John Berger’s essay, “Way of Seeing” dissects the camera’s sway in our society and the repercussions of reproduction. Before photography, the human eye was regarded as “the vanishing point of infinity” (18). However, the facility to steal fragments of time and space viciously veered the way man perceived the world. All of a sudden, “the visible…became fugitive” (18). This marked a turning point in our history, enabling humanity to view “the art of the past as nobody saw it before” (16). It is the art of immortalization. However, this is but a thread in a tapestry of reasoning rendering the repercussions photographs have had on our culture. The invention of the camera facilitated the means of mass-producing a single image. Berger illustrates how the onslaught of reproduction, in a sense, perverted the meaning of original works of art. The countless paintings lacing the walls of museums from Paris to New York are regarded in a different light. The “Mona Lisa,” for lack of a better example, has been printed exorbitant number of times, and thus “its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings” (19). To be graced with the opportunity to visit the Louvre and stand before the painting in the flesh, one will realize that the meaning “no longer lies in what it uniquely says but in what it uniquely is” (21). We have been conditioned to embrace original works of art with the mindset: it is “authentic and therefore it is beautiful” (21). Moreover, the value of the work is affirmed not by its meaning, but by it’s market value. The sway of money and our intellect are intrinsically connected, which unveils why art has evolved as something preserved for the wealthy. This fabricated hype “which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependant upon their market value, has become a substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.” (23) On the other hand, reproduction has afforded the lower class the ability to appreciate artwork never before at their disposal. This is the paradox photography presents us with.
Georg Zimmel’s belief that the “blasé attitude” is a symptom of self-preservation subsist even a hundred years after having made the claim, however due to gender disparities this mentality has evolved in separate yet similar directions. First off, one must acknowledge that Georg Zimmel’s argument stems from the perspective of a man at the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly enough, his perception of the implications a city has on the subjective self sustain, despite the onslaught of modernity. Undeniably, there is a conditioned indifference many adopt in a city which triggers the tunnel vision so heavily relied upon to navigate the streets. Zimmel justifies in his work, “The Metropolis and the Mental Life,” how this mindset is a repercussion of incessant stimulus, what he fails to shed light on, however, is how the experience may differ according to gender. Men are more apt to rely on what Zimmel refers to as the “matter of fact” (4) attitude which fuels the “money economy” with its impersonal embrace towards “social intercourse” (4). This mindset proves indispensable in the financial world, where money “reduces all quality and individuality to the question: how much?” (4) Furthermore the crowd of competition feeds the stipulation for specialization, as it is crucial to seem indispensable in the economic “arena of struggle.” (17) Women exhibit similar behavioral tendencies, however the reasoning behind their self-preservation is rooted in a skepticism stemming from socialization. The burden of uterus and fragility of femininity necessitates a reserved nature often times disguised as distrust. Unfortunately, such a demeanor elicits an isolation that renders one susceptible to loneliness. This claim comes from personal experiences I myself have had in New York. As I cut through the streets littered with strangers, I’ve learned to avert my eyes. However, last week I made accidental eye contact with a man standing outside a dry cleaner. I thought little of it, and continued on my way. Four blocks later, he came up behind me, panting, asking where I was going and if he could follow. It took me three more blocks to impress upon him my disinterest. The man’s behavior was inappropriate, but would have been alarming if it were to have happened during the night. This experience unveiled the irony of the human condition. Women, by and large, invest hours into their appearance in hopes of grabbing the interest of others. The unfortunate reality is that females are inclined to view themselves through the eyes of others. Amid a sea of faces, a woman’s desire to draw attention to herself constructs an interesting paradox. This species of specialization is perhaps rooted in our evolutionary impulse to procreate.
This article, written in July of 1945, “calls for a new relationship between the thinking man and the sum of our knowledge”(1). In the late 1940’s, physicists whose prior objectives were rooted in World War II had to viciously veer focus once peace settlements were reached. With their hands suddenly free, their efforts could now be aimed towards the betterment of human life, rather than the destruction. This article reflects on the benefits scientific development has had on the humanity. These advancements have, in a respect, released man “from the bondage of bare existence” (2), as they have improved mental and physical health and facilitated communication amongst the masses. However, the old methods of consolidating research have become inadequate due to the proliferation of knowledge. In response, Bush calls upon a means to store results so that the “truly significant attainments” (2) stemming from years of study won’t get “lost in the mass of the inconsequential” (2). If to solve the problems plaguing the present, one must look to the past. Man has constructed “a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records” (13). There are countless disconnected conclusions that, if organized, great progress could result. This is not to say, that progress hasn’t already been made, however. Bush examines the inventions of the past, noting that we are already capable of things once thought impossible. In the first half of the twentieth century, scientist had already produced “cheap complex devices of great reliability” (3), with regard to the advancements in photography and microfilm. However, this only the beginning, he predicts. The machines yet to come will be far more versatile. Prolific scientists thread together a tapestry of possibilities, marking a new event in human history. In spite of this, Bush illustrates where he feels further progress can be made. With developments in microfilm, he believes “the Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox” (5). However, compression, although economical, is useless if the information is not consulted. Once again, Bush stresses the significance of specialization and consolidation, as “man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge” (8). The results of research must be available for distribution, as the mass production and reproduction of information fuels further development in the scientific field. Thus, “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress and the effort to bridge between disciplines” (2). In response to this need, Bush presents his design for the Memex, which appears to be early blueprints of a computer. It is a device, he explains, wherein one can “store all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility” (10). It will be far more reliable than “any human operator and a thousand times faster” (2). Furthermore, the Memex will be capable of associative reasoning, something innate to the human mind. As scientists have adapted a logical process in which to examine the world, these machines will also be able to “manipulate the premises in accordance with formal logic” (7). As he delves into greater detail about the intricacies of this machine, it grows increasingly difficult to discern whether he regards such a device as a tool, or as a being. Despite the fact that he refers to the design as an instrument and “mechanical aid” (2), he has the tendency to personify it. For instance, he states that the “machines will have enormous appetites” (6). Moreover, the “adoption” (9) of this “human mechanism” (12) will facilitate life, as it will have the faculty of logical reasoning. This sets the stage for the development of an unhealthy dependency between mankind and the machine, perhaps one, which at the turn of the century, society gradually begins to exhibit.
Far ahead of its time, La Jetee was a film produced in 1968. The picture is constituted of a string of striking black and white photographs. There is no dialog, and thus the plot would be difficult to follow if not for the voice of a narrator carrying one through the film, explicating the significance of each image. It opens with a man standing at the edge of a jetee at Orly. There is disturbing calm, an inexplicable stillness that is abruptly broken by the roar of warplanes. As weapons rain down from the sky, the world comes to a sudden halt. Paris is left in ruins after the onslaught of a nuclear holocaust marking the end of world war III. There is a sequence of unsettling pictures illustrating the extent of destruction. Considering this film was produced before the introduction of Photoshop, the directors were incredibly successful in depicting the devastation of Paris in such a realistic fashion.
