Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art, Sacrilege, and Myrmidons

Ants on a crucifix I was watching John King's show on CNN the other night, and he had a segment about the recent hoo-raw concerning the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit concerning LGBT themes and artists, as well as works of art relating to AIDS.

One video seemed to draw criticism and ire from the Catholic League and some politicians. The video, "A Fire in my Belly," is a four-minute version of a longer video made by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. The full exhibit, titled "Hide/Seek" contains nudity and graphic images with homoerotic themes, but what drew the most attention was one particular image in the video: ants crawling over a crucifix.

The president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, described it as "hate speech against Christians." I'm sorry to say that the curators of the museum bowed to pressure and pulled the video, although the remainder of the exhibit is still in place (with a warning that it contains mature themes).

Some politicians joined in condemning the exhibit. Both John Boehner and Eric Cantor decided to weigh in on it, wondering why taxpayers were funding such offensive images, although they apparently condemned it without actually making the trip to the Smithsonian to see it for themselves. One Congressman, Dan Lungren of California, sent a written statement to CNN in which he said that the Republicans plan to review the process by which the Smithsonian's exhibits are chosen.

The exhibit was privately funded; taxpayer money was used for the building facilities and maintenance, not the exhibit.

King interviewed Brent Bozell, the president of the Media Research Center, an organization whose goal is to "bring balance to the news media," which they believe has a liberal bias; also present was Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post.

First of all, I would dearly love to smack that smug expression off of Bozell's face. Better yet, I'd like to grab that pen that he keeps gesturing with out of his hand and jam it into his eye socket. But I digress.

Bozell condemns not just the ant-covered crucifix, which he said was purposefully offensive to Christians, but also the entire exhibit, saying that if you like that sort of thing, you can find it in "some seedy art something somewhere." This is an exhibit that includes works from artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Annie Leibowitz. He seems to advocate cutting federal funding of the Smithsonian, if they are going to display exhibits such as this. When Gopnik tries to offer an alternative interpretation to the ant-covered crucifix, that it shows the suffering that Christ endured and compares it to the suffering that AIDS patients experience, Bozell brushes it off with a pshaw and a puh-eeze.

Bozell condemns the image as sacrilegious, and Gopnik counters with "Who decides what is art?" In reading some of the comments included with the CNN story, some people raised the recent Mohammed controversy. Remember that? A Dutch cartoonist received death threats for his drawings of Mohammed. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were censored by Comedy Central for their South Park episode in which they depicted Mohammed. There was a national Draw Mohammed Day in which we all made our own little drawings or pictures and posted them. There were plenty of people who ridiculed Muslims for having such a rigid and unyielding faith that they were willing to kill others for making a drawing of their prophet...and the ridicule was rightly deserved, in my opinion. However, you can bet that plenty of those doing the ridiculing are also saying that an ant-covered crucifix is wrong and sacrilegious. Some are saying that "all religions should be respected." For the vast majority, I call bullshit. What they mean is "MY religion should be respected. I don't give a fuck about yours."

Kandinsky I'm not going to get into a theological debate about this, although there are elements of it involved. I think the broader point is Gopnik's: Who decides what is art? Art speaks to people in different ways. Do you like Jackson Pollock? Wasilly Kandinsky? Andy Warhol? Edward Hopper? Maxfield Parrish? Daniel Edwards? These are some of my favorites, but they're not for everyone. Some see nothing but paint trails in a Pollock; I see energy and excitement. Some see nothing but geometric shapes and squiggles from Kandinsky; I see exuberance and chaotic color. Some see obscenity in my friend Dan's sculptures; I see a biting statement on our fascination with celebrity.

And in the case of the ant-covered crucifix (which I believe is the next Nancy Drew mystery due out soon), I don't see sacrilege; I see a poignant statement of suffering, one that was endured by the artist himself. (I suppose you can feel free to tell me that there is no suffering like that endured by Christ on the cross. I'll say that you've never seen anyone slowly dying from AIDS. At least for Christ, it was allegedly over with in six hours or so. You can also feel free to say that I'm being sacrilegious. I won't really care.) Art appreciation is subjective. Sometimes you have to look at it and let your emotions run free. Let yourself figure out what it engenders in you, what experience it gives you or reminds you of. I remember seeing a rather disturbing work in the Dayton Art Institute a few years ago (actually a fine little art museum that I enjoyed very much). I don't recall the artist, but it was a dark work that bothered me on some subconscious level. I didn't "like" it per se, but I was transfixed by it as I tried to figured out why it bothered me. I never did figure it out, but it was a neat experience.

