Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Art Heals: Clutter

I have a yin yang relationship to clutter. I have moved house, (and often countries) 14 times, and each time as I pack I dream of a Zen existence in which I possess nothing but one exquisite vase and a closet of all white garments. But once I was settled again, I moved from room to room looking at the 10,000 books and walls of artwork and cabinets full of dishes for every dinner party color scheme and drawers of craft fair jewelry and…you get the idea. These are not clutter, these are collections. But where you stand depends on where you sit, and right now I am sitting in a three room apartment and my stand on clutter is well, evolving. When we first moved here from a largish house (two floors and more rooms than I could serially enter in a week), we pledged to live, if not my Zen ideal, at least lean and mean. One thing in, one thing out, was to be our mantra. We had donated most of the books, given some of the artwork to appreciative new homes (I did go and personally vet each one before approving placement), and sold the majority of the dishes (anticipating fewer dinner parties and more restaurant dinners). I kept the jewelry. But inevitably, stasis is followed by mutability. For my part, I had a spacious office to go to, and it became a repository for the detritus necessary for my creativity. Upon having to leave this sanctuary due to Covid, I took with me the most precious bits (meaning most of it) and crammed it into previously undiscovered spaces in that three room apartment. (Under the bed.) And secondly, I have a partner in isolation, who believes in existentialism, to wit, that society (me) should not restrict an individual’s (his) choices and thus the development of his potential. This manifests in very very neat piles of papers on every flat surface. So, clutter creep. The quarantine conditions didn’t help. My previously curated kitchen counters took on the look of the stock room at Safeway, despite my valiant attempts to display the Pringles cans in an artistic tower. Cleaning products, toilet paper, masks, latex gloves—the more things I had to corral, the more things I needed to corral them. My things got things. Corona clutter was invading my organized world, and I resented it, but felt helpless to do anything about it. But time went by, as time tends to do, even in the age of corona. Strangely, the piles around me started to look cosy, and comforting. Was I nesting, knowing I had enough—enough of whatever mysterious amount of stuff was sufficient to make me feel safe? Joseph Ferrari, who studies the psychological impact of clutter at DePaul University in Chicago, describes home as a foundation for identity, “an extension of our selves, a living archive of memory.” We function differently in our homes now. The little collections on our tables, the art on our walls, the food in our fridges, all of it now acts as a remembrance of things past, and surety for the future. We spend a lot of time in our spaces now, so we really look at them, and what we see can give us comfort. So go ahead and curate your Zoom background as you invite strangers into your home but remember that all of it is a reflection of your lived experience. Be proud of your clutter. After all, you are the one who brought it in. My favorite kind of clutter by Adnan Charara.

Art Heals: Peripety

Are we about to come to a turning point? We are certainly living in what seems to be the plot of an Aristotelian tragedy, defined by the philosopher himself as "actions that excite pity and fear." In his “Poetics” Aristotle discusses dramatic tragedy in terms of peripety, a reversal of circumstances, a turning point in the plot contingent upon probability or necessity. We have entered Fall, and the turning points are poking us like a sharp stick. Fires, floods, racial and social injustice, politics, collapsing economies, to say nothing of the pandemic that has left lives in ruins. And now warnings that Steinbeck’s winter of our discontent is looming, with a possible resurgence of the virus just as people are thinking it is on the wane. Scientists are holding their collective breath as they calculate the effects of schools opening, states removing all restrictions, and people heading to poorly ventilated indoor spaces due to the colder weather. Pity and fear indeed. But can we control the turning points in our lives? This is where the ancient philosophers debated the nuances (politely). Socrates, Ari’s mentor-in-thought, held that virtue is knowledge, people don’t act against what they know to be good. Plato refined this to include the idea that passions have an influence on what a person “knows,” thus altering their actions in seemingly self-destructive ways. Aristotle took this further, exploring the concept of “incontinence” by distinguishing between theoretical knowledge, about things that cannot be changed, and practical knowledge, about what can be changed. People don’t knowingly act against their own self-interest, but from a temporary ignorance of what is good for them. Everyone wants happiness, but people differ only about their power to achieve it. Pringles make me happy, so even though I know the consequences of eating them will be a contribution to the covid-15, I eat them anyway. So, peripety. We have come to the place in the plot for a change when the “action veers round to its opposite, subject to probability or necessity." I am hoping we turn toward the good, supported by knowledge. We have the power to affect our destiny. Vote. Take reasonable precautions against infecting others, and ourselves. Support those fighting for justice and equality our own individual ways. We are more than characters in a play determined by others. We write our own scripts, create our own circumstances. We know what can be changed, and what cannot. Twelve Pringles a day is doable. Ari and the gang. Philosophy heals too. (Thanks, Brain Taco for this image!)

