For my regular visitors, if you find that this blog hasn't been updating much lately, chances are pretty good I've been spending my writing energy on my companion blog. Feel free to pop over to Moving On, and see what else has been going on.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

In the Eye of the Beholder

Y'know, I have a real love/hate thing when it comes to art.

Okay.  Hate may be too strong of a word.  How 'bout irritation?  Frustration?  Exasperation?

I enjoy art.  I appreciate art.  One of the things I love about our city is the large amounts of public art scattered all over the place, sometimes in unexpected places.  I may not actually like an individual piece, but I like that it's there.  I think art is a vital part of culture, and that it's a good thing for everyone, even the "non-artistic" to dabble in the sheer creativity of making art.  Art can be fun, thoughtful, lively, morose, silly, deep, and a whole bunch of other things.  Two people can look at the same piece of art and perceive it in totally different ways.  Ten people can look at the same piece of art and perceive it in as many different ways.  In many ways, art is very subjective.

What, however, makes art good?  Sometimes the better question is, "is this art at all?"  In a country that spends billions of federal dollars on art, on top of the money spent by provincial and municipal governments, I think that's a valid question.  If someone creates a piece of art and can find someone to buy it, more power to them, but if the art in question is being pair for with our tax dollars, I think the definition needs to be a bit more limited.  Finding out that some guy calling vials of his own semen "art" was given a grant to do it - essentially being paid taxpayers' money to wank off into containers - bothers more than a few people.

There's the rub that I have with the art community.  It sometimes seems as if the less likely the general public would like it, the more likely it's being marketed as being "artistic" (as if art was something we plebeians are just too low to be able to get), the artists more "daring," and therefore they must be supported by grants.  Lord knows, they wouldn't be able to make a living off their work any other way.

A couple of days ago, Youngest and I took in the local art gallery.  Usually, we enjoy the many small (often free) galleries and displays around our city featuring local artists, but this is THE art gallery for our city.  The first time we went to it, it was just before the building was mostly demolished  and rebuilt (the city insisted part of the building be kept and "recycled," even though doing so was actually more expensive and wasteful... but hey, no one asks the demolitions and construction crews their opinion on the subject).  They had an open free for all, where local artists were invited to send in their work for display, which was then made available to the public for viewing for free.  Eldest had some of her early work in there, as did a friend of hers.  It was pretty fantastic, actually.  Some pieces did seem to be made by people who thought they had more skill or talent then they actually had, but the vast majority of art was really excellent.  We live in a city full of talent.  

The gallery is open again and has one free admissions day a month, so we went to take advantage of it.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered the free admission was only during the last 3 hours of their day.  So we paid, and I found that the admission rate was quite a bit higher than before they rebuilt.  Oh, well.  The new building might look like a giant potato chip, but it's a very lovely potato chip. ;-)  I think they got their money's worth.

Anyhow.  Off we went.  There were quite a number of galleries on several floors.  One consisted of mostly oil paintings of landscapes, many in tacky, ornate frames.  At least we're told some of them were landscapes.  Some of them were... pretty abstract, to say the least.  Without a sign telling me, I would never have thought that that's what they were.

Here's where things got rather amusing.  As we wandered around, we'd come upon some paintings and be rather perplexed as to why it was there.  They looked like paint-by-number pieces, or finger paintings done by children.  Then we'd read the plaque and discover they were actually Group of Seven.  I admit that oil is not my favorite medium when it comes to art, but I can still appreciate skill and talent when I see it.  At least I thought I could.  These didn't seem to display either, but they're considered high art and the epitome of Canadian art in particular.  Exploring why that is would make for an interesting discussion.  Another less than stellar example of art turned out to be an Emily Carr piece.  Having lived on the West Coast for so long, I knew who she was, but I can't say I like her work all that much.  Each to their own.  This sort of thing is a matter of personal taste, but the pieces are still clearly art.

Then is was off to a different gallery.  The next one we visited was an M. C. Escher display.  Now that's art I really enjoy!  Not only are the subjects fascinating to look at and the skill required to produce them amazing, they required a fantastic mind just to conceive of these pieces, then plan and execute those ideas to produce images that look like they should exist, but can't.  I look at those and, not only am I impressed by the art itself, but I find a strong desire to get to know the mind behind it.

