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The Science of Art

In Art, Life in Society on February 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm

By Stephanie Martin

E pluribus Unum: words we’ve all heard or read somewhere before. “Out of many, one.” The de facto motto of our nation until, “In God We Trust” was adopted, the phrase is on much of the money we all carry around in our wallets, purses, or pockets. Although physically present everywhere, it appears in conversation only when discussing the cultural, racial, or social diversity of America. However, it seems to me the phrase has an older application, older than our nation, older than its own language, Latin.

Lately, I have been thinking about this phrase because I have been thinking about the idea of “one” and the idea of “many.” And here’s why. In less than one year, I will graduate with a degree in biochemistry and will, subsequently, stumble into a world in which I am not sure I want to practice biochemistry. In fact, I am not sure I know what I want to practice. If you had asked me last semester, or even at the beginning of last month, I would have told you that I was going to apply to film school and get a graduate degree in English. Last August, I would have told you that I was going to apply to grad school for chemistry or biochemistry. My senior year of high school, I would have told you that I might be a zookeeper or doctor. My freshman year, you might have heard me say I wanted to be a cowgirl. You get my drift. I have been living in an identity crisis for as long as I can remember. Although I could blame my identity crisis on being the middle child, I suspect it has something more to do with the dichotomy of my brain. My left brain wants me to be a scientist. My right brain wants me to be a writer.

full mannequin

So what do you do when you are studying science and suddenly want to be an artist? Don’t ask me! I’ve been trying to figure it out for at least a year and made about as much progress as a snail on salt. It’s a slow and painful process, trying to figure out what to do with your life. You may choose one thing and find, three years into a degree, that you may not want to do that at all. Hypothetically, you may then choose something else, and focus on that for a while until, in theory, you visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with your family and realize that you love science it’s your life and you could never give it up! There goes six months’ worth of plans down the drain!

Nevertheless, my love of art, literature, and writing has not dimmed. My interests this past year have felt like an oscillation from science to art to science to art again with everything in between. I ask myself audibly, “Why can’t you just pick one?!”

In a recent conversation with a friend, the subject of “art” arose. As soon as she said that word, my brain naturally connected that idea to all of the things I associated with art: painting, sculpture, film, theatre, poetry, literature, music, etc. Somewhere in the middle of the train of thought I realized that she had said, “art, as a way of life.” A beautiful idea I thought. Beauty in every part of life. I like it. It was then that something clicked. I was wrong. Art isn’t just one thing. It’s not something you can categorize. It’s not confined to that list that went through my head. Ironically, neither is science. Science seems to be systematic and fact-oriented, but it’s not just that. It’s a way of thinking and viewing the world. It’s more. That’s when it hit me. I don’t have to choose one thing to do with my life. I don’t have to do just science, or just art. I can do both. I can choose more than one. I can choose many, because life is more. It is more than one occupation or one hobby or one friend or one place. Life is more than one. But that is the beauty of life. Because from these many things, comes one life. E pluribus Unum.

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Part Two: Is Feminism Still the F-Word?

In Life in Society on April 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Answer: Yes, because systems of oppression still exist.

By Bekah McNeel

Here’s an underdog for you: An androgynous victim-turned-vigilante whose ideas of retribution are merciless and often gory. Lisbeth Salander is the anti-heroine of the book Men Who Hate Women, also titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We cheer for her because we know how wounded she is, and the book makes little mystery of her oddity being the manifestation of the psychological effects of violence.

It’s tempting to see this violence as a modern perversion brought on by media violence, the sexual revolution, and video games. It’s tempting to hearken back to a sweeter time when a woman could go for a walk at night without fear, back before people were evil. But the heart of oppression is more native to our species. It’s more basic.

When asked about motive behind domestic abuse, men’s answers included anger, fear, insecurity, frustration, and other emotions triggered by desires for power, sex, or control.

(CNN Living, “Men Tell Oprah Why they Beat the Women they Love”, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-02/living/o.why.men.abuse.women_1_christy-abuse-sir?_s=PM:LIVING., accessed 3/30/12)

Abuse happens in cycles and abuse happens collectively. It happens to random strangers and to cherished spouses. There is no one answer as to what makes men want to beat or oppress women as a people group or as individuals.

Here is a concise list of disturbing facts lifted from the Oxfam Canada website:

16 Facts about Gender-Based Violence

1.     Around the world, as many as 1 in every 3 women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member.

2.     Women are more susceptible to violence during times of emergencies or crisis due to increased insecurity.

3.     1 in 5 women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

4.     About 1 in 4 women are abused during pregnancy, which puts both mother and child at risk.

5.     Laws that promote gender equality are often not applied.

6.     At least 130 million women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting.

7.     ‘Honour’ Killings take the lives of 1000s of young women every year, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa and parts of South Asia.

8.     At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are ‘missing’ from various populations as a result of sex-selective abortions or neglect.

9.     Over half a million women continue to die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes.

10.  Rates of HIV infection among women are rapidly increasing.

11.  More often than not, perpetrators of gender-based violence go unpunished.

12.  Worldwide, women are twice as likely as men to be illiterate, limiting their ability to demand their rights and protection.

13.  Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences including, denial of education, health problems, and premature pregnancies, which cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. The power imbalance also means that young brides are unable to negotiate condom use or protest when their husbands engage in extra-marital sexual relations.

14.  Violence against women represents a drain on the economically productive workforce.

15.  Each year, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked across borders 80 percent of them women and girls. Most of them end up trapped in the commercial sex trade.

16.  Gender-based violence also serves by intention or effect to perpetuate male power and control. It is sustained by a culture of silence and denial of the seriousness of the health consequences of abuse.

(http://oxfam.ca/what-we-do/themes-and-issues/womens-equality/16-facts-about-gender-based-violence, accessed on 03/30/12)

For further exploration of these and other statistics, readers may visit the below sites:

International Justice Mission http://www.ijm.org/sites/default/files/resources/Factsheet-Gender-Based-Violence.pdf

United Nations Women’s Development Fund http://progress.unwomen.org/

National Organization for Women http://www.now.org/issues/violence/stats.html

Photo by Kent Bartlett

Feminism is still “the F-word” in systems where it threatens a broken status quo. No one would say that a woman fighting for equal pay is in the same straits as a young girl trapped in the sex trade, but there is some solidarity there. Any system, even a family system, that says that women are inherently less valuable, capable or dignified than men is a system that makes way for abuse. Any system that sees education, health care, and legal rights as strictly belonging to men is a system that fosters oppression. A woman’s health and welfare in this world should not be dependent on the good will of the men around her.

I’m not saying men are evil. I’m not saying women are virtuous. We are all human and prone to abuse each other in large or small ways. Which is why we have to plan for the failure of our own virtue. We have to plan boundaries, structures, and accountability to keep us safe from each other. We cannot assume that we are incorruptible. This is not a new idea. This is why the United States has a Constitution. It’s not perfect, and it’s malleable. Some of the changes to it have come from surges of conscience that propelled us forward and made us better. Like the 14th and 19th amendments, which recognized that unless these people were citizens, they would be vulnerable and unprotected.

Around the world, women are without rights. I’m not talking about the choice to wear a hijab, or stay home to raise children. I am talking about the women who do not have that choice. Women for whom what they wear, say, and do is all limited and mandated by a system designed to control them. Not in the way that we all have to obey laws. Not in the way that we all have to submit to systems for the good of the whole. There are systems that deny women basic human agency. (For that matter, there are systems that deny whole people groups basic human agency … another essay for another day.)

If there are mandates that apply only to women, then that begs an explanation which may contain the DNA of oppression. If the explanation is that women are less capable, valuable or dignified, then a door is open to the stripping of their rights. The dehumanization process can begin with a simple statement about what women are “better suited” to do. So we must be very careful with our choices and how we explain them. We who have choices owe that much to the women who do not.

There are systems that need more than redefining and explaining. In another lesser-known novel, A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison, economic systems built around supply and demand keep sex trade the booming industry that it is. Furthermore it brings women into a world of violence, where they then play an integral role in continuing their own oppression and the oppression of others, whether as brothel madams or teenage “mean girls” critiquing each other’s body shape and hair style.

This can happen on small scales too: women who are abused become abusers. The men who are abusing them were often abused themselves. Inside a system of oppression, there is rarely a simple dichotomy between perpetrator and victim. Inside the system of oppression, whether it is economic, social, or domestic, almost everyone needs rescue on some level.

The rescue begins by acknowledging that the brokenness is real and that it is closer than we realize. There are enemies to violence and oppression: justice, empowerment, and a place to heal. In so far as feminism is promoting these things for women who are denied them, it will always be “the f-word” to systems of oppression.

