Episode 352: Holland Cotter

May 29, 2012 · Print This Article

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

download

This week: A PULITZER PRIZE WINNER! Holy crap. San Francisco once again brings it with an amazing guest, Holland Cotter.

Holland Cotter has been a staff art critic at The New York Times since 1998. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, for coverage that included articles on art in China.

Between 1992 and 1997 he was a regular freelance writer for the paper. During the 1980s he was a contributing editor at Art in America and an editorial associate at Art News. In the 1970s, he co-edited New York Arts Journal, a tabloid-format quarterly magazine publishing fiction, poetry, and criticism.

Art in New York City has been his regular weekly beat, which he has taken to include all five boroughs and most of the city’s art and culture museums. His subjects range from Italian Renaissance painting to street-based communal work by artist collectives.

For the Times, he has written widely about “non-western” art and culture. In the 1990s, he introduced readers to a broad range of Asian contemporary art as the first wave of new art from China was building and breaking. He helped bring contemporary art from India to the attention of a western audience.

Born in Connecticut in 1947, and raised in Boston, Cotter received an A.B. from Harvard College, where he studied poetry with Robert Lowell and was an editor of the Harvard Advocate. He later received an M.A. from the City University of New York in American modernism, and an M. Phil in early Indian Buddhist art from Columbia University, where he studied Sanskrit and taught Indian and Islamic art.

He has served on the board of directors of the International Association of Art Critics. He is under contract with Alfred A. Knopf for a book on New York City modernism. He is also working on a study of contemporary Indian art, and on a poetry manuscript.




Half the sky, and just a bit more of your attention.

May 4, 2010 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY DAMIEN JAMES

Part two of two.

If you haven’t already, you may be wondering by now what this has to do with art, why you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis on an arts weblog? I’ll tell you.

During the community conversation and throughout the reading of Half the Sky, there were several thoughts insisting on my full attention, one of which was how different my world would be minus any single one of the incredible women I’ve known, either personally or exclusively through exposure to whatever their art may be – painting or parenting, writing or teaching, cooking or counseling, making films or music. Each has been essential in some way, small or large, to my evolving understanding of the world I live in, no less my understanding of myself.

How many people would have less full lives if even a few of the women they know went missing or were never known to them at all? How would our own country be diminished intellectually, emotionally, artistically, if a million women were simply gone?

Women like Lynn Hershman Leeson, who, as a female artist trying to assert herself on the male-dominated art scene of the late 1960’s and 70’s, had to review her own work under a pseudonym because critics weren’t giving women artists a single column inch.

Leeson went on to invent what is commonly known as Second Life, to pioneer the use of blue screen technology in film making, to become Emeritus Professor of Digital Art at the University of California, and to have work in many major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Yet there was a time that her work simply didn’t get reviewed.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta's Construction Chart #2, 1975. Dye Transfer Print

What Leeson gave to me, however, was a film she made in 2007 called Strange Culture, a brilliant hybrid of documentary and dramatic re-enactment with a bit of comic book thrown in, which I first saw excerpted on issue four of Wholphin. The films revolves around Steve Kurtz, professor of art at SUNY Buffalo, founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, and exactly the kind of guy you’d like to smoke pot with and talk to about how to fix the world, knowing in advance that whatever lunatic THC-induced long-shots and utopian fantasies you might imagine, Kurtz was quite possibly one of the few people you’d ever know who could make those fantasies real.

When Kurtz’s wife and collaborator of 25 years, Hope, suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack and the police responded to his phone call, what they found and how they reacted turned the next few years of Kurtz’s life into nothing less than a battle with the government for his freedom.

Strange Culture is a time capsule of our subjugated civil rights under an unelected president, a record of our most recent and surreal dark age – which, as we can currently see, will take some time to come out of.

Leeson’s film inspired and enraged me. It introduced me to new ideas, people, problems. It literally influenced the way I live. (Can anyone say that about Avatar?) When I think back to the time before I had seen the film or learned about Leeson, it seems like I was in my own cultural dark age, or at least a bit more naive.

