Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Month: June, 2014

The Surprising Truth About Who You Are(n’t)

I’m reading a book right now called “Generation Me” by Jean M. Twenge which argues that children born in the 70s-00’s are raised to believe in the power of the individual and that the self (like love) conquers all. It’s an interesting read, but the book never raises the intriguing question of what constitutes self-hood for this generation, and I would assume that this is because we just don’t know. After all, our experience of ‘selfness’ is totally subjective. But you wouldn’t think so from the well-worn platitudes lobbed at us every day: ‘know yourself,’ ‘be true to yourself,’ and ‘love yourself for who you are,’ spring instantly to mind. Such Generation Me aligned philosophies imply that we should know who we are, and that if we don’t we’re just not trying hard enough. The result? Stacks of self-help books all over the place and a burgeoning sense of insecurity.

The truth is it’s nigh-on impossible to ever really ‘know yourself’ because who ‘you’ are is so incredibly defined and shaped by context. I have heard myself described as friendly, kind and generous and cold and aloof! I have been described as both tolerant and self-righteous- by the same person! Bosses have alternately seen me as capable and scattered. How is this possible? We forget sometimes that there are gazillions of variables that influence how we are seen, and how we behave. The one that jumps instantly to mind is status, either real or perceived. If you’ve ever seen Undercover Boss you’ll have enjoyed watching the respected and loved CEO who, in ‘normal person’ guise comes across as a nerd, bully, or just plain average. Women are treated very differently to men; one culture has different expectations to another. One person loves our kooky nature and so labels us ‘quirky;’ another person is irritated by it and so labels us ‘weird.’ And then guess what? If we’re around a lot of those sorts of people we’re going to tone things down – another side of ourselves will emerge from its cocoon because, ultimately, we adapt to survive. We like to think that despite different situations and contexts we have a stable core ‘self,’ but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think our sense of self is shaped largely by what is reflected back at us -more nurture than nature. If this reflection is constantly shifting, which it is, then how on earth are we supposed to ‘be true to ourselves?’ It’s a therapist’s nightmare.

Long before Generation Me existed, Picasso puzzled over this problem in “Girl Before A Mirror” (1932). At once a hauntingly beautiful portrait of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter, as well as a meditation on vanity and mortality, there is perhaps more to this work than meets the eye.

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Marie is shown contemplating her fate. Her youthful body and made-up face seem to sag and melt, dripping like candle-wax, in the mirror before her. It is a spin on the seventeenth-century Dutch still-life, in which evanescent objects such as flowers and fruit are studded with tiny maggot holes, rotting around the edges. “Ah, you are young and careless now,” these paintings murmur, “but, like this fruit, look at what will happen to you!” Dutch artists weren’t totally callous, however. A reminder of life’s true meaning – religion or knowledge – is depicted in the form of a bible, astrolabe, or other tool of man’s potential. Grasp these, the painter suggests, and all will be well.

Of course, Picasso’s work differs significantly in many ways. It is a painting about a woman’s fate, not a man’s. Moreover, no alternative vision of existence – through study or prayer- is presented. This in itself could be a comment on women’s limited options in the 1930s. Marie is trapped, Narcissus-like, by the limited role she has come to occupy. If a religious object exists in the painting, it is her own body. Her image folds out, like a church diptych. An object of male worship, she is at once prostitute and divine being: a duality that reflects Picasso’s dark prediction of the hellish slide into old age.

If we look at Marie’s face in the mirror, however, she seems to smile warmly. There is a peacefulness about the eyes, her face looks relaxed. A single red tear resembles rather a blur of tribal paint, recollecting a more primal self. Sagging breasts and belly also evoke relaxation: a visual gauntlet thrown down to the “other” Marie, who is expected to be sexual and eventually child-bearing – two states in which both breasts and belly are distended, even “perky.”

