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“You’re A Grand Old Flag” : Patriotism through fragmentation

Discussions on patriotism and Americanness are currently running rampant across news outlets, online discussion boards and in-person interactions thanks to the present polarizing political atmosphere. While many would prefer to dismiss these discussions out of discomfort or disregard, they are vital topics regarding the wellbeing and future of our nation, a nation that has been grappling with what it means to be an American patriot since its inception. Concerns around patriotism and Americanness received a reviving jolt in the era of modern warfare, especially with the entrance of the United States into World War II and the subsequent Cold War. The tension never resolved in the general subconscious of the American people, leading to our current dilemma of newly visible white supremacy and xenophobia, in large part thanks to our newest armed conflict with combatants in the Middle East.

Artists have been active in the process of making visible the underlying and often unacknowledged tensions regarding who is American and what is a patriot through their art, especially when representing a national symbol like the American flag. Typically, one imagines the flag flapping gloriously at the top of a flag pole, waving in honor of a national military holiday, or representing the foundation of the United States, as we see in both the image of museum-goers admiring the War of 1812’s Star Spangled Banner (fig. 1) and a photo I snapped on family vacation for the 4th of July in 2009 (fig. 2). All of these instances are laden with unquestioning zeal for the hegemonic national narrative of American particularism. While patriotism is a necessary unifying force in creating a national identity, calling individuals to serve one another for an agreed upon larger goal or good, it is also, as Martha C. Nussbaum states in her article “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom,” a means of “inviting those who consider themselves “good” or “true” Americans to distinguish themselves from outsiders and subversives, and then excluding those outsiders.”[1] By critiquing the nation through the breaking down of symbols meant to represent the nation and its dominant narrative, like the flag or the pledge of allegiance, artists open avenues for a critical patriotism that subvert the negative, exclusive expression of patriotism that paves the way towards nationalism. Art can do this by pointing out how limited our general definition of “American” is and provide an expanded perspective on the term. The silent, unacknowledged assumption underlying the title “American” is that it is being applied to a white body of generic and distant European descent that is Christian in upbringing or mentality, if not necessarily in practice.  Our language makes this obvious when examining how the term “American” is applied to people that fall outside of this specification: African American, American Indian, Asian American, Black American, Jewish American, Latino American, Muslim American, etc.  Rarely do we encounter the phrases White American or Anglo American.  An exception in which we might find a white body’s American-ness qualified would be if an individual was a first or recent generation immigrant from a country that, while predominantly Caucasian, historically was not considered white and, thus, established distinct communities in the U.S. An example of this would be immigrants from Ireland or Poland, leading to the appellation Irish American or Polish American.[2]

In thinking critically about how to be patriotic in a way that embraces more than a narrow slice of the American population, we also need to consider how symbols of Americanness are deployed, who they represent, who they protect, who they exclude, and why.  The American flag is a prime example.  It is both an expression of the hegemonic national narrative and an extension of this thinking about who is American. Thus the symbol can be exclusive of those who are othered by the silent definition of “American” and the dominant narrative, since their history and their identity are not recognized by either. If the symbol does not represent this othered person, instead representing an ideology and history that has been directly antagonistic to their existence, it is understandable for that person to seek to break down the symbol so that those who are “American” are aware of the exclusion or so that we as a nation might work towards a more inclusive understanding of who should be represented and protected by that national symbol.

I argue that these two critical actions of fragmenting national symbols and reinterpreting them is one of the highest forms of patriotism, since it guides us towards a broad acknowledgement of how rich and full and complicated our histories and communities are and always have been. What could be more patriotically American than rebellion against a dictatorial status quo that excludes the voices of the populations deemed lesser?  It is this question that led me to consider the work of African American artists that take the American flag as their subject in order to subvert typical understandings of the symbol as patriotic and to reconstruct a more critical patriotism that lets the struggles and triumphs of non-hegemonic communities and individuals, specifically those that are African or Black American, own claim to that flag by playing an active role in building the future of America. While this idea of critical patriotism may seem foreign to the standard definition of patriotism as simply “love of or devotion to one’s country,”[3] it does function under the operational definition of patriotism laid out in Nussbaum’s article, mentioned previously, in which she defines patriotism thusly: “I shall understand patriotism as a strong emotion taking the nation as its object.  As I shall understand it, it is a form of love, and thus distinct from simple approval, or commitment, or embrace of principles.  It is closely connected to the feeling that the nation is one’s own, and it usually includes some reference to that idea in its rituals.”[4]

The American flag in modern art: an origin story

Before commencing with the works of the African American artists key to my argument, I first wish to contextualize how the American flag entered the modern art stage on a national scale as a subject in its own right, distinct from its incidental inclusion in history paintings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jasper Johns (b. 1930), to my knowledge and the general consensus of art critics, was the first artist to focus solely on the flag with his Flag (1954-55) (fig. 3), causing quite a stir in the Abstract Expressionist movement dominating the time.[5] Despite or perhaps due to the political atmosphere of the United States in recovery from the Second World War and presently in the grip of the Cold War, both Abstract Expressionism and Johns’ supposed rebellion against it with works that included recognizable symbols and sculpture removed art from national or international political commentary.

Flag (1954-55) embodies the artistic version of uncritical acceptance of the American flag as a symbol. Johns does fragment the flag, but only to make the viewer recognize the independent geometric components that go into the composition of the emblem, not the messaging underlying the flag symbolically. The flag itself was irrelevant to Johns beyond that it was a recognizable symbol that forced the viewer to look more closely at the surface of the painting to understand how the symbol might itself be considered art.[6] Essentially, Flag (1954-55) enabled Johns to focus on the fetishization of the surface of a painting.

Faith Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969

Over a decade later, the United States found itself fully embroiled in the Vietnam War, a proxy war within the Cold War conflict with the USSR. The power structure of the U.S. was highly invested in reestablishing a united domestic front in the face of widespread opposition to American involvement in international conflicts. As one means of accomplishing this, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1968, an expansion of a flag protection law from 1948 that had been limited to Washington D.C. The primary clause of the law stated that “[w]hoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”[7] Only two weeks after the passing of the Flag Protection Act, Apollo 11—the result of the Space Race that served as another extension of the Cold War—planted the first flag on the moon, claiming it for proud, “good” America of hegemonic, exclusive myth.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)—an artist from Harlem who completed her B.S. in Fine Art and Education at the City College of New York the same year that Johns shocked the art word with his Flag (1954-55)—responded to the tensions running through an America that was experiencing a push for racial and gender equality, a reevaluation of its international activities, and American supremacy as unquestioned global power.[8] She accomplished this by creating two series of works, American People (1962-1967) and Black Light (1967-1969). From American People, two paintings (fig. 4 and 5) depicted the American flag with critical context to make the viewer question for whom the flag exists, whom it excludes, and how the flag can be used to reflect the contemporary state of America. While these paintings are worthy of papers in their own right, it is Ringgold’s 1969 painting Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger from the Black Light series that I believe packs the most intense punch in performing Nussbaum’s critical patriotism.[9]

Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (fig. 6) serves as an assertive, emotional and didactic portrayal of how Ringgold, as an African American woman, has been treated by those who consider themselves good, proper (white) Americans. This painting expresses precisely that problematic side of patriotism Nussbaum pointed out that serves as a means of “inviting those who consider themselves “good” or “true” Americans to distinguish themselves from outsiders and subversives, and then excluding those outsiders.”[10] In this instance, the viewer is made to understand that Ringgold has been made the subversive outsider that is not a true American and, thus, the flag becomes just another sign for where she is not welcome and the rights those who are “American” wish to deny her. The viewer feels an echo of the aggressive exclusion that the artist has experienced. As Karen Brodkin wrote in her article “How Jews Became White Folks,” “[o]ne of the greatest privileges of whiteness is that you don’t have to spend all your time and energy defending your collective right to exist.”[11] Ringgold makes visible this privilege and viscerally expresses the experience of living in a country where she is treated as a lesser citizen and her silence is demanded through laws like the Flag Protection Act.[12]

This is accomplished through the composition of the painting. Ringgold ensured that this ultimate symbol of American pride metaphorically embodied her experience by simultaneously hiding and making inseparable from the flag the text “DIE NIGGER.” Under the stars, in a subdued black, lies the word “die.” The stripes of the flag subtly spell out the word “nigger.” Due to the painting’s composition, it takes the viewer a moment to realize that she is not examining a faithful but artistic rendering of the standard American flag. Then, the viewer has to exert effort and contort herself to read what is actually being represented. In this way, Ringgold renders the work of Johns’ Flag (1954-55) an immature novelty;[13] she uses the same stratagem of taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar, but then does more than play devil’s advocate to a movement out of touch with the reality around it. Instead, Ringgold takes on the responsibility of being an artist, of being able to communicate directly with people who have been, willfully or unconsciously, unaware of the experience of America beyond the one presented by the narrow national narrative invested in silencing those who are made outsiders. She performs the necessary act of telling her story that allows people to make a human, concrete connection to this othered experience. As Nussbaum again illuminates:

a reliable way to trigger altruistic emotion in human adults is to ask them to listen with vivid involvement to another person’s story of woe.  Without such a narrative…helping behavior is not triggered…If altruistic emotion is to have motivational power, then, it needs to hitch itself to the concrete.  The idea of the nation…needs… above all, narratives of struggle, involving suffering and hope.

