Basking in authenticity


My friend Christian asked me for a little help writing an “Artist’s Statement” in English for inclusion in a ceramics exhibition in Korea in which he is a participant. Christian and I have the same feeling about the utter ridiculousness of artists’ statements. The idea that one needs a guide to formal work like ceramics or sculpture, as if there is some code to decipher, is a little silly. But then again, it is often how the art world operates. If the narrative is compelling, so goes the art. Oftentimes without this compelling narrative, no notice will be taken of the work on its own. The intersection of these things is fascinating.

Christian and I started playing a little game, assigning all kinds of meaning to the work that was never part of his intent. And then we hit on an extraordinary idea. What would the art world denizens be expecting of a Peruvian ceramics artist? What would the committee putting together the expo want or need for their interest to be piqued? It was pretty obvious (and unfortunate), but we both agreed that they would want something “authentic”, “Peruvian”, and above all “native”. This is sadly the way much of the art world needs to interact with objects from other cultures. It is pretty insulting, actually. The idea being that authenticity must flow from some quasi colonial/imperial idea of original culture. If Christian were to say that his influences were Bauhaus architects of the 1920s, it would probably be met with much less interest than saying he was trying to recover pre-Spanish (and pre-Inca) images of earth mother and earth father. As a Peruvian artist, it is much more “authentic” to repair the destruction of colonialism than it would be to express yourself as a citizen of the world where influences come from everywhere. This is an insulting trap for artists the world over.

In today’s world, this search for the “authentic” and “native” is more than a little silly. With modern communications and media being what they are, everything is a jumble of everything. While it might soothe some remote aesthete to believe they can find unadulterated purity, it is a fantasy. And this fantasy is not limited to art consumers. In my own travels I have been confronted time and again with the platonic ideal of the authentic smashing up against the real and messy mix of cultures that is the modern world. I think back to one of my favorite stories, told to me by my friend Marites. When she and her husband were traveling for the first time in India, they were invited by relatives of an Indian family they knew in Berkeley to come for a visit. The village was a bit off the beaten track, and my friends were quite tired when they finally arrived, happy to be welcomed into a home in the midst of all the chaos of Indian culture. As they settled in, the mother of the household offered them chai. My friend took it with great pleasure and care, and noticing the aroma and flavor and surroundings, said,

“This is all so wonderful, thank you for welcoming us into your home. This chai is delicious. Where do you get your spices? Where does the tea come from?”

Visions of the misty tea plantations of Darjeeling surely dancing in my friend’s head, the woman responded,

“Oh! It is Lipton tea. I always buy a huge box when I visit my son in Berkeley. From Costco, it is such a good price!”

My friend was crestfallen, but laughing as well. I love this story because it so well illustrates how our romantic notions of things so often take the place of what is actually in front of us. That we find it so difficult to see what is real and potentially beautiful without a special narrative. The best part of traveling (for me anyway) is not in having one’s romantic notions fulfilled (which does happen sometimes), but in discovering things one never knew about, mundane or awful or wonderful, that teach something about a culture. I am not bothered at all by the complex contradictions of a culture, I revel in them. Or more accurately, I revel in the lessons they impart, because oftentimes these experiences are not terribly pleasant.

It is the same with the expectations that the world places upon us for reasons having nothing to do with our personalities. It is of course true that we are made up of the many threads of our environment, including the place of our birth and circumstances of our cultures. But this is not all we are, and in an increasingly interconnected world, for both good and ill, we are a jumble, all of us. Instead of needing to put people into boxes for the ease of categorization and identification, perhaps we could try standing back a bit and just looking, without referring to the artist’s statement. We might be surprised and delighted by what we find.

Huaca Pucllana


There is a massive archeological site right in the middle of the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima called Huaca Pucllana. Up until about 30 years ago it was used as a motocross site according to our guide. It is a pretty fascinating place, originally built by the native pre inca Lima culture from about 200 -700 AD, and then used by a few successive peoples (Wari) after their decline. One of the hallmarks of the Lima construction is adobe bricks stacked in trapezoidal shapes and like books on a bookshelf, which give quite a lot of seismic stability to the structures. It was amazing what good shape a lot of the buried compound was in. The site was apparently much much bigger originally, but over the years, the Miraflores neighborhood buildings were built on top of it, with only this part (which was a massive mound) still remaining and being excavated.