“Artistic Crime”

In Art, Life in Society on November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

In 1974 after the recent completion of the World Trade Center, Philippe Petit after months of planning and spying with accomplices, snuck in and wire-walked between the top of the towers.

Is this art?

He was arrested immediately afterwards.

One of the officers, Sgt. Charles Daniels remembers,

“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again….Unbelievable really….Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”    (Wikipedia)

Was his disregard for and insult of the policemen justified?

“As a child I loved to climb everywhere.  I’ll let the psychiatrist decide why.  Maybe I wanted to escape my time.  Maybe I wanted to see the world from a different perspective and I was an explorer at heart.  Who knows and who cares, but I was a little climber.  And nobody, not my parents, not my teachers, nobody could stop me.” (Man on Wire)

Annie Allix his girlfriend at the time –
“There was always and still is, this ‘bad boy’ side to Philippe’s character.  He had a very strict upbringing and he would never have strayed too far down that illegal road but he got great pleasure from taking certain ‘liberties.’  He’s so excessive, so creative, so each day is like a work of art for him.  What excited him most about this adventure, aside from being a beautiful show, was that it was like a bank robbery and that pleased him enormously.  (Man on Wire)

On the rope, he told [an interviewer], he lives intensely. He doesn’t think of anything, he just lives.  (Murphy Williams, The Telegraph)

He calls himself a “poet in the sky.”

But what about the selfishness of his actions?  What about the fact that he essentially holds people hostage with the threat of his death?  Or is there really much risk, since he is so practiced and focused?  How does this differ from a ‘regular’ suicide attempt or threat?  If the definition of art is pushing boundaries, where does respect for others come in?

Traffic was stopped up and probably dangerous situations were created during the performance of his stunts.  What do you think about the fact that all charges against him were later dropped and he was basically given the keys to the city of New York?  And deemed a high-wire artist?

What about the question, “Is all art performance art?”

Philippe says,“[What really attracts me; [is] the challenge part of doing something that’s supposed to be impossible, and in the meantime doing something that’s so beautiful that not only doesn’t hurt anybody, but gives something to somebody.”  (Man on Wire)

~ HR

Art in Public Schools

In Art, Education on May 21, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Photo by Hannah Amodeo

Watching Mad Hot Ballroom is an eye-opening experience.  It’s a documentary about the introduction and implementation of a ballroom dance curriculum into a series of New York City public schools in the wake of 9/11.

Watching the faces of the 7th & 8th graders in class, as they learn and execute the steps is revealing and creates compassion for the innocence that’s still there in their little selves and the engagement with the subject matter that is evident.

What is healing and empowering about it?  About the physical expression, the movement?  About the accomplishment?

The grand goal is the end-of-year competition between schools.

Nerves show up, even though they’ve practiced their best.

Other education success stories?

The following movies (one based on an excellent book):

Freedom Writers — The story of a teacher who has her severely at-risk students begin keeping journals.  They explore in class together about the Holocaust, and related issues of judging and hating others because of differences.  Shockingly, only one student in a large class had ever heard before of … the Holocaust.  They are all angry and separated into their racial or otherwise delineated groups.  Writing gives them a chance to express themselves and examine hot topics.

Stand and Deliver — The story of a teacher who expects his disadvantaged students to learn advanced math.  Therefore he puts his gifted all into teaching them, and the majority of them pass their Calculus AP exams with such flying colors that it’s thought they cheated.

Dangerous Minds — The story of a teacher who matches the academic material (chooses quality literature) to students’ lives.  She gives them all an “A” to begin the year with and challenges them to maintain it.  Then does her best to equip them.

A Touch of Greatness — The story of a teacher in the 50’s in Rye, New York who exploded “out of the box,” in the classroom after realizing that he was bored. He proceeded to change his methods.  His quote below:

My first job as a teacher … I realized, ‘I’m not having fun … If I’m not having fun, no one in the room is having fun…’  There seemed to be a disciplinary problem day in and day out … Finally I realized there should be more play during the day.  By that I mean, more learning that is playful.  — Albert Cullum

One of his former students had the following to say:

Children are turned on by greatness, and bored by mediocrity … and so he gave us greatness.  Laurie Heineman – former student of Albert Cullum, 5th grade teacher

In every one of the above examples, the revolutionary teachers met resistance. Significantly, from their own school administrations.  Also, from some fellow teachers who felt resentment or jealousy.

Bonus: For an up-close look at a wonderful teacher as he does his thing in the classroom, there’s the French film To Be & To Have.