Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

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“Making a Murderer”: Authoring Fear through Authority

December 28, 2015

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Using authorship in a position of authority without transparency is an abuse of power. Authorship allows for the author of a narrative to have creative autonomy, or freedom. Often associated with the idea of the author who writes a book, the concept of authorship is founded on the idea of the author being in complete control of the world of the text, a pseudo-deity of their tempestuous landscapes. While the author is an authority of their work, not all authorities are authors. An authority is invested with power through the consent of a group. Whether the group is led by the matriarch of a family, a minister of religious affiliation, or the president of a country, authority acknowledges that an individual has the power to make decisions, often to lead and to enforce boundaries. Ideally authority is given through a process of democratic consent, however it also has historically been obtained through consent bullied through violence and/or intimidation.

When authorship is knowingly wielded by authorities to create narratives with the intention of manipulation there is cause to fear. This may be done through creating a narrative that appeals to logical fallacies, such as by eliciting strong emotional responses that trump logical analysis, appealing to vanity, de-contextualizing experiences to distort truth, or by assuming the moral (and/or intellectual) high ground. On a large scale this is the foundation of propaganda. For a time, the aesthetic beauty of Leni Riefenstahl films of Nazi Germany inspired positive emotional responses to the Third Reich with the outright intention of deflating the less aesthetically appealing logical opposition[Political Rites: Initiating Art]. While political propaganda is one of the most historically acknowledged ways that authority may abuse authorship, it is present in all layers of society.

Most recently, the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer is a clear example of how the abuse of authorship by an authority may have dire consequences on both the individual and societal levels. Released in December 2015, this series follows the legal struggles of Steven Avery over a thirty-year time period. The documentary was created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos and must be questioned in itself as a piece of authorship. However, prior to those concerns, the case of Steven Avery as presented by this documentary reveals how many people in authority struggle with imposing authority in authoring events due to feelings of morality, vengeance, superiority, and hate.

Everyone knows that ideologically a lawyer fights for the truth, but practically a lawyer’s job is to create narratives using evidence. In criminal cases, the defense must show that the defendant is innocent either through proving their inability to commit the crime, or by someone else’s guilt. The prosecution must create a narrative that is irrefutably more convincing, responding to these assertions of innocence, and offering proof clear proof of the defendant’s culpability. The narratives that both sides create do not represent the 100% truth of the situation, however they pull on concrete evidence and testimonies. Authenticity of evidence is both objective and subjective and is weighed by jury and judge.

In the history of Steven Avery, the audience witnesses, not once, but twice the manipulation of evidence through abuse of authority to convict him of crimes. In the first instance, he was accused of the attempted rape and brutalization of a local woman and was convicted of the crime despite the fact he had a substantiated alibi and that there was a convicted sex offender with greater probable cause. After serving eighteen years for the crime, he was found innocent through DNA analysis and released.

While in the process of suing the country for his wrongful imprisonment, he was once again arrested, this time for the murder of a woman. Though there was evidence that would include him amongst many possible suspects, it was also possible that some other perpetrator could have scapegoated him. However, rather than analyzing these possibilities, a multitude of situations allowing for the abuse of police, detective, legal and media authority led to Steven Avery and his sixteen year old nephew being the prime (and only) suspects. The coercion of confessions, the continued abuse of the moral high ground by prosecutors, the assumption of guilt before innocence that was encouraged to the media by the police prior to the trial, and the repeated witnessing of evidence being manhandled, and/or manipulated is a nightmare for any practitioner of critical argumentation. He was found guilty and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. However, even after his convictions, the jury members commented that when they entered their deliberations 7/12 members began with him being innocent. One jury member had to leave due to a family emergency and three had reportedly entered the trial with the outspoken conviction of his guilt. In addition, even though he was found to be innocent of his earlier crimes, his reputation as a criminal clearly influenced the perception of his moral character as he stood for sentencing in front of the judge.

Clearly, this is just a very brief summary of what transpired over decades (and I could not more highly recommend watching the series on either Netflix or Youtube and reading up on it through other sources), the troubled legal life of Steven Avery demonstrates the power of authority over authorship. Even when Avery was clearly telling the truth, he could not stand up to the legal narratives that convicted him. This leads us to two important questions: 1) How can we develop critical thinking skills to question, respond, and search for the authentic truth rather than the attractive and easy truths? 2) How can the methods of authority be more clearly derived from critical transparency, authenticity, and ethicacy? Through watching Making a Murderer we learn more about the function of power in our modern, American society. Regardless of Avery’s ultimate guilt or innocence, the abuse of authority through the manipulation of narrative (or authorship) is clearly present throughout this documentary. It presents a depiction of authority that all citizens should be concerned by and not accept as the status quo.

Now, before concluding this article it is essential that we look at the source that inspired this discussion. Everything that I know of this case was presented by two documentarians. After immersing myself in a little over ten hours of the history, I can’t say that I have not been seduced by the aesthetics of the film. If you were to ask me now, I would say from the evidence I saw, there is serious doubt to Steven Avery’s guilt, and if I “theoretically” had been on the jury, I could not have voted to convict.  However, my opinion has been developed through the context of the film that (while extensive) is only ten hours and does have an author’s bias.

So, how does the manipulation of the documentary’s narrative differ from the manipulation that happened during Avery’s trial? First of all, the audience knows that they are watching a documentary that has been pieced together in retrospect. Secondly, the documentary makers are not authorities in the legal system and even if they do take liberties with the narrative they are not sworn to the same ethical obligations. The job of documentary filmmakers is to inspire their audiences to reveal untold truths by asking interesting questions. At the time of Avery’s trials he was not given the question of guilt or innocence by the public, he was only met by social outrage. Now, at the time of this documentary, it is my belief that he will be offered the chance to have the status of his guilt publicly questioned. In addition, new questions regarding authority figures will also be asked—as they specifically relate to the case, and as we accept them in general within our society. So, yes, the documentary is a work of authorship. But, it is not an abuse of authority because it clearly reveals its methodologies, and, rather than leading to one clear response, it calls for critical reform and accountability.

Making A Murderer: Trailer

 

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Île de la Cité

April 19, 2015

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The city surrounds the island, the flow of the two rivers breaks the urbanscape of buildings and the crush of industry is composed of cars, families, machines. The island itself is the same. Surrounded by water, the buildings push against the limits of land and reach toward the opposing shore. Within these labyrinths of survival, we find that what is within the island is also without. One is the shadow of the other, refractions of light revealing lines on the portrait of civilization. But it is not the similiarities that engage us to cross these boundaries. It is the distance. The break that separates the one from the mass. The experience of the bridge that either prefaces the experience of one, an island alone in itself, or the one, whole, together, with all.

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“Museum of Me”: Architecting Identity and Walter Benjamin’s Historical Materialism

June 13, 2011

A museum is defined as a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and displayed. Already known for being the architects of what is inside your computer, Intel is now branching out to what is inside of you. Specifically, this is being achieved through an application that filters your Facebook activity and regurgitates it into a virtual “Museum of Me” (or you, depending). On the cool side of the spectrum, it is pretty fascinating to see the lineage of relationships, portraits, and taste. Aesthetically, the “Museum of Me” paints a pretty picture of who you are, or who you would like to think you are.

The Intel App creates a video tour of your Museum. Featuring your name, photos, friends, likes, and networks, the video is a visual summary of everything you have ever clicked on while logged into Facebook. If the information were to be presented outside of a “museum” context, such as for corporation research or consumer profiling, the shear amount of information available would be overwhelming. Not to mention the horror if the “Museum of Me” were being used as a visual introduction to potential employers. In short, the “Museum of Me” project articulates just how impossible it now is to filter which parts of your identity your friends, family, businesses, and employers have the ability to access.