The blame game


Seeing the Bollywood film yesterday transported me back to my travels in India.  I remembered that coincidentally, there was an important (the first, I believe) gay pride march set for yesterday in Mumbai and I was curious to see how it went. When I got home I looked up the news accounts on the internet and did find mention of it, but I was a little surprised by the theme picked up by the majority of articles I was reading. Most of them talk about how these were demonstrations against the legacy of the British and their penal code (section 377) that outlawed homosexuality and is still in force to this day, and how they were basically calling on Britain to apologize for introducing this penal code. I have to admit to having been a bit bemused by this and so I sent an email to some of my friends in Mumbai to ask a few questions. Was this a tactic to get a greater majority of the Indian public to approve repeal of 377? Hating all things that represent British colonial rule, it would be an easier sell I suppose than simply accepting the right of people to be gay…?

My friend Alok responded by saying it is a strategy both to get greater media attention, and “to highlight that criminalization of same sex activity has no roots in Indian culture/history”.

I am sure that is true, but there are also many examples of politicians in India (and in many parts of the non western world) who blame the very existence of homosexuality itself on “western influence”, claiming it to be foreign to their culture. In both cases (saying homophobia or homosexuality is a foreign thing), there seems to be an attempt to deny any responsibility for the current climate according to one’s beliefs and tastes. I am sure it is more palatable to place the blame squarely outside of ourselves for those tendencies in our cultures of which we don’t approve, and that this is a world wide phenomenon. I asked my friend if he could then perhaps explain to me how India after independence managed to create a constitution and dismantle some of the legal system left by the British, yet still left in place (when it had the opportunity to do away with it) 377? Was it mere convenience?

My point is simply that it is too facile to lay Indian intolerance solely at British feet, no matter how tempting, and even though most definitely part of the reason. That is why I asked if it was a strategy, to make Indians feel that rejecting homophobia is rejecting something intrinsically British, and that this was an easier “sell”, and more patriotic. (Which is hogwash anyway. I don’t believe any nation to be “intrinsically” homophobic. Cultures change and grow into and out of their hatreds all the time. And I’m sure anyone would agree that Britain today is a far more hospitable place to be gay than India.)

The more I travel, the more places and cultures I see, the more of a universal humanist I become. There is a wonderous diversity of life and culture on this planet. And there are many awful systems of oppression in place that must be challenged. But the longer I live, the more I see the folly in assigning blame without action, and without looking in the mirror. There are unfortunately (and on occasion wonderfully) many many examples across cultures of the things that humans do to (and for the benefit of) other humans, and it is obvious that these are human tendencies that are located in our biological makeup. No culture has a monopoly on the truth or beauty, and cultures change enormously over time. One constant that I recognize with great sadness is the very widespread human desire to fear and hate and demonize that which is different or other. For me, humans are at our very best when we work to transcend these hatreds in our individual selves, our families, our social groups, our regions, our nations, and finally our world.

The (accidental) Man


My mother is a very strong woman, and very accomplished. She raised me and my brothers to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. And she raised us to believe in the human potential of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or gender. She encouraged us to look at each person as an individual, not as a member of some group, and she strongly discouraged us from stereotyping people based on their membership in any one of these categories. She didn’t want us to make limiting assumptions about people especially because such limiting assumptions had been made about her at earlier times in her life. As a Jewish woman raised in the 50s in central Indiana, she had all too often been the target of stereotypes or lowered expectations based on what was expected of women in that time and place. She realized that she had internalized a lot of these prejudices and had to work many years to finally get to the place where she could rely on her own strength and judgment to determine what her capacities were. Such has been the case with many successful women in our society. And the men have also been bound in their way to the expectations placed on their potential and ability. So we were raised with an understanding that women and men could perform any kind of task they wished in any kind of setting, and that the world should not dictate a different set of possibilities based simply on gender. In short, we were raised to treat all people equally.

