art

Evil that Lies Beneath (Self Portrait Project)

I’ve never been scared of spiders.

Ever since I was a little girl, spiders meant different to me than what they might have meant to you: cool-looking weavers that made beautiful tapestries in the trees which they used to eradicate the actual bad bugs.

Another thing that contributed to this mindset also stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a place where poisonous spiders were only slightly more common than winning the lottery or getting stuck by lightning. The movie, Charlotte’s Web, which featured the protagonist’s “mentor” as a kind, pretty spider that dies tragically was a film I enjoyed immensely.

But.

Last year, I was on a year-long study abroad trip in Italy. Over Christmas break, my now-husband flew to visit, and proposed! After the break was over, and he left, I fell into a depression. Partly missing him, partly scared of the many changes that would take place after getting home.

One night, I had a dream that mortified me. This dream stayed in my head days after it happened. No dream ever shook me before like this one.

I saw two spiders, a dark brown and a yellow one, emerge out of some food I was eating wrestling with one another. The dark brown one devoured the yellow one. The weirdest part was, this spider actually scared me. I took off my shoe and was about to crush the spider with it, but I woke up just before the blow hit.

Days after, it was consuming me. I drew spiders all the time. After generally not believing dreams had meaning, I KNEW this one did. I did a quick internet search of spider symbology, but all I got was spiders signified “great change.” Let’s be honest. A freaking cow fart means “great change” in New Age symbology. I gave up that internet search pretty quick.

Then, one day, I bought Camille Paglia’s book, “Sexual Personae.” I just discovered this woman, a non-establishment feminist and art critic, who said so many things about the tragic nature of art in academia that I believed wholeheartedly, but could never put into words with the same precision that she did. I was excited to read one of her books, and oh how beautiful the words, with the same cutting diction as when she speaks, but yet, differently, with a sense of love, enjoyment, and enthusiasm for art that you don’t always get when she speaks. It was like reading poetry celebrating humanity, yet rife with a warning of blood, gore, and cruelty brought about by both Man and Nature. When she spoke of femininity, it was both with admiration… and caution. Throughout history, Woman had immense power-much more than we care to admit today- through our femininity alone. The ability to paralyze men with a gaze, to pit men against each other to win our favor, to bring destruction to established order that was built as a defense against Nature and her wolves, storms, and serpents. After all, we-women- ARE Nature.

According to Paglia, in art, there is no Male Gaze, the women depicted in art are gazing at US.

As I read her book, with a certain dark fascination with this side of femininity- and a slight sense of guilty pride, I came across a sentence that just put everything into place. Finally, my dream made sense.

“Hoever, the danger of the homme fatal, as embodied in today’s boyish male hustler, is that he will leave, disappearing to other loves, other lands. He is a rambler, a cowbody and sailor. But the danger of the femme fatasle is that she will stay, still, placid, and paralyzing. Her remaining is a daemonic burden, the ubiquity of Walter Pater’s Mona Lisa, who smothers history. She is a thorny symbol of the perversity of sex. She will stick.”

Just then, everything clicked. I knew what I was dreading. I knew what that dream meant.

I was afraid of getting married. There was a dark part of me that saw it as an inescapable trap.

Only it wasn’t me that was being trapped.

Without going too much into detail, it made me terrified of myself. The evil within. The evil I was capable of. Human beings, especially those who genuinely believed they could do no wrong, have committed unthinkable atrocities to one another throughout history.

In my own personal experience, the people who were the most sure of their personal morality (Christians, atheists, left and right-wingers, doesn’t matter), usually had the most vile and disgusting things to say about people they didn’t like. Whereas the people in my life who were open to the idea that they could be wrong, or not as moral, were the best and most honest people.

Yet, there’s a reason why Evil is typically associated with Snakes in Western Culture. It’s heavily ingrained in our biology due to the fact our ancestors had very unpleasant encounters with them, but also that snakes are sneaky, if you’re not watching out, they can blend into your environment and get you when you’re not looking. Your spouse came home grumpy and snaps at you? Chances are you’re thinking in the back of your mind how to get back at him/her. You might be suppressing that feeling, but it’s there. You know it’s there. If it happens enough, your desire to come out will spring and strike like the venomous snake it is. Or maybe, you’ve been conditioned to be weak and helpless because your overbearing, malevolent boss conditioned you to be: someone weak, unable to take autonomy, and forever unsure of yourself… letting out your resentment when you get home, sabotaging your own work, or becoming bitter to your coworkers who don’t have power over you, but now don’t want to help you because of your attitude.