The scene shifts from the misery aboveground to the desperation underground, where the few to survive have migrated after the contamination of the city rendered it inhabitable. In their struggle to subsist, scientists begin conducting experiments of time travel on several prisoners in the vein hope of determining ways in which mankind can survive. Plagued by desperation, they construct a bizarre contraption that they believe can successfully manipulate the constraints of time; unfortunately its only flaw is rooted in their test subjects. Once witnessing their past, the prisoners return to the present riddled with insanity. However, one man’s obsession with a recurring vision of his childhood renders him a faithful guineas pig. The scientists believe that if he is able to live vicariously through the memories of his past, he perhaps harbors the facility to drift into the future. The film is laced with ambiguity. The main character is referred to incessantly and simply as the Man. As the experiments progress, his memories grow to be increasingly vivid.
The face of a woman sleeps in the folds of his memories. She graces his recollections of the past, each time becoming more tangible, more concrete. “Time builds itself painlessly around them.” There is a stark disparity between the pictures of his past, soft and surreal, and those of his present, which are of harsh contrast and dark shadows. The use of lighting in this film is manipulated to convey the sentiment of each passing scene. What’s left to the darkness is often times more telling than that which is illuminated. The simplicity of several shots stemming from his past unveils the beauty of everyday life. Suspended in time, the Man slowly falls in love with the Woman. The sequence of images epitomizes photography’s ability to immortalize and steal fragments of time. The beautiful black and white photographs are interrupted only once by a fleeting moment of film. This occurs when the woman, lying in bed, opens her eyelids and looks directly into the camera. This is perhaps a symbolic allusion to the truth the man will ultimately arrive at: time is beyond one’s control. However, this is one of many interpretations, I’m sure. The absence of explanation leaves much to one’s imagination.
How will history judge us? Over the past several centuries, humanity has raked the land of its resources, threatening the balance of the natural world. The diversified body of work constituting the ICP Triennial, Ecotopia, renders an array of unique perspectives and different approaches to the repercussions of the aforementioned. It’s interesting to observe how each artist responded differently to the concept of devastation, the environment, and their intrinsic relationship. Mankind faces a time of impending consequence stemming from decades of disregard for the world in which we live. The exposition at the ICP harbors a range of artistic solutions and reactions to this global crisis.
Interestingly enough, I was struck immediately by the disparity dividing those whose images triggered an immediate message and those who fabricated work that could only be appreciated once its meaning, explicated aside, was taken into account. For instance, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s “Forest” series are, in my opinion, not compelling photographs. However, upon realizing that the thousands of pine trees in the picture had been planted over a depopulated Palestinian village, I regarded the work in a much different light. The image, seemingly serene, unveils the bloodshed stemming from the shifting borders of Israel. The photo perverts our predisposed conceptions of the forest, which we are apt to equate with the idea of growth and peacefulness.
Yannick Demmerle’s series, on the other hand, appropriately named “Les Nuits Étranges”, portrays several skeletal trees enveloped with darkness. The image itself expresses his intent without necessitating an explanation. His work stands on its’ own and can be appreciated without a justification of the work’s meaning or purpose. I find that there is a sense of urgency and morbid lost conveyed by his photography, yet his implications are ultimately up for interpretation. The fact that he fails to articulate his artistic aim renders a sea possible rationalization free from constraints.
I’m torn in between the methodology of the two artistic approaches. Visually, I was initially drawn to “Les Nuit Etranges,” however, aside from the composition, it proved to be far less powerful then that of the photograph presented by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Although not as aesthetically procatative, the story behind the work sent chills down my spine and moreover usurped my initial reaction.
I was very much inspired by Richard Renaldi’s prolific body of work. The range of portraits stemming from cities throughout the country renders a diversified perspective of American culture. In my opinion, his photography is very much in the vein of August Sandler, a German portrait photographer of the early twenty-first century. However, unlike Sandler who aimed at portraying each facet of the populace, Richard documents those subsisting on the fridge of society. I believe his success as a photographer is ultimately rooted in his ability strip his subjects down to their natural state, lending an inexplicable honesty to his work.
Graduating in 1990 from New York University, he started his career, like many other photographers, developing and printing the photographs of others. However, while towing the line, he was able to afford the time to continue with his own work. The Christopher street pier, a haven of homeless and drunks ten years back, was his first inspiration. For five years he documented the lives of those who frequented the dock. With his 35 mm, Richard accumulated several hundred portraits, which unfortunately went unnoticed by publishers and art critics alike. Although this rejection was discouraging, he believes that the project reinforced a sense of discipline in his photography.
Renaldi then shifted focus towards the wealthier end of society lacing Madison Avenue. These photographs complemented those taken on the pier, and moreover triggered his transition to an eight by ten camera. I noticed an evident progression in the manner in which he structured the composition and also in the sincerity projected by his subjects. It seems as if working with large format redefined his approach towards portraiture, rendering it a more thoughtful process. The production of taking an 8 by 10 photograph is fairly time consuming and not of the same frivolous nature of digital or even 35 mm. His decision to begin shooting with larger format is impart responsible for the evident intimacy between him and his subject. The work stemming from the Upper East Side series landed him a place in the ICP triennial, which in a way dignified his work and fueled his artistic ambition.
From Newark, New Jersey, to Fresno, California, his focused veered towards documenting the individual in the context of the rustic urban environment, unveiling how this intrinsic relationship divulges the circumstances, and even the personality, of the subject. The photographs generated from this series engender a sense of nostalgia and moreover challenges our preconceived perception of beauty by demonstrating its presence in the grotesque. Although his art has elegantly evolved over the course of time, the repetition in his photographic approach distinguishes his work stylistically. His photographs are unmistakable even from the Fall River series, wherein he in theory strayed from his style, shifting to black and white and shooting abandoned building rather then strictly portraits. Given that the camera is an extension of the eye, his photography is ultimately a reaction, or rather a reflection, of life. Richard Renaldi perceives the world around him in a manner unlike any other and it is for this reason that his photography is so unique.
While under the unforgiving sun of India, an opportunity presented itself to attend a silent meditation retreat in Dharmasala, a city flooded with Tibetan refugees. At first hesitant to commit myself to what I was sure was going to be ten days of silent agony, I arrived at the monastery plagued with reservations. The first few days were, in all honesty, as brutal as expected, as never had I gone so long without speaking a word. The days were constituted of meditation, reading and yoga. After the first week, however, I began cultivating an acute awareness of the thoughts that hijacked my mind and kept me so hopelessly distracted while meditating. Eugen Herrigel articulates it best in his work, Zen in the Art of Archery, when he speaks of all the “moods, feelings, desires, worries and even thoughts that incontinently rise up in a meaningless jumble” (36). Herrigel’s reflection of this struggle is an insight into the difficulties that are enviably encountered in one pursuit of spirituality, whether it be through the medium of archery or silent meditation. Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy. Initially drawn to mysticism, he sought to understand Zen Buddhism through practicing the art of archery. His colleague Soza Komachiya, who had been taking lessons in archery for over 20 years, agreed to introduce him to his former teacher Master Kenzo Awa. Herrigel apprenticed himself to this Zen Master for nearly six years while residing in Japan. His experience serves as the inspiration for this book.