Women like Pamela Michele Johnson, an artist who perfectly illustrated my feelings about our consumer/capitalist society with six-foot tall paintings of Hostess cupcakes with glistening whipped lard centers, stacks of waffles with glowing oceans of syrup pooling in their crisp golden pockets, and toppling towers of ketchup-stained limp hamburgers looking so heavy and giant that you suddenly can’t help but wonder how much of that shit you’ve stuffed down your gullet.

Johnson’s art so poetically paraphrased every thought that I’ve never been able to put eloquently into words about how and what we eat, that I was instantly smitten with the paintings. She often shares people’s responses to the work with me, and I’m continually surprised by how many people view these monoliths as objects of nostalgia, tributes to simpler times, especially since I see them first and foremost as satirical critiques. I can’t help but view those “simpler times” as farces of progress spun into our heads by corporations disguised as clowns and farmers and cute little animals.

Pamela Michele Johnson, Waffles, 2007. Oil on canvas.

Her work is important to me for those two reasons; that it was the first and most personal example of how someone else’s image could so singularly define my thoughts about a certain issue, and that it offered to renew my appreciation for just how differently we all interpret information, for better or worse.

Women like Pam Bannos, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University, who uncovered the wholly neglected an incredibly relevant history of Lincoln Park, something which the current residents of the neighborhood might prefer to have left underground.

During the Civil War, Lincoln Park was a burial ground – The City Cemetery, not only for Confederate soldiers but also the diseased – and it is quite possible that there are still plenty of bones beneath those lovely lanes.

Bannos’s extensive research made quite a bit of noise, and the city of Chicago worked with her to place several markers throughout Lincoln Park which illuminate it’s history for hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

The project, Hidden Truths, is currently being developed into a book, and having read a few of the early chapters, the potential is exciting. There are so many strange stories within the whole that Devil in the White City comes to mind, yet with far more immediate import.

The metaphors inherent in this story – of sweeping the dead under the carpet of history (akin perhaps to not showing us the coffins of our fellow patriots as they come home from war), of affluence planting it’s roots in the toil of drones (not unlike the 1 percenter’s who have made their money on the backs of the 99 percent of us who have none) – fit so snugly over the template of today that Bannos really cannot go wrong.

Her photography often beautifully aims its sweet spot at the idea and nature of truth, and I have no doubt that Bannos will apply the same focus, light, and personality to her book.

Experiencing the evolution of this project, from rigorously documented research to articulate narrative, has been an education in the creative endeavor for me, an education I intend to take full advantage of.

Marjane Satrapi

And there are so many others, like Marjane Satrapi, whose masterpiece Persepolis is the crest of the wave of a woman-made cultural revolution in Iran; musician Rachel Yamagata, formerly of Bumpus, whose residency at Schuba’s a few years back still resonates with unbelievable integrity and passion; Rebecca Solnit, an author who has not only chronicled but participated in some of the monumental social demonstrations of the last decade; Vandana Shiva, the brilliant activist and intellectual who has united the people of India in rejection of agri-monsters and ecology eaters like Monsanto and Coca Cola.

Women like – though there is really no other woman like her – Cassandra O’Keefe, one of the very first contributors to BUST Magazine, a staff member of GirlsRock! Chicago, and a gifted intuitive. O’Keefe is one of those unsung heroes who constantly crashes into our ever-expanding lack of civility and refuses to accept it.

She is an activist who has marched in every anti-war demonstration in the city of Chicago for the last decade, a creative autodidact who once decorated with handmade party hats and noise makers the smoked white fish which was to be eaten for a New Years brunch; and more importantly, a parent who decided to home-school her two daughters when No Child Left Behind became the prevailing but fundamentally flawed logic of the day for our public schools.

Not only has O’Keefe fought intolerance in her own neighborhood by simply engaging everyone she meets, but she has enriched my entire vocabulary for compassion. Those two daughters are mine as well, completing a trio of amazing women in my own home, none of whom I could imagine my life without.

