Kusama, art and “the other” wrap-up

Over the last several months, I’ve had the chance to talk with many different people about the concept of otherizing.  For some, this was a new word.  Perhaps through these posts, I’ve given you a little nudge.

If so, mission accomplished.

Remember the definition of the term otherizing?

By “othering,” we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.


New York City – our evening walk.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Now travel back with me to the MoMA, where my friend and I felt like “the other.”  Sure, it’s true that we felt different; like outsiders.  But haven’t we all felt this way before?

Hasn’t there been a time where you have felt left out, like you didn’t fit in with everyone else?  Even if no one pointed it out to you (it’s rare that someone would), it didn’t change the fact that you felt that way.  And that’s legit.

But is feeling like “the other” the same as being “the other” and does that mean you were being otherized?

No, no and definitely no.

This is an important distinction.  In maximizing our limited and often situational experiences of feeling like “the other,” we can end up minimizing the ongoing challenges that individuals face in being “the other” due to systemic reasons.

I don’t think we do this on purpose.

But as White people, when we do experience even a tiny dose of feeling outside the norm in a particular situation, it’s such an unfamiliar feeling that we tend to maximize it.  Suddenly, we think we can relate to others who live with this experience all the time.

We can’t and we should not try to act like we can.

But what we can do is ask others thoughtful questions. We can try to be more compassionate human beings.  And we can stand up for others who are treated unjustly.

The fact of the matter is, my friend and I walked out of the MoMA onto W. 53rd Street and instantly our situation changed.  We were no longer the outsiders.  And while we felt like “the other” inside the MoMA, it was completely self-induced.

So no, we were never really “the other” and we certainly were not otherized.

Since that trip to NYC, my personal feelings toward art have changed.  Surprisingly, I discovered a correlation between that shift and the concept of otherizing.  And it had everything to do with story.

I went from being a proud “non-art” person to being a “curious enthusiastic art-person.”  What brought about this personal metamorphosis?

It began with a friend suggesting that I check out Chuck Close’s work.  I was immediately fascinated by his paintings of the human face.  I needed to know more about Close.  So I found an article about him in The New York Times Magazine.  Writer Wil S. Hylton said the following and it resonated with me.

It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another.

People discover their love of art in many different ways.  For me, the portal was through the opportunity to connect with another person I would only meet through his/her work.  The article was captivating and I knew that I needed to find a museum where I could see a Chuck Close piece.


Lyle, 1999 – the first Chuck Close piece that I saw at The Whitney Museum of American Art.  Even my “non-art” friend liked it.  An iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice.  (Photo by:  Tracy Smith)

So Chuck Close was the door that opened up a whole new world for me.  And I attribute this in part to the power of Hylton’s storytelling.

Which brings me back to Yayoi Kusama.  I have never met her, but in reading multiple articles about her traumatic life, by entering into her story, I was eager to see her work; to connect.  There is no doubt in my mind that Kusama felt the painful sting of being otherized.


Part of Kusama’s exhibit at The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.  (Photo by:  Tracy Smith)

Though alienated throughout her life, her immersive exhibit at the Hirshhorn conveyed the exact opposite.  Her Infinity Mirror Rooms, the Obliteration Room and her brightly colored paintings tore down the invisible wall of division that often separates people in art museums.

Her work is an invitation to join in, to participate, to experience joy – not just as an individual – but with friends, family and yes, even with complete strangers.

Learning about different artists has in some ways mirrored my experience of interviewing individuals that have felt otherized in society.

I’m constantly reminded that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects.  But instead of dismissing others because of their differences, there is a yearning to welcome them in, to understand and to respect them as fellow human beings.


Kusama, art and “the other” – part 2

This was the question I ended with in part 1:  Some museums are free and even ones that do have an admission fee, there are student discounts that I have benefited from.  So why have I felt out of place and often like “the other” when I’ve been a visitor?

There are two reasons that I am aware of:

1- Art museums are often very quiet places, exuding a formal, almost sterile feeling.

