Up Close and Personal: Why Museums Matter in the Age of the Internet

Met

Two hours inside the drawing library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City touched me in a way that I am only now beginning to understand, weeks after the fact.

I went to New York at the invitation of Carrie, my stepdaughter, on a four-day tour organized by her art school. I wanted to learn more and to show my support for Carrie’s decision to study full-time at The Gage Academy of Art. In the end, I came away from the trip with an unexpected lesson in intimacy, a deeper understanding about the human condition.

***

As soon as The Met opens, I follow Seattle-based artist Mark Kang-O’Higgins, our tour guide, and Carrie through the rotunda. We climb the stairs, then turn left, passing through a gallery of drawings. We arrive at an unmarked door. The dozen or so others in our group gather around.

Behind that door are the librarians charged with storing and caring for The Met’s collection of over one million prints and drawings. This room is not open to the public, though people with research credentials, such as Kang-O’Higgins, can make an appointment in advance and request to view work from the collection.

The librarian brings out a da Vinci drawing, “The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right,” and all fifteen of us hush. Our faces open to the wonder of the moment. There are no distractions. Bags and mobile phones were left at the door. The only things in our hands are sketch pads and pencils. Tears threaten to spill down my cheeks. It is beautiful and sublime.

Metropolitan Museum Online Catalogue

Metropolitan Museum Online Catalogue

A rare feeling comes over me, one that I experience in Catholic churches and in the presence of grand landscapes, such as Yosemite National Park or Tasmania. It’s a feeling that grounds itself in the body. I am suddenly aware of my physicality and that of my surroundings, but a seemingly contradictory temporal fogginess sets in too, a deep sense of connection across time that can’t be described. If I try, I’ll sound like a stoner.

Viewing the da Vinci is an aesthetic experience that connects us with five hundred years of human history, to a genius whose legacy remains relevant today. The heart and mind of Leonardo stands revealed to us. It is a moment of great intimacy.

It doesn’t last long, the collective breath holding. The silence gives way to whispers about the da Vinci and other work that is brought out, including the Degas below. Yet the feeling of intimacy remains.

Image: Metropolitan Museum Catalogue

Metropolitan Museum Online Catalogue

***

Art is by its nature intimate. We read a novel and we feel we know something personal and true about the author. So it is for a painting and painter, music and musician, dance and dancer, drama and dramatist, joke and joker.

Seeing the original drawings produced an experience and response that viewing the pictures online could not. Everyone was alive and attentive to the moment, even the librarians snarling, Don’t touch anything.

Why? What was so special about this moment that can’t be reproduced by the Internet?

I felt comfortable just looking. I didn’t need to look at my phone. I didn’t need to talk. I focussed on what surrounded me, a group of people united by their passion for making and appreciating art. I wasn’t bored for a moment.

Many of us met for the first time the day before; we didn’t have a shared sense of familiarity that might have elevated the moment. Yet, we shared something profound that connected us through space and time, and then poof! The time was up and we were left with our memories.

If we were to regroup now and revisit that moment, the act of reminiscing would in itself be a new experience, as no two remembrances would be the same. If we asked, how was it for you? We would get fifteen different responses. We might find a common thread, perhaps. But everyone would agree that the moment was real. It happened. So, we might ask, then what is reality? What is real for me may not be real for you. Yet, art interprets and abstracts from reality, often with great empathy for the human condition. How can it do this if reality is a function of individuality?

I think that the key to unlocking empathy is not so much imagining myself in the shoes of another, but in understanding that what is real for them is not necessarily real for me; and, therefore, one function of art is to express and represent conflicting, divergent, and common realities. One kind of knowledge lodged within art resides within the intersection between realities expressed by both its creator and the audience who views it, responds to it, attempts to interpret it.

Across cultures there appears a universal need to express ourselves, to represent humanity with all of its contradictions, its goodness and evil, its beauty and its grotesqueness, through artistic representation. Art reveals to us what we think, who and what we are, and also what we wish to be, even when we can’t face these truths directly through discourse. It links the individual to the social. Things fall apart when we’re alienated from each other in both our individual realities and in our art.

What I witnessed in the drawing library can’t be replicated by Facebook, either. Digital social media is about solidifying masks, whereas in The Met that day the masks fell away, as individuals reveled in delight and awe.

