FlyOver: January 2009 Archives
I had the pleasure of interviewing the only woman to be named twice combat photographer of the year by the U.S. Department of Defense. Stacy Pearsall has seen two tours in Iraq, been wounded twice, and seen many close friends killed. She believes in duty. She loves her band of brothers. But it’s time to leave, she says.
At the same time that the Obama Administration is poised to set a timetable for withdrawal, Pearsall offers a showcase of her war photography at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, here in Charleston, called War on Terror: Inside/Out.
We wrote a cover story about the exhibition, but mostly we talked about Pearsall, an exceptional woman whose frames captured hidden and intimate moments between soldiers. More importantly, her portfolio conveys emotions felt by her subjects, men who are ordinarily self-conscious and mindful of appearing (and feeling) tough.
Stacy Pearsall has never been good with words. What she saw in Iraq during two tours only makes them harder to come by. She knows what John McCain meant by leaving “with honor,” but feels Vietnam has little bearing on the War on Terror.
We sent volunteers to Iraq, for one thing, who didn’t know who the enemy was. Her friend Donny lost his head to a sniper. Her friend Katie lost most of her right hand to one. Soldiers feared their throats would be slit in their sleep. Food was often poisoned. Pearsall herself was wounded twice in combat, once while carrying a man to safety.
Pearsall is proud of doing what her country asked of her. A soldier doing her duty, and leaving Iraq in decent shape, defines “honor.” But she has doubts, perhaps the deepest wound of all. Right and wrong get lost in the fog of war, as when an 8-year-old girl tried to give her a live grenade. It’s hard to sleep when memories of what she experienced in that country keep her up at night.
“I hope I left with honor,” she says.
A former combat photographer who retired from the Air Force in August, Pearsall is now director of the Charleston Center for Photography, a new local nonprofit. Her work has been used by The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, and CNN. And she was twice named military photographer of the year, the only woman to achieve such distinction.
Words aren’t her forte, but Pearsall has her pictures. She hopes the work on display at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, one of Charleston’s most high-profile venues, will tell the story of what it felt like to be “down range.” There’s no better time than now.
One of the campaign promises of President Barack Obama was to set a 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The Halsey show, called The War on Terror: Inside/Out, has been timed to open with the ascent of the Obama administration. She shares the show with documentary photographer Christopher Sims, a professor at Duke University.
Pearsall comes from a military family. She was 17 when she joined the Air Force. She broke into an elite corps of combat photographers, a macho bunch where chicks are suspect. She loves her band of brothers. They fought for her; she fought for them. She thinks the invasion was a good thing. She saw how badly Iraqi women had it. But the time has come, she believes, to leave Iraq. That’s why she cautiously voted for Obama.
“I hope he keeps his promise,” she says.
Yesterday I wondered aloud if the breach of trust between art donors and Brandeis University’s trustees might send a chill down the spines of art donors in small cities and college towns in Flyover Country. The Brandeis trustees want to sell off the contents of the Rose Art Museum, some 6,000 works of art valued at about $350 million. I said this keeping in mind that philanthropic circles in cities like Charleston, where I live, are very small, very intimate, and can be very volatile if bonds of trust are called into question.
So I emailed Mark Sloan, the director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. Sloan is highly regarded here and for good reason. His exhibitions are generally excellent and he almost single-handedly found, commissioned, and acquired the 850-piece Contemporary Carolina Collection housed at the Ashley River Tower, a new hospital just built by the Medical University of South Carolina. I wanted to know what Sloan thought of my question.
He said the breach of trust is a concern in all cities with no unique threat to smaller cities and their social and philanthropic circles. He was on deadline to finish a grant proposal when I caught him, but he did send me this quick but thoughtful response:
I think it is the same everywhere. I think all donors, whether in small towns or big cities, often develop long-term relationships with institutions in their midst. Even though there are more donors in bigger cities, they all seem to know one another from various board affiliations and social gatherings.
So it’s just a bigger group, but no less intimate. This was brought home to me when I attended a fund-raising event at Harvard (I did a book about their natural history museum a few years ago, and I was up for a book signing). Many of the people there were sharing stories about the Boston Ballet, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Gardner Museum, etc.— all of which they supported to one degree or another.
Donors talk to one another. If I were a donor to Brandeis, I would be furious, and I would withdraw from future donations. I feel certain this will be the reaction of a portion of their donors. There are many people who love the Rose Museum.
This decision brings into question the whole notion of the role of a Trustee. You’d think it was to protect and defend — not divide and conquer.
