Monday, August 22, 2016

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

A number of years ago, my parents, long-time collectors and dealers in American antiques, purchased a small china plate (ca. 1910, perhaps) with the ominous letters “K. K. K.” in gold upon the front. Undoubtedly, it was a relic of the Ku Klux Klan, and my parents purchased the plate in order to ask my nephew, a child of ten or so at the time, to break it with a hammer. From my parents’ perspective, the destruction of the Klan plate made the world a better place, if only in a small way: there was one less item in it, they reasoned, that embodied and represented the hateful politics of the Klan. Certainly, they had no desire to profit from the item, nor to keep it in their own collections.

And while I recognize that the destruction and discarding of that plate diminished the historical record, including by lessening the visible historical traces that the Klan has left across our world, I cannot really find it in my heart to condemn my parents for this act of destruction. In their own small way, they were acting as stewards of the past, curating the historical record, making a judgment about what ought to be preserved, and what ought to be consigned to the dustbin. Of course, another person might well have made a different judgment about whether to preserve or destroy this particular object, but those people, too, would be operating in their own ways as stewards and curators.

Who is to say, really, which sorts of curators have it right? It is easy enough, I think, to take a sweeping position, and to assert that all such artifacts deserve to be preserved, that everything that might help reveal the past to us in all its historical complexity has an intrinsic value, and that none of us has the right to destroy anything. But my parents, by orchestrating this act of destruction, were also trying to create a moment, to take a symbol of hate and to ask my nephew to unmake that symbol.

Ai Weiwei, painted Neolithic vase; on the wall is
an Andy Warhol composition.
 I tell this story, in part, because I’ve just come from visiting, last week, the “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei” exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The exhibit is stunning, and it's only open here for a few more days: but if you get a chance to see it, here or elsewhere, I think it's very worth the effort.

I cannot pretend to any real knowledge of the contemporary art world, nor am I an art critic or art historian, but the exhibit was a powerful and affecting one, and it echoed in too many interesting ways with my on-going thinking about the destruction or disassembly of medieval manuscripts for me not to write about it here.

Although Ai Weiwei has had a lengthy career as an artist, one of his most memorable works is a short video of himself, shown dropping and breaking a Han dynasty vase. Ai Weiwei, I think, must have been just as much interested in creating a moment as my parents were, though his intention to make that moment art is surely a difference. But while we may, indeed, debate about whether or not we personally like or dislike these moments of destruction, both were, as I see it now, attempts to subject artifacts from the past to some powerful magic of transformation.

 Creation and transformation, after all, must sometimes be built upon the past, and both these acts make me wonder, now, about how we curate creative, and even beautiful, destruction.

Ai Weiwei, in some ways, seems to think about some of these issues in terms of commodification: his personal history in Communist China and in (capitalist) New York City, perhaps, has brought such concerns to the forefront. The exhibit at the Warhol addressed both artists’ use of what might be called “readymade” objects, and Ai Weiwei has explicitly invoked Duchamp. The painting of ancient pottery vases may seem different, somehow, from both Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, but there is a very important sense in which Han Dynasty vases are in fact commodities (search the phrase on eBay, for example). By breaking the KKK plate, my nephew effectively de-commodified it, although Ai Weiwei’s painted vases remain commodities now, I think—their monetary value no doubt increased by his intervention, or performance, or transformation.

This difference is important: Ai Weiwei’s transformations ultimately increase the commodity value of his objects, while my parents’/nephew’s transformation de-commodified that piece of pottery. In the end, one part of the difference probably has everything to do with the cultural capital Ai Weiwei has at his disposal, rather than anything else. It may make us uncomfortable to see ancient objects of our human heritage destroyed or transformed, but to put a utilitarian pottery vessel into an art museum or a collection is always a transformation already. Debates about which kinds of transformations we will approve and which we will condemn seem simplistic somehow. Ai Weiwei, I think, is taking a piece of pottery, and trying to create a moment, to teach us a lesson. If the way we treasure the past and its artifacts is unchanged by the lesson he offers us, the failure may be our own.