In the age of the Internet, the physical experience shared in physical proximity with others remains more gratifying than the virtual one. We willingly spend money on airfare and hotel to commune with the thing itself even though we can view it on our phones anytime, anywhere. This need and desire for presence, the stimulation of all our senses, is our way of linking with the real such that we can build a narrative of who we really are for an audience of one, ourselves.

The online world of bits and bytes diminishes us to some extent, though exactly how it does this isn’t something that I fully understand. Perhaps it has something to do with the concept of Facebook envy identified in a study by Ethan Koss at The University of Michigan. The Internet makes us feel alienated from others by filtering reality. It creates the conditions that prevent intimacy — jealousy, fear, envy, self-doubt, anger and outrage.

Our online profiles aren’t us, and we know it. Not to know it would mean that we are unhinged, our door to the world fallen from its frame and the boundaries between self and image breached.

I look at LinkedIn and it makes me sad sometimes. All of us clinging to some image of a salable self based on advice from other people on LinkedIn. Few are authentic. Most are guessing at what to share in order to become relevant to an indifferent marketplace.

Online social media is based on excess, on over-production of everything and, in the words of Susan Sontag, the “result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.” This explosion in the accessibility of everything, both beautiful and profane, dulls us. We need to see and experience our lives in the dimension of the real, where all of our senses are engaged. Our wellbeing appears to require it.

When we experience with all of our senses we become connected to the social in a way that virtual experiences mitigated by our devices and public personas cannot. Our minds remain profoundly anchored by the physical, and we are diminished by the virtual.

Art affirms that we are exceptional creatures in the known universe. The human brain is the most complex system known to us. So why are we so quick to take reductionist views of human nature and humanity in general, particularly in the age of a digital world where all who wish to connect can? I’m thinking here of Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene, and all the other neo-Darwinists who reduce human nature to a matter of survival of the species and procreation. If this were the case, then why bother with art at all?

Art has no survival benefits that I can name. I suppose we could argue, for example, that it’s a cool way to get chicks into bed, or that beautiful people become actors in order to meet and mate with other beautiful people, but then how would you explain the wretched, solitary writer who wrote a script for them? Or the audience who could have invested the price of the ticket into oysters or Viagra instead?

Art seeks to describe or show that which cannot be portrayed with words alone, only felt. It attempts to reach that part of the brain that contains inherited experience and is understood only as feeling and instinct, Jung’s collective unconscious if you like. Science seems to back Jung up on this now too. Check out this bit of research describing how our genes are impacted by the experiences of our ancestors: Grandma’s Experiences Leave Epigenetic Mark on Your Genes

So, if art doesn’t benefit us materially* then surely we can accept that humans are complicated creatures who have a need for spiritual connection that has traditionally found expression in religious practice, which, historically speaking, spawned a great deal of artistic endeavor.

It’s interesting to note that in an age of religious doubt, even atheists like me are reduced to using the language of religion to describe lived experience. Miraculous: the fact of our very existence in the cosmos. Faith: in the ability of science to describe phenomenon we cannot perceive directly with our senses; atoms, neurotransmitters, and the vacuum of space for starters.

And what about the soul? We talk about it all time. People speak of soul mates and soul destroying jobs. But, as Marilynne Robinson points out in her essay, “Freedom of Thought,” both science and the church dumb down the narrative of the soul through reductivism and fundamentalism.

We remain a mystery, a complex one at that. The scientific literature that crosses my desk confirms this day after day, expanding my sense of the miraculous nature of our existence, our planet, our minds.

Art feeds the soul. Science expands knowledge. However, taken in isolation, neither gives us wisdom. We develop wisdom through lived experience and the unexplained miracle of our brains that gifts us with thought, reason, wonder, the ability to pay attention to more than survival and to ask: What does it mean to live well and to be good? Why are we here?

In the drawing library at The Met, the answer became clear to me. Human beings are individuals here for the purpose of connection with each other. Everything we do either brings us closer or pushes us apart. We feel good when we’re connected and lousy when we aren’t. That’s it. This aspect of human nature drives everything else.
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* Which isn’t true, by the way. Arts and culture industries contribute $7B to the US economy annually. Carrie isn’t a fool to attempt to join such an industry in her own way and in her own time.

