Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Curated Lives: How Do We Get Our Sanity Back?!

Hey Lobsterites!

Sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been writing a LOT; other blogs, a short story here and there, and having a hard time focusing my attention on one thing (as per usual).

Today I wanted to talk about a topic that’s been on my mind a lot recently as I have ventured further down the rabbit hole that is the internet/social media. It’s kind of related to art, because the topic is…curation.

At the ripe old age of 34 I hadn’t realized, until I started blogging and checking out other blogs, just how curated our lives have become. Obviously, the internet requires content curation to some degree, to help us sort through the massive amounts of information. But it’s also happening on a more micro-scale. For instance, for us ladies there are incredibly addictive, brain-cell busting ‘lifestyle’ blogs, complete with curated instagrammed images of ‘a perfect day at the farmers market,’ outfit or ‘the perfect holiday’ make-up look. Lots of use of the word ‘perfect.’ Facebook is also a kind of micro-life-curation experiment…because we choose/select what to say about ourselves, and in the process we are shaping not just how we want people to see us, but how we want to see ourselves. We are, so to speak, ‘curating our own lives.’ One day, I’ll be able to look back at all my posts and pictures and ‘likes’ and see a sort of curated scrapbook of my life. I like this idea, but I know that that scrapbook will only tell half the story…

The desire for curation totally makes sense to me, because it lends us a (false) sense of control, feeds our fantasies about who we are, and makes us look awesome to other people in the process. It allows us to affix boundaries around our identities in an age when the internet and social media load us up with so much information and opportunity and options that we NEED these boundaries in order to stay sane, and make meaning for ourselves. We need to be able to distill all the crap in order to tell ourselves stories that still have a half-sensible plotline. For instance, I have this cool app. that ‘curates’ my newsfeeds depending on my preferences, allowing me to choose the genre of story I want to read. Amazon now curates my homepage with product selections that reflect previous purchases, creating a plot that has a definite arc: I used to be really into buying Agatha Christie books, but now I’m buying writing guides. My character is evolving, and Amazon responds beautifully to each new twist and turn.

This has all started to feed my own desire to become active in the curation process. I have to tell you, my thinking has changed since getting more internet-savvy, and not entirely for the better. I used to be quite happy browsing around, taking-in information, flicking through pages of products. But since reading others’ blogs, checking out Instagram/Twitter, and (perhaps the worst culprit) subscribing to a couple of online ‘box’ services (one, Blue Apron, sends posh ingredients so you can learn to cook awesome recipes, the other is a beauty box sent monthly, with customized products to try out) I have been far more self-aware and even anxious about my consumption of goods and services, as if holding up each potential purchase to the light of my ever-burgeoning ego. The track in my head plays a bit like this: “hmmmm, does this fit who I am? Will this look good with this, this, or that? How does this speak to my INDIVIDUALITY AS A HUMAN BEING?” God, it’s soooooo emo.

Of course, this is all absolutely awful. And yet, we crave personalized service. We love the idea of things being ‘curated’ to our tastes, or more excitingly, curated for us by someone else with taste that we admire, setting up a worrying loop of ‘how can I be more like him/her? Oh, buy this thing! And then blog about it! And then someone else will want to be like me!’

Art curation, at least way back when, was a job designed to soothe the experience of the ‘consumer’ (the art-gallery viewer or buyer) because it allowed the visitor to entrust themselves to the enjoyment of an experience chosen for us by someone far more knowledgeable. And we were more willing to pay for the privilege. I don’t think many people went home at night thinking, ‘how can I replicate this experience for someone else, or put my own personal stamp on it?’ Now, it seems, we are all experts. And isn’t that the goal of capitalism, really? To make us feel capable, in control, excited to share…not the opiate of the masses so much as the caffeine.

Now, I’m not a communist, before you ask! As you can tell from this blog post, I love shopping as much as the next gal. I love browsing blogs and Pinterest and all the rest of it. And I’m definitely not giving up my Blue Apron subscription any time soon. But I’ve realized I need to find some antidotes to this way of being, which is only fueling my ego (in the wrong way) and making me feel antsy.

If anyone has any bright ideas, I’m all ears. I know being in nature helps. I know art helps. I know mindfulness helps. And, obviously, computer/tech ‘fasts.’ I’m sure that donating time/money etc. helps too, because so much of what we do on the computer is about consumption.

And here I am, contributing to the sound and fury! Argh, the irony.

Yours,
The Lobster.

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!

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.