Art Heals: Wining

You might have noticed my frequent references to adult beverages in these missives. While I have been known to indulge in the occasional fruity concoction on a terrace in Miami, appropriately clad in floral dress, strappy sandals and large sun hat, my usual tipple is a glass of wine. Being a simple soul (see earlier blog, Plain Vanilla) I like limiting my choices: red, for colder weather, drinking to accompany beouf bourguignon, drinking with cheese and French bread, or just drinking. Then there is white, which I drink mainly to pair with fish or chicken (except for coq au vin, which, as the original recipe comes from Burgundy (I think) needs to be paired with a similar red). Sometimes I’ll have a glass of Pinot Gris on a hot day, but hot days usually lead me to rosé. And for toasting, I prefer Prosecco over champagne, but I never judge people on their bubbly behaviors. One other caveat: white wine is de rigueur at art gallery openings. Never red. Because people gesticulate in their enthusiasm for great art, resulting in sad consequences for the watercolors. I must note that when I held an exhibition in a Paris gallery a few years ago, the owner of the gallery served red, and when I objected, said, “This is Paris, of course we drink red wine.” I must also note that in that crowded space those little plastic cups did indeed go flying, luckily hitting only the gouaches covered with glass and a swath of white wall. (I don’t know a direct French idiom for “I told you so” Je ne voudrais pas être désagréable, mais… Far more likely to hear ce n’est pas ma faute.) But I digress. Now that cafes and bars and dining with friends seem to be off limits for the duration, most of us are consuming our adult beverages at home. Though I occasionally share a verre de rouge with my companion in isolation at a socially distanced outdoor table, most of my quaffing occurs on my balcony or on the couch after 5 pm. And while I have been able, so far, to stick to my usual glass-or-half-of-the-other, a recent study from the Rand Corp. indicates that more people, especially women, are reacting to pandemic stress by coping with a coupe. Which brings me to Florence, Italy in the 16th century, and the buchettes del vino. These “wine holes” were originally hatches with little wooden doors, often little wider than a man’s hand, carved into the walls of hundreds of buildings throughout Tuscan cities, mainly in Florence. Originally used to sell wine directly to the consumer (eliminating the middleman, and I speculate here, probably some taxes) they later became the perfect solution to safely sell wine during the plague of the 1630s in Italy. They were often located at a low height from the ground, ensuring some anonymity for the purchaser. Contactless delivery, no tipping. (But plenty of tippling. Ouch.) So, fast forward to 2020, and the clever Florentines are reopening these charming little doorways to serve wine, coffee and even gelato while their bars and cafes are still closed. Similar, if not quite so charming, adaptations are being made here. To help with the bottom line, restaurants have been granted special licenses to sell packaged single-serving drinks and bottles of wine from their doorways (though, unlike in Italy, you cannot consume alcoholic drinks while standing on the sidewalk.) People are picnicking under trees and on grassy knolls in every available open space, imbibing special lemonades. So, I raise a glass to all of you who drink responsibly, letting the glories of the grape enhance your life, giving you a few antioxidants, offering a coda to a difficult day in these difficult times. And remember, this always applies: “Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I’ll not ask for wine.” For this, you don’t even have to take off your mask.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Art Heals: Plain Vanilla


Among the side-effects the current pandemic produces in our lives is a lack of choices.  For too many, this is a serious consequence that results in poverty, hunger, possibly eviction, learning disruption and much more.  For some of us, this lack of choice is simply an inconvenience, but even so, piled on top of isolation, too much negative information, bad weather and the like, it can have a deleterious effect on people’s already shaky mental health.