This is also why we get satisfaction out of violent video games or movies like The Purge. There’s a sense of Catharsis that we’re conditioned not to exhibit, yet get’s played out in that media.

So, does that mean we’re doomed? Are human beings so flawed that we’re destined to become either a monster or a bitter, sniveling weakling that makes our situation worse? Not necessarily. The same drive towards rage and violence can be utilized to be protectors, and make bullies back down if we can show we are capable. If we can integrate our “shadow” personality, our lives would be much more fulfilling and easier to take whatever life throws at us (Carl Jung).

So let’s make some art based on it!

Upcoming Project: Self Portrait as Medusa (working title)

I’m inspired by Caravaggio’s painting of David and Goliath with Goliath’s dismembered head actually being his self portrait.

Maybe it was the most convenient, but there’s something I find fascinating about being willing to cast yourself as the villain. There’s almost an extreme sense of empathy required to do so. It’s not thinking “What would I do in a villain’s situation?” but “What would I do if I grew up exactly the way the villain did, and believed everything they believe?” Which is a much more difficult exercise, but I think a necessary one. Again, I doubt that’s what was going through Caravaggio’s mind, but it’s certainly going through mine.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath

The Medusa Story

The Medusa story is interesting to me. It seems as though it’s been a study of the dark side of femininity for a long time.

Medusa’s Origin

According to Ovid, Medusa was formerly a priestess of Athena who was raped by Poseidon. Since Greek deities are kind of the worst, if that wasn’t enough, Medusa’s beauty had been on object of resentment for Athena. People were coming to Athena’s temple to see Medusa and get a glance at her beauty. After Poseidon’s attack on Medusa, this was simply Athena’s chance to get vengeance on Medusa, fashion for her a monstrous form, and banish her to a far away island, and help Perseus kill her.

Interpretations

In the traditional interpretation, Medusa symbolizes the gaze and judgement men feel when trying to approach and pursue a beautiful woman. Men fear Medusa the same way men fear the rejection of women.

A lot of feminist scholars will portray Medusa as the victim. Understandably so, she was raped, then the Goddess she dedicated her life to punished her for it. She then becomes a symbol of righteous feminine rage and retribution. Unfortunately, that’s where the interpretation seems to stop. No condemnation of Athena for lacking any kind of support to her loyal subject. Worse of all, Medusa has no agency. No control over self, nor is she expected to. She is a victim, and that’s the end of it.

Perseus is no longer seen as a hero, but just another aggressor. One who invaded her place of solitude. Only this time, he obliterates her completely.

My Questions

As you might have guessed, I don’t like the interpretation where Medusa has no agency. Everything that happens is only because other people did terrible things to her. That’s not trivialize the terrible things that happen to her, and do happen to women (and men) today. I can think of at least one specific example where a male politician raped several women working for him, and his wife turning around and did everything she could to silence them. So, yes, it does happen today.

But people seem to forget about Medusa’s power. It’s a deadly, not fun power, sure, it’s still powerful. Not only that, but I find it highly likely that Medusa very well might have enjoyed her newfound superpowers. Since a man has wronged her, she uses her power to end the lives of any and all men that would come near her. It would definitely ensure that something like that would never happen again. Many today would say that Medusa was not viscous monster the Greeks of old came to be, but a helpless victim, but I think it likely the events that happened turned her into viscous monster on the inside as well as the outside.

Medusa is the anti-Cinderella. While Cinderella remained good while malevolent people were being cruel to her ever day, Medusa would instead more and more viscous in her treachery and isolation. Human beings, as cruel as we are instead, generally tend to be more like Medusa after being treated wrongly, ultimately making our situations worse.

Not only that, but Perseus used Medusa’s head in many battles, using her power to fight evil forces. Something Medusa was unable to do herself.

That’s my own interpretation. What happens when something traumatic happens to you? How do you cope with it? Do you seek vengeance on the world, becoming at least as bad if not worse than forces who turned you into this monster, until a hero finally rises up and puts an end to your nightmare? Or, do you learn how to incorporate your newfound savagery? Maybe realizing a power you never had, then using it to defend not only yourself, but others weaker than you? One path leads down to nothingness and despair, the other path, maybe Medusa could have become hero with awesome godlike power.

