Everyday Poet, Everyday God

francis-and-dylanPope Francis is to the Vatican as Bob Dylan is to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both represent a promise, long overdue, finally made real.

In the case of the Vatican, the overdue promise is to embody Jesus’s goodwill. In the case of the Nobel Prize Committee, the overdue promise is, in Alfred Nobel’s own words, to award a writer whose work both moved in “an ideal direction” and offered “the greatest benefit on mankind.”

I dare anyone to name the past three Nobel Laureates (Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro).  As a writer, it’s hard to benefit someone who has not read you. Harder still to benefit those that have not even heard about you. But Dylan, people know Dylan. They get Dylan.

To award Dylan is to award his audience. It is delivery to deliverance.

Just as Pope Francis’s gentle message draws the Catholic Church closer to love-hungry hordes, Dylan’s simple lyrics deliver art to culture-starved crowds. Dylan’s Nobel legitimizes the Prize for a population increasingly distant from the tangible, written word, and in doing so, gives new relevance to Literature.

Institutions must be commercial if they are to wield influence. Barely in time, the Vatican recognized that its message was lost without the right messenger. Apropos, the Nobel Committee realized that #trending is a good thing.

Photo Credit: Dylan’s photo is by Paul Natkin (Getty). Pope Francis’s photo is from the AP. 

 

The Difference between Coolness and Artness: What Turns Everyday Objects into Art

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The Frieze says “Hi!” via Martin Soto Climent’s Frenetic Gossamer (2016). Photo: Skye Arundhati Thomas.

Inevitably, many of the highlights at this year’s London Frieze are works that turn common objects into art. To enter the Fair, visitors must walk by a courtyard and  up a narrow hallway where Martin Soto’s pantyhose installation cuts the sky into the vaulted Gothic cathedral lines of a sacred place of worship.

The Gagosian is the first gallery one meets, featuring the works of Edmund de Waal: white and black porcelain vessels and small objects arranged onto shelves of the same color. The fragility of the exhibit is humbling. Here is a work of pure, selfless devotion to the things made by Man. Here is a work that, for a change, does not lessen but, rather, heightens the role of that being who is always lurking behind at art fairs: The Collector. But, more on this later, much later.

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Edmund de Waal, white sail (detail), 2016. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Immediately to the right of The Gagosian is London heavy-hitter Sadie Coles Gallery. Here hang several pieces by Scottish artist Jim Lambie. My favorite is Pin Code 3379 (2016), pictured below, which uses thousands of safety pins to hold together a torn navy blue canvas in lines that conjure a Scottish kilt. The scarred canvas belies the function of the safety pin, pointing a pricked finger at the past and present pains associated with Scotland’s national identity. It holds together, but at what cost.

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Around the corner from The Gagosian is Hong Kong’s Simon Lee Gallery. On display here are works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Her installation includes paintings as well as a massive pile of cobalt-dyed cotton in the center of the space. Looking at it feels menacing: at any moment, the strands of cotton might turn into tentacles and drag you in.  It is a great feeling.

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But, then I saw the piece below by artist Haugeue Yang at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. The S-shaped panel of small bells turns, making the piece jingle.  It was cool, sure, but I felt nothing. I began to wonder what makes a piece of art made from everyday objects successful? What is it that actually makes it art, and not just a cool thing to hang?

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I’ve come up with two words that sum it up: sanctity and uncanniness. In order for a piece built with everyday things to “do” it, to interfere with a viewer’s emotions, it must transgress the sanctity of the objects it uses.  The bells in the piece above fulfill their intended purpose: they chime. Edmund de Waal’s perfect white vessels, however, will never be sipped. No one will slip Soto’s pantyhose on.

It is this transgression, this violation of an object’s raison d’être, that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the viewer. Something is off, and it is creepy.  

“Uncanny” was one of Freud’s favorite words. I really like it, too, because it identifies a feeling that eschews description. Olowska’s pile of blue cotton is terrifying. Why? It is uncanny. Why? Something is not right. What? The object and our expectations of it. Why? Cotton exists to make underwear. But, what if it does not? Then, maybe, we must probe our surroundings.

And, it is in that private, silent rereading of life that our chest encounters art.

 

No to New Neon

fullsizerenderNeon art began in the 1960’s when an artist named Dan Flavin first displayed it in a New York gallery. Back then neon was street, current and controversial. Indeed, The New York Times compared it to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal: “When Dan Flavin first brought [neon] into art galleries during the 1960’s, he was, in effect, doing what Marcel Duchamp had done with his ready-mades nearly 50 years earlier.”

1960 was a long time ago: 56 solid years have passed.