The ‘artless art’ of archery is ultimately a contest between the archer and himself. It is rooted, Herrigel explains, in an aspiration to attain an egoless state and actually has little to do with successfully hitting the target. In fact, the target was not even introduced into Eugen’s instruction until late into the practice. The pursuit is not one of sport, but one of gradual mastery of one’s self. Eugen Herrigel equates archery to “a preparatory school for Zen” (23). In a traditional sense, it is “a religious ritual” in which the skill of an athlete renders irrelevant. Thus, the ‘art’ of archery is fundamentally rooted in an individual’s ability to harness one’s spirituality. It is believed that the sportsman has no control of the fate of the arrow, which will independently pursue it rightful place at the center of the target. Evidently inspired by Zen Buddhism, the idea that the archer must learn to aim at himself, not the target, and in doing so will “succeed in hitting himself” (14) is perhaps most intriguing concept connected with archery. As Herrigel’s book unfolds, the seemingly contradictory statements constituting the fundamentals of Zen and art of archery become increasingly logical.
Zen in the Art of Archery unveils how the relationship between the pupil and the Master is unparalleled. Through his experiences, Eugen Herrigel admits that the “master knows his pupils” (23) often times better then the pupil knows himself and through this understanding the master is able to best instruct his subject. This wisdom is reciprocated by the unwavering devotion of his student, as “the Japanese pupil brings with him three things: good education, passionate love for his chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher” (40). At the commencement of his apprenticeship under Master Awa, Herrigel illustrates the necessity to surrender oneself to the will of the Master. Although at times Herrigel confesses he did not completely understand the significance behind Awa’s instructions, he learned to do as he was told without questioning its purpose. In the initial stages of his lessons, the Master placed a great emphasis on proper breathing and deep concentration, as it is a fundamental principal of Zen Buddhism. At first, Eugen found the breathing exercises not only difficult, but failed to grasp the significance of them. Nonetheless, he devoted himself to the practice, having faith in his Master’s guidance. After several months, he cultivated the ability to breath so effortlessly that at times he felt that it he himself was not who was “breathing but- strange as this may sound- being breathed”. He only began to understand the importance of breathing upon noticing the influence it had on his ability to effortlessly release the arrow. Yet, he admits that the challenges encountered in one’s pursuit of Zen “cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless”. This, of course, takes time.
The “Great Doctrine” is not something that can be explained, it can only be understood through experience. This is why whenever Eugen approached his Master with a question, Awa would often reply, “’don’t ask, practice’”(54). After 3 years, Eugen began to worry that his efforts were all in vein, as he was unable to grasp the basic fundamentals of Zen Buddhism through archery. His struggle was partly rooted in his inability to comprehend the concept of “it” loosing the bow, or in other words, the arrow loosing itself. For hours on end, he would try to make sense of the idea that “’It’ shot and ‘It’ made the hit” (59). Despite the Master’s incessant instruction regarding the bowstring’s release, it took Eugen’s several years of diligent practice before he was able to perform the release the arrow both mentally and physically effortlessly. Once able to loose this conscious control of his mind, he mastered the natural release of the arrow. It was only at this point in his instruction that his Master introduced a target into Herrigel’s practice.
In his embrace of “the spirit of the Great Doctrine” (11), it becomes increasingly evident how the art of archery can yield the state of detachment, self-abandonment and purposelessness intrinsic to Zen Buddhism. Eugen Herrigel illustrates through his experience how the archer must first disentangle himself from all the attachments and distractions plaguing the mind before succeeding at the ‘art’ of archery. His Master cultivates this understanding by reprimanding Eugen whenever he sees that, in reaction to his shot, Herrigel surrenders to a sentiment of either rejoice or disappointment. The archer must aspire, instead, to realize a state of utter indifference during shooting and in doing so achieves the desired state of selflessness. It is through this self-abandonment that, Eugen’s Master explains, an archer is no longer present as ‘himself’. The absence of the self and presence of the spirit alone renders an awareness that “shows no trace of egohood and for that reason ranges without limit through all distances and depths, with ‘eyes that hear and with ears that see’” (44). This egoless state yields the ability to become one with the collective consciousness constituting the external environment. No longer confined to the skin that separates him from the rest of the world, the archer becomes unable to differentiate himself from the arrow, the target and the bow. The idea that everything in this world is connected is intrinsic to the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism. In time, Eugen learns that “the hits on the target are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self abandonment” (56). Once you have grown truly egoless, you become indifferent to life or death, failure or success and thus “can break off at anytime” (51). The Master final lesson in detachment arrives at the conclusion of the apprenticeship when he hands over his sword to Eugen, asking that he takes it under the condition that when he has “‘passed beyond it, do not lay it up in remembrance! Destroy it, so that nothing remains but a heap of ashes’” (66). Eugen accepts the sword and returns to Europe a different man.
Released in 2001, The Royal Tenenbaums is in my opinion one of Wes Andersen’s finest artistic achievements. The dark comedy laces the lives of three prodigy children whose accomplishments as adolescents are juxtaposed with their anticlimactic adulthoods. The film renders a cleverly ironic and brutally offbeat humor that is as amusing as it is twisted. In short, it is a story of how Royal Tenenbaum, a role played by Gene Hackman, fakes stomach cancer in hopes of reconciling some sort of relationship with the family he had abandoned a decade prior. However, it’s difficult to discern whether his motives to reunite with his ex-wife and estranged children are rooted in the desire to rebuild a relationship or if it has to with the fact that he is broke and has been evicted from his apartment. The bizarrely tragic yet contemplative comedy, features several successful actors such as: Anjelica Huston, Owen and Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman and Bill Murray. For those unfamiliar with Andersen’s work, this is an almost staple cast for all of his films. His use of Mark Mothersbaugh’s music in his movies, along some old school eighties songs, is also typical.
Wes Anderson’s stylistic and shamelessly personal approach towards filmmaking renders his work inimitable. He emerges as an inspiration for my own work because his films are, in many respects, extensions of his peculiar personality. There are several distinctive ploys he has been known to use, which lends his work the unique character that sets his films apart from others. For instance, more often then not, I’ve noticed that there is an indisputable symmetry in the composition of each of his opening frames. Although this minute detail can easily be overlooked, it renders a subconscious satisfaction. It goes without saying that his films give the audience an insight into his bizarre, yet beautiful, perception of reality. Andersen’s incessant use of wide-angle lenses and bird’s eye view makes for unusual perspectives, as does his use of angles. Over the course of his career, he has crafted a unique style through eloquently employing a tapestry of mediums manifesting films that are, in my opinion, both conceptually and visually unparalleled.