Against Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. The enemy of the people.” Anne Lamott

I taught a series of four classes at The Women’s University Club of Seattle in February. I borrowed from Francine Prose and called it “Learning to Read Like A Writer.” Really, it was a beginner’s writing class for a group of highly literate individuals who harbored secret desires. They wanted to commit their stories to the page but feared exposure.

woman-writing-in-cafe_2On the first night I asked them to introduce themselves and describe what they were working on — a novel, non-fiction, personal essays, etc. All of them had projects in mind. When I asked what was stopping them, the subject of perfectionism came up; they wanted to write better damn it. The subtext of their comments was that it’s okay to be a perfectionist, but dodgy to be a creative artist, with all the mess this implies.

That’s the rub. In our culture we view perfectionism as a virtue, a sign that we are conscientious, that we care. It’s the fault most easily spun as a virtue in a job interview. And in the worlds of financial accounting and aerospace engineering it might well be a virtue. A company’s share price can plummet overnight if the quarterly profit report is missing a digit. A skipped item on an aircraft safety checklist can kill.

In the case of a writer or any artist, perfectionism is egoism. We want to look good. It’s a way to avoid vulnerability. It’s our inner censor at work and the killer of originality and meaningfulness. The perfectionist doubts her abilities and will do everything in her power to avoid risking exposure as a fraud. Perfectionism prevents us from trying anything new unless we can do it perfectly. It makes no room for beginners, practice or play.

Perfectionism is therefore a kind of psychological prison and the enemy of art.

“Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness — I wouldn’t know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.” – Aaron Copland.

When we begin we need to set ourselves free on the page in order to see what we uncover. We can fix it later. First we must try.

“Let go! Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way” and forget about your reader for now (Brenda Ueland). Just begin. Dare to practice. Dare to fail. Good writing is re-writing, but first we must make something we can revise.

I say all of this knowing that I am no different. In fact, I suspect that some of the writers who led the fiction workshops I dared to attend long ago, while I was still a cog in the corporate machine, thought I had no hope; I was so tight, self-conscious and clueless, just another one of the deluded millions who thought writing was easy.

What they didn’t know about me was that, although I am at times a self-conscious neurotic wreck, I am also persistent, resilient and courageous. My whole life was leading up to the act of courage that took me to Australia, alone, daring to try this writing thing unencumbered by my old life, armed with the faith that if I jumped into the abyss the net would appear.

Perfectionism prevents us from trusting ourselves enough to leap, and it keeps our lives small. I leave you with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

20 Beauty “Secrets”

Hiking In New Zealand 2010

Hiking In New Zealand 2010

I had to see a dermatologist this past month.

While I was there I asked about various cosmetic procedures for improving one’s middle aged face. She told me that I didn’t really need anything, that I was lucky at my age. No Botox, Thermage, or peels required, they wouldn’t make a noticeable difference. She sent me off with some retinol and instructions on how to use it to freshen up my complexion.

So, in the spirit of the holiday season, I am sharing everything I know about beauty with you. I learned all of this stuff the hard way, through experience. When I talk about getting fit, it’s because I was a fat, wheezing lump at 25. When I mention divorce, it’s because I’ve been there too. None of this is as glib as it may sound.

