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Introduction:

I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here on my blog.  It’s called, “Why Everything You’ve Ever Loved is Terrible” (or WEYELT in the tags).  These posts are more Pop Culture inspired than aesthetics inspired.  That doesn’t mean that aesthetics doesn’t play a role though.  In fact I think there’s a real give and take relationship between pop culture and aesthetics.  Pop culture is made up of images, which means aesthetic theories can be applied to them.  In turn, it seems a bit naïve to think that the pop culture of the time had no influence on these philosophers’ theories of aesthetics.

I supposed before I get started I should just clarify what I mean by Popular Culture.  While there are numerous definitions of what pop culture is, many of which make a distinction between high culture and pop culture, for me pop culture is simply culture that is popular.  I make no judgments of quality.

On with the show!

 

Christmas:

Since Christmas is only a few days away, I decided to use it as the start of this series.  Though Christmas isn’t terrible per se, especially if you embrace is for what it really is.  I suppose the alternate title for this is really, “Why People Who Complain that Christmas has Gotten Too Commercial are Idiots.”  But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue.  Anyway, those readers who know me probably know that this semester I wrote a paper about Hallmark Christmas ornaments (and now everyone else is caught up), and it’s the research for that paper that’s inspired this post.

The Christmas that we think of and celebrate today (in America) is largely influenced by the “traditional” English Christmas, which was invented in the mid-1800s.  The Victorians were great at inventing traditions and making it seem like they had been around for centuries.  This version of Christmas has been commercial from its inception.

Theologically speaking, Christmas has never really been the big holiday.  Easter is really the more important one, since it celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, which is generally seen as being more significant.  We don’t even really know Christ’s actual birthday.  December 25th was chosen to compete with the various non-Christian winter festivities.  Before the Victorians Christmas wasn’t really a big deal, and often wasn’t celebrated at all.  So why did the Victorians reinvent the holiday?  It’s no coincidence that the holiday became popular only after the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution brought with it the ability to make a lot of stuff.  And the new jobs brought a new class who had money and wanted to buy well, a lot of stuff.  All these changes also brought a nostalgia for simpler, better times (that never actually existed, by the way).  It was out of this nostalgia and looking for an excuse to buy things that the traditional Christmas was born.

Nearly every aspect of the new Christmas had consumerism at its base – Christmas cards, trees, buying gifts, even Christmas carols.  Essentially the traditional Christmas was a celebration of a new market economy, with a religious aspect tacked on to ease some guilt.  Does this mean Christmas is terrible?  No, not really.  Christmas can be a joyous time, a time of family and generosity.  It’s a time that many people look forward to all year, and not just for the free stuff.  And hey, if the holiday helps some people get more in touch with their religion/spirituality, that’s great too.  Just don’t go yelling about “keep Christ in Christmas” when from the beginning he’s barely been a part of it.

There’s also Santa. In America Santa Claus is a jolly old elf with a stomach like a bowl full of jelly. His past is a bit more sinister though. His ancestors were far more mean and way more into corporal punishment. If you were a child back in old Germany, Holland, and the like if you were bad, you didn’t get coal. You got a beating. Even the original Christmas trees had a judgment aspect to them, similar to that of St. Nicholas.
 

I won't even get into the fact that the most popular image of Santa was designed for Coca-Cola.

I won’t even get into the fact that the most popular image of Santa was designed for Coca-Cola.

If you find this topic interesting I recommend reading The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, Christmas in America: A History by Penne L. Restad and/or Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture by Sheila Whitely.

Or if you want to yell at me for being a blasphemous heathen, I also recommend reading those books.

And if you need another reason Christmas can be terrible, make sure to check out the Weird Fetish of the Day over at Pizza Clubhouse.

I realize this blog post is not art or philosophy related (though I’m sure I could connect these things to art if I really wanted to), but I’ve had some things on my mind that I need to get out, and it’s my blog so I can do what I want.  Bear with me.

