Putting a value on art

Art is as intrinsic to modern life as it was to cultures thousands of years ago. Whether an evocative painting, a whimsical installation, stunning architecture, music that creates gooseflesh, a film that leads you to unabashedly roar with laughter or quietly weep in a theatre of strangers, a book that makes you miss your stop, or the performance that inspires both awe and connectedness, the soul value of art is priceless.

It is at the root of our curiosity and our creativity; one naturally feeds the other. Art enhances our ability to maintain delight in the everyday as well as the extraordinary. Art is not an esoteric kingdom where only the well-heeled can live; it is the essential joy of expression – the pride on a child’s face when revealing a masterpiece in crayon.

Art provides experiences that can change your perspective on life, history, nature, the universe (your pick) forever. That’s about as fundamental as it gets on this human journey. We value art because it is how we discover, define and celebrate life.

Quite Short Story: Noise

He twitched, pressure building, panic starting to surge. “It’s all right,” his mother whispered, gripping his arm firmly. “Just two more stops. It’s all right.”

He took deep breaths as he’d been taught. His eyes briefly met those of the woman across the aisle. They were green. Bright green like in a comic book. Unnatural.

He dropped his gaze to the floor, fixating on her feet. He couldn’t understand why she was wearing those things on her feet. They were like gloves, but for toes. No shoes. Just these feet gloves. It wasn’t right. He couldn’t bear it. “I need to get off now,” he whispered.

His mother nodded and quickly gathered their belongings, joining him at the door. As soon as the chime rang out, he bolted up the escalator to the street, rounded the edge of the station and leaned against the wall, eyes tightly shut.

“It’s…all right, Derek,” his mother said, panting. “Come, let’s go.”

He nodded, rubbing his face, and then his stomach, feeling nauseated again. His body still craved the poison they’d been giving him. He’d been pretending; shoving the pills into the pocket above his teeth so he could spit them out later. He couldn’t tell his mother. She believed the doctor. But he knew what the doctor was. Like that woman with the kryptonite eyes. One of them.

*****

The dry summer wind swept grit into their skin as they walked past alley garages, spraypainted with noise. His mother unlatched the gate to their tiny backyard garden, sighing at the weeds. He knew how exhausted she was, dealing with him. Too exhausted to weed.

The neighbours were blasting music. He wondered if they needed to block the noise as well; to keep it from getting in. He looked back at the weeds erupting from every crack in the patio, every possible point of entry. It reminded him of a film he saw in school about a Margaret Atwood poem, the lines rippling through his brain: “everything / is getting in… everything / is getting in… everything / is getting in…”

An ode to Jane Austen

I really ought to put pen to paper and send some thoughtfully composed lines to friends. My handwriting, alas, has deteriorated significantly over the years. These days, I must concentrate to make my scrawl simply decipherable, let alone artistic, though mine never compared to the wondrous curves of one friend’s cursive or the modernist angles of another’s. The latter friend attended school in Switzerland when we were teenagers and I delighted in receiving her well-travelled letters, living vicariously through these chapters of her overseas escapades and eagerly awaiting the next instalment every few weeks. Her personality illuminated the lines on the delicate stationery, the tales coming to life as the blue ink cast a shadow through to the other side, now part of a cinematographic dream sequence in my memory.

Letter-writing has of course long been a literary and film device, with dramatic deliveries of news from afar, invitations to effervescent balls, or kiss-offs sealed dramatically with red wax, which, once broken, forever change the plot and fate of the characters. Imagine a Jane Austen novel without letters! It was the catalyst of understanding between Lizzie and Darcy, for pity’s sake! Or that heartfelt – though dreadfully late – letter of confession from Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield to Angel Clare, which stays ominously hidden, quite literally kept under the rug, and becomes a clear harbinger of doom.

There is both a literal and figurative – and certainly tactile – difference in the nature of electronic communications that is dramatically less satisfying, even with stylized fonts. And indeed, a whole generation of young people has never experienced the exquisite pining wait for a piece of personal handwritten correspondence. Nor have they enjoyed the anticipation and elation of unfolding the stationery to reveal the physical beauty of the written word and the romance of the art that someone took the time to create just for them.

The idea of waiting for anything in this world of rapid-fire discourse is perhaps what is really at issue. We’ve become addicted to the immediate gratification of the latest buzz of electronic snippets. When I’m in a cell dead zone or my battery is out of juice, I sometimes feel the adrenaline shoot through me and the fear grow in the pit of my stomach that I must be missing something important, whether relevant to my existence or not.

Eventually I succumb and put the phone away, defeated. Next time this happens, I hope that I dig out pen and paper and write a letter about it. Perhaps I’ll even do so in a park under a tree. I know of a bench that has a metal plaque with the apt quote: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” Yes, those are indeed Jane Austen’s words. Who better to inspire a letter?

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Stardusted: “David Bowie is” mesmerizing at the AGO

David Bowie. The name evokes a vast array of haunting lyrics and flamboyant styles: flash and pop, fashion and fame, glitz and glam, art and artifice, and the blurring of forms.

For me, the image that always leapt to mind was him running out on stage in the “Modern Love” video, with perfect suit, tie undone, and bouncy 80s hair bopping along as he danced at the microphone. Though I was familiar with his earlier work by osmosis if nothing else, the “Let’s Dance” album was my first Bowie purchase and – perish the thought – on cassette. I might still have it, though after 30 years, it’s now an artifact itself; a glossy memory of adolescence and the beginnings of independence. My formal introduction was thus smack-dab in the middle of an extraordinary career of transition and transformation.

The David Bowie is exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (and organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum) most assuredly filled in the before-and-after gaps. This is a show about art and language, and artful language; of poetry and literature, film and photography, all of which were contributions to the multi-layered imagery inherent in song and story.

There is so very much to see – and hear, of course (do partake of the headset) – a history of pop culture and the earlier icons who influenced his work and inspired his many personae. The art in the collection is astounding, particularly his own pieces, many of which will make you pause and study.

There is an exploration of inner space and outer space, presence and existentialism, with a multitude of costumes and set designs, creations and illustrations, telling time on a complex watch with time-machine movement. On the poster for the 1986 movie “Labyrinth” in which Bowie stars as the “Goblin King Jareth” are the words, “Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.”

While there are certainly illusory elements in his work, they are purposefully so, which simply reinforces the undeniable intensity of expression that has influenced pop culture over the course of four decades. Plan to stay longer than you might think, because you’ll want to linger over the details in the narrative and under the glow of the video screens. You might even find yourself wanting to sway, while colour lights up your face.

Just a few highlights:

Favourite literary reference: D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Favourite photograph: David Bowie, Reality Sessions by Frank W. Ockensfels 3 (2003) – it’s near the end, by the way

Favourite fashion: Costume for Screaming Lord Byron – Jazzin’ for Blue Jean by designer Alison Chitty (1984)

Favourite gift shop item: Union Jack denim (Oh, I was tempted, but alas, they didn’t have my size!!!)

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