Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Month: September, 2014

There’s Nothing Wrong with Sentimentality in Art

Lobster-friends, a lot of art critics deride ‘sentimental’ art. Philosopher/critic Anthony Savile states that sentimental art is deceptive, promoting a “false picture of the world,” and an escape from reality.

No exhibit more poignantly captures the dichotomy between escapism and reality than “Pompeii, The Exhibition,” currently showing at the California Science Center in L.A. The gallery takes us on a tour of artifacts culled from Pompeii’s gorgeous villas and gardens – many of them heady with the scent of escapism and, yes, sentimentality. We know where all this is tending, of course. With horrible irony, the ‘post-volcano-eruption’ section of the gallery displays casts of Vesuvius’ victims, curled up, hands over mouths to shield them from the ash – they look horribly like sculptures; the kind that Pompeii’s many wealthy citizens commissioned for their gardens.

And yet…perusing this exhibit, none of the art from Pompeii feels like an escape from reality, though much of it is undeniably sentimental. Take a look at this adorable marble sculpture from a garden villa: as pristine as if it had been carved yesterday.

four little dogs

Evidently, this little quartet of dogs belonged to the villa’s owner, and desiring to capture them forever (goal achieved) the owner had them turned into art, only to be dug up years later during Pompeii’s excavation.

Maybe it’s me, but I see no ‘escape from reality’ here. There is nothing fantastic or escapist about emotion and love to my mind. Maybe when a work of art is overwrought with emotion to the point where it is melodramatic or unbelievable: yes, that’s another story. But to decry sentimental art in general seems like a gross misunderstanding of what sentimentality is. Far from being divorced from reality, sentiment allows us to connect in a visceral way with that which is, to us, most real. And for most of us that means our family, our children, our friends, cute kitty YouTube videos, our pets – essentially, our relationships. Not wars and bombs and poverty and death. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about those things (of course we should) or that we should shy away from them. But to argue a point on the basis of what is and isn’t ‘real’ seems simultaneously sweeping and reductive.

“Four Little Dogs,” is not simply a charming, sentimental piece. It’s a powerful statement about what endures, and what has endured: the simple beauty of life, and of love.


Salvador Dali Says…Hit The Snooze Button!

Hey Lobster-folk!

You know that feeling in the morning when you’re still exhausted and just can’t BEAR to get of bed? The alarm is pinging in your ears, thoughts of work are swirling in your imagination (oh no! The presentation is today!) and then suddenly you remember with a feeling of ecstatic, er, ecstasy….I HAVE A SNOOZE BUTTON!!!

Well, I don’t know when the snooze button was invented- although whoever invented it is surely one of the unsung heroes of the 20th century- but with his usual uncanny prescience I believe Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” might contain a hidden message for snooze-button-aficianados everywhere. Here’s the painting, which you will recognize from museum gift shop teatowels worldwide:

As the MOMA website helpfully reminds us, this painting is indubitably about time. Note the melty clocks. But how come no one has suggested that this painting isn’t REALLY about time, it’s about sleep: how lovely it is, and how we really, really don’t want to wake up and go to work?

Firstly, look how happy Dali is! Yes, that weird squidgy figure with one eye is supposedly Dali himself. And I love how perfectly Dali captures that blissful feeling of sleep, whilst at the same time showing in a concrete way the weird detachment we have from our bodies when we doze. You know how sometimes our legs twitch or kick up? We’re not feeling part of ourselves. And here, Dali’s tongue dribbles out of his nose as he snoozes away.

Draped over his form is a blanket, but it’s not a blanket – it’s a clock. Ugh, that ever present reminder that we will have to get up soon. Similarly, a tree is holding out- like a butler I can’t help but think- another clock, draped like a towel (shower-time?) And then two more clocks: one draped over the edge of the table (perhaps representing an alarm clock) and the other, face down, appears to be a wind-up pocket watch of some sort – the portable watch we take to work (now called an I-phone). It’s swarming with ants, as if it’s a crumb of food. There’s a weird irony to ants being attracted to something so clean and shiny, but that just goes to show how much Dali hates clocks in the morning. To him, they’re crumb-like annoyances he’d like to brush off. And why is it face down? Maybe because Dali can’t bear to think about….work, or life!

It makes sense that these clocks are melting…in a half-asleep state time is humming round the edges of our consciousness, and their softness here crystallizes this idea in visual form.

But if we are in any doubt as to the ‘hidden’ meaning of this painting, look at the time on the clocks: five minutes to seven! Yes, folks, just like you and me, Dali only has five minutes to sleep until that alarm goes off! If snooze buttons had been invented back when Dali was around (HAD THEY?) he’d definitely be using it methinks.

Am I reading into this too much? Am I bonkers? I literally can’t read this painting in any other way, and yet I’ve never read a similar analysis. Let me know what you think!


The Lobster.

Art as Therapy, Therapy as Art: Decisions and Struggles

Hello Lobsterites!

How well do you cope with conflict, making a difficult decision, or getting through a personal struggle? Well, for consolation, here’s “Laocoon and His Sons” to make you feel better!