For me, this painting is not really about vanity or the horrors of old age. It is about the ‘other’ versions of ourselves that lurk when we look in the mirror. Is this cause for anxiety though? Marie’s arm is gently outstretched to her reflection, literally embracing a darker, sadder, but somehow more liberated self. It’s a striking emblem of acceptance, not just of how others see her, but of how she sees herself. May we all be so bold…

Sir Grumpsalot: In Praise of Grumpiness (and Grumpy Cat)

I’ve been incredibly grumpy the last few days. The reason? I know not. But it struck me that this might make for a fruitful blog post, perhaps through discussion of grumpy artists, grumpy looking people in art, and so on. Because at the end of the day, much as we dislike other people being short and irritable with us, we love to be so ourselves. There’s nothing like that ‘letting off steam’ feeling you get when you snap at your other half for not answering the phone or (this is true) for not freezing the overripe bananas for smoothies but leaving them to the mercy of the fruit flies. Let’s face it, whilst the news, movies, etc. like to present us with extremes of good and evil, the closest most of us get to going “mwu-hah-hah” is in our own heads a few seconds after we momentarily lose it. We berate ourselves for being grumpy; we apologize for our behavior. Rightly so, I guess. But at the same time, sometimes you’ve just got to release the safety valve a little bit and cut yourself some slack about it. We usually get grumpy because we’re going through something stressful or anxiety-inducing. Best to put the guilt aside and consider the ‘why’ of grumpiness, not the ‘badness’ of our behavior. In my view, grumpiness is just assertiveness gone a bit wrong, and thus it happens when we’re feeling powerless about something. Figure out what that something is and we might be able to channel that misdirected assertiveness in a much more productive way. Of course, if you’re a cat, there’s no way you can do this…

Like I said, I thought I could tie this to some great masterpiece or discuss some famously grumpy artists (Bernini, I hear, could hold his own- Carravaggio and Michelangelo too, I believe). But then I discovered that Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment Center (in Huntsville, Alabama) have already celebrated ‘grumpiness through art’ with a Grumpy-Cat Art show!!  How did I miss hearing about this? Below are three of the more delightful offerings, all celebrating the popular – some might say ubiquitous- internet meme. You can see all of the art and artists at http://www.lowemill.net/grumpyart/

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How To Enjoy Your Weekend, Seurat-Style

Our weekends are precious to us. Ideally, they’re a time to retreat from the stresses and strains of the work week: time to be with loved ones, relax, stroll through the park…just like the characters in Seurat’s famous work of Pointillism (a painting composed of tiny dots) A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) But how often do our weekends really open up as a space of rest and relaxation? These days, many of us have to go to work, do chores, and take the kids to soccer practice. We often end up resenting our weekends and the people and things that make demands of us over these two supposedly work-free days. To our dismay, our own minds conspire against us as well. Even when we do get a break, it’s almost impossible not to dwell on the week before, or to start planning for the week ahead. We even have a term for this: getting a ‘head start’ on the week.

Maybe our expectations for the weekend are too high. Is there any hope of enjoying our weekends without worrying about the past, present or future? I think Seurat offers a convincing answer to this question.

Suitably for a painting about a day designed for the regaining of perspective, ‘La Grande Jatte’ doesn’t make sense if you stand too close- all you see is a bunch of dots. Scoot back, though, and meaning quickly emerges.

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And here we are, in a beautiful park on a sunny afternoon. It would be idyllic if the rather stiff, prim figures that populate it could relax a little. The man in the top hat on the left is surely contemplating whatever business he has lined up for Monday morning. The woman holding the fishing line – a prostitute according to most art history scholars – has one day off when she gets to do the catching. Like the man in front of her, she’s retreated into herself. In fact, almost everyone in the painting is ‘pulled in’- retracting their claws, steeling themselves for the busyness of tomorrow. Scholars have described them as robotic and isolated, but there’s something peaceful about the quietness of the scene, and the earnest navel-gazing everyone’s engaged in. That’s partly what the weekends are for, after all. The problem is, nearly all of them have a companion with whom they could be sharing their thoughts, ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, laughing, about the week’s trials and tribulations.

Yes, that’s it. This is a painting in which everyone is so serious and uptight that Seurat hasn’t even bothered giving some of them faces; no need to when everyone has the same face. The foreground figures are as stern and emotionally blank as bank managers or, as a teenager I know once put it, as if someone’s farted and no one dare acknowledge it. We want to shake these people by the shoulders and say, come on, lighten up a bit! Yes, tomorrow’s going to be back to the grindstone or the humdrum, but let’s live a little, shall we?

