Can you recognize the beautiful?

Three years ago, the Washington Post and violinist Joshua Bell conducted a social experiment in a subway station of our nation’s capital. In one of the busiest subway stops, the violinist took out his violin and began to play. People flocked by, undeterred by the melody– “Chaconne” by Brahms, considered to be one of the hardest and most beautiful pieces to be played by a musician. Three minutes into the 14-minute piece, a man slowed down and sped back up after a few seconds; half a minute later, a woman dropped a donation into Bell’s hat.

For forty-five minutes, one of the world’s foremost violin virtuosos played– FOR FREE– in a D.C. metro stop and the only people who deigned to pay attention were children that constantly looked back at Bell as their parents swept them away amidst the bustle of the subway chaos. After a while, the violinist packed up his bags and left, leaving the city dwellers to their daily rush through life.

As humans, we pride ourselves on our elevated intelligence– on our emotional and philosophical capacity to appreciate the intangible beauty that surrounds us. We are better than animals because we have the ability to think beyond our physical and immediate needs.

Is this true? Can we truly recognize the beautiful?

In a museum, in a cafe with headphones, on Facebook watching Youtube videos posted by our friends– these are moments where we can “appreciate beauty”. Of course this must be beautiful– the setting is right, the music has actually be recorded, our friends have impeccable taste! If our perception of beauty is dependent on characteristics and circumstances extraneous to the work of beauty itself, do people know how to discern beauty on their own?

Or perhaps this ability is lost in the quotidian routine of life, where the beautiful to us becomes banal because of our inwardly directed perspective of life: “I’m late for this, I’ve already seen this before, I know he’s just another homeless person playing for money”. We begin to categorize the beautiful into the things that are worthy because of its particularity apart from the ordinary and the things that are no longer deserving of attention because of its mundanity.

In doing so, we miss out on the beautiful.

Today, we are constantly bombarded by information, chased by deadlines, surrounded by busy-ness. And it happens that we so often fail to just STOP. BREATHE. And recognize the beauty that surrounds us even in the commonplace.

Gabby Park is a triple concentrator in Communication Studies, French, and History of Art.

Nuclear Boy has a stomachache

There is no question about it: the earthquake in Japan was one of tremendous force and tragedy in our world.  I cannot say that I have ever heard of an 8.9 or 9.0 earthquake, but judging from how the Richter scale only goes up to 9, I can deduce that Mother Nature is truly a scary force to be dealt with, indeed.  Not only that, it brings up the question of the subsequent human ramifications.  How does this affect some of the man-made things in our world?  In this case, it’s about the nuclear power plants and the effects that the quake wrought on them, thereby releasing radiation into the air.  Many people are at risk of radiation poisoning, which is a very scary thing.

But then, how does one explain events like this to children?  Some children who are old enough may understand but others who are too young probably wouldn’t know what radiation was or why it is harmful.  Cue this video:

The Japanese explain the consequences of the earthquake to children and why the nuclear power plant (aka Nuclear Boy) could be bad for humans.  In short, it talks about how Nuclear Boy has a stomachache and that his poop is so stinky, no one wants to be near it.  It goes on to discuss how we would deal with Nuclear Boy and his stinkiness should he actually have to use the bathroom instead of merely farting.  It is really cute and quite fascinating how the Japanese would use a cartoon to depict this phenomenon.

It’s just another way of demonstrating how art pervades our world and is a perfect partner with just about every subject out there (e.g. science, technology, food, clothing, etc).

Super moooon

My roommate came in and she asked me, “Did you see the moon tonight?”  No, I had not, but it was, apparently, huge.

