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The Great Texas Anti-Pornography Crusade

Monday, 8. November 2021 0:10

We seem to have a pornography problem in the public schools of Texas. Or, that is at least what the governor and several state legislators say.  This past Monday, the Governor wrote the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, stating that “a growing number of parents are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system.” He goes on to say that “the most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.” Of course, he provides no specific examples of this content. A spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Boards said that the group was confused about why the letter was sent to them, because it “has no regulatory authority over school districts and does not set standards for instructional materials, including library books.”

And last week state representative Jeff Cason asked the Texas Attorney General to investigate “sexually explicit material in public schools.” He went on to ask the Attorney General to “launch a statewide investigation into that [Gender Queer] and other books that may ‘violate the Penal Code in relation to pornography, child pornography and decency laws, as well as the legal ramifications to school districts that approved these types of books.’”

One suspects that the Governor and Rep Cason were climbing on board the culture war bandwagon that seems to have been set in motion by state representative Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee, and is a candidate for state attorney general. In October, Krause sent a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of school programs at the Texas Education Agency and several school district superintendents demanding that school districts across the state report whether any of the books on the list of 850 titles are in their classrooms or libraries He also directed that the districts identify any other books that could cause students “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The Texas State Teachers Association was quick to respond: “This is an obvious attack on diversity and an attempt to score political points at the expense of our children’s education. What will Rep. Krause propose next? Burning books he and a handful of parents find objectionable?”

And about that list of titles—Danika Ellis of bookriot.com did an analysis of the list and discovered several interesting things: there are no reasons given for books being on the list, even the ones that are listed twice. Ellis broke down the presumed reasons for books being on the list as follows: LGBTQ 62.4%; Race and Racism 8.3%; Sex Education 14.1%; Miscellaneous (including pregnancy, abortion—not Sex Education, and Unknown 15.2%. 58.89% of the books are fiction; 41.1% are nonfiction. Ellis also notes that there were several notable titles on the list, including one Pulitzer Prize winner and several other award-winning books. She also cites what she calls the “most disturbing trend” on the list as the challenge to books about human and student rights.

There is, of course, no indication—at least that I can find—of where the list came from. At least one article suggests that it was cut and pasted together from a variety of sources, and probably never properly vetted.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I have taken the time, energy, and space to report on what can be gleaned from a few internet sources. The answer is simple: when books begin to be removed from the shelves, it’s not only the potential readers who are hurt. Certainly, readers probably suffer most, particularly if they are seeking information that has become banned. But writers suffer as well, and by extension, all artists. We all are diminished when our works are forbidden their potential audiences. So in case you missed this, I wanted you all to know about it. Book banning represents an existential threat to artists, and we need to be aware.

Category:Education | Comment (0) | Autor:

Art and the Potential of Technology

Monday, 31. October 2011 0:26

Make no mistake, I love traditional art forms—not necessarily traditional content—but the forms themselves: live theatre, dance, poetry, fiction, painting, film. And like everyone in the arts I have, for a long time, been aware of the impact of technology in the arts. Who can be involved in photography and not be aware of that? Most photography, however, just uses new technology to arrive at the same old place: a print on paper that can be put into an album or framed and hung on a wall. Much the same thing happens with other current uses of technology.

Our acceptance of technology is evolutionary. We adapt in order to do our jobs or our art and don’t think much about it. I sit here typing on one in a long line of successive keyboards; the hardware has changed, the operating systems have changed, the software has changed, but the keyboard is still the old qwerty design, albeit in a far more (for me) ergonomic package. So I don’t notice the changes so much.

We also don’t notice the evolution in publishing. Technology is what makes it possible for you to be reading this. Most of us don’t think what a recent innovation this is; we sit down at the keyboard, go online, read what we want, publish what we want. One of the ongoing themes of Seth Godin’s The Domino Project is the impact that technology can and is having on writing and publishing.

Despite our love for the feel of paper and page-turning and the physicality of books, many of us now read on mobile devices of some kind or another. It’s easier, more convenient, and (in most cases) cheaper. It also works better for publishers: same income, less investment, no inventory. So we download ebooks into our Kindles or Nooks or apps and read away.

None of this is big news. At least that’s what I thought until I was this week introduced to a “book” called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios. It is really an iPad app that is designed to “revive a love of story in all.” The creators have used animation, words, voice, music and genuine interactivity to produce a work that is “old-fashioned and cutting edge at the same time.” It’s an amazing piece of work.

