Saturday, June 21, 2008

“access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.”

After an hour of wandering around the edge of Alphabet City looking for chic boutiques, only to find myself in an Urban Outfitters identical to the one on Penn’s campus, I met Tahneer Oksman at the charming Gramstand on Avenue A. I ordered a deliciously spicy iced chai and sat with Oksman in a cozy albeit dimly-lit corner (some guy actually accidentally shut off our lamp at one point) of the coffee shop.

Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Oksman received her master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago, reading “a lot of really long novels” in the process, and tutored for a year before moving back east to Brooklyn. She now attends CUNY Graduate School and teaches English at Brooklyn Community College, a job that she says has actually helped shape her own writing.

“I didn’t really understand grammar until I had to correct it,” she admits with a laugh, “and now syntax is more important to me in my writing than it was before.”

Teaching has also forced Oksman to deal with the “what-do-you-mean-I-can’t-use-Wikipedia” type of research that college students are so fond of. However, she is undaunted by the questionable validity of online information. “There are always things you can do to check accuracy,” she says confidently. “I tell my students, ‘dot-org is okay, dot-edu is okay, dot-gov is okay, no dot-coms.’”

I think that’s a pretty good place to start – “dot-gov” certainly has a nice political ring to it. Oksman actually thinks that learning to question what you read online, or anywhere, is a fundamental part of being an educated and intelligent person. As she puts it, “the Internet levels off all info, and everyone starts from scratch.”

Whether we’re perusing The Times or a celebrity tabloid, we should always read with active, doubtful minds.

Having an active mind works in tandem with having the ability to choose what you read. Some feel that the tremendous amount of information online can be overwhelming and physically restricting. A perfect example: Last night I spent about 45 minutes browsing through old JuicyCampus posts, only to then question my sanity and wonder why I hadn’t gone to sleep yet. Reams of pixilated gossip can be quite hypnotically enticing.

However, there’s a lot of printed text available today as well; I’m not running out and buying More (I hold nothing against the magazine, but it’s mainly for the post-menopausal crew of which I am not yet a part) just because it’s there. We always have a choice, and I can’t really blame the entirety of the Internet for the fact that I imprisoned myself on JuicyCampus last night.

Likewise, Oksman thinks, “access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.” There’s a certain feeling of power, which sometimes needs to be counteracted by willpower, I suppose, knowing that there’s a whole world of interesting stuff out there – and YOU can decide what to read and what to ignore.

Oksman takes a similarly optimistic viewpoint on blogs: “If anything, they give people a chance to speak,” she says.

Part of Oksman’s work for her graduate school dissertation focuses on photography and memory. She loves the dichotomy between the two: “do photos stifle memory? Can they help you mourn? Are photos just about information, or emotions too? What’s captured in a frame versus what isn’t?”

One of her favorite photo-related books is Jeff Batchen’s Forget Me Not, a text that deals with “vernacular photography” and examines the hierarchy of high art vs. low art. Batchen argues that snapshots are held to a lower standard than “artistic” pictures, when really all photos are beautiful and have unique messages to convey to their audiences.

Breaking down hierarchies tends to be a positive, progressive thing. Today’s society has a definite stratification that involves relegating blogs and personal websites to the bottom of the publishing barrel and glorifying more legitimate magazines and newspapers.

This is like saying that a Polaroid snapshot of your best friend mid-laugh has no artistic value compared to a Richard Prince photograph of a topless woman on a motorcycle (did anyone see that exhibit at the Guggenheim last year?). Is this the right way to think about art?

1 comment:

dgold911 said...

ok a few thoughts: "More" magazine is for "women over 40" which, my dear little blogger does not necessarily mean post-menopausal. (I happen to LIKE the magazine). As for the artistic value of snapshots of loved ones- priceless to the few to whom they have meaning. But to the larger art community.....I guess you have to go with the topless Richard Prince! (though imho his "nurse" series is spectacular).