From the days when the rape-y-ness of the football imagination had a certain innocence to it.
Popular media is determined to present the national student body as a generation of spoiled brats. Pundits cherry-pick and decontextualize stories from student papers, presenting individual campus struggles to a scandalized public as symptoms of the collapse of moral character. It is no wonder that activists at the University of Missouri attempted to exile the press from their fall 2015 demonstrations. Journalists are not what they were in the 1960s. The few who have the resources, drive and ability to report a story are far outnumbered by the flock of sneering bloggers who supply Facebook and Twitter feeds with rhetorical pink slime.
Take recent stories about student questioning of Oberlin College’s dining options. Oberlin’s dining services are provided by Bon Appétit Management Company, a food services corporation that brands itself as socially progressive through its use of “locally sources/humanly raised” product, etc. They operate “650 cafés in 33 states, with dozens of marquee clients.” Students complained that much of the international fare on Appétit’s menu is more appropriative than authentic. (One of the offending menu items is a pulled pork sandwich served on ciabatta with cold slaw, presented as Banh Mi). They asked to sit down with those designing the menu, in the interest of improving it. Their complaint to the campus dining service was reported by the school’s paper, the Oberlin Review. That article led to a New York Post headline which declared, “students at Lena Dunham’s college offended by lack of fried chicken.”
This is not an unusual path in the development of a story. College campuses have long served as inspiration for collective finger wagging. Student art projects, sit-ins, course ideas, new majors, experimental pedagogy can be trusted to make headlines during a slow week.
One might see in this story an interesting conversation between international students, Oberlin staff and Bon Appétit, a national food service corporation that uses social consciousness as a marketing tool. One might spy a story about the flattening of campus culture by the delocalized corporate management of student life. Life at one liberal arts college looks increasingly like life at every other liberal arts college because, nationally, a handful of corporations produce all aspects of student life. These corporations promise to make life on college campuses “better,” but in doing so they make it more uniform. That uniformity includes the translation of diversity into easily produced and consumed menu-items. This, the use of diversity as a marketing device, was actually the focus of Clover Lin Tranh’s November 6 story for The Oberlin Review. The exchange between students and staff at Oberlin is, in fact, typical of college life. For people working in student affairs, it’s hardly newsworthy. It is a basic workday.
In their earnest idealism, student activists are vulnerable to judgment from a cynical public. Today, the latter is more interested in the problem of student entitlement than it is in the crisis in public education. If Oberlin students seem “spoiled,” it is because the overwhelming majority of students in this country are served salt-cured ambiguous animal protein soaked in grease — and the public accepts this, just as it accepts in strip-mining of the national curriculum and the degradation of teaching. It is pink slime everywhere in our schools — those of us who teach college are now used to students who have never been inside a library, and whose progress in their degrees is hampered by their need for remedial writing and math. Those remedial needs, by the way, are generally met by adjuncts — by teachers working part-time with no health or retirement benefits, who have no say in campus governance and no pathway for career advancement.
One might understand individual stories of student activism as confrontations with the difficulty of recognizing and working from difference. Differences in cultural practices of hospitality are an important threshold for conversations about race, ethnicity, nationality and religion — especially within the context of a residential campus. One might assume that students are translating into collective action some of the material they are learning in the classroom, and that they want to make the campus a more interesting place to live. Instead, popular media dismisses students as entitled monsters.
Teachers and staff members who work with students know that the college campus has always been, by definition, a community dedicated to struggle — education is, always, hard work, and it is a collective undertaking. Each class of students will hold the campus to a new, different, and evolving standard calibrated to their needs and ambitions. Faculty and staff negotiate with these needs and ambitions. That is our job. Today that job includes suffering through the blunt force of popular media’s racism, which would have the reader believe that earnest anti-racist activism is the real problem, and not the brutality of the profoundly racialized forms of class warfare that render student struggles for equality into a form of entitlement.
NOTE: Normally I write about sports here but every now and again I have other thoughts.
Of course this is a controversial image.
The last women to grace this particular SI issue solo were “American Sweethearts” Mary Decker (1983) and Chris Evert (1976). Decker’s photo layers a portrait of the runner in her street clothes over another image of her finishing a race. She leans into the picture, her body excised by the image’s frame. She is dressed like a pretty suburban mom in a monochromatic jacket and turtleneck. Her pose and her expression suggest a woman embarrassed to be taking up even the space she occupies here. Sorry! she says with a smile.
This is, actually, light years ahead of the cover for the 1976 issue of SI dedicated to Chris Evert. There is no way on earth Serena Williams isn’t acutely aware of this photograph.
Evert is wearing the kind of restrictive tennis costume women players were forced to wear, in another century. She does not look like she has just walked off a tennis court. She looks like she just fell into an Edith Wharton novel. She is the picture of a proper white lady.
