The 2016 MacArthur “genius” grants have been announced, and several of them are very dumb.
The MacArthur Fellows program, administered by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, awards 20 to 30 grants each year to U.S. citizens who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Each grant amounts to $625,000, which winners are allowed to use in whatever manner they choose.
Many of the awards, though, seem to be little more than lifetime achievement awards for promoting political progressivism, and that certainly is the case this year. Other awards honor artists whose genius, if real, is essentially inscrutable.
1. The social justice bead artist.
Joyce Scott makes bead art. But not just any bead art; Scott is “repositioning craft, and in particular beadwork, as a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices.”
“Scott upends conceptions of beadwork and jewelry as domestic or merely for adornment by creating exquisitely crafted objects that reveal, upon closer examination, stark representations of racism and sexism and the violence they engender.”
After all, why make a normal necklace when you can make a really ugly necklace representing domestic violence?
2. The poet who wrote a book of microaggressions.
Claudia Rankine is a poetry professor at Yale University, already a premier achievement in such a niche field. So what takes her into genius territory? Nothing other than writing a book of racial microaggressions she has experienced.
“In Citizen, Rankine’s aesthetic evolution culminates in a powerful poetics, at once visual and documentary, as she brings to life a series of everyday occurrences tinged with racism directed toward African Americans: from slips of the tongue and suspicious looks, to empty seats on the train next to black men, to complaints about affirmative action,” MacArthur says of its new genius.
Along with her poetry, Rankine is also lauded for becoming “critical voice in current conversations about racial violence through essays, lectures, and a co-created series of short films entitled Situations.”
3. The culture historian analyzing Jewish album covers.
Josh Kun is a communications professor at the University of Southern California who is “exploring the ways in which the arts and popular culture are conduits for cross-cultural exchange.” And how! In the book “And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl,” Kun made “a close reading of over 400 Jewish music album covers.” In “To Live and Dine In L.A.,” Kun showed the city’s history by reprinting more than 200 food menus from various restaurants.
4. The guy getting government-funded legal help for illegal immigrants.
Ahilan Arulanantham’s “genius” amounts to pursuing the progressive goal of blocking the deportation of illegal immigrants.
“Through advocacy and successful litigation of a series of landmark cases, Arulanantham has expanded immigrant detainees’ access to legal representation and limited the government’s power to detain them indefinitely,” MacArthur’s page boasts. “Through his incremental approach and careful selection of cases, Arulanantham works to demonstrate the human costs of denying due process to immigrants and to set vital precedents to expand the rights of non-citizens.”
MacArthur never explains what particular legal breakthroughs make Arulanantham a genius. Instead, his grant was apparently awarded solely because those making the decision supported his political end.
5. The filmmaker exploring sexual economies in World War I.
Mary Reid Kelley is a filmmaker with a specialization in “arresting, playful, and erudite videos that explore the condition of women throughout history.”
What sorts of arresting videos? In “You Make Me Iliad,” Kelley plays both a Belgian prostitute and German soldier as she “mockingly discloses the unbalanced power dynamics and confined gender roles of the sexual economies of World War I.” The year 2013’s Priapus Agonistes, on the other hand, is at least so bizarre that Kelley’s work can honestly be described as “like nothing else being produced today.”
6. The sculptor who makes ugly sculptures.
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