A number of times on this blog, I’ve asked my readers to consider the current, recent, and even medieval practice of cutting up books and manuscripts for various sorts of purposes. I personally, don’t plan to ever engage in such a thing. But the usual justifications I see and hear from friends and colleagues, the reasons they decry the breaking up of books, usually focus on the loss of information and context that such transformations involve. Such a view, Ai Weiwei teaches us (though I hesitate to boil his lesson down to a single message), sees the artifact or object or book as merely a visitor to the present: we hope that old books will pass through our present, but ideally they will remain unchanged and untouched by the experience. Such a view of visitors from our past, I fear, risks leaving us unchanged and untouched as well.

Yet how very deeply I have been affected by my encounters with objects and books from the past, and how much more deeply by owning such pieces of our cultural heritage. I literally live with my books and manuscripts, and while I won’t go so far as to say they have become friends, I try to take care of them because that’s the way I want to treat them. But, of course, I cannot guarantee that they will pass from my hands unchanged: water or fire are risks here, as almost everywhere: even in institutional libraries. Who can ever make a guarantee of unchangingness in a changing world?

What I think Ai Weiwei wants us to see, even so, is that the value, and meaning, of artifacts from the past are themselves things that have a force and a reality in our present: a medieval manuscript or a prehistoric pot is not an inhabitant of the past and a visitor to the present: it is as much an inhabitant of the present as you or I or the computer I am writing on. The past may be another country, but its surviving artifacts do not live there. They live in the present. The breaking of my parents’ KKK plate, I think, suggests the same. Indeed, I am glad that they didn’t simply ask my nephew to paint over it.

Should Ai Weiwei, as part of his next art project, decide to paint over ancient scrolls or manuscripts, their monetary value would probably increase, and one hopes that what he creates would be a great work of art. I doubt the people who are currently breaking up books are making art in the Ai Weiwei way, in part because they probably lack his cultural capital. But for all we know, a thousand years from now, their destructive actions might have enabled the preservation of books or parts of books that the next few centuries of our history would otherwise see destroyed. Or the books and leaves we know today might some day become parts of works of beautiful art we cannot now imagine. We cannot know what the future holds for either the books being broken up today, or anything else.
           
I grow ever more convinced of the truth of the following hypothesis: we shall transmit our shared cultural heritage to the future as physical objects, rather than as images of them, no matter how precise, nor how widely shared. In their wilful destruction of a single KKK plate, my parents were making a judgment about what heritage they wished to see passed along, as well as what they did not wish to see transmitted. Perhaps Ai Weiwei reminds us that all such judgments—at present, at least—operate in the realm of commodification, because the collected object, the curated object, the transmitted object, is always a commodity. In some ways, if we treat old books and things not as inhabitants of our world, but as visitors, to be cherished and protected, and innocent somehow of commodification, we remove those things from our culture; we might as well put them in a zoo.

And this, in the end, is why I think it has been valuable to me to own medieval manuscript items and other bits of our cultural heritage—because it has been valuable to me to help understand the value in intentionally breaking a piece of collectible china or pottery. And of course I’ve accidentally broken pieces of collectible glass, too. The risk of loss or damage while an item is in my hands is a risk I and that item both share in: of course items in institutional libraries and museums are also at risk, though for most of us the risk there is not personal. And yet that personal investment and personal risk in the transmission of our cultural heritage seems crucial. Dare we leave such important work only to the professionals, if doing so distances us from both the risk and the investment?  

It is simply not enough to value books and objects as information: not everything that matters can be digitized, and generating digital files is not preserving the past. But the flip side of this truth, I think, is that the tragedy of the broken book or the broken vase is not the lost information it embodied, the loss to our potential future knowledge of the past. The tragedy, rather, is that we show to the future that we couldn’t be trusted with nice things.

The KKK plate my nephew broke, of course, is hard to understand as a nice thing, and to be honest, I’m just as glad it’s broken and dispersed. The visitor from the past that was the Han vase dropped in Ai Weiwei’s video, on the other hand, was something that was a nice thing: when he broke it, he reminded us, so very powerfully, that it was alive, and that we all made it into a commodity. How easily we forget.




Monday, August 15, 2016

Small Catalogue 164: African American and Asian American

Dunbar's 1901 Candle-Lightin'
Time,
scarce in the original
dust jacket.
I can't seem to get a mini-list together every Monday, but it always seems nice to publish one on a Monday when I can: it makes me feel like I've accomplished something for the week already.