The 2015 issue is notable for oh so many reasons. Among those reasons is the way the cover sidelines the issue of gender difference and also foregrounds it. Gender difference is always a problem for women athletes who must both demonstrate that yes, they are women and apologize, as women, for existing. This cover image is assertive and unapologetic about Serena as a sexual subject.
The title of the award itself has been loosened from gender — this year it is “sportsperson” instead of “sportswoman.” This is a signal: things are getting more interesting. In years past, even in the context of issues dedicated to more than one athlete — e.g. 1984’s issue, celebrating Mary Lou Retton and Edwin Moses or 2011’s issue dedicated to Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski — the awards were titled “Sportsman” and “Sportswoman” of the year.
The thing about that word “sportswoman” is that it asserts a regime of femininity, at the expense of the athlete’s sexuality. It reminds us that the entire world of sports is segregated, and that its rituals tend to body forth contradiction, ambivalence and anxiety regarding just what that segregation is about.This is how one arrives at the idea of putting Cris Evert in Edwardian Lady Drag. That outfit is not about asserting her athleticism or her sexual power. It is, in fact, about restricting both. It is about framing her body within the gendered architecture of restricted movement.
Sexuality, in Serena’s cover image, pushes back against the raced and classed codes of femininity that govern the “proper” presentation of women athletes around the world. In this image, sexuality is freed, if you will, from the discourse of gender difference which evacuates all signs of strength and power from the feminine subject. That, of course, is entwined with racist discourse which figures a black woman’s sexuality as excessive, and as “unfeminine” and in which a black woman’s athleticism appears as some kind of interference with her womanliness — indeed, with her humanity.
A number of writers defend Serena’s cover image as a celebration of her femininity. But this is only part of that image’s story. For what is her femininity? The fuck-me heels? The spread of her legs? The dare in her expression? Femininity is a very poor word for Serena’s styling, pose and posture here. The proper feminine subject, for example, does not spread her legs for anyone. She does not wear shoes like that. She wears more clothes. Especially if she is an athlete, she makes herself look demure, or sexless.
I see, in this image choice, the ghost of Evert’s corset, re-presented here within the language of sexual domination.
Here, Serena gives us a glimpse of her sexual power. This portrait is intentionally sexy. It is dominating. She is the master of her sexual power, and in this context, that mastery is a shiny reflection of the control she has over her athletic power. With this image, she asserts that she will do exactly what she want to do, and that this is, in fact, also what we want her to do.
La Serena, a beautiful portrait of Serena Williams by Los Angeles artist Shizu Saldamano, is currently on view at New Image Art in Santa Monica, CA, as a part of the group exhibition “The Thrill of Victory The Agony of Defeat: Sports in Contemporary Art.” Curated by Patrick Martinez, this exhibition also features work by Martinez, Gregory Bojorquez, Hiro Kurata, Mark Mulroney, Andrew Schoultz, Vincent Valdez, and Mario Ybarra Jr. I recommend seeing the show: all of these artists make very interesting work.
Saldamando, the only woman artist in this group exhibition, is (I understand) the only artist to take on the female athlete as a subject (I haven’t seen the show yet). The marginalization of women’s sports, as I’ve argued elsewhere, mirrors the wildly disproportionate scale of men’s sports as the subject of media broadcast and attention.* This goes to some of the things that make Saldamando’s work particularly interesting.
First, Serena Williams is a kind-of exception to the rule I described above. She is one of very few athletes to transcend the awfulness of mass media’s active suppression of public awareness of women athletes. The attention of a racist and sexist media, however, has mixed effects for black women athletes. The Williams sisters have been very savvy (and circumspect) in their navigation of that world, which exalts them and then tears them apart. That lifting and crushing is, of course, how mass media attention works. But the media’s wheel of fortune turns on a racist and sexist axis. Many portraits of iconic black athletes take this up, directly or indirectly. Consider, for example Keith Piper‘s installation Transgressive Acts: A Saint Among Sinners/A Sinner Among Saints (1993-1994), a twinned portrait of Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson. They are honored, here, in the style of stained glass windows in a chapel, on whose pulpit is a copy of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.
In La Serena, Saldamando gives us a deliberately iconic image—the use of gold, for example, marks this work as hagiography. Serena is not just victorious, she is exalted. The portrait vibrates with the weird story of Serena Williams’s recent upset, however. This year, in the semi-finals of the US Open, a completely unspectacular player, Roberta Vinci, brought Williams’s supposedly inevitable Grand Slam triumph to a brutal stop. In advance of this tournament, the press was unrelenting in its presentation of Williams’s triumph as a certainty. This, of course, feeds the media economy which needs saints to burn at the stake.
La Serena’s gesture, at least for me, expresses an awareness of the athlete’s future struggle. La Serena’s composure — her calm, her strength, her power and defiance — might easily have been lifted from communist or labor movement works celebrating women workers (see below). It is, however, also a citation of the most famous sport spectacle of them all — Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest from the medal stands at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. This image belongs to a pool of images of defiance — portraits of resistance, defiance and protest.