His understanding of color and composition is evident through the idiosyncratic costuming of his characters and the bizarre backdrops he constructs. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Luke Wilson’s character Richie Tenenbaum sports the same attire throughout almost the entire duration of the film: a sweat band and slacks (as seen in image). It is only after he unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide that he sheds his former clothing and shaves his head. From this point on in the film, he is presented in a relatively somber light. This shift is illustrated in part by the reserved nature he takes on, but also via the absence of the sweatband and the fact that he dresses quite differently. Aside from his bandaged wrist and shaved head, his wardrobe change reflects his psychologically altered state of mind. It’s Andersen’s attention to seemingly simplistic details such as attaching symbolism to clothing that yields his work so brilliant.
Relying solely on a flawed protagonist to suffice, the absence of an antagonist in Wes Andersen’s work also sets his films apart. In general, his characters have the tendency to be privileged social outcast whose greatest achievements in life have already passed them by. Margo, Richie and Chas Tenenbaum were far more successful as children then as adults- their passed accomplishments overshadowed by their anticlimactic adulthoods. Portrayed as narcissistic and apathetic, they harbor traits that emerge ultimately as their fatal flaws, lending the story an almost Shakespearean overtone. The need for an antagonist thus renders useless, as the protagonist is self-destructive and therefore habitually responsible for his or her own downfall. Having the main character be their own worst enemy is, by Hollywood standards, a fairly unconventional approach towards character development- which is yet another reason why I appreciate this particular directors approach: he doesn’t conform to the expectations of the film industry.
Another example of this stray from the norm is the fact that there is very little insinuation of sex, let alone sex scenes, in any of his movies- whereas most filmmakers exploit the aforementioned in hopes of making a pretty penny at the box office. The complicity of love is another thread running through Andersen’s work. Portrayed as something unattainable, the intimate relationships presented in his films are incessantly depicted as hopeless. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie Tenenbuam falls in love with his adopted sister Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow). This perverse predicament (portrayed in image) is paralleled with the Tenenbaum family’s evident inability to display the slightest sentiment of intimacy towards one another, even an embrace as harmless as a hug is portrayed as incredibly awkward. Given that his work has the tendency to serve as a means of self-reflection, one can assume that this pessimistic perception on the issue of love and its inability to survive the unpredictability and injustice of life is an insight into Andersen’s own experiences.
I find that the most intriguing aspect of The Royal Tenenbaums is the fact that the entire story is presented in the vein of a novel. Andersen is renowned for his atypical approach towards delivering a storyline. Rushmore, an earlier film of his, was presented as a stage play and his last piece, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as a documentary. This unusual manner of delivering a feature film renders his work truly unique. Yet, unfortunately, his refusal to conform to various Hollywood standards has denied him the rightful recognition he deserves. This is not to say, of course, that his movies haven’t been well received, it just that by and large he hasn’t been granted the appreciation he merits from the media and public alike. His failure to dominate the mainstream is perhaps rooted in the masses inability to fully grasp the beauty of what he is trying to do. Andersen, on the other hand, seems unwilling to compromise his style in order to appease the public, which is another reason why I harbor such respect for the man. So he substitutes sex with bizarre incestual love interests, the staple antagonist for a flawed protagonist and in doing so swims against the mainstream. It is for this reason that Wes Andersen emerges as such an inspiration to me. He not only defies the limitations of the medium, but redefines what they can be. The Royal Tenenbaum serving as a testament of his unparalleled methodology towards filmmaking.
Although I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby more times than I have fingers, there is something inexplicable about the work that renders it inexhautibly interesting. The story is in a sense like an onion- each time I read it I come away with a different take on what Fitzgerald’s intent was when writing the novel. Set during the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby offers an insight into an era when unprecedented prosperity graced the nation. Desguising it as a love story, Fitzgerald wrote the novel as a critique of the moral and social decay the country suffered during the decade long economic boom. Moreover, he sheds light on the ways in which the American Dream, built initially on the pursuit of individualism and happiness, had been corrupted by greed and rampant hedonism. Illustrating through Gatsby’s character the affluence harvested from hard work, Fitzgerald does not go as far to deny the haven of possibilities stemming from this social cliché, however he examines the ways in which social mobility has been perverted by the empty pursuit of money.
The disillusionment of the wealthy can be partially understood by the old sayings: POWER CORRUPTS, ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY. American society has struggled throughout its history to reconcile the economic disparity resulting from the recurring situation wherein an unprecedented amount of wealth and power is placed in the hands of but a few. The disconnected bourgeois class projects the disillusion that happiness can be bought. The motivation to achieve a greater social standing is thus skewed, as the masses are mislead to believe that financial gain, rather than passion, should be the driving force behind their social mobility. Fitzgerald delineates in his work how our ambitions can be blindly fueled by flawed motives instilled by society, and how often times upon realizing financial splendor, we find ourselves unhappy, our accomplishments ultimately rendering themselves in vein. Gatsby proves that through hard work the American Dream can be realized, however with his motives rooted in impressing Daisy via money, he inevitably fails because someone’s heart is not a commodity that can be bought. Although Fitzgerald wrote this novel nearly a century ago about a social phenomenon that graced a bygone era, the work emerges as his finest achievement namely because it demonstrates a resistance to the decay of time. Despite the economic and political changes that have reshaped the nation, his critique of the repercussions of affluence and the social gap that results is still applicable to today’s society, as is the fact that hard work renders the possibility of social mobility. Yet his most timeless illustration is how financial gain, if not achieved through motives outside of money, will yield to an empty and materialistic existence.
I am not one to prescribe to the idea that everything happens for a reason, nor is Gatsby for that matter. Gatsby rejects the social limitations of his class, and through hard work earns a pretty penny for himself. In a sense, he’s evidence of the endless prospects the cliché of the American Dream promises. Defying the odds, he extricates himself from the economic implications of his class, climbing in social standing. It not fate as much as circumstance. Via good work ethic, he overcame the ocean of obstacles that would prevent someone of his intial status to achieve the lavish lifestyle of his later years. In truth, the only limitations in life are those in which one erects. F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates in his novel how we as humans create our own realities, an idea that is as formidable as it is ageless. For years, I have carried this belief along with me. My insecurities about professionally pursuing photography waned once conscoius of the possibility that I may not have to comprimise either my passion or my material confront, just as long as I believe in myself and my ability to overcome the odds. The idea presented by Fitzgerald in his novel that determination and ambition vanquishes limitations has played a role in my creative process in that I feel as if there is nothing that I cannot do, no where I cannot go and no feat too great to overcome. Like I said, reality is ours to manifest, and thus the possibilities are boundless- when told to think outside the box, I retort- what box?
