Public Figures

While searching for information on the Cube, I found the website for the President’s Advisory Committee on Public Art. The Committee works to sustain installation and maintenance of public art around campus. Most intriguing, to me, was the assertion that “outdoor sculpture should be an integral part of the educational and research mission of the University”. I have often had both the blessing and the curse of crisscrossing the campus throughout the day, and thus, have probably scurried around these various artistic endeavors more times than I can count. Every time I walk to the Union, whether it is for my daily dose of caffeine or another inefficient study session, I am dwarfed by the Cube or the crossed red beams of the Orion. Less obvious, are the numerous façades on buildings such as Hatcher, Rackham, or the Ruthven Museum. Placed high above, they are brief splotches in our vision as we approach and pass through the brick walls. Then, there are the varied others: the benches, the fountains, the statues.

It is all so easy to take for granted; for I know that come tomorrow, they will still be there, awaiting me. They are patient, unlike the countless that have rushed by them over the years. During the day, they are constantly busy, constants in a bustling Central Campus. But at night, they must become lonely, with only the occasional visitor back from the library or party. Tired eyes don’t see well and cannot offer any admiration in the dark. So they wait, as anxiously as I, for the return of the sun, when they can be glorious once again. The cycle repeats, year after year, decade after decade.

Even if they are oft ignored, public art works have never been useless. In fact, they are all that we lack. They are constantly present, which is more than can be said about people. People pass too quickly. Blink and they disappear. For people, this University is only a temporary place, a jumping off point for bigger and better. Public art, on the other hand, cannot move from their designated place. They must live their eternal lives as they were built. Thus, they can act as an orienting, dependable force in a constantly shifting environment. At the same time, they are constantly adaptable, too. They easily morph to suit each individual desire. I will never see the Cube with the same eyes. Each day it becomes something new. Perhaps tomorrow, I will notice a new feature that had been there all along. Perhaps I will return twenty years later with my hair already graying, and remember exactly how I felt that very first day of orientation, the day I was introduced to the soaring beauty of the campus. Although I will only be at the University of Michigan four years, I know each and every one of those days have been made better, more satisfying by the inclusion of art, even though I may not have had the time to properly appreciate it. But that is alright. Public art is not ostentatious that way. It does not demand anything of us. But it also forms the very heart of the University of Michigan.

Commercializing Art

Last Monday evening, with the Oscars already fading from memory, one of the best films of the year was released. Spike Jonze’s four-minute movie is beautifully smooth and full of captivating color. Featuring FKA Twigs dancing to the new single “Till It’s Over” by Anderson .Paak, the video’s kinetic energy is endless. It is impossible to ignore, impossible to watch only once. Every image speaks to a careful attention to detail, down to the impression of an umbrella handle that stretches into eternity. Too bad it’s an ad. Too bad it’s just another commercial urging us to buy and buy. All this artistry, wasted, by devoting it to selling the newest Apple HomePod. At least that is what some believe. But I’m not sure that this is entirely true.

Art has always had a commercial aspect and it is impossible to separate art from the practical necessities that motivates artists to make it. Mozart and Beethoven were commissioned to compose, paid to produce beauty. Yet, their concertos and sonatas are still regarded as classics. Money doesn’t invalidate the works being created. Instead, by making the creating of art valuable, money contributes to the continuous creation of new and imaginative work. Without the massive coffers of Apple, Jonze might not have been able to invest in a massive practical set or attract the talents of two brilliant artists.  Does it matter, then, that its entire premise is convincing you to buy one plastic, cylindrical speaker over another? Perhaps the video’s aesthetic beauty is enough to cover for the shallowness of its purpose. It is enough that Jonze creates imaginative visuals of an apartment stretching and lighting up in perfect tandem with the flowing music. It is enough that I have discovered the charming abilities of FKA Twigs and Anderson .Paak. It is enough that one of my favorite filmmakers, the director of Her and Being John Malkovich, has created another masterpiece that I will watch again and again until his next movie appears in theaters. Perhaps this capitalist society of ours, it is necessary to accept art however it comes.

In the end, the commercial has done its job. I have shown it to all my friends. I have found my eyes drawn to it whenever it appears: before my YouTube videos, after my favorite television shows, at the Buffalo Wild Wings.  Now, I have devoted a blog post to it, joining the numerous others singing its praises. In fact, I am complicit in spreading its touch, like a careless, flu-addled cougher. I can’t help myself. Perhaps I will never buy a HomePod. But I certainly have the product’s name ringing in my ears. Even worse I will forever associate “Till it’s Over”, Anderson .Paak, and FKA Twigs with the product. These are problems that simply arise when art is so closely associated with a clear monetary purpose. Although, I have enjoyed the video, I will always be reminded by Apple’s classic sleek white lettering that this masterpiece is for the HomePod. Mozart and Beethoven, nowadays, would have been commissioned to write the new jingle for Amazon’s Alexa. It is a dilemma that does not invalidate art, but certainly complicates our understanding of it.

