Lots to unpack in this meme:
The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.
The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.
The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.
I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.
I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.
Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.
(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)
Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?
I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.
Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.
Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.
Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:
A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.
This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.
Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.
That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .
The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.
As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.
In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.
So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.
I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.
Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.
Art basically exists because of us. We’re the ones who fought back hard against the idea that the body and its senses are inevitably at war with the soul. Our whole thing is clarity. I don’t mean to be cute, but the word “logo” comes from the word “logos,” as in “En archē ēn ho Lógos.” In the beginning was the word, and the word was not ongepotchket.
In case you missed it, here’s my interview at Aleteia with Catholic artist Jim Janknegt. Fascinating guy, incredibly powerful work. I wish I could have made the interview five times as long.
Smithsonian Magazine is always up to something interesting. This month, they’re putting together an exhibit of modern people and their 2000-year-old doppelgänger using facial recognition software which
analyzes your face and scans through 123 facial comparison points, such as the bridge of your nose and the shape of your mouth, before matching you with one of 60 Greco-Roman and Egyptian sculptures dating back some 2,000 years.
Spotting doppelgängers has been my hobby forever. Sometimes the resemblance is circumstantial, but still compelling:
Sometimes it takes your breath away:
Sometimes you just have to roll with it:
Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper:
And then sometimes you dig deep and then feel bad for going that low:
And sometimes it clarifies a thing or two
as when you realize that your two-year-old daughter actually is Hermes, the god of mischief.
Of course the easiest way to find your doppelgänger is just to grow one yourself:
Oh, what’s that? You want to know who the Smithsonian thinks looks just like me? I’m so glad you asked:
And that’s why I always get pulled out of lines at airports.
Today’s Christmas art is from my dear friend, Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. O.S.B., painter, gardener, and author of three books. You can find more of her arresting art work here; and I want to return to her art at a later date.
But today is a hard feast day, the feast of the Holy Innocents. They are the first martyrs, whose blood became that terrible red carpet to lay before the coming king.
Here is the responsorial psalm for today, the feast of the Holy Innocents:
R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.
Had not the LORD been with us—
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.
R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us;
The torrent would have swept over us;
over us then would have swept the raging waters.
R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.
Broken was the snare,
and we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.”
I don’t know what to make of this. So many of my friends are so ensnared, so longing for rescue, so overwhelmed by the waters. What is the answer? What kind of rescue is that?
The answer does not come from Christ, our brother, who somehow allowed Himself to be ensnared:
The answer is Christ.
What this entirely means, I do not know. When Christ is the answer, I don’t always understand the answer. But I do stop looking elsewhere, when that is the answer I get.
Not long ago I found myself caught in an old, painful memory, feeling once again some wounds and gashes that I thought had been healed. They opened again because I saw a woman going through what I had gone through many years ago — but for her, there was rescue, there were sympathetic people rushing to her aid, there was help. I survived, yes, because here I am today; but I saw myself hanging there alone at that time, and I was angry. As I walked and remembered, I cried out to the Lord, “Where was my rescue?”
He answered, “Nobody rescued Me, either.”
And He had a choice. He didn’t have to be there, but He put Himself there, His sacred head surrounded by those thorns, that snare, that unspeakable trap of wood and nails. And that was what He was offering me: A chance to willingly be snared with Him. He is the answer. I don’t know what it means, but there is no other answer. I had no choice but to suffer, at the time; but now I do have the choice to place my suffering with His.
I stop looking somewhere outside that ring of thorns. There, caught, pierced, His heart bleeds for the brokenhearted, innocent and otherwise. I place the suffering hearts of my friends inside that snare of thorns with Christ.
Merry Third Day of Christmas! In haste, in between visits with family, I’m thrilled to share with you this icon of Joseph and Jesus, written by Nathan Hicks, which I hope you can enjoy in leisure:
Note how Joseph’s eyes are perhaps a little wary and uncertain as he holds the Child; but Jesus puts His face right up to his foster father and encircles his head with His arms, totally ready to give all without reservation. Babies and God, I’m telling you, man. Pay attention, and you’ll learn something.
Note also how Jesus’ little legs extend past the interior frame of the image. On his blog, Hicks says:
Icons were ultimately a relational reality. The Kingdom of God has pierced into our souls through our wounds, creating a dynamic space where the divine reaches to the human.
