Monday, March 30, 2009

More on the brain

Along with enjoying the English spring and the company of 21-month-old Nya, formerly known as the Upholstery Eater, who says "Good morning, Carol!" when I come down for breakfast, "Bless you" when anyone sneezes, and occasionally "Blimey!" I'm reading another book about the brain, this time, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen, M.D. So far I've learned that witzelsucht is "a term in the psychiatric literature that characterizes 'an addiction to making bad jokes'" and that my pathological aversion to paperwork could indicate an imbalance in my prefrontal cortex. Amen's prescription? Hire someone else to do it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Brain That Changes Itself

Yarek Wazul for The New York Times

I’m off to England again, and may or may not post until I come back the first week in April, so thought I’d leave you with something to read: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD, about how our thoughts and experiences form the actual physical structure of our brains. There are myriad new ideas to ponder in this book, including how to keep our brains functioning into old age. I always thought I was safe because I use my brain so much, but it turns out it isn’t how much you use your brain, but how much you use it in new ways that keeps it young (good news for polymaths, formerly known as dilettantes). The older we get and the better we get at what we do, the narrower we become. Doidge suggests learning a new language to keep the mind alert, but I’ll just relearn the old one—French—which I learned as an adult and found, the last time I tried to use it, that it had dissipated to the point that only the nouns were left. Inspired by the book I’ve also started playing the piano again, learning a new, difficult piece and memorizing it (my piano teacher used to say that a piece wasn’t “mine” until it was memorized, and I feel that way about poetry, too—just ask me, the next time you see me, to recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky).

Memorization, it turns out, exercises the brain in important ways. Doidge writes:

…for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and this not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brain power unfamiliar to us now.

There’s much more in the book to challenge contemporary assumptions about how we use our brains—but for now I’m just happy to remember where I put my passport.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The greatest advantage to a blog is that I can write about a show I haven’t seen and don’t intend to see (I’ll use my broken foot, now mending nicely, thank you, as an excuse, although I’ve probably seen all the Lisa Yuskavage paintings I need to in one lifetime). But I will use it as an opportunity to rail against the idea that an artist’s gender, or his/her intention or surmised intention, political or otherwise, has anything to do with the aesthetic value of a work of art. What if we suddenly found out that all of Yuskavage’s paintings had been done by Russ Meyer? Or the seven dwarfs? What if they weren’t on exhibition at David Zwirner, but some of the “unique images” offered by Arcadia Fine Arts? What if Yuskavage had been trained, not at Yale, but by a Bob Ross certified instructor? What would that change, really?

I found a Washington Post interview from 2007 that delineates thought pro and con about Yuskavage, and then this, from Jerry Saltz’s latest piece in New York:

The same bogus arguments come up every time there’s a Lisa Yuskavage show. Is her work feminist? Is she, oy, “critiquing the male gaze?” At the opening of Yuskavage’s current solo outing, I was standing between two paintings: Figure in Interior, a picture of an anorexic nude on her knees with her legs akimbo, shaved vulva exposed, white cream/semen dripping from her face onto her breasts; and Reclining Nude, a picture of a recumbent girl in a glowing green glen, her breasts pointing in two directions, legs splayed to expose pink genitalia protruding from blonde pubic hair. A well-known museum curator sidled up and swooned, “Lisa’s paintings are as rich as Vermeer’s and Boucher’s. They’re as sumptuous as the background of the Mona Lisa.” I blinked silently until she mentioned Courbet. Then I bitchily snipped, “If you think these paintings have that kind of mojo, you’ve either never looked at those paintings or you know nothing about painting—which I’ve written about you.” We smiled at each other and parted. I love the art world.

While I don’t necessarily draw the same conclusions as Saltz about what is important now, we agree, that with the social and economic changes of the last few months, the era of forced cynicism, as evidenced by Murakami, Hirst, Koons, Prince and others, including Yuskavage (and perhaps Currin), may have come to a close. It’s not enough to make work that comments on art; we want the real thing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What is a blog for, if not shameless self-promotion? I'll be on David Cohen's monthly Review Panel at the National Academy Museum Friday evening. It's a series I've been attending regularly and find enormously interesting--for the audience's comments as much as those of the panel members--and David does an excellent job of keeping things lively. So I've been preparing for that as well as getting my taxes done and trying to figure out how I'm going to get around New York with a stress-fractured foot (I can't tell you the number of people who've said, "Well it's good you didn't break it")--and smelling spring which, even though it's faithfully followed winter every year of my life, always feels like a miracle.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In our culture, outside of Carl Jung who coined the term, synchronicity hasn’t been given its due. It hardly ever shows up in literature—in fact a friend was once told in a writing workshop that, to be believable, “coincidences” should be strictly limited to one per novel. Go back another century, however, and we have Dickens, Trollope, and Austen peppering their books with unexplainable happenstances. Sometimes I think synchronicity is all over the place if you’re looking for it, but sometimes it shows up even when you’re not. I offer this story as an antidote to the tales of doom and gloom that saturate the media.