But does this breaking down of filters mean that we are able to more consistently be who we are? For some it is enough, but for others the “Museum of Me” fails to fit. And here are the reasons why:

If history is a narrative constructed from selected cultural artifacts, the question is who, or what, is to decide what is significant? In “On the Concept of History” Walter Benjamin asserts the importance of blasting historic structures and reveling in the pieces, separate from an architected structure. In this regard, he states the following:

The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone. He leaves it to others to give themselves to the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in the bordello of historicism. He remains master of his powers: man enough, to explode the continuum of history.”

Central to the concept of historical materialism is the paradox of the transition of time, where time is simultaneously beginning and ending. If time is constantly narrowing and expanding, then the experience of the present cannot be roped into a single narrative (there must be at least two for the beginning and end of time, if not an infinite amount of other possible twists and turns!). In contrast, Historicism argues for the limitation of historical perspective and an authoritarianism to interpretation. More crassly, Benjamin likens the historian who writes an objective history from a set perspective to a whore who gives up the goods for capitalist interests. In contrast, the historical materialist blasts the narrative of history and through this action ascends his power.

Now, how does this relate to Intel’s “Museum of Me”? Intel has created an App to reflect the activities, faces, friends, and likes that are logged into the Facebook world. This is a historical narrative of your life, and on a literal level is accurate. Intel is not lying and the narrative has been built on tangible evidence. However, when a blast of historical materialism is applied, there is no more Museum, simply refuse from the explosion. A discarded photo, or shard of familiarity no longer represents the set narrative. However, the potential for meaning has been exponentially expanded. Because authentic significance is simultaneously a beginning and an end of time, the encounter with historic artifacts is unlimited once the form of Historicism has been dissolved.

In terms of identity, one of the joys of Facebook is that it allows the individual to create a public face. To make photo portraits, post relevant articles, network, search, and comment to our hearts delight. However, is this the entire picture? One narrative says yes, but for some this is not enough. The narrative deconstructs, the spiral toward Self shifts, and suddenly we are once again left with the Other—unknown possibilities abound.

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The Rigors of Anna Akhmatova

June 11, 2011

Born into pre-revolutionary Russia, Anna Akhmatova lived through nearly every epoch of life within the Soviet Union. A poetess first published in her early teens, Akhmatova was well-known as a thinker and muse amongst the intelligentsia. However, while her ability was clear prior to the revolution, it was her role as witness that has made her legacy. Executions, imprisonment, abandonment, suicide, and slow death defined day-to-day living. Oppression of thought through spies and bugs were typical. And memory became the greatest tool of rebellion.

At one point in this history, for seventeen months Akhmatova waited outside a prison each day to bring food to her son, or to advocate for his release. Published in the St. Petersburg Journal in the New York Times is an account of the day she was recognized:

“One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

‘Can you describe this?’

And I said: ‘I can.’

“Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Central to this retelling is the ability of the poet to stand as a witness to the misuse of power and the horrors of reality.

Which leads to the question of how can poets be witnesses? The poetry throughout the ages has served different services. Whether to convey liturgical material, regional news, or to instruct, poetry has been a mode of communication steeped in tradition. In classical times, the poetic emphasis lay in form and craft—as seen in both epic works and smaller sonnets (Homer or Sapho). However, the closer one moves toward Modernism, the more the emphasis moves from transcendental romantic themes, toward symbolism—which argued that art should represent absolute truths which could only be described indirectly. Metaphor and the liberation of technique from tradition were both central to the Symbolism Manifesto.

Maturing into the beginning of the 20th century, Akhmatova came into the poetic world just as Symbolism was becoming popular in the western world. Even prior to the revolution, the divide between east and west was strong, and the poets of Russia headed in a different philosophical direction. Developed in 1910, Acmeism was a school of poetry, which focused on the Greek root for acme, “the best age of man.”