Any of the millions of abused, abducted, murdered women in the world could easily be this important, this provocative, this enriching, for any number of people in their own lives. If given the chance. Their influence and intelligence could reach across the globe and touch all of us. Any one of the missing could profoundly impact someone near to them, if only they were truly valued.

There is an overwhelming amount of daily proof that our current values are failing us; our resources are withering, our environment is changing dramatically, and the same destruction that we’ve visited upon ourselves throughout history exists today, only with more politically acceptable terms. The word genocide is used far less than the phenomenon of genocide is employed. More women have to accept rape than men have to pay for the crime.

These are truths only because of our collective lack of involvement. And there is no one I know who can’t spare at least ten minutes to take the first step toward changing these truths.  How much time can you spare, and to what end?

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery and Aldo Castillo, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project and Rhonda Schaller, various apartments in Berlin, London, Mumbai, and a tiny village in Romania.




Half the sky, all your attention.

May 3, 2010 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY DAMIEN JAMES

Part one of two.

I recently attended a community conversation with New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, who was speaking about the oppression of and cruelty toward women throughout much of our global society, as illuminated with provocative bluntness and intelligence in the new book Half the Sky. A collaboration with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, the book earned the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a wife and husband team. WuDunn was not present for the conversation, but Kristof illustrated one of her connections to the subject matter by relating a story about WuDunn’s grandmother, who grew up in China and was a victim of foot binding.

The conversation was made possible by Facing History and Ourselves, an “international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism,” with the intent to promote a more informed and humane citizenry.

I am uncertain as to why the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University was not fully attended; there must have been at least 732 people in the Chicago area who had time for this event, who might have walked away from the evening filled with a certain shock and awe after finding that their quotient for compassion had increased considerably, which I would credit to the in-depth interviews and profound friendships embarked upon by WuDunn and Kristof as they spent time in Africa, Asia, and South America.

According to Kristof, the central moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery. In the 20th century it was the battle against totalitarianism. And in the 21st century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle against discrimination of women and children. One might argue that the former still exist in the latter, but by the end of the presentation, that women are still treated like second-class citizens – especially in third world countries, but certainly not limited to them – becomes quite clearly a truth beyond argument.

Kristof’s stories were often painful and graphic, and most importantly, personal. It was clear that he knew the women and children he spoke of, that he shared in their pains to some extent as they shared their stories with him, that he actually looked in their eyes and allowed himself to be affected by them.

He radiated a realistic sympathy as he spoke, and rather than try to make people feel guilty for how little they contribute to solving problems which seem far too large to tackle, Kristof focused – just as Half the Sky does – on making these insurmountable problems approachable by offering ways to get involved and engaged in the lives of women on the other side of the world, lives which can be radically changed by even the smallest generosity in the briefest of moments.

Beyond relating his experience and educating us about what we could do, Kristof offered hope as he spoke of women who have started fighting back, despite unbelievable odds and misogynistic patriarchal societies, not only improving their own lives but those of women around them, and in some cases gaining international attention for their cause.

In a moment I’m going to share some of these avenues for contributing to positive social change, but first I want to share some of the stories Kristof offered at the community conversation and through the book, because the myriad humanitarian crises which literally surround us are predominantly relegated to the back of our thoughts in abstraction; and there is certainly a reason for this psychic numbing.

How could we pay our Chase bills and watch the game or Idol or Top Chef, how could we Facebook our thoughts on the character arcs of Lost and Twitter our excitement at a Black Eyed Peas concert if we were always thinking about how acceptable it is to throw acid in a woman’s face in a country we have little or no desire to ever visit? And I’m not just singling out fans of “reality” TV or Facebook and Twitter users. To be honest, I think such social networks have an amazing amount of untapped potential, but it might be that not enough social entrepreneurs are using these networks to get our attention in a lasting way.

Is it powerful enough to state that 3 million women and girls worldwide can be fairly termed as enslaved in the sex trade? That, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, there are more than 100 million women simply missing in the world today? That girls in India from age one to five are 50 percent more likely to die than boys in the same age group because of the value placed on gender? (Such discrimination kills up to 2 million girls each year worldwide.) That 21 percent of Ghanaian women reported their first sexual experience was rape? That 17 percent of Nigerian women had endured rape or attempted rape by the age of nineteen, and 21 percent of South African women reported that they had been raped by the age of fifteen?