While we were in this gallery, however, we caught up with a guided tour.  It was a very small group, and the facilitator was trying to engage them at least somewhat interactively.  I don't remember the exact words she used as she spoke, but several times she's say something that had Youngest and I looking at each other in amazement.  Not because she'd revealed some spectacular piece of information about any particular piece, but because of the "dumbed down" language and phrasing she used.  In trying to get people to talk, she asked what should have been a simple question ("why do you think Escher used colour in this piece?") that got no response.  Had we been in the group, we wouldn't have responded, either.  I would have been too busy wondering if it was a trick question or something.  Was there some sort of symbolism I was missing?  Some deeper meaning that we hadn't grasped?  Nope.  The answer was, "so you could see it [the details] better."


More wandering around.  The new building itself is a work of art, with the potato chip shapes continued inside.  Quite striking, really.

Along the way, there were a number of sculptural pieces and some... others.  As we approached one piece, Youngest commented that the shapes hanging from the ceiling and knotted on the floor looked like intestines. Intestines made out of someones drapes.  Which turned out to be pretty much exactly what they were, except it was upholstery fabric, not drapes.  It was a huge piece, too.  Another consisted of a long wooden pole with wooden handles hammered into it, like some sort of hedgehog.  Two other displayed consisted of glass rods that looked like those bamboo garden stakes at the hardware store, in bundles and leaning against the wall. 

A couple of displays were behind black out curtains.  One was supposedly a recreation, of sorts, of the artist's bedroom, except it was an almost empty room with some sheets and pillows on the floor, and their weird two-headed creature covered in black flowers coming through a pair of blackout curtains that made up one of the walls.  Off to the side was an opening that was supposed to be a closet with some long underwear hanging in it.  The write up claimed the long underwear (hand made by the artist) could be viewed as any number of things, including sacred robes.

Uhm... no.  There was nothing robe like about them.  They looked like somebody's full-body undies.

There was one display behind a blackout curtain we skipped.  A video presentation, a quick glance through the curtain at the screen had me dropping it and continuing on my way.  I'm rather open with my kids about sexual themes, but some things I'm not about to drag my daughter through.  The mom with a 5 or 6 yr old caught a bit of a view through the curtain as I looked, too, and she was quick to steer her daughter away, too.  Funny thing is, I'm not even sure exactly what I saw, other than it involved the sex act.  At least I hope that's what I saw.

One piece had us standing and staring for a while.  We must have looked pretty confused or something, as one of the security staff came over and gave me a brochure describing the displays.  The images being projected onto the wall that make me think of my old Spirograph game turned out to be imagery of the brains of the 2 artists who made it, taken while they were sitting still, thinking, but not speaking.  I was actually more impressed when I thought it was some sort of interactive lights display.  The idea of medical technology being used to record the brains to two guys just sitting there seems so... pretentious to me.

Actually, that's a word that comes up an awful lot when I think of the "art community."  Pretentious.  If a piece is so confusing and obscure it has to be explained to the viewer, is it really art?  When you're standing there, wondering if something is actually one of the gallery pieces, or if someone forgot their lunch on the counter, is it art?  Is throwing in images or phrases that are insulting to Christianity enough to make something art?  Are a bunch of photographs of different versions covering an entire wall art?

Some art is instantly recognisable as such, whether it's a bunch of metal pieces welded together, an eclectic variety of objects piled onto a shelf or an exquisite rendition of something that can't possibly exist in the real world.  One doesn't have to actually like it to recognize it as art.

Other pieces, I just don't know if I'd be willing to call art. I recall one display I saw with the kids years ago.  It was made up of shopping carts full of garbage.  It was apparently some sort of commentary against consumerism and waste.  Except it was still just a bunch of garbage in shopping carts.  Other infamous displays I've heard of but, thankfully, have never seen include blenders with goldfish in them.  Viewers were welcome to turn the blenders on and kill the fish inside.  Another artist got in trouble because his "art" involved putting rats between two pieces of canvas, then dropping something from above to squish them flat.  The artist claimed it was okay because the rats were instantly killed, but the animal rights folks were up in arms over it.  The artist probably got more of a name for himself from the controversy than he ever got from his actual art.

