Otherness, Looking, and Language


Ran into this “Scary Indian” doll/figurine/thing at an antique store yesterday and I just HAD to take a picture of it. It is so many things all at once. Sure, on a lot of levels it is pretty offensive (at least to my contemporary sensibilities). It’s also pretty amusing in that it looks so completely ridiculous. And, of course, I did note that it has some cool triangle designs on the headband. Really though, I think it says more about the (probably) white people who created it than it does about Indians. It’s a physicial representation of “otherness.”

"1 to Infinity" by Roman Opalka (detail)

Another thing I ran into last night (or was it this morning?) was an article on Huffington Post by James Elkins titled: “Are Artists Bored by Their Work?”  Excellent question James!  At first I was a little turned off by what I interpreted as a rather elitist viewpoint about what he calls, “slow looking.” But when I woke up this morning, I realized that this is not the case at all. In fact, I believe that slow looking is just another way of saying that one is open to the world around them. It takes time to get to know a person, an animal, a tree, a place. Relationships are formed through interactions and observation. Of course! He’s on to something! The problem is more likely that I feel guilty about all of the “fast looking” I do on a daily basis at work, at home, on the internet, in my email, etc.

He ended the article with some interesting information about boredom:

Here is something wonderful to ponder about boredom. It may seem that boredom is a natural human trait, something that’s been around as long as people have. But it turns out that is not true: as a theme in literature, boredom is an invention of the nineteenth century. The historian Walter Benjamin thought boredom was invented by the middle classes around 1840, and whether or not that’s exactly right, no one made boredom into a theme — no one complained about it, novelists didn’t write about it, diarists didn’t dwell on it — before the nineteenth century. The French word “ennui” came into common use at about the same time, and so did the Italian word “noia.” I don’t doubt that in the Renaissance people often found themselves at a loss about how to spend an afternoon, but no one was vexed by boredom, or in need of continuous distractions. Not a single Renaissance artist left a diary, or a letter, describing the appalling boredom of the long hours spent in the studio.

Boredom is about two hundred years old, young by historical standards. It’s younger than Titian or Rembrandt. Boredom, Benjamin says, is part of our modern middle class malaise, a sign of our anxiety, of the fragmentation of our lives, of our compulsive need for continuous, intensive distractions. Modern and contemporary artworks take less time to make, on average, than older artworks, partly because we have become skittish. We’re impatient. We’re easily bored. Many of our artists can’t work too long on anything, even if they wanted to. And so, as Arthur Danto says, it would not be right to fetishize slow and careful looking. But that is exactly what I intend to do in this column.

Lastly, I just was on facebook and noticed an ad for Rosette Stone in Navajo (Diné) from Salina Bookshelf, Inc. This is such a cool thing to have available and got me back on track thinking about ideas I’ve had before about creating computer programs in Native languages. Wouldn’t this be a great way to teach kids their native language? To connect past and present? To help these languages find their way in the future instead of condemning them to death?

I’d love a copy of Windows with a Karuk language pack. Of course, at this point, I’d have no idea what it was saying.


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