I guess I’m a Writer

A few weeks ago we had a guest in one of our seminars, and he opened his talk with a question. 

He asked, “How many of you are writers?”

In our group of first year grad students, only one of us publicly admitted to being an author. 

I mean, we’re art historians! Yeah, we write essays on essays and conduct research for journal and magazines. But no, of course we’re not authors. 

The guest speaker preceded to tell us that we’re all authors and we should consider ourself as such. 

Never have I ever considered myself an author. Sure, I wrote a 150 page undergraduate thesis, blog weekly, constantly write for grad school, and am working on getting a few articles published. But, no, no, I’m not a writer. I’ve always considered writing to be such a big creative endeavor. Authors have to have so much field experience, take time to write and rewrite, go through writers block, constantly have a list on potential ideas to add to their writing… 

Then, the realization slapped me in the face. 

I am a writer. 

When I was a kid I had this green spiral bound notebook and each day after school I couldn’t wait to get home to continue narrating my Harry Potter spin-off series about a young witch named Jasmin. 

Frankly, school doesn’t come easy to me. I was never one of those students who could just sit and absorb all of the information presented in class. Instead, I had to spend time reading the textbook and reteaching myself the materials presented over and over until it finally stuck. Scientific theories must be explained to me over and over, and math concepts go in one ear and out the other with no comprehension. But something about writing was different. For some reason I’ve never had a problem turning my thoughts into sentences on paper. In middle and high school I took a bunch of writing classed, but in undergrad I didn’t take any English classes. I didn’t miss out on writing, don’t worry. Basically all of my art history classes were writing intensive. We worked on thesis statements, grammar, essay organization, and citation guidelines all under the guise of studying art.

Knowing all of this, how, after studying art history for 6 years, am I just now considering myself a writer. 

How did this happen? 

Anyway, proof that grad school is about more than only turning in assignments and making connections. It’s also about finding your strengths and the things you like to do and finding ways to integrate them into your career.

Thanks APO

In undergrad I was involved in Alpha Phi Omega, one of the largest international collegiate service organizations. Looking back to my time at Truman, so much of my identity was rooted in APO—wearing letters to class, weekend service trips, chapter and exec meetings, and just random hangouts with friends. Now, in grad school, I’m realizing so much of my identity is rooted in the things that I learned while apart of APO. 

In APO our pillars are leadership, friendship, and service. Through our pledging process we’re taught that serving on the exec board will benefit the chapter at large, doing community service will help our community, and that friendship is the key to a happy life. But for me, the true meanings of these pillars didn’t sink in until a bit later. 

I completed over three hundred hours of community service throughout my time in my chapter. Of course doing good in the community was transformative, but the most important thing I learned was to be of service, not to just the community or to my Brothers, but to anyone who needs it. To me, this is different than doing service. Being of service means fixing a problem without being asked, and asking for no praise and just doing good because you can. Being of service to others makes your heart feel warm, and presumably you bring someone joy. What’s better than that? 

Being of service directly connects with our pillar of friendship. In my opinion, one of the best qualities of a friend is one who is of service. Someone who will give you advice, tell you when you’re wrong, and just generally be around when you need them to be. This idea of being of service has transformed my idea of what it means to be a friend, and a colleague to the students in my program. I want to be friends with others in our program, and I realized that I went about making new friends in a way that is so familiar to APO’s principles. Plus, being apart of a group with a collective identity taught me to advocate for everyone, even if they’re ‘competing’ with me. Grad school can sometimes feel like a big competition–who can get the most funding, the most prestigious internships, or write the best essay. But instead of wanting something my colleagues earn, I’m proud of them. We’re all apart of the same program, and maybe I’ll get the next scholarship, who knows! 

I also served as my chapter President during my last year in APO. Getting into the position I assumed I would be organizing meetings, putting out fires from small interpersonal problems, and generally just making sure my chapter stayed afloat. It’s so funny how we always underestimate and rationalize complicated situations to ourselves. Anyway, when I was elected president I had a concussion, I was engulfed in final projects and exams, dealing with personal relationship issues, and I was preparing for a study abroad program in London. I quickly came to the realization that while I was dealing with all of this, everyone else in my chapter was going through something too. 