So the question remains: what is art?  Is it just stuff that we can hang on a wall or set on a pedestal?  Or is it crucifixes in urine or squished rats?  Is it just the pretty and safe things, or dehydrated fetuses turned into earrings? (gosh, that one was so long ago, I'd forgotten about it completely until now!)   At what point does something cross the line from being art to being junk?

This is where the art community starts to irritate me.  How does an artist or art critic get to a point where they don't consider something "art" unless it's obscure, offensive, bizarre or incomprehensible?  I swear, some of these "artists" must just throw things together, make pretty speeches about how it "evokes" this and "represents" that, while in private they're just taking the grant money and laughing over what fools they're making of the hoity-toity set oohing and ahhing over their "work."

I do want to support local art and artists.  I do appreciate the hard work and effort that can go into any individual piece.

But sometimes, I just wanna throw up my hands in exasperation over some of the things being passed as "art."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Princess MeMeMe!

I say an interesting article in the news about "princess culture." I thought it worth passing on, with a few of my own thoughts on the subject.  Here's the link to the article.

Princess culture turning girls into overspending narcissists.

The article starts with a mom who is concerned about her 4 yr old daughter's obsession with princesses.  She laments;

"I have a four-year-old who is completely into princesses, but she doesn't know their stories. She knows what Belle's hair looks like and what her dress looks like, but she doesn't know the story," Shuler says.
 So what does she do about it?

A communications professor at Creighton University in Nebraska, Shuler decided to take a sabbatical to study what academics are starting to call "princess culture:" young girls inundated by films, books, toys, clothes, and enabled by friends and family who encourage them to see themselves as bona fide blue-bloods.

 Excuse my confusion here.  Her 4 yr old daughter knows all about Belle's fashion and hair styles, but doesn't know the story.  This is identified as a problem and... Mom goes off to study princess culture?  I don't know, but to me, the obvious solution would be to tell her 4 yr old the story.  It could be the Disney version.  It could be the watered down modern versions.  It could be one of the many older versions, though those might be a bit frightening for a 4 yr old.

Well, maybe she's getting paid for it.  Fair enough.

The article goes on to talk about how increasing numbers of little girls are growing up believing they really are princesses - or that they should be treated like fairytale princesses (real princesses have duties and obligations, and while they might have a lot of material wealth, there usually isn't a whole lot of freedom).  It seems there are adult women who still think of themselves as princesses, manipulating the people around them, going into debt, and generally being royal pains to maintain the lifestyle they believe they are entitled to.  So many, in fact, that there's going to be a TV show about them, Princess, on Slice Network.

The article examines some of the reasons for this.  Of course, Disney figures largely in this, having heavily marketed their Princess line since 2000.  The wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles is also viewed as a contributing factor.  Finally, Disney is again brought into the picture with their boutique aimed at girls aged 3 and up.

I actually encountered someone who's daughter apparently was convinced she was a real princess.  She'd shown up at one of our home school group park days.  We'd started talking about helping our children have a healthy self esteem when she described how it was possible to go overboard.  They had always told her daughter she had a lovely singing voice, but in reality, she had a terrible voice.  Because they always told her her voice was beautiful, their daughter had no idea she was actually a terrible singer.  Hmmm... Then she said that they'd always called their daughter a princess.  They didn't realize this had become a problem until she started preschool.  She started telling everyone that she was a princess - a real princess - and no one could convince her otherwise.  I wasn't sure what to make of the conversation.  On the one hand, the mother was acknowledging that this was probably not a good thing, but on the other, she seemed to me to be rather proud and amused by the whole thing.  I don't know what came of it, as she didn't continue to go to the park days.  This was a few years ago.  I wonder how it worked out.