Self Portrait

I took my sketchbook and spent about a minute sketching my face in a screaming expression (also, I got a new haircut). I think for a quick study, it didn’t turn out too bed. I was able to think of all the frustrations I suffered in the past year and captured it into a single moment. Not just with my expression, but with my hands too.

I have no idea what I want the final painting to look like, but I’m sure the process itself will be informative. I have a lot of questions in my head about the nature of good and evil. I hope this painting will serve as a an effective exploration as well as catharsis and therapy.

I demand to speak to the manager!

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art

Does Art HAVE to Be Political?

In my research on how to make my own art blog better, I’ve been researching other art blogs. I found the ones that are the easiest to find seem to be groups and collaboratives of artists as opposed to independent individual artists, which is fine.

I did find that many of these groups are involved with social justice activism such as feminism, environmentalism, inclusivity and other social justice values, just as much, if not more so, than their art.

That got me thinking to something I heard from Elizabeth A. Sackler when I lived in Italy. She said “All art is political. Even if it’s not political. It’s still political.”

At the time, this bothered me. Whenever I hear “Political Art,” I hear “Propaganda” somebody using something as wonderful, meaningful, and powerful as art only to be nothing more than to to try to tell people what to think. Not only that, but whenever I heard the word “Political” my mind easily jumps to evil, corrupt, greedy politicians who think they have the right to tell the rest of us what to do. Any art of this nature would be glorifying these scumbags like gods, which they are far from, as much as they like to think they are.

It wasn’t until later that year, when I decided to focus more on what I love about art instead of what frustrated me about how it’s taught in university, that I realized why it bothered me so much. Politics is a lens. It’s only one lens, and a very narrow one usually utilized by bored, rich, power hungry people, I found in my experience.

Art isn’t just looked at through a political lens… there’s philosophical viewpoints, psychoanalytic, scientific, historical (my favorite), and… religious.

Then it hit me.

Historical Significance

When you look back at history at any culture, what was the thing that got commissioned, kept, and preserved the most? That’s right. Religious art. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramids of Gaza with their anthropomorphic animal gods, the Parthenon of Greece, the giant Reclining Golden Buddha of Thailand, all of these had significant religious significance.

Yes, we have statues of the great political leaders of the time too, but I don’t believe they inspire as much awe as the religious monuments. Historians spend countless decades and lifetimes analyzing every aspect of meaning, the myths, the legends, the significance these monuments had to the community, whereas we see a statue or painting of a king and say, “Yup, he lived in that time. Definitely had a big ego too.”

Even the tiny non-Christian Roman baby angel thought Augustus was the best… let’s be honest, he was probably right.

Although, you could make a religious argument for the statues of great rulers. Some cultures believed that the king was either a god or representative of God on Earth.

The Nature of Art Itself

Don’t hate me, but art is an inherently useless thing. It doesn’t serve any of our physical needs.

Art alone doesn’t give you warmth, nourishment, or any other physical thing you need to live. Even with cake, as an example, you can make a very artistic looking cake, but the “art” part of it really has no use beyond just looking pretty.

Some cakes are so well decorated, you actually don’t WANT to eat them.

A beautiful, well decorated house with stunning architecture gives you shelter and warmth, but the art part of it doesn’t serve that function, not really. You could live just fine in a plain, mass-produced house.

The sun gives us life, a beautiful sunset doesn’t. Yet we take the former for granted, and the latter we enjoy and appreciate much more. It inspires something in us.

Something that reminds us of how alive we are.

Something that, even just for a moment, fills us with a sense of completeness.

Something akin to a “religious experience.”

Religious art in the Gothic and Renaissance Western world was made with the purpose of evoking a religious experience such as this in the viewer. I very much felt this in every church I stepped into in Italy.

I was literally surrounded with so much beauty- the color, the shapes, the music- it made me appreciate what human beings were capable of- and if we- flawed, greedy, and self-obsessed as we are- were able to create something like THAT… then what were the angels capable of?

Of course, if you got your degree in Art History, like I did, you were constantly told that these were only made for rich people to show off their power.

Honestly?

Who in the nine depths of the Underworld gives a scarlet damn?

“Politics” is Just Code for “Religion”

The reason why you’re not supposed to talk politics and religion is because, to many people, they’re one and the same. They’re both vehicles of meaning and are an important part of peoples’ identity.