Acmeist poetry celebrated craft and rigorous form over the mysticism of imagery—permanence over transience. Choosing not to emigrate, Akhmatova was harshly censored and closely watched throughout the majority of her life. However, her classical diction and direct details revealed not only the factual authenticity, but represented the stark emotional grounds the country was traversing internally.

Here are two examples of her poetry:

Song of the Last Meeting

My heart was chilled and numb,

but my feet were light.

I fumbled the glove for my left hand

onto my right.

It seemed there were many steps,

I knew—there were only three.

Autumn, whispering in the maples,

kept urging: ‘Die with me!

I’m  cheated by joylessness,

changed by a destiny untrue.’

I answered: ‘My dear, my dear!

I too: I’ll die with you.’

The song of the last meeting.

I see that dark house again.

Only bedroom candles burning,

The yellow, indifferent, flame.

Shade

‘ What does a certain woman know

                               of the hour of her death?’  Mandelshtam

Tallest, most suave of us, why Memory,

forcing you to appear from the past, pass

down a train, swaying, to find me

clear profiled through the window-glass?

Angel or bird? How we debated!

The poet thought you translucent straw.

Through dark lashes, your eyes, Georgian,

looked out, with gentleness, on it all.

Shade, forgive. Blue skies, Flaubert,

insomnia, late-blooming lilac flower,

bring you, and the magnificence of the year,

nineteen-thirteen, to mind, and your

unclouded temperate afternoon, memory

difficult for me now—Oh, shade!

In these poems, we can clearly see how the emphasis in Acmeism of traditional form provides a container for the chaos that ensues within the lived world. Rhyme scheme, meter and verse counter the stress and harsh reality of the themes explored there in. Likewise, the use of realistic imagery creates a simple relationship with a reader. The identification of the audience with the author finds common ground in windows, homes, and flowers—possibly the only commonalities available between 21st century America and revolutionary Russia, they allow for some type of identification throughout time and cultural boundaries.

The rigors of Anna Akhmatova are confined to the strict structure of her poetry. The discipline that the Stalinist Soviet Union instituted on its people is paralleled in her craft. However, the themes and hidden memories bear witness to the tears that have fallen, vanished love, and loneliness of lost time.

anna

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Postcultural Identity and the Fashion Photography of Lillian Bassman

June 10, 2011

Born in 1917, Lillian Bassman is most celebrated for her grainy, black and white photographic work. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine between 1950-1965, her work with models focused on high contrasts and form. Her creative objective focused on pure form. However, when popular tastes in fashion photography changed, Bassman discarded 40 years of negatives and prints. One misplaced bag of 100 images survived. Today, Bassman is recognized as one of the great women fashion photographers and is still working.

Throughout the 20th century, the world of fashion has had a contentious evolution. Both celebrated for it’s aesthetics and criticized for its bourgeoisie decadence, fashion remains one of the most popular and common forms of cultural representation. In this instance, culture is defined as the attitude and behavior characteristics of a particular social group. While it is easy to comment that the attitude reflected in fashion is the starvation of culture, this reduction is a bit too easy.

Existentialism rose from the ruins of two world wars and set the stage for surrealism, deconstruction, and post-modernism. Through the knowledge of mass destruction and global culpability, the question of meaning was desperately explored within the realms of art, religion, philosophy, and other representations of cultural identity. Deconstruction destabilized meaning, but also provided an almost religious assuredness that the center is never stable. As if this instability assured a conceptualization of existence beyond the ability of humans—the religious function of the psyche found an outlet through the labors of theory.

However, while existentialism, or the quest for meaning, has been simultaneously nihilistic and the origin of great creativity, there is another factor that has shaped the last 100 years—globalization. The great American experiment has now passed the two hundred year mark and cultures have now been, not only blended, but forgotten. The fusion of races, traditions, and languages have created a clean palate to adopt and discard the trappings of culture. Americans can be everything or nothing in a simple change of the wardrobe.