  1. Throw away department store skin care products and buy Cetaphil cleanser and moisturizer instead. The expensive crap sold by the major cosmetics companies is full of ingredients that irritate skin, cause allergic reactions, and generally won’t do anything that any gentle cleanser, water, and a moisturizer can’t. I learned this after spending hundreds of dollars on products from Clinique, Estee Lauder, and others. My dermatologist validated this. When I asked her about what kind of moisturizer to use with the retinol cream she said “Cetaphil” before I told her that I was already using it.
  2. Sleep 7-9 hours each night.
  3. Always use sunscreen and wear a hat outside.
  4. Drink lots of water. If your pee isn’t clear, you’re not trying hard enough.
  5. Eat real food. If the ingredients list has stuff you can’t pronounce and/or was developed in a lab instead of nature, don’t eat it.
  6. Never ever drink soda pop or sweetened crap such as Snapple.
  7. Avoid artificial sweeteners. If you must consume something with sugar, use the real thing or honey.
  8. Eat yogurt everyday — a good quality full-fat, unflavored & unsweetened plain yogurt with probiotic cultures. Gut health effects your whole body.
  9. Stop buying women’s fashion and beauty magazines. They just make you feel bad about yourself.
  10. Exercise every day. Find something you like and do it, preferably outdoors if your climate permits. This does not mean that you must train like an Olympic athlete. Just do something to keep your muscles, heart, and bones strong. A benefit from breaking a sweat is that you circulate oxygen to your skin too. It doesn’t have to take a long time either. Studies show that a hard 30 minute workout is more effective than a long, slow one.
  11. Build a supportive social network of people who won’t screw you, shame you, manipulate you, or bully you. E.G.  J. befriended me 20 years ago. After a few months of knowing her, she tried to get me to invest $10,000 in a pyramid scheme. I dropped her like the turd she was.
  12. Don’t shame, bully, or manipulate others. This may be hard sometimes, depending on what’s happening in your life. Be aware, take responsibility and make amends when you catch yourself engaging in these negative behaviors. Then forgive yourself. This will go a long way towards developing #11.
  13. Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect perfection.
  14. Don’t smoke.
  15. Consume alcohol responsibly. Nobody’s mug shot looks good.
  16. Love someone other than yourself.
  17. Don’t waste time trying to change other people. A pig in a tux is still a swine. This includes spouses. If you screwed up and picked the wrong fella, cut your losses. Nothing ages you faster than being in a bad relationship. Divorce is gut wrenching, but trust that you will come through it better off than if you’d stayed. You might not see how right now. That’s normal. Consider the opportunities that are closed to you if you don’t make a change.
  18. Invest in health insurance. Go to the dentist twice a year. In the end, your body is all you can count as your own for life. Money comes and goes, as do all material possessions, friends and lovers.
  19. If you find yourself suffering repetitive strain injuries from the exercise program you select, talk to a physiotherapist or other health professional about them. I discovered that I needed custom orthotics for my running shoes, and it has made all the difference.
  20. Have fun. Find work that you like, and if for some reason you are stuck in a job that isn’t sustaining your spirit as well as your rent, then cultivate a hobby or another outlet for enjoying your life. It isn’t always practical to “follow our bliss” when it comes to our jobs, but we can find other ways to nurture ourselves creatively, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We must, otherwise we wilt away.

That’s it, everything I’ve learned about beauty and aging after 46 years on this planet.

Top 10 Wines – 2014

Martina Newhook:

I haven’t tried any of these, but now I have something to work towards over the holidays.

Originally posted on Whine And Cheers For Wine:

TOP 10 Wines Picked by You

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As 2014 comes to a speedy end it is time to let the Whine and Cheers readers decide what the TOP wines of the year were for them. With close to 40,000 hits it’s interesting to see which wines are being researched the most.

Even more compelling to me is where these searches are coming from. Listed below at the end of this post you’ll find the TOP 15 countries [out of 96!] where searches were initiated leading them to Whine and Cheers for Wine.  For those wonderingRepublic of Tanzania came in at number 16!

As the drum-roll begins I have to admit that one post in particular wins the gold star for most hits all year-long. No matter the day, the week or the month, wine drinkers are intrigued and their attention peaked. The honor belongs to Australia’s 19 CRIMES Red Blend…

View original 280 more words

Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

4/14/47

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today. The word craftsmanship takes care of the work angle & the word aesthetic the truth angel. Angle. It will be a life struggle with no consummation. When something is finished, it cannot be possessed. Nothing can be possessed but the struggle. All our lives are consumed in possessing struggle but only when the struggle is cherished & directed to a final consummation outside of this life is it of any value. I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God.

I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding of God. Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.

— Flannery O’Connor, age 21.
from A Prayer Journal published by FSG, 2013

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Why does O’Connor’s diary entry affect me so? Well, for starters, her maturity at age 21 is astonishing. She knew who she was and what she wanted to do with her life in a way that few of us do at such an early age. Her faith may have nurtured her trust in herself.

Questions of faith get under my skin; although, I do not share O’Connor’s devotion to Catholicism and God. And yet, great artists throughout history dedicated their work to God, arguably with greater success than those whose concerns remained exclusively secular. Mystery and manners; the very unlikeliness of our existence among the cosmos; the desire to make something both beautiful and transcendent — these haunt me as they do the devout. Perhaps believing in a higher power frees the artist. If the work — making a novel or a painting — rather than the product, is the thing that motivates the artist in the first place, then working frees her from the limitations of the material world that prevent artistry. When we let go of the product and focus instead on the experience of making, doubt about the veracity and the value of the work itself may slip away.

