Encoding meanings in bodies

Well…there has been a lot going on, and I’ve not been doing a lot of work on my own projects. Or…let’s see. I have been able to work with the beads recently, though that had to do with wanting to do something for M and Mother’s Day. I’ve been trying to put together a schedule, but the two consecutive days out of the last week in which I did it and held to it, seemed to tire me out for the rest of that week. I’m still recovering, that is.

I’ve been advised to try and ease myself into self-scheduling repeating events. There is the knowledge that pretty much everything I’m into, I’m into for a reason. Except the jewelry, that is. And the sewing. And…

I suppose that the jewelry and related crafts are my actual, “hobbies,” in that I don’t have to do them, and there is relatively little reason to do them, other than enjoyment (in the case of beadwork and needlework), image control (in the case of sewing), and practice at staying in the moment (with tatting, and knitting/crochet).

I also notice that these are all highly gendered activities. Things I entered into when I was trying to find anything at all that was good about being a woman, that would be denied me if I appeared to be a man. I’m not trying to be a woman, anymore. (Or a man.)

Recently, I have barely given myself time at all to do these things. There is nothing stopping me except the knowledge that they aren’t going to go anywhere. The latter is the exact reason I’ve stopped playing video games. The issue is orienting myself toward earning a decent living, in the absence of a desire to become a stay-at-home wife to a guy I would probably only barely be capable of tolerating — unless he were just a very good friend who never asked for sex. In which case, I’d probably be in a lavender marriage.

So instead, there’s the writing. The language study. The reading. The coding. The job search. The job applications. The counseling. And then, all the everyday maintenance: exercise, hygiene, food, housekeeping. And then there’s trying to make the best of my time with my family.

Then, there’s art. I just haven’t been able to get up the will to work with this in a deep way, recently. Partially, this is because my Art area is full of in-progress beading projects. And partially…it’s because I have not been keeping up with my Art practice (by which I’m referring specifically to painting and drawing).

It’s way easier to work with Visual Arts when you already have a steady practice and recent works to bounce off of. Or when you have a story to work from. It’s easier for me to write here, because I already have a writing practice and a given body of work. At least I know who I am, here; I’m not starting totally from scratch.

Today, anyway, I realized that the method of working Art so that one records their mental reality visually, may…have inherent or implicit problems, specifically where it comes to what of visual “language” is understood both by oneself and the wider culture.

Until recently, for example, “Wakanda,” could not — as a pop-culture rallying point — counter the dehumanization of people of African descent through and within Art. There was no Wakanda. But at this point in time, it has entered the public imagination, and is ready to be used as a point of reference, whereas derogatory stereotypes (which I want to name, but won’t — for multiple reasons), before went unchallenged.

That is, I’m questioning whether the teaching of Art in general carries within it historical ideas which I’d refer to as racism and sexism, in a present-day context. By that, I’m referring to the problem of encoding meanings in bodies.

(Of course, that raises the obvious question of whether the present-day is actually better than any other moment in history, and whether it is apt to apply the terms, “racist,” or, “sexist,” to artists or writers who were alien to the concepts. These are separate philosophical and semantic questions, which I won’t get into, here.)

This becomes more evident when referring to a movement like Orientalism (which was largely based on European fantasies of the “Near-East”), or to works like The Swing by Fragonard. Because so many (remembered) artists — and writers — in the European tradition have been male…the subjects of (European) Art History may suffer from similar biases as the subjects of (English-language) Literature (which I’ve gone off about, recently).

Specifically when working in character design…I have some misgivings. That’s probably because I was exposed to some pretty overtly racist cartoons while I was still too young to question or defend against them (e.g. Looney Tunes’ “Little Hiawatha”). I don’t remember their being challenged, at the time — but I couldn’t have been older than six, then. It would have been an adult conversation.

I’ve gone over this before, but as an adult now, I look back on the types of media I was exposed to — especially as a Young Adult — and see a direct connection between the objectification of women in high school English classes, and the objectification of myself as a female high school student by male students reading the same things in the same classes. Women would seem to be made for men’s pleasure, and to reproduce and raise children (in addition, often, to taking care of the men: though the men don’t talk much about this). That leaves little room for the identities and lives of female-bodied people who don’t prioritize mens’ pleasure, don’t want to care for them (without good cause), and don’t want to reproduce.

That’s not to support book banning (granted, probably most of the canon would be banned if taken to that extent); but it would certainly help to take it critically, and with a mind towards generating a better future, and not towards reproducing the dynamics and errors of the past.

As I was attempting to talk this out earlier today, an interesting idea came up: that it seemed I wanted to, “draw consciously.” I hadn’t thought about it that way, before. There is a problem I’m facing down right now about the difference between drawing intuitively and drawing consciously. As with Writing, working with Art may very well show one where one has learned material that one in no way ever wanted to learn.

This runs the gamut from unintentionally making a lighter-skinned character the main subject of a composition (why didn’t I think of the darker-skinned one first?), to encoding a character with a large nose because of a specific incident where a menacing person was pushing his nose into your face: but then you remember racialized stereotypes about people with large noses, and wonder if you’ve absorbed and are expressing part of that.

So yes, it actually can be a bad thing to be really good at learning! It does give one plenty to un-learn.

The thing is: I know for a fact that literally no one had us facing down these problems in my Creative Writing classes — it was actually an English Professor who told me that I couldn’t call an author who lived before the invention of the word, “racism,” “racist.” (Even if he had Black slaves?) And given what I still see, particularly in Animation (why are characters with very evidently ethnic hair, like Gothel from Tangled, and Olivia Octavius from Into the Spider-Verse, also characterized as obviously crazy? Craziness doesn’t make your hair curl — neither does wildness, in the case of Merida from Brave), I also don’t know to what extent these questions are being addressed in Art classes.

But maybe they should be. Maybe I’d be better prepared to deal with it now, if they were.

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