Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Highest form of art"? I don't think so.

This is an addendum to my last post about Marni Kotak's performance art piece The Birth of Baby X. The artist successfully gave birth to a baby boy in the gallery this morning to an audience of maybe 15 people. I'm not sure why this is news. Most of us have known or will know people who are pregnant. A huge number of us women will some day be pregnant and experience birth. A huge number of men will have a partner who gives birth and be able to play a supporting role in the birth process. People can read about it, find books and videos that show all the details. Those who want to have a more intimate understanding of the process of birth can discover and attend gatherings of women who tell their "birth stories". This isn't exactly something shrouded in mystery anymore, as some would like to pretend. Which probably explains Kotak's small audience.

Really, what was the point here?
Rhetoric that attempts (and fails) to give higher meaning to this performance abounds. One spectator was quoted saying,
I feel like the entire audience accomplished this together with Marni, using the commonly created positive energy. 
Obviously the artist would have accomplished giving birth whether the audience was there or not, so I'm not sure what their supposed "positive energy" contributed.

The artist herself contributed more empty blather:
Kotak has said she hopes people will see that giving birth is what she calls "the highest form of art."
Forget Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel ceiling, the compositions of Mozart, the plays of Shakespeare. Doing something that only women can do, but which requires simply a fully functioning reproductive system and being sexual active is not just art, but the "highest form" of art. Huzzah for womanhood! Who knew surpassing Picasso could be so easy!

Forget the caves at Lascaux and the creative explosion, a time when modern humans evolved beyond all other species in a flurry of creative activity never seen before on earth. According to Marni Kotak, there is nothing that special about us humans. Apparently, something that just about every female of every sexually reproducing species on the planet, including roaches, rats, and worms can do is not just art, but the "highest form" of art.

No. Art is a response to our life experiences, not the experiences themselves, and not the mere documentation or witnessing of those experience. Art is creative. It transcends our experiences, gives them meaning.

As far as I can tell, all this performance was made up of was the artist documenting and engaging in aspects of her regular life on display for an audience. Maybe that would have been cutting edge stuff that pushed the boundaries of what is considered art many decades ago, but these days, who cares? What profound meaning comes out of this that didn't already exist without it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bad Art: Marni Kotak's "The Birth of Baby X"

Majoring in fine art and having to form an opinion about it, I long ago concluded that anything presented as "art" is appropriately categorized as such. Found objects such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (literally a urinal) or the rock and driftwood sculptures on view at Mokseogwon on Jeju Island: art. Chris Burden crucified on a Volkswagen, Marina Abramovic starring silently across a table at total strangers for over 700 hours: art. The scribblings and clumsy drawings of millions of children hanging on countless refrigerators: art.

Not to say all (or even most) art is good art. Just that it is art.   

So now that I have that out of the way, I can write about some crappy art. Specifically, artist Marni Kotak's latest performance piece: The Birth of Baby X. For this piece, the artist has transformed Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn into a sort of home-birth space to give birth to her baby in view of the public. 

Women turning aspects of their births into public affairs is nothing new. Numerous women have allowed video footage of the birthing process to be used in documentaries and educational films, viewed by high school students in biology classes and couples in birth classes around the world. The "Feminist Breeder" Gina Crosley-Corcoran turned her birth into a live blogging event with updates, photos, sound clips, and more. Chiropractor Nancy Salgueiro recently invited the public to view the live stream of her giving birth. For anyone interested in the progression of the natural childbirth movement, a performance such as Marni Kotak's is hardly ground-breaking. On the contrary, it was inevitable.   

While Kotak cites established performance artists such as Vito Acconci and Carolee Schneemann as her inspirations, her work is not nearly as creative or provocative.  In an interview with The Village Voice, Kotak says, 
I am driven to hold onto an authentic personal experience in a world that has essentially become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality.
But the performances of Acconci, Schneemann, Burden, and Abramovic aren't public displays of their real, day-to-day lives. They are creatively tailored. Certainly both the artist and the participating audience have an "authentic personal experience", but so does an actor playing Hamlet on stage, or a theater goer moved to tears by his performance. From what I can tell, there is as little creativity as possible in Kotak's performance. Instead, in her attempts to make the piece as "authentic" as she can, she has turned it into little more than a live documentary. 

The Birth of Baby X seems to be more an extension of the natural childbirth movement than the performance art of her claimed inspirations. In The Village Voice interview she also states:  
In "The Birth of Baby X," I will be completely engrossed in the act of giving birth before a live audience. I will be focused on delivering my child into the world in the healthiest manner possible, rather than on how I look or what the audience may think. Everything I have learned about the birth process is that the more you surrender your mind and don't try to control the event, but let your body do what it naturally knows how to do, the better your labor progresses. 
Here Kotak seems to be taken in by some of the unscientific claims and rhetoric of the natural childbirth movement. There is no evidence that surrendering your mind results in a better labor process. Letting your body do what it naturally does will not prevent abnormalities in the size or position of the baby or in the pelvis or structures that support it. It will not help if the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck or if the placenta does not have enough oxygen stored to supply the baby during labor. It won't prevent infections that pose a danger to the child. Women surrendering to their bodies isn't what has drastically reduced the number of women and babies who die in childbirth. Indeed, the places in the world where access to modern medicine is limited, women and babies continue to be at great risk.   

The more I read about Kotak's motivations, the more it seems to be a self-aggrandizing political stunt rather than a challenging or transcendent work of art. In an article published in Hyperallergic, we see more typical pro-natural childbirth rhetoric: 
Childbirth is treated like an illness,” Kotak said. Hospitals are often a sterile place to have a child, with multiple rules and regulations forbidding visitors. “You get the sense that people are afraid of birth and female sexuality.” In other cultures outside of the United States, having a baby is more integrated into the culture and having supportive friends and family around is the norm.
The natural childbirth movement began in reaction to conventional practices in medicine that often were sexist and which typically did make the process of childbirth more stressful and isolating for women. However, it isn't the 1960's anymore. Today, a growing number of obstetricians are women, certified nurse midwives working in hospitals are on the rise, partners play an active role, and breastfeeding is encouraged. Not to mention the countless books written to educate women on childbirth and the ample Internet resources available at the click of a mouse. 

In popular television shows and movies, hospital birth is most typically presented as painful, but endurable, safe, and resulting in a sweaty-but-smiling woman holding a healthy newborn in her arms moments afterward. Such was the case in one of the latest episodes of the television drama Parenthood when the character Kristina Braverman gives birth to her daughter Nora. Unable to get a hold of her husband, a nurse takes charge and is the one to pressure her brother-in-law to stay in the room with her to provide a supporting role. Meanwhile, the rest of the extended family soon gathers outside to congratulate her and welcome the new child into the world. I don't really know how the experience of childbirth could be painted in a more positive light without glossing over the very real physical pain, exhaustion, and perfectly realistic fears parents have about complications that routinely occur in a minority of cases. 

Kotak claims that "... the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!" No. The ultimate creation of this life performance will be a bump to the artist's career and ego, and further dissemination of some more foolish sentiments of the natural childbirth movement. The living being will be the result of a biological function that most human women are capable of for most of their adult lives. 

The most authentic experience is not a performance of any kind. When real life is presented to an audience as art, both the viewers and performers end up having an experience that is mitigated by the self awareness and analysis invited by it also being a performance. The performance aspect does not elevate the experience. Rather, it cheapens and objectifies it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review of Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

This isn't a book about parenting or even necessarily for parents. It is a book written by a professional science writer, for the layman, about a recently developed and controversial hypothesis: that the earth can become, and has at least once frozen over completely, and that one such "snowball" likely played a role in the development of complex life on earth.

I see this book (and books like it) as relevant to humanist parenting in that this is the sort of book that has the potential to intensely pique the interest of how science works for any teenager or child old enough to read it, as well as, of course, adults. Unlike textbooks, in addition to giving all the relevant and hard scientific details, it tells a story, complete with dramatic build up and fully fleshed-out characters. As I read, I often found myself laughing out loud, tearing up, felt my muscles tighten with suspense, or experienced that sinking feeling we all have during times of despair.

Gabrielle Walker did extensive interviews with all the living players in this true-to-life drama, and in some cases seems to have developed a deep personal relationship with them. She refers to them by their first names, "Paul", "Brian", "Joe" etc.  Each is introduced to the reader through physical descriptions and anecdotes from their lives that give us a sense of their overall personalities. Geologist Paul Hoffman, an "obsessive man espousing an extreme theory" is the obvious hero of the story. The book begins with a novelesque telling of his running the Boston Marathon as a young man, a tale which - at least the way Walker tells it - reveals all his basic characteristics which would later become necessary to his development and championing of the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

The scientists in the story are real people with varying amounts of ego and ambition, unique senses of humor, specific sensitivities, and lenses through which they view the world. We see how these men's biases shape their initial conclusions or responses to the ideas of others in their field. For example, in the 1830's, Swiss researcher Louis Agassiz became the first to champion the idea of widespread ice, though he has a religious reason for doing so: he believed the ice was God's chosen mechanism for clearing the stage for humanity's occupation of earth. Sometimes the craziest ideas pan out, or the most passionate critics end up providing additional evidence for the very idea they intended to refute. What moves the process along, what ultimately brings everyone together, the universality, the objectivity of the scientific method. As Walker puts it:

"What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is not whether your theory originated with some particular conviction about how the world works, or whether you feel an emotional attachment to it. What matters is the evidence you find to support it, and whether you are ultimately prepared to accept that it could be wrong." 

And so, among scientists, there should be no shame in feeling great passion or excitement for particular ideas, and imagination and rebelliousness can be great assets. So long as at the end of the day, they follow the science.

Walker also paints an incredibly vivid picture of the remote geological locations where these hardy geologists find and study the rocks and fossils to develop and then support their ideas. This is partially because she has traveled to most of these places herself, from Africa to the South Pole, just so she, and by extension her readers, can get a real feel for the heat or chills, the light, biting insects, or hazardous snakes and elephants that are part of a typical day in the field.

Too often scientists are stereotyped as dispassionate oddballs hiding away in labs and offices. In this book, the reader is brought to realize the most heroic unique personal characteristics necessary to become a geologist in the first place, and which inevitably shape the culture, and at time the politics, of their profession.  These realizations hopefully establish an admiration for geology that is based in more than a general respect for all hard sciences, but also extends to geologists' passion, perseverance, and intimate connection to the earth, especially the particular areas of land they as individuals examine and excavate.

In summary, books like this make the work of science riveting, and perhaps that is the best approach for spreading its popularity among our children, ourselves, and in the mainstream population.