It’s difficult to say what fuels our ambitions. In the case of Gatsby, it was his love for Daisy that drove him towards prosperity, as he couldn’t afford as a young men to cater to the absurd materialism that defined her lifestyle. Unlike many, his wish to be financially successful was rooted not material excess, but rather in his hope to impress a woman. I find that often times, we entangle ourselves in the expectations of others, our ambitions fueled by motives not of our own. Consumed by desires planted in our minds by outside influences, we blindly strive to emulate the ideals society has put forth for us. So often people in their uninhibited pursuit of wealth find themselves miserably stuck in money-driven careers, believeing that their happiness resides in a paycheck. From this predicament, a paradox emerges. I’ve always been torn between whether I should focus on becoming financially stable with a job that pays the bills or if I should risk comprising my work and quality of life by pursuing a career I’m passionate about- such as photography. Although money has the facility to buy time, fine food, a ticket to Tibet and an apartment in Paris- there is no promise that it will make you happy in the end. Ultimately, I’ve embraced the fact that I would rather sacrafice the promise of prosperity than abandon my passion for art. Life is too short to be disillusioned by the superficial happiness rendered by materialism.
Reservations remain, nonetheless, in my resolution to become a photojournalist. Although I have no doubt that my descision is based on my own expectations and fueled by a strong ambition, life is still an ocean if incertainity. In short, even with a good work ethic driven by justifiable motives its difficult to go as far to say that disapointment and failure is unavoidable. Fitzgerald illustrates this fundamental fact of life by showing how Gatsby proved unable, despite his efforts, to win over the heart of Daisy. Throughout my life and, in particular, my career as a photographer there has been countless instances that my hopes have been let down. Ultimately, I’ve come to embrace that one must cultivate a thick skin to be in a business such as this one. My career thus so far has been laced with rejections for galleries, museum shows, magazines and prestigious art schools. I’ve learn not only to accept it as part of the job, but furthermore I not longer allow myself to be dissuaded by discouragement. Disapointment is a part of life and, in truth, satisfaction is the death of desire. Once able to separate yourself from the expectations of society and those who opinions you trick yourself into believeing matter, you will realize your hands are free and your creativity unrestrained.
My initial inspiration for this exhibition was rooted in the aspiration to present a body of work constituted of artists I consider played an indispensable role in determining the evolution of art in twentieth century. My hopes are to illustrate the extent to which these individuals redefined the constraints of a medium, triggering artistic movements and challenging society’s perception of what can constitute art. Furthermore, I intend to trace the progression and direction the art world has taken as a result of their contribution. Amid the onslaught of modernity, the work generated in the past century contradicts the pillars of traditional artwork it preceded. Artists such as Egon Sciele, Tamara DeLempicka and Matisse were all crucial players in manipulating the medium with which they worked. Tearing down past preconceptions of fine art, the transgression of stylistic boundaries defied the limitations of its precedent. The artists lacing the walls of this exhibit, despite the disparity in their technique and methodology, have in one respect or another influenced the manner in which we regard contemporary art. Subsisting during different points in history, several of the artists were subject to criticism while others were highly acclaimed. The conflicting circumstances experienced by each of the artists are reflected in their work and serve to explicate the differing depictions of reality. I am eager to observe how the reaction of the public today will compare to that of the past and more over survey how one’s appreciation for a painting can shift when put in relation to the work of another artist.
Given that art is a representation of reality, I believe that it is essential when considering a composition to place it in its proper temporal context while also taking into account the life led by the artist, dissecting the automy of pain and happiness lacing their years. A work of art not only unveils how the artist perceived the outside world, but also renders an insight into the social turmoil plaguing the time through which they subsisted. To neglect the socio-economic circumstances paralleling the artist’s life denies one the possibility of formulating an accurate analysis of their art. Thus, before I go into great detail about the piece of work itself, I will provide some preliminary information regarding the artist’s life and the public’s reaction to their artistic contribution. Furthermore, I believe it is best if I present the artists in a slightly chronological order so to illustrate the progression and direction the art world took, perhaps shedding light on the manner in which these artists influenced one another.
I will begin with the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, whose figurative paintings in the early 20th century were dismissed as inconsequential during his lifetime. As a protégé of the great Gustav Klimt, his prolific body of work has in retrospect had a great influence on the art world. However, due to his premature death at the age of twenty-eight, he never lived to receive proper recognition for his work. His subsistence as a social outcast stemmed from the vulgar nature of his sketches, which oftentimes rendered prostitutes and under-aged girls undressed and erotically positioned. At the dawn of the 20th century, the German society proved incapable of tolerating the raw representations of his stripped female figures. However, Schiele’s racy illustrations can be conceived as controversial regardless of their temporal context, as even today several of his sketches are considered revolting. Egon Schiele fails to delineate the women’s body in an untainted light, finding beauty in the grotesque, he exploits the vulgar and raw nature of their contorted corporal frames.
When presented with the predicament of which sketch of Schieles’ to exhibit “Girl with Black Hair” emerged as the most formidable illustration of his style, technique and vision. This particular sketch depicts a young woman reclining gracefully backwards with her legs spread and her genitalia shamefully exposed. The expression she wears teeters between seduction and unbearable boredom. Her eyes are darkly outlined and stare crookedly out from behind her open thighs. This provocative and expressively erotic depiction of the woman’s body is quintessential of Schiele’s work. The dark shades of cobalt blue and maroon are worked into the black of the woman’s hair and dress. Schiele’s delicate lines and lush brush strokes are fluid and free. The subject is not delineated in great detail, yet Schiele seems to harbor the ability to communicate what is absent via the manipulation of negative space. He neglects to draw the woman with arms and legs, yet the image fares fine without. The perspective of the painting is taken from above, a vantage point which is typical of Schiele’s work. Yet, the “Girl with Black Hair”, like much of his work, fell through the cracks of the social norm, starving him of the recognition he rightfully deserved. It is specifically for this reason that I have chosen to exhibit his work in this show, as I am anxious to observe how the public’s perception of him has shifted in this day in age.
Unlike Egon Scheile, who never lived to see the artistic influence of his contribution, Tamara DeLempicka took the art world by storm. Perhaps one of the most renowned and prolific artists of the art deco period, her work was as innovative as it was expressive. Heavily influenced by cubism, her massive geometric paintings were oftentimes portraits commissioned by the elite. In Russia during the revolution and Paris during the roaring twenties, her experiences bled onto canvas, rendering a unique insight into the social circumstances plaguing the global stage during her lifetime. Best described as a glamorous bohemian, she was famous for her beauty and scandalous demeanor. Aside from her artistically gifted eye, her socialite status and facility to network also played a crucial role in DeLimpicka’s success as a painter. A friend of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, Tamara DeLempicka was very well connected while in Paris and consequently emerged one of the most sought after portrait artists of her time. In retrospect, she is not incredibly well recognized in relation to the other great artists of the time. Her fame graced the years of her life and extinguished with her death.