Ringgold accomplishes this necessary act of bringing people close, or making them feel, and thus opens the way for an expanded narrative to represent the “American experience,” allowing for a hopeful future in which the flag representing the United States no longer screams “Die nigger” at those previously not deemed properly American.

Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way To Display A US Flag?, 1989

The 1980s were marked by economic recession, staggering unemployment, a savings and loans crisis, and the ‘tough on crime’ and precursors to the ‘war on drugs’ policies that exacerbated already tense relations between the police, the courts and the African American community. It is this continued institutional and physical violence against the black community and the rise of neoliberalist policies that led Dread Scott (b. 1965) to finally combine his activism and his art, resulting in What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (fig. 7).[14] The work depended upon audience participation. Visitors could walk up to a shelf supporting a notebook in which to write their response to the work and to share how a U.S. flag should be displayed. In order not to stand on the three by five foot flag placed under the shelf while writing that response, they would have to lean awkwardly over the edges of it to reach the response book or move the flag. Above the shelf was a print of caskets covered by American flags with Korean protestors carrying anti-American signs. The installation elicited quite a response, even inspiring condemnation from President George Bush, Sr. and the national Congress.[15] Congress went so far as to institute another expansion to the Flag Protection Act. Despite full knowledge of the unconstitutionality of the law, Congress continued its maneuverings, allowing the police and the courts to move forward with imprisonments. The Supreme Court of the United States maintained in the subsequent case regarding the law that it was indeed unconstitutional under the First Amendment, as “the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”[16]

Its very disagreeableness is actually what makes the installation so useful. It takes a symbol that we as a nation generally accept unquestioningly, performing ritualized acts before and around it without taking into account those excluded from Americanness or perspectives deviating from the prescribed narrative. As Steven C. Dubin recounts in his chapter “Rally ‘Round the Flag” from Arresting Images, the judge who was meant to sign an injunction keeping the exhibition from opening refused to do so, pointing out that “[t]his exhibition is as much an invitation to think about the flag…as it is an invitation to step on the flag.”[17] Like Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon, this work makes viewers acknowledge and consider their preconceptions tied to this symbol of Americanness. Scott’s approach to critical patriotism, however, is even more demanding of the audience. He does not allow attendees simply to react and think but structures his installations so that they, in processing and reaching conclusions, must implicate themselves in both the installation and the other attendees and their reactions. As Scott himself states in an interview, “even if they thought, ‘this guy’s a real asshole and he has no clue what he’s talking about,’ I wanted them to be very much bound up with saying, ‘this guy’s a real asshole and he has no clue what he’s talking about.’ And have that be part of the work.”[18] This exhibition served as an exemplar of his approach. Take some of these selections from the response book, for instance:[19]

Dear Dread, Like someone who viewed the exhibit, I began reading other people’s comments standing next to the flag, but gradually moved to standing on it. As someone raised to be iconoclastic (at least I thought I was) it was an interesting moment of self-awareness, which (I think) is the whole purpose of the display. Perhaps when human life and liberty is really valued above property (and symbols) in America we will all have more allegiance to the principles of “liberty” and “justice” for all. Congratulations on your courage in getting arrested to test this crazy law.

P.S. Kudos to the gallery for their courage. Why is it OK to “Knowingly maintain on the ground homeless people but not the flag”???[20]

Hi, the flag is now folded on the shelf. I have the right to unfold it, but the veterans are here and I’m afraid to. Is it right (is it American) for me to feel afraid to exercise my rights?

Right now a lady is on the ground crying because of what you have done. I feel you did something wrong and I feel you should be put in jail or have something done to you for this. I love my country and it hurts me to know that don’t. I hope you feel good about yourself for what you are putting people through. You’re an asshole.

In these responses, it is clear that participants were being drawn into the discourse around critical patriotism, a patriotism that grapples with the diversity of people and experiences contained within a broader definition of American, as well as confronting how people make the nation one’s own through ritual, as Nussbaum dictated in her characterization of patriotism.[21]

The conflict surrounding the exhibition, I believe, stems from a feeling that the nation as one’s own in an exclusive way was threatened. As Nussbaum writes, “[t]o say what a given nation is, is to select from all the unordered material of the past and present a clear narrative that emphasizes some things and omits others, all in the service of pointing to what the future may hold.”[22] Justice Frankfurter of the Supreme Court of the United States appears to have held similar views given the decision he authored for Minersville School District v. Gobitis in 1940. Written at a time when the government was equally invested in cementing a cooperative relationship between the state and its citizenry, especially regarding “how to inspire national subjects to perform and embody unity and order of the people, the law, and the state,” Frankfurter concluded that “[w]e live by symbols. The flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.”[23] What is the Proper Way to Display A US Flag? attempted to rewrite the hegemonic narrative by reordering materials and activities from the past and present that had previously been glossed over, making it so that the flag really might have a chance to transcend internal differences so that we all are represented and protected by the flag as equal Americans.

David Hammons’ African American Flag, 1990

David Hammons (b. 1943) created his African American Flag (fig. 8) just one year after Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display A US Flag?. 1990 marked the year that the U.S. began its involvement in the Gulf War and the Supreme Court’s decision defending the First Amendment in United States v. Eichman, as well as the year that the first black mayor of New York City was elected. Though born in the Midwest and trained on the West Coast, Hammons found his way to New York City by 1975 and, thus, was present during this landmark election.

In this atmosphere of continued antagonism and small steps of progress, Hammons conceived his African American Flag. Hammons certainly created other works that placed the American flag in the forefront and illustrated how it, as a symbol of the American Dream, has served as an insult to the communities excluded from being considered “American” and from the protection of that flag (for instance, fig. 9). However, the African American Flag opens up a space for some resolution to assuage some of the pain of the African American experience in the U.S. through reclamation.[24] I do not suggest that the positivity in Hammons’ flag is at all one dimensional; instead, his flag acknowledges the exclusion and pain woven into the flag, while still resulting in a hopeful and forceful assertion of identity and ownership. It is this transcendence of trauma that allows Hammons’ work to create a close connection to “the feeling that the nation is one’s own” that is essential to Nussbaum’s critical patriotism.[25]

As Albert Biome states in his article “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” the American flag is a symbol tied up in the emotional myth that “all Americans can find themselves somewhere within its folds,” while actually serving as a means of excluding those who aren’t sufficiently “American” or who “do not accept their definition of patriotic loyalty.”[26] Hammons channels this idea, acknowledging the power and exclusion that both the American and the Pan-African flags hold, then subverting those characteristics by intertwining the two.

Before elaborating on that idea, first we must better understand the Pan-African flag (fig. 10). According to the Universal Negro Catechism, the three bands of red, black and green hold great symbolic significance:

Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.[27]

The flag was created for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which Marcus Garvey founded in 1914. Garvey created the Association as the operational arm of the Pan-African movement. The Pan-African movement intended for all people of African descent, both those who emigrated directly from Africa to America and those who descended from other regions as a result of the African diaspora, to band together for the wellbeing of all African peoples. As part of this banding together, all these people of African descent were to develop independent self-reliance separate from white America and colonial power in order to secure economic independence and return to Africa, the “Motherland.” As a symbol of this unity and independence, Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association created the Pan-African flag. Garvey’s own words best express the significance of this action: “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye! In song and mimicry they have said, ‘Every race has a flag but the coon.’ How true! Aye! But…[t]hey can’t say it now.”[28] While this was highly empowering for the African and African diasporic communities, it did and still does efface the individual uniqueness of each community and insists upon regarding Africa as the only place of belonging. Like the American flag, the Pan-African flag’s intended universality privileges one perspective and excludes others.

Hammons’ flag turns the nonintegrationist and African-centric attitudes of the Pan-African movement on their heads through the melding of both the Pan-African and American flags.[29] As Garvey announced, there is pride in having a flag, an emblem of togetherness and belonging. Hammons, with his flag, makes a bold declaration of belonging and ownership of place here in the United States for the African American and diasporic community. The combination of the two acknowledges the exclusionary weaknesses of both while celebrating how the African American community has been integral to the development of the United States and boasts a rich history and culture that has roots in the United States and will continue to grow and flourish here. This flag shouts that the African American community deserves representation here in the United States as fully acknowledged and visible Americans who maintain a claim to the American Dream after centuries of hypocrisy that allowed them only an American Nightmare.[30] In this, we see a proud assertion of critical patriotism, one that dramatically expands the definition of American and, thus, America.

