Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Month: July, 2014

Yoga and Art for Difficult Mornings.

Yoga of Art

Mornings suck. We are often tired and groggy from lack of sleep; confused and worried about the day ahead. How can yoga and art help counteract the new day blues?

The balm for strung-out nerves and/or that urge to hit the snooze button for the fifteenth time, is Vermeer’s “Young Woman With A Water Pitcher.”

young woman with a water pitcher

This is the picture to have beside your alarm clock. Vermeer is a genius at capturing the beauty of ordinariness and work. A young Dutch servant greets a new day, pausing from her duties for a moment to crack open the window and…who knows? Is she looking for someone? Or just enjoying a morning breeze? It doesn’t really matter…what matters is that this painting puts us in the right frame of mind for getting the most out of our day. It’s a celebration of light, morning ritual (we can assume she is setting up the water bowl for her master and mistress to wash in)  as well as…

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Are You A Romantic? Take This Quiz to Find Out!

Are you a Romantic? Here’s a quick quiz! Tot up how many of these you answer ‘true’ for.

1. Do you gnash your teeth at night worrying about things you really shouldn’t worry about, like the implications of the fact that in 2 billion years we’re going to collide with another galaxy? WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!

2. Do you ever have cravings for opium or other narcotics?

3. Have you ever considered starting or joining a revolution?

4. Do you have misplaced/misguided ideas about what constitutes a utopia?

5. Has your mental or physical health deteriorated as a result of futile creative endeavors?

6. Do you have friends with names like Montmartre or Dorian?

7. Do you have a love interest who doesn’t love you back but sort of leads you on and likes to hold arty-type soirees?

8. Have you coughed up blood recently? (If so, heads-up: you’re doomed).

9. Are you so over-emotional that your friends won’t let you watch “The Notebook?”

10. Is Don Quixote your literary hero?

11. Do you love being out in nature, sketching flowers, and writing odes to the sea?

If you answered ‘true’ to at least eight of the above statements, you’re probably a Romantic. Congrats!

Some people really hate Romanticism for all its emotionality and melodrama, and it’s generally seen as the ‘opposite’ of realism, which depicts the nitty-gritty world as it actually is and nobly tries to take the focus off of the interiority of self and instead shine a  spotlight on, you know, actual real suffering.

Isn’t that a tad demeaning though? As Hamlet says, who amongst us can cope with the ‘thousand shocks that flesh is heir to?’ Romantics may be kind of angsty but isn’t that just an honest admittance of what we’re all secretly going through? Just think about the 101 bombardments upon your well-being and self-esteem TODAY. I’m not just talking about that negative self-talk we all perpetuate in our minds, but actual things that happen, from a put-down at work, to realizing you’re wearing odd socks; from losing a game of tennis, to burning the gravy; from giving up on that book you were reading, to feeling envious of someone on Facebook. It’s enough to make anyone’s head explode. And yet, we soldier on. That’s the real Romantic message, I think: that in the face of abject misery every day and the ultimate bummer that we’re all going to die sooner or later, there’s beauty and wonder in the world around us. According to the Romantics, it is our ‘duty’ to honor, celebrate, and get in touch with that beauty- which is actually a pretty selfless notion when you think about it.  As Keats so perfectly put it, ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty.’

This is all a long preamble to sharing one of my favorite paintings by Gustave Courbet: a self-portrait entitled “The Desperate Man” (1845).

desperate man

Courbet started out his career as a Romantic and later became a Realist, which I think is kind of a shame. In this startling work we are forced to confront the ‘thousand shocks’ Hamlet talks about, head-on. It’s a self-portrait, yes, but we’re also looking into the abyss of our own desperation, writ large and inescapable. Ironically, it’s a kind of realism, albeit of the psychological kind: the reality that we’re all a total mess, even though we conceal this fact from others or sublimate it in order to soothe our own egos. Perhaps Gustave’s shift to realism was a sublimation of his own despair.

But let’s end on a happy note, shall we? After all, not all the Romantics died of consumption or suicide. Shelley drowned in a boating accident!

Yours,

The Lobster.

Where Can Meaning Be Found? In the Decision to Find Meaning.