This divine movement to us is not intrusive and overpowering, but gentle and accommodating. God does not require us to move beyond our nature, but instead asks for us to allow Him to transfigure us as we are. There is no swallowing of identity, which is defined in part by our wounds, but a support of and a strengthening of our identities so that they show forth God. This means that God doesn’t eradicate the things that make us miserable, but instead give us the means to make those sources of misery a source of light and joy.
And that’s why I have the buildings and objects bending towards you, the viewer. God moves heaven and earth out of the way for you and condescends to make you a god by grace.
RELATIONAL. Lots to think about (and I hope you realize how rare it is to find an artist who is interested in sharing more than a word or two about his creative thought process! Most artists I know think with paint, and when they’re done, they’ve already said everything they’re going to say).
Here is another piece that Hicks has shared with us: “Morning Caress.”
“Morning Caress” is a Byzantine-style painting about the Earth and the environment. The Earth is a creature, just like us, and is in its own society with the other planets But with the sun the Earth has a special relationship. The earth reaches out to the sun and the sun to the earth. Morning Caress is the story of the unconscious love of the world itself.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, how the earth participates in salvation history without the capacity to be conscious of that participation — but it participates nonetheless. It makes me feel better about my sometimes absurdly passionate affection for the natural world, for fruits, for leaves, for textures and colors. It is all right to love the world, because God made it, God loves it, and most importantly, God is present in it.
Hicks says, in a discussion of types of paint,
I read “The Rape of Man and Nature”, a well-written (if somewhat poorly argued) book by Phillip Sheridan, a giant in the English-speaking world Orthodoxy, who finally stated the Orthodox standpoint on nature in a way that I could understand it: God is in nature in a way similar to us wearing clothes. The clothes aren’t us, but we are definitely connected to them and without us the clothes don’t have form.
And in a similar way (with much higher stakes!) we “take form,” and become who we are meant to be by our nature, when we allow God to dwell in us. Joseph was as ready as he could be to become the foster father of the Son of God, but what could he do? Saint or not, he was only a man, and could not possibly live up to the task, any more than a tree can understand the bounty of the warmth of the sun or the miracle of photosynthesis. The best he could do, the only thing any human can do, is to allow Him to come close and do what He will.
Oh, feel that sun.
Today I feature MY FAVORITE CATHOLIC ARTIST IN THE WORLD, MY OLDEST DAUGHTER LENA.
Lena’s just opened a Redbubble store, and would like you to know that you can order today and still get your stuff before Christmas. Lots of quirky and oddly elegant stuff here, mainly geeky, including fan art featuring Naruto, Big Hero 6, Psychopass, Metroid, Teen Titans, Gorillaz, Star Wars, X-Men, Ruroni Kenshin, and some other stuff that just fell out of her fevered brain.
Because I’m a big, elderly poop, I’m encouraging her to add some of her lovely outdoor watercolor scenes. She is uploading more art as I write. Here’s a few more images than I’m partial to. Far and away my favorite:
Song of the Sheikah:
An image from the side altar at church:
And this obliging Wolverine with Baby Jubilee:
Guys. IT IS FUN HAVING TEENAGERS. They are always surprising you!
Catholics on Etsy! Mostly! Here is a selection of handmade goods by Catholics, so we can all support each other when we shop for Advent and Christmas. Some these goods are religious, some are not. Some of the stores sell all kinds of items, and the featured one is just the tip of the iceberg. It was painful to narrow down this list to a manageable size!
Today, I’m showcasing jewelry, because I like jewelry, and art and prints, because I like art and prints. Here we go:
So arresting! I love it. Like a poinsettia made of living stone. Millefiori is wonderful. Many more original and eye-catching designs in the store.
Oh, copper. Spectacular. You could wear this cuff with jeans and a t-shirt, or with an evening gown.
I think everyone knows by now how much I adore Kyra’s chain mail jewelry. It makes your neck feel strong, cool, and beautiful. Elegant and powerful designs, including earrings and chainmail rosaries, too.
So light and pretty! Many of the goods in this store are made from books that schools and churches were about to throw out.
Janalyn offers handmade fiber goods, and also milagros and Day of the Dead jewelry, jewelry made of sewing notions, and some really neat bookmarks and Loteria fabric art.
Featured item:Hand-felted indigo earrings, $8
Boy, it was hard to choose just one, because the goods in this story are so varied. Really interesting, quirky stuff.
Ornamentation by Mary
Featured item: Leather wrap cross boho bracelet with semiprecious stones, $119.99
I may have gasped out loud. Do check out the rest of the stock at this store. She has the rare skill of making artfulness look casual and careless. Gorgeous.
ART, PRINTS, and CARDS and CALLIGRAPHY
Check it out! This crow is about to launch himself off the page, as soon as he’s done cooling off in this breeze. Many more vivid and arresting paintings of birds, bees, and landscapes on the site.
Brain Cheeks by Rochelle
Featured item: Set of eight Mother and Child watercolor print cards, $15
Oh, sweetness. She never gets tired of looking at Him.
Eek, a heart! I love it, and your favorite doctor will, too.
Herons Gate Arts by Sarah Pierzchala
Featured item: framed print of her original painting of a cosmic Sacred Heart, $40
Sarah also offers an array of fantasy dolls, wings, and hair jewels. Clay, twigs, beads, loveliness.
Etsy is flooded with bland inspirational digital downloads, but there’s real artistry in Santa Clara’s graphic designs. Many designs and styles, digital downloads as well as physical prints.
This isn’t an Etsy site, but Katrina Harrington was kind enough to send me one of her “Offer It Up” mugs, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t actually work. It makes morning better when I get that reminder. It is a nice mug, too, large and sturdy.
Along with mugs, Hatch Prints also has watercolor and hand-lettered art prints and tote bags inspired by the saints.
SPECIAL OFFER FOR MY READERS: Use discount code LOSINGMYMIND15 for 15% off purchases of $20 or more.
Made me laugh! It’s as good a motto as any, although most days, I’ll settle for two out of three.
Featured item: Holy Family 2, $35, one in a series called “The Saints Project” which uses Catholic photographic models
Neat project! I’m looking forward to seeing more.
A few WOODEN FIGURES and STATUES
There’s a very appealing quietness in these gentle painted figures. Also various nativity figurines, saints, animals, and a few nativity backdrops for your home.
Breathtaking. Look at her beautiful face. This is just a detail; the full work includes the entire image of Our Lady of Guadalupe supported by an angel, painted on rough wood with a laquer finish. Lots of variety in this store, including matrioshka dolls, beeswax goods, and very cozy tea cozies.
HA. This is kind of perfect. Heather says, “Because sometimes I need to just gather up my fragile little buttercup feelings and OFFER IT UP, nah mean?” For when your prayer life isn’t all thees and thous and “vouchusafe unto us” this and that. Sometimes you just need to offer it up, buttercup.
That’s all for today! Tomorrow: Rosaries and rosary accessories; knitted and crocheted and fabric items; and a bunch of wonderful goods I couldn’t categorize but couldn’t stand to leave out. See you then!
The other week, we visited the Worcester Art Museum in MA. I heartily recommend it if you’re in the area (and it’s free all through August!). They had a world class collection with tons of variety, from pre-Columbian art to this guy; it was quite kid friendly (a docent in the armor display helped the kids try on helmets and gauntlets), the docents were genial and well-informed, and they had the exhibits arranged well to really help you see them. We saw everything in about three hours, and had time to go back and look at our favorite rooms. Looks like they have a pleasant cafe and a bunch of programs, classes, and demonstrations, too.
About what happened in the photo above, I take full responsibility. I’ve been reading them Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad and he got kind of hung up on Helen of the Fair Cheeks.
Of the Fair Cheeks.
I’m just glad he didn’t notice what was going on on the B side of some of those Grecian urns. Whoo-ee!
Anyway, we had such a good time that I want to encourage everyone to bring your kids to an art museum this summer, even if you don’t think of yourself as one of those high culture families. If you’re in New England, don’t forget about Free Fridays (which includes art museums and lots of other fun stuff).
Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, on that topic of why adults sometimes struggle with visiting art museums, and how kids can show us how to do it better. For more reading on this topic, check out “Introducing Children to Art” by an actual artist, John Herreid, who is raising three hilariously arty kids.
Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Holy Grail is being snatched again by the bad guys? Indy cries out in righteous indignation: “That belongs in a museum!” I love me some Indiana Jones, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this line was not meant ironically. This really is the highest compliment that Americans can pay to an object of beauty and worth: that it belongs in a museum. I heard someone say the exact same thing in real life, when our college group first stepped out into one of the teeming, sun-drenched piazzas in Rome. There was a magnificent fountain in the middle of the square, featuring a sculpture carved by one of the giants of Western art. And people were sitting on it, and smoking, and drinking terrible wine, and flirting with each other, trying to sell socks out of a duffle bag, and generally acting like this timeless piece of art was theirs. Almost tearful with outrage, the fellow cried out, “That should be in a museum!”
He meant that it ought to be protected from the elements, and also from bird droppings and graffiti and vandals. But he also meant that it ought to be tucked away indoors, where the lighting could be controlled, where people would speak in hushed tones as they file past in reverence — where only the select few, acting in a very select way, would see it, and no one would get comfortable with it. And there, he was disastrously wrong.
Art museums are necessary because they are the most convenient way to preserve and share works of art which would otherwise be tucked away in the private homes of the very wealthy. But there is always the danger of museumishness taking over the work of art — making us forget why the artist made the piece in the first place. It’s a relatively new idea that art is here to “challenge” us, to jar us out of whatever cultural sin is currently considered intolerable. Instead, the great artists of every century have all said one thing: “I see something! You come and see it, too! Do you see?”
Well, that’s a pretty big topic. But in this little post, I can say that the problem with putting something in a museum is that it tends to give the impression that the question, “Do you see it, too?” is already answered. We feel like we have to stroke our chins gravely and say, “Yes, yes, of course I see,” whether we do or not, because there it is, in a museum. It must be Real Art. No wonder so many people have an aversion to art. They think they’re expected to respond like highly educated robots when the encounter it.
What’s the cure for a case of Stifling Museumishness? Take your kids to the museum with you . . . and do what they do.
Oh, listen, if your kids are awful, please don’t take them to a museum. If they can’t be controlled, don’t take them. If they can’t tell the difference between indoors and outdoors, and if they don’t obey you, and if otherwise kind people groan audibly when they see your family coming, then by all means, stay home.
But many parents underestimate how responsive their kids will be to good art. Kids in art museums will often behave in a way that is not only tolerable, but which the adult patrons should imitate.
Kids do not talk in whispers, as if they are at the bedside of a dying tyrant. Why do we whisper in front of art? We shouldn’t speak loudly, to distract other patrons; but a normal, conversational tone of voice is completely appropriate. Talking about what you’re seeing isn’t rude! It’s a natural thing to do, and makes the experience so much more rewarding, when you hear other people’s takes on what you’re seeing. I also like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations — so sue me.
Kids do not pretend to like things they don’t like. It’s one thing to have an open mind; it’s quite another to be a sucker. Many museums have extensive collections in the ever-popular genre of Egregious Crapola, and sometimes it really is only kids who are willing to point this out. Many adults have been duped into giving up on beauty; most kids have not. (But really, each kid is allowed to say, “I could have done that in ten minutes with a gallon of housepaint and a stick!” one time, and then they’re done. This comment may or may not be true, but it gets old fast.)
Kids are also remarkably open to admitting that there is more than meets the eye. They may shrug or grimace in front of a wonderful piece, but they are usually ready to listen if you point out, “No, look at how the light shines through that leaf!” or “See how realistic her hand looks — but get closer, and it’s just a bunch of paint” or “But why do you think this guy on the side has that look on his face?” or “Holy mackerel, what is this?!?”
Kids laugh at paintings – not only ones that look ridiculous, but ones which are meant to be funny. There is nothing sillier than a bunch of adults gravely appreciating the finer points of a work of art which is supposed to be hilarious.
Kids do not suffer from appreciation anxiety. Some adults who feel insecure in their grasp of art may spend their entire museum time wondering how obvious their lack of expertise is. Well, that’s no way get to be more of an expert! Kids don’t think about how they appear to others; they just look at the art.
Kids do not waste their time looking at exhibits that don’t interest them, out of a sense of duty or thrift. They will keep circling back to take another look at that one room or one piece they really like, and that is a much more natural response than trying to “do” the whole museum just because it’s there.
Okay, yes, and some kids will go berserk and behave like little demons, while their fond parents look on and do nothing. Or if you have a generally decent child who is temporarily going through a highly unreasonably, ridiculously loud stage, then this is probably not the best time to work on enhancing their cultural education. But really, if your kids are generally the non-demonic, non-berserker types, consider taking them to a small museum next time you have a chance. Wear comfortable clothes, discuss expectations ahead of time, plan a small treat for afterwards, and just relax. You will probably have a lovely time!
A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2013.