Thornton Dial’s Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together, 2003

The early 2000s marked a turn in American self-conception and a heightened fear of the other thanks to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 and the commencement of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Thornton Dial (1928-2016), a self-taught artist from Alabama who regularly engaged artistically with current events in his later career, created a number of works in the first decade of the 2000s related to the domestic tensions around who is and is not American and how all parties feel about one another. These works function twofold; they expose the fervor of terror and compulsory unity and work to find calm through acceptance of what is past. They also strive for identifying common ground in one another’s humanity for a more hopeful future. As Dial himself expressed:

I always be looking to the future. I respect the past of life, but I don’t worry too much about it because it’s done passed. The struggles that we all have did, those struggles can teach us how to make improvement for the future. Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world. It can lead peoples through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness.[31]

Four works, in particular, operate within this mentality. Everybody Loves the United States (fig. 11) strikes a chord of horror for those who have perished on all sides of this conflict and demands a sense of self-awareness of the consequences of our actions as a nation. Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together (fig. 12) embodies the sundering of the idea that we, as a nation, are all right, that we are unified in opinion and experience. But it also demands that we acknowledge that we still have to live with one another. We still have to find a way to pick up and carry on as a country, even after all that we have done to one another and to the world.[32] New Veteran’s Day (fig. 13) forces the viewer to recognize the cost and consequence of combat on the soldiers who return from the war in which we find ourselves. It acknowledges that loss and recognizes the importance of remembering and honoring those who have experience it in the name of this country. Finally, We All Live Under The Same Old Flag (fig. 14) captures a more forlorn America, one that has shredded itself to the point of near unrecognizableness and must now find a new identity based upon common ground. It hints at the opportunity to rebuild in a way that allows the flag to symbolically represent a new America, populated by Americans by an expanded definition.

Dial’s work from this time directly confronts the debate about who is American. Dial did, when visualizing this dispute, seem to occasionally reference who is American in terms of nationality, but more particularly, his work grapples with who among those of American nationality is allowed to consider themselves belonging to the term “American.” The works that distill this conflict in its clearest form are, unsurprisingly, his works that are fragmented recreations of the American flag. Everybody Loves The United States and New Veteran’s Day, while rendered in the colors of the national flag, maintain a greater focus on expanding the viewer’s empathy to include those impacted by a war that has been unpopular domestically, rather than redefining Americanness. Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together and We All Live Under The Same Old Flag, however, speak directly to allowing ourselves as Americans to disagree fundamentally with one another while still working towards a future that allows us all to be visible and heard, no matter what modifier is placed before the word “American.”

Nussbaum’s accounting of the French philosopher Ernst Renan’s ideas on nation describes the phenomenon illustrated by these two works. Renan argued that “a nation is not simply a physical location, it is an idea, a ‘spiritual principle.’  This spiritual principle involves, on the one hand, a story of the past, usually a story of adversity and suffering, and then a commitment to the future, a willingness to live together and face adversities for the sake of common goals.”[33] With his fractured, scrappy, battle torn flags that work to capture the struggle of defining and asserting American identity, Dial allows the viewer to see that, even as we rip apart at the seams, we cannot escape being Americans together, no matter how much we have fought against it.

Towards a hopeful future through critical patriotism

These four African American artists, through their fragmentary revisionings of the American flag, have made strides towards reclaiming this symbol of Americanism from the stranglehold of hegemonic rhetoric. These efforts have produced potent expressions of critical patriotism and declarations of Americanness. Faith Ringgold made her experience as an outsider in America visible, soliciting personal connection between her story and the viewer and pointing out the need for a broader understanding of who is protected under the word American and under the flag. Dread Scott, by implicating visitors in the art making process, pointed to the ritual sanctity many Americans grant to symbols. The infuriated response to the questioning of this ritualization by those comfortable in the current power imbalance—even in the face of those deeply betrayed by the failure of the government and society to “deliver on the flag’s promise”—exposed how unacknowledged, ignored and harmful the experience of America has remained for so many Americans not granted full acknowledgement as Americans despite the Civil Rights movement and continued efforts for equality.[34] In David Hammons’ work, viewers witness a playful but assertive declaration of belonging by African Americans. He artfully made the point that African Americans have played a significant role in establishing America, that the community has a rich history, and that they deserve to be visible and own their place here in the United States as full Americans. Dial offers up a hopeful future for all those who have been betrayed by America and excluded from the protections the flag is meant to extend. The viewer cannot help but feel the rage and resentment that rended the flag, both from those who have been refused their place in its folds and from those who have ensured that individuals who do not fit the white skinned, Christian-leaning mold of Americanness have not found a place. But because Dial already sees a world in which all Americans are true Americans, he pushes the nation to find a way to make it work going forward together, no matter how messy the process.

Even while some may fuss that these artistic subversions and recreations of this national symbol are disrespectful, it is through critical patriotism that true common ground and freedom for all might be found. As artist Edward Kienholz expressed when a viewer of his installation The Portable War Memorial (fig. 15) raged at him for his irreverent treatment of the flag, he loves America “as much as any patriot but hoped, in his own way, ‘to change it’” for the better using a more critical patriotism to avoid blind acceptance of the symbolism of the flag in order to prevent further tragedy and injustice.[35] All of these artists display this same hope with their unique treatments of the flag. Through fragmenting and reconstituting the flag, they bring forward critical understandings of what we take for granted, who is excluded, and where America needs to change in order to move forward positively. With continued police brutality, mass incarceration of Black and Latino Americans, institutionalized racism and xenophobia, an Executive Branch populated by white supremacists, and a news cycle obsessed with division and fear mongering, we are in dire need of a prompt and inclusive reimagining of Americanness. These artworks can help get us there.

Figures

Fig. 1

National Museum of American History, Star-Spangled Banner, 1989.

Fig. 2

Elizabeth Grab, 4th of July, Boston’s South Shore, 2009.

Fig. 3

Jasper Johns, Flag (1954-55), 1954, Museum of Modern Art.

Fig. 4

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #13: God Bless America, 1964

Fig. 5

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding, 1967.

Fig. 6

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969.

Fig. 7

Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, Installation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1989

Fig. 8

David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990, Museum of Modern Art

Fig. 9

David Hammons, Injustice Case, 1970, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Fig. 10

Universal Negro Improvement Association, Pan-African flag, 1920.

Fig. 11

Thornton Dial, Everybody Loves The United States, 2002

Fig. 12

Thornton Dial, Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together, 2003, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Fig. 13

Thornton Dial, New Veteran’s Day, 2004

Fig. 14

Thornton Dial, We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, 2008

Fig. 15

Edward Kienholz, The Portable War Memorial, 1968

End notes

[1] Martha C. Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom,” The University of Chicago Law Review 79, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 215-216.

[2] These distinctions are holdovers from a previous, even narrower definition of whiteness than the one under which we currently operate as a country.  For more on how Polish immigrants became white, see Sarah Kendzior, “How do you become “white” in America?,” De Correspondent, 1 September 2016. https://thecorrespondent.com/5185/how-do-you-become-white-in-america/1466577856645-8260d4a7.

[3] Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. (June 2005), s.v. “patriotism.”

[4] Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom:” 217. This definition I find preferable to typical, uncritical definitions of patriotism, since it returns subtlety to the term, allowing it to function as distinct from nationalism, which can be understood as an amplification of the negative, xenophobic aspect of patriotism pointed out by Nussbaum. Operating under the standard definitions, the two terms function interchangeably in a way that discounts the connotations of fear and anger that accompany nationalism.

[5] Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 3. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982; Kate Taylor, “Jasper Johns Without Flags,” The New York Sun, 25 January 2007. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ps/i.do?p=STND&sw=w&u=unc_main&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA166481998&sid=summon&asid=905e710c6bef3fd69313893f7245484f.

[6] “Jasper Johns Flag 1954-55,” Museum of Modern Art, 2011, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78805.

[7] United States 90th Congress, 18 U.S.C. 700, et. seq., 5 July 1968, http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title18-section700&num=0&edition=prelim.

[8] Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “Faith Ringgold exhibit challenges America to see its true colors,” The Middletown Press, 19 July 2013. http://www.middletownpress.com/article/MI/20130619/NEWS/306199913.

[9] The title of the work, harkening back to the planting of a flag on the moon to claim it, calls to mind the “imperial aggrandizement” inherent in national flags, especially that of the United States, which adds stars as it adds territory. While I will not be pursuing this idea and the colonizing of the othered body that follows it, more on the imperialist ties of flags can be found in Albert Biome, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 2-25.

[10] Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom:” 215-216.

[11] Karen Brodkin, “How Jews Became White Folks — and May Become Nonwhite

Under Trump,” Forward Association, Inc., 6 December 2016. http://forward.com/opinion/356166/how-jews-became-white-folks-and-may-become-nonwhite-under-trump/.

