Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Tag: self-help

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.

 

 

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.

Image

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…