I don’t really even want to talk about the rates of maternal mortality in some countries, nor the number of women each year who suffer from fistula as a result of rape, women who are then ostracized from their homes because of the easily but rarely treated condition.

Such numbers just become fog, pressed back and out of our thoughts as we go through our day, which is why, Kristof argues, it is so important to personally connect with someone, to actively pursue a relationship.

Is it easier to remember – or harder to forget – if we see a photograph of Long Pross, a Thai girl who, at the age of thirteen was kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Cambodia? When Pross rebelled, the female brothel owner punished her by gouging out Pross’ eye with a metal rod.

Or Meena Hasina, an Indian Muslim who was eight years old when she was kidnapped and trafficked. In the dozen years that Meena was held in the brothel, she had two children and was beaten an average of five days a week. Her children were considered property of the brothel.

Is it harder to forget Zoya Najabi, an Afghan girl who was married at twelve and subjected to constant corporal punishment at the hand of her husband and mother-in-law? Zoya’s husband regularly beat her with an electrical cable until she fell unconscious. Her mother-in-law whipped the soles of her feet.

These stories are not isolated occurrences, nor are they plucked from some macabre dark age; they are entirely contemporary. Nor are they even the worst of what Kristof and WuDunn have to report. And while it might be easy to think that these women, children in many cases, should just flee, it is never that simple. The threat of punishment and death lies around every corner for many women in societies which condone such treatment in the first place.

Often the police in many of the countries Kristof and WuDunn frequent are bribed by brothels, intimidated by gangs, and will send women away with scorn for their audacity at even showing their dishonorable faces to the authorities. Occasionally police even beat the women seeking help, and there have been reports of women being raped by police before they’re pushed back out on the streets.

Again, Half the Sky is not simply a litany of abuse. It is also a lifeline for involvement, for there are as many heroes to encourage as there are villains to infuriate, women who have taken a stand against the injustices they were not only born into but also fully expected to accept.

Women like Edna Adan, who grew up in Somalia. (According to Kristof, the local camels had more freedoms than the women.) At eight years old, Edna was circumcised, joining the ranks of millions of girls who are forced to undergo the traditional procedure intended to reduce sexual desire and promiscuity for the sake of becoming more marriageable.

If this seems barbaric, consider that Edna is from an enlightened family, that her parents not only allowed her to have an education but also encouraged her to do so. Now a fierce opponent of genital cutting, she became Somalia’s first qualified nurse-midwife and eventually the countries first lady, marrying the prime minister. Edna went on to work for the UN and eventually retired from her post to open a hospital, which she was able to do with the support of women from around the world.

Mukhtar Mai, from a peasant family in southern Punjab, was sentenced to be publicly raped as punishment for a crime that her brother allegedly committed. Mukhtar prepared to commit suicide, a normal method of dealing with such situations in Pakistan, but was prevented by her parents, who kept constant vigil over her.

Eventually Mukhtar’s shame and depression became rage, which gave her the strength to report the rape to the police and demand prosecution. President Musharraf became aware of the case and sympathized, awarding Mukhtar the equivalent of over $8,000, which she used to invest in what she felt her village needed most: a school. The story spread and Mukhtar became revered for her courage and conviction; she was honored in several countries and went on to open more schools and raise the level of visibility for abused women everywhere.

In fact, each injustice in Half the Sky is followed by a survivor’s tale, someone who has turned their world around by sheer force of will.

Kristof pointed to the importance of education as intervention – the primary tool to dismantle the machinery of abuse which still runs largely unchecked in many countries – stating that education leads to professionalism which leads to community enrichment, a virtuous cycle. And while he pulls no punches about the fact that there is no easy solution to any of the problems facing women in the third world, Kristof has plenty of details, first-hand experience with individual women and girls and entire communities that have benefited from relatively small donations toward schooling.