Up this week is a short list of 33 items, most of African-American interest, but also including a few pieces of Asian-American interest. There are a number of signed first editions here, books (and a single manuscript) going back to the 1830s and 40s; and items at a variety of price points.

In particular I'm happy to have several items again with Ohio connections, including a couple of books from Paul Laurence Dunbar, and three from his near contemporary, from Springfield Ohio (as opposed to Dunbar's Dayton), Elliott Blaine Henderson, who may not have had the same sort of ability as Dunbar, (if we may engage in aesthetic judgments) but who certainly seems to have had a certain ambition and confidence, self-publishing at least half a dozen small collections in the firs two decades of the twentieth century. 

I hope you find something of interest.  Here's a link to the catalogue.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Some thoughts on how we compensate service to the academic profession and scholarship.

Russom's book, which
I exhibit here as an
additional tiny homage.
It was a pleasure, this past week, to review the proofs for a forthcoming essay of mine, a short piece written for a festschrift in honor of Rick Russom, whose own first book on Old English meter was the most influential book on my own thinking about meter. These proofs were a particular pleasure because the editors of the volume and the typesetter at the press had put the piece together so beautifully that I had only one minor request for a change. Reading the proofs hardly took more of my time than reading the essay did.

Unfortunately, this week I’ve also felt I needed to decline two recent invitations to serve as an academic reviewer, in one case for a critical edition of a short Anglo-Saxon text, and in the other as a reviewer of proposals for summer grant projects from a major national granting agency. I suppose I might have managed the smaller task, but in the case of the proposals, I figured reading two or three dozen multi-page proposals, evaluating and ranking them, and writing responses to them, would take me at least half a week to a week of solid work: 20 to 40 hours or more. I would like to feel like I can afford to give this amount of time to the grand collaborative enterprise that is scholarship, but the honest truth is that I felt I couldn’t take that much time out of my work week, even for the 250 dollar stipend I was offered.

One of my goals, when I left academic employment, was to do my best to continue to operate as an active scholar, even if not as active as when I was employed. And I have also wanted to be visible in doing this work, as a reminder to myself and to others that academic employment is only one of the routes towards being a valued scholar, and that one can write scholarship of value while engaged in other sorts of work or employment.

So I felt very much disappointed in feeling like I couldn’t afford to undertake this scholarly work, that the time I give to scholarship is now, more than ever, focused mostly upon my own writing. And I wondered, for the first time, how I had ever found the time to do this sort of work when I was working as an academic. That wondering, I must confess, got me to thinking about how the whole academic enterprise is financed and compensated.

So: let me try out some numbers. I’ll use my own examples of employment for when specific numbers are needed, but I hope my readers remember that those numbers are, perhaps, now out of date, and they might plug in their own numbers for clarity or comparison.

So I will assess how much I would have been paid (or compensated) for each of these kinds of work when I was academically employed: a published chapter; the review of an essay for a journal; the review of a set of grant proposals for a national agency.

Case Study 1: Reviewing a journal article. I don’t know how much time this takes, on average. My guess is that the very least I could spend in reviewing an article for a journal or collection would be half a day to a day: four to eight hours of uninterrupted reading, thinking, and writing (though I rarely do it all at once). In both of my academic jobs, my contracts specified 20% service, which means eight to ten hours a week, assuming I could keep my work limited to 40 to 50 work hours per week. Reviewing a journal article thus might take a full week’s worth of my contracted service, or as little as perhaps half of a week’s contracted service.

To keep the numbers simple, I’ll count my contracts as ten-month contracts, rather than nine, so that my monthly salary will be easy to calculate. As a tenured full professor, my (pre-tax) monthly salary was thus about 6000 dollars; as a non-tenure line instructor I ended up with a monthly salary of about 4000 dollars. Twenty percent of those salaries, of course, would be 1200 or 800 dollars: that’s the amount I was paid for service each month. One week’s worth of each of those would be one quarter of that: 200-300 dollars--20 to 30 dollars an hour, for 8 to 10 hours. Depending on whether a particular review took me the minimum of time or more, the range of compensation I received from my university would have been between 100 and 300 dollars, pre-tax. Calculated on a nine-month contract, of course, those numbers would go up by 11 percent.

Case Study 2: To read a full batch of roughly 30 grant proposals, I think a full month’s worth of service would be required: at the very least 15 hours, much more likely close to 30 hours of reading, evaluating, comparing, ranking, writing. Let’s call that fifteen hours, one and a half weeks' worth of service (if the work week is 50 hours); 32 hours would be a full month of service, if the work week is 40 hours. So that’s between 300 dollars and1200 dollars. This granting agency, to its credit, did offer me 250 dollars for the work, though for me that would have been my only pay. If it had taken me 30 hours, I would have been working for less than West Virginia's minimum wage of $8.75.

It is important to remember that, when I was employed academically, this was work that I always counted in my annual reviews as falling under the heading of service. That is, I was literally being paid for this work, and my universities were essentially subsidizing the publishers or granting agencies. When I undertook this kind of work while I had an academic job, and I was also paid by the granting agency, I was actually being paid twice for the same work. 

Case Study 3: As for writing an article or chapter, my goal as a working academic was always two acceptances for publication per year, plus, of course, the conference-going that would support that: usually two conferences. When I was working non-tenure track, my contract specified zero percent for scholarship, so that scholarship was work that I was literally doing for no compensation. No wonder I am willing to do such work now for the same pay! But when I was a tenured full professor, making 60,000 dollars a year, my annual compensation for scholarship (specified at 20% in my contract) was 12,000 dollars a year (plus re-imbursement for many conference expenses, of course).

Those were the days! 5000 dollars for an article, and 1000 for a conference! And if I’d published fewer articles and gone to fewer conferences, the dollar amounts would be even larger.

If you, dear reader, are a working academic with a percentage assigned to scholarship--ten percent, twenty, forty, fifty, whatever--it’s easy for you, too, to do the math. Figure out what that percentage of your annual salary that is in dollars, figure out how many articles you do (or are expected to) publish per year, and divide to get a sense of what you are being paid for that work. It seems important to understand this number, especially if it turns out you’re being paid thousands of dollars to write an article, as I was.

Somehow, in all the time I was employed as an academic, I never got around to working out any of these numbers. Now, however, I am always reminded of the value of my time, the value of my labor. The scholarly writing I do now, I am happy to say, is a work of love: I would do it for free, and I do. But how nice it was to be paid for it, and paid so handsomely, for a part of my career.

But the work of reviewing is not really done for the love of it: it is work, and valuable work, and the reliance of publishers and grant funding agencies on the subsidies of university salaries means that this work can really only be done by university employees, who are the only ones who get paid for it. I’ve recently seen on Facebook some academics suggesting that they should refuse to do reviewing work for for-profit publishers, unless they get paid by those publishers: but of course, they are probably already getting paid for that work by their universities.

And this is what’s important, in some sense: those who have academic employment (often? usually?) get financially compensated for service work, and those with a research component to their contracts get paid to produce scholarship. I don’t get paid for these things (except occasionally I do get a tiny check for royalties: probably totaling 2000 dollars or less over the last fifteen years). Grad students don’t really get paid for these things. Adjuncts don’t generally get paid to produce scholarship, and probably sometimes do not get paid for service to the profession. If we ever hope to have a more equitable and even inclusive scholarly world, finding a way to compensate those outside of academic employment for the value of their labor should be a priority.

I wish I didn’t feel like I cannot afford to include myself in the pool of potential reviewers for articles or grant proposals. I wish I didn’t worry that if the pool of reviewers includes only those in academic employment, then the process might be biased to award grants only to those in academic employment. Certainly, I felt like this granting agency’s habit of awarding summer-time grants served explicitly to identify likely grantees as those on the academic schedule.


I would like to think that my position outside of academic employment gives me a valuable perspective on the academic world: but at present I must generally be content to offer that perspective for free, though working academics generally get compensated for their service contributions. And as long as academic publishers and granting agencies—both those who operate for profit and those who are non-profit—rely upon the salaries of those with academic employment to do the work, the labor, of reviewing, I worry that they actively work to keep the insiders inside and the outsiders outside. Because no one should be asked to contribute their labor for free. Or for less than minimum wage.