2- Some people in art museums appear as if they are onto something, or understand something that I do not, which has left me feeling like I do not fit in.


New York City is beautiful, even in the rain.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Last year, while visiting my favorite city, my friend and I walked through the MoMA.  At the time, I would have proudly called myself a “non-art” person.  She would identify herself in the same way.  She still does, actually.

We found ourselves people-watching more than enjoying the art on exhibit.  Together, we quietly mocked the artsy looking individuals that were standing in front of what we called, the black square.  What was there to really see?  Why were they staring at it for so long?  What were we missing?

It was just a black square.

Then we watched as people gathered around and stared at an ace bandaged wrapped brick that was encased in a protective glass box.  Can you guess the name of this piece, created by artist Bruce Conner?

Ace Bandaged Wrapped Brick.  No, I’m not kidding.

Not only was there a pronounced silence throughout the museum, but others seemed to be truly enjoying themselves and the art that surrounded them.  We felt like outsiders, and this museum wasn’t even free!

What made us feel like “the other”?

Towson University professor, Mark Sullivan, provides a great explanation of the term “other” in this video.

Other is: “Something different than the norm;  the norm is whatever group of people that are dominant in a culture…If we don’t fall within that group, we are automatically ‘other’;  we are different than that norm.  It is seldom consciously told to us that ‘you are different,’ but you’re on the outside, you feel you’re on the outside…”

While Mark did not have two proud “non-art” people in mind while giving this definition, it’s an accurate description of how we both felt at the MoMA on that rainy afternoon.

Different.  On the outside.  Not part of the “museum” norm.

At times, we can all feel out of place, like we don’t belong, like we don’t fit.  Often, this experience is self-induced, as we compare ourselves to others around us.   Is our comparison even accurate though?

Unless we actually know the people we are comparing ourselves to (which in our case, we did not), aren’t we basing those comparisons on how we perceive them?

I do have a point in all of this rambling and I promise that it connects to the concept of otherizing.

Kusama, art and “the other”- part 1

Just about a month ago, I was fortunate enough to score two free passes to Yayoi Kusama‘s exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.  With record-breaking crowds and thousands of people trying to get the timed-passes online, I am still amazed that I was able to see, or better yet, experience her work.

I won’t forget that Thursday afternoon in April, amid a busy academic schedule, that I stole away with a friend for a few hours, and entered another world:  Kusama’s world.


Part of Kusama’s brilliant exhibit.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Now that some time has passed,  I’ve been able to reflect on Kusama, my relationship with art and the connection they both have to feeling like “the other.”

Prior to seeing her exhibit, my Twitter feed was streaming with pictures that showcased cool images of a world of mirrors and lights.  And then there were the photographs of her massive paintings that boasted of bright colors and patterns.

I could hardly believe that I was going to get to see this for myself.

But what truly built my anticipation to see Kusama’s work was learning about her as an individual.

Like many others, Kusama, 87, has battled mental illness for most of her life.  She began drawing and painting when she was just 10.  Creating art became an outlet for the pain she suffered from childhood trauma.

For the last 40 years, she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital.  Still,  she retreats to her nearby studio each day to paint for hours.

As I was walking through the Hirshhorn Museum that April afternoon,  it was clear that this exhibit brought joy to the crowds.  People were smiling, laughing and commenting aloud on how amazing the infinity mirror rooms were.

There was a sense of childlike wonder among the adult visitors – an invitation to participate, to be a part, to be included in something magical.


Mark adds his polka dot to Kusama’s Obliteration Room. (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

I spoke to strangers (which isn’t unusual) but strangers also spoke to me, sharing their thoughts about a particular piece.  One lady laughed aloud, pulling me aside to make a joke about a soft sculpture.

The environment was warm and friendly, welcoming and accepting.  Not your typical museum vibe in my experience.

It was as if we all knew that we hit the lottery by scoring passes, and that reality, in addition to the exhibit itself, was a shared experience.

In a 2016 interview, Kusama said that the motivation behind her art is “To reduce the class divide.  I want all the countries in the world to help each other – and that more people can strive to live in peace.”

