Recently, I got a question: Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy? Neither. I regularly fantasize about rewriting the school curriculum and replacing at least half of the dead white men with people who are, simply put, not them. What would my life look like today if, as a teenager, I had a formalized access to queer black writing instead of ruminations on the Russian peasant life of late nineteenth century?
Right after I wrote this I flinched at myself. Am I too edgelord for stating this? I imagine the counter argument: obviously it makes more sense for me to be exposed to Russian realism than memoirs of Black women in the US, because of where I am geographically located and who and what was influential on the literature of my own country. But this is just one of the ways of how we adopt male gaze and/or white gaze, by being lectured about certain art as canonical and other art as not worthy of formalized exploration and exposure.
I've been thinking about the impact leftover by art and culture from my childhood and teenage years and how sneakily lasting it is. On a recent Friday evening I went down a hilarious rabbit hole of building a nostalgic playlist of indie bands I listened to as a fifteen year old. I was chuckling, remembering the skinny jeans, side fringes, and the questionable lyrics, until I realized just how much I based my opinion of myself on what these men were presenting as desirable in their music and accompanying videos. If there were women, they were to be pinned after. They were always mute, thin and very conventionally pretty. If only there was Gillian Flynn's Cool Girl commentary applicable to the indie rock scene of the mid 2000s.
Sometimes the least anticipated ways of judging ourselves come not only from our interactions within family, school and friendship circles, but from the very private communions we have with art. You really have two canons: the one you were given in school, and the one you built yourself. I am very much in favour of rejecting the first one. Only the second, the personal one you have control over. What and who is in your personal canon?
In the body positivity/neutrality circles, the advice goes that you should unfollow and not consume media that triggers your feelings of worthlessness and endless dieting. When it comes to art, I am more partial to the policy of addition and continuous replacement, rather than mere subtraction. I think of Jenny Odell's approach to social media: in order to resist the status quo, it is not enough to give it up, but rather redirect and sustain your focus and attention elsewhere.
Where is elsewhere in the art? Obviously you should define that yourself, but to start it can be going beyond the algorithm, going beyond the bestseller lists. It could be venturing into the land of weirdly formatted Russian music blogs that have been running since 1998 and still have those tiny visitor counters installed on the side bar. It could be a very conscious and strategic exercise of focused art exploration. I recall a film critic on Twitter a few years back watching movies only made by women for an entirety of one year and reporting on it.
For most of us it will probably look like veering beyond the pale, male, stale and ‘made in the West.’ At first it might feel like work, but then you will suddenly feel exhilarated. Curiosity is addicting. Some time ago, a close friend told me: “You know, I practically only ever read women writers or listen to women artists anymore. I just don't care what men have to say.” She chuckled as if she were telling a joke but in her voice I detected a rebellious joy.