In this photograph, one of most famous and powerful images in sports history, Smith and Carlos’s hands are raised straight up, and their heads are bowed.** In Saldamando’s portrait, Serena is looking forward, toward a future that she creates. She raises her fist, but she also flexes her muscles. The artist maximizes our access to her physical power, and the metaphysical meaning of that power. La Serena contributes to an archive of images celebrating women’s power — these images differently engage and resist the ideologies of race, sex and gender that circumscribe women’s access to her own body. Some images (Norman Rockwell’s, for example, pictured below) render the working woman’s muscular body into something folksy and hypermasculine; others feminize the woman flexing her muscles (making her muscles disappear) — how and why embodied strength appears in these images is complicated. Michelle Obama’s arms, Dyana Nyad’s (captured below in a portrait by Catherine Opie), Serena Williams’s — each appearance of a woman’s muscular strength reaches from the image into the world to shake things up.
Black women, in particular, find their bodies read through a vicious matrix that pathologizes any sign of power and defiance. Her blackness appears, within racist ideology, as a disruption of gender. This form of racism flourishes around the figures of women like the Williams sisters — by which I mean black women who are among the very best women athletes alive. Their success as athletes becomes a sign of their always-already failure as women. Thus the social media trash-heap is sprinkled with videos, blog-posts that argue that Serena Williams is, in fact, actually man [I refuse to link that racist/sexist garbage]. In that world, her arms are stolen by a frightening army of fascist lunatics who see them as evidence that she isn’t, really, even human.
Saldamando’s La Serena calmly turns that shit into gold.
*Most group exhibitions centered on sports don’t feature any works centered on women athletes. So kudos to Martinez for including Saldamando’s portraits of Serena Williams and Kristi Yamaguchi.
**Note: Peter Norman [left] was an ally in this gesture. He is wearing a pin supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights and willingly absorbed the controversy surrounding his participation this moment.
Holly Holm picked Ronda Rousey apart. An undefeated fighter is there to be defeated. We root for the upset. We relish the agony, the dark thrill of watching the takedown of a champion. We need someone who can knock the stuffing out of the hype. That’s what we got. It’s what we wanted, and what we needed.
From 1pm to 4pm, artist Carlin Wing, assisted by Luke Fischbeck, will present Live Ball Orchestra, a workshop about the sonic and musical properties of bounce. Participants will use balls of all types to sound out the architectural space of Sabrina Chou’s exhibition at HRLA. (One can play tennis with the gallery — bouncing the ball of the wall and objects in the space.) Participants will explore the aural characteristics of bouncing objects, test the range of acoustic relationships between ball and surface, and experiment with building tonal and rhythmic arrangements. Some bounce audio will be recorded. Balls will be provided but participants are also encouraged to BYOBall.
Following the workshop at 5pm, the event moves to the bleachers for Episodes in the Life of Bounce, an illustrated talk by Carlin about rubber as the foundational material of modern sport. All cultures play games with balls, but the rubber ball has a special history. In their time, the Aztec and the Maya built entire cosmologies around rubber bounce, while in recent centuries sport-crazed Europeans and North Americans have tirelessly experimented with rubber’s uncanny properties in pursuit of “true bounce.”
Last year, the artist Michelle Grabner was subjected to a tremendously sexist review of her work by the New York Times’s Ken Johnson. He ticked many of the boxes for “most ignorant things you can say about a woman artist’s work.” Is her work narrow because it references the domestic? Yes, he says! Is her work childish for her having children? Why yes! Is her work boring and meaningless, just like housework? God, yes! He makes zero reference to the feminist contexts through which one might read her work. He punctuated this now notorious review with the following two sentences.
Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.
So, in response, the feminist professor made a gingham soccer ball. You can buy one for yourself, perhaps you can kick it around with your kids. It’s actually less expensive than official tournament balls.
As Grabner well knows, the kind of things Johnson said about her work have been said for the past couple hundred years about women artists (e.g. Rosa Bonheur, Jane Austen) — esp. those who work from the textures of everyday life. In his review, Johnson faults Grabner for not providing a “sociological” angle to her practice — a ludicrous expectation, frankly, for Grabner’s work. (What is sociology in the context of contemporary art, really? What would make it feel sociological enough?) That kind of demand — that things feel “sociological” and REAL — is not made of masculinist artists like, say, Frank Stella. Stella makes big art from manly things like steel, and produces them in factory like conditions romancing an idea of Productive Labor. This manly work is made by a MAN and in a manly way — and that tidy lining up of masculine signifiers is enough to give it meaning and value.
Reproductive labor is always abject, even when it’s really beautiful — it’s very beauty becomes the signal of its worthlessness (the abjection of feminine/reproductive labor is explored by a wild range of artists — e.g. Mary Kelley, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Kara Walker, Faith Wilding). I have more to say about this, but other deadlines are pressing on me!
Some good articles responding to Grabner’s work and Johnson’s review: