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The Meaning of Life

Here I sit at the Bloor Cinema( still a dump) awaiting my lecture. As part of a continuing education class, the program offers a range of topics: from bootlegging( yes, Hamilton had their own little mafia ) to parenting by the Royals so there’s little commitment but to arrive on time and listen, and hopefully glean some new information.

On the heels of a return from San Diego and still in the throes of three hour jet lag, I head for today’s topic: the meaning of life. Instead of a lumpy Einstein or wizened sophisticated Georgia O’Keefe, on stage struts a lovely young thing in a pencil skirt with luxurious dark hair. It’s not that the young cannot be insightful and sensitive, but the first few waves at the audience make me wish I had taken an afternoon snooze. She speaks directly to the assembled, most recognizable before class as they stop at Starbucks or Aroma for a pre class chat with friends. Some, like me, seek out deals at the dollar store, others merely meander slowly towards the class. Many  stride strongly with purpose, not wanting to be late for the lunchtime presentations. We are recognizable. The boomers, the oldsters, wearing comfortable relaxed clothes, greyed or dyed hair, faces that reflect numerous years of living. The point is that we have a wealth of experience, stories, encounters, lives lived- most I would venture teeming with meaning.

But I try not to judge as our presenter attempts to engage her listeners: as I did my classes once upon a time- at high schools, at universities, at conventions. She poses her question directly and asks what experience in our lives stands out most dramatically. Good question and an important one, but unlike my talks, the listeners here have not been softened up, invited to participate in a” get to know you game”, or even been provided with a reason to share significant facts from their lives. She expects a response, but not one single hand in the sea of participants goes up. Beside me, a frazzled white haired oldie engages me briefly, and I whisper,” I’m not about to reveal myself here.” She nods and then adds”, My memory was awakening up after a suicide attempt” .I visualize magenta blood pumping furiously through her wrists against a hospital bed of white sheets.

 I’m not about to contribute that I was thinking of my glossy wedding day more than forty four years previous. I’m not sure what to say to a stranger who has decided to share this life- changing moment, but I smile weakly and tun my eyes back to the lithe young thing prancing about on the stage.
She has no prepared slides or PowerPoint , but merely an outline on several crumbled sheets on her podium. Apparently negative or bad memories  were the answers she was seeking to her initial prompt so I’m not sure which my seat mate’s would qualify for: she did afterall, wake up! I close my notebook where I usually make notes as I’m pretty sure little will merit being recorded. She begins her ramble while ceaselessly moving back and forth along the edge of the theatre, referring to the famous names of Maslow, Victor Frankl, short and long studies from Romania and Australia, most published as pop news over the years and well known I would expect by this august group. But she bounces from topic to topic, creating, spinning, unwinding her own” I believes” and it’s a tumble from hunter- gathers to women’s fear of rejection to percentages of reclusive populations to unconscious minds to why many in the audience dream of their teeth falling out. I’m not impressed as she navigates the length of the stage; while walking, she appears to be structuring an argument.

 

This recalls for me my son’s frantic call from university in his very first year when his literature prof stipulated that the essays they were required to write must possess NO thesis. I could not help him.

 

Throughout this woman’s loosely structured ramble, I am aware that the emperor does not wear clothes, and were we sitting side by side in a university common room, I would be challenging the ideas she is contemplating, presenting the rational, the flip- side, the antithesis, the common sense, pointing out the ludicrous arguments she is proposing.Or more likely, I would be stifling a yawn or a disparaging look. Hers is a naivety of a student whose thoughts are roughly plumbed. The question, the absurdity of a young person addressing this huge talk is ridiculous. 
Not that

A. Youth cannot pose ( and answer or even address) significant questions

B. These questions should not be discussed

C. That an attempt to untangle even a millisecond of this conjecture is not important. But the person addressing them seems so light, so lacking in world vision and experience, and so underestimating her audience( first question to consider: who is your audience) .

Truly, I had half expected an unsanctimonious diatribe, something irreverent, funny at least to make me laugh; or conversely- something wildly thoughtful.
I do recall that I did guffaw when I noted the name of the talk, but anticipated some enlightenment or at least a serious attempt.Stuck here much like a butterfly at the edge of a pin, I am unable to navigate over the knees and feet of the crowd in my row, resenting the presenter’s lack of depth, a put together( for her other wide eyed students,perhaps? ), her mere sport of such an immense question.