In the Background

Something that I’ve noticed over years of procrastination and long sessions of studying, is that I can’t sit down to work without a solid backing track. The music varies, but my requirements do not. For productivity’s sake, the piece can’t be too attention grabbing. Instead, it should easily fade into the background, willing to be ignored for hours on end. But I am a contradictory human being, so I also want my music to be inspiring at other moments. I want it to rise up and give me the motivation to finish one more reading, one more math problem. Finally, I need music to flow continuously. The music should wind a parallel path to my thoughts. It should be in the midst of its own story while I am in the midst of mine. Services, like Spotify or YouTube, have the bad habit of leading you to unexpected destinations and unknown artists. Perhaps this is palatable, even valuable, if one was out and about in an exploratory mood. It is a musical adventure that I would be willing to embark when I am walking from class to class, with nothing else on my mind other than the lyrics of a song. The music in our ears matches the actions of our bodies, the thoughts in our mind. It helps define our feelings at a certain moment of time through other people’s words. But when I am studying, I feel trapped by other people’s words, other people’s ideas. I do not need another world intruding. It is a delicate relationship that I do not have nearly the energy to maintain. Someone with more care would, perhaps, put together complementary playlists, maybe painstakingly find songs that blend in theme and tone. But I am stuck between caring and uncaring, so I do nothing. Instead, I listen to endless compilations of classical music, loop movie scores, and replay albums. I have even in my most desperate moment listened to Spotify’s ‘Your Favorite Coffeehouse’ , a list manufactured mellow, that made me feel as if I were drowning in pillows. As an amateur music listener, I drift toward the generic and emotional. I am grabbed by obvious arrangements and even more generic lyrics. Sometimes, though, you just need a loyal friend chattering in the background. Someone to stay by your side through the tired midnights. It is a comforting presence, one that I can’t work without.

Snow Fall

Snow falls from the heavens like a thousand discarded angels. Snow falls to land on grey pavements and yellowed winter grass and disappear in a few short-lived moments. Snow falls, feather-like, onto my face and leaves gentle scrapes of coldness on my skin.  I breathe out. My revenge melts some of my tiny antagonists. But still snow falls. They are drawn in an ever downward spiral. I am no longer sure where they come from. The invisible grey sky is secretive and perhaps, more importantly, I no longer care. I only want to keep walking through the blowing sheets of falling whiteness until I finally reach my destination. But even that has become unclear. Snow falls, making distances and time stretch longer into infinity.

Somewhere, I sense other beings, bravely traversing the winter storm, with faces tucked into warm coat collars. They make no sound, other than the muffled crunch of boots on fresh powder. No one dares to exchange words as we hurry past each other. The snow is deafening in its silence. The great University and its students are cowed by the weather. The distinguished brick buildings are thrust underneath fluffy caps, transforming them into childish caricatures of their normal selves. They surely cannot withstand the impact of a thousand icy cuts. Soon, they must fracture and crack. Their pipes becoming brittle and bursting. I imagine the world around me exploding silently, unseen as I walk by. Perhaps there will be no warm haven awaiting me. Perhaps it, too, has already been broken and absorbed. My imagination strives against the cold that numbly urges me to stop. Snow falls ignorantly past me. Sometimes, I spot footprints where they should not be, in four-foot-deep drifts. I also spot cars where they should not be, making slow progress through greying slush. The machines do not belong here, in this natural world of cold crystal and hot, humid breaths. Those passengers watch the snow from behind a barrier, separated from this pure battle between woman and Earth.

It is usually so easy to ignore or at least compromise with the weather with t-shirts when it becomes too hot or umbrellas when it rains. But when the snow begins to fall in earnest, it exploits every vulnerable chink of our armor. Every minute in the snowy air becomes another reminder of all that we have built as protection, and how useless it all proves. The plows push futilely, only able to move snow from place to place. Its presence accumulates. It comes and leaves of its own accord, gradually melting from existence. Ashes to ashes, water to water. We treck through this ethereal gift with heavy boots and track it into the soggy carpets. We kick it to the side and ignore it. But as I take a final look upwards, at the snow, falling, a ridiculous wonder fills me. Snow falls as I enter the building. Snow falls eternally on unseen spinning tracks. Snow falls, and I wish I could fall with it.