Last Tuesday night, a neighbor I’ve known since he was small, Oliver Antunes, was bummed. A 2008 graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Oliver left his job as poissonier at Wheatleigh, a posh Berkshire resort, and has been living with his mother, studying French, and catering private dinners, saving up to go live in Europe and pursue an apprenticeship with a top restaurant in Lyon. Through his Portuguese father, Oliver has a dual passport that allows him to live and work in the EU. He’d lined up his contacts and even an apartment in Lyon when, on Tuesday, a catering job that would’ve brought him close to his goal was cancelled at the last minute. Commiserating with her son, my friend Crane (a single mom who’s supported three children with her panoply of talents including cooking) asked how much more he needed. “$4,000” Oliver answered, before disappearing to the village market to buy a can of beer. The next morning Crane noticed that Oliver was up and out uncharacteristically early. It turns out that, along with his can of beer, Oliver bought a $1 lottery ticket, and not wanting to say anything until he had the check in hand, had gone off to the Lottery Commission in Springfield to redeem it. The amount? $4,000.

Bon voyage, Oliver!

Friday, March 13, 2009


Photo: Scott Cole

Today Bernard Madoff went to jail. Today my friend Scott was upbraiding himself for eating too many chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate chip cookies are, in Scott’s case, an occupational hazard: he serves delightful breakfasts and lunches at his Caffé Pomo D’oro in West Stockbridge (MA), doing all of his own baking, so as part of his job he makes some of the world’s best chocolate chip cookies. Of course he’s going to eat them.

In a conversation about the financial crisis, so much of it having been caused by Wall Street greed, my friend Arthur, art director at TIME, said: “You and I like to make money, it’s a benefit of doing the work we do, but it’s not why we do it. Our occupations have many satisfactions, of which making money is only one. One of the problems in the current situation is that we’ve created a segment of the population whose only purpose in life is to make money.” True, they’re supposed to be making it for other people as well, but what’s to keep them from dipping their hands in the cookie jar?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Press release of the week II

Why think? Adding to my collection of statements about art that say absolutely nothing, my new idea is to gather enough so that readers can string them together and make their own press releases and artist’s statements (students, listen up!), thereby avoiding unnecessary brain strain. Here’s an example from a current press release that could work for almost any kind of art. Just insert your name and medium in the blanks:

_______ is working within a familiar lexicon but the process of _______ pushes the imagery out of the realm of objectivity. _______sees this step toward abstraction as not necessarily in opposition to representation, rather as an abstraction of ideas. The iconography in these _______(s) relates sometimes directly and sometimes quite obliquely to the iconography of the world in which we live. By creating a parallel universe in which the artist investigates these themes, he/she is able to open the work to the viewer for further exploration.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The best and worst of times...

At the Armory: a Leo Villareal light sculpture reflected in a David Levinthal photograph, Gering & Lopez Gallery, March 2009

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens famously warns us against thinking of our particular times as unique, however there have been few points in my lifetime (the sixties, for sure, except I was too young to have anything to compare it to) where the extremes of best and worst were as clearly drawn as they are now. It’s a time of depression and darkness, but also of awakening and light, and we all know it. Everything this year is different from the way it was last year, and the ten years before that, and the ten years before that. It’s an epoch that will get a name, be called something, however just as people didn’t know that they were living in the Renaissance or the Roaring Twenties, we don’t know how history will remember these extraordinary times.

In the art world, everything is up for reassessment, and whether it’s the worst and best of times depends on who you talk to. If you read the Armory Show wrap-up in the Times today, you’d think it was going down the tubes, yet the people I spoke with at a couple of galleries (Gering & Lopez, Sean Kelly) were more than pleased with their return at the Armory and others even suggested that the economic downturn could turn out to be a boon for art because the prices have been discounted and rich people have nowhere else to put their money.

One thing’s for sure: the era of second-guessing the art market and thinking that it can be controlled with any amount of hype is over. Remember Richard Prince? I didn’t come across a single piece of his in the Armory Show. Damien Hirst? Who?

In last month’s Art in America (February, p.33, not yet on the Web) Dave Hickey described the previous “period”—meaning up until last fall—as one where “ ‘fairness’ (read mediocrity) proliferated. Dealers diversified their offerings to disguise their personal taste, thus eroding their better judgment.” Or, as one dealer once told me blatantly, “I don’t show what I love.” The same was true for artists, who were coached by art schools to ape certain kinds of art.

Now all we have to fall back on is ourselves. How refreshing!