I realized that my last blog post about enjoying art didn’t address the ‘particular challenges’ (no irony here folks!) of getting/enjoying contemporary art…what an oversight! However, I’m going to do my best to address my lackadaisicality in this area and put on my best black beret to do so, because I’m coming over all…rather…a bit…arrgh…philosophery!

OK, so art becomes meaningful for us when it has meaning FOR us. As in, for you personally. That meaning can stem from many sources: the color, the story, the emotion, whatever. But it’s definitely a lot easier to make meaning when there is a) story involved and b) emotion involved. Remove those from the equation, and we can feel a bit stranded.

But, here’s an oasis! And it’s you! From my (admittedly only 34 years of) experience, it is entirely possible to force the issue and create meaning for yourself when before there was none. It’s a decision. And just to be clear, finding meaning in something doesn’t mean you understand it, get it, or know what the artist is saying. Meaning means you’ve internalized it, identified with it, and aligned some part of yourself with this external thing. You’re invested in it, so to speak. I’m not just talking about art either, but books, jobs, friendships, articles we read, etc. etc. I think it’s a general misconception that meaning is found: that we read that novel that ‘speaks to us,’ and thus find it meaningful. It’s nice when that happens,  but sometimes meaning must be worked for. I’ll give you an example.

I often teach “Of Mice and Men.” Boy, did I have to work hard to make that novel meaningful for me. I’m not sure why it turns me off- I just don’t connect with the plot, the characters, or…well, any aspect of the book, to be honest. However, my students love it (for some reason) and so I realized I must be missing something. I made a conscious decision that this book had meaning for me, and guess what? Just by making that decision, I began to unearth enough good within the book that I could connect with it and make it meaningful for me. I’ve had this happen with relationships too, when I’ve felt a relationship drift and then bring it back into focus by reminding myself that this relationship IS meaningful to me, and presto! So it is. I bet you can think of other examples. We might sometimes call this ‘forcing ourselves to like something’ (i.e. video games because our partner plays them) or ‘acquiring a taste’ because we want to align with that thing (i.e. red wine). The result, though, is usually the same – a widening of our horizons and our capacity to enjoy and appreciate the world around us.

OK, back to art. Plus, I’ve used the word meaning way too many times. Oh well…

I remember vividly the first time I saw Carl Andre’s controversial Bricks. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a pile of bricks. Literally. Here, see for yourself.

Bricks

They’re stacked to form a shallow, perfect rectangle, but other than that the artist has been hands-off. To say I struggled to find meaning in this artwork is an understatement. Initially, I brushed it off disdainfully (and I’m so ashamed to say that I did the same with a Rothko painting nearby) and went on my merry way. Probably back to the Impressionist gallery. However, something nagged at me, and that was the feeling that I hadn’t given this supposed masterwork a decent shot. So I went back to the bricks, and…this will sound weird, but I felt sorry for them. They were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and would never be ‘built’ into anything useful or used for their true purpose. Well, that was it. I had forced myself to make meaning out of this pile of bricks, and in succeeding I had forged a connection with it that was even more poignant because of my initial rejection. Did I buy a postcard of them? You bet.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, if she were still with us today and my best friend, modern art is Mr. Darcy, not Mr. Bingley. It doesn’t lead us by the hand into understanding it – in fact, it might at first spark our distrust and dislike. It definitely resists the easy meaning-making that older art often encourages. But that’s why it’s so awesome! It empowers you to practice that meaning-making muscle, and find reasons to like a work – or not. Just think again before totally dismissing it.

 

 

10 Hacks for Enjoying Art in an Art Gallery

1) Skim. Rather than working your way around the gallery’s perimeter like some crazy-art-ninja, let your eyes move quickly over the works in the room- don’t read the plaques! Let your eyes settle on one work that speaks to you. Spend time with that work…how?

2) Despite what you may have heard, context (especially historical) can be useful. Now’s the time to read the plaque…

3) …but don’t let the plaque hold you back from forming your own opinions. Guess what? You can disagree with the plaque! If the curator says that this work is a ‘depiction of heroism,’ and you don’t think so, or think it’s more complicated than that, trust your instincts. Many works of art do explore a ‘theme,’ but it might not be the one the plaque says it is, or you might notice a different one that’s more meaningful for you.