A few things have led to the writing of this post.  One being that I’ve had to read about Barbies and weddings and the like for my Popular Culture class.  The other is that I’ve now heard from two different places the idea that there is no feminist movement today.  Both of these things have raised some questions.

 

My first question: Are there really girls who think they should look like their Barbie dolls?  I had a couple of different Barbie dolls when I was younger (still do somewhere) but I never saw her as some kind of ideal woman or anything.  They were just another toy to play with.  I didn’t think all dogs should look like my stuffed dogs, I didn’t think all girls should look like Barbie.  Then again, the fact that the Barbie I played with the most was the Pocahontas/Native American Barbie may say something about me compared to other girls.  My main Barbie wasn’t the blonde-haired blue-eyed Barbie; she was different from the outset (though she still had the same figure).  I think the notion (and pressure) that women should have huge tits and a tiny waist comes more from mass culture images and ideas than mere toys.  If the idea that this is what women should look like wasn’t out there, Barbie would not look like that in the first place.  Barbie didn’t create the problem, she just helps perpetuate it.  But that’s no reason to hate her.  Don’t take it out on a doll.  Take it out on the society that makes that image acceptable.  There have been dolls that are more realistic looking, and they just don’t sell.  What does that tell us?  Sometimes I feel like making such a big deal out of what Barbie looks like is almost worse than saying nothing at all.  Like I said, when I was growing up, I never thought that there were people who expected other people to look like Barbie.  Perhaps by constantly repeating how horrible Barbie is because she gives girls bad body image we’re putting that idea in girls heads more than if we didn’t say anything at all.  Do people ever worry about boys playing with GI Joe and whatever other toys boys play with (I really have no idea) and thinking that they are going to think they’re supposed to look like that and worry about boys having negative body images?  If we’re going to put all this weight on what toys look like and what that may do to our children, maybe we should.

 

My second question:  Why are these things so engrained in girls’ minds?  The pressure to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to get married, make babies, etc.?  It’s easy to read the feminist literature, agree with it, and get angry at the sexism that surrounds us.  But it’s much harder to actually fight against these feelings in real life.  Even when you logically know that these things shouldn’t matter, you find yourself falling into thoughts and behaviors that sometimes feel like they’ve been with you since birth.  While it is definitely the society that puts the specific ideas and images in our minds, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something in our nature that predisposes us to certain things.  For example, I’m in no real hurry to get married, I’m not one of those girls who’s been planning her wedding since she was 5.  I don’t even remember ever playing wedding with my toys (though I probably did at least once or twice).  Yet for some reason I’m strangely obsessed with shows like My Fair Wedding and Say Yes to the Dress.  Why?  I don’t know!  I really don’t care much about weddings at all, but here I am, tearing up at a couple I don’t even know getting married on TV.  Is it really society that’s made me feel this way?  Or is it just some essence of being female that makes me want to watch?  The idea of the princess/fairy tale/happy ending seems to have been around for so long, I feel like there almost has to be something about it that just appeals to us as humans (and probably mostly females) on a practically genetic level for it to be so popular and to have lasted so long.  The media can push whatever they want on society, but if it doesn’t appeal to people it’s not going to become popular, no matter how hard they try.  I realize I’m approaching all this from a very American, white girl point of view.  But I’m pretty sure most societies and cultures have their own fairy tales.  I don’t care who you are, everyone wants their happy ending.  It just happens that in our culture the fairy tale wedding is the symbol of that happy ending for women.

 

Question three: Why does any of this even matter?  Ok, here’s the thing.  Men and women, males and females…we’re different.  And you know what?  That’s ok!  Actually, it’s great!  We should all be different. Men and women should be different, just like women should be different from other women and men different from other men.  We should celebrate our differences.  The problem arises when we use these differences to negate and put down others.  Little girls can play with different things than little boys, that’s fine.  But they shouldn’t be taught that there are things they can’t/shouldn’t do just because they’re not a boy.  And the reverse is true as well really.  Boys shouldn’t be taught that there are things they shouldn’t/can’t do because they’re not a girl.

