Beyoncé & Great Art

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest visual album. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since its release on April 23rd, it’s stirred up plenty of gossip, memes, articles, and mild controversy. What fun! I’ll try not to be more of the same here. By the way, if you haven’t already, definitely try to find the time to watch the album and read some of the media’s commentary.

Maybe a few minutes into Lemonade, I got that feeling that you have when you know that you’re about to witness something particularly profound. On one hand, this is an extremely well-executed work: the cinematography, lighting, settings, costumes, hair!, poetry, allusions to myth and folklore, tradition and politics. And of course, Beyoncé’s stellar voice and startling lyrics. It’s all very thoughtful and captivating. Art that entertains us, and that looks nice, and is technically impressive is good. There’s a place for that in our society and our lives. That’s the role that Beyoncé’s previous albums have filled, and that’s totally fine. But Lemonade is great. I suspect that this is a piece that could last, that our grandkids could hear about, see, and be moved by. Continue reading →

Reflektor & The Present Age

Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, dropped in October 2013 – yes, it’s a little late in the game to be writing a commentary on it. Sorry. But I ended up at one of their concerts a while back and I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since then.

On our way home from that concert, my brother informed me that Reflektor has been called something along the lines of “a love story in the digital age.” Intriguing, yes, but I think that there’s actually a little more going on here than just that. The particular lyric behind all this speculation, and the album’s name, is “we fell in love in the reflective age” (from the title track, “Reflektor,” emphasis mine). This phrase felt familiar, and that’s because Arcade Fire didn’t coin it – nineteenth century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did.

In his essay/book review Two Ages, Kierkegaard contrasts what he calls “The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age.” Compared to the action-packed age of revolution, Kierkegaard laments the present age’s excessive introspection and lack of passion, calling it “a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (68). People in the present age are constantly – possibly cyclically – reflecting, calculating, critiquing, and deciding, but rarely doing. “Everyone is well informed,” he says, “we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it” (104).

In the present age, public life is largely superficial. Fearing silence, people gossip and analyze, and individuals avoid standing out as to not become the subject of reflection and chatter. No longer a part of the public, the individual intentionally becomes a “nobody.” Kierkegaard considers the ways that the present age affects the individual, society, truth, and knowledge in a way that is profound and prophetic.

But Kierkegaard doesn’t say much about love. As interesting as his commentary is, I wonder what he would say about interpersonal romantic relationships in the present age. This is where Arcade Fire comes in, because I think Reflektor touches upon this in an important way. The problematic patterns that Kierkegaard originally described have only intensified in the centuries since he wrote Two Ages. Technology allows us to spend less time attending to meeting basic needs, freeing us up to be more reflective than ever before (24-hour news cycles, social media, personal blogs, and the like are simultaneously catalysts for and products of this reflection). This is why I find Reflektor so compelling and important.

So what is it to be in love in the reflective age? Throughout this album, we encounter two lovers who are just trying to hold on. But will they? Can they?

Questions pierce the quiet moments of the present age, resulting in uncertainty and instability. The two lovers are unsure about who they are and where they stand, and their questions speak to this.

Oh, when love is gone, Where does it go?
“Afterlife”

Will I see you on the other side?
“Reflektor”

She said, “Well how do I know, When I know, When I know?” You already know.
“You Already Know”

They are extremely conscious of themselves and their relationship, and how unstable it really is.

Our song escapes on little silver discs,
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits.

“Reflektor”

We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age,
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age, 

“Awful Sound”

The album culminates with a duet of songs – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – which retell a tragic myth in the present age. Like the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice, these reflective lovers are now anxiously and desperately trying to restore what they had.

He says to her:

 You were born in the little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
There’s so much inside you that you won’t let me see
You fly away from me, but it’s an awful sound when you hit the ground
It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.
“Awful Sound”

And assures him:

We’ll wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
You say it’s not me, it’s you
“It’s Never Over”

And then together, we hear them descend into a cyclical conversation of assurance and uncertainty, assuring each other that “you will get over,” even though “it’s never over.” Ultimately, they reminisce and lament:

We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
Reflected light
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon.
“It’s Never Over”

The remainder of the album, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” shows them trying to work things out, but ultimately wondering about what happens when love is lost wonders about what happens when love is lost. The album ends with the chilling lyrics:

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from you.
“Supersymmetry”

I’m not sure that Reflektor is trying to teach us how to maintain or restore love in the present age. Instead, it gives us a glimpse of that reflective anxiety and how it affects individuals and those closest to them. We see what happens when love is simply abstract and breakable, and insecurity is consuming. It’s tragic, and it’s over too soon.

What do these two have in common?

Barbie + Doryphorus

Barbie and her Greek friend.

One is a renowned piece of ancient art, the other, an increasingly controversial children’s toy.

First released in 1959 by Mattel Inc., the Barbie doll is now a ubiquitous part of American culture. Available in over 2,000 different editions, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. The Barbie is typically made of synthetic plastic, and is primarily found on the shelves of toy stores and in little girls’ playrooms.

Around 440 BC, the Greek sculptor Polyclitus crafted Doryphorus (“spear carrier”). The original sculpture has since been destroyed; the one pictured above is a Roman copy. Originally made of bronze, this ancient copy is in marble. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Coming from opposite ends of history, these artifacts share one central value – they are depicting the ideal human body.

Polyclitus was an expert in human proportion, however, this work was (intentionally) disproportional. He probably was not depicting a particular spear carrier that he knew. Instead, he was imagining what the body of the perfect spear carrier might look like – the best shoulder width, height, arm length, and (for aesthetic reasons) head size. Everything about Doryphorus is a bit off, on purpose, and consequently we see a very handsome man. He looks capable. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the left arm and leg are being held up by extraneous bits on marble – the limbs don’t support the weight of the rest of the body.

The Barbie doll’s inaccurate proportions has been a great source of criticism for the toy. The dolls certainly don’t stand on their own, and, if she were a full-grown living person, her slender extremities would not support her long torso and oversized head. She would also be dangerously – perhaps, fatally – underweight, given her above-average height.

People care a lot about how Barbie dolls can and do negatively affect young girls‘ perception of themselves and their body image – this is a really good thing. And it’s a really good thing that our society is having this conversation now.

However, I’m really fascinated by the fact that basically as long as we as a human race have been portraying ourselves, we have been portraying ourselves inaccurately and ideally. It makes me wonder if, just like little American girls might wish they had blonde hair and blue eyes, little Greek boys wished that they had bigger heads and longer legs. Furthermore, it makes me think that no matter how much we criticize Barbie, or how many average-looking dolls we buy, the human race will still always portray ourselves as “better” than what we ever can actually be. Maybe it’s in our nature.

What do you think? Is the desire to see ourselves as something we’re not just in our DNA? If so, is fighting it a losing battle?