But, somehow, someway, neon art keeps making it into the world’s most prestigious booths inside the planet’s most important art fairs. And, there are usually crowds of people gathered around taking selfies.

My problem isn’t with abstract neon art, but with the textural variety. Once, fifty years ago, when neon was used to light up offbeat words it challenged the way people thought and created meaning. Now, several decades later, when neon is used to say cute things, it is just cute. And cute things belong in a corner restaurant, not in prime wall space at the London Frieze, which is where the works pictured above and below made their debut.

Illuminating a romantic phrase or a catchy word with bright neon can certainly be regarded as a creative act, but it should no longer be considered top-shelf art.

Indeed, if it’s not happening already, Urban Outfitters should soon offer a selection of aptly priced neon signs, and place them right next to the stacks of t-shirts that read: “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah.”

(Note: This text should in no way be construed as a diss upon the house of neon. I happen to love neon and consider it a wonderful, decorative part of life.)

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On Female Punctuation (!!!!!)

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Ed Ruscha’s unpunctuated “OOF”

For several weeks, I’ve been thinking about the exclamation mark and its odd relationship to gender. Why is it that intra-female communication is so lavishly punctuated by exclamation marks? Why do women seem to feel, or perhaps feign, so much excitement whilst exchanging short, declarative sentences?

My husband does not reply to simple “yes” or “no” questions with a “Yes!!!!” or a “No!!!!!” His no is a “No.” His yes a “Yes.”

Males do not replace “Ok” with “Okkkkkk!!!!!!!” Nor do they feel the need to effusively give their “Thanks!!!!!!!!”

Of course, the easy answer to the question of why this happens is that modern girls continue to be sickened by the disease to please, even each other. Or, indeed, especially each other. But, I hesitated writing about the subject because I felt that the disease to please was actually not at play here and that the true understanding of this phenomenon eluded me.

And it did, until today.

While visiting a rather unimpressive Banksy exhibit in Amsterdam’s Moco Museum, I was struck by how his works were sucked of all urgency when taken out of their intended context: the tumult of the street. Framed by stained glass in an antique museum, his works seemed trite, facile, t-shirt copies of themselves.

I realized that the same thing happens to female texting when taken out of the urgency of the moment: when read after the fact, heavily punctuated phrases become vapid, unnecessary, insecure and exhausting.

But in the immediacy of its creation, exclamatory female dialogue is actually symptomatic of a compelling need to express a sisterly bond as well as a deep appreciation for the other’s time and energy. The excitement transmitted by overzealous punctuation serves to acknowledge the deep gratitude that is generated by the very existence of such exchange within the context of the hyper-hectic life of the urban female.

So, yes!!!!!, when a friend takes the time to answer a mid-day question, I am honored. Yes!!!!! it is really exciting to be texting with someone who has several children, a marriage, a boss and fridge to keep happy. Yess!!!! I urgently want to say Thank you!!!!! when this person suggests a good doctor, restaurant, vitamin, or indestructible iPad case.

It is a relief to realize that female over-punctuation is nothing to be ashamed of but, rather, celebrated as an expression of the confident and generous collaboration between she who gives and she who receives.

 

 

 

 

Olympic Medal Grounds

unknownAlong with over 60% of the world’s population, I watched the Olympics last summer. For me, lonely athletic greatness is the ultimate tear-jerker. And I am a sucker for painless ways to cry. But, I just couldn’t get behind all the flags, all the anthems, all the medal counts. Each awards ceremony felt oppressive, itchy, and, yes, embarrassing.

As much as I enjoyed crying when the first Puerto Rican heard her national anthem on the Olympic podium or when my few fellow Colombians felt the weight of gold around their necks, I much more enjoyed watching them do their thing on the court, field, pool, track. I much preferred witnessing that sudden instant of triumph, like when Simone Manuel realized she had won gold, than watching jump-suited athletes choke back orchestrated tears on the stage. For me it’s ultimately a “don’t love the game, love the player” kind of thing.

Classifying athletes by nationality feels off. It feels old, even creepy, as if a third world war is somehow looming around the corner.  One obvious reason is that not all countries deserve so much credit.  Sure, most nations pay their Olympians a per win bonus. In the case of Colombia, for example, each gold medal winner gets 165 million pesos, which is a respectable amount of local currency. But, really, this sum is nothing when placed on the other side of the work/time equation.

An even bigger question for me is why athletes jump at the chance to give their countries so much credit. Is country really a reason to hit the gym in the morning? Or, is there simply no better way to classify athletes other than birthplace?

Classifying them by humility would be great. Or by kindness, by altruism. Then the Olympics could really own the claim of hard win over easy bad, instead of diluting itself into another day of the US v. China thumb wrestling medal grounds.

