Discussion: Robert Breer’s Recreation and Jodie Mack’s The Saddest Song in the World

Ian here—

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m hesitating to call write-ups of classes in the section of “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” I’m teaching this semester “lesson plans.” The course discussion I’m reporting back on often proceeds more from my students’ on-point engagement with the films than it does from any carefully-planned questions on my part. I still want to post some details on this blog, though, because I’m certainly learning a lot about how to tackle these subjects in the future, and would love to share.

Up today: two animated films, one of which unexpectedly became one of the most contentious things I’ve shown so far in any class.

First, some background. When I taught this course in Spring 2016, I ended up with a quirk on my syllabus: I had a fair number of weeks in which all of the work we were looking at was work by women filmmakers. There were certain weeks that, simply because of the topic being covered and the general availability of things on video, I couldn’t avoid screening only films by men. Given that I was aiming at gender parity on my syllabus, it made sense, then, to have corresponding weeks where we looked entirely at women filmmakers. As a result, we ended up with things like a Chick Strand/Deborah Stratman week, a Su Friedrich/Joyce Weiland week, a Gunvor Nelson/Dorothy Wiley/Peggy Ahwesh week, and a week on experimental animation where I showed a variety of works by women.

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but one student in particular pushed back against this structure, saying at the end of the course that she considered it “not necessary or maybe not even proper” to create weeks around women filmmakers in this way. Her charge was that it effectively ghettoized women filmmakers into their own little identity-based boxes. This gave me something to think about, and I ended up switching things around on my syllabus this time around.As a result, my week on experimental animation still included works by Mary Ellen ButeStorm de HirschStacey Steers, and Jodie Mack, but I threw some films by Robert Breer to the mix, as well.

I was genuinely excited about this lineup. I thought the interaction between Breer and Mack, especially, had the possibility to be fruitful, discussion-wise. I assigned students selections from Maurine Furniss’ Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics for reading this week, and, in my short lecture that began class, I pulled out the following quote from Furniss:

The question of what constitutes a ‘feminine sensibility’—which is perhaps the quality that ties these and other works together—is an important consideration when one begins to examine the representation of women, or women’s experience, in animation. One can argue that American media are dominated by images representing the priorities of a white male culture, but how does one go about depicting an alternative? How does one define ‘women’s experience’? And, even if it were possible to come up with a definition, could it encompass the realities of women across the world? Of course, the answer to the latter question is ‘no’: the experience of being a woman differs from country to country, class to class, skin colour to skin colour, person to person. So, then, we return to the first question: How does one go about creating an alternative?[i]

Furniss is, at this moment in her book, talking about the mainstream cartoon industry. I pressed students, though to think of a way to apply her ideas to more experimental forms of animation. I especially wanted to plow into the way in which, if we look at their visuals, frame-by-frame, we see a lot of similarities between Robert Breer’s Recreation (1956) and Jodie Mack’s Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World (2010). However, whereas Breer remains conceptually grounded in the masculine masculine-coded tradition of collage, Jodie Mack opens the door to connecting such animation techniques to more feminine-coded traditions of arts and crafts, such as scrapbooking.

Any occasion for me to screen this film is a happy one, because I unabashedly love The Saddest Song in the World. I find it vibrant and thrilling, and its mashup soundtrack never fails to have me humming The Shirelles for weeks afterwards.

My students … well, it turns out that their tastes do not align with mine. The Saddest Song in the World very quickly became the site of some of the most heated discussion in the class, with many students passionately attacking Mack’s aesthetic.

Things got rolling in this direction with this pre-class blog post by one of my students. As it turned out, that was just the beginning. Students charged the film with being “fun.” Yes, you read that right: they charged it with being fun. They weren’t having this, at all. I honestly never expected to teach a class in which no one grumbled during Zorns Lemma (Hollis Frampton, 1970), and there was instead widespread outcry over another film being “too fun”! But, there you have it.

I don’t disagree with my students entirely, here. I do think that The Saddest Song in the World is fun. That’s part of why I like to include it on my syllabus: to show how the techniques of experimental collage animation needn’t necessarily lead to films that are cooly intellectual. They can also be the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush. Unlike me, though, my students thought that this aspect of “fun” was a problem. They were mortified by the film’s use of pink. They abhorred its soundtrack. The film, they said, was cutesy. It embraced and “Etsy aesthetic.” As a result, it was fundamentally, toxically unserious.