Poor Laocoon is having a bad day. He’s been punished by the Gods for trying to save Troy from the wooden horse scheme, he’s had to fend off venomous serpents, and now, at the height of his struggle, he’s about to be bitten (see snake head to right).¬† Well, this is the Greek myth, but regardless of the story behind it surely no other work of art (and in this case, we’re looking at a Hellenistic Greek sculpture, now in the Vatican) encapsulates so perfectly what it feels like to really ‘struggle’ – be it physically or mentally. The tensions in the work embody the desire for ‘balance’ nicely- everything moves to the left, like a wave, but the boy on the right tilts slightly in the opposite direction, evening things out. And look at the two triangles of negative space, one under Laocoon’s arm; one under his son’s arm on the right. I could go on pointing out counter-balancing effects like this for a while…

In other words, this work is about the push-and-pull of life; its certainties and uncertainties; hope and collapse, and most poignantly perhaps, life and death. The son on the left is dying, Laocoon is about to die, and the son on the right looks to be escaping. Regardless of his final fate (yeah, he dies too) in this moment the sculpture depicts all three states of mortality; all three states of suffering. And of all the looks of anguish on these faces, none is worse than that  of the escaping son, as he watches his father about go down.

laocoon son's head

This is an exquisitely rendered portrayal of fear, pain, and downright desperation.

Well, something of a theme on this blog has been pairing works of art with…other stuff. I’ve done poetry, I’ve done books, but now I’m doing…a therapy session!

In his book “Art as Therapy,” (great read by the way) Alain De Botton argues that we should start treating art as a medium which can teach and console us. Well, now we have proof that therapy can be art, too.

In an incredible video (below) we see Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centered Therapy, counseling a (brave) lady called Gloria. PCT is all about showing empathy, withholding interpretation, and resisting being the ‘wise counselor.’ Rogers wanted clients to arrive at their own answers, as a means of empowering them and resisting placing his own values on them.

Gloria is going through her own personal struggle, and the serpent-like quality of her conflict – which twists and contorts around her as she weighs the pros and cons of each decision, seeking balance in a strange echolalia of the sculpture, is something we can all relate to. It’s Laocoon’s struggle as it exists within all of us.

And Roger’s handling of it is amazing. He gently lifts the ‘snake’ from off of her shoulders and places it in front of her, where she can deal with it safely and examine it from all angles. I’ve always been in awe of therapists and the therapeutic process, but this is something else. Watch and gawp. And if you’re going through your own difficulty with a tough decision, this will definitely help.

A Book and A Painting…Sargent and Henry James.

It’s time to crack open those pumpkins! Just kidding…in L.A. at least, it’s rocking the high 90s, and it was 104 today! But for some reason the stores are full of candy corn and foam spiders. Still, at least I am honoring fall in my own special way. I’m rereading the gothic novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (published 1898…I think!).

James was a realist, but here he takes realism and, well, ‘turns the screw’ on it a bit, heightening realism’s pitch until it teeters dangerously into what some might call psychosis.

It tells the story of a governess who is semi-seduced (this bit, like the rest of the novel, is ambiguous) into taking “full custody and care” of her handsome employees’ charges: a very creepy pair of kids, Miles and Flora. You know that bit in The Shining, with the twins in the corridor? Anyway, this “angelic” couple start to see and hear things (ghosts, of course) but pretend they don’t. The governess is desperate to ‘save their souls’ from the corrupt evil influences that pervade the house, and sets out on a mission to confront this evil. The ending, like the rest of the novel, forces us to question the reliability of the governess’ narrative, as well as the nature of this evil, which is never named by James, but subtly suggested to be of a sexual nature.

James basically took the Victorian notion that children are ‘pure and innocent’ little darlings, and turned this on its head. At the same time he foreshadowed Freud’s writings on “Family Romances,” “Repression,” and “The Uncanny,” by alluding to…well, pretty much all of these things.

He was also friends with John Singer Sargent, whose painting “Daughters of Edward Darley Bolton,” reminds me eerily of the tone and mood of “…Turn of the Screw.”

Sargent Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt

Ostensibly a painting depicting the four children of a rich family, there is something a bit ‘off’ here, isn’t there? The strange doppelganger effect of the two children in the shadows, echoing the doubling of the tall vases both left and right. The shadows themselves. The way the children stare at us, as if guilty. Or…is it we who are guilty? As a viewer, this painting feels designed to make us uncomfortable, just as we feel uncomfortable in our encounters with Miles and Flora in James’ book.

Some people have perhaps read a bit too much into the ambiguity of the painting, suggesting a direct correlation between childhood and corruption/evil, as in “Turn of the Screw.” Rather, I think this painting just makes the point that we don’t always feel comfortable around children, for a variety of reasons. Ever seen a child have a conversation with an invisible friend? Ever seen one kid pummel another kid? Children are ‘tapped into’ a never-ending stream of fantastic and, yes, violent thoughts. Of course, Lewis Carroll knew this only too well, using this knowledge to great effect in “Alice in Wonderland” – who can forget the Queen of Hearts’ cry of, “off with her head”? I think Sargent realizes it too, along with his friend Henry. It’s not that children are corruptible per se, or less innocent than they seem…it’s that they revel in imaginative, scary, uncensored worlds in a shamelessly abandoned way that we cannot ourselves indulge in. Unless, of course, we go mad. And THAT’S why it’s scary.

Now the twins in “The Shining,” are another matter entirely.