4) Bring what you know to the painting. Whether your expertise is history, math, people, or cooking, you have a wide range of experiences and skill sets that will affect how you view the work. Most people read the plaque, take that information and apply it to a new reading of the work, and then move on. Don’t be that person! Spend a bit more time with the artwork and try reading into it a bit yourself. Perhaps you think this artist did an amazing job with color. Perhaps you love the way the artist captured a particular emotion. Perhaps you notice perspective, or can compare the fashions of the time to the fashions of today. Find your ‘in.’

5) Look ‘deeper’ into the painting. Most people look at faces and action in a work of art, but often ignore the background or the small details. Experiment with looking at the background, the smaller details, the ‘fur on the dog’ so to speak. You might be surprised how much this helps you enjoy the work as a whole.

6) Take a picture. If you’re not allowed, buy the postcard. Find out more about that artist and his/her art, when you get home. You will appreciate the work on a whole other level. Now with the power of Google of course, you can even do research on a gallery bench.

7) Time to challenge your own preconceptions! Choose an artwork that you don’t like, and repeat steps 2-6. We’re not really wired to do this, but this is what art historians do all the time and one of the main reasons I ended up liking (instead of hating with a passion) Pre-Raphaelite art. Once I knew where the artists were coming from, I could appreciate the art a lot more. I’ll never love Pre-Raphaelite art, but learning and growing isn’t just about discovering what you love – it’s also finding reasons to tolerate or like what you thought you never could.

8) If you really don’t like a work of art, try and give reasons for not doing so. “I just don’t like it,” gets you nowhere. Art is obviously very subjective but…not that subjective. Reason-finding is another art historian trick, and is a great mental exercise that helps you in the process of discovering your likes and dislikes. Contrary to what you might think, being able to put into words how you feel and why you feel a certain way is an important step in learning how to appreciate art. Which brings me to…

9) Take a journal with you to the gallery in which to scribble your thoughts down. This will make the whole experience way more concrete and tangible for you, and is great for researching later (plus, you’ll look kind of cool).

10) Let yourself be moved if something moves you. It’s amazing how people sometimes turn away from a work of art right at the moment they begin to ‘feel’ something. Let yourself be with the feeling. Write about it. Dwell.

There you go- my top ten hacks for enjoying art more. I hope they help!

Food Porn vs. Still-Life

Before my ‘official’ post, apologies for being away…had a lovely vacay-cay with my family, so blogging took a bit of a back seat. But I’m back now 🙂 And so, onward…

Has anyone you know facebooked a photo of their dinner recently? Yes? Then, congratulations! You’ve been food-porned! Wayne Beynon at The Guardian writes of food porn: “There are lots of theories about why people like to share pictures of food. In most cases, people are simply documenting their daily lives, of which mealtimes may be a highlight. As eating is one of society’s most essential communal activities, sharing food photos is a natural extension of this in a digital age. Some simply love beautiful “food art” shots, while others suggest that food has become a status symbol, and by sharing a photo of a meal, particularly from a high end restaurant, you raise your social media hierarchy.”

Lots of people hate food porn, and I can understand why. The superficiality of it trivializes our lives, and it seems horribly decadent considering that hunger is still the world’s number one health risk. So I’m not here to justify our penchant for snapping pictures of our dinners, but rather to…let’s say, add to the conversation. For whilst food porn is condemned by many as a symptom of contemporary greed and narcissism, we forget that it’s not actually a new phenomenon. Still-life paintings have been capturing the sensuous and inviting aspects of food since…well, since we’ve had still-life paintings. In fact, the first ‘still-life’ we know of is a Roman wall painting and, guess what? It features an artfully arranged bowl of fruit. And have a look at this beautiful Chardin, with its pearlized cherries and dusky plums.

Chardin

Still-lifes of  food have functioned variously as reminders of our fragile lives in the Dutch vanitas style, as status symbols, where tables heave with not just food but trinkets and treasures, and – as with Chardin I think- reminders of the simple pleasures of life. We’ve always celebrated food and eating, and if cameras had been available back in the day, I reckon there would have been a lot of pictures taken of food. So snap away…just don’t humblebrag them all on Facebook!