In my mind it all comes down to respect.  Yes, we’re all different.  But we’re also all human beings, and we all just want to be treated with the respect we deserve.  Honestly, I think one of the main faults of second-wave feminism is that they had no respect for men.  What kind of person are you, if in your quest for respect you have to completely trash another group?  To get respect you must treat others and yourself with respect first.  We should never stop fighting for the respect we deserve.  Not because we’re women, but because we’re human beings.

 

I shall now step down off my soapbox.  And I promise I’ll write about something art related next time.

Do I Know You?

In my Material Culture class the other day we were discussing the importance of the artist’s biography in traditional art history studies, why we should (or shouldn’t) care about that information, and why that doesn’t seem to be the case for creators of the decorative arts.  The whole thing got me thinking about identity in art.  Personally I think the artist’s biography can be important, depending on what it is you want to learn from the piece (I include decorative arts objects as well).  No matter how hard you try, your life has impacted who you are and what you do, so it’s nearly impossible for it not to have some influence on your work.  But how much does knowing this background affect one’s understanding of a piece?  The artist has left a piece of him-or herself on the canvas (or in the sculpture, photo, chair, whatever medium of choice), so it shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s an important part of what makes the piece what it is.  However, it also shouldn’t be fetishized and become the main focus at the expense of all else, which has been the case for some old-school art historians.

On the flip side, I think the biography of the audience can be just as important as that of the artist.  The history of the artist is important in understanding the creation of a piece, but the history of the audience is important in understanding the piece’s initial and continuing relevance.  I think perhaps this is even truer in the decorative arts, where the pieces may not have a distinct subject to study.

Overall I think it really is a two-way street – art can tell us a lot about the people who created and bought it, but the people who created and bought it can also tell us a lot about the art.  Not artist or work of art is created in a vacuum, and it’s important to take all the outside influences into consideration when studying such things.

I’d be interested to hear from any artists reading this their opinion on the idea.  How much do you feel your biography influences or is necessary to the understanding of your work?

Art, Truth, and History

            I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”

         

Talking Trudeau - Nixon - (Part 1:Tapestry Triptych (Left Section)). Helena Hernmarck, 1969

              Last week I visited the exhibit Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design at the Museum of Art and Design for one of my classes and it got me thinking about the whole art vs. craft thing again.  This exhibit is perfect for revisiting this issue.  The first floor of the exhibit deals mainly with the designer craftsman and pieces that emphasize a handmade aesthetic.  The second floor focuses on artists who really blur the line between art and craft.  It was really nice seeing pieces like this in a gallery setting.  I really loved all the textiles.  They have a lot of hand woven pieces there and you can really get a sense of the texture and fibers involved.  There’s also a bunch of gorgeous jewelry and interesting furniture.  A lot of the pieces do blur the line between art and craft.  One of the curators who gave us a tour said how she really had to fight tooth and nail to even have the word “craft” in the title of the show because some head people were concerned that people wouldn’t want to come see an exhibit of craft.  This makes me sad.  First because I believe craft deserves its place in the gallery setting but also because it shows that they clearly aren’t in touch with the growing handmade/craft movement that’s resurging.  I think there are plenty of people who’d want to see a handmade/craft exhibit; maybe not at the Met or MoMA, but certainly at a place dedicated to design and even started out as a craft museum.  It’s clear that at least some artists embrace craft and I think it’s time the art/gallery world did as well.

For more information on the exhibit and images from it visit http://collections.madmuseum.org/code/emuseum.asp?style=browse&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=exhibitions&searchdesc=Current%20Exhibitions&searchstring=Current/,/greater%20than/,/0/,/false/,/true&action=advsearch&style=single&currentrecord=1

Mosaic Table, Lee Krasner, 1947

Hello all.  I don’t really have time for a super-thoughtful entry at the moment.  But I wanted to encourage anyone in the NYC area to check out the Frans Hals exhibit at the Met before it closes October 10th.  I finally got to see it the other day and it’s great.  I’d seen a bunch of his work in my various art history classes, and getting to see the pieces in person was awesome.  I could really see the texture of the paint, the brushstrokes and all the little details.  There was one piece I stood in front of, just staring at the way he’d depicted the lace.  So yes, if you have any interest in paintings of this kind, I highly recommend getting your butt over to the Met. 

