Friday, October 30, 2009

A Reflection on Art in Nashville

"The work of art must seize upon you,
wrap you up in itself and carry you away.
It is the current which the artist puts forth,
which sweeps you along in his passion."
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841 - 1919

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an opening reception at Richland Art Gallery (Green Hills) where three of Nashville's finest artists were displaying new works - all representational paintings rendered in what might be called the 'neo-impressionistic' style. Typically, after making a cursory walk-through of an art show, I can easily identify the best and worst paintings. After all, I have seen a lot of art in the last ten years and have developed a reliable sense of good and bad. There are too many good works in this show to single out any.

It was only a few years ago that I avoided the use of prejudicial words like 'good' and 'bad' when discussing art or music or literature. Taking the high-road in an aesthetic argument required that I speak with an analytical - not critical - voice. By constantly squelching my own opinion I cultivated a very keen ability to hear music empirically, look at a painting technically, and read the sub-text (even if there wasn't one) in almost any book. Often at an art opening I could hear the muffled cries of my inner, honest voice just wanting to shout "Bad painting!"

My practice of expressing no opinion had turned my artistic taste-buds off. Worse, I had become an aesthetic pluralist. It became too easy to stand at a party and strike up a conversation with almost anyone about almost any topic because I had mastered the art of talking without saying anything of substance. Older now, and somewhat less careful, I trust my inner-critic more. Good is good. Bad can be bad.

Admittedly, I am not much for small-talk at parties, but when I do find myself in a discussion about art, I champion a favorite theme: Nashville is home to an amazing group of very skilled and well-respected artists. With a shared sense of artistic direction they are producing beautiful new works. At the same time, I feel the local community is clueless to the wealth of talent in their midst.

I am referring to professional artists. There are hundreds of talented amateurs in our city, but they do not approach a canvas with the same intent as a professional. A working artist can not wait for the muse to inspire their work. Instead, they consciously make a rational decision, indeed, thousands of mental choices when creating a new work. That does not mean that the art is un-inspired. Quite the contrary. It means that professionals bring their best effort to each new project, pushed by their growing understanding of the medium, light, color, and the world around them. They are business owners too; constantly keeping inventory, framing, shipping, and marketing their product. Mostly, they are continually educating the rest of us as to the importance of art in our lives.

Like so many aspects of American life, public understanding of art has suffered from the commercial exploitation of what used to be a clearly-defined idea - in this case, the word 'artist.' There should be no ambiguity here. An artist is not a person on an assembly line who paints one part of a mass-produced 'original' and then passes the canvas to the next factory worker. Nor is an artist the person who uses a limited (although often virtuosic) set of technical tricks to create hundreds of identical 'original' pieces. Oh, (BTW) every singer/songwriter who comes to Nashville to be the next big country 'artist' is not an artist.

'Starving Artist' sales have eclipsed the sale of real art in our town. Galleries are struggling to survive, and today their walls are hung with better work than ever before. Visiting the Frist Center to view masterpieces is important, but to own a real original work of art and to enjoy it every day is a much more meaningful experience.

With that said, I propose that every Nashvillian re-think their attitude toward original art. Seek out local galleries that feature paintings by Dawn Whitelaw, Roger Brown, Kim Barrick, Anne Blair Brown, Paula Frizbe, Lori Putnam, and Pam Padgett (to name just a few). Ask yourself, "Does this artwork touch me emotionally? Does it transport me to another place or time?" Listen for your inner 'art critic' voice as you ask, "Is it really good?"

I also offer these bad reasons people buy original art: Because it matches their sofa. Because they like the frame. Because someone told them the artist would die and become famous one day.

My wife is a professional artist. Many (if not most) of our friends are artists. My older daughter is studying art, art history, and art criticism in university. These professionals (all of whom are much more well-informed about this than I am) will remind me that art is not simple. Whether you are the creator or the consumer, art is a complex, dynamic system that interweaves individuals with society, with history, technology, psychology, and now more than ever with economics. But they would all agree that there is only one reason to buy original art - because you can not live without it in your life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Purposeful Walking

"And the walking man walks
Doesn't know nothin' 'bout nothin.'
Any other man stops and talks
But the walking man walks.
Walk on by."
- James Taylor, 1974

Those of you who know me know how passionate I am about walking; in particular, purposeful walking. That expression has been used before by soccer players, prison officials, policemen, and others, but I propose a new more-general definition. Purposeful Walking: the act of integrating walking into one's daily routine whenever possible to accomplish usual and ordinary tasks. Exercise does not count as a 'task.' Visiting the market, the butcher, the dry cleaners (and such) does.

Where Lori and I now live there is very little opportunity to purposefully walk. We can carry the trash to the dumpster or check the mail, but it would be dangerous to walk to the nearest grocery, drug store, or bar (about 2 miles) because the only way is along a very busy street with no sidewalks. We do walk through the Warner Parks several times a week, but that is just exercise. There is no 'goal' at the end of our stroll. Nashville is building a series of greenways that are perfect for casual walking, but they do not lead from residential to commercial centers and, therefore, do not meet my definition of purposeful.

