Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Art-Making Animals

Unfortunately I misspelled Gauguin's name on Twitter. Fixed that here.
Image from here.
Last night I attended a wonderful, inspiring lecture given by author Margaret Atwood. The ambitious title of her lecture (“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?: The Arts, The Sciences, The Humanities, The Inhumanities, and The Non-Humanities. Zombies Thrown In Extra”) presaged an evening of insight, laughter and deeper thinking. The whale testicles were apparently a bonus. (You had to be there.) She wondered out loud if perhaps the invitation committee had asked Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or Ruth Rendell before they'd approached her.

She riffed on being in Kansas (sigh, as so many often do) by making reference to The Wizard of Oz. Instead of being tedious about it, she took it a step further by challenging us to be Not Kansas. That is, be more exotic, exciting, perhaps even dangerous by creating "an embarrassing pop star of your own". That said, it's disappointing that the world only really knows Kansas by the film of a hundred year-old novel series. We need to work harder at being Not Kansas.

Going even further, she talked a great deal about the above painting by Paul Gauguin, adding layers of meaning by intimating that the topless Tahitian ladies might be talking to an off-panel figure. (I think she mentioned it might've been the Pope but I didn't take a lot of notes.) I mention this only to note that like any author she looks at something and starts reading into it something more that becomes entertaining.

In the heart of her talk, Atwood told us that humans are born artists, though not necessarily good ones. As soon as we see crayons and wallpaper we want to draw. She called us "art-making animals". I love that tag and I will wear it proudly.  "We do art". Yep. Absolutely.

She wound up our time together (there were 1100 of us that came to hear her and the crowd was expected to top out around 400 or so) by talking about zombies, vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein's monster. Zombies are the perfect metaphor for how people tend not to think when faced with oppression. Vampires are elegant, given to tell-all books and rich. Werewolves are not so elegant, running around only in fur and wondering "Was that really me last night?" As for Frankenstein's monster, despite his ill-fitting clothes he is still intelligent when he needs to be and especially talkative when met in the Arctic.

Zombies, though, zombies don't care about their clothes and seem only to be running around biting anyone they can find to turn their victims into more zombies. They are mindless, uncaring in the extreme and relentless. They are reflective of how we think of ourselves. Their currently popularity should frighten the hell out of anyone who takes the time to give it any thought at all.

From that I inferred that she means for us to think more, to read more, to be more like vampires who take the time to improve their lot because they live longer. Theoretically. As long as there's not some Slayer running around intent on cutting short that extra life. Anyway, I digress. As always, Atwood inspires us to be better, to pay more attention. When talking about Humanities as a course of study, in concert with science, she drew a line very clearly that "the Humanities are not rocket science".

Rather the problems that face us as humans on this earth must be solved by crossing disciplines. Human culture needs to be speculative and critical and must work in concert with the empirical nature of science. This is something that doesn't seem to happen much anywhere, let alone in our corridors of power.

We must open our minds, absorb everything we need to thrive. Our ancestors did it, we do it as babies. Instead, we get hung up on one thing and we become Kansas: comfortable, safe, sedate.

Let's look at things like she does: let's imagine something even more interesting than what's presented to us. Then let's pursue that line of thinking and see where it takes us.

During the Q&A, a