So I do not think it is mere jet lag or even bias towards a young person that is making me fidget in my seat. It is the ease with which her topic is handled in spite of the back and forth sashay at the front. It is the lack of piercing analysis replaced by studies that are flaunted and left to dry on a rack as if name dropping bestows validity to any talk She is stabbing at a theme that gnaws at you as you age: Why am I here? Have my years been worthwhile? How do I stand accountable to myself? To my peers? What does it all mean? The topic is not just a ramble where a traveller traverses, picks up a few blueberries from the bush or scatters breadcrumbs along the path. It is a momentous question that dogs and slows the feet of certainly, this aging group. And might I  add great minds over time.  

 
Did others react as I did? I cannot know as even those at the very edge of the theatre did not rise to leave and there were actually questions at the 40 minute conclusion. Finally I propel myself over the outstretched limbs to depart. Maybe as an afternoon out, the others had found morsels upon which to chew or heard something fresh and did not respond as I did, hoping for probing thoughts to take away or even jot down. Worse yet as I return to my car, I discover a yellow ticket tucked beneath window as I had parked in a taxi stand. Perhaps my car knew more than I, waiting for a quick drop off and hop back in. 

But I am still grumbling: Did she offer a philosophical grounding like Tikkun Olam( Hebrew repair the world. See Mishna), as novelist Nicole Krauss does in her Forest Dark? Her thoughts on the infinite and the finite, filling void with presence, the give and take, the ying and yang, the emptying out and filling up in a desire to recreate what has been lost?Thoughts about time as TSEliot ( Do I dare to eat a peach?) or even a passing glance at Rene Descartes or Steven Hawking. Often literature, science will make meaning…  

When I pondered later, I realized why the lecture, if I can call it that, why it had so angered me. And I knew: I had been that girl, at a different time, carefree, merely toying at the big questions, charmingly taunting and dabbling, eyes large, but only poking here and there without real and deep concerns.No Blake’s Book of Thel , not even a serious student back then, unless you consider daydreaming in UC’s quad with illusions of romance and travel qualifies for broaching the big questions or writing a major thesis paper for a bespectacled prof. Yes ( and my daughter is thinking this if she is reading this,” Not again, mom”. I wore the love beads, but was superficial in my thoughts, not to mention my actions in making the world a better place, unless you discount welfare rep in high school. But more humble, I never imagined that a tossed salad of ideas might qualify as a lecture, particularly to those who had tasted meaning in a real sense.

Sitting there in that darkened room,  a boomer no longer young, this topic  was no longer passing conjecture, or unbridled trajectory. Years of living with no acceptable answers rattled and shook me as I recalled myself at that age, unshackled by the burden of years wherein all innocence is lost. So maybe I grieved and judged because the presenter had once been me, stepping lightly, twirling attractively, touching lightly on the very essence of things.
The meaning of things with little meaning. 

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Last week I met a friend at AGO with the purpose of seeing the Georgia O’Keefe Exhibition. O’Keefe has been known for her association with erotic flowers that contest the phallic imagery of towers and trees. A female Maplethorpe perhaps. Interestingly the explanations at the side of the paintings dispute those associations. Furthermore, O’Keefe balked at her art being thrown in with the Surrealists. However, with her dislocation and contrasts of size, colour and idea, it is hard not to immediately view her work as being part of the Surrealism surge of that day. 

However, as I am curious, anxious and unsupportive of words that categorize, I can understand how O’Keefe wanted to be seen as a force herself and not lumped in with a trend that categorized her as abstractionist, or realist or landscape painter. Yet, standing up close to one’s art is very different from taking a few steps back and viewing it from the context of Time as we consider artistic waves into which we slot artists, such as Manet as Impressionist or Van Gogh as Expressionist: a disservice to the education, reflection, camaraderie and individual genius of those whose work has risen to the foam at the top of Art, to be labelled the stuff of critical examination.

Although Marcel Duchamp must have shared a huge guffaw with his peers when his Readymades, especially The Urinal was elevated to the status of high art, the thinking behind it is, of course, brilliant, ridiculing the difference between high and low art, poking at the elevation and placement of simple things that have been transformed by the noughts of the critics .And besides a new way of seeing -superficially perhaps, opening the door to ordinary objects removed from their context to be viewed for their own sake in term of shape, texture, colour, design, etc. The driving force behind the Bauhaus that comprehended the intrinsic beauty of functional items that showcased design features that were not merely decorative or extraneous.