Then, all of a sudden, the capabilities of this technology hit me.

Now I have seen video and film in art exhibits and museums. I have played with “interactive” art pieces. Usually those pieces are unsatisfying. In many cases it is an issue of production or presentation values, a lack of understanding of interaction, or editing. Such work often engages one or two senses, but is not fully absorbing. This was the first instance where I have seen technology really used to its fullest. Morris not only engages all of the senses (except smell), but also activates the intellect and the imagination.

And it is not just the book, although it is truly delightful. What is really exciting the potential. This is finally immersive computer technology with a use other than gaming. This is technology used to create and present art, art which fully engages the viewer and is distributed via the internet. The possibilities are astounding.

At present, most, but not all, animated book apps seem to be geared toward children, and certainly they are appropriate to the young, but the implications of the technology are much bigger than that. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how this technology could be used to create all sorts of art projects. Yes, it requires a different sort of thinking: it is not applying paint to canvas, or even digital manipulation of captured images, or text-only story-telling. But it does allow artists to leap into what has become the mainstream of communication in this century.

Category:Creativity, Originality, Technology | Comment (0) | Autor:

Fit the Form to the Content

Monday, 12. September 2011 0:14

Recently, I got new business cards for the photography part of my life, replacing the rather stodgy ones I had previously used. On one side is the requisite contact information; on the other is a photograph, or, more accurately, a part of a photograph. Actually, there are several different parts of different photographs in the card collection, so each card gives the impression of being unique. They are interesting and different and varied; I like them.

These new cards are “minicards” that are not only smaller but do not have the same height/width ratio as “normal” business cards. So I selected pieces of images that I have been working on to fit the format. The result is a set of unique images in a unique format.

Just as with the images for these cards, I often discover as I work on images that the original camera frame is not the correct boundary for the image, so I sometimes spend a good deal of time searching for the correct format. And I find that it is not the same for all images, even those in the same series. The point of all of this is that the form has to have an integral connection to the content. You can’t just pour the content into pre-existing forms and expect it to work.

This notion of matching form to content is not new and certainly not unique to me. War and Peace was rewritten after it had been originally published, with first three revised volumes appearing in 1867 and the remaining three published one at a time over the next two years. The original form did not work. The final form was and is intimidating to many readers. According to Writer’s Almanac,

Tolstoy did not think of his new book as a novel. He published an article in 1868, even before the final parts of book had come out, called “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.” In the article, he wrote: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

And that’s it: the true marriage of from and content is what the artist wants and is able to express in the form in which it is expressed. And sometimes you have to make up the form, if one does not exist, to say what you need and want to say.

It’s the same reason that artists will sometimes switch media. They find that their “old” medium simply does not allow them to communicate what they now wish to communicate. So they find a medium, a “form” if you will, that does. And it may change numerous times over the career of an artist. August Strindberg, for example, wrote plays in a great variety of styles, and fiction, and non-fiction with an equally great variation in subject matter. He was also a painter and photographer.

Strindberg was trying to use the appropriate form and format for the content—for each project. It’s part of the art, but not an easy thing—we are often bound by what we did on the last project, what we think is expected of us, what we think will sell. It’s easier to work within existing constraints, but is the result better art?

If we are to continue to grow as artists, then we must seek out new forms and formats for our work—even if we have to start with new business cards.

 

Category:Communication, Creativity, Photography | Comment (0) | Autor:

Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

Category:Quality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Autor:

Internet Inspiration

Sunday, 28. November 2010 23:40

While I was stumbling around the internet the other night (Yes, it’s true; I use StumbleUpon to find curious and interesting websites I might not find otherwise.), I landed on a web site called The Inspiration Blog. This called to mind other arts inspiration web sites that I have run across. I have seen a quite a few and dismissed them, but somehow seeing this one caused me to wonder just how many of them there are out there.

The short answer is a bunch. As a matter of fact if you enter “art inspiration websites” into Google, you will get 3,340,000 hits (at least that’s the number I got last night); if you enter “photography inspiration web sites,” you only get 1,480,000. I’m sure that you could play this game all night if you wanted, just plugging in a different art in front of “inspiration websites.” Or you can go generic: “arts inspiration websites” (3,740,000 hits). That’s a lot of websites devoted to arts inspiration.

Then there is the variant form of the game: enter “arts inspiration workshop.” You get an amazing 5,260,000 hits. Even allowing that some of those may be duplicate websites or references or duplicate workshops, that’s a lot of workshops.

Having gone this far, I thought I would try another source, so I went over to Amazon, and found that Amazon catalogues 4,941 entries about “art inspiration,” with 1,919 of these in the books category. That’s a lot of products and a lot of books.

One has to conclude that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for inspiration in the arts. Who knew? Well, a lot of authors and webmasters and workshop coordinators seem to have known, or at least seem to have thought that there were a lot of blocked artists in the world, and thus a market for inspiration. That means that there are a lot of people who are in the inspiration business, which is a whole topic in itself.

I have never been to an arts inspiration workshop, and I have never read a book designed to inspire the reader artistically, although I have read a few about creativity. But I have visited more than a few arts inspiration web sites, and, frankly, I have never found any of them to be terribly inspiring. They may be for some people, but for me they do virtually nothing. Picasso said of inspiration, “the artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” He could have as well added “from the world wide web,” had there been such a thing then. Although I have never gotten anything from an arts inspiration web site, I have run across images and words on the web that resonated with me, but they appear in places that I stumbled on, or they came from websites that I visit regularly because I appreciate the quality of the work posted there; I’m sure that I’m not alone in these perceptions.

My problem with arts or any kind of inspiration web site is that they are aggregates; some are even aggregates of aggregates. Now aggregates are fine, except that for an aggregation to exist there must be an aggregator. And an aggregator is by definition also an editor, a filter, if you will, because he/she must decide what to put in and what to leave out, so when you go to an aggregate website, you are submitting yourself to someone else’s taste, to someone else’s artistic aesthetic in determining what is and what is not inspiring.  I agree with Picasso; I think inspiration comes “from all over the place,” and I’m pretty sure that I do not want my potential inspiration to be filtered, or edited, or censored.

How about you? Do you ever find inspiration on the web? Do you find it on inspiration websites? Where else do you find it? Or are you one of those artists who have no use for inspiration and trust only in their own abilities?

Category:Creativity | Comments (4) | Autor:

Into the Realm of Books

Sunday, 3. October 2010 22:17

Jason Wilson wants to push the arguments in The Real Thing and More on Art Reproduction into the realm of books, and raises the question of preserving the author’s intent in electronic reproductions, citing as an example Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. I had not meant to exclude any art, but his point is well-taken.  In forwarding his argument, Jason quotes Cliff Gerrish’s Echovar, which suggests that the reading experience is, for Gerrish at least, about more than the words on the page; he is concerned about line breaks and the placement of words. Gerrish’s concern is well-founded; written art seems to lend itself to alteration by electronic reformatting, and there are books that would be completely ruined by reformatting

If the line breaks were all that mattered, then 10hotdogs8buns’s suggestion that an electronic reader capable of displaying a constantly-formatted page, such as could be rendered in a .pdf file would answer the issue. When I read Gerrish’s comments, I have the feeling that he is talking about more than just the arrangement of words on the page or the line breaks; he is talking about the experience of a conversation with the work. And just as in conversation with old friends, there is more to the experience than just the words. There is the camaraderie, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sense of familiarity, the overtones and undertones, the environment that contribute to the communication that “conspire” with the speaker, or reader.  This sensory environment is very eloquently described by Charles Anthony Stewart quoted in Menachem Wecker’s Sept 23 Iconia:

The three senses were overwhelmed….the large books, as big as a desks [sic], covered in their ancient leather bindings; pages filled with ancient notes, smudged finger prints, and candle wax–and the smell resembling soot and offal; the texture of the parchments, rough with the pores, some still with attached hair. But in the midst of these earthy materials, were golden images and vibrant colors, as bright and brilliant as the day they were made! Somehow, I was transported back in time.

Obviously, there is much more going on here than just experiencing a book. The environment makes up an important part of the experience. The primary significance, however, is, in Gerrish’s words, a conversation between the viewer/reader and the work.  Once we reduce the experience to the interaction of those two elements, we are getting to the essence of the art experience.

If what the viewer/reader is interested in is gathering information, then advanced technology may be the way to go, provided that the presentation is at least adequate; it’s inexpensive and convenient. But those who are seeking the experience that the author/artist intended, who are seeking a real interaction with the work, will, if possible, want to experience the work in the format and medium that the author/artist initially chose. That viewer/reader will want to experience the page layout, the typography, the brush-stroke, the shifts in tonal values, the texture, the structure, the movement. That viewer/reader will want to experience the real thing.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism | Comments (1) | Autor: