Snickering through museums: How we managed to enjoy Renoir: The Body, The Senses

While hunting around for some images from the Renoir: The Body, The senses exhibit, I came across this review in The New Yorker, which begins, “Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir?”

Um.

I skimmed, I skimmed. The upshot seems to be that Renoir was a misogynist because boobs, but we should halfway forgive him, because art. And that’s why I live at the P.O.

We did make the drive to the Clark Art Institute to catch the exhibit in person before it left town. Here’s how we managed to have a wonderful time, despite how problematic everything is:

We do actually have some issues to overcome when we spend exclusive time with art. Damien calls it “museum anxiety:” that terrible fear that you’re missing out on something exquisite and important; that you’re not “getting it.” In the past, I have recommended bringing kids along with you — not just for their own sakes, but because we can follow their lead and skip right over the pretensions and anxieties so many adults labor under.

Even if you don’t have kids with you, you can imitate their approach, and it will dissipate that stifling museum fog. I did this when I had the rare opportunity to spend 45 minutes alone in the Princeton Art Museum. I went for the ancient art gallery, and decided I would let myself laugh out loud at anything that struck me as funny — and there was a lot of it.

After about the fourth room at the Renoir exhibit, I got softened up, and recalled I had no obligation to try to impress the other grave, whispering museum-goers with their complicated necklaces and flowy linen pants. I actually went a little overboard, and when I saw yet another elderly gentleman soberly studying a set of rosy, glowing ass cheeks, I had to stifle the urge to sneak up behind him and emit a falsetto, “Niiiiiice!” like Peter Venkman. But seriously, Renoir: quite the ass man. And why not? They pretty. 

Letting myself snicker a bit breaks down my head garbage and leaves me much more open to stuff that’s not funny at all, but just plain beautiful. This one hit me right between the eyes and made me cry, and I can’t even remember why. 

I think I was just glad to be alive, with eyeballs.

They had some thought-provoking pairings at this exhibit, which included not only Renoir but Degas and Cezanne and other contemporaries, as well as later artists influenced by Renoir. One interesting set was a Renoir “Woman Combing Her Hair” (which really doesn’t narrow it down much) and a Degas also showing a half-nude woman combing her hair (which I can’t seem to find anywhere).

Here’s where I have to admit that I know what the guy was talking about in the New Yorker. The two paintings were of similar subject, but Renoir had buttered his gal up to a light-filled sheen, and the entire world faded into a hazy chorus rejoicing in the loveliness of women’s backs. But Degas approached the woman from above, and you got the impression she had a book propped awkwardly on her thighs to while away the time while she was painted. You felt the strain in her muscles; whereas Renoir’s gal would probably be content to stay there forever, endlessly brushing in the golden sun. This is no knock on the Renoir. It was just different, that’s all. Both women were real flesh, really real flesh (and Renoir apparently got dinged by critics by showing too much fat and including too many colors); but I got the impression Degas was more aware that they were human, too.  

It’s strange how you see something better once you have something to compare it to. Like Richard Wilbur says:

I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? 
 
I take Wilbur’s answer to the question “why this mad instead?” to be “it just do.” If it works, it works. My senses do stale, and I’m just glad there’s a remedy, whether it’s juxtaposing art, or just snickering.
 

I actually enjoyed the rest of the museum more than the special exhibit. It’s a world-class collection, well worth the trip on its own, but small enough that you can see everything without dashing around like a maniac. The Clark does a good job with its labels, providing little bits of information you might not pick out on your own, but without dictating too narrowly what you’re supposed to think of a particular piece. 

Among some Degas studies was a quote about how an artist should practice a composition over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times, so that nothing must appear to be by chance. I could see that was how he did it — there were the many, many studies, right before my eyes — but the end result was that it did appear to be by chance. Even when you know it’s a grindingly hard-won skill honed over thousands of hours, it does feel like the artist just happened to casually snag some familiar arc of the arm or angle of the elbow or weight of a thigh. Pff, Degas, what does he know about art. 

There are a number of Renoirs in the permanent collection, including this one, which struck me for the first time as something of an inside joke for artists: Here is this gal, dressed to the nines to sit in her garden and embroider. 

She’s surrounded by lush, boisterous foliage and blossoms, and what is she making so intently?

A little handkerchief with a little, delicate, stylized floral pattern on it.

I don’t know, I just thought it was funny. Flowers vs. floral. Art! What are we even doing? I don’t know, but we can’t seem to stop. 

Many Renoirs showed women with their fingers working closely together, with something lovely flowing out from between them like a waterfall. 

Women are like that, I guess.

Damien and I both adored all the John Singer Sargents. The Clark has the slightly silly but entirely successful Fumée d’Ambre Gris, which you should be required to study before you can buy white paint. 

and several others. The Portrait of Carolus Duran really grabbed us.

You want to use words like “deft” and “confident” with John Singer Sargent, but that’s so inadequate. Check out these hands and cuffs:

Look at those shadows! Look at that ring! And you know these are just little phone pictures. You really need to see it.

Same thing with the portrait of Mme. Paul Escudier.

You could almost get a paper cut on the edge of that ribbon plopped on top of her head, but then you get really close and what do you know? It’s just paint. I don’t know how he did it, except that he believed in himself! Ha.

We kept coming back to A Venetian Interior.

This is where I want to find and murder the guy who recently suggested that museums are obsolete, since we now have digital photos of all art and can just go look at it whenever we want. You have to see it in person. We both felt very strongly that that one streak of yellow wasn’t actually paint, but was actual light, and it’s probably why he decided to paint this scene.

They also have several Winslow Homers, which is always a treat. Wear a jacket, because some of them are brisk. 

Speaking of brisk, I think some people sneer a little over Frederick Remington, because it’s American White House horsey art. Maybe I’m making that up. Anyway, check out this shadow of a horse on the snow in the moonlight, and then get back to me:

This is from “Friends or Foe?”

A few other random things that caught my eye:

This fond, doting Mary from the Netherlands:

This is from Virgin and Child with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist. Quinten Massys, 1520. 

And these terrible children with a cat who has just about had enough:

And that’s why this cat lives at the P.O.

One final note: They had another special exhibit downstairs: Ida O’Keeffe, the lesser-known sister of Georgia O’Keeffe. Apparently there were three artistic O’Keeffe sisters, and when the other two started showing some inclination toward art, Georgia swatted them down pretty savagely, because you can only have one Artist per family. One sister meekly abandoned her ambitions, but Ida struggled to make her own name; so Gerogia cut her off. Sheesh!

So before we went into the gallery, I mentioned to Damien that Ida wanted some way to set herself apart from the more famous Georgia and her famous . . . flowers. He says, “Well, that’s easy. All she had to do was paint penises, instead.” I snickered, but you know what? We walked into the room, and this is what Ida did:

Talk about a “mad instead.” (She also painted some banana plants.)

Anyway, go see a art! Cut yourself some slack, let your mouth hang open like a yokel, and just see what there is to see. Don’t forget to laugh at the funny ones.

You can probably skip the museum cafe, though. That really is there just to impress you and make you feel like you can’t complain when it’s terrible; but nobody in the world needs to pay $16 for a microwaved grilled cheese, even if it is called “croque monsieur.” 

The prime directive: Make something beautiful. An interview with Jim Janknegt

One of my favorite living artists is James Janknegt. In 2017, he kindly gave me an interview for Aleteia about his life and work. Janknegt, 66, who lives in Texas, is currently working on a commission for five paintings for a book on the meaning of baptism. You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his book on Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

Jim Janknegt via Facebook

Here’s our interview:

You converted to Catholicism in 2005. What led up to that?

James Janknegt: When I was a teenager back in the 70s, there was a nationwide charismatic movement. I was Presbyterian at the time. There was a transdenominational coffee house at University of Texas, with the typical youth band playing Jesus songs. There was a frat house we had taken over. We had 20 people sleeping on the floor; it was crazy. A super intense time.

What kind of art education did you have?

I went to public high school, and they didn’t teach much about art history. I would look at books at book stores, and that was my exposure to art. We had a rinky-dink art museum at University of Texas, not much to speak of. After I had this deepening of my faith as a teenager, and really wanted to follow Jesus 100 percent, I was really questioning whether it was legit to become an artist. I didn’t know any artist who were Christians, or Christians who were artists.

Thumbing through the bookstore, I found Salvador Dali. The book was cracked open at “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

Wikipedia/fair use

That still, small voice that’s not audible, but you know it’s authentically God speaking to you — it felt affirmed. Yes, go forward to be an artist and be a Christian. Those are not incompatible.

Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall – James Janknegt

Your pieces move from dark and lonely to radiant after your remarriage and conversion to Catholicism — that shift that you define as going from “diagnostic to celebratory.” But even in the “celebratory” stage, there is drama, even agony, along with ecstasy in your pieces.

Foxes Have Holes/James Janknegt

When I was involved in that youth group, they were very super-spiritual, filled with the Holy Spirit, thinking, “Now we can do everything!”

Summer Still Life/James Janknegt

But we never looked internally to see if there are psychological problems alongside your spiritual life. My dad was bipolar and manic depressive, in and out of mental institutions and jail. I met a woman at that Jesus freak outfit, and we got married. I carried a lot of baggage into my first marriage, that I hadn’t dealt with at all. I went to grad school and my marriage fell apart.

Breakdown/James Janknegt

Getting divorced ripped the lid off. All this stuff I had repressed was all bubbling up and coming to the fore. Questioning not my faith, but my ability to be faithful. Can I hear Him and be obedient to Him and do His will? It was a very dark time.

Jet Station/James Janknegt

When we look at your paintings chronologically, it very obviously mirrors different stages in your life. Is it strange to have your whole life on display?

You take that on when you become an artist. It’s very self-revelatory. It’s part of the deal, if you’re gonna be an artist, to be as honest as you can. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of bad religious art: It’s not technically bad, but it’s just not honest. We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen.

Sudden and Tragic Death/James Janknegt

That’s part of life, and that has to be in your painting. You can’t paint sanitized, Sunday school art.

But you do seem to create art that has very specific meanings in mind. Do you worry about limiting what the viewer can get out of a piece?

There’s a painting I did of Easter morning zinnias. They look like firecrackers; Jonah’s on the vase; in the corner, there’s an airplane.

Easter Morning/James Janknegt

I just needed something in the corner to make your eye move into that corner! People were trying to figure out what it meant, but sometimes an airplane is just an airplane.

To me, the role of art is to make something beautiful. Very simple, that’s the prime directive: Make something beautiful.

James Janknegt – supplied
Bug Tools and Beyond/James Janknegt

It doesn’t have to be figurative or narrative or decorative. But my feeling is: The history of our salvation, starting with Genesis to Revelation, is indeed the greatest story ever told. What’s better? As an artist, why wouldn’t I want to tell that?

James Janknegt – supplied
Nativity Christmas Card/James Janknegt

How does the secular world respond to your works? They are full of parables and Bible stories, but also unfamiliar imagery.

A painting is different from a sentence or a paragraph. Paintings deal with visual symbols. I’m trying to take something that was conceptualized 2,000 years ago in a different culture, keeping the content, in a different context.

James Janknegt – supplied
Two Sons/James Janknegt

It’s almost like translating a language, but with visual symbols.

I have a definite idea of what I’m trying to get across. But you [the viewer] bring with yourself a completely different set of assumptions and experiences, and I have no control over that. I don’t want to.

 

James Janknegt – supplied
Holy Family/James Janknegt

When I look at a painting, it’s a conversation. I’m talking into the painting, and the painting is talking to you.

James Janknegt – supplied
Grain and Weeds/James Janknegt

Part of the problem today is that we do not have the same visual symbolic language. In the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, the culture was homogeneous, and symbols were used for hundreds and hundreds of years. If I put a pelican pecking its breast, no one [today] knows what that means. We’ve lost the language. So it’s challenging.

Are you inventing your own modern symbolic language? I see birds, dogs…

You kind of have to. It’s a balancing act. In art school, they say, “Just express yourself! You’re painting for yourself; it doesn’t matter what everyone else gets out of it.” I’m not doing that. I’m trying to communicate with people.

 

The Wise Bridesmaids/Janknegt – supplied
The Wise Bridesmaids/James Janknegt

Tell me about the state of religious art right now.

People complain about how there’s no good religious art.  But there’s a lot of good art out there; you just have to search for it. I feel like I’m hidden away, in this weird place between two cultures, but they are out there.

Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt
Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt

In our time, people who collect art aren’t religious, and people who are religious don’t collect art. And for an artist, in the Venn diagram, you’re in the place where it says “no money.”

If you could just find an artist you really like and ask them if you could buy a piece for your home shrine.

The Visitation/James Janknegt-supplied
The Visitation/James Janknegt

If every Catholic could buy a piece of art from a living artist, think how that would impact your life, and the life of the artist. You could give them a living.

James Janknegt-supplied
Divine Mercy/James Janknegt

Your farm is called “Brilliant Corners Art Farm.” Is that name a reference to Thelonious Monk?

It is! But it also has a hidden spiritual meaning. Honesty is the light. If you’ve got brilliant corners, then the whole room is lit up.

I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt-supplied
I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt

You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his Lenten Meditations book of 40 paintings based on the parables of Jesus Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

When receiving art, be Penelope, not Argos

A pox on anyone who tries to extract a message from The Odyssey. It’s not that The Odyssey doesn’t mean anything. Quite the opposite. It’s just that a work of art isn’t like a fortune cookie which can be cracked open, its message to be plucked out and read aloud over dessert. Instead, a work of art is like a deep, active pond into which you can cast your line and draw up any number of things, depending on the season, the time of day, your skill as a fisherman, and your willingness to wait.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: “Penelope” by TheoJunior via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Handmade Gift Guide for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day! Work it out, people! And really, you need to get it done by the 13th, not the 14th, because ashes and chocolates just don’t mix.

If you’re in the market for a gift for the one you love (or the friend you like), here are some lovely choices — all handmade.

Affiliate disclosure: Most of the links below are affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission of sales made through these links. 

And now for the gifts!

Handcrafted luxury yarn from Threads and Tales

Does your true love knit? How about a few skeins of luxuriously soft, ethically sourced yarns, some hand-spun (“on a spinning wheel like a legit pilgrim”), all hand dyed with safe, edible dyes? Em Ro and her family (including kids ages five and two, who help choose color pairings) have deliberately priced their goods much lower than similar yard of this quality. Here are a few that caught my eye:

100% Merino wool in “Little Red Riding Hood:”

Deep scarlet reds with cayenne pepper and paprika with very slight tones throughout, offering the beauty of tonal without a rainbow of colors.

Here’s a hand-spun and hand dyed selection in subtle, evocative tones, called “Moby Dick:”

Gorgeous. Threads and Tales also offers sturdy little handmade stitch markers in cute designs, including the Wonder Woman logo.

Door Number 9 puts the Saint back in St. Valentine’s Day

My love for Elisa Low’s work is legendary, and she’s always coming up with something new and quirky. This year, she has a valentine for everyone, with these moving and heartfelt Song of Solomon Valentines:

How can you possibly go wrong expressing your love with direct quotations from the Bible? How??

Set of eight valentines (with envelopes) with quotes from the Song of Songs.

More of Elisa’s antic humor: This St. Valentine Icon Magnet helps us remember the real reason for the season: Gory martyrdom.

Wie romantisch!

Elisa also offers a wide array of unusual, geeky handmade goods, from medieval bestiary tea wallets, to her very popular “Heretical nonsense: For research purposes only” stamp for the reader who knows better, to the replica of the Hamiltons’ interlocking wedding ring.

 Molded leather cigar cases from Lavish Expressions

Ooh, aren’t these swanky? Almost enough to make me want to smoke a cigar.  These handmade molded cigar cases can be monogrammed for free.

Molded full grain leather three finger cigar case, 3.75″ X 7.5.” Made of premium full grained vegetable tanned leather and stitched with bonded nylon thread.

Handmade in Arkansas by Tanya and Gerrod Desselle of Lavish Expressions. Order soon; they take a few weeks to make. Also many other sumptuous leather handmade goods, including iPad covers, messenger bags, journal cases, and more.

Dark chocolate whiskey truffles  from Sweet Addict

Well, chocolate, of course. Here are a dozen handmade truffles for a very reasonable price, guaranteed fresh upon arrival, filled with a dark chocolate ganache infused with Jameson Whiskey.

Many other truffles and fancy pants handmade treats available, including Red Velvet Truffles, S’Mores Valentine Gift Sets, and an assortment of fabulous caramel sauces.

Chain mail jewelry from Iron Lace Design

Spend $30 at IronLaceDesign and get 30% off your order!

So popular, and for good reason: feast your eyes on this opulent steel and green jasper chain mail choker.

I have a version of this magnificent necklace, and when I put it on, it makes me feel like the empress of the universe. It’s heavy, sleek, strong.

Or take a look at this sweet, bright little bracelet, silver plated chain mail with a fiery crystal nestled inside:

Many more styles at Iron Lace Designs, including heirloom-quality rosaries, plunge necklaces, pendants, earrings, and steampunk jewelry made of intricate watch findings.

Brilliant sacred art from Brightly Hude Studio

Here’s an arresting and luminous card, “Keep Us Near to Thee,” from Brightly Hude Studio by Adalee Hude: two hearts joined by the Sacred Heart:

Blank inside, and I think it’s framable.

Also check out the many other brilliant prints and original artwork, some with 23K gilding. I like this cheerful  giclée image of John Paul II.

Hammered tin Sacred Heart wall ornament from Mexico

Okay, yes, this is a Day of the Dead wall ornament. But it has a heart. The Sacred Heart. And flying skeletons! Are you going to argue with that?

Hand-hammered tin, hand painted in Mexico. I bought one of these with my birthday money last year, and it’s now in my kitchen. It makes me think of that line from Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation:” Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

It was bigger than I expected, almost nineteen inches from tip to tip. I love it. Also see this unpainted tin Sacred Heart Milagro.

Bright flower jewelry in February from Smile With Flower

Ah, I love this resin jewelry made with real flowers, so your love can bring a bit of summer with her wherever she goes.

 
Many more designs, including very cute coffee bean earrings , and also bracelets, globe and terrarium pendants, stud and petal earrings, and

“You Are My Sunshine” card by Timothy Hodge

 

I admire the intensity in this solar flare card!

The message laconically notes, “You are my sunshine.”  Available through Zazzle; computer image by Timothy Hodge, Customizable size
Leather wrap beaded boho bracelets from Long Lane Jewelry

Isn’t this wrap bracelet lovely? Fresh, subtle shades of agate with silver and leather.

It’s playful but not juvenile. Frosted Agate Beads, Natural Antique Brown Genuine Leather, Handmade Sterling Silver Infinity Charm, Charm of your Choice. A heart, say!
Many more funky, fetching bracelets, many unisex, at Long Lane Jewelry.
 Stunning skyscapes by The Crain Wife Art
Anna Crain sent me images of her flower paintings as possible Valentine’s gifts. They’re beautiful, but her skyscapes knocked my socks off. Here’s “Morning By Morning:”

part of the “Faithfulness Collection.”

Here’s another splendid one: “Bright Hope.”

The Crain Wife Art is fairly new as a professional artist. One to watch!

Custom fashion portraits by Samia Lynn

Here’s a thoughtful and romantic gesture: transform your photo into a hand-drawn portrait. Here’s a sample of one fashion illustration Samantha made for a bride and groom:

 

Samantha also does portraits for graduations, engagements, family portraits, anniversaries, and more.

Morse code secret message necklaces from Apple and Azalea
I love this: spell out a word or message in Morse code, and go ahead and wear it.  Here’s an attractive, unisex “Totus Tuus” necklace:

Theresa takes custom orders, but they need to be placed by Tuesday 2/6 for delivery by Valentine’s Day. 

 

Copper jewelry from Cherokee Copper

Simple, classic designs by a Cherokee artist (and Catholic deacon!).

Original art prints by Kabuki Girl

. . . also known as (stifles screams of pride with some difficulty) my daughter, Lena Fisher. Here are my two recent favorites:

Warrior

From her RedBubble store, you can order this image as a print, as a journal, as a phone case, and more.

and here’s Mary:

***
And there it is! Happy Valentime.

Mary’s downward gaze

This is the conversation she wants to have with an archangel: Let’s talk about my Son, because it’s personal.

There’s that downward gaze. So much better than rolled-up eyes! It’s a good look, on Mary and on all of us: that personal, intimate, “You’re real and so am I” connection. That would be a good posture for all of us to adopt for the rest of Advent: Look to the ones who are closest to us.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

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Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

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.

 

The Panama World Youth Day logo is … ongepotchket

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.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

My interview with James Janknegt of Bright Corners Art Farm

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.

That’s no doppel, that’s my gänger!

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.

You can submit your own photo and see what it turns up.

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.