So it has been with some mirth that these many years later I look on the next generation of child rearing (especially in my brother’s case) and notice a few things. On the one hand, my brother is much more present in parenting than our own father was when we were at such a young age. Our parents got divorced when I was about 8 (and my brother 6) and our biological father never really played a part in our early childhood. It was only after my mother remarried about a year and a half later that we really got a father figure, and we could not have asked for a better one. My stepfather is in all ways the father we never had as very young children, and he (along with my mother) was always there for us, guiding us, teaching us, fathering us until we were adults. He and my mother are to this day one of those ideal couples I look at to demonstrate that long term love is possible and can be wonderful. They are the rock of our extended family, and spending time with them is always a treat.

My brother has been such a doting father during these early years and it is wonderful to see how much pride he takes in his family. One also gets the sense that he takes great satisfaction in being able to provide materially for them. My brother is clearly the best in the family with financial management. My parents were never great with money and the rest of us inherited their lack of financial acuity. Not so my brother, who has the right salary, investments and accounts. As a lawyer who deeply understands tax law and its implications, my brother has a clear eye on on the future with regard to retirement, health care and education for his children, each account carefully chosen and managed with some relish. Outside of the material well being of his family, my brother is constantly spending time with his kids, teaching them things, telling them how much he loves them at every turn. He punishes them when necessary, but always with a gentle hand and an eye towards making them more caring, responsible, and sharing individuals.

Yet there has been one area of his fathering that I have watched with a touch of dismay. Despite the ways in which we were raised, despite all the evidence around him, my brother is still choosing (perhaps semi-unconsciously) to reinforce gender stereotypes with his children. The evidence is everywhere, from the ways in which he describes them to others, to the names he calls them, to the way he treats them, to the different discipline paths he expects them to follow when they enter their teen years. He will describe his son repeatedly as being “all-boy” and “fearless”, and will go out of his way to reinforce these traits with rough housing and sporty activities of all sorts. He seems to find it important to talk about all the “girlfriends” he has (he is six years old) at school, and what a ladies man he will surely be when he grows up. Although I don’t think my brother would get angry if his son decided to play with Barbie dolls, he clearly has an image of how his son should be and reinforces it with his language, attitude and body language at every turn. Likewise with his daughter who is 4 1/2. She is his “princess” and he encourages her to think of herself that way. He will often talk about how she has “daddy wrapped around her little finger” and (half) jokingly talk about killing any young man that may want to date her when she is older. He routinely talks about how he will need to “protect” her in ways his boy will not need protecting, because she is a girl and therefore more vulnerable to attack. (My sister-in-law appears to be somewhat more even handed on this subject and routinely ridicules the idea that the kids should be treated differently.)

Of course there are some biological differences between boys and girls. But biology is not destiny, and certainly reinforcing the tired stereotypes of the past will not aid children in overcoming them. My mother tells a story about her not taking an economics course until college because that was something men were good at, but not women. She became the highest scoring student in the class. Society at large and parents in particular can’t always stop themselves from seeing their children in certain ways that make them comfortable, but shoehorning them into these roles is limiting. On a public policy level, my brother is completely egalitarian. He would never accept the idea that his son or daughter (or anyone else’s for that matter) would be limited by law or custom from achieving their potential. And yet it seems very important for him in his own family to see the boy as capital “b” Boy, and the girl as capital “g” Girl. When I point out to him some of these things, he dismisses it as the observation of someone who “doesn’t have children” and thus could know nothing about it. I beg to differ. Certainly there are things about the parenting role that I do not know having not experienced it myself. But on the question of gender roles in society, I am fairly expert, having experienced these things first hand. I know how difficult society’s obsession with gender conformity has made being gay for example, and I work every day to make it easier for those who come after me. Girls and boys deserve a world that doesn’t guide them along different paths for no other reason than biology. For them to become fully realized women and men, we need to encourage them to become fully realized human beings and to understand, reinforce, and create equal opportunity for all of us.

somewhat north


In every culture in the world there are questions, curiosities and concerns that preoccupy the mind. Although they are different in each locale, they all relate to placing ourselves in a cultural context. They allow for a classification and reassure the questioner that their world view is correct and that others fit within it. This maintains our illusions of order and keeps the chaos at bay. It is one of the ways we make sense of the world, and reinforce and comfort ourselves that our particular conception of the world makes sense and that we have our place within it.

