Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Gift of Letters

       I was listening to BBC radio last night and the topic of letters was being discussed. Specifically, the presenters were discussing whether letters were still relevant in the world of email, Facebook and Twitter. (As of the time I'm writing this, I can't find a link to the particular program.) The presenters were split on whether letters still had a place in the world. One argument was made that levels of privacy and depth are far more nuanced using the various modes of electronic communication rather than letters. I've heard other arguments on the topic that letters are typically better written because one takes their time when composing a letter.

      Looking back at my own history of letter writing I realized that though I was once prolific, but I realistically haven't written a letter in years. I, like many others, have abandoned letter writing for electronic means. But I still miss letters. Why is that? It's true that 140 characters can only share so much, but an email can be as well composed and written as a letter, even more so with spelling and grammar check. I don't think its the content of letters which was so valuable, I think it was the letter itself.

      Instead of this being a discussion of content, I think it is a discussion of object. The letter versus the email is similar to the book versus the eBook. When you send someone a letter, you aren't just sending information. You are sending a gift crafted with your own hands, whether it is written on cotton rag paper or coffee stained notebook paper. I still have almost all the thoughtful correspondence that anyone has ever sent me. While it is fun to look back through old emails, it is more satisfying to pick through a box filled with all different sorts of paper from napkins to stationery with Florentine envelope linings. Drawings, poems, stamps, and all sorts of two dimensional gifts that people have sent to me over the years.

     Sadly, the last batch of letters I might realistically have received was when I was in Army basic training. Letters were the only correspondence we were allowed to have with the outside world. My friends and family really came through for me by sending me lots of letters during those 11 weeks or so. I still have every one.

      The BBC presenter who praised the versatility of the many different types of electronic communication was exactly right. But, my hope is that writing letters will have the sort of old-timey appeal that has drawn people back to hobbies like knitting and canning. It would be a fad that might just have more staying power than others because it would re-establish the exchange of objects that draw people closer together. And it smells better than urban chicken farming.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sales Tips: Don't Insult your Customer

A lot of people have a hard time reconciling my love for the arts with the pride I take in my brief military service. It has led to some awkward conversations at parties with fellow art lovers. But the strangest conversation I’ve ever had between these two worlds was a fundraising call from Carnegie Hall right before I left for basic training.

I was 32 years old when I enlisted in the Army and I thought that I was going to make a career of it. So, before I left New York City, I made a point of going to all the great cultural institutions I could. One of my stops was to listen to Mozart’s 25th Symphony at Carnegie Hall. It was a breathtaking experience.

However the following week, I received the fundraising call. It started off innocuously with a scripted pitch asking if I enjoyed the performance and if I would like to purchase a season subscription. I declined and told the caller that I was joining the Army and that a subscription wouldn’t have done me any good.
At this point the caller abandoned his script.

“Wait, you’re about to go to basic training and the last thing you do in the City is to go see classical music? How old are you?” he asked.


Here, the salesman launched into a tired about how I’m what’s wrong with the Army.
                “I guess everything is remote controlled now, so they can let you old guys in. It don’t matter no more. When I was in, you had to be tough. I guess this is what the Army is now…” and so on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a huge point of conversation among those who have served. Everyone had it harder than the people who came after them. The conversation can get irritating, but the same conversation plays out in any job, sport or activity, or even just living in New York. But, this particular conversation stands out in my mind because this was a sales person who was trying to sell me Carnegie Hall tickets and criticizing me for being someone who goes to Carnegie Hall.

One day, I’d like to live in New York City again. And when I do, I hope that I am fortunate enough to be able to afford a subscription to Carnegie Hall. But, I hope that whoever sells me those tickets is less insulting that whoever they had working the phones that day in 2009.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Formalism and a Post Ideal World

                   I’ve taken one painting class in my life, at MassArt about 15 years ago. I have mixed feelings about the class, but it provided me with the experience of taking an art class. In this class I was exposed to my first officially sanctioned nude model, or I suppose they were exposed to me.

Visual Approximation of Idealized Nude
                   In preparing for the class I had imagined that the model would be female since at the time I limited my appreciation of art to early 20th century European modernism. And I assumed that she would be a young college student modelling to make some extra cash while in college. In response to my expectations I purchased a tall, thin canvas to frame the dancer or performance artist in my imagination.

                  When I arrived in class, I set up my canvas and paints and waited for the model so I could get started. A door opened and in walked a large bearded man with a receding hairline and a very ample belly. He was wearing a tiny white bathrobe. The model disrobed and positioned himself in a way that gave me a full frontal view.

                  The painting that resulted is still one of my favorite pieces. The narrow frame did not contain this huge figure which focused the painting on his face and a portion of his body. The result was a big, powerful figure who ended up looking as much like a Greek deity as any idealized classical marble. Every single subject has the potential to be a God or Goddess or a pathetic wretch. It is in the artists’ hands. And I propose that artists of all types have that potential to put us into a post ideal world when it comes to how people are portrayed in the arts and media.

                  I have seen a lot of exhibitions featuring under-represented represented body types in paintings and photographs, as well as many featuring solely models who fit the mold of what people consider "mainstream beauty”. But it seems to me focusing solely on non-mainstream models or vice versa just segregates notions of beauty even further. Wouldn’t it be more productive to choose models who are both “conventionally beautiful” and “like the rest of us” in order to treat everyone equally? And shouldn’t it fall on the artist to create appeal or convey a message with their technique rather than with their subject?

                  Two exceptions aside, it’s been years since I’ve painted a person. I’ve been working with landscapes, cityscapes and architecture. But the thought of formalism inching us closer to a time when people might feel better about themselves makes it tempting to paint people again.