When you become a religious devotee, it can be very difficult to not look at the world through a religious perspective. Had a bad day at work, and towards the end, one of your coworkers hands everyone including you chocolate? God must have sent that coworker to give you the chocolate to cheer up and reward you for enduring such a trial-heavy day. It gives your life meaning. A sense of purpose. You may have taken advantage of opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise because you believe everything happens for a reason, and God loves you deeply and personally.

So, now I understand why important gallery owners like Elizabeth Sackler, university professors, and other art authorities say something as ridiculous as “All art is political.” They live in a very political world, are most involved with activism and pursuing a better world through their eyes.

Pictured above: An Enlightened individual after creating the greatest art known to the universe. She looks awfully happy. Maybe she knows something we don’t.

Many have gone into great detail of the similarities between social justice and religion. Every time I go to a Call for Artists on a publicly funded arts and culture council, most of what they want art specifically having to do with social justice values such as promoting environmentalism and feminism.

I used to be disgusted by this because everything about it just screamed “Propaganda for the Democrat Party,” but, maybe this is just the current dominant religion which promotes, values, and keeps this type of art.

I believe human beings are religious by nature. We NEED a religion of some kind to give us purpose and meaning, otherwise we’re just lost.

I’ve come to believe that art whether they’re sculptures, paintings, music, or even a momentary act of performance art, is an instrument (sometimes literally, looking at you, you fantastic musicians!) to evoke a sense of meaning in someone, whether it’s a gut reaction, or something that’s meant to leave you in a stupefying state of awe for hours while you’re trying to figure out what it all means. Of course, as long as it’s art I agree with, that is 100% beautiful.

In short: Sure, I think art can be political, but, more deeply, all art is religious by nature.

Thank you everyone for taking the time to read this incredibly long post. If you would like to know what you can do to start becoming an artist today, here’s my post on baby steps through cartooning, and to my fancier friends out there who yearn to be oil painters!

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Banning Cinderella is Dumb, but not Surprising

Bleh. I’m home sick today. Even scrambled as my brain is from the fever, I’m determined to make as coherent of a blog post as I can.

I heard of Kiera Knightly’s interview on Ellen DeGeneres’ show in October and how she said that the Disney Princess movies Cinderella and the Little Mermaid were banned because in both cases they were movies about two women saved by men.

Here’s the clip:

Now, personally I think that banning kid friendly movies on the grounds that their ideologies may fundamentally disagree with yours is not the best way to go about things. I would put Ms. Knightley’s wish to ban Cinderella and Little Mermaid on the same level of silliness as a fundamentalist Christian depriving Harry Potter from their children for supposedly promoting Witchcraft. Which then results in said children missing out on the good messages Harry Potter gives like bravery, friendship, fighting for what’s right when the odds are against you, and many other wonderful lessons.

Cinderella_-_Anne_AndersonI do agree with her irritation at Disney’s version of Little Mermaid for reasons I may write in another blog later, but Cinderella? Even Disney’s version of Cinderella? To just boil it down to as a helpless maiden who get’s saved by a rich guy? That doesn’t sound right.

Though, I’m not here to criticize a rich actress that I’ll probably never meet and her child-rearing choices that don’t in any way affect me. I’m here because the story of Cinderella has been a recent obsession of mine and I just feel the need to write about it.

All over the world, the story of Cinderella has existed in some form or another. You do have our current Disney version, Germany’s Ashenputtel. Non Western cultures like China, Egypt, East India (Anklet for a Princess), and Native American folklore (The Rough Faced Girl). These are just a few examples out of hundreds.What is it about this fairy tale that is so pervasive in so many cultures? What is it about Cinderella that is so pervasive in all of our minds?

Though there are different variations of the story, they all have these obvious things in common: a young maiden being abused by stepmother and at least one stepsister, her biological mother is dead, in some form another her patience and goodness is rewarded and she’s able to leave her stepmother (usually a royal marriage, but sometimes treasure too).

When these tales were first being written, childbirth was one of if not the most common way for women to die. This meant there were a lot of children already growing up without a mother. Stories like these, even the darker versions (Ashenputtel where the stepsisters cut parts of their feet off to fit the slipper), were probably a great comfort to these children.

They were not meant to shield children from outside dangers, but they were meant to help children go through dangers ever present in their own lives. Maybe their father married a woman already having children of her own, who put her own children’s needs before her newly-obtained stepchild.