Signage at the AGO for O’Keefe showed her as part of photographer Stieglitz ‘s bunch, the brightest and bravest of the day, gathered in New York to paint. Although Stieglitz’ s photographs of O’Keefe ( Torso 1918-19, his portraits) were beautiful, she is depersonalized as long willowy hands and an exquisite body, truncated if admirable parts, not declared as an artist, but just as someone else’s muse. I barely let my eyes slide over those tonal tributes, as they were soft, evocative, rather than the strong artist that O’Keefe was portraying herself to be through her oeuvre. In fact, in five years, Stieglitz had shown over two hundred of her paintings( 1925-29), drawing attention to her talent, and making her a public figure.No doubt, fascinated by her strong separate talent, but no doubt desirous of not being overshadowed by his upstart companion. Subject, not object- this intrepid woman- no matter the subservient beauty.

At one point, again the signage has her rebuffing a quotation that she is the best female artist of the day.She bristles and responds the word ” The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters, clearly underlining, I am an artist so don’t categorize me as a woman first that downplays me in the arena of all people, men or women, who make art. Bold and beautiful as documented in her work.

The erotic and mortal associations she also refutes, explaining she painted what she wanted, whether eggplants, flowers, doors. Suddenly spying a flower that appealed, she popped it next to the elongated horse skull that caught her interest in Horse Skulls with Pink Rose, 1931, exclaiming that it “ looked pretty fine” as a spontaneous arrangement. O’Keefe continued to deny all sexual or metaphysical associations, strongly retorting she painted what she saw( See Georgia O’Keefe.: In the West by Doris Bry and  Nicholas Galloway, 1989).The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by hubby Stieglitz. Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective last year was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.( See Hanna Ellis- Petersen,, Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe( sic) Tate show to challenge sexual cliches, March 2016)
As well, although Black Hills with Cedar, 1941, has been interpreted as a woman’s lower body, O’Keefe explains there were places that drew her in in New Mexico because of their “ lonely feeling” that she returned to over and over again in a range of weathers, valued for their shapes and sense of distance. This is what an artist does, inspired or challenged by something that speaks out to their sensibilities. Ironically, the titillation of sexual metaphors raised the appeal of her art, crowds intuiting something O’Keefe did not envisage in her paintings, but obviously others saw. Long before O’Keefe returned back to the Southwest to paint the siena- coloured houses and flat spaces of sand, artists and writers had been attracted to Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Eventually the distinctive culture and clime would appeal to other artists such as Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.

Very early in her career ( Music- Pink & Blue No 1, 1918) she foreshadows the pelvis bones that are associated with her painting. The 1918 ones apparently reflected sound waves for O’ Keefe, suggesting undulating forms like notes in a musical composition of tendons, bones and holes.Later Pelvis, 1944 revisits the forms, the play of what is called positive and negative space.
Her palette as well reoccurs with the soft blues and pastels one tends to think of as her colour. Yet the later abstracted doors and strong rectilinear shapes in Black Door with Red, 1954 resonate with the Color Field Artists and connote for me Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski. But again, to pinpoint O’ Keene as representative of a particular group is to tie a butterfly down as a specimen to a particular genus as opposed to observing its flights among flowers against a dazzling sky. In the same way, Picasso’s passage through a variety of “ styles” do not pinpoint him as either this or that.

My interest in the exhibit also focused on Purple Hills, 1935 because I knew that Lawren Harris had moved close to Abiquiu, New Mexico to be near to O’Keefe and one of her paintings here in the AGO exhibit was very similar to his. This image of purple hills connotes primordial monsters ready to rise up. How wonderful it would have been to be privy to their discussions.
With thoughts to the recent AGO exhibit, I’m not sure about its overall impact as presenting OKeefe fully. Examining it from the end, later pieces, to front, her early works, helped me identify the symbols and abstraction O’Keefe used over time. Somehow the show did not hang together in the same way that Lawren Harris’s did- for me.I wasn’t moved or caught up in the artist’s mind. Perhaps like O’Keefe, who described herself as “ an outsider”, we are kept away from really knowing the artist. I suppose that surface interest of the poppies, the skulls and skies may be enough to consider O’Keefe as accomplished in her own right. The bare facts of her life, her locations described at the edge of the paintings do frame the works- which ultimately must be judged on its own merits. However, the AGO reinforces her isolation rather than expanding her beyond. For many, they will come away from their the exhibit, persisting in their thinking that Okeefes painting is about vaginas.Too bad.

I’ll take another look next month before you  the show closes- aware that the labels that have trapped her should be avoided.

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