Sadly I personally missed this perigee moon as they call it, which occurs when the moon orbits at its closest point to the earth.  The last time this occurred was 18 years ago in 1993.  1993?!  I was barely four then!  After hearing about the super moon now I really wish I had seen it.  If it’s such a rare occurrence, then, man, I missed out…

Thinking about it, however, that is what photography is for, no?  So I proceeded to browse pictures on CNN that showed how the perigee looked all around the world, from our very own national capital in DC to places like Jakarta and the Philippines.  And looking at this, I thought to myself (note: this will sound cheesy, please beware), how amazing nature is.  Thinking about it, isn’t the world around us one of the best forms of art?  Oftentimes, people will ask– sometimes even condescendingly– “What is art?”  In the contemporary art world where so many different works are all considered to be “art”, when indeed it looks like an elephant painted a canvas with its tail, or as if a child had slapped together different planks and called it a sculpture, so many criticize the “easiness of art”.

But what is art, then?  It’s not what is found merely in museums or to be sold in galleries.  It’s what we find to be amazing, beautiful.  The things that we find so fascinating.  And more often than not, this falls under the realm of nature.  I can’t count the number of times I have looked up at the sky and thought it was so beautiful, that it warranted its own frame and space in a gallery.  And seeing how even the moon, which exists in our sky and is visible everyday, can in an instant “change” to captivate us and capture our attention, it goes to show how truly nature is a constantly changing art form.

Sigh.  But the great thing about nature is that most things repeat itself (though some things take more than a hundred years or so to occur).  Which means that hopefully I’ll be able to catch the super moon next time!

Superbowl Madness, Pt. 2

I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed the halftime show last week. It was energetic, brightly lit, surprising (all those guest appearances), and it definitely pumped up the mood. Granted, I didn’t expect the vocals to be amazing or the dancing (the Black Eyed Peas aren’t known for their stellar voices or fantastic choreography) and perhaps I was heavily influenced by the people I was watching the show with who felt energized by the pumping music, but call me crazy and I didn’t mind the show as much as most people did, apparently.

The comments on the performance range from displeased to downright caustic, with every analysis and word meant to indicate a sneer and looking down upon at the pop group.  Take this editorial by an LA Times writer who called the Black Eyed Peas’ Halftime Show “pop absurdity at its finest”.  Ouch.

For me, it’s not so much the overall quality of the performance that caught my attention but rather the striking similarity in concept to that found in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The use of a large uniform group of people that performs in sync is a concept seen heavily two years ago by the Chinese, not to mention the  similar use of the light suits to create colorful and bright contrasts between the darkly clad BEP and draw attention to the lit elements of the show.

It just goes to show that art can be found everywhere– who would have thought that the world’s biggest sporting event that took place in China could generate subsequent copying and changes in the halftime show for what is now probably America’s greatest pastime event (the Superbowl)?  Did anyone ever imagine that sports would inspire creativity and serve as muses for other artistic endeavors?!  Probably not.  But the halftime show this year was a witness to the fact that art is truly a powerful tool, able to influence the way people think, act, and express themselves.  Even during the Super Bowl.

Superbowl Madness, Pt. 1

Last year, I waited until after the Superbowl to write my blog post, certain that the annually awaited football game would exhibit something worthy of mention, and doing the same this year ended in similar results.  The only problem is, now I have too much that I want to talk about.

I will first start with the commercial that emphasized a city neither near nor dear to many people’s hearts in Michigan: Detroit.  The Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem and our Motor City itself was a poignant message of solidarity and strength, as well as hope for the dying D.  Eminem rides around Detroit in a Chrysler sedan and, after getting out to listen to a church choir belt out a hymn, stares directly at the camera, saying, “This is the Motor City.  This is what we do”.

But, indeed, what do we do, Eminem?  Just this past Friday, I took to the streets of Detroit to enjoy a little Mexican dinner and delight myself in the artistic festivities offered by the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA).  I hadn’t been to Detroit in the past few years, and suffice it to say, had hardly ever driven around the city, save for the trips into and out of the DIA.  Memories of those trips coupled with the worn and torn down images of what used to be the thriving city (as seen in its abandoned train station and crumbling facades) led me to develop an image of Detroit that rendered my heart more sad than afraid.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered a whole new side to Detroit after driving down Woodward Avenue to the city’s new center.  Filled with new parks, new stadiums, new high rises, and new casinos, downtown Detroit was ablaze with fire and bustling with people even after ten at night.  Here, the people walked freely in the streets, seemingly unafraid of street violence, shops were filled with customers, and laughter filled the air.  Only minutes earlier had we passed by abandoned buildings covered with graffiti, shops with faded signs and few customers, and nary a person on the street that looked as carefree as those who walked in the security of the lights flashing from the nearby casinos, business buildings, and parking structures.  This was the New Detroit, where only the rich and fabulous can buy tasty baked goods from the thriving bakery and play Blackjack inside a plush casino.  Now, I know that every city has its segregation between the haves and have nots, but honestly, Detroit doesn’t seem to have any real “haves”; many people come from outside of Detroit and few actually live inside the city.

I understand that the commercial strives to present Detroit in a positive light: yes, Detroit is capable of so many things and can offer so many talents and abilities.  And while Detroit may have been to hell and back, I’m not sure if we’re out of hell yet.  There is still so much to be done in the city, so many people to partner with, so many businesses to help grow.  But who is doing the helping?

Watching the advertisement, part of me wondered how or what Eminem or Chrysler had done for the D.  Just how much of the commercial reflects the involved parties’ true attitudes and actions toward the Motor City?  The Detroit represented in the 2-minute clip and the true Detroit that exists in reality seem to be from different worlds.  The commercial captures all the industrialization, urbanization, glitz and glamor of the New Detroit.  Viewed with pictures of the D in decline that portrays Detroit in its beauty and sadness, the ad pales in comparison.

I don’t mean to present the city as being helpless and certainly not hopeless; no, I firmly believe that it is changing and that further change is possible.  I just want to raise the question of what exactly it is that “we do”.  What do Eminem or Chrysler do for Detroit?  What do I do for Detroit?  What do you do for Detroit?

We spend so much time focusing on the orphans in Africa or the poor in Southeast Asia, but we have a city that needs us and is only forty minutes away.  It is my sincere hope that neither the rapper nor the car company will fail to act in this part– that the commercial wasn’t just for show and that they are taking advantage of a city that needs much more than an ad featuring them.  But I really do hope that this will motivate them to take a greater part in renewing the city– not by rebuilding it and making a New Detroit, fit for the high life, but by restructuring it so that those who have had a place in its history will also maintain a place in its future.

Lego– Medium of the 21st century

I never actually possessed my own Legos when I was a kid; I only played with the ones my cousins had whenever I went to visit them for the summer.  Even then, though, I thought it was a difficult medium to work with,  I had such elaborate designs of houses and castles in my head… and not enough

time or Lego bricks to make them.  It was frustrating.  On the one hand, I did make do with the limited resources I had but on the other, I knew that my dreams of building a house with two wings or a building of five stories always lurked in the back of my head, waiting to be realized.

Imagine how crazy I would have gone if I had nearly a million or more Legos!  I could have built sculptures!  And indeed, someone has.  Nathan Sawaya has become a Lego artist, building breathtaking and museum worthy creations from a childhood favorite medium.  While the designs are relatively simple-seeming, resembling enlarged and more sophisticated versions of childhood creations, they are also reminiscent of past sculptures from old masters.  Should Sawaya’s national tour be taken in by an art museum, would Rodin and others would be rolling in their graves, complaining about the nonsensical route classical art has taken in the new century?  Or would they applaud the innovative efforts of Sawaya to make Legos into more than just child’s play?

Then again, innovative use of everyday objects wasn’t readily accepted when it first debuted with Marcel Duchamp’s satiric sculpture, “Fountain“, in which he turned over a urinal and submitted it to an art competition as a work of art.  I wonder what contemporary artists would have to say about Sawaya’s work as an artist.