I would add it brings greater light to the role of any person acting in the public’s trust. That includes volunteer board members of orchestras who view their stewardship not as a civic duty but as a social obligation. Or worse, as a duty discharged in the name of business, as the Brandeis trustees have done, and not in the name of community, legacy, and cultural heritage.
Journalist Scott Jaschik, over at Inside Hire Ed, provides another view on Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off its entire 6,000-piece collection housed at the Rose Art Museum.
He interviews David Robertson, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries. Robertson says that the sell-off is in violation of the organization’s code of ethics and that it will make acquiring works of art by colleges and universities much harder in the future.
“This puts all of our roles at our institutions in jeopardy. … And it puts in jeopardy our relationships with our donors with whom we have built our collections,” he said. The ethics codes cited by Robertson are vital, museum officials say, because donors will not make gifts to university collections if they believe that their donations could end up in an auction house sometime in the future.”
I’d imagine Brandeis is going to face quite a few pissed off donors. I can imagine this sending a chill down their backs in communities across the country, even, and perhaps especially, in the small cities and college towns in Flyoverville.
Jaschik did some more good digging when he found a profile of the Rose’s director in the university’s alumni magazine. In it, Michael Rush brags about the value of his collection.
The article cites Rush as saying that by “eyeball,” he could tell that the collection was worth at least $300 million, but that he planned to have a formal appraisal done to draw attention to the significance of the art museum. In a quote he may regret, he says: “I’m confident that, after its real estate, art is the university’s largest financial asset, and I want everyone to know it.”
Fortunately, I was able to review Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem for the New Haven Review. I say “fortunately,” because poetry is so rarely reviewed — and because Dickman’s poetry is such a pleasure to read. Please if you can, check out this volume. Matthew and his brother Michael should be celebrated as poets of the present and future, not the past.
I first encountered Matthew Dickman’s “Trouble” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s a litany of the many ways famous people killed themselves. Marilyn Monroe took sleeping pills. Marlon Brando’s daughter hanged herself. Bing Crosby’s sons “shot themselves out of the music industry forever.” The list’s utilitarian feeling only makes the horror more horrible, especially when it includes the suicide of Dickman’s brother: He “opened thirteen Fentanyl patches,” Dickman tells us, “and stuck them on his body until it wasn’t his body anymore.”
But there’s a sense of humor too, even whiffs of whimsy, which make the tenor of All-American Poem, in which “Trouble” appears, feel genuine without being sappy. The poems are lucid and coy, rambling and drunk, playful and gregarious, a tapestry of emotion with a notable thread missing: There’s little in the way of satire or irony, by which I mean meanness of spirit. Written amid the anxieties and neuroses of the Bush era, Dickman’s poems are conspicuous for their lack of bitterness. After learning about his brother’s fate, we learn: “I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears.”
How random. How charming. And how frightening, too. …
Denis Dutton, the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, has a new book out called The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. He argues that aesthetic taste and the experience of arts are not socially constructed, or culturally relative, as has been believed in academe for the past 30 years, but based on a hard-wired universal instinct that Darwin would recognize. He gave a talk at Google on Jan. 14. It’s a captivating discussion for anyone, like me, who finds value in social construction theory, or postmodern literary theory, as was my case, but whose journalistic skepticism provides a healthy counterbalance.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an overview of the CSO’s financial crisis. The article appears in the journal’s Jan. 15 issue. It doesn’t offer much that’s new if you’ve been tracking developments at City Paper and The Post and Courier. But it does offer a coherent synopsis of how the orchestra got into this situation, why, and how it plans to get out of it. Of note is this nut-graph, summing up something I’ve learned over the years — the reason American arts organizations struggle financially is more likely the result of bad internal decisions (or non-decisions) than some kind of out-of-one’s-control malaise in the greater culture. In other words, it’s fixable.
… its leaders say that the way the organization was managed while times were good left it vulnerable to a decelerating economy: The orchestra had operating losses in five of the last six years, signed a five-year contract with musicians that locked in high fixed costs, conducted periodic “save the orchestra” campaigns that alienated donors, and spent meager sums on marketing and fund raising while undertaking an ambitious artistic program.
A small city in the South has become an unlikely place for intellectual activity.
Charleston? No, if only that were the case.
I’m talking about Victoria, Texas, a town near Houston that numerous academic journals, an experimental book publisher, and a prestigious literary review call home.
Amassing intellectual capital as a means to build esteem, spur growth, rally a community, and raise a city’s profile. Who would have thought it possible right? Perhaps, the College of Charleston should look into this.
Read more at Inside Higher Ed:
The University of Houston-Victoria is an unlikely hot spot for experimental fiction and the humanities. But this 3,200-student institution has, in just a few years, become host to a constellation of small but prestigious scholarly endeavors that needed new homes - including an independent press for “artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction,” and the 8,000-circulation American Book Review.