I’m a triple Scorpio (yikes, I know) so my leadership style quickly became helping everyone deal with their personal problems in anyway that I could in order to not only help them, but also make them love our chapter as much as I did. Ever since joining, APO was a place for me to totally be myself and be accepted for it, and I wanted everyone to feel that way. I just knew that if I couldn’t help someone with their problems, then there was someone in our chapter who could. However, I was still dealing with almost 100 college aged students, so naturally there was drama and problems that couldn’t be fixed. Sometimes because people didn’t want help, and sometimes because the world isn’t always fair and people make malicious decisions on purpose.

Literally the most important thing I learned in college was through my time as president of APO. I realized that not all problems are mine to solve and not all problems can be solved. This isn’t radical, obviously. I’ve just always been the kind of person that sees a problem, fixes said problem, finds next problem, fixes it, on repeat. It was exhausting.

Learning this definitely has made me more chill (I hope my friends would agree). In grad school if I can’t finish a reading for class I remind myself that I’ve read the other two and I’ve finished the assignment. I’m no longer so hard on myself when I try my best. 

Also while serving as President I had to lead weekly meetings, communicate with the chapter and our advisors, and just generally be the face of the organization on campus. For an introvert, this was exhausting. But I’m forever grateful for these experiences! Since serving as President I’m more confident in asking group members to accomplish tasks on time, talking in class, and scheduling meetings. Practicing these life skills in a low stakes environment like APO easily made my transition into grad school much easier. 

Right before graduation I wrote a post on my Instagram about how much APO pushed me to my absolute limits and I hoped that instead of remembering all of the negatives that come with being apart of any organization that in five years I could remember only the good memories with my friends. It hasn’t been a full year since graduating Truman and leaving APO, and I’m already thankful for my experiences and all of the drama and nonsense is fading. 

Super Tuesday Disappointment

Being apart of a major university system offers me an immense amount of privilege. I’m even more thankful for my leftist oriented program where students are free to explore their socialist ideologies (I’m yelling about Nazis and the environment, it’s great). 

Currently, I’m living in Toronto. So, beyond my largely liberal identifying colleagues, I’m also surrounded by a major metropolitan area with people from all walks of life. Most of whom benefit from leftist social programs, such as free healthcare, low costs for secondary education, and a somewhat regulated housing market. To many of the people I encounter on a daily basis its unfathomable why the United States isn’t drumming up support for Bernie Sanders. And I agree. Tax the rich, stop unnecessary wars, stop putting children in prisons, legalize marijuana, free college, etc. 

I could go on and on about why we should support Bernie, so I will. But, using a real life example from the art community.

The Art Workers’ Coalition was formed out of art world controversy that artists should have control over their own work. The group made a list of demands ranging from representation on Boards, free admissions to museums, diversity inside of the gallery, and adequate payments to artists. And then they protested to get what they wanted. Major artists considered that others were not being fairly treated in the art world, so they did something about it. 

Now, this has nothing directly to do with Sanders and his policies. 

But let’s think this through. 

Major art world individuals (think Lucy Lippard and Carl Andre) of the 1960s got together to better their community not only for themselves but for struggling and future artists. These artists had to protest for their rights, and even still some of them were not granted by the art world. But the solidarity of these artists tried to make things better for everyone—that’s important and sounds a lot like something Bernie would do.

In the USA everyone is so concerned about finding a candidate that represents them, particularly white, cisgendered middle aged Americans. They ask stupid questions like: is this candidate the same gender/race/religion/age as myself and then latch themselves to said candidate for superficial reasons. If you want to be like the Art Workers’ Coalition and advocate for everyone, then you must choose the candidate who does not look like you. And if you’re not advocating for someone with less privilege than you, you probably should reconsider your voting strategy.

If you are in the majority, it is your duty to advocate to give spaces to those who cannot make space on their own. And that’s exactly what the Art Workers’ Coalition and Bernie Sanders are doing. 

Bernie knows he’s a white Boomer from Brooklyn. He ‘looks’ like so many people that I was surrounded by growing up, but he’s still the best candidate. 

Why? 

Because he has immersed himself in communities of veterans, LGBTQ, women, and other minorities to find their struggles and then advocate to fix it. He doesn’t tell them what their problems are. He listens, then does his job as a politician. 

I’m so tired of my friends struggling to pay rent because they have student debt, and not going to the doctor when they’re sick, or otherwise struggling in a country that has the means to support them. 

Bernie is the only way out of this struggle for so many.

Separation of Reality and Political Theater

We’ve all seen it, at the State of the Union Speaker Nancy Pelosi literally ripped President Donald Trump’s speech to shreds. Toting this as a protest against ‘lies,’ Pelosi confidently lacerated numerous pieces of paper from Trump’s speech on live television. Her act of protest quickly became a meme, and was critiqued internationally. 

Certainly Pelosi was aware that her outburst would be documented by global media; hailed by liberals and scorned by conservatives and of course dissed on the Commander in Chief’s Twitter account. However, bringing her actions to reality, Pelosi’s actions were no more than a sorry attempt at political theater in an attempt to recover her ego from Trump’s acquittal. 

Even in Canada we couldn’t escape the drama from our southern neighbors. The cover of our newspapers were shrouded in pictures of Pelosi mid act. I couldn’t look past her calculated smirk. This was a woman on a mission—a mission to dutifully restore democracy to America. Except, it’s more than that. I’m certain Pelosi believed that her actions were radical and life changing because that’s just how her supporters saw it. But in reality, her so called ‘radical’ act was just to save face and start controversy. 

Pelosi’s spectacle was unfortunate and annoying, but surprisingly started conversations in the art community. The art world tries to be progressive and often supports liberal ideology. Therefore, many hailed Pelosi’s act as a radical statement against hatred and bigotry in the United States. As problematic as that is, some even believed that her performance could (and should) be considered art due to the performative and ritualistic nature of the spectacle. In fact, knowing that I’m an American and what my research interests are a colleague was surprised to find my disinterest, and frankly annoyance, in Pelosi’s act. 

My academic research involves Happenings, performances, and Actions, otherwise known as performance art, by politically engaged artists. Artists like Joseph Beuys use their platform as artists to advocate for political change. Many of Beuys’ actions involve repetition, as well as elements of ritualnot unlike Pelosi’s spectacle. Many performance artists have a flair for the dramatic and being over the top to push the definition of art forward. 

The biggest difference between artists such as Beuys and Pelosi is that Beuys is creating a spectacle that is advocating for the betterment of society, whilst Pelosi is drawing attention to herself in an attempt to discredit the President. It is evident through her actions that this was not an act ‘for the people’ but for her own ego. I’ll be the first to admit that Trump is a sorry excuse for a political leader, but so is Pelosi, and neither is fundamentally different from one another. Furthermore, her actions cannot be considered art as she isn’t advocating for real change. Instead she crowned herself Queen of American Political Theater, proving her close associations with Trump’s political flair on Twitter. While Trump rages on Twitter, Pelosi’s platform is now on the spectacle of live TV. Both politicians are one and the same. 

Artists make art that functions in the art world. They create a commentary based on real life events. However, Pelosi’s spectacle takes place in the real world. She is using her platform to further split the divide between the Left and the Right, and further her message of superiority within the Democratic Party. That’s not art, that’s political theater. 

Political theater and art have much in common, but the two function in different realms. Both take place in the ‘real’ world but political theater actively harms its viewers. In this Pelosi example, instead of doing her job working for the People, she is now in the midst of a scandal of her own design. She is taking valuable time away from her cushy tax payer funded job to create unnecessary drama in hopes of rallying the Liberals against her spiteful tryst against Trump. Performance art harms no one as artists don’t have a direct stake in politics. Artists do not work for the people, they work for themselves and occasionally for private institutions that represent them. Certainly, viewers may be offended by elements of the performance but artists are private citizens who can comment on politics however they wish—without repercussions—a element that doesn’t exist if you’re a politician, especially if you’re Speaker of the House. 

Stop congratulating Pelosi for her silly act. Remember she didn’t do this for you or even the Democratic Party. She wasn’t brave, or even a patriot. She wanted nothing more than the inevitable attention that would come from the Pro-Trump community that would hopefully unite the Democratic Party for the upcoming presidential elections—a unification which would mean the election of another centrist who wouldn’t engage in any sort of radical change in our country. 

Voyeur in Athens

One mild January afternoon I found myself at the footsteps of the crown of the doric order and classical Greek Architecture—the Parthenon. Emotions were high as we parked our car and began the short trek across the park. The grass was suspiciously green for being winter, families were picnicking, dogs were being walked by their owners. The air was fresh and I had my eyes and heart set on viewing the Parthenon.


The Parthenon is surrounded on all sides by a sprawling green park. Concrete sidewalks take you to multiple fish ponds, and a few hot dog stands, and of course the Parthenon.


The structure towers over the surrounding park, somewhat bigger than imagined, yet somehow smaller too. Tourists are smiling for selfies, a father is chasing his child through the columns, signs direct us to the entrance.


We entered through the basement, and found ourselves in a sprawling gallery space. The art on the walls was largely plein air in style and made by local contemporary artists. While great in its own right, the basement galleries did not connect with the main attraction whatsoever.


Perhaps due to the restricted nature of the temple, there were no signs telling us where to go. Finally, we made our way up a set of undignified stairs and into the naos.


Athena Parthenos was right there.

Of course, she was blocked by red velvet ropes. But Athena Parthenos was visible to my mortal eyes. Holding Nike in her right palm, shield resting at her side, I had to visibly crane my neck upwards to see Athena in her full glory.


And I felt nothing.


Elderly couples were being photographed in front of the statue, children were yelling. It was as if I was in a theme park, not an ancient temple.


We continued to snake our way into the treasury room. The two walls were flanked by plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles and one of the pediments.

Our entire journey into the Hellenistic world lasted less than twenty disappointing minutes.


Here’s the point where I should mention that I am in fact not telling the story of touring the Grecian capital. There is an exact replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee’s Centennial Park. Made of concrete, this structure was built as part of a celebration of Tennessee’s first one hundred years as a part of the union. Athena Parthenos was put up in the 1990s.

Having never been to Athens it is hard to critique the sense of awe that comes with viewing the Parthenon. However, I have been able to view ancient Roman ruins in Italy, and was left with a feeling of adoration and reverence, which I was not in Nashville.


Perhaps it was my mistake for putting too much stake in the ‘exact replica’ of the Parthenon in Nashville. Or perhaps it has something to do with the influx of mysticism surrounding cult sites.


Nashville’s Parthenon is, too, a cult site—for the game of cup-and-ball. Upon exiting the temple and strolling on the stylobate we found ourselves emerged in some sort of convention. Fifty or so adult men surrounded the exterior of the Parthenon. In their hands they held wooden cups with a ball attached by a string. Each man was strategically standing in front of their professional camera, filming themselves attempting to catch the ball with the wooden cup.

Feeling a sense of not belonging and not understanding is common at cultural sites and museums. However, I must admit that this is a feeling that I do not often feel. I function with a great deal of privilege and have a strong art history background that allows me too often go unnoticed in these institutions. But upon entering the Parthenon, I felt that this was not the space for me.

But, maybe, just maybe, that’s the point.


Common everyday citizens were not allowed into the Athenian Parthenon. Priests would enter the sacred space to have some sort of spiritual renaissance and people like me would have to find spirituality through other means.

For me, this was through cup-and-ball. Watching the players congratulate each other and feel a sense of pride and camaraderie allowed me to have an actual spiritual experience. Viewing the small joys of others doing something so meaningless reminded of what it means to be a living and breathing member of society.

How I Became an Art Historian

Studying abroad in London I saw elementary aged school children wearing reflective vests sitting on the floor in semi-circles around various paintings. They were so engaged with the art at such a young age. I watched them ask questions about the Warhol paintings on the wall. Questions that I couldn’t have asked at such a young age.


While the kids living in cities are so fortunate to be surrounded by incredible galleries, I grew up in a different environment. My parents owned a horse farm in rural Missouri, a few hours away from the major institutions of St. Louis and Kansas City.


Our local state park has a small museum that tells the history of the area. I have vague memories of visiting it once or twice while on elementary school field trips. With the exception of zoos, I don’t recall visiting any institutions until I went to Europe after my high school graduation.


I went to Europe with one of those tour groups that cater to college-aged students that paid for the entrance fees to specific museums. The first ticket they paid for was at the Louvre in Paris. And this is the first time I actually recall visiting a major institution. I’d like to admit that I only went inside because it was a rainy day and I didn’t feel like getting drenched. To say the least, I wasn’t mesmerized by the treasures or the architecture and I couldn’t wait to leave. I remember looking at the Death of Sardanapalus and literally having no reaction (last time I was at the Louvre I remember looking at the same painting and feeling so much). On this trip we also visited the Vatican and the Prado, both of which had little effect on me.


In my first year of college I realized that my initial career goals of becoming a music therapist wasn’t the path that I envisioned for myself. So, I started exploring my other interests.


Since childhood I had always been interested in photography and I was on the yearbook staff in high school. I thought that maybe I could be a photographer, or major in graphic design during my second year of college.


After enrolling in the art program, I quickly learned that even to be a photography major I had to take a bunch of drawing and painting courses. So I begrudgingly signed up for them. Besides three years on the yearbook staff I had never taken an art course, and I was in way over my head. The first semester of the art program was rough, but I learned and adapted, but I was by no means a good artist.


Second semester I was allowed to enroll in a design course and a photography course. Finally, something I was interested in!


Then, I learned that I had to take an art history course as well. My friend took the same course the year prior and gave stellar reviews of the course material and the professor. Even so, I was not excited. I didn’t want to sit in a dark room and pretend to care about paint splattered on a canvas (looking at you Jackson Pollock). I thought that every class period would be like the torture that I endured at the Louvre.


But I went to class anyway.


By the end of the first two weeks of the course I was hooked. I learned that art history is just a bunch of fun facts pieced together to form a coherent history of the work. Plus, looking at art on a huge screen was so interesting. The professor pointed out so many details that went unnoticed to me. I loved having no knowledge about the subject matter and being totally immersed in learning something new. I even recognized some of the works that I saw from my visit to Europe years prior.


Throughout the second semester of my sophomore year I learned that I’d always been interested in art history, I just didn’t know it. In high school, history was one of my favorite subjects. I loved learning about changing cultures and the forces that changed them. I’ve also always loved writing, and researching for papers. While I wasn’t interested in art in high school, I was interested in the design aesthetics associated with yearbook.


Looking back it makes so much sense that I became an art historian, even without any formal art training as a child. Now, four years later I can’t imagine doing anything different and I’m so thankful that my path ended up here.

Imposter Syndrome is Worse in Grad School

Imposter syndrome is nothing new, and I’m not the only one who suffers from it. Literally, we’re all in this together.


While it is so hard doubting myself and my accomplishments, it’s also rough seeing my friends and classmates struggling with the same things. In class, my friends are articulate and passionate about their research. They’re inquisitive and always willing to lend a helping hand. But all of us have our moments of doubt; Doubting that we belong in our program and in our field.


Even though that’s obviously not true. We all earned our place in our program, and we work so hard everyday to stay enrolled in it. I don’t want to be pitted against others in my program. I want us to all do our best in whatever field we’re interested in. Seriously, we’re all doing research that is valuable and I want us all to lift each other up into reaching our goals!


My program is very diverse. All of us have different career goals and we’re all at different points in our careers, too. Some of us (like me!) are fresh out of undergrad, while others are coming directly from another MA program, and still others have been working in the industry for a while and are now returning to school. Getting unique perspectives on my research is literally one of the main reasons why I came to grad school, so I’m really thankful for my cohort!
While this diversity is great, it tugs at all of our collective imposter syndromes. When someone curates a show, gets published, or gives a lecture weare so pumped for each other! After you’re finished celebrating, though, you’re left with a feeling of why didn’t I apply, why didn’t I get nominated, how did they have time to do this, etc.


The more I think about it, the less it matters, though. In reality, we’re all on different journeys through academia and at different points in our careers so comparing ourselves to each other is useless. If I don’t want to be a curator, why should I make myself feel badly when someone got a curatorial placement when I don’t want to work in the museum setting? Or why should I be upset with myself that I don’t have tens of journal articles published if I don’t want to have a tenured academic position at a major research university?


“Comparison is the death of joy,” according to one of the more famous Missourians, Mark Twain. And in 2020, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to compare myself to others less and hopefully focus on me, and the crazy interesting research that I’m working on.