Of course, wandering is nice. Trekking around unknown hillsides, following paths blazed by generations before us (and their goats), and getting a little lost can be very rewarding. It cultivates a special kind of intelligence; the ability to read maps, to determine direction and time from the physical world around you, and it satisfies our curiosity about what lies beyond the next valley. But this blog is not about recreational walking, it is about walking as a way to live day-in and day-out.

Suburban sprawl in the 60s and 70s took many Americans out of their 19th-century cities (designed for walking). Subdivisions sprouted on lands zoned 'residential.' Shopping centers and malls surrounded by acres of asphalt-covered parking lots were build a safe distance away. It was a perfect time to re-invent walkable villages all across the U.S., but instead developers built single-family homes standing on quarter-acre lots where everyone could own their piece of America without having to be part of a community. America stopped walking with purpose.

The more I think about this, the more complicated those economic and social changes seem. When we were kids we walked to the neighborhood store to buy milk. We walked to the one-screen movie theatre downtown. We walked a few blocks to school. By the time I was in high school there were no longer any local stores, only one Kroger several miles away. The multiplex cinema was at the mall, and buses collected students from all over the county and carried them to the new 'consolidated' school. In most of suburban America the time we would spend walking was replaced with hours of stop-and-go driving. Hopping in the car to run a simple errand became not only habitual, but a major cause of impatience and stress.

Walking provides time to think; inwardly pondering big questions that require time to analyze completely. Less critical thinking has weakened our ability to make rational choices, hold complex ideas in our minds, and to be creative. Also, much has been written before about the declining fitness of Americans. Walking is a simple and effective way to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine without the expense of a gym membership. There is, I believe, a relationship between fitness and mental agility; the more fit we are, the more likely we are to think clearly.

In the big picture, America's disinterest in walking may seem petty. The old-world attitudes toward community, economics, time, and self-reflection that I associate closely with walking may be provincial. On the other hand, such a simple observation my be the spark that can improve many lives without undue effort or expense.

Taylor's song "Walking Man" (above) was released in June of 1974 and received lukewarm critical reviews. It was the first of his albums not to reach the Top 5 of the charts. The title song was considered by fans a major disappointment. Maybe this was a prelude to America's own diminishing respect for walking. Personally, I like it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rethinking the Mediterranean Diet

About twenty years ago an American (I believe someone at the Mayo Clinic) coined the expression "The Mediterranean Diet." It was a catch-all term for a way of life shared by millions of rural people living in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean sea. Before long the 'diet' was reduced to these over-simplified dietary guidelines:
  • high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds
  • olive oil as an important monounsaturated fat source
  • dairy products, fish, and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • little red meat is eaten
  • eggs are consumed zero to four times a week
  • wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts
Since then I have seen dozens of books, magazine articles, and countless TV interviews advocating the virtues of similar innovative health regimes; all of them riding the coattails of a centuries-old way of living. Then I look around, at others and myself, and realize that the Mediterranean Diet is really a myth.

Many of you are aware that Lori and I spent several months last year living in Italy. In September and October of 2008 we woke every morning to look out across the Adriatic ocean from our apartment perched high on a cliff in the historical center of Peschici. Every night we dined on local foods; fish, fresh vegetables, fruits, and simple wines. We could not help but observe how carefully the townsfolk selected their foods at the daily market. If the sea had been too rough for the fishermen to sail the night before, there simply was no fresh catch the next morning. Our butcher always trimmed a cut of meat before weighing it. There was no pretention about the quality of the wine. It was all very young, and very good. We prepared every meal at home; a diet of fish, and vegetables (especially greens and beans), but also rich in pork, lamb, aged cheeses, pasta, and lots of bread. I could (and probably will) write an ode someday on the joys of Puglian bread.

Then we moved to Umbria and found the same passion for eating locally crafted products; albeit very different choices prepared in very different ways. Friends in Tuscany (only a short drive away) shared similar recipes that demonstrated the variations in their local cooking. Before we returned to the US, Lori and I had tasted many different Italian cuisines; from the Ligurian coast, to the mountain valleys above Lake Garda, to the plains of Emilia-Romagna. They were all different... but in some way linked to the idea of eating well. Foods were prepared in ways that let the real flavors shine through; a simple saute, braised meat, and judicious seasoning. Olive oil is a treasure.

I ate a lot in Italy, and lost weight.

Then, last month we travelled to Greece. Lori was teaching a painting workshop on the island of Santorini (Thera) which left me with plenty of free time to explore the Aegean food and drink. To my surprise, the food was very different from that of Italy. The following are general observations and surely do not represent every case. In Greece the food is cooked much longer. Meats are roasted and vegetables fried. Herbs and spices such as oregano or cinnaman are found in almost every dish. Greeks use olive oil to deep-fry squid. Greek bread... forgettable. The servings were huge; enough for two (or more) people.