For this exhibition, I was initially inclined to incorporate one of Tamara DeLempicka’s countless portraits of the bourgeoisie, as it is quintessential of her style and subject matter. However, after careful consideration I’ve resolved to put on display one of the few paintings of hers that was done without a commission. It is not as if her commissioned work was void of any inspiration outside of financial gain, however the portrait on exhibit was painted on her own accord offering perhaps an even greater insight into her artistic intellect. The composition depicts a woman stripped of her clothing and chained at the wrist. Her eyes look upwards towards the heavens. Geometric in shape and form, the influence of cubism is evident in her methodology of breaking up space. The colors consist of muted flesh tones and a shallow range of grays. There is a strong contrast between her bare figure, the stain of shadows and the crude city the serves as the backdrop. The sensual shape of her curved figure is juxtaposed with the harsh, jagged profile of the skyline outside. The chains that bind her wrist symbolize her imprisonment in a world overwhelmed by inequality, needless brutality and intolerance. Her nudity expresses her vulnerability and her red lipstick lends the connotation of femininity. In a sense, this painting unveils DeLempicka’s aspirations to illustrate the emotional turmoil she experienced subsisting in an age laced with uncertainty and hatred.
In contrast to Tamara DeLempicka, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is an artist of an entirely different breed. Although never starved of recognition, her experience as a painter differed greatly from that of DeLempickas’. Kahlo “pretended not to consider her work important, she preferred to be seen as a beguiling personality rather than as a painter.” (Herrera 52). For Frida, her paintings were merely an expression of her inner self. She once wrote, “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to” (Herrera 60). Her body of work, which is namely constituted of self-portraits, expresses the pain and anguish that plagued her existence. Gracing the first half of the twentieth century, she is described by most art historians as a painter that teetered between the realms of Surrealism and Realism. Yet, in retrospect, Frida’s work is not so much a product of a movement but rather an earnest expression of her torn self. In all honesty, I have always questioned whether she was even aware of her role in the Surrealist movement prior to meeting Andre Breton. Her stylistic vision had no precedent and few have successfully ensued in a similar vein of illustration. Infused with symbolic expressions of her physical pain, her self-portraits depict the alienation of suffering she grew to despise. After having endured a serious bus accident, countless surgeries and a miscarriage, her body became a physical manifestation of her mental state. For Frida, painting was a means of channeling the misery she grew weary of harboring.
For this exhibition, I have chosen the painting entitled, “The Broken Column,” as I believe it eloquently illustrates Frida’s ability to render the burden of suffering in a vain almost insufferable to observe. This painting is, like much of her work, a self-portrait. In the center of the canvas, she sits, spine straight, eyes staring fiercely out. Nails are driven into the torso of her stripped body that at its center splits. The fission that tears her apart is held open by a column riddled with cracks. This detail renders the visual metaphor that she, like the column, is broken. Her nudity suggests vulnerability and the innumerable nails piercing her prove to be worthless adjuncts that needlessly puncture her stripped body. Although tears blotch her sunken face, her eyes do not cry. There is a sense of dignity in her expression that veils the overwhelming agony and excruciating physical suffering she evidently endures. In the background lies a barren and endless field, which illustrates further her emotional and physical isolation. Her paintings evoke the realization that she was alone in her suffering. Exalting a “feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering” (Herrera 59), Frida’s paintings express the inexplicable. Her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, perhaps best articulated Frida’s ability to put “agonized poetry on canvas” (Herrera 23).
Straying far from the artistic norm, the Spanish artist Salvador Dali’s art subsisted, like Frida, within the realms of Surrealism. However, unlike Kahlo, who was oblivious to her place in the artistic movement, Dali knowingly stood at the forefront despite Breton’s skepticism. A legend in his own mind and, in retrospect, an icon of the surrealist movement, Dali’s beautiful and bizarre depictions can be best described as vivid manifestations of his perverse imagination. Inspired by the fantastical images that sprang from his subconscious, the obscure nature of Dali’s paintings was justified by Freud’s theory on the mind. Furthermore, Salvador harbored an incredible propensity for realism within the realms of the Surrealist world. He arrived at his artistic ability after years of laboring over the technical aspects of traditional art. His outlandish attire and flamboyant mannerisms secured his place in the public eye. Furthermore, Salvador Dali, unlike many artists, was highly acclaimed during his life for the great painter he was.
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” emerges as one of his most recognized works of art. Also referred to as “Melting Clocks”, this painting denotes the ephemeral nature of time. The depiction of concrete objects melting alone in a barren plain with a horizon laced with cliffs renders the nonsensical and disillusioned effect surrealist strove to achieve. Dali’s “imperialist fury of precision,” (Montagu 42) and “paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” (Montagu 42) afford absolute and utter “confusion and thus help discredit completely the world of reality” (Montagu 43). In this piece, ants serve to symbolize the idea of decay, as they incessantly eat away at the gold watch that rest on the edge of a ledge. The three limp clocks that are strung around the canvas contradict any inclination towards the assumption that time is laced with a degree of permanence. The androgynous profile of perhaps Salvador himself sits in the center of the canvas. His presence in the painting proves that he too cannot escape the inevitability of death. Ultimately, this depiction grotesquely yet skillfully illustrates the decay of time, proving that the only unchanging truth in life is that life is always changing. Laced with unpredictability, life is fleeting, yet Salvador embraces this truth, acknowledging that his heart too will cease to beat one day.
To move on to another great painter, Henri Matisse subsisted during the same point in history as Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo, however his artwork cannot come close to comparing. Henri Matisse is regarded as one of the most important French painters of the past century. Although a prolific printmaker and sculptor, he is best known as a painter. His work is recognized for its vivid use of color and the fluidity of his brushstrokes. Early in his career, he led the Fauvist movement, which has been denoted as one of the first great avant-garde movements to grace the twentieth century. Inspired by expressionism, the paintings generated during this movement are best characterized by their use of bright and exuberant colors. Yet Matisse contribution to Fauvism marked only the start of his career. Over the years, his style evolved tremendously. Most critics would agree that Matisse harbored an inexplicable and intrinsic understanding of color and composition. He achieved international recognition during his life and is arguably one of the most famous painters lacing the walls of this exhibition today.