I spent a lot of time living in Africa and Asia, as well as in the Middle East.  In those days before the internet brought the world’s products to the door, my choices were constrained by availability.   For most of that time we lived, in the parlance of the international community “on the economy.”  This meant learning to adapt our desires to the local products we found in the markets and on the shelves of local stores.  Forget brand names and forty different kinds of cereal.   We were just glad that the Blue Nile grocery in Cairo delivered fresh aish to our apartment.

Today a visit to the local grocery or the Amazon marketplace reminds me of those take-what-you-can get days.  Safeway’s cleaning products shelves are all but denuded every time I check.  Amazon tells me that disinfecting wipes are not available, and a shipment of plastic gloves will arrive in October if I order in the next five minutes.  Instacart wants to substitute copier paper for toilet paper.  (I draw the line there.)

Truthfully, I’ve never really cared about having lots of choices. I’m a creature of habit and don’t love making decisions, so I eat the same cereal every morning, buy the generic, store-brand whatever whenever I can.  And since childhood, I have always chosen vanilla when we went to 31 Flavors.

Little did I know that was the most exotic choice I could have made.

I recently learned that vanilla is an orchid!   Having grown up in an environment where orchids were really big pink floppy things you wore on your wrist on prom night, I was introduced to the beauty and rarity of orchids by Belgian friends who collected them, and later learned to love them in Thailand, where they abounded but were no less rare and expensive for that.  Associating those fragile blooms in any way with vanilla never occurred to me.

For me, vanilla came in little brown bottles at the grocery and was spooned into cake mixes where I also added an egg to make me feel like I was actually baking a cake. (Please no comments on my baking skills, or lack thereof.  I already know.)

But of course, that was artificial vanilla.  Now I know that vanilla is a precious, exotic and rare spice. The vine of the vanilla orchid was cultivated by the Aztecs.  Until the mid- 19th century, Mexico remained the chief producer of vanilla, due to the difficulty of pollinating the flower. Each flower produces only one fruit pod, achieved through pollinating the blossom.  It seems that the orchid is hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female organs, separated by a membrane.  A certain kind of bee, living only in Mexico, is able to penetrate the membrane and pollinate the flower.  The vines were transplanted to Europe and French overseas colonies, but without the bee, which did not thrive outside Mexico, the vines did not fruit.  Enter a brilliant 12-year old boy named Edmond Albius, a slave on the French island of Réunion. He figured out how to hand-pollinate the orchid in 1841, using a simple method involving a beveled sliver of bamboo and his thumb.   Unbelievably, this method is still used today.  As the flower lasts just one day, imagine how labor intensive it is to pollinate and produce the pods containing the tiny black seeds that are real vanilla.

Ok, so my ongoing case of covid-curvature of the brain has brought us to this point.  Our present lack of multiple choices offers us the opportunity to examine the choices we can make and appreciate them in new ways.  Something gained from nothing is really something.

Amr Mounib gives us a flower.  Not vanilla, but just as special.  Art Heals.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Art Heals: Reading Matter

An interesting aspect of getting older is that in some respects my eyesight is getting better.  I find I must take off my glasses now, to read.  Of course, this results in endless frantic searches for said glasses whenever the phone rings or the water kettle whistles.  Reading is the only thing I can do without my glasses on.  No, I take that back.  I can also bathe. Much cleaner now.
Anyway, the glasses thing is not a problem, as I spend a lot of my time reading.  I always have, even as a child.  I used to walk to a bookstore near where we lived when I was in grammar school, an old fashioned  dark-walled store redolent of paper and ink and real cloth bindings, where I spent my allowance and  birthday money amassing a huge collection of Modern Library classics. (The Modern Library series of well-made, affordable reprints of the classics started in 1917, published by Boni and Liveright, later taken over by Random House.  The ones I bought had a pebbly buckram finish and featured at least 376 titles.  Other editions varied a bit, but ultimately over 1,000 separate books were published.)
These books, while affordable to a 12-year-old girl, (they cost under $2.00, and my allowance was 25 cents) were also substantial and beautiful, each hardbound cover a different color but sharing identical typeface and colophon. How magnificent they looked, arrayed on my bookshelf, organized by color as soon as I had a sufficient quantity. I read them all, creating sets as soon as I found a writer I liked—Trollope, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky (really) and my favorite, Shakespeare. (This came in useful in high school, as I had to pass a mandatory swimming test and only got through it by repeating dialog from Much Ado About Nothing as I swam the required number of laps.  Beatrice and Benedict were my ideal romantic couple at age 14.  Go figure. As Louisa May Alcott said, “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain.”) 
These volumes graced shelves in my various homes for more than 50 years. When I moved to my 3-room apartment, I donated them to the scouts.  Lack of space has forced me to rely on a Kindle now. With it I can hold several thousand books in the palm of my hand, and when I wake in the middle of the night, go to the “store” and instantly buy any book I desire.  Of course I miss the smell and look and feel of “real” books, but time, and life, moves on, and I am particularly grateful to be able to read old favorites and discover new ones during this pandemic, when I rarely leave my apartment.
I have never had so much time to read since the long summer vacation days when I was 12.  Reading takes me out of my head and into someone else’s. That is another way art heals.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Art Heals: Curating and Collecting Art

Recently I was on a Zoom discussion with the scholar, art collector and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and the Palestinian artist Samia Halaby.  Preparing for this, I decided to think about the ethics of curating and collecting art.
I think curating and collecting art are two versions of the same effort: creating visibility and value for artistic endeavors. As curators and collectors, we have a grave responsibility towards not only the makers of art but also to the consumers of art.  In many ways we are gatekeepers, able to open doors for artists by our choices that can impact not only the daily lives of artists, but also influence the reception and significance of the artist’s message.  This is particularly important in the world of Arab contemporary art. Opportunities for major Arab artists to exhibit, and sell their work both in their home countries and in the diaspora have increased in recent years (sadly, often because events like war and refugee crises have raised awareness in the global north through media interest).  But despite the increasing proliferation of art fairs such as Sharjah and Art Dubai, to say nothing of the Art Basels of the world, and the inclusion of some Arab artists in major museums and galleries in the art centers of New York, Paris, London, Berlin, representation is still limited for emerging and mid-career artists.  Digital media has greatly helped in this regard, as artists are increasingly able to sidestep the gatekeepers and take their work directly to the public. But not all artists are digitally savvy, nor do many have the global contacts to increase their visibility to the point where they are invited to participate in prestigious local and ultimately international exhibitions.  And often, artists, especially those living in their home regions, have been denied visas to attend and lecture at the very international exhibitions to which they were invited to participate.
New forms of artistic values have disrupted older forms of value creation—successful artists today are often more focused on the international market and its needs.  Yet today it is more important than ever for Arab artists to have their voices heard. Visibility is primary. This is where curators and collectors are crucial. 
For my part, curating must animate opportunities for new perceptions.  This means creating conversations, contextualizing new work within the spheres of art practice, historical reference, and biography, collaborating with the artist to give both voice and direction to their vision, and providing a corrective to changing strategies of culture. I try to foreground artists that tell alternate stories of difference.  Do you need cultural references to enjoy a work of art?  I think art, especially Arab art, can be both global and local, drawing upon the visual history of Palestine, for example, which may be new to some viewers, while being emphatically present in speaking their truth about their concerns in a universalist manner.  Both representational and abstract art can fulfill this role.
Collectors form a vital partnership in this endeavor.  In this regard, the phrase “all politics is local” applies to art in a big way.  The House of Medici supported “local” Italian artists by commissioning and collecting their work, ultimately leaving it as a legacy to the world.  As wealthy Arab collectors increasingly enter the marketplace for international works of art, and major international museums open branches in Arab countries, it is important that they support and collect work by the many outstanding Arab artists in the region and the diaspora.  Such collections can seed much needed scholarship and art criticism. These three things—exhibition opportunities, scholarship and serious criticism form the legs of a sturdy platform for the visibility vital to sustaining and growing contemporary Arab art. Great collectors collect with two eyes—one on the past, the historical perspective, and one on the future, elevating the important work that artists do, helping to foreground its significance, and preserving its moment in time, and its timelessness.
One last thing, which I think applies to curators, collectors and museums alike.  Edward Said said “Solidarity before criticism means the end of criticism.”   Our criteria for exhibiting and collecting must include measurable standards of the highest quality in judging artworks.  That is the only way to honor both artists and the art they create. Art Heals.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Art Heals: Just One Thing

I took one of my longer weekend walks recently, poking about downtown DC, peering into, but not entering, restaurants and shops.  Most were still almost empty of people, despite the recent permissible re-openings, and the very visible signs proclaiming 60%, 70% off items inside.  I’m sorry about this, as retail and restaurants, especially the smaller, locally owned kind, do need customers. But I am not yet ready for the indoor experience, and I see that many of my fellow DC’ers seem to feel the same way. But for me, there is one interior experience for which I am eager to make an exception: going inside a museum again. 
I know that experience will be very different from the easy-breezy pre-pandemic days.  One of the things I loved about most museums here was my ability to pop in and see Just One Thing.  Unlike in other museum-heavy major cities, many of ours are fee-free (thanks, fellow taxpayers). Often, I would be writing or working or thinking about some art-related subject and have a compulsive urge to go and look at a particular painting or sculpture.  Wasn’t there a huge Frank Stella piece on the wall above the staircase to the second floor of the East Wing?  What was the exact wording of that Barbara Kruger statement covering the floors, walls and ceiling downstairs at the Hirshhorn?   With so much available to me for free, I could afford to take out a membership in a couple of the private museums, like the Phillips or the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and pop in there too, for my Just One Thing.  And then there were the gift shops. Oh my, fun bits and bobs with an artsy vibe, cool artist-made jewelry and books and catalogs galore. Add in air-conditioning, a small restaurant, public spaces perfect to rest my feet and people watch, and of course, bathrooms!  There was nothing more I needed in the world.  Most of them even served those cute little bottles of wine in the lunchroom.
For the moment, all this is just a memory, as I stalk past the shuttered entrances, making do with a few al fresco sculptures and the occasional bench in the Enid Haupt Garden.  But soon, hopefully, the museums will reopen, on a limited basis.  But the spontaneity of my Just One Thing will be gone.  Entrance must be preplanned, with timed tickets only obtainable online, as they were for the blockbuster shows that used to be all the rage, (most of which I missed because every time I went online, I was too d…late and all dates were already taken, despite my trying at midnight on the first day!) To digress yet again—I for one will not miss those blockbusters, impossible now thanks to Covid crowd control measures.
But like with everything else Covid-related in my life, I will adapt. Just One Thing will never return, but maybe it will morph into Just One Museum, and my time there will be more precious than ever because of all the pre-planning that will have to precede it.
In the interim, here is an old film about the creation of the East Wing.  You can hear the voices of I.M.Pei, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder!  How cool is that?   Here is Calder's mobile and Moore's sculpture, made for the NGA. Art Heals.