I ate a lot in Greece, and gained five pounds.

There were similarities such as the use of the grill to cook fish, and an affinity for tomatoes and pasta, but overall Greek cuisine lacked the satisfaction that we found in Italian cooking. To write more about the food would take too long and obscure the real point of this blog which is...

There is no one definition for the "Mediterranean" diet. Looking at a map I count at least sixteen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Diets vary. In fact, because the people of the Mediterranean eat 'locally,' the cuisines between regions within each country are often very different. There is no such thing as "Italian" food, and I suspect the same is true of Greek, French, and Turkish cooking. Statistics about Mediterranean populations like reduced incidence of heart disease and longer lives can not be reasonably based on diet alone. Lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and extended social support systems also play a part.

To give our food choices meaningless labels may help sell books, but it does a disservice to those of us who truly value the importance of preparing good food and eating well. In a much more general way, the ease with which Americans contain their behaviors (dietary or otherwise) by adopting a particular label prevents many from looking deeply into their own lives. Such catagorization may satisfy a puerile need to belong, to be doing what is right, but labels (such as "The Mediterranean Diet") can be rife with ambiguity, allowing a person to live (eat) without direction or purpose.

Let us all think before we champion a fashionable trend. Perhaps we can stem the tide of fad foods and diets. As for me, I hope to eat and drink with purpose. All things in moderation... especially moderation.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Too Many Voices

"In the middle of our life's way
I found myself in a wood so dark
That I couldn't tell where the straight path lay."
- Dante [Inferno, Canto I]

Welcome to my blog. Perhaps it is a sign of my age (53), but it has become increasingly difficult for me to hold a idea, no matter how clear and simple, in my mind for more than a few hours. Occasionally something runs through my head that resonates with 'meaning,' but then I blink and the thought evaporates. In this blog I hope to record such musings, good or bad, before they escape my leaky memory.

In truth, the opening of Dante's Inferno overstates my own mid-life confusion. I am certainly not 'lost.' In fact, many, many aspects of my life are in sharp focus for the first time. Whenever I grow fearful or cynical or feel despair, I look around and recognize just how good my life really is. It has taken me this long to find solace in just being. However, there is something about the poet's honest longing for direction that appeals to me, now more than ever.

A century or two from now, when scholars look back on our time through the lens of history, their vision will be clouded by the clutter of words and images that inform (and pollute) our world today. It is entirely possible that too much information is like too much cholesterol; often tasty but also unhealthy. In my life the many inputs that assault the senses impair my own abilty to think critically. The more civilized (read 'people-filled') my surroundings, the less capable I am of thinking and acting rationally. It is a struggle to find a healthful balance when the scales of my daily routine are heaped up with aural and visual noise. This goes double for the special kind of sounds we call 'words.'

Do people really have that much to say? I do not think so. Is technology partly to blame. Maybe. Let me explore an analogy...

About twenty years ago, composers (I was one) wrote music by thinking about each note. We were precise, knowing that thoughtful combinations of pitch, rhythm, and timbre could transform a concert hall into a fantastic 'imaginary world' of sound. Even after the arduous process of writing the music, getting a new piece performed was difficult. It required copying parts, organizing musicians, finding a performance space, and (if you were lucky) rounding up an audience. The shear energy involved in making new music required that a work always represent a composer's best effort.

Then along came desktop computer generated composition; the marriage of computer automation with tone synthesizers. Overnight, anyone with a personal computer could cobble together sounds and call it a 'composition.' Many times the result was very, very pleasing, but superficial. The music sounded good, but it did not communicate anything 'meaningful.' The ease with which one could write hours of sonic pablum unleased a tidalwave of bad music. In a way, technological progress dulled society's appetite for meaningful music forever.

Now let me make the same assertion regarding language. Give everyone a mobile phone, with an unlimited calling/texting plan, and the importance of words will be washed away in the same flood that has robbed us of good new music. In general, people have traded the quality of speech, born out of the need to be economical with our personal interactions, with an emmense quantity of verbal noise.

OK. I admit there is irony in my having made such a claim in an internet blog. If you are bothered by this, I trust you will exercise your right to stop reading at any point.

At heart, I consider myself a careful thinker. Whenever my mind wanders or makes assumptions or skips around pointlessly, I experience a sense of failure, even shame. That is why I am beginning this series of essays; to see if writing about simple ideas will, somehow, replace the static of modern living with the peace that comes with having formed an idea well.

Therefore, this will not be a place for political rant; the antithesis of well-thought-out ideas. I do not pretend to offer up great philosophy, poety, or wit. This is not a memoire, although I will probably share many personal experiences and feelings. Please forgive me if the first-person pronoun 'I' is used too often; it is a voice more honest than literary.

It seems right to declare my intentions for publishing into the great-digital-abyss now rather than later, for no other reason than to give me something to look back on later and chuckle. My purpose will surely change along the way. Your reason for reading my also change. My best hope is that here you will discover something "Possibly Meaningful" in your own life.