[12] “Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s are the Focus of an Exhibition,” ArtDaily, September 2010. http://artdaily.com/news/40753/Faith-Ringgold-s-Paintings-of-the-1960s-are–the-Focus-of-an-Exhibition#.WRe85xPytE5.

[13] For more on Jasper Johns’ work as an exercise in novelty, see Jed Perl, “Flag Burning: The sly fakery of Jasper Johns,” The New Republic [Washington D.C.], 2 December 1996: 42. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/212799216?accountid=14244. For a more positive reflection on Johns’ Flag (1954-55) and its significance, see Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 2-25.

[14] “Interview: Dread Scott,” Neo-Griot: Kalamu ya Salaam’s information blog, 10 April 2012. http://kalamu.com/neogriot/2013/09/27/interview-dread-scott/.

[15] Mike Royko, “Ah, the flag: Such a useful symbol,” Chicago Tribune, 15 March 1989: 3. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1989/03/15/page/3/article/ah-the-flag-such-a-useful-symbol.

[16] Supreme Court of the United States, “United States v. Eichman 496 U.S. 310 (1990),” JUSTIA US Supreme Court, 1990. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/496/310/case.html.

[17] Steven C. Dubin, “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.,1992), 111. For more information on the exhibition, this text provides the most comprehensive accounting of the installation and its context.

[18] “Interview: Dread Scott,” Neo-Griot: Kalamu ya Salaam’s information blog, 10 April 2012. http://kalamu.com/neogriot/2013/09/27/interview-dread-scott/.

[19] These quotations are drawn from the samples provided by Dread Scott from his description of the installation on his website. I selected these particular entries due to their direct response not only to the exhibition, but also to the response or presence of other attendees. Dread Scott, “What Is The Proper Way to Display A US Flag?,” Dread Scott, n.d. http://www.dreadscott.net/works/what-is-the-proper-way-to-display-a-us-flag/.

[20] This final quotation seems to be drawn from another response earlier in the response book.

[21] I make this assertion with the full knowledge that Dread Scott himself is a communist with firm beliefs that our current system needs not to simply be overhauled but to be entirely replaced by a community form of government. Despite this impulse underlying his work, the principles of critical patriotism still hold both for his behavior and for the participants in the exhibition.

[22] Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom:” 220-221.

[23] Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America (New York: New York University Press 2013), 109; F. Neil Brady, “Ethical Theory and Public Service,” Papers on the Ethics of Administration, ed. N. Dale Wright (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1998), 233.

[24] Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian

Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982.

[25] Antwaun Sargent, “David Hammons: The Private Public Artist,” The Nation, 25 March 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/david-hammons-the-private-public-artist/; Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom:” 217.

[26] Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian

Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982.

[27] George Alexander McGuire, Universal Negro Catechism: a course of instruction in religious and historical knowledge pertaining to the race (New York: Universal Negro Improvement Association, 1921), 32. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100790616.

[28] Marcus Garvey in speech on 19 March 1927, quoted from “Honorable Marcus Garvey, Gifted Man of Vision, Sets Out In Unanswerable Terms the Reasons Why Negroes Must Build in Africa,” Negro World 21, no. 6 (1927).

[29] Holland Cotter, “Invoking Marcus Garvey While Looking Ahead,” New York Times, 24 August 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/24/arts/art-review-invoking-marcus-garvey-while-looking-ahead.html.

[30] Antwaun Sargent, “David Hammons: The Private Public Artist,” The Nation, 25 March 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/david-hammons-the-private-public-artist/.

[31] Thornton Dial, “Thornton Dial,” Souls Grown Deep, n.d. http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/thornton-dial.

[32] Corinne Segal, “How a sharecropper’s son with a third-grade education changed the definition of the word ‘artists’,” PBS NewsHour, 29 January 2016. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/thornton-dial-paintings/; Maxwell L. Anderson, “Most Comprehensive Exhibition of the Work of Thornton Dial to Premier at the IMA in 2011,” ArtDaily.org, 2010. http://artdaily.com/news/42507/Most-Comprehensive-Exhibition-of-the-Work-of-Thornton-Dial-to-Premiere-at-the-IMA-in-2011#.WRn5SRMrJE4.

[33] Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom:” 221.

[34] Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian

Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982.

[35] Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory:” 17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982.

Bibliography

Anderson, Maxwell L. “Most Comprehensive Exhibition of the Work of Thornton Dial to Premier at the IMA in 2011.” ArtDaily.org, 2010. http://artdaily.com/news/42507/Most-Comprehensive-Exhibition-of-the-Work-of-Thornton-Dial-to-Premiere-at-the-IMA-in-2011#.WRn5SRMrJE4.

Boime, Albert. “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 2-25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108982.

Brady, F. Neil. “Ethical Theory and Public Service.” Papers on the Ethics of Administration, ed. N. Dale Wright. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1998.

Brodkin, Karen. “How Jews Became White Folks — and May Become Nonwhite Under Trump.” Forward Association, Inc., 6 December 2016. http://forward.com/opinion/356166/how-jews-became-white-folks-and-may-become-nonwhite-under-trump/.

Chambers-Letson, Joshua Takano. A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

Cotter, Holland. “Invoking Marcus Garvey While Looking Ahead.” New York Times, 24 August 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/24/arts/art-review-invoking-marcus-garvey-while-looking-ahead.html.

Dial, Thornton. “Thornton Dial.” Souls Grown Deep, n.d. http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/thornton-dial.

Dubin, Steven C. Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1992.

“Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s are the Focus of an Exhibition.” ArtDaily, September 2010. http://artdaily.com/news/40753/Faith-Ringgold-s-Paintings-of-the-1960s-are–the-Focus-of-an-Exhibition#.WRe85xPytE5.

“Interview: Dread Scott.” Neo-Griot: Kalamu ya Salaam’s information blog, 10 April 2012. http://kalamu.com/neogriot/2013/09/27/interview-dread-scott/.

“Jasper Johns Flag 1954-55.” Museum of Modern Art. 2011. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78805.

Kendzior, Sarah. “How do you become “white” in America?” De Correspondent, 1 September 2016. https://thecorrespondent.com/5185/how-do-you-become-white-in-america/1466577856645-8260d4a7.

McGuire, George Alexander. Universal Negro Catechism: a course of instruction in religious and historical knowledge pertaining to the race. New York: Universal Negro Improvement Association, 1921. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100790616.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom.” The University of Chicago Law Review 79, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 213-250. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. (June 2005. S.v. “patriotism.”

Parker, Lonnae O’Neal. “Faith Ringgold exhibit challenges America to see its true colors.” The Middletown Press, 19 July 2013. http://www.middletownpress.com/article/MI/20130619/NEWS/306199913.

Perl, Jed. “Flag Burning: The sly fakery of Jasper Johns.” The New Republic [Washington D.C.], 2 December 1996: 42. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/212799216?accountid=14244.

Royko, Mike. “Ah, the flag: Such a useful symbol,” Chicago Tribune, 15 March 1989: 3. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1989/03/15/page/3/article/ah-the-flag-such-a-useful-symbol.

Sargent, Antwaun. “David Hammons: The Private Public Artist.” The Nation, 25 March 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/david-hammons-the-private-public-artist/.

Scott, Dread. “What Is The Proper Way to Display A US Flag?” Dread Scott, n.d. http://www.dreadscott.net/works/what-is-the-proper-way-to-display-a-us-flag/.

Segal, Corinne. “How a sharecropper’s son with a third-grade education changed the definition of the word ‘artists’,” PBS NewsHour, 29 January 2016. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/thornton-dial-paintings/.

Supreme Court of the United States. “United States v. Eichman 496 U.S. 310 (1990).” JUSTIA US Supreme Court, 11 June 1990. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/496/310/case.html.

Taylor, Kate. “Jasper Johns Without Flags.” The New York Sun, 25 January 2007. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ps/i.do?p=STND&sw=w&u=unc_main&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA166481998&sid=summon&asid=905e710c6bef3fd69313893f7245484f.

United States 90th Congress. 18 U.S.C. 700: Desecration of the flag of the United States; penalties. 5 July 1968. http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title18-section700&num=0&edition=prelim.

Universal Negro Improvement Association. “Honorable Marcus Garvey, Gifted Man of Vision, Sets Out In Unanswerable Terms the Reasons Why Negroes Must Build in Africa,” Negro World 21, no. 6 (1927).

Capstone presentation for studio archive field experience

As part of both the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative and my SILS coursework, I participated in a field experience in which I established the studio archive for Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen. To learn more about the project, please view the video of the capstone presentation below.

In order to follow along with the transcript or to view the presentation alone, please visit https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/10BDUcSyLaWe8gZDA_1c77mo2cquhUxnaIVVbYKVs2Eo/edit?usp=sharing.

Path of Least Resistance: Mirroring Organizational Patterns in Artists’ Archives

FOR MY ORIGINAL POST, see the blog for the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative.