One thing I don't think this mother did was overindulge her daughter as described in the article.  The money spent on parties, clothing and accessories, even furniture, by the parents of these princesses is pretty staggering.  The money these adult princesses are spending is also staggering.  One woman is described as having US$25,000 worth of shoes and handbags (which I found interesting, considering this recent post on Sociological Images), while also being $25,000 in debt.  Another woman is described as planning on dumping her $20,000 in debt on her fiance.  One of my nephews had a fiance that tried to do that to him - and it was just a car payment.  He broke off the engagement.  Wise young man that he is, he clued in that if she was willing to do that before they were married, chances were she'd be willing to do far worse after they were married.  One of the primary reasons given for divorce is financial problems. 

Anyhow.  Back to the article.

Four factors are identified as contributing to narcissistic princess behaviour.  Overindulgent parents, a culture of celebrity, the Internet and easy credit.  To me, these factors would certainly be enough to create Princess MeMeMe - but I also see them as being easily countered.  The parenting... well, maybe not.  If a parent doesn't really know any better, they wouldn't know that what they're doing is a problem.  Our culture has a significant lack of parenting role models, as we no longer have the extended families and close knit communities that used to be the source of parenting knowledge.  Now, people are more likely to get their parenting advice from their doctors, books, magazines and TV shows. :-P

I've found it rather easy to ignore our culture of celebrity.  I have little patience for it.  I think it's easier for me because I never really grew up with it in the first place - one of the side benefits of growing up on a farm two sticks ahead of the stone ages.  The Internet?  That's neutral.  It's how one chooses to use it that can be the issue.  Easy credit?  Yeah, that can be a problem.  Lord knows, it screwed us up back when we were younger, and we were far from being big spenders!

The mother at the beginning of the article is brought up again...

Shuler has never been successful in entirely banning princesses from her daughter's life. She believes the biggest danger to little girls is that princess images are separated from the stories of smart, resilient young women.

Confusion again.  Why try to ban princesses entirely?  Why would she even want to go to that extreme? If she recognises that this separation of the image from the stories is such a problem, how is banning the image going to solve the problem?  Why doesn't she, as the parent, tell her daughter the stories?  My kids watched princess movies, too.  They even had Barbie dolls and princess dress up stuff.  I let them put on make up (though I did insist on it being real make up, not that disgusting crap being marketed for children as dress-up stuff).  I also read them the stories.  We had the Disney versions.  We had other versions.  What has developed over the years is an interest in fairy tales, and discovering the earlier versions, or finding that there are several different versions.  That led to them exploring other stories, then delving into mythology, and searching out stories from other cultures.  One of Eldest's favorites is a book of fairy tales where all the heroes were elderly.  Youngest has developed a love for Irish folklore.  All of this grew out of watching Disney's princess movies.

Shuler is then quoted;

"I don't think these images are inherently harmful. When they're drained of context, that's the harmful thing. When we strip princesses out of the story, we miss many of the potential good lessons.

"It's all about how to navigate it with our values without being killjoys."

Uhm... yeah.  Banning them would certainly be viewed as killjoy behaviour, and she's back on missing the story.  I'm still not getting her.  She recognises the lack of context as a problem.  The solution is pretty obvious.  Quit "studying" the problem and tell your kid the flippin' stories already! 

As the article continues, it's at least acknowledged that the marketing is taking advantage of an already existing potential market.  The corporations didn't create the princess niche, they just filled it.

I found this part rather odd.

Twenge herself has had limited success in stomping on her own daughter's princess ambitions.

"When she was two, she said, `I'm a princess.' I said, `No, you're not.' So she went on eating her breakfast," says Twenge.

More than a year later, at the age of three-and-a-half, her daughter admired her mother in a dress and offered what she thought was the ultimate compliment.

"You look like a princess."

First, there's the idea that a 2 yr old has "princess ambitions" and that they need to be stomped on.  Then we're apparently supposed to view having a 3 1/2 yr old compliment us by saying we look like a princess as being a bad thing.  Why couldn't that just be viewed as a delightful comment from a very young child?  Personally, I would have found that rather sweet.

The article goes on to talk about the upcoming show and some of the women that will be on it.  There are media comparisons, such as a character in Sex and the City - a show I've only ever seen one episode of and could never understand how it became popular.  The article ends with three things to blame for the Princess MeMeMe culture.