In India, one of the first questions I was asked wherever I went was “Are you married?”

In Bali, it was invariably “Where are you going?”

In Mexico, almost always “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?”

And here in the US, it is almost always “What do you do?” or “What are you going to do?”

Today is my last day in LA for awhile. Tomorrow I will board a bus (yes, a bus) for San Francisco, where I will be for about a week before entering a Zen farm in the Bay Area for a while to practice zazen. After that I will go back to visit my family for a couple of weeks and after that I think I will spend a couple of weeks in NYC.

And after that? Who knows?

Is a clock ticking?


Why is it so ingrained in us? Is is the fear of death, of non-existence? Is our relationship to time inborn, or culturally nurtured? I tend to think it is a little of both actually. My experience in a variety of other cultures has shown me that we need not be as time (and therefore youth and death) obsessed as we are taught to be in the West. I have learned that the present and eternity can be one and the same, and I have learned to find peace in the now. And yet, this tick-tock is still largely my frame, no matter how much I try to break free of it. I know in my head that time obsession is a frame of mind, yet deep inside me its imagined importance keeps creeping, and rearing it’s ugly head on occasion. As June 10th (the day I fly to LA) approaches, I feel the weight of some unknown decision that some part of me is telling myself I must make. Will I return to Mexico in a month or two (to continue learning Spanish and work for a time)? Will I take a job in the US? Will it be in SF, LA, NYC? Will I take the rest of my savings and travel South America? Will I return to a job in technology (the easiest path) or will I try to work as a writer or something else?

Part of the reasons these are weighing on me a bit is that a date (June 10th) is approaching. And part of the reason is that I feel at a crossroads and don’t know what I want. But really I am not bound (at least not yet) by anything other than some self imposed perception. I don’t really have to do anything until my savings run out, and that won’t be for at least another 6 months. My wiser, inner self is telling me to chill out.

A few marriage points


In light of all the hoopla over the recent California Supreme Court decision, there are a few points to make for the willfully ignorant:

  • Conservatives love to apply the epithet “activist judges” to any decision they don’t agree with and imply that this works against the democratic process. The balance of powers is there for a reason, but in point of fact, the California Legislature (duly elected by the people of California) twice passed same sex marriage, only to have it vetoed by the governor.
  • It always surprises me to hear conservatives argue that marriage in its current form is an institution dating back many millennia. They clearly know nothing about the true history of marriage (and clearly don’t care to have their beliefs challenged with actual facts). I came across a wonderful article today by a historian named Hendrik Hartog entitled, “What Gay Marriage Teaches About the History of Marriage” that beautifully addresses some of these points.
  • It also surprises me to hear people who consider themselves to be “for equal rights” completely comfortable with the idea that the word marriage should be reserved for heterosexuals. I am sure they wouldn’t feel as comfortable with the idea that interracial marriage should be called “transracial union” and same race marriages “marriage”, but that would exactly have been their position 40 years ago, fully believing themselves to be without animus. Separate is never equal.
  • Speaking of public perception, the very idea that gay marriage should be something that should be subject to a vote is disturbing. One of the great ideas of our constitution is that some things should NOT be subject to a vote, that there are inalienable rights which are not subject to the tyranny of the majority. As an example my mother often sites in pedagogic settings, there is a reason why the majority can’t vote to make you Protestant or Catholic or any other religion. Matters of conscience are not subject to majority rule. Marriage in our society is such a fundamental right that it should not be subjected to vote, unless the outcome will apply to everyone, not just a disapproved class of people.
  • Also speaking of public perception, it is interesting to note that when the Supreme Court ruled in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia case overturning miscegenation laws, a much higher percentage of people were opposed to interracial marriage than are opposed to same sex marriage today.