Prior to becoming 2nd year fellows of the Artists’ Archives initiative, our application of knowledge was largely general.  We led workshop sessions for groups of artists and presented at library conferences, but rarely did we provide in depth, tailored consultations with individual artists who had particular needs.  Starting this year, however, my class of fellows has filled that gap by digging into the second internship required by the initiative: consulting with a North Carolina artist to establish their studio archive.

Tailoring the artists’ archives knowledge to a specific artist’s needs has clarified my understanding of the power of organization on an artist’s practice.  It has also brought to the fore what is required of an artist-archivist team before even touching the materials to start the archive.  First, we have to get at the underlying psychology behind why and how someone naturally organizes.  For my artist, Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen, this meant digging down to (1) how he prioritizes, categorizes and uses his materials currently, (2) how he intends to use them in the future and (3) how he naturally arranges this materials.

Establishing existing priorities, categories and uses for studio materials is an essential first step for two main reasons, one being the archival principal of ‘original order’ and the other the long term viability of maintaining the archive.  Archivists prioritize keeping materials or a collection in original order where it makes sense for the collection’s internal logic and intended audience.  The principle of original order becomes particularly vital when an archive will be actively used by the original creator of the collection.  To drive the point home, here’s a more mundane example of the impact of original order on making a grouping of items searchable.  Have you ever had a family member or friend who decided to  ‘help’ you by reorganizing your kitchen, closet or desk?  Remember how you couldn’t find anything for days (possibly weeks, maybe never again) after?  That’s because the priorities and categories they assigned to your materials didn’t align with yours or your patterns of use. In archival terms, they abandoned the original order – the internal logic – of your materials. Like with home organization, the usefulness of an archive only stretches as far as it is navigable from a user standpoint.  Understanding current use and workflows regarding studio materials allows archivists to replicate them as appropriate going forward.  That way the archives works for and with the artist for which it was constructed.

The appropriateness of maintaining original order is determined, in part, by intended future use of the materials, as well.  For Brian, his intended future use of his artistic production as a legacy collection for donation takes a backseat to just having it immediately arranged so that he’s aware of and can find all that he has and so that he can identify where projects overlap and relate.  However, his extensive reference library is another story.  Brian expressed an interest in having his extensive catalogue updated, but not for his current, personal use.  Instead, he envisions his library as a community resource that would be just one aspect of opening his studio up to the community as a gallery and learning space.  These attitudes towards use of his studio materials and reference collection drove the decisions we made regarding arrangement and how much to alter or maintain his pre-established arrangement, priorities and categories.

Determining natural organization practices represents the final step in pre-action preparation for establishing a studio archive. As our physical storage handout outlines, most people fall into three categories: (1) piler, (2) filer and (3) spring cleaner (see image below).  Brian—like myself—tends to be a combination of piler and spring cleaner.  To make any organizational strategy functional in the long run, the structure needs to follow the path of least resistance.  As anyone with failed New Year’s resolutions can attest, maintaining new behaviors that don’t work with natural inclinations or ingrained patterns requires too much effort and too many habit alterations to be sustainable.  For Brian’s studio archive, this meant maintaining the categories he’d already assigned his materials, both consciously and unconsciously, in clear plastic boxes that allow him to see both the label and the contents.  The boxes are also highly portable and maintained on shelves that also move.  His space tends to fluctuate in purpose, so ensuring that his storage accommodated this was essential.  Even his oversized materials that require flat file storage are in units with casters and labelled according to their categorized contents.  By working with Brian’s natural inclinations and making maintaining the organization as simple as possible, the hope is that maintenance will feel intuitive and thus not require Brian to employ someone to manage his materials after I finish up my term with him.

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Experimenting with Microsoft Sway

The final project of our half semester course INLS 690-249: Intellectual Property and Copyright in Archives required us to learn how to create presentations in Microsoft Office Sway.

The app provides a vast array of aesthetically cohesive templates, but they’re not terrible customizable.  In the ‘Design’ tab, you can alter the inspiration for the automatic selection of the most appropriate color scheme (helpful if all of your images are already color cooperative), the color scheme, font style & size and animation emphasis (AKA text block and media size). In the ‘Layout’ tab, you can select three options for how the flow proceeds.

From the Sway homepage, I chose to start the presentation from a document I had saved to my computer.  This generated an automatic template that segmented the text and images into relatively intuitive chunks and headings.  It intuited the headings just from the bolded caps lines that I had in the document as placeholders.  Anything placed in a table cell (my shorthand for Tip & Tricks boxes) it turns into images.  This is a nice idea, but if you have linked material, it’s no longer accessible in the image and needs to be reformatted as text.  The media additions were relatively intuitive and responsive, and embedding on Sway is by far the easiest embed process of any platform I’ve worked with.

With the limited levels of customizability in exchange for pre-curated designs, Sway operates as PowerPoint for those who are more comfortable with a WordPress visual editor approach to user experience; there’s a button for all the functions, and there aren’t too many buttons.

This app works best for small presentations that aren’t terribly text heavy, as well.  The assignment required us to select a focused topic and write up a multimedia mini blog post (500-1000 words).  Even with the mix of media and the limited word count, it still proved challenging to keep the text dynamic and visually pacing.  If coordinated with a formal verbal presentation, I could see this app as a major time saver and means of cutting down on design stress.

It strikes me that the main virtue of Sway is that, once you get over the relatively small learning hump, it’s a quick and dirty means of creating a low-input, low-stress presentation that looks like you put more effort in than you did.

Take a look:

To see how all of the individual Sway presentations embed into one presentation as a compilation, check out the class Sway presentation that our professor Denise Anthony put together:

Artists’ Studio Archives: Managing Personal Collections & Creative Legacies

Are you an artist looking to get your studio and personal materials organized to help you maintain order (both physically & digitally), manage your finances, apply for grants & fellowships, or prepare for legacy matters?  The free, online workbook Artists’ Studio Archives: Managing Personal Collections & Creative Legacies answers those issues and more.  It’s also available for print-on-demand at Lulu.com.

Authors Neal Ambrose-Smith, Joan E. Beaudoin, Heather Gendron and Eumie Imm-Stroukoff collaborated to create an actionable workbook of best practices based on case studies and studio visits.  Between the easy-to-read instructions and well designed worksheets, this workbook will set you on your way to establishing and maintaining a functional, accessible studio archive one step at a time.

For more, see this blog post from the Artist Studio Archives website.

Institutional Internships Commence: The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center

Happy Summer all!

I’m ecstatic to share that, as part of the Artists’ Archives initiative, I’m spending the next three months working as an intern in the Archives department at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

O'Keeffe Museum Research Center

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a single-artist institution dedicated to the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).  The art collection reflects O’Keeffe’s experience primarily in northern New Mexico, Texas and New York, comprising over 3,000 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings.[1]  In addition to her art, the Museum also maintains two historic properties owned by the artist in Abiquiu and on Ghost Ranch, roughly an hour north of Santa Fe.

The Museum recently opened an exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas, part of the installation of Becoming A Modern Artist.  Portions of the collections are also on loan to the Tate Modern for its upcoming exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe and The Harwood Museum of Art for its exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and The West.

Besides the Museum proper and the historic houses, the O’Keeffe campus (as the staff calls it) extends to the Education and Conservation departments, as well as the Research Center, which houses the artist’s Library and Archives.  The relationship between Curatorial, the Registrar and the Archives is especially close-knit.  Even the interns benefit from this team mentality; staff members throughout the campus have extended invitations for me to shadow them and join their interns for relevant events.  As part of this, I will sit in on inter-department staff meetings, join both the Registrar’s interns and the library staff for cataloguing at the historic properties, tour the galleries with Curatorial’s drawing interns, and meet with the director of the Research Center for a glimpse into the planning for an upcoming forum for single-artist institutions.

This year, the Museum focused the arrangement of its galleries around themes, which accommodates display of the personal effects of O’Keeffe, which are the purview of the Archives.  Thus, Curatorial and Research Center staff are navigating a new relationship that fosters increased coordination of collections.  As a nearly life-long fan of the art and aesthetic of O’Keeffe, I’m thrilled to act as a fly on the wall while the two departments work out the kinks, such as what to do if a researcher presents a compelling need for an archival item that’s being housed in the galleries, or if another museum requests the item for an exhibition.

The scope of the Archives covers O’Keeffe’s life and artistic practice, American Modernism as it relates to O’Keeffe and her circle (including her husband Alfred Stieglitz), local histories relevant to O’Keeffe and her interests, and institutional history for the Museum.[2]  Currently, the Center’s archivist, Liz Ehrnst, is reviewing the collections development policy to tighten the scope even more on materials not just relating to, but significant to a deeper understanding of O’Keeffe and her artistic practice.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center Library

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library

[for the rest of the post, click: Institutional Internships Commence]

 

Information Use in Local Contexts

For Dr Amelia Gibson’s Information Behavior in Local Contexts course, I presented to the class on ‘Information Use in Local Contexts.’ My interpretations from the assigned readings led me to focus on information use in terms of visualizations and literacies.