Frans Hals, Merrymakers at Shrovetide, oil on canvas, 1616

P.S. – The exhibit Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine is also really fun, but you have until March to see that one.

Art and Nostalgia

          

Little White Doggies printed by Currier & Ives

            The other night I was watching a show about Currier & Ives.  Currier and Ives are probably the most well known printmakers ever; certainly of their time.  I was first kind of introduced to Currier & Ives at my internship last year.  We had some of their prints in the exhibit so I got to research them and find their connection to the theme of the exhibit.  I love prints, and the ones produced by Currier & Ives are no exception.  On the TV show someone mentioned that part of the reason their prints are so popular is because they carry with them nostalgia for America’s past.  It made me realize that a lot of the art I like is nostalgia driven.

            I love vintage advertising; I love old prints like Currier & Ives…I even like old music.  It makes me wonder how much influence nostalgia has on our tastes.  As for the old music, I know I like it at least partially because it reminds me of my grandparents.  But as for the art I’m not sure if it’s nostalgia that makes me like these things, since they were all from long before I was born, and I can’t think of a direct connection to my past.  Maybe it’s just an appreciation for the aesthetic of the time.  But I think nostalgia does drive our tastes at least some of the time.  I think we like the comfort of being surrounded by things that remind us of our youth.  Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone.  But I think a lot of times we find ourselves drawn to things and not really know why.  And I think if you looked a bit closer you’d realize it’s because it reminds you of something from your past.  Be it an event, emotion, person or object – something.  Nostalgia can be a powerful beast. 

The Roadside Mill printed by Currier & Ives

The Squick Factor

A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on Tom and Lorenzo about jewelry made from human hair (http://www.tomandlorenzo.com/2011/07/kerry-howley-jewelry-collection.html).  I immediately had two very different reactions.  On the one hand I wanted to look closely at them because they seemed to delicate and intricate; and on the other I wanted to close the window and shudder because the thought of wearing human hair was so icky.  There was no denying the necklaces had their own type of beauty.  But there’s also no denying the squick factor.

One of the hair necklaces created by Kerry Howley

            So why is it so gross to think about wearing human hair?  We wear other animals’ hair all the time.  Even their skin if you wear leather.  And that’s fine.  So why no human hair?  You might be able to convince me to wear something made of my own hair, but certainly not someone else’s.  I spin animal fibers all the time, but I can’t imagine spinning human hair.  I’m not sure it’d spin up that well anyway though.  It’d probably have to be blended with another fiber.  But I digress.  People wear wigs and toupees made out of human hair and that’s fine too.  Maybe because it’s on a head where hair belongs.  Or there’s still that layer of netting or whatever between their head and the foreign hair.  I dunno.  I guess it’s because we view ourselves as so much better than animals that it’s ok to wear things made of animal parts but not human.  Even though personally I don’t agree with the wearing of real fur, the thought of wearing a fur coat still doesn’t evoke the same icky feeling as wearing a hair necklace. 

            This whole thing also got me thinking about the beauty of the gross.  There are certain things that while icky, are also somehow beautiful.  There are some things that you just can’t seem to stop looking at, even if they are kind of gross (and not just in a train wreck way).  I can think of a lot of examples of art that fit into this category.  Strangely a lot of it is religious art.  There are many Northern paintings of Jesus after his death that are really rather disgusting in their realism, yet the pieces are still beautiful.  There are also a number of various beheading scenes with blood dripping or squirting out of necks and throats.  I’m not sure if in this case the religious aspect of the works sort of negates the gross, or if it just shows that gross and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.

An example of religious squick - Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

            Certainly there are certain things that are just plain gross and always will be.  But some things are gross in an interesting way, and even some in a beautiful way.