Hopper I feel sorry for people like Bozell, who obviously is so blinded by his faith that he can't see any alternative interpretation to something like this. His world is one of black and white, crisp edges, and clean boundaries--and sensibilities that are way too easily offended. It is a lot of fun to explore a little bit, to try to get beyond your initial feelings of revulsion? uneasiness? anger? Whatever it is that is triggered in you, try to figure out what it is and why. The artist was feeling a particular emotion when he or she created their work; take the time to wonder if their state of mind matches yours. Or try to see if you can figure out what response they wanted to elicit from you. It's all just expression, and one of the coolest things about our country is that we have the freedom to express ourselves. To paraphrase something I've read elsewhere in the past, you are not guaranteed the right to not be offended.

As for the Republicans own precious expressions, that of possibly cutting out federal funds to places like the National Portrait Gallery if they continue to have the audacity to stage such exhibits--horribly offensive things that the Republicans can't could anyone actually enjoy such a thing?--we need to fight this tooth and nail. The Smithsonian, housing so many national treasures, is a national treasure in itself. Would they also cut off funding to the National Archives, the museum that houses our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights? The Republicans do not get to determine what is art.

If they did, I bet we could look forward to the Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Crap™, exhibit coming to the National Portrait Gallery soon.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

That’s crazy talk!

Mirror cat There has been a big shakeup in the psychology world this week! And certain people might not be very happy about their very important diagnosis getting the boot.

The new edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) will eliminate five personality disorders, including Paranoid, Schizoid, Histrionic, and Dependent. But the real biggie, the one getting all the attention (naturally), is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. *gasp* NO! How will all those narcissists deal with being told that they don't rate their own personality disorder any longer? This could be very damaging to them.

This decision is causing a lot of disagreement among psychologists and psychiatrists. The rationale is that a patient can be diagnosed with a personality disorder with elements of the various disorders that have been eliminated. A smorgasbord, if you will, of personality disorder symptoms. Practicing psychologists and psychiatrists feel that there is a wide gap between what researchers see in their studies and what they see in their practices, and are none too happy about this decision. Although psychology is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I've read a few books about it, I am by no means an expert, so can't really comment on whether this is a good decision or not.

However, as someone who has been accused in the past of being a narcissist, I can certainly comment on that. I'm really not sure what prompted this person to decide that I am a narcissist, since I really don't fit the pattern of Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms (RIP, NPD). I think all of us exhibit certain of these behaviors at times; I am definitely easily hurt, and can appear unemotional at times. However, there is a big difference between exhibiting certain behaviors that many of us show at times, and being classified as having a personality disorder. I can only put on my psychologist hat and wonder if that accusation wasn't a classic case of psychological projection. Hmmm. There is also a big difference between exhibiting a healthy sense of self and self-worth, having self-confidence, and being a narcissist. While looking for a picture for this entry, I saw several that portrayed President Obama as being a narcissist. I think that is just silly.

He is obviously very self-confident. What politician isn't? I would think it's a prerequisite for the job. As for myself—and no, I am not comparing myself to our President—I worked hard to get past my feelings of inferiority, my self-doubts and insecurities. Although I still have those things, I have tried to replace them with a stronger self-confidence and a faith in my own abilities. My job did a lot to help me with that. I was good at what I did, but a lot of that came from my dedication towards learning as much as I could and keeping up with changes. My supervisor placed a lot of faith in me, giving me extra tasks and pushing me to learn more. I'm pretty sure that she was happy with my efforts. I have never pretended to know it all. Good Bachelor's degree doesn't qualify me as an expert! But I think it's okay to have confidence in your abilities, knowledge, and experience, as long as you have the equal and ever-present realization that there is always, always more to learn.

Does that make me a narcissist? I don't believe it does, and I would be interested to see if any psychologist would diagnose me as such. I saw one several years ago, and I wasn't diagnosed then, so I'm not sure what the person I mentioned previously based their diagnosis on. However, they might be happy to know that both borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (not the same, but related to OCD) are still in the DSM!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A busy and booky week

Fatal Error Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty, I haven't updated for over a week! It was a busy time over the holiday. Dinner with my family on Thanksgiving day, then the in-laws over for spaghetti on Friday, then Shane and Matt over yesterday for pizza and Rock Band. (Neither of them had played before, and I think they really enjoyed it! Shane mostly did bass, and Matt was a natural on vocals. As they would say, "Fun!") Since people were coming over, I had to do plenty of tidying up and cleaning in the preceding days. Today is finally a quiet day, so it's been football and getting caught up on reading.

Thus I have a couple of book reviews for you. First is Fatal Error, the penultimate (I always love a chance to use that word!) Repairman Jack novel by F. Paul Wilson. Jack is one of the best characters in modern fiction, in my opinion; he is a Fixer. If people get into trouble, a friend might refer them to Jack, and he looks at their problem and decides if he wants to tackle it or not. Jack is no gun-for-hire; he is more of a vigilante who evens the playing field for average, decent people who are being hurt or preyed upon by bad guys. In other words, Jack is a good guy who hates injustice, blackmail, and bullying.

Unfortunately for Jack, he has also been noticed by a couple of mysterious forces in the universe: the Ally and the Otherness. These are not necessarily Good and Evil; the Otherness is simply antithetical to sentient life; the Ally often protects such sentient life, but is generally more apathetic. It's hard to distill it into a few sentences, because the series will ultimately consist of 15 novels, with connections in several more of Wilson's works. (By the way, I'm friends with Mr. Wilson on Facebook, and he's a really interesting and cool guy. Very accessible and responsive to fans!) It's amazing to me that he has kept this storyline consistent and expanding for all these years, and I'm very curious as to what sort of records he keeps in order to keep everything straight!

Anyway, these books are set very much in the natural world, but there is a significant overlap between the natural and the supernatural, with guardians and connections and mysterious orders who want to promote the Otherness and aid in its ascendancy on earth. There are no coincidences. Jack is not a supernatural being, and his tactics are definitely the ass-kicking kind. This, for me, is one of the most interesting aspects of these novels and of Jack. He is an average guy in height, weight, and looks, but also has an element of the Otherness within him. When he is confronted with those who wish to harm him or the ones he loves, that Other Jack makes an appearance...and you don't want to mess with that guy.

I think many of us have that darkness in us; a possibility in which our rage will overcome us. As decent members of society, we learn to discourage it and keep it under control. Jack does, too, but his job and his mysterious circumstances mean that sometimes that darkness is released. It frightens his girlfriend, Gia, but he protects her and her daughter fiercely from those who wish to harm them. I just think it's a really interesting psychological aspect to the story, and makes Jack a fascinating character in his complexity. I will really hate to see this series come to a close, but I hope Jack doesn't disappear completely.

Full Dark, No Stars Next is Stephen King's latest, Full Dark, No Stars, a collection of four novellas. It was a birthday present from my sister, Diana, so thanks, Di! I zipped through this in no time, and I believe I stayed up until 6 AM one night in order to read it. Sometimes you reach that tipping point where you just can't stop reading. I know some of you know exactly what I'm talking about!

This is a very aptly named collection, because these are incredibly dark stories. Cancer, murder, rape, more murder...King writes with a savage glee about some of the darkest of subjects, but I also feel a sense of humanity there. As if he doesn't want some of his characters to do what they do, but he can't stop them. The bleakness of these stories was almost too much to bear at times. I sometimes realized that I was sitting there with a horrified look on my face; this is not his typical horror fare, and is much more terrifying because of our knowledge that such things do happen sometimes in real life, and happen far too often.

As I've gotten older, I haven't lost my love of horror movies. However, I've found that what is more interesting and scary for me is how average people react to extreme situations, and how they interact with each other. (That is one of the reasons I love "The Walking Dead"...Episode 5 of 6 tonight!'s the penultimate episode in season one! Oh yeah...twice in one post. Awesome!) In a world where people are routinely brutalized in the name of religion, or executed for who they love, or mutilated in some sort of bizarre cultural ritual, such ordinary evil hits a little too close to home, and that makes it all the more terrifying.

I think what ties these books, and shows like TWD, together for me is that they force me to wonder how I would react in extreme situations. Would I have the courage of Jack to stand up to universal forces of chaos, or just to stand up for someone I love, even if it meant harm might come to me? In King's stories, would I have the courage of the woman in "Big Driver," or that of the woman in "A Good Marriage?" Would I do what was best for society and humanity even at the risk of my own peril? I hope I am never faced with such choices, but if I were, I want to believe that I would have the courage of my convictions.

Maybe it's silly to get so philosophical over a couple of novels, but that's just the way my mind works. I enjoy thinking about hypothetical and far-fetched situations, and think that it can help in how you might react to certain real-life situations. I think I'll just ask myself, "WWJD?"

What would Jack do?