In this example, we are going to be looking at Postculturalism as a theory directly related to globalization. In a community set in a densely cultural environment the traditions, expectations, and socio-economic positions have been established over hundreds (if not thousands of years). An individual is not introduced as someone who has existed within one lifetime, rather they are recognized as the son, or daughter, of thus and thus person, who is in turn related to another individual. Everyone is family, the community dictates behavior, and history is remembered.

In Postculturalism, the socio-economic boundaries are broken enabling more opportunity. The lack of a genealogical introduction enables quick movement between economic classes. However, it also means the deterioration of expectations and lifestyle. The concept of the lifespan as shared within a community follows set rituals. Whether that knowing the time to eat during the day, the season to eat ice cream, or the rites of passage into different epochs, the expectations are clearly available. This availability serves a psychological objective in providing a known framework, a system of initiation, and a guide for interactions. In contrast, a Postcultural society must either cull customs from a variety of backgrounds, or, more like, is left to find a framework from a system unrelated to culture—which is usually nestled closely to capitalism.

Leading us back into the phenomenon of fashion photography. Photography has served many functions since it’s invention. Ranging from a bureaucratic tool to high art, photography is both a method and a form of expressionism. In the case of fashion photography, the line between commercialism and art is often blended. The goal of fashion is to sell clothes. To sell clothes, there must be a reason to buy clothes. Fashion is not utilitarian and is fueled by desire. Clothes are a traditional expression of culture and personal identity. Our industry within a community is recognized by what we wear (butcher, baker, candlestick maker), and likewise an individual with the finest clothes is more important than an individual with poorer accessories. We all desire quality in life, and clothes are symbolic of our goals and achievements.

However, in a Postcultural society identity is not established through a cultural history. Which makes fashion an extremely necessary outlet for defining individual identity. A person who is in fashion, has more economic resources, and is therefore identified as being more significant within the social hierarchy. However, fashion is not just branding, it is the artistic development of “looks.” Here is where photography becomes more than a tool for communicating merchandise. The creative aspects of fashion photography create a scene that the viewer desires to identify with. The reenactment, or interaction, with changing fashions is one method to create a persona where prior content does not limit possibilities.

In looking at the photography of Lillian Bassman, we must question the appeal, but also the challenges of her images. Her photography is intensely interested in form, geometry, and high-grainy contrast. When we look at her images, we are looking through a window into another world. The world is attractive, but deeply psychological. The narrative is complex and not always neat. The extreme black and white contrast does not compromise in communicating emotion, tension, and intrIgue. The content that Bassman conveys works within the forum of fashion photography, but the physical identities that she designs convey more about our interior landscapes. Her emphasis on form took her into creative realms that the fashion content was unable to follow. Leading her to find other forums of expression outside of the industry, but also establishing her legacy as a fashion photographer who had much to say to an audience unprepared to listen.

This is a link to Lillian Bassman’s photography as featured in the New York Times.

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The Symbolic Function of Color in the Art of Joan Miró

June 8, 2011

The symbolic vocabulary of color has many different languages. These languages allow the voyeur to understand their experience of art and the world within a variety of contexts. Color is a vocabulary of communication as well as a process of creating. It can be understood through techniques of degree, but also articulated as modes of emotion in the lexicon of psychology. The relationship between color and symbol is particularly strong in the work of Joan Miró.

The question of how to interpret art, literature, music, politics, and basically everything is one that has been postulated, revised, and argued for millennia. Strategies focusing on form, content, source, and context are all relevant and successful methods for extrapolating meaning from experience and creation. There is interpretation that happens on a personal level and works within the context of an individual’s unique world of perspective, and then there is interpretation that is formulated in an aesthetic vocabulary that interacts with critical conversations taking place within a larger community. Though different in their origin, both personal and critical processes begin from a point of engaged response. The piece of art must create a unique experience. How this experience is interpreted within a given context becomes the grand debate.