Lowest common denominator


I just came back from seeing the traveling art exhibit that everyone has been raving about. It is called Ashes and Snow, and it is currently on display in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. This movable art tent was in LA just before I left about 2 years ago where it was likewise greeted as something incredible.

I thought it was total crap.

More of a marketing idea than anything else, the show is a testament to hype over substance. The images are simplistic (not to be confused with its much richer cousin, simple) playing into a mass culture (and watered down) idea of the exotic. These images in no way force anyone to contemplate the messy reality of truly far away places, they simply allude to a sanitized, romanticized version of it. The images are perfect for our culture of mass consumption, for they contain no content that would argue against modern excess. Quite to the contrary, the final part of the exhibit is a large vending area so that people may continue to consume these images with their purchase of posters, postcards, cds, books, etc. In fact, the entire exhibit could be considered the showroom, with purchase and checkout at the end.

Ultimately this exhibit was about as aesthetically and critically fulfilling as a “Hang in there baby!” kitty poster. The difference being that the kitty poster is less pretentious.

Don’t believe everything you read


I love Wikipedia. I very often use it as a personal reference source or in links from this blog. These links are especially useful for going into the history and culture of a place I have been, but couldn’t possibly do justice to in a short blog post.  But Wikipedia is not perfect.  It is compiled by end users and touts itself as the encyclopedia “anyone” can edit.  There is a review process, and I believe it probably works quite well for the majority of topics that have a high amount of interest.  It is obviously in (most) people’s interest that the content be accurate, and that is why Wikipedia is so dedicated to the form and format of their articles (asking authors to cite sources for example).  Because Wikipedia is user generated, we the users must be extra vigilant when examining information from sources such as these.  We have a responsibility to critically evaluate the information in front of us to the best of our ability, rather than just accepting it wholesale. This is even more important outside of a structure such as Wikipedia (who at least have standards in place). Blogs are a perfect example of where one must be especially critical of the information.

Still, every so often I come across a Wikipedia article for a term that is obviously the work of a mischief maker (or buffoon).  While there is no doubt an art to such fakery and possibly a vehicle for great satire, it is a perfect illustration of the need to be vigilant and critical of the information we receive.  Take the entry for “gadfly” as an example.  The author begins with an acceptable dictionary definition of the term, but then pretends to cite a work of Plato and a biblical reference as well.

Somewhat familiar as I am with language antecedents, this seemed preposterous to me.  A quick jump to  Merriam-Wesbster’s dictionary as well as other sources date this word to the late 16th or early 17th century, making it quite ineligible (apart from inherent language trouble, obviously) from ever having been in usage in the Bible or Plato’s Apology.

So, is the author a mischief maker or buffoon? Further searching of sources leads me to believe the latter.  For instance, in the Wikipedia entry for Plato’s Apology (vast portions of which seem to have been copied wholesale from the MIT resource linked above) there is a use of the term “gadfly”, but this is in a discussion, translation and interpretation of the work, not the work itself.  Likewise searching the Bible resource above, one can find the term in one of the newer translations dating from after 1965.

The web being the marvelous changing beast that it is, perhaps by the time you read this the article will have been updated and corrected. Perhaps I will be the one to do it.

Giving someone the finger


For a few weeks I have been noticing with ever greater frequency the propensity of people to hold up their hand and move their index finger as if it were a little puppet or being with a consciousness all its own.  And I kept thinking to myself, man these guys must really love The Shining.  They all keep making that creepy “redrum, redrum” finger movement like that possessed kid.

Turns out that here in Mexico, this is just a culturally approved gestural way of indicating the affirmative.  In other words, this just means “yes”.  Like nodding your head, but on the tip of your index finger.

It still creeps me out a little.