 

History’s Best Blue

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“Seal” by Morris Louis, from The Phillips Collection

This post has nothing to do with books. It is just about the color blue.

Over the course of two days in DC, I visited two museums dedicated to Modern Art. One is the Philips Collection, which claims to be the first modern art museum in the country. The other is the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing.

Like never before, I was struck by how much Modern Art is about color – our construction of it, our emotional experience of it, our understanding of it, and lack thereof. Somewhere, I’d heard that before but had never actually felt it.

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So much longing in Picasso’s “The Blue Room.” Also from The Phillips Collection.

 

The Philips Collection houses room upon room of stunning works curated to reflect subject matter and evolving style, not always chronology. There is so much blue on its walls. Kandinsky blue, Marc blue, Picasso blue, Van Gogh blue, O’Keefe blue, Hopper blue, Louis blue, Chagall blue, Gaugin blue, Matisse blue.

And Rothko blue. Is there anything more heart-wrenching than Rothko’s stormy blue?

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O’Keeffe’s “Jack in the Pulpit” from an exhibition at The Phillips Collection.

This museum actually has a small, specially commissioned Rothko room filled with the artist’s large-scale paintings. Each piece has three, four uneven blocks of color. Nothing else. But it manages to be a very sad place. One piece, a combination of blush, navy and mustard, is particularly devastating.

As the Gallery’s East Wing was under extensive renovations my husband and I popped into the more classical West Wing, where key pieces from the East Wing were on display. Here we saw Johns blue, LeWitt blue, Mondrian blue, Calder blue, even some more Rothko blue.

Calder's "Black Camel with Blue Head and Red Tongue" from The National Gallery

Calder’s “Black Camel with Blue Head and Red Tongue” from The National Gallery

After two days of blue immersion, I was ready to go home convinced of blue’s unique advantages as a color. 150 years of Modern Art confirmed how effective blue is at making us empathize with a canvas or sculpture.

Then, on our way out, we passed an exhibit of Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo. The mostly earth-toned, religious tableaus were brought to life by carefully placed doses of Aegean azure, more dazzling than any shade of blue mixed on a modern palette.

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di Cosimo’s “The Visitation of St Nicholas and St Anthony Abbot”

I suddenly realized that modernity’s exploration of blue merely continues the work of the Renaissance masters. Although I visited the Vatican many years ago, I remember a few things with clarity – Michelangelo blue, Raphael blue, and the purgatorial duration of the tour.

This outtake from Raphael's "School of Athens" shows Diogenes philosophizing at ease.

This outtake from Raphael’s “School of Athens” shows Diogenes philosophizing at ease.

In Medieval art, blue is used to signal the main, most holy characters in a painting. The Virgin Mary is usually cloaked in blue, as is baby Jesus, because the color is symbolic of heaven, of the divine.

Though the use of blue in Modern Art might not seek to reflect the realm of the heavenly,  it certainly acknowledges the color’s ability to connect us with something higher. Why blue can do this remains an interesting question. Perhaps it has to do with the sky’s hue. But then, why, ultimately, is the sky blue? Refracted light aside, someone had to have made that choice.

An untitled piece by Mark Rothko on display at The National Gallery of Art

An untitled piece by Mark Rothko on The National Gallery of Art’s ample collection.

In closing, I wanted to give a shout out to museums. They are the internet, before the internet. How else could we witness centuries’ worth of painted blue in a single day? History fades if it is not recorded and revisited. Thank you, museums for recording history in a way that is fun to revisit and for making sure that our kids’ visual intelligence won’t be nourished solely by disposable Instagram feeds.

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The exterior certainly looks nice in Matisse’s “Interior with Egyptian Curtain.”

 

Irreverence is Worth Dying For, Vargas Llosa

  

I recently attended a lecture by Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. He spoke about how the world is getting to be a better place, slowly. One of the reasons for this is the gradual spread of freedom. 

Although he only mentioned the shootings at Charlie Hebdo briefly, he said something that has stayed with me since. Irreverence, according to the writer, is a freedom that humanity has fought long and hard to win. The right to make fun of our rulers, religions and rituals must be both inseparable from free speech and absolute. It is also worth the fight. 

Pope Francis might not agree with someone’s desire to irrespect the Catholic Church or his mother, but if he intends to be history’s first truly modern pope, he must defend people’s right to do so. 

The book cover above is dangerously irreverent. No doubt the publisher had to consult the in-house lawyer, big boss and marketing team prior to printing it. But stumbling across its genius reworking of a staid symbol woke up my lazy Sunday brain. 

That’s another thing about irreverence. It can make us think, even without giving it too much thought .