The discussion of art on a personal level is directly connected to the therapeutic arts and may often be a guided strategy. The inner world of the individual is projected onto an external object to reveal metaphors that are challenging the development or health of the psyche. Once externalized the collective symbology of the art may be researched, concretizing internal abstract concepts into a visual vocabulary. While this description is brief and reductionary, the process is intended to be organic and address both personal experiences and archetypal dynamics. Symbols contain both personal and collective meaning, or relevance.

In contrast, a critical or aesthetic discussion of art focuses on an understanding of that those participating in the conversation have an understanding of what has been said in the past, how it has been said, and why it was or is no longer relevant. Critical interpretation accesses jargon specific to the medium, within the realms of both technique and content. Symbolism that is found in archetypes, geometry, color, and numerology all play a role within formal interpretations. In his book, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, Terry Bennett summarizes the principles of interpretation. These principles our listed below, however central to the action of interpretation is that the piece of art demands an interpretation and that feelings are the guide. Whether the feelings are understood as a collective or personal analytical process depends on the forum.

This relationship between feeling, interpretation, and symbolism is particularly visible in the art of Catalan artist Joan Miró. Born in 1893 Barcelona, Miró was a part of the surrealist and Spanish Civil War Parisian ex-patriot communities. However, while his work has often been interpreted as Surrealism, he resisted being defined as a Surrealist artist. His objective was to “assassinate art” or to break from the historical interpretation of what art is, or should be. Being labeled as a Surrealist would work would limit his ability to explore new territory, methods, and forms of expression.

While Miró resists categorical interpretation, throughout his work he asks questions. These questions take the form of color and technique and meditate on what the symbol has to say within a set amount of space. Specifically, Miró worked with strategies such as automatic drawing (where the hand is allowed to move freely as an extension of the unconscious), Surrealism (which philosophically strove to reveal authentic thought through juxtaposing unexpected symbols and forms), Expressionism (which applies emotional subjectivity to evoke moods or ideas), and Color Field Painting (that meditated on combinations, and or fields of color symbology). While each of these methods is accompanied and motivated by methods of critical thought, Miró’s resistance to one mode of exposition is consistent.

Which leads us to ask, just how does Miró want his body of art to be understood?

If we take away interpretation, what is left? Experience. What is the experience of viewing Miró’s art? Does this experience change? How can this experience remain active? How does one assassinate this historical concept of art? By striving to avoid classification, and by engaging the imagination.

Personnage EtoileFor example, what is the experience of viewing his 1978 painting “Personnage Etoile”? In English the title is translated as Star Person, or Star Character. On an abstract textured field of bright sky blue, minimalistic symbols work together and disjointedly to engage the imagination. Circle, star, curve, red, yellow, what is the message? Is the blue the color of the Madonna? Does it relate to Haitian Santeria, or is it inspired by the expansive Mediterranean beyond the walls of Miró’s studio? In his theory of Deconstruction, Derrida argues that the experience of deconstruction is as if, while following the inward curve of a fixed point toward a center, we suddenly find that the center has moved elsewhere. The spiral is destabilized and the interpretation is disoriented. Likewise, the experience of Miró’s “Personnage Etoile” provides just enough information to stimulate the process of interpretation, but the same stimulation resists conclusions and continues to evoke questions.

Through the interpretive resistance of Miró’s artwork we are better able to witness our own processes of interpretation for what they are, reflections and projections of who we are—internally and as a community. And what we find is that who we are is just as unresolved as the image that we meditate upon.

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Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation:

  • Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.
  • Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
  • Some interpretations are better than others.
  • Good interpretations of art tell about the critic.
  • Feelings are guides to interpretations.
  • There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same work.
  • Interpretations are often based on a worldview.
  • Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
  • Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
  • An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
  • A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
  • Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
  • The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
  • All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
  • All art is in part about other art.
  • No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
  • The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer.
  • Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self-corrective.
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.

Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company