I don’t know how many social classes were represented at the Hirshhorn that day.  If I had to guess, I would say not many.   Then again, historically, access to art has a definite correlation to social class as explained in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction:  A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.

{And no, although I understand Bourdieu’s basic theory, I have not read his book.  I much prefer Carl Wilson‘s book on taste.}

But what I do know is this:  Kusama’s exhibit broke through the invisible divide that I have often felt while walking through an art museum.

Some museums are free and even ones that do have an admission fee, there are student discounts that I have benefited from.  So why have I felt out of place and often like “the other” when I’ve been a visitor?

Don’t be a jackass

“Dear white people: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re white but it’s not hard because you’re white.”  (Twitter user, Austin @kvxll)

My younger sister shared this tweet with me last week.  I don’t know Austin, but this statement really resonated with me.

We’re often not aware of our white privilege, are we?

FullSizeRender.jpgMark Sullivan believes that “in many ways that is the insidiousness of white privilege, in that those who live within its cushion, just see it as the norm.”

I know that is true of me.

When I sat down with Mark and asked him, as a white male, how he became aware of his white privilege, his answer caught me by surprise.  It all started with rapper Chuck D‘s jackass theory:  Just Acting Caucasian Kills A Simple Solution.

“I didn’t see myself as acting White.  I just saw myself as acting normal.”               -Mark Sullivan                         

Listen in – and pay close attention around the two minute mark, when he unpacks the idea of how all Black stereotypes are compared to the norm: whiteness.  It’s both logical and insightful.

Do you recognize that there is a White standard?

How can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots?

When you hear the phrase, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” what comes to mind?

“Pull yourself up” implies that this is something you do yourself, by your own effort.

“By your bootstraps.”  Can you actually pull yourself up by your bootstraps?  Stop right now and try to imagine doing this.  It’s impossible.  You need someone to help you up, trust me.

This idiom is basically communicating to an individual that if they just work harder and apply themselves more, they will be in a better financial situation.  The implication is that it’s their fault if they are lacking in resources to climb the economic ladder.

In essence, the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is another way of promoting the myth of the American Dream – that if you work hard and persevere – you can achieve great success.

Wesley finds this phrase insensitive, illogical and ignorant.

“Any boots that they do have, they earned them themselves and they worked hard for them.  They fought through a lot of things to get where they are today.”

White privilege and our past

White privilege.

These two words, side by side, can evoke all sorts of emotions within us.

Dr. Mark Sullivan takes a stab at defining white privilege.

Furthermore, he explains how slavery has complicated the issue of race in America.

“This constant lack of power of others – particularly Blacks who were brought here against their will – is a reminder of this past that we have never really dealt with entirely and we don’t really know how to deal with.”  – Mark Sullivan

For those who many be iffy about this whole idea of white privilege, it would benefit you to read  A breakdown of white privilege, which was written in response to the article Why white privilege is as racist as it sounds.

And don’t forget the value of spending time with someone of another race to get their perspective.  Be humble.  Ask questions.  Listen.

Some people have been challenged to do this over a beer.

Watermelon + chicken = trust

When I sat down with Wesley, I wanted to know what he thought were common stereotypes that society has toward Black people.

Wesley made it clear that he was sharing his perspective as a “mixed light-skinned black man.”

“I don’t want to speak to the struggle of all African Americans at large, because I am somewhat privileged in my lightness,” he said.  “I can’t speak for all the brothers and sisters out there.”

Remember, not all stereotypes are bad.  Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie  said that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.

And apparently there is a link between watermelon, chicken and trust.

If you’re new to this blog because of your connection to Wesley, hey!  Hello!  Welcome!

I hope you scroll back to my my first post entitled Waking up, which explains my purpose for writing what I’m writing.  Also, if the concept of otherizing is new to you, check out this video.  If you are more of a “just let me read the definition” sort of person, you might appreciate this post.

Stick with me; we have lots to learn from listening to others.