For example, it costs only ten dollars a year to keep a girl in school in rural China, while fifteen dollars for a uniform is all that separates some African girls from a classroom. In Cambodia, the average girl has only 1.7 years of education; often in poor countries like Cambodia, girls drop out of school young – if they ever attended at all – to work and contribute to the family income.

It is when young girls join the work force that they are more susceptible to being trafficked, lured to different cities with the promise of a job, only to find themselves locked in a room empty of everything but a mattress. Cambodia has taken steps to curb trafficking by offering financial incentives to parents who keep their kids in school with perfect attendance, but it is far from a perfect system. There have been many instances of abduction while girls are walking long distances to or from their schools.

Despite how bottomless the problems of abuse and slavery in the sex trade are, both the community conversation and the book end with incredible positivity. Kristof and WuDunn have contributed so much of their time and money to improving conditions for women around the world and have seen direct results that their thrust is to encourage us to do the same, to express our humanity by taking incremental steps toward solving massive problems. Half the Sky ends with a chapter called Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes, a crash course in contributing to positive social change. As promised, here they are:

1. “Go to www.globalgiving.org or www.kiva.org and open an account. Both site are people-to-people (P2P), meaning that they link you directly to a person in need overseas.” Global Giving lets you choose and contribute to grassroots projects in education, health, and disaster relief, among many others, in the developing world. Kiva allows you to connect to entrepreneurs as a microlender; just as kickstarter microfinances creative projects, Kiva helps fund women to start their own businesses.

2. “Sponsor a girl or woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service.” Kristof and WuDunn are sponsors and have exchanged letters with and made visits to children in the Philippines, Sudan, and the Dominican Republic.

3. “Sign up for e-mail updates on www.womensenews.org and www.worldpulse.com. Both distribute information about abuses of woman and sometimes advise on actions that readers can take.”

4. “Join the CARE Action Network at www.can.care.org. This will assist you in speaking out, educating policy makers, and underscoring that the public wants action against poverty and injustice. This kind of citizen advocacy is essential to create change.”

Though it might only take ten minutes of your time, Kristof and WuDunn insist that these steps are just to break the ice. Half the Sky has a comprehensive appendix of organizations to connect with, should one feel particularly meaningful, and then the authors encourage readers to dive in.

Ten short minutes can change things. The family of one young Zimbabwean woman was given a goat through Heifer International, a gift that so radically improved their economic position that they were able to send their daughter to school in America. She has since returned and begun giving back to her community.

Ten dollars took a girl in China from poverty to formal education, which she used to better her entire village. Once barely able to scrape by on subsistence farming, the community now has wood and brick homes with electricity and a thriving export business, all because of a girl who was given the opportunity to go to school.

Kristof is also quick to admit that such problems are not unique to third world countries, that many cases of abuse and oppression exist in our own back yard, but there simply wasn’t room in Half the Sky to focus on domestic issues, something he plans to remedy in the future.

Read part two of two on Tuesday. If you want to.

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery and Aldo Castillo, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project and Rhonda Schaller, various apartments in Berlin, London, Mumbai, and a tiny village in Romania.




Holland Cotter Wins Pulitzer Prize

April 20, 2009 · Print This Article

The NYT’s Holland Cotter beats out Inga Saffron of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe for the Pulitzah Prize (and its $10,000 award) for “distinguished criticism, in print or online, or both.” Only 10 grand?? I always imagined an award like that would score you more.

Read more about it directly from The Pulizer Prize website and also at the New York Times.

Updated: whoops, rushing to get this post out pronto and misspelled Cotter’s last name! My bad!

Update #2: My snark about paltry prize money aside, this is a big deal for Cotter and for newspaper art critics in general. As the L.A. Times’ art critic Christopher Knight points out, Cotter is the first art critic to win a Pulitzer in 35 years, “since the late Emily Genauer of Newsday won in 1974.” So bravo to Cotter. Newspaper art criticism may well be in its death throes, but at least not before one of the best of them has received this kind of recognition.