“Sometimes, I’m surprised as well,” says Jeffrey R. Di Leo, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UH-V, which doesn’t have Ph.D. programs and where most of the master’s degrees are professionally-oriented. “I think this should all be at ‘Well-Known University Y.’ But it also becomes just another thing that the big university has — whereas here it really is one of the cornerstones of our identity. So….”
Cross-posted at Charleston City Paper.
After Barack Obama won the election, my elation clouded my journalism. I was incapable of thinking about anything else. So when it came time to write about an event in Charleston called Kulture Klash, I had to figure out what it meant amid this historic change.
Kulture Klash is really an arts party like the kind commonly organized in New York. I’m told the place to go is PS1, but I’ve never been there and never been to one of those events. Kulture Klash, and I’d imagine events at PS1, are about diversity, creativity, and having a lot of fun. KK injects a radical social dimension into the arts and the arts give rise to a radical social dimension, mostly because the kind of art you’ll find there stems from street art — break dancing, graffiti art, aerial skating, juggling, hula hooping, etc.
In the wake of Obama’s victory, Kulture Klash seemed to have more significance than just an arts party. It seemed to embody a new set of ideals, a grass-roots and egalitarian value system shaped and given expression by the internet and social-networking sites. When all was said and done, more than 2,000 people had gone to Kulture Klash. In a Charleston context, that’s an enormous crowd and an important step in local arts.
Tim Wu, in a review of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), aptly notes that what makes our age special, in technological terms, is its “generative” nature: “‘Generativity’ is a central notion in his book, and he means what it says: that the Net has made us all mini-generators — not of electricity, but of information and innovation. Who today is not at least sometimes an online analyst, poet, or publisher, even if just of Facebook updates?” (Read Wu’s review in full in The New Republic.)
In a piece in a November issue of Charleston City Paper, I attempted to draw a connection between Obama’s win, the ideals of Web 2.0, and this generative nature among those born after 1980, those who not only gave YouTube and Facebook their current cache, but who also expect interactivity in whatever they do. I suggest that this is a turning point.
Of what, I don’t know. But something is turning. You can feel it.
Creativity is a part of their lives. Millennials don’t just dream it. They be it. Kulture Klash’s website tells why the event matters: “For the sake of art and community.”
“We want everyone to have a voice, everyone to get involved,” says Gustavo Serrano. “If we can tap into everyone’s imagination, who knows what will happen?”
The idea of a bottom-up, idealism-based community of creative types, like Kulture Klash, goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Today, it can be found in knitting circles, jazz ensembles, open-source technology like Linux, crowdsourced knowledge consortiums like Wikipedia, community arts projects like the recent The Future Is on the Table art exhibit at City Gallery, and even in pick-up games of basketball (which is, because of its reliance on the integrity of individual players, Barack Obama’s favorite pastime).
These have characteristics that challenge the old guard of established arts professionals whose minds were galvanized, like Clinton and Bush, by “great disruption” of the 1960s. These characteristics include participation over presentation, collaboration over competition, amateurism (in the best sense of the word) over professionalism, and process over product.
Grassroots creativity is an old idea (Walt Whitman exulted the inventive potential of diversity), but the difference now is scale.
Ninety-five million Americans are applying the ideals of Web 2.0 to the real world, including their approach to the arts.
What’s important is not that a president actually like the arts, especially the high arts, which cannot maintain themselves commercially, but that they have a place at the White House. The reason, says Jed Perl, in this tight little essay in The New Republic, is that symbolism matters.
Nobody need wonder why, in Washington, the arts have become something of an embarrassment. The city—and the country—have never really recovered from the controversies that exploded around the NEA beginning in the late 1980s, when some Republicans decided to save the world from Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photographs and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, works which many liberals, while determined to defend the NEA, did not particularly care for, either. If there is any lesson to be learned from those hideous debates, it is that the danger when we talk about the relationship between the arts and the nation is that everybody all too rapidly descends into parochialism. There are the utilitarians, who are convinced that art education is important because it improves children’s more general cognitive skills; there are the populists, who think that government is best off supporting bluegrass music and quilting; there are the cultural leftists, who believe that the government should embrace individual artists because they are society’s renegades and outcasts; and there are the traditionalists, who want to give money to museums and symphony orchestras and thereby uphold canonical values. The main trouble with all these viewpoints is that they deny the inner integrity of the arts, which in truth are neither populist nor elitist, neither progressive nor conservative, but are in some mysterious way a part of the fabric of the nation.