The presentation is embedded below.  To see the accompanying speaker notes, click on the gear icon and select ‘Open speaker notes.’

Continue reading “Information Use in Local Contexts”

Learning from Artists’ Archives ARLIS/SE Conference Presentation

In 2015, Erin Dickey, Kelsey Moen and I all presented on the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative for the ARLIS/SE regional conference in Atlanta, GA.

Embedded below is a copy of our slides.  To see the accompanying text, click the gear symbol and select Open Speaker Notes

 

Book Artists’ Core Collection: A compilation of multimedia book arts resources

For Professor Mary Grace Flaherty’s collections management course, she had us select an audience and construct a collection suited to that audience.  I chose to focus on an audience of book arts practitioners and historians.


The book arts present a fascinating mix of scholarship and craft in which artists and artisans both expand on traditional techniques and engineer solutions to novel problems. Humans display a persistent need to document their ideas in story-telling form: cave paintings, clay tablets, papyri scrolls, codices, artists’ books, and e-books. The evolution of these formats tracks the accumulated knowledge that book artists still employ today, explaining why scholarship is integral to the craft of book arts. As such, a core collection for book artists must include everything from encyclopedias to broad histories to technical texts in the format of videos, written tutorials, history books, catalogues of online resources, sample books, and binding equipment. This collection is intended to form a cohesive presentation of the resources and equipment necessary for a broad sampling of book artists, providing an accessible starting point for students and practitioners in their own research and collection building.

My senior year of undergrad, a library coworker introduced me to the book arts program at Wellesley College. It is composed of the ideal trifecta of departments: studio book arts, conservation and special collections. Katherine Ruffin heads the Book Arts Lab, Emily Bell the Conservation Lab, and Ruth Rogers & Mariana Oler the Special Collections. In the Book Arts Lab, we learned about equipment safety, typesetting and printing on Vandercook presses, historic and modern bindings, papermaking, and a general history of the book. Emily provided support for individual students on more in-depth projects beyond the scope of the introductory course. Special Collections provided a hands-on look at the implementation of book arts from the pre-print books to contemporary conceptual artists’ books. Over the course of this class, Katherine, Emily, Ruth and Mariana provided us with a number of essential resources, many of which I still seek out today. Unfortunately, the syllabus and handouts wandered off since graduation, so I lost track of the majority of those sources. After speaking with other practitioners, I’ve realized that many others also struggle to keep those lists in a safe, consistent form. My hope is that, because the collection I’ve put together is stored on a publicly accessible board on Pinterest, the Books Artists’ Core Collection will act as a practical means of tracking essential resources for book artists.

Book Arts & Book Artists

As I first learned from Wellesley’s Intro to Book Arts and have continued to experience, book artists and book historians display a considerable willingness to share their knowledge. This, I believe, is indicative of the apprenticeship nature of the book arts. While apprenticeship is a wonderful and necessary system of knowledge sharing, it complicates efforts at creating an authoritative collection of sources for the diverse artists that populate the discipline.

The book arts cover many branches of artistic creation, all of which are employed in the production of both artistic and functional materials. These branches include papermaking, letterpress printing, printmaking, calligraphy, illumination, binding, and digital media. Regional histories of the book, primarily divided into Western, Asian, and Middle Eastern, form the trunk for those branches.[1] Artists’ preference for either historic, traditional book arts or for novel book forms and practices form the roots. The ‘tree’ of book arts is far reaching and various. To create a core collection broad and deep enough to feed that tree, I chose to house the digital collection and catalogue on Pinterest.

Why Pinterest?

Pinterest is a global social media site that performs as a community “bookmarking tool that helps [its users] discover and save creative ideas.”[2] Pinners (users) can create boards on whatever topic they wish and pin relevant items of interest from the Internet to that board. By clicking the pin, users are directed back to the pin’s webpage of origin.[3] The real beauty of Pinterest, though, lies in its varied access points to the site’s communal knowledge gathering. Pinterest boasts several different searching options to engage with that knowledge community: (1) a keyword search function that seeks out pins either on your own boards or across the whole of Pinterest, (2) a browsing function that allows pinners to see pins related to a particular pin, (3) a browsing function that allows pinners to see boards related to a particular board, (4) a browsing function that allows pinners to see other boards on which a particular pin is pinned, and (5) a browsing function that allows pinners to see what else from a particular site has been pinned to Pinterest.

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

This sort of searching and browsing turns Pinterest into a highly linked catalogue and thesaurus. One pin can create an entire network of related items, which means that the Book Artists’ Core Collection acts as a jumping off point for practitioners to research more in-depth projects. For example, if an artist wishes to create a medieval book of hours, she can find the items in the core collection on parchment and papermaking, medieval bindings, paleography of the period, and illumination styles from various regions. Then once she determines the period and region she wishes to emulate, say a 14th century English binding, the artist can use those pins from the collection to seek out related items to provide further resources that are too specialized for the Core Collection, such as the saints that would have been significant to the region at the time or the plants and scenes most popularly illuminated, etc. Pinterest functions as an ideal means of creating a collection not limited by individual holdings, and thus not limiting those using the collection.

The Book Artists’ Core Collection board is also publicly available to anyone online with access to Pinterest. Having this core collection catalogue generally available helps combat the knowledge loss from misplaced handouts and course syllabi. Also, by storing the catalogue on Pinterest, users of the collection have not only easy browsing options, but also a simple means of accessing the online resources, such as the YouTube tutorials and samples of digital artists’ books. The major drawback of Pinterest as a platform for the collection lies in its lack of tagging. While I listed the subject headings in the description boxes for each pin, Pinterest has no function to search the collection by subject heading within the board, meaning that users have to scroll through the pins to locate items that might be of interest. While this is a major disadvantage, I felt that it was negligible compared to the advantages of the platform. Firstly, the collection is small enough that scrolling through is not too onerous, and two, it requires users to become familiar with the collection as a whole, thus introducing them to connections between resources that they might otherwise have missed.

The Collecting Process

My collecting process began with seeking out my old handouts and syllabus from Wellesley’s Intro to Book Arts course. Failing to locate those, I turned to the authorities in the discipline to orient me: the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa, the Book Arts Program at the University of Alabama, and the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Iowa and Alabama are renowned for the strength of their book arts studio programs and the Rare Book School (RBS) is internationally respected for its instruction in the study of the book arts and the history of the book. Like Wellesley College, the studio programs’ websites listed only course options, not course syllabi. From their course listings, I formed the structure of the Book Artists’ Core Collection:

  1. General History
  2. Papermaking
  3. Printing
  4. Calligraphy & Illumination
  5. Binding
  6. Digital Lab
  7. Equipment

My source for the resources under of each of these subject headings came almost exclusively from the RBS’s curriculum website, which does provide syllabi online for every course. I’m confident in the efficacy of these headings, since they are used as guiding themes by the Center for the Book, the Book Arts Program and the RBS, as well as my Wellesley course. I provide a breakdown of each subject heading in the sections below. Katherine and several other regional book artists also contributed noteworthy resources to supplement the thorough reading lists from the RBS. Though I depended primarily on RBS for hardcopy materials and select databases, the collection is still well rounded; the RBS hosts an extensive faculty of international scholars and experts in the study of book arts. By selecting a large cross-section of resources from the syllabi in all relevant subject areas, the Book Artists’ Core Collection remains broad and balanced. The tutorial videos channels from YouTube I selected from my own familiarity with the skills displayed, confirmed in their authority by aligning with the instructions given by well-respected authors in print. The equipment I chose from the most commonly needed items in a book arts studio that are not finite, and therefore reusable by multiple patrons for an indefinite period of time.

I chose not to emphasize the library science-oriented portion of the study of book arts because, while scholarship is necessary to the practice of book artists, information about collections management and analytical bibliography generally do not hold much relevance. I also didn’t include individual artists books in the collection because of the cost per book and because that sort of collecting is more within the sphere of special collections. The sole exception to this rule is Karen Hanmer’s Biblio Tech: Reverse Engineering Historical & Modern Binding Structures with a focus on board attachment (2013), which is meant as a teaching tool and provides such an array of binding structures that it is worth the investment. I instead included catalogues of artists’ books, ones that described binding styles, as well as more standard artwork metadata.

In the sections below elaborating on the subject headings, I have only included highlights from the collection to illustrate the sort of resources under that heading. While the collection is small enough to browse, it still contains 240+ items, most of which are fall under more than one heading due to the interdisciplinary nature of book arts. Therefore, listing them all under each heading would test any reader’s patience. Instead, I request that you visit the catalogue on Pinterest to examine the entirety of the collection.