1) the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles.
2) Disney's massively marketed princess line.
3) Disney opening its Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques, marketed at females aged 3 and up, from make overs and hair styles to wedding dresses.

I can somewhat agree with the first one.  The royal wedding was a worldwide event, in a way no other royal wedding had ever been before.  Lady Diana was almost a commoner (she was still a Lady, after all, but not royalty).  She caught the eye of a prince and became a real princess and was expected to someday become queen.  It was the fairy tale come true, complete with horse drawn carriage and all the glamour a princess wannabe could imagine.  I can see that the young girls who watched this fantasy turned reality (even though the fairy tale ending was far from Happily Ever After) would grow up to have little girls they'd want to treat like the princesses they imagined themselves to be.  I don't think it's quite enough, though.

As for the other two, I think blaming Disney is far too simplistic.  Yes, their Princess line is being marketed to death, but as was briefly mentioned earlier in the article, they didn't create the market, they just took advantage of it.  Blaming their boutiques, however, is even more of a stretch.  Just how many people live near one of these boutiques?  I'd never even heard of them until I read this article.  Looking it up, I see that there are only two of them, and they are part of the the theme parks.  They even have a "Cool Dudes" package - gel hair and confetti!  To me, that makes it even more of a stretch, since the theme parks are all about the fantasy.  These are highly localized services, not available all over the place the way the merchandise is.  It would make more sense to me to blame the creepy child beauty pageants or helicopter parenting.

I don't know.  My family is so far out of the mainstream, I have a hard time imagining the combination of things that would create a Princess MeMeMe.  How is parents playing along with the Princess fantasy any worse than playing along with the Easter Bunny fantasy or Santa Clause fantasy?  At what point does it cross the line?

Where is the line?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

This and that...

Okay.  Summer is winding down, and things are slowing down for us with it.  Granted, it's been a rather tumultuous one for us this year, with extremes of good and bad in a very short time.

Time to start writing about some of it.

This summer has been one of significance for Eldest.  She can now call herself a Professional Artist.  Yes, she has actually sold some of her work, and we are most thrilled for her.

It was a series of fine threads that led to this significant change in her artistic status.  One of the local home school groups we are members of held a "learning celebration," where she displayed some of her art.  She got a positive response overall, and one of the other home schooling teens suggested that she should show her stuff in an upcoming art festival.  We'd never heard of it before (well, I probably had, but it wasn't something that stuck in my memory), so when we got home, we looked it up.  Eldest was, indeed, quite interested, but we were pretty much at the deadline for booking a location.  She contacted the appropriate people and before we knew it, she had a spot - a most excellent use of some birthday money she'd been hanging onto. It wasn't the best of spots; all of those had been snapped up long ago, but it wasn't the worst, either.  In fact, as we talked to the organizers and got the location map, we realized that it was a really excellent spot, all things considered.

Eldest had plans worked out for some new paintings she wanted to do for the festival, but then the bad part of the summer happened, and everything got put on hold while the girls and I found ourselves road tripping for a funeral. We left for home early enough in the day to drive straight through, rather than overnighting it like we usually do.  It was a long and exhausting time, though more emotionally exhausting for me than anything else, I suppose.

This gave Eldest a couple of days to do what she expected to have at least a week to complete, so those last couple of days were pretty full.  Things got just a bit more stressful when we found out the grid wall we'd ordered wasn't in yet - and that when we ordered it, we should have been told there was no guarantee that this particular order would make it in in time.  It turned out we should have ordered earlier, but with how late we'd registered in the first place, there wasn't much chance of that.  It worked out in the end, though, as some people who'd placed orders earlier never came and picked them up.  After a certain number of days, those orders were released for sale.  The sales staff were even able to put together four the same colour, even though they weren't the colour Eldest had ordered.  Having them was the important part - without the gridwall, Eldest wouldn't have had any way to display her paintings.

