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.

Murder in Soft Words

Participating in a spelling bee is an academic rite of passage that just about every child undergoes at some point. Those who are able to master the gentle art of spelling such words as necessary, occasion and hemorrhoid have the opportunity to advance their skills against more rigorous competition.

Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. | REUTERS
Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. Reuters photo for The Japan Times.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship took place last week at National Harbor, MD just outside of Washington DC. For 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 prize has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage, who make up one out of five competitors from all 50 states.

In 2014, the Spelling Bee ended in a tie between Sriran Hathwar of upstate New York and Ansun Sujoe, who lives in Texas. Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, while Sujoe’s word was feuilleton. Stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialog in Greek theatre, characterized by brief exchanges during a scene of strong emotional intensity. A feuilleton is the part of a European newspaper containing material intended to entertain the general reader. In the US, we might refer to a feuilleton as a “fluff piece.”

The term online troll once referred to users who disrupted Internet chat rooms, often with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response. An example might be someone who makes an inflammatory comment about religion or politics, solely to minimize another person’s viewpoint and garner a reaction.

More recently, trolling has been closely associated with other aspects of online harassment, such as cyberbullying and public shaming. A troll might deface an online tribute site commemorating a loved one who passed away, for example, with no purpose other than to cause unnecessary stress to the grieving families. Or in the case of trolls’ response to last week’s National Spelling Bee, it’s to spread xenophobic commentary about the ethnic backgrounds of a group of kids aged 9 to 15:

“One year I wish an American kid could win.”

“Not to be offensive .. but how do kids from India dominate the American spelling bee?!?”

“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”

Perhaps the most volatile example of troll behavior is in the social crucible of online dating, where women risk inadvertently provoking dismissive and hostile remarks made by rejected males. Except in many cases, the behavior instigating the trolling might be something as innocuous as failing to respond to a text message. Alexandra Tweten created an Instagram account called Bye Felipe to catalog the creepy (and often scary) results that happen when women deign to say “no thanks” to a male suitor.

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a bitch for telling him she's not interested in dating

screenshot of online chat where female says "no means no," and male responds with "to me, no means yes"

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a "stuck up cunt" and advises her to "learn to take a compliment" before recommending she kill herself

It’s not difficult to detect the social influences that compel this sort of behavior. The relative anonymity of online postings often precipitate an increased disinhibition among Internet users. Tom Postmes, professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Individuality and the Group, suggests that trolls are inspired by “the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.”

However, this doesn’t completely explain the level of psychopathic narcissism exhibited in the Bye Felipe examples above. While most forms of trolling can be categorized within an uneasy miasma where free speech and personal accountability overlap, there is something more darkly sadistic in telling someone to commit suicide because she won’t respond to puerile vulgarity. The Machiavellianism at display here is arguably more alarming, implying that the perpetrators might actually feel entitled to the motives behind their actions. The more beautiful and self-assured their target, the more deserving it is of corruption.

Whenever Orson Welles was interviewed about his epic radio broadcast War of the Worlds, he often dismissed suggestions that perhaps he should have toned down his approach in order to spare the widespread panic that ensued: “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.”

In some ways, trolling is really about the power of language. It’s an experiment to verify the schoolyard comparison between “sticks & stones” and “names that never hurt.” It’s a game of identity deception played without the consent of its players, a public exhibition of antisocial tendencies, a form of bullying in which the villains never actually show up to demand their lunch money.

Rex Morgan MD comic on Facebook trolls

Researchers who study the effects of video games often cite the interdependence of experience, in which feelings of arousal can apply beyond a single activity. Playing a game transfers excitement from the digital space to real life, though not always consciously, which generates a level of emotional coactivation. Learned concepts are retained more effectively into the part of the brain known as the effective domain, where long-term memory takes place, and the body produces endorphins accordingly. It is here where we form the basis of our activities involving judgment, consequences, actions and ethics.

It could be that there is a cognitive bias taking place in the minds of today’s trolls. In order to accentuate a moment in their lives in which they derived pleasure, it’s necessary for them to recreate the circumstances in which that moment took place. During childhood, we’re taught that kids pick on other kids in order to bolster their sense of self-worth. We’re expected to mature past that point, ideally, but evidence demonstrates the assumptive path to enlightenment is turbulent at best.

What we do know is that there is an inherent unity to the online body, comprised of many “selves” in which the depiction of information is a commodity. We set standards for what we deem to be acceptable, then adjust our level of resentment or appreciate accordingly. It could be that trolls simply have no filters that prevent unwanted behaviors from intensifying, their physical relevance marked solely by how effectively they’re able to denigrate those who fall below their standards.

 

I Spy

History TableclothIn 2007, researchers at the University of London developed a flexible screen-printed tabletop called the History Tablecloth. When objects were placed on the Tabletop surface, its electroluminescent material formed a grid of glowing, lace-like patterns. The longer an object sat on the table, the further the halo expanded; upon removing the object, the halo would slowly fade to nothing.

Scientists create inventions like the History Tablecloth in order to evoke a higher level of interpretive recognition. Traditional roles in human-to-object interaction are always in flux; if we can better understand the social dynamics of ubiquitous computing, we might gain insight into the use of such technologies to enhance our person-to-person relationships.

The opinion here is that the History Tablecloth has greater metaphorical significance in the marks that remain after something has been removed. We suspect this is why people carve their initials into trees and public park benches. Everyone wants to gain a small degree of immortality by leaving some sort of imprint on the world. The temptation to commit is irresistible, for some people, even if they know the act itself is fundamentally wrong.

Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook). From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take Part.
Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook. From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take PartTake Part).

Last week, a family vacationing in Oregon were publicly shamed on social media for carving their names into a metal railing overlooking Tumalo Falls Park. Hiker Brett Nelson documented the incident on his Instagram account and Facebook page, getting more than 53,000 people to share the image. This was enough to gain the attention of the U.S. Forest Service, who as of this writing have threatened the alleged vandals with steep penalties (a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail).

child in dunce cap

The past few years have produced a number of studies to determine whether we are born with a fundamental understanding of moral ethics. Abigail Tucker writes that the factors influencing our cognitive bias between right and wrong can seem quite arbitrary, and they fluctuate wildly under observation:

“Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.”

One thing we do know: the digital realm has fully encroached into our personal space. We no longer have to make a conscious decision to interact with transmitted data, and much of it is received via nondeliberate events. Computers are increasingly part of our environments: toys, home appliances, books, clothing, furniture, jewelry, shopping malls, airports, hospitals, schools, office buildings. Devices are carried, sensors are worn, chips are implanted.

It’s possible that one day, the act of carving one’s initials on a metal railing will initialize a virtual network of national park activists. Whether that delights or frightens us probably has a lot to do with how we feel about Nelson’s conviction in doing what he felt was right, as well as the ease by which a transgression can be catastrophized by 53,000 people.

To be fair, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for someone who intentionally vandalizes public property (especially in full view of a parent) and justifies the act by petulantly claiming “We can do what we want.” At the same time, moral imperatives are fleeting, like those haloes in the History Tablecloth, but their digital footprints remain long after the event that inspired them is forgotten.

I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “