Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is photographed inside his studio in Beijing on June 16, 2014

Ai Weiwei is building portraits of imprisoned human rights activists onsite at Alcatraz out of legos. The portraits total 176 and feature political exiles like South African leader Nelson Mandela, Tibetan pop singer Lolo and even American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The work is part of an exhibition titled “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz”  that opened on September 27th and will run through April 26th. The instillation is organized by For-Site, a San Francisco producer of public art. The portraits will be located in the prison hospital, A Block cells, dining hall and the former laundry building.

Weiwei’s project will bring awareness to limitations on freedom of expression across the glob. I know it is hard for Americans to really understand how censorship abroad works (not to say our government never casts shade on topics) because our freedom to express seems unbound when compared to the degree of persecution human rights activists, artists, musicians, and political rebels face in say Russia or the Middle East among others. Weiwei has himself fought to resist efforts by the Chinese government to stop his artistic efforts.

And now the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. How many Legos did Weiwei use to build his portraits? The artist estimates the final count will total around 1.2 million pieces.
Heres a link with a video about the project and an interview with Weiwei:




Happy Birthday John Singer Sargent

Today is the birthday of American portraitist John Singer Sargent. To celebrate I want to talk about one of his controversial portraits Portrait of Madame X, because despite it’s blatant objectification of women, I find the portrait to be stunning. I have always loved and admired the mysterious woman for her controlled and powerful sexuality, just oozing from within the painting. Perhaps because I feel that the woman is employing the power of her beauty and figure at her own will, I am more forgiving to Sargent for the shameless exploitation of female sexuality. And I admit I may have a bit of a lady-crush on the stunning Madame X.

But first a little about Sargent. The painter was born on January 12,1856 and is regarded as the leading portrait painter of the Edwardian era for his rich oil and watercolor evocations of elite luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida— though he lived in Europe for most of his life. Through out his career Sargent’s commissioned works were consistent with the grandiose manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, so his work evolved as he devoted more of his energy to mural painting and working en plain air (which means “in the open air,” and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors, which is also called peinture sur le motif (“painting on the ground”) in French.)

From the beginning Sargent’s work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, generating admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. But despite the international acclaim Sargent enjoyed, he was not without controversy and critical reservation. His early submission to the Paris Salon of 1884, none other than the famed Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter. But the entry resulted in a scandal that ruined his chance at establishing a career in Paris; though he became infamous in Britain and America.

Portrait of Madame X

Portrait of Madame X is a study in opposition by characterized by the woman’s pale flesh tone contrasted against the deep blacks of the dress and background. With jeweled straps just gracing her pale shoulders, the sitter is practically falling out her fine black satin dress, tightly fitted to her form— it is a dress that reveals and hides at the same time. Her high forehead, graceful neck, shoulders, arms, full bosom and shapely figure assert a careless but controlled sensuality. The recessive browns add to her mystery and provide further contrast to the skin tones. The final result is a fixation on the whiteness of her skin, an overt contrivance of “aristocratic pallor”; by contrast her red ear is a jarring reminder of the color of flesh unadorned. The pose is Sargent’s careful selection: her body boldly faces forward while her head is turned in profile. A profile is both assertion and retreat; half of the face is hidden while, at the same time, the part that shows can seem more defined than full face. The table serves the dual purpose of providing support and echoing the woman’s curves and stance. At the time, her pose was considered sexually suggestive. Her unnaturally pale skin, cinched waist, severe profile and emphasis on aristocratic bone structure all imply a distant sexuality “under the professional control of the sitter,” rather than offered for the viewer’s indulgence. Though the viewer does receive a salacious and bold display of woman flesh, she is also aloof, mysterious, and clearly unattainable.

But what was most disconcerting to the viewers upon the painting’s debut, is that the woman is clearly upper-class; adding to the image’s unsettling erotic suggestion. The sitter is young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau, an American expatriate who married the French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. Gautreau represented the parisienne, a new type of Frenchwoman recognized for acquiring her sophistication through soliciting. The English-language term “professional beauty”, referring to a woman who uses personal skills to advance to elite status, was also used to describe her. Her unconventional appeal made her an object of fascination for several and Sargent was also impressed. He anticipated that a portrait of Gautreau would garner much attention at the Paris Salon, and increase interest in portrait commissions. In a letter to a friend he wrote:

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”

Although she had refused numerous similar requests from artists, Gautreau accepted Sargent’s offer perhaps because Sargent was an expatriate also. But if their collaboration was motivated by a shared desire to attain high status in French society, its controversial reception amounted to the failure such a strategy. The attempt to preserve the Gautreau’s anonymity was unsuccessful, and the sitter’s mother requested that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibition. Sargent refused, saying he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance”. Later, Sargent overpainted the shoulder strap to raise it up and make it look more securely fastened. He also changed the title, from the original Portrait de Mme ***, to Madame X – a name more assertive and title dramatic that by accenting the impersonal, gave an illusion of the woman archetype.

The poor public and critical reception was a disappointment to both artist and model; Gautreau was absolutely humiliated by the affair. Soon after Sargent left Paris to move to London permanently. Sargent brought the painting with him and hung Madame X in his studio. Starting in 1905, he displayed it in a number of international exhibitions and finally in 1916, Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wrote to the museum director “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.” and honestly, I find I am of a like mind with Sargent. Even though he created many remarkable paintings of incredible places and people, Madam X remains my favorite for the reserved sexuality she masterfully unleashes upon the viewer.

A Call to Examine the Ills of Selfies on Men

*I started this as a freelance assignment. I wanted to share a version of it here for you guys. Enjoy!*

A lot of contemporary selfie literature is just fodder for feminist arguments and claim that the selfie phenomenon is simply the latest form of the “male gaze”.  Such arguments accuse selfies of further de-humanizing women into sex objects. Ben Ager describes the trend as “the male gaze gone viral,” and women’s studies professor and anti-porn activist Gail Dines argues that selfies are vehicles for the normalizing of porn culture in our society.  Writer Andrew Kleen thinks this should be of great concern when it comes to girls and women, “unless women don’t care about being transformed into commercial pornography.” All the while insight gathered from selfie studies like these are used to measure the effects on women while claiming men are to blame.

While I do not question conclusions that accuse selfies of pressuring women, I do think that to approach the subject of selfies as though women are the only victims is flawed. In fact I am convinced that selfies are just as bad for men as they are for women. While reading these articles I noticed that the arguments are constructed from one direction and with one purpose in mind: to demonize the contemporary male gaze fueling a porn culture. Andrew Keen, Gail Dines, and Ben Ager have written about how vulnerable women are to feeling pressured to over edit selfies for a socially constructed expectation of perfection. Dines especially has interpreted studies with such a focused agenda— accusing selfies of teaching young women that to be positively received their pictures must meet a man’s expectations— that they overlook the harm selfies could pose to men.

Selfies are not new and have been around since the advent of the camera; even before the social media apps of today made it so easy to snap and share every moment of your day. I was able to find photographs of “selfies” taken by the “mirror” method— posing in front of a mirror and capturing the reflection— as far back as  in the early 1900s. The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia took one of the first teenage selfies using a mirror and a Kodak Brownie camera to send to a friend in 1914, but even less famous people of Edwardian society have left us with photos of their reflections. This shows us just how much people almost instinctively obsess over how to preserve a present moment to document their lives. And these photos show that since the beginning of our media culture both men and women were active “selfie” takers.

472px-Unidentified_woman_taking_her_own_photograph_using_a_mirror_and_a_box_camera,_roughly_1900 546px-Grand_Duchess_Anastasia_Nikolaevna_self_photographic_portrait 1938 1948

So men take selfies just like women and edit them before sharing. In fact the main appeal of selfie sharing is that anyone with a camera on his or her phone is able to participate, not just women with low self-esteem. Sites like Instagram have premade filters that let users quickly edit lighting, quality, and saturation without having to tediously work photo-editing programs. This instant ability to edit a self-portrait to an acceptable perfection gives users a sense of control over their image, and this extends to believing they can control how they are socially perceived.  And while celebrities take selfies too, Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., faculty director of the media psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, points out because of selfies, “There are many more photographs available now of real people than models”. Selfies enable us to broadcast to hundreds of people a perception of ourselves that transcends into a definition of character and social relevance. For the “normal” person, posting a selfie through social media feels like an empowering act.