Cinderella, in all versions, represented a kind of role model. She could very well be seen as a weak, helpless victim trapped in a bad situation. Her stepmother and stepsister’s laziness, vanity, cruelty, and malevolence could’ve very well rubbed off on her. She could have wallowed in self-pity, bitterness, and could have easily become just as bitter, corrupt, and nasty as her oppressors, but she didn’t. In every version, she retained her goodness, which then in turns attracts supernatural forces to come to her aid and help her out of her situation.

800px-Aschenputtel

So what? There are people who are good and kind their whole lives and still suffer hardship after hardship after hardship. Their kindness, naivety, and sweetness even sometimes attract monsters that use their own kindness against them via manipulation  What good does their kindness do in the face of the cruelties of life?

In response, I think that in the face of hardship, it is far better to try to make bad situations less miserable (especially if you’re doing what you can to get out of them), then become bitter and make your situation worse. In Cinderella, the prince or treasure represent an ultimate good worth being reached for. You might say there’s no point in hoping to achieve an ultimate good, but I think it’s worth reaching for perfection, but then falling to a good place rather than being stuck in a bad place, or, even better, making it worse.

 

If you’re able to remain kind and honest in the face of cruelty, I think the people around you notice it more, want to be your friend, help you out, and whatnot. As a general rule, people don’t like people who are jerks. The people who first recited the Cinderella folklore knew that too. The divine elements of Cinderella (ie, the animals and the fairy godmother)  came to her aid because she was good.

 

398px-Joseph_Henry_Sharp_-_Blackfoot_Indian_Girl_(1905)I really like the Native American Rough-Faced Girl story because the Cinderella’s special quality was her truthfulness. Again, she was also treated badly by her stepsisters, to the point where they even burned her face because they were jealous of her physical beauty, but she remained strong and honest through her suffering. Her stepsisters wanted to marry the invisible prince, but they lied to the wise woman (his sister) when she asked if they saw him, so she sent them home. When Cinderella tried her luck, she was honest and said she couldn’t see him. The wise woman told her to look again. Not only could she see him now, but he was so impressive his bow was the rainbow and his sled was the milky way. Her reward for her honesty was not a marriage to any rich mortal, but someone more akin to a god.

Even Disney’s version of Cinderella (which I will not have a picture of because, it’s not public domain), you do see Cinderella struggle. She isn’t a perfect little cupcake. She greets her stepmother and stepsisters warmly when she brings them breakfast, they start snapping at her, and her voice is downcast when she leaves the room. You see her slowly breaking down up until the final breaking point just before her fairy mother comes. Her fairy godmother insinuates that because Cinderella still had some faith left, the fairy godmother was able to appear. Which has a message about in the bleakest of times, there’s just that little glimmer of hope that we see that gives us the strength to move on.

We all face hardships. There are situations you just can’t escape from, at least not right away. Maybe someone close to you is dead or dying and you’re suffering not just your own pain, but the pain of everyone around you. There’s fighting, something about wills, sorrow, resentment, but if someone was strong enough to not succumb to this horrible situation, but instead take charge, plan the funeral, comfort the mourning. Maybe you can take a page from Cinderella’s book and try to make it better, because you can always make it infinitely worse. And why wouldn’t you? Nobody knows how bad you’re suffering, maybe if you dragged everyone else with you, they’d have some idea.

dramatic-skies-at-sunset-with-clouds-and-sun-rays_800

Maybe you are facing a tyrant in your life, like the stepmother. Maybe it’s your teacher or boss. I know I’ve dealt with teachers and bosses who were tough on me, but they legitimately cared about the kind of ships they were running and only wanted me to improve. When you find out your boss/teacher is treating you badly because and make it clear they’re insecure/power-hungry, this can cause a serious blow to your psyche, sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, getting out of an abusive situation like that isn’t always easy. Whether you need to do well in that class because your need your GPA to stay up, or you need to stay in that job to well, eat and pay bills at least until you can find a new one.

So, to sum up, Cinderella isn’t just a rags-to-riches story, or a story about a pathetic damsel needing to be rescued. I don’t think it would have been so prevalent cross-culturally if that was all this story was. It’s a beautiful story about a person who has a hard life filled with suffering, but rather than letting the situation turn her bitter, she has the fortitude to stay strong, resilient, and honest in the face of malice.