‘La Grande Jatte,’ is often said to be about the static nature of the French class system in the late 1800s; a dystopian vision of bourgeois ennui and alienation. In other words, a political painting. But I think it has more to offer than that. Although this park was frequented by the rich, parks are inherently democratic spaces. No one here appears poor, but it seems unlikely that everyone here is from the same zip code either. For every woman with a pet monkey, there’s another who appears to be mending a shirt or dress. For every business man in a starched suit, there’s a soldier with his shoulders back. So whatever Seurat is saying about our weekends (and I think he is saying something about our weekends) I don’t think he’s directing it towards one class of people.

Look closer and you’ll see there are a few exceptions to the ‘uptight bank manager’ look. A young couple hovering in the middle-ground just behind a central tree appears to be engrossed in one another. It seems they are cradling a baby, wrapped in a white bundle of blankets. In front of them, a young child in red skips happily along. A bandstand leader (I presume) plays his trumpet. Four boys in a boat work together, pulling their oars in perfect unison.

Here, Seurat is saying, is what our weekends should look like: reflection is all very well, but let other people in, and lighten up. Shift your perspective; back up a bit, the way you have to to see my painting. Be in the present, mindfully…get lost in the moment, and each other. Play and laugh like the little girl; lose yourself in the emotion of a first day out with your newborn; sing and make music and don’t worry what other folks think of you; be part of a team and drop the ego.

Our weekends are capable of causing us a great deal of anxiety. The next time you’re lucky enough to get a day out in the park on a Sunday afternoon, think of Seurat’s painting instead of the unanswered emails, the school-run, and the groceries to be bought and, just for a little while, shift your focus to the people that you’re with, the beauty of the park, the fineness of the weather.

A New Type of Hero? Equestrian Statues, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and A Really Cool Yorkshire Mother

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroism lately, and how we have come to define that term. Despite the birth of existentialism and Camus’ celebration of the ‘Sisyphean hero,’ overall I don’t think our definition of heroism has shifted much from the classical and religious tropes we know and love: courage, sacrifice, honor and duty, family first, a kind of ‘nobility of soul’ that raises the man- it’s nearly always a man- ‘above the common swine.’ These kinds of heroes are unencumbered by the limitations placed on them by fate, society, natural law, or the laws of physics (here’s looking at you Superman). And whilst the ‘anti-hero’ trope goes some way towards imagining a more complicated type of hero, they’re similarly unburdened, usually through being some kind of criminal, misfit, or philanderer (here’s looking at you Eric from “True Blood.”)

Take a look at a typical Roman-inspired equestrian statue: Andrea del Verrocchio’s Bartolommeo Colleoni (1479). Here is the ‘classical’ hero of old. We can say a lot about his bearing and posture, all of which are contrived to convey a figure of noble bearing, courage, duty, blah blah blah. But what sums this up as a ‘hero’ for me is Colleoni’s disregard for limitations of any sort. Up on his pedestal he is naturally framed by the nothingness of air. With the horse’s front leg (nearly) always raised in equestrian statues, Colleoni and his mount look as if they’re about to trot off their plinth into a void that will, unrealistically, catch them, a bit like a comic-book hero smashing into earth only to bounce back up again right as rain.

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OK, I know this is a bit of a leap, but Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones” personifies this type of hero perfectly, albeit in a slightly weird and twisted way. He ticks all the ‘hero’ boxes. Courageous? Yes. Willing to sacrifice anything? Definitely. A sense of honor and duty? Spadefuls of the stuff. Putting family first? This trait not only defines Tywin- it’s his entire ‘raison d’etre,’ even if he unwisely puts too high a price on the Lannisters’ reputation and name. In his surprisingly tender scenes with Arya in season two, this obsession was subtly revealed to be a sort of ‘tragic flaw:’ the hero derailed by a lust for power. Equestrian statues perfectly capture the Tywin spirit: once more into the fray, nothing will stop us, no limitations. What this type of hero frets about is getting caught up in human frailty and sentimentality. Hence Tywin cannot allow himself to feel anything approaching love for his family, for this would undermine his abilities as a leader and conqueror. The fact that he evidently is desirous of forming authentic attachments (to Arya) suggests that he has sacrificed this part of himself for the ‘greater good.’ It’s a satirical reimagining of the classical hero, but it’s telling that we kind of, occasionally, sort of admire and root for Tywin. He’s a nasty piece of work- a villain to all intents and purposes- but because he possesses so many ‘hero’ characteristics we’re baited into wanting to like him.