I think it’s important to clarify for a moment: the gender breakdown of my class is roughly 2/3 women. (This is actually atypical of my First-Year Seminar courses at SAIC: most of the other classes that I’ve taught have been made up of upwards of 3/4 women.) So this wasn’t a simple, cut-and-dry example of sexism. (The specter of internalized sexism looms large here, but of course it’s not my place to apply that label.) The women in my class were pushing up against Mack’s aesthetic as much, if not more, than the men.

Their seemed to be some amount of cliquishness and group-affiliation signaling particular to SAIC in my students reactions. Several students mentioned what they described as sort of an “Etsy block” at the school, young artists who were content with making their livings exploiting the commercial viability of cutesy/crafty work, and who were therefore seen by others as unserious, and even dangerous in their embrace of commercialism. In this regard, Mack’s own status as an alum of the school’s MFA program didn’t help her, as she became a figurehead for this tendency, something to actively fight against when it came to the public’s perception of the School.

It wasn’t all just inner-SAIC politics that were fueling student’s rejection of Mack’s aesthetic, though. One student proposed that the distinction between kitsch and art that appropriates kitsch aesthetics is that true kitsch shows a fundamental lack of evaluative standards, whereas appropriative kitsch-art has its own internal, irony-drenched standards. Several students put forward the specific charge that Mack was not doing enough to explicitly problematize her kitsch aesthetic. The film’s color, its cuteness, its sense of “fun”: all of these would be acceptable, students contended, if there was a wink somewhere, an explicit assurance that Mack’s intent was subversive in nature. Students found this lacking. They weren’t convinced Mack was subverting the kitsch she was reveling in. The end result, as one student put it, was that Mack was surrendering herself to “feminine jurisdiction.” She was playing with signifiers of femininity in ways that only women-identifying artists can do, yes. But since she wasn’t doing anything interesting with these signifiers (in my students’ view), she was effectively ghettoizing herself in the realm of the “cute.” Rather than a pointed valorization of feminine craft aesthetics (which is how I would describe the film, more or less), my students saw only a ceding of ground, a retreat to a continent that is safe and secure for women artists.

I face a bit of a conundrum when I think back about this in-class discussion. On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic that students were so unexpectedly passionate in their visceral reaction against Mack’s film. It’s great that a heated discussion burst forth from a place I least expected it, and that students were both talkative and opinionated in our lengthy discussion. On the other hand, I wish I could have done more to counter certain ideas. I did what I could, attempting to press on why, exactly, students found the association of art with “arts and crafts” so unappealing and downright dangerous. It’s fine that my students were unified against me (good for them!), but I felt like I did Mack’s work a disservice by not being able to defend it more forcefully.

Two ideas on how this lesson might be improved, going forward:

  1. Different readings. Furniss is a classic, but the chapter I assigned of hers doesn’t speak to the specific issues of Breer vs. Mack nearly enough. Some suggestions from the endlessly-generous Hannah Frank that I might be trying out next time I teach this: Ellen Gruber Garvey’s anthology chapter “Scissoring and Scrapbook,” or selections from Tai Smith’s book Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design[ii].
  2. Some sort of small assignment. No fewer than two students took Mack’s film as an opportunity to talk about how their moms constantly shared things with them via Facebook, inquiring as to whether the “hobbies & crafts” they were engaged with possibly qualified as “art.” (Apparently, children attending art school are in high demand when it comes to this sort of valorization of leisure activities.) Perhaps I’ll formally make it an assignment that students have to do a show and tell of hobbies and crafts their moms have shared with them on Facebook. This, combined with additional reading, might be a productive way as to open up the question as to why such activities are denied the status of art-making, and the undeniable gendered components of how we cordon off “kitsch” to begin with.

[i]. Furniss, Maureen. Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics. 1998. Revised Edition. Abingdon, UK :John Libbey Publishing, 2008. Pg 241.

[ii]. Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Scissoring and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth Century Reading, Remaking, and Recirculating.” In New Media, 1740-1915. Ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Smith, Tai. Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

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