 

Art vs. Craft

            Sorry I’ve been neglecting this lately.  I haven’t had much motivation or inspiration to write.  I need to go to a gallery or museum or something.  It’s been too long since I’ve surrounded myself with art.  Recently most of my creative energy has been going towards my various craft projects.  I’ve been doing a lot of spinning.  There’s always crocheting and I’ve recently taken up knooking (which is knitting with a crochet hook).  I do love my fibers.  It has got me thinking though, about the divide between art and craft.  I personally don’t think there needs to, or should be, such a divide.  I have seen a lot of beautiful crafts, some that rival even the finest of the fine arts.  It doesn’t seem very fair that these pieces that people put so much time, energy and creativity in to are looked down on because they’re “crafty.”  Why should a painting be regarded so much more highly than say, a quilt?  I’m sure the reason is frustratingly sexist.  Back in the day men were the artists and women were crafty homebodies, therefore paintings and sculpture were better.  But you’d think by now the walls could have been broken down a bit.  Then again, there’s always been a struggle to decide on an hierarchy within the arts.  I think everyone wants their medium to be the superior one.  Way back in the day painters weren’t considered artists, they were just trades/craftsmen, and they managed to move up the ranks.  But crafts aren’t even in the discussion. 

        I suppose maybe it could be an originality/creativity issue.  It’s true that a lot of people who craft follow a pattern or instructions.  But even then there’s still some creative input – fabric choice, colors, yarn choice, things like that.  There’s always some personal touch.  And there’s still the skill needed to properly execute the piece.  Besides, it’s not like artists are completely original all the time.  They may not follow a pattern, but they can copy a style or method.  And not all crafters follow patterns; many create completely on their own.  Why shouldn’t they be considered as talented as painters and sculptors? 

        I think it’s high time that crafts and crafters get the recognition they deserve.  Just because their wares may have practical uses doesn’t lessen their importance, or the pieces’ beauty.  I think the art community is becoming more accepting of crafty elements, so hopefully that’s a step in the right direction. 

 

Needle and Thread, by me, 2005

 

Crochet 3, by me, 2006

 

 

Art and Religion

          The other day I was watching a special on PBS called The Face: Jesus in Art.  Other than giving me flashbacks to my art history classes (which I miss dearly), it got me thinking about religion and art.  The two certainly have a long history together.  From almost the beginning art has been used to depict some sort of religious figures or rituals.  I think it started educational tools, to help tell the stories and teach the rituals to those who couldn’t read.  This causes some conflict though, since some religions forbid the creation of figural representations and/or representations of God.  Most religions seem to kind of ignore that rule though.  In Christian art there are thousands of images of Christ, and God as well.  Or perhaps I could stay Catholic art, since both the Byzantine church and Reformation brought about iconoclasms.  And yes, there are even images of the Prophet Mohammed in Islamic art.  I know, I saw them in my Islamic art class.  Islamic art is interesting because even though Islam is a religion, there are still two categories: the secular art and the religious art.  Most of the figural representations are in the secular category. 

            I don’t really see a problem with depictions of religious figures as long as people understand they’re just that – depictions, pictures.  I think the problems arise when people start worshipping the images themselves instead of what they represent.  Of course that’s at least part of the reason why religions ban the images in the first place, so that can’t happen.  I guess in a way it can even go back to Plato and his view that art can be dangerous and deceitful.  It’s tricky.

            Overall I think art is a good thing (not that I’m biased or anything, :0P).  Beauty, whether it be in art, nature or other things, can help people find the divine in their own lives, no matter their religion.  And in my opinion that has to be a good thing (as long as you don’t get too fanatical that is).  I think art is good at helping teach people about a religion, at least from a historical perspective, if not a spiritual one. 

Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1510-1535, oil on panel

 

Just a P.S. – I am not a theologian by any means.  Anything I know about various religions I learned either from church or school.  So if I’m horribly wrong about something in that area, feel free to correct me (in a polite manner of course).