On Muses, Self-Respect, and Creativity

A woman sketches on the lawns of The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photo: Martina Newhook

What is a muse?

The ancient Greeks thought of the Muses as gods, nine daughters of Zeus, who graced creative individuals with divine inspiration. This idea lets individuals off the hook for inventing the work on their own; the painting, play, poem, musical composition or solution to a scientific problem, results from the gods working through them.

Artists are like radio antennae, channeling the gods’ inspiration. All they have to do is show up, open the channel and get to work. Getting something down is much easier than making it up.

Later, muses evolved into living people, such as Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whose likeness he abstracted during his cubist period. Author Dani Shapiro identifies her mother as her muse in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, because most of her work addresses maternal relationships and estrangements.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes his muse as an imaginary guy in the basement smoking a cigar. As long as King shows up to do the work, the guy in the basement supplies the magic. But make no mistake, King shows up every day. He knows that guy in the basement won’t write a damn thing.

For me, there remains an element of the divine in my concept of a personal muse.

At one time people used divining rods to seek out ground water and locate wells. They had faith that a higher power could send a message through a Y-shaped twig held by a person open to receiving it as he walked across an open field. The rod would vibrate and shake to alert him to the presence of water below.

My muse works like a diviner, pointing the way. When I am moving across the page towards something beyond cliché, something that is real and true, I feel phantom tingles on my shoulder. I imagine that it’s my muse, her ice cream cone dripping onto me. This sensation spurs me to keep at it, to trust what is coming forward and not judge it, at least not yet.

A ten-year-old girl, untainted by duty and shame, my muse is completely free to be herself. She spends most of her time doing what the Italians call dolce far niente, which is to say she pleasures in doing nothing. She understands that constant busyness brings death to any creative effort. It numbs the brain, creating the illusion that we are in control. It shields the mind against vulnerability, and the muse demands vulnerability, faith and trust.

Creativity benefits from idleness.

The work—our creative practice whether we are writers, musicians, dancers, painters or scientists—requires us to show up at our studios or laboratories between certain hours, but the filling of the creative well results from time spent being rather than doing. Most creative practitioners know that too much practice can become as detrimental as not enough. It’s called burnout, and it applies to most types of work.

My muse, let’s call her Tina, is usually eating ice cream when she shows up. She wears pink shorts, no shoes. Topping the shorts is a shirt that her brother brought back from Barbados. Its dominant color is red. She likes both red and pink. She likes having something exotic to wear and doesn’t care that the shirt doesn’t match the shorts. Tina doesn’t care if others like her attitude or not; she doesn’t yet know that the culture is against her.

Loss, confusion, and neglect have already touched her, yet she still believes in the value of hanging out on the lawn with an ice cream cone, and takes pleasure in this idleness. It feeds her spirit, mind, and body, giving her the strength to go forward and to supply my creative well.

I know that Tina is with me, not judging the work but channeling the energy to type the words, because I can feel that they are alive and true. Her presence takes me beyond thoughts of authorship, beyond cliché, beyond labor, to the joy of idling away the hours on the page.

When I’ve failed to refill my creative well and it runs dry, I fear that my muse has moved on. Grief sets in; words clunk from my pen like stones shifted from one rock pile to another. Being kind to myself, buying ice cream, lying on the grass, walking without aim, losing myself to an afternoon of idleness, these are the activities that refill the creative well and coax the muse back to my shoulder.

It’s no accident that my muse is a projection of myself as a child. Her presence represents a measure of self-respect regained over time, the kind of self-respect that requires an intrinsic sense of worthiness, an understanding that I am enough.

When I was a girl, I didn’t worry about what others thought of me. It was later, between puberty and early adulthood, that I developed a need to be all things to all people, and in doing so upended my self-respect for a while. During this period of my life I stopped writing stories. I lost my nerve. The well ran dry. I worked for a chemical company.

Later, when I reconciled the risks of being myself, understanding that self-respect had nothing to do with the approval of others, a funny thing happened. I dared to call myself a writer. I picked up a pen and began a story. The muse showed up in her pink shorts and baptized my shoulder with drips of ice cream. Butter pecan or possibly rum raisin, she indulges in both.

There’s gelato in the freezer. I think I’ll get some now and take it outside to the patio that faces the mountains.