update 03/22/15: there is a fascinating story in today’s Sunday New York Times on Monica Lewinsky’s reinvention, touching briefly on the digital harassment she received and her historical importance in exposing “humiliation as a commodity.” Recommended.

Single Tweet, Lifetime Consequence

Twitter bird tarred and feathered
Photo illustration by Andrew B. Myers for the New York Times Magazine. The prop stylist was Sonia Rentsch.

The Justine Sacco case is an example where one stupid decision can lead to a long-term, disastrous outcome. This story by Jon Romson in the New York Times Magazine last month details the entire sordid encounter. In short: Ms. Sacco tweeted an unfunny and inappropriate joke while boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. Thirteen hours later, the tweet had gone viral with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet and the public relations professional was out of a job.

There are two items of interest here. The first concerns the relative anonymity which Ms. Sacco believed would shelter her from consequence. As someone working in public relations, she really should have known better. The second, though, is possibly more disturbing: our suspicion that lurking in the digital shadows are paid professionals whose sole job it is to expose and slander the people who instigate these events, no matter how benign their intentions.

Just as the shroud of anonymity provides a false sense of protection, so too does the Internet’s transient quality as an evaporative medium. We are creatures with short attentions spans; we spend 12 to 24 hours enthralled by the spectacle before moving on to something else. Social media journalists who break stories about the Justine Saccos of the world understand this. As Sam Biddle, editor of Valleywag (the Gawker Media outlet who first reported the tweet) put it in an email to Mr. Romson:

“The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious. It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again … I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life. [However,] everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”