Then there was the festival itself, which was a 3 day event. The first day was pretty horrible, as storm after storm passed over the city.  We'd been told Eldest wouldn't have room for any sort of tent or shelter, but when we talked to an organizer and was shown where we could set up, we found it to be quite different from where we expected, and we were told there would be no problem to set up a shelter.  That lead to a hunt for an adequate shelter within the size restrictions.  We ended up buying the floor model of a folding gazebo.  It didn't have walls, but it had a roof and was surprisingly inexpensive.  Easy to set up, too.  Even so, Eldest was glad to have the roll of plastic we'd picked up (we were given a list of recommended items, and clear plastic to protect artwork from the weather while still allowing potential customers to see, was suggested).  The downpour was so severe, water actually started dripping through the shelter roof!  She was able to drape the plastic across the top of her gridwall display, and when I came back with some lunch for her, I was able to secure it better with some zip ties while she tended to some people who'd stopped to look at her work.

With the terrible weather and lack of customers, Eldest had a chance to talk to her neighbours (and find out she was in the wrong spot!).  Most had been taking part in this festival for at least a few years, and they were quick to tell her that this was very unusual.  One of her neighbours sold a single painting.

When I came back to help her pack up for the evening, we hung around a bit longer, as someone had shown an interest in one of the paintings, but said she needed to pick up some cash, first.  She'd chatted with Eldest for quite some time, leaving her business card as well.  It turns out this woman was an artist herself - and a medical scientist.  She loved Eldest's anatomical paintings, and encouraged her to keep it up.  One of the reasons she went into art herself was due to the lack of technically accurate art that appealed to medical scientists like herself and her co-workers.  She also told Eldest she was undercharging for her work, and when she came back, she just handed Eldest some cash and told her she didn't need change.  It wasn't until later that we found out she'd paid Eldest almost 50% more than Eldest was asking for!

Based on the advice she'd received (her customer wasn't the only fellow artist to tell her she was undercharging), Eldest reworked her prices that evening, and in the morning she was set up in the location she was supposed to have been the day before.  It was a much more pleasant day, which was great, because this time, she didn't have the shelter.  The space was narrow, this time being on a stretch of sidewalk, and the shelter was big enough to cover the whole thing.  Unlike other sidewalk locations, though, there were no shops behind her; just one of those temporary fences and an open space with some rubble in it.

She sold another painting that day.

On the third day, more storms were predicted.  After talking to one of the volunteer organizers, we were told to go ahead and put up the shelter.  Protecting the art was the primary concern, and with no shops behind her, she didn't have to worry about shop owners getting upset.  With high winds predicted, we pegged the back legs into the dirt just off the sidewalk, but the front was on concrete, so I ended up tying it to a tree on one side, and a lamp post on the other.  In the end, the predicted storms never came, but the shelter was still appreciated for its shade - and it was big enough that it pedestrians and potential customers could pass through as if it wasn't there.

She sold two more paintings that day.

Eldest's goal had been to sell three paintings, one for each day of the festival. The sales were enough to cover the cost of the spot and the shelter, had she needed to do so, with some profit.  She was also able to finish off two more paintings during the festival (artists are required to be working on something during the event).  So all in all, it was quite a productive time!

It was also great exposure for her, with invaluable direct feedback.  Because this festival took place along a very busy area, there was a lot of pedestrian traffic that had nothing to do with the festival - they were just people on their way to somewhere else.  It was gratifying to see people hurrying along, not really paying attention to the displays they were passing, only to suddenly stop, do a double take, then come back to look more closely at Eldest's display.

Eldest is now looking forward to taking part in the festival again next year, armed with the experiences of this year.  For starters, she'll have a lot more time to prepare!  Rushing to find frames for her paintings at the last minute was quite the challenge - her paintings aren't exactly "standard" measurements, and custom framing wasn't an option.  She'll also be registering much earlier, and booking one of the larger spots, like where we'd ended up on that first day.  Getting business cards printed up is something else we'll need to do.  We couldn't even print some out at home, since our printer is broken and I've no idea when we'll be able to replace it.

All in all, it was an excellent and exciting event.  Even though she was surrounded by paintings, talking about paintings, and working on paintings continuously for 3 days, she came out of it wanting to do nothing more than paint and paint some more!

I'm really quite thrilled for her.