It was incredibly tasking to discern which painting would best exemplify Matisse’s style and vision due to the enormity of his portfolio. Yet the agony of this indecisiveness subsided upon reaching the resolution that Henri Matisse’ Still-life with Blue Tablecloth serves as, if not the best, at least a viable testament of his talent. Although the still life is, in theory, a mere depiction of a few items resting on a table, I’ve chosen this painting because upon closer examination the technical skill required to render this seemingly simplistic portrayal is unveiled. The complicity of this composition primarily lies in the ambiguous nature of its backdrop, which is blanketed by a blue and white sheet. In the foreground sits three still life studies– an olive green flask, a coffee pot and a bowl of fruit. Although, in theory, the image should appear flat due to the two-dimensional disposition one would imagine a printed fabric would inevitably render, Matisse skillfully communicates depth without relying on traditional methods of representation. The three still life objects do not appear to sit atop a table, but rather float within the space of the sheet while simultaneously remaining grounded.
Matisse’s inventive manipulation of space advocates that he was not so much a realist but rather a man whose inspiration stemmed from his imagination. Rendering the obscured reality of his unique perception, Matisse’s visual deception presents a paradoxical representation of objects that despite their tangibility defy not only the laws of gravity, but also rational reasoning. His brush strokes are fierce and fluid. In Still-life with Blue Tablecloth, Matisse uses various shades of cobalt blue in his depiction of the backdrop. The still lives are painted in bright complementary colors such as tangerine orange, pea green and bright yellow. The bowl of fruit sits slightly behind the green flask, breaking down the dynamics of the space and further reinforcing the perception of depth. Matisse’s genius lies perhaps in his ability to disguise the complicity of a composition by delineating it as a simplistic portrayal, the fluidity in his brushstrokes rendering the disillusion that the depiction was effortlessly composed.
Although Matisse’s influence on the art world is indisputable, it would be imprudent to define art solely within the confines of visual representation. Thus, I’ve decided to incorporate several musicians into the exposition, as I feel their sway in society should not be overlooked. I’ve resolved to exhibit the work of Nina Simone, as she is a woman I have always harbored profound respect and admiration for. Known to many as the “High Priestess of Soul”, it would be thoughtless to classify her as solely a Jazz musician since she was not the type to be pigeonholed to one identity. Singer, songwriter, pianist, actress and activist, Nina Simone was a woman who couldn’t be confined to one career or stifled by the social implications of her race. Her vocal versatility is evident through her embrace of genres ranging from blues to gospel, jazz and folk. Although I find much of her music incredibly inspiring, I have chosen to include the song Ain’t Got No as part of this exhibition as I believe it conveys best Nina Simone’s vocal versatility and lyrical creativity. Illustrating the necessity to transcend the difficulties of life, the song is ultimately about appreciating what it is that you already have, rather then focusing on what it is that you don’t. Her appreciation for what many take for granted is as uplifting as it is inspiring. The song expresses her overwhelming gratitude just to be alive, to have fingers and toes and legs that move. The simplicity of her appreciation is perhaps what I love most about the song. It is nearly impossible not to smile while listening to her vocalizes the joy of having a liver and boobies.
In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this song’s lyrics, one must be conscious of the circumstances binding the individual who wrote them. Nina Simone was not only a woman, but a black woman, living in an era when neither were easy identities to inhabit. However, amid the turmoil of the civil rights and feminist movement, Nina Simone defied the odds and became an almost iconic figure in the jazz world. In the wake of great social and racial injustice, she neglected the limitations stemming from the color of her skin and sang fearlessly about the inequality plaguing the nation. Although her song, Ain’t Got No is not of the many in her repertoire that express her anger towards the intolerant nation, it does illustrate her ability to transcend the racial injustice afflicting her generation via focusing solely on the good in life. Ain’t Got No conveys the notion that we don’t even have enough fingers to count all of our blessings. The seemingly simplistic form of gratitude is ultimately bliss in its purest form. Nina Simone proves to have the ability to see beauty where others see pain, see hope where others see misery.
To shift gears from one medium to another, artist David Hockney, unlike Nina Simone, met little to no resistance as an artist. His career as a painter and photographer has been blessed with incessant success. Born in Britain, Hockney has had a strong presence in the art world for the past forty years. Nonetheless, it is difficult to place his art in the context of modernity, as despite his style and the public’s perception of his being a Pop artist, he like Nina refuses to be pigeonholed to one movement. Openly homosexual, his promiscuous relationships are no secret. In this respect, Nina Simone and David Hockney share the experience of being marginalized, and similarly have responded to this discrimination by embracing their minority status. Although his paintings have been regarded at times as somewhat unconventional, they are by and large well received by the public and critics alike. Typified by their vivid colors and simplistic settings, Hockney’s work can be best recognized by the unique and geometric style he employs. Heavily influenced by cubism and the Los Angeles landscape and lifestyle, his artistic approach flourished upon moving to the States in the early 1960’s. Unlike many artists lacing the walls of this exhibition, Hockney’s paintings are far from a testament of displaced pain, but rather an unparalleled depiction of the monotony of everyday life.
I have decided to exhibit the painting entitled “A Bigger Splash” as I believe it in a sense epitomizes Hockney’s style. Painted in the late 1960s, the work depicts a tranquil summer afternoon in California. Judging by the shadows, or rather lack thereof, it appears to be midday. The sun hangs high in the cloudless pale blue sky lending an impression of unbearable heat. Hockney’s ability to artistically articulate a sweltering summer day and the exacerbation of tedium is perhaps where his talent lies. A cabana and two solitary palm trees break the continuity of the empty sky. In the foreground a yellow diving board juts out and slices into a swimming pool. A splash in the water interrupts the pool’s otherwise placid surface and serves as the only evidence of life. The skeletal lines of the splatter break the balance of the geometric composition. Aside from the splash of water, the image is flat, not necessarily in that it lacks depth but in its two dimensional deconstruction of space. The angular abstraction of the composition is threatened by the splash by the unseen subject. The mundane depiction translates as a simplified view of the world at large. However, like much the work of David Hockney, there is something inexplicably discomforting about the simplistic scene.
While David Hockney was painting by his poolside in Los Angeles, Cindy Sherman photographs were beginning to catch the eye of the New York art scene. Known for her conceptual self-portraits, the American artist has been regarded by countless critics as one of the most influential female photographers of the late twentieth century. Initially finding the technical aspect of photography far too complex, Sherman started off her career as an oil painter. However, inevitably she came to embrace the medium in her mid-twenties and has been an innovative presence in the photography world ever since. So attracted she was to the immediate gratification rendered from taking of picture that she disregarded the necessity of instruction and began just offhandedly snapping photographs. The experience of arresting and collecting fragments of time unleashed in Sherman a fierce creativity that separates her from other artists.
Sherman’s body of work is primarily constituted of self-portraits. However, one must discard any prior preconception of what a “self-portrait” actually entails in order to comprehend what is meant by the aforementioned avowal, as each of her portraits portrays her in a different fashion. It is in this sense that her work brings into question the politics of identity. Outfitted in an array of attire from pornographic movie star to war veteran, the assorted characters that thread through her body of work render a range of portrayals representing her with countless personalities. While in one series she might adorn herself in the vain of a film noir actress, in another she has herself ridiculously decked out as a clown. The disparity of identities she chooses to inhabit really have no end. She is known for generating work that through the instrument of disguise can project both political outrage as well as a temperament of victimization and suffering.
Cindy Sherman’s self portraits have been regarded as a social critique on the stereotypes regarding sex and gender. Her photographs challenge the viewer to question the way in which a woman’s role in society is manipulated by the mass media. By the act of mimesis, she unveils the perverse and eclectic manner in which a woman’s body is positioned in the context of the patriarchal hierarchy. However, when confronted about the nature of her work, she states, “the work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff” (Bronfen 83). Although present in each and every one of her photographs, she strives as an artist to separate her politics from her work, thus rendering it open to interpretation and free from the constraints of preconceived notions regarding its signification.
When faced with the decision to select a photograph to place on exhibition for the opening, I found myself torn. The diversity in Cindy Sherman’s stylistic aim is so immense that it is difficult to discern which portrait serves as the best representation of her work. The photograph I have chosen perhaps does not do her justice, yet it at the very least lends an insight into her artistic vision. The portrait is untitled and portrays Sherman curled up in a fetus-like position. The photograph projects a clash of vulnerability, anticipation and victimization. One hand rest just below her breasts, the other gently supports her slightly tilted head. The expression on her face is inscrutable. Her glazed over eyes and deflected gaze divulge little of what passes through her mind. One is unable to decipher whether she is on the verge of hystery or lingering in a state of mindless detachment. Even more bewildering is the fact that she is soaking wet; her hair and white t-shirt cling to her contorted body. A harsh blinding light bleeds into the frame from the right hand side of the picture throwing shadows across her figure. A stark contrast is rendered and darkness consumes her bent body. Although Sherman’s feminist politics subsist below the surface, this compelling composition constructs an opened ended narrative free from constraints and up to interpretation.
Another great feminist to grace the latter half the twentieth century was the singer, songwriter Ani Difranco. The outspoken and prolific artist has been generating music for the over twenty years now, starting her career off at the ripe age of eighteen. Her music fails to fall under any fixed musical genre, but can be perhaps best described as an innovative form of folk with a focus on contemporary social issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and war. Her lyrics are poetic and personal and there is a violent yet unparalleled manner at which she slashes at her classical guitar rendering a raw and unadulterated sound. As a political and woman’s rights activist, her music strays from the lyrical expectations lacing the mainstream. However, the formation of her own record label liberated her from the constraints of popular culture and furthermore secures her the freedom to speak her mind regardless of the consequences. Her songs, fleshed out with a sense of urgency and defiance, are rooted predominately in social critique and political outrage. Incredibly prolific, Difranco has generated over twenty albums in the past decade alone. Over the throbbing pulse of her acoustic guitar, her elegant language affords her the recognition of being an exquisite poet. She is perhaps best described in her own words, “I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am. I do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the world song is a colorless dirge without the differences that distinguish us, and it is that difference, which should be celebrated, not condemned.”
Ani Difranco’s fourteenth album, “To the Teeth”, intertwines her melodic vignettes and beautiful acoustic sound with edgy lyrics that deride the political corruption plaguing America at the turn of the century. Released in 1999, the CD’s experimental and atypical sound amalgamates genres of jazz, folk and funk. Shedding light on issues such as racial inequality, abortion and rape, the album serves as an ideal illustration of her style, sound and aim. The CD opens with the track for which it was named after, “To the Teeth”. As a response to the Columbine School shootings, this song serves as a critique on the gun culture of America and disparages the NRA for lobbying arms. “Hello Birmingham” ensues this song as an accolade to Barnett Slepian, an abortion doctor murdered in Alabama. Track four follows with a sound straying from the aforementioned, unveiling Ani Difranco stylistic aim and experimental manipulation of melody with the electronically distinctive sound of “Freakshow”. The lyrical protests and vicious acoustic harmony render an edginess that is hard to define. The album “To the Teeth” unveils Difranco’s unparalleled skill to eloquently articulate what passes through her head. In a time when pop culture is predominately dominated by brainless blonds who exploit their sexuality in return for fame, Ani Difranco’s songs serve as a refuge.
Moving on from one feminist to another, American poet Sylvia Plath subsisted several decades prior to Ani Difranco, her poetry serving as an inspiration to Difranco and countless other female writers in this day and age. Plath is perhaps best known for her ability to articulate the unbearable agony of depression and the social constraints of sexism. By and large, her body of work was not highly esteemed during her lifetime. Straying from convention, her poetry was oftentimes regarded as a morbid manifestation of her misery. She has been criticized for her allusions to self-mutilation and insinuation towards a sexually charged relationship with her father. Veiling her verbal intentions with obscure yet masterly constructed metaphors, Plath defied the social norms of her era. Although her first book, “The Colossus”, was fairly well received by critics, the book to follow, “Ariel” proved to be incredibly controversial. Regardless of the public reaction, I believe “Ariel” serves as a better illustration of her work as it bares the marks of her descent into mental illness and is stripped of the conventional techniques she employed prior.
Unlike its precedent, “Ariel” eloquently demonstrates the facility at which Sylvia Plath strung together words. The poems constituting the book are far more confessional then that of her earlier work, marking a significant turning point in her career as a poet. The maudlin portrayal of mental illness and inclination towards suicide offer an alarming autobiographical depiction that ensuing her sudden death triggered social outrage. Subsisting during an era where gender inequality was rampant, this book serves as a testament of her outspoken opposition to the prescribed place of women in society. The collection of poems was first published in 1965, two years after her suicide. Sylvia Plath had left the completed manuscript in a licked envelope in the top drawer of her worn desk. It was her husband, poet Ted Hughes, who edited and later published it. Whether Sylvia Plath initially harbored the intention for her work to be released to the general public and read by the eyes of strangers remains unsure. Nonetheless, the work renders an insight into the dangerous neighborhoods of Plath’s mind that she so frequently wandered through. Furthermore the book unveils the torment and frustration that laced her lifetime up until the morning of her suicide.
Although I hate to end on such a sudden and somber note, Sylvia Plath is my final addition to this exhibition. As a poet, her contribution to the world at large has, like each and every one of the individuals on exhibit today, left a lingering and indisputable impression on contemporary society. I hope in observing the works lacing the walls of this collection, it becomes evident how these artists have influenced one another over the course of time. The disparity in representation unveils that each reflects a differing socio-economic reality plaguing the time through which the artist subsisted. In passing through the halls of this impressive collection, strive to regard the works of art individually as well as in relation to one another, as I believe this approach renders an unparalleled insight. The twentieth century has served as a haven for artistic innovation fueled by these prolific artists. Despite the disparity style, circumstance and recognition, the art on exhibit today should be viewed through a lens that considers each work in the context of the artistic evolution that defined the twentieth century.