Let’s contrast this type of heroism with another GOT character who, surely not coincidentally, bears a very similar name: his son, Tyrion. Tyrion is a dwarf, drinker and self-confessed whoremonger, outcast from his family, despised by his sister Cersei, and generally dealt a bad hand. Even after his moment in the sun, reluctantly leading the Lannisters to victory at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, he doesn’t receive any credit for playing the ‘hero.’ Despite his unheroic tendencies, Tyrion tends to wend a path towards doing the ‘right thing,’ but he does so by working within,  not fighting against, his limitations. Tyrion knows he’s a bit of a coward, especially physically. He has no desire for battle-glory and is a terrible fighter, so enlists the mercenary Bronn to act as his personal body-guard. He knows, too, that the only way he can succeed in life is to accept the cards fate has dealt him. “Never forget you’re a bastard,” he advises Jon Snow when they first meet, “no one else will.” Tyrion, immodestly aware that he has a brilliant mind, does all he can to exploit this advantage to keep himself afloat. He’s not opportunistic; he’s just surviving. Tyrion displays many of the ‘classical hero’ traits- courage, duty, and ‘rightness,’ but he doesn’t seek to ‘be’ any of these things. He arrives at them because of his hyper-awareness of his limitations; for instance, refusing to sleep with Sansa because he knows she finds him physically repellant. Everyone has a breaking point, of course, and for Tyrion it’s at his trial, when he finally spits some rebellious vitriol at his condemners. But even here, it’s only because he knows and has accepted another limitation: that ‘all men must die.’

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This new breed of hero is painfully aware of his limitations, though he’s not likely to mentally obsess over it like existential heroes do – he’s too cynical and self-deprecating for that. His limitations often force him to have to ‘fight’ for his own goodness and redemption, or even arrive at it inadvertently, and this is a breath of fresh air. These heroes aren’t tragically flawed, so-called because the hero can’t himself see the flaw, a.k.a Oedipus or GOT’s Obeyrn.  This hero senses, groping in the dark perhaps, but senses, what is limiting him, and can thus either accept it or try to beat it down. I love “Mad Men’s” Don Draper because he’s so often on the verge of realization, but then it always escapes him as he gets sucked under by force of habit and societal obligations. It’s a real rollercoaster ride, but we appreciate him for trying nonetheless. With both Don Draper and Tyrion we are as unsure of their redemption as they are themselves, but their ongoing battle for it is where the inspiration lies.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the heroes I’ve been discussing are male, but there are female characters that embody qualities of Tyrion and Don. “Mad Men’s” Peggy is the strongest example, Skylar in “Breaking Bad,” is another, minus the cynicism, and I’d love to see GOT’s Margaery Tyrell have a bit more to do; she has all the makings of a strong female heroine. The problem is that female heroes tend to play second fiddle to the men who shape their lives. It’d be nice to see more stand-alone complex women on TV and film…and so on to David Hockney’s photo-portrait, “My Mother, Bradford, Yorkshire.” (1982).

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This beautiful composite captures Tyrion and Don Draper’s type of heroism perfectly. Hockney’s mother seems all-too aware of the role she has been cast in, as captured neatly by the uber- reductive title and emphasized by the domestic setting and the family photo in the background. Although she has spent her entire life in this milieu, here she sits, throne-like, queen of her domain, proud and stoic. There is something slightly sad and wistful in her gaze, and a hint of passivity or resignation in her folded hands and crossed feet. The Picasso-esque photographic distortions are integral to the meaning of the work. They hint at an underlying chaos of mind that may have something to do with old age, but surely also to do with juggling multiple-roles and identities whilst living up to the regal title, “My Mother…” Yet this fragmentation and splitting of self doesn’t undermine the subject’s aura of strength and confidence one jot. At the same time as Hockney reduces her to a single role, he places her on a plinth of her own creation; one that acknowledges the shifts and slides, mistakes and uncertainties, defeats and victories that we all must confront every day. I’m pretty sure this is what heroism is, and I think David Hockney and George R.R Martin would agree with me.