Both women and men are likely to alter photos with filters to “improve” their image. The user’s need to edit their image indicates the precarious balance between feeling empowerment and feeling anxiety over selfie sharing. In reality, control over your image reception is an illusion. According to Andrew Keen points, the user loses all control of reception once the photo is made public. Keen tells Straight, “It’s the opposite of controlling your own image.”  People post pictures of themselves looking attractive to generate more positive feedback. They become obsessed with accruing “likes” and comments on their photos. As a result, the process of making a selfie attractive has become very precise. In Grisham’s USA article he notes it has been shown that women will place the phone at high angles to make their eyes larger, cheekbones more defined, and we all remember the “duck face” trend in which women pulled their cheeks in and made “kissey” faces. And like women, men set up their pictures in very specific ways. Exploring these differences reveals insight into social pressures men possibly feel, and it is not a stretch to assume that a media driven porn culture would cause men to edit photos because they want the same validation women seek from selfie sharing.

What I have observed is that men are far more likely to take a selfie at eye level showing their chests and arms than women. Typically, men photograph themselves at least from the torso up flexing their arms or abs to show muscle. Often they are shirtless while flexing, there is far less emphasis on their faces and much more so on their bodies which could reveal a desire to appear strong and play up their physical abilities. On a tumblr site titled “Selfie Boys” men, many of whom are gay (another category of selfie takers that has been marginalized), post pictures of their penis or in poses that allude to sexual acts. Looking at photo after photo of a penis with the “#selfie” tag makes it clear that men are suffering from powerful feelings of insecurity. It is evident from these photos that the porn culture we live in puts extreme sexual pressure on men, straight or gay, to the point that they would rather share an image of their a penis than of their face. How is that any less disturbing than a woman filtering her face? These men are hiding behind their “manhood” feeling so insecure and invaluable they chose to identify themselves only as a penis. Perhaps these men are just trying to send images that they believe others want to see?

But thus far no one has thoroughly explored the ill effects of selfies or of porn culture on men. Scholars, especially Gail Dines, have only generated a lot of persuasive buzz blaming men for creating a porn culture, not considering whether they too are victims of it. This could be because of the belief, extolled by Dines, that masturbation and pornography are men’s primary experience viscerally and bodily with the Internet. Dines argument proposes that women and girls only have one way of visibility, and that way is “fuckabilty”. But I am woman and selfie taker myself, I know that when I am framing a pose that I am thinking more about how my friends, both male and female, will receive my photo. I am not thinking about just my male peers and I think the same would apply to most women also. I just want to take a goofy picture and send it to a few friends because I wish they could be there with me. Additionally, this model perpetuates a prejudice that women are less sexual than men. I think it is shocking that many writers still draw their conclusions from gender distinctions founded on assuming that men have an inherently higher desire for sex than women. Biased assumptions like Dine’s lead to more assumptions, particularly that women take selfies only for men, which limit the scope of the selfie problem. After browsing the Selfie Boys website for only a few minutes I am persuaded to argue strongly that there are men who similarly feel that their only way to acceptance is through their fuckabilty.

When we acknowledge that men are also sensitive we can understand that there are some men only feel valuable when they are perceived as sexual, and selfies reveal that. It is a mistake to approach the study of selfies assuming that only half the population would suffer harmful effects of the social phenomenon. We live in a society in which, according to a Samsung survey, selfies account for 30 percent of all photos among people ages 18 to 24.  And 91 percent of teenagers admit to posting photos online. And with the staggering popularity of selfies, I ask how could selfies not engender similar abuse on men by pressuring them to take socially acceptable, or sexual pictures as well? Yet, because of gender biases we have assumed that women are more likely to suffer insecurity over their images than men, so thus far selfie criticism only enlightens us to the problems they pose for women.  I argue that men do have similar concerns about acceptance and it is worth exploring selfies because these sexualized portraits are equally troublesome. Perhaps cultural scholars will similarly find that men are sharing selfies to satisfy the demands of perceived masculinity, similar to women taking them for perceived femininity.

—Sharon Singletary


 Bussel, K. Rachel. “Dear Mrs. Hall: Boys and Men Can See Sexy Selfies and Still Respect

Keen, Andrew. the author of Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing,

             Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, disagrees.

Lang, Ian. “Selfies: Why Taking Selfies is the Least Manly Thing You Can Do.”

Murphy, Meghan. (April 3, 2013) “Putting the Selfie under a feminist lens.”

Nimrod Kamer. “Thinkfluencer Episode 1: Selfies video.” (August 29, 2013)

Seville, Rachel. (July 23, 2013) “Can Men Take Selfies?” http://four-

Walker, Melissa. (August 2013).“The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected Consequences of
Selfie Obsession.” Teen Vogue