In the Aftermath of a Super Bowl

It’s a strange thing to watch a Super Bowl when your team is at home. It is not an unfamiliar feeling, though. Only two teams make the Super Bowl, and for the past seventeen years, the Patriots have dominated the Eastern Conference spot. They have played in the  Conference Championships eleven times since 2001 and made it all the way to the biggest game of the year, eight times, in the same period. Their record is impeccable. Their ascent, inevitable. Sometimes, I fear that our robot overlords have seemingly already arrived, in the form of an ageless Tom Brady and the emotionless Bill Belichick. It is an unbearable dominance, worsened by the Patriots’ air of smug duplicity.

Yet, for all my endless rants, I tuned in, along with millions of others, to watch the Super Bowl this year. I sat in a crowded room, ate wings, and watched the full four hour-long broadcast. I watched despite the Seahawks, my team, having been eliminated weeks ago. I watched despite the homework sitting undone in my dorm room. I watched, hypocritically, for the Patriots. The team’s domination of the sport has created something rare indeed: unity. Unity among the fans of the thirty one other teams who have watched helplessly from the sidelines as the Patriots have collected ring after ring. Fans that have had trophies ripped from their grasp by another Patriots comeback, another Patriots miracle. This is the special anger, engendered only by sports; one that feels both overwhelmingly important and staggeringly petty. Perhaps it is a hateful kind of unity, but it’ll have to do in times like these. Only the Patriots could make me feel this way. Only the Patriots inspire such passion. The Jacksonville Jaguars were four points away from playing the Eagles in the Super Bowl. I would have abandoned that game at halftime. But to watch the Patriots play, to root for them to lose, is obligatory viewing. To watch a Patriots game is a gamble with high risk and higher reward. It is dreadful for most of the four quarters because one is always on the lookout for the next freakish Brady third-down conversion or well-timed interception. Belichick ensures that his teams run like clockwork, infuriating in their precision and competency. There are brief moments of hope, such as when the Falcons held a twenty five point lead midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl Fifty One. But even then, there was trepidation in even believing that a blow-out of this proportion could occur against this team of well-oiled cyborgs.

Yet, in the moments after the Eagles clinched Super Bowl Fifty Two, there was also an unbelievable happiness. All of that fear suddenly became joy, all doubts suddenly vanquished. That is the power of a Patriots loss. A power that could only be borne from repeated championships and utter greatness. It pains me to admit it, but I’m happy the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl. I’m even happier that they lost.

A Moment of One’s Own

This is an article that I didn’t want to write. Perhaps it was some lingering sense of shame. Probably because it felt all too natural to me and abhorrent to everyone else. But most of all, I didn’t want to write something about myself. To explain oneself, after all, is an impossibility. Getting even half of my meaning across without nervousness or embarrassment trapping the words in my throat is a miracle. It’s a good thing that I am writing this, then. Now I have approximately five hundred words to get my point across. Which after a meandering one hundred words is that, I like to be alone. That is not the world-consuming revelation that you came here for. It is not even the mildly-interesting tidbit that you may have glanced for. But it is what you are going to get (if you stay, of course). The best part of being alone is that you have the chance to get away from the endless hubbub, the meaningless chitchat. Not that I don’t appreciate the more-than-occasional bout of jibber jabber. I can certainly jabber on with the best of them, especially if it concerns my current obsession on television. Sometimes though, after a day, or a week, of being talked at by professors or buzzing around with friends, it is nice to simply be in a room without anyone else. To sit, unobserved and unneeded. To move, unencumbered by the personal needs of someone else. To have the environment around you, the sights, the sounds, be entirely your own. Maybe it’s selfish. But it’s a ‘mine’ that I need to have. To be alone, at least to me, is also resisting the allure of the GroupMe notification, the newest Facebook update. These are unnecessary connections to the outside world, at least temporarily. They are the nagging voices, urging me to return to the loud place, but given digital shape as birthday reminders and life updates. They are distractions posing as something meaningful. I know that. But they are also act as admonitions. The smiling friends and memes show me lives where being alone does not exist. Instead, there appears to be constant social entanglements happening all around me, even as I sit in a room, alone. The pressure permeates through every aspect of the college experience. This expectation of having the best years of your life, right here, on campus drives students to late-night parties and dinner with friends. One feels the need to spend every second of those four, short years in the company of others. Others that may soon be lost to new jobs in new places. But lost in the deafening, striving progress is the need to not be needed.  I am free to pursue my own creativity only when I no longer have to fulfill any outside demands. In these moments, completely alone, I don’t need to answer to anyone or anything else other than that strange, instinctive hunger to write. I can explain myself without having to get the words out in time or even express the words semi-cleverly. Perhaps that is why I found this article so difficult to write. Perhaps that is why I needed to write it.