General History

General history primarily contains the items that describe the historical development and evolution of various techniques in the book arts. For instance, Edo & Paris recounts the realities and depictions of early modern urban life and the state drawn from illustrated books from the period, allowing artists to see which styles were appropriate in which contexts and how they interacted with the codex form.[4]

This section also contains general knowledge, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. I included these in this section because terms often developed and expanded over time, thus history can be read from the definition of terms. One example in the collection is the ABC of bookbinding: a unique glossary with over 700 illustrations for collectors and librarians. Though oriented towards library professionals and collectors, identification of terms from both text and image is key for book artists, particularly those new to the discipline.[5]

Papermaking

Papermaking, parchment making, and paper selection are all included under the Papermaking subject heading. This section includes instruction manuals, histories of writing surfaces and paper sample books. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques is representative of both the history texts and instruction manuals, since it goes through the historical techniques and their contexts in Japan. Sample books of both textblock and cover material are necessary to a core collection because it can be prohibitively expensive for individual artists to order sample books for each type of paper in which she’s interested. For instance, one company might have five lines of decorative papers, each of which have a sample book. Without actually interacting with the material, it can prove challenging for artists to select the appropriate papers just based on descriptions and a picture. Fine Papers at the Oxford University Press is representative of sample books, though it comes in a more traditional book form than many others.[6]

Printing

This subject heading includes both typography and illustrative printing. For the typography section of Printing, the collection primarily covers the development and history of typefaces and type design. For illustrative printing, the collection focuses on the identification of different kinds of printing methods and the use of illustrations in texts and ephemera. The printing section does not cover much instruction on the technical process of either branch of printing, since the knowledge needed changes for each press and since so many types of illustrative printing exist (e.g. drypoint and wood block). American Wood Type, 1828-1900 is representative of the typography portion of Printing. It follows the development, creation, dissemination and use of wood type in early-modern America. Another sort of typography resource includes those like graphic designer Marian Bantjes’ Ted Talk, in which Bantjes describes how graphic design and her individual style influences the way she depicts text.[7] The Picture Postcard & Its Origins is representative the ephemera section of illustrative printing, providing reference images for artists looking to create images of their own.[8]

Calligraphy & Illumination

Calligraphy & Illumination I incorporated together as a subject heading because they share many of the same tools and techniques and are often addressed together in book arts literature. Paleography, though, is the primary domain of Calligraphy, just as manuscript illumination is the primary domain of Illumination. Palaeography, 1500-1800: A Practical Online Tutorial from the National Archives represents the former and is one of several online tutorials that provide history, identification and execution as their focus.[9] Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art represents the latter, as well as the former, displaying specimens from books of hours, the most common and highly illuminated genre extant from the medieval period.[10]

Binding

Binding, alongside Papermaking, serves as the most significant contribution to book arts technical skills offered by this collection. This subject covers both the history of binding styles and tutorials on replicating binding structures. Historically, much scholarship has been dedicated to analyzing the covers of books; Twelve Centuries of Bookbinding, 400-1600 is one of these texts that couches cover analysis within historical context.[11] The historical and technical is combined in Bookbinding Materials And Techniques, 1700-1920, in which the author couches technical innovations in its historical context.[12]

For book structures, both tutorials and models are essential. To provide models, I included Karen Hanmer’s Biblio Tech binding set, as mentioned in the section on The Collection Process.[13] Making Handmade Books: 100 Bindings, Structures & Forms provides instruction for various binding structures, both traditional and modern.[14]

Artists’ books also fall within this subject heading. As a form begun in the twentieth century, the discipline is still testing the bounds of what it means to create an ‘artist’s book.’ As Ruth phrased it when explaining her collecting process, “if it tells an engaging story in a novel way and it fits on the Special Collection’s shelves, it’s an artist’s book by my definition.” Essentially, though, an artist’s book is a work of art that interacts somehow with the storytelling aspect of a book structure. Johanna Drucker, in The Century of Artists’ Books, provides the most engaging overview of the artist’s book, situating it historically and stylistically, as well as examining its conceptualization.[15]

Digital Lab

The Digital Lab resources are the least developed part of the core collection. Because this is still such a new field in the grand scheme of book arts, a critical volume of resources has not yet developed. I included critical and technical resources, as well as some exhibition catalogues, to provide basic context, skills and examples of how artists are beginning to incorporate the digital into their practice. For the critical, I included The Abominable Digital Artists’ Book: Myth or Reality? by Esmée de Heer.[16] She defines the artist’s book and discusses the current status and potential future of digital technology in their creation. For skills acquisition, I included the Tate’s workshop on Transforming Artists Books, which links to the workshop reflections on skill sets and forms.[17] The best exhibition catalogue I encountered was Non-visible and Intangible, hosted by Hampshire College from 7-16 November 2012.[18] It shows the various stages at which digital technologies might integrate with more traditional forms, as well as how to make the digital form interactive in unexpected ways.

Equipment

As mentioned previously, I chose the equipment from personal observation of the most necessary items in a book artist’s toolbox that are not finite. Finite items—like paper, thread, and ink supplies—belong to the realm of art cages or studios rather than libraries. As such, the Book Artists’ Core Collection includes items like a travel kit of binding equipment, a sewing frame and a collapsible punching trough. These items can be repeatedly checked out by any number of users to supplement their own collections or help them get a feel for which styles or brands of equipment they most require.

 

[1] This particular breakdown of book arts was informed by the curriculum at both the University of Iowa Center for the Book and theBook Arts Program at University of Alabama.

[2]Press.” About Pinterest. 2015.

[3] For more about using Pinterest, see the website’s promotional video.

[4] Henry D. Smith, II. “The History of the Book in Edo and Paris” in Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era. Edited by James L. McClain et al. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Paperback, 1997. pp. 332-52.

[5]Jane Greenfield. ABC of bookbinding; a unique glossary with over 700 illustrations for collectors and librarians. New Castle, Carlton, 2002.

[6] Barrett, Timothy. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques. Colorado: Weatherhill, 1992; Bidwell, John. Fine Papers at the Oxford University Press. Whittington: Whittington Press, 1999.

[7] “Marian Bantjes: Intricate Beauty by Design.” Ted Talks. 2010.

[8] Kelly, Rob Roy. American Wood Type 1828 – 1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977; Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. New York: F.A. Praeger, 1966.

[9] “Palaeography, 1500-1800: A Practical Online Tutorial.” The National Archives. 2006.

[10] Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York: George Braziller, 1999.

[11] Needham, Paul. Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings, 400-1600. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1979.

[12] Lock, Margaret. Bookbinding Materials and Techniques, 1700-1920. Toronto: Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, 2003.

[13] Hanmer, Karen. Biblio Tech: Reverse engineering historical and modern binding structures. 2013.

[14] Golden, Alisa J. Making Handmade Books: 100 Bindings, Structures & Forms. New York: Lark Crafts, 2010.

[15] Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. 2nd ed. New York: Granary Books, 2004.

[16] De Heer, Esmée. “The Abominable Digital Artists’ Book: Myth or Reality?” Universitiet Leiden: Masters Theses. 20 November 2012.

[17] “Transforming Artist Books.” Tate. August 2012.

[18] “About.” Non-Visible & Intangible. November 12, 2012.


Bibliography

About.” Non-Visible & Intangible. November 12, 2012.

About Pinterest.” Pinterest. 2015.

Advance Reading Lists.” Rare Book School. 2015.

Barrett, Timothy. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques. Colorado: Weatherhill, 1992.

Bidwell, John. Fine Papers at the Oxford University Press. Whittington: Whittington Press, 1999.

Curriculum | Book Arts.” Book Art @ Alamaba. University of Alabama. 2015

de Heer, Esmée. “The Abominable Digital Artists’ Book: Myth or Reality?” Universitiet Leiden: Masters Theses. November 20, 2012.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. 2nd ed. New York: Granary Books, 2004.

Golden, Alisa J. Making Handmade Books: 100 Bindings, Structures & Forms. New York: Lark Crafts, 2010.

Grab, Elizabeth. “Book Artists’ Core Collection.” Pinterest. December, 2015.

Hanmer, Karen. Biblio Tech: Reverse engineering historical and modern binding structures. 2013.

Kelly, Rob Roy. American Wood Type 1828 – 1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.

List of Courses.” Center for the Book. University of Iowa. 2015.

Lock, Margaret. Bookbinding Materials and Techniques, 1700-1920. Toronto: Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, 2003.

Marian Bantjes: Intricate Beauty by Design.” Ted Talks. 2010.

Needham, Paul. Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings, 400-1600. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1979.

Palaeography, 1500-1800: A Practical Online Tutorial.” The National Archives. 2006.

Press.” About Pinterest. 2015.

Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. New York: F.A. Praeger, 1966.

Transforming Artist Books.” Tate. August 1, 2012.

Wieck, Roger S. Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York: George Braziller, 1999.


[Originally posted on Rambling Rambler Press @ WordPress on 9 December 2015]

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Defense

For a class on collections management in the Fall semester, Mary Grace Flaherty asked us to select a banned book to evaluate for it’s retention or elimination from a collection.  I chose The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Defense

Introduction

Books, particularly those written for young adults, are challenged regularly and banned with frequency in the United States. According to the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom and Public Information Offices “up to 85% of book challenges receive no media attention and remain unreported.”[1] 2014 saw 311 challenges reported. If we include the estimated 85% of unreported challenges, the number increases to roughly 575 books challenged in one year. Of the 311 reported challenges, 80% of them included ‘diverse’ material.[2] The Intellectual Freedom and Public Information Offices define ‘diverse’ according to Malinda Lo: “non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe.”[3]

With all of these statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published in 2007, tops the 2014 list of the ten most challenged books. The main character, Junior, self-identifies as a poor, lisping, stuttering, physically- and socially-awkward, Native American brown kid that lives on a reservation and gets beat up regularly, with brain damage, seizures, alcoholic parents and a shut-in sister.[4] Because of how Junior navigates all of these challenges and more, this story represents one of the most important young adult books produced in the past decade. It is our duty—firstly as citizens and secondly as librarians—to defend young adult books with diverse characters like Alexie’s main character from well-meaning, misinformed censors.

The Complaints

According to the ALA’s website, the primary objections brought against The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian include “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, and violence” with “depictions of bullying” thrown in for good measure. Sherman Alexie, in his Wall Street Journal response to naysayers, adds depravity, “domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder,” to the list of ‘objectionable material’.[5] Not only does Junior encompass nearly every aspect of diversity, he also experiences nearly every aspect of subject matter thought inappropriate for young adults.[6]

At Antioch High School, in a suburb of Chicago, for example, seven parents came before the school board requesting Alexie’s book be removed from the summer reading list, the curriculum, and the library unless accompanied by a warning label “because it uses foul, racist language and describes sexual acts.”[7] Mother Jennifer Andersen read the book to help her son understand it and proceeded to cross out passage after passage that she felt was inappropriate for any high school freshman.[8] She also commented that while she knows that kids curse, if books with profanity are included in the curriculum, “the students will believe the school condones it.”[9]

Why the Censors Are Just Plain Wrong

Before breaking down why the objections to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian represent the very same reasons why it should be required reading for every middle- and high-schooler, it behooves my argument to include the many accolades awarded to Alexie’s book by widely recognized and respected authorities on literature:

  • National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature
  • New York Times Notable Book of the Year for Children’s Books
  • Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
  • A NAPPA Gold Book
  • School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
  • Kirkus Reviews Best YA Book of the Year
  • A BBYA Top Ten Book for Teens
  • NYPL Books for the Teen Age
  • PW “Off the Cuff” Favorite YA Novel
  • A Boston Globe Horn Book Winner
  • Odyssey Award for Best Audio Book

The awards specifically for teens and young adult books are bolded, representing eight out of the twelve, more than half the list. I am not alone in seeing this book as required reading for adults and young adults alike. With the backing of highly authoritative voices, I can now continue to refute each objection as unfounded.

Anti-family is the simplest issue to address. I can only assume that censors  are pointing to the alcoholism of Junior’s parents and the realistic tension that exists between a teenager and his family. But consistently throughout the book, we see Junior’s understanding of both how his family became what it is and of the history behind each member’s actions. Junior’s parents are trying their best and Junior accepts them with love as they both support and disappoint him. For example, when the family dog becomes terminally ill and requires prohibitively expensive veterinary care, his parents euthanize the dog, despite their son’s desperate objections. Even while Junior is deeply upset, he couches the story in his family’s reality; they can’t even afford to have food in the house on a daily basis, let alone pay exorbitant vet bills for a dog that’s dying anyways. He says:

I was hot mad. Volcano mad. Tsunami mad.

Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.

I wanted to hate him for his weakness.

I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.

I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sicknesses in the world.

But I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world EXPLODE without them. [10]

Junior readily admits that his whole life is dependent upon loving his family, even while he wants to hate them. This is one of the most widely exhibited struggles for teenagers in the U.S. How can Junior’s constructive, positive understanding of this struggle be construed as anti-family?

The second criticism of the book is its “cultural insensitivity,” AKA racism. Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee artist, wrote an essay called “A Central Margin” addressing the myth at the core of the American identity of the “absent/absented ‘Indian’ body.”[11] Essentially, the life of a Native American in the United States is one of systematic and continual “cultural insensitivity” to which many Natives respond “with that quietly outrageous Indian humor that has been so valuable to our survival.”[12] By suppressing the cultural criticism and display of race relations displayed in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, censors continue this obliteration of Native voices in the U.S. Without a marginal voice speaking up and pointing out racist societal constructs, many people of the dominant culture remain blind to the flaws in the system that oppress others.[13] Aside from this highly problematic issue of suppressing stories depicting the realities of living in a system of racism, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the first and likely only exposure to Native Americans—presented on their own terms—that a majority of adults and young adults will ever encounter. A dearth of Native voices exists in pop cultural depictions of Native Americans, which is a major part of what hinders the U.S. from collectively coming to terms with the colonial racism at the core of our creation and identity. Authors like Sherman Alexie should be circulated more widely for their marginalized perspective and social criticism, not less.

The third grouping of objections can be categorized generally into Sin and Depravity, in this case: substance abuse, gambling, offensive language, the expression of sexuality and domestic violence. As Alexie himself points out in his Wall Street Journal response referenced earlier, the movement to ‘protect’ children from these subject matters is highly privileged and comes far too late. He posits that not only are cultural critics too late to protect an overwhelming majority of both ‘at-risk’ and mainstream kids, they aren’t actually interested in protecting black American teens “forced to walk through metal detectors” to go to class, or Mexican American teens from “the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants,” or “poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks,” or teen mothers and fathers from sexually explicit material, or “victims from rapists.” Instead, these censors wish to protect their limited “notions of what literature is and should be.”[14] But this interferes with the purpose of reading for so many young adults.  YA books are most important when they provide a mirror for readers to see themselves and their experience in the story. That sensation of solidarity and having a safe space to see how others in their situation manage can be an essential coping mechanism. Junior’s story is particularly important in this process because he recognizes and faces all of his challenges, filling the book with “positive life-affirming messages and has an especially strong anti-alcohol message.”[15] Since ‘objectionable materials’ are a daily part of lives for kids of all ages and socio-economic levels, Junior’s navigation through these issues acts as a bolster. Alexie poignantly says this of the value of reading books that realistically reflect the lived experience of young adults:

[T]here are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them… I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life… And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed. [16]

Kids absorb their environments and need a place to process those experiences. Just because those environments are ‘objectionable’ doesn’t justify the whitewashing of them. Even for kids who aren’t exposed to troubles like poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse, books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian act as a window of understanding into the various experiences of those around them, allowing all of us to be more aware of and sensitive to one another. The problems associated with censoring this book are far more troubling than any of the complaints made to justifying its banning.

[1]Statistics,” Banned & Challenged Books, American Library Association.

[2] That 80% containing diverse material roughly equals 250 of the 311 books. “2014 Books Challenges Infographic,” Banned & Challenged Books, American Library Association.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009), 1-6.

[5] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Speakeasy,Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011.

[6] With the prevalence of ‘diverse’ books comprising the bulk of challenges, one has to wonder if diversity doesn’t automatically mean objectionable for those inclined to instigate censorship. The ALA’s Kristin Pekoll also brings up this troubling point in her comments in MPR News’ coverage of Banned Book Week; Tracy Mumford, “Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Controversial,” MPR News, 29 September 2015.

[7] Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In refutation to Andersen’s concern, John Whitehurst, chairman of the English department, sites the parallel example of teen suicide in Romeo and Juliet. “Kids know the difference” between a book and school policy; Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[10] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009), 11.

[11] Jimmie Durham. “A Central Margin,” in The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1990), 164.

[12] Ibid, 172.

[13] For further examples of this, see James Luna The Artifact Piece, installation/performance, Museum of Man, San Diego, 1986; “The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism,” Comedy Central, 25 September 2014; and Ricardo Caté, Without Reservations (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2012).

[14] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Speakeasy, Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011.

[15] Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[16] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Wall Street Journal.


Bibliography

2014 Books Challenges Infographic.” Banned & Challenged Books. American Library Association.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2009.

Alexie, Sherman. “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” Speakeasy.Wall Street Journal. 9 June 2011.

Durham, Jimmie. “A Central Margin.” in The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s. New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1990: 162-179.

Fuller, Ruth. “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.'” Chicago Tribune. 22 June 2009.

Mumford, Tracy. “Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Controversial.” MPR News. 29 September 2015.

Statistics,” Banned & Challenged Books. American Library Association.

The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism.” Comedy Central. 25 September 2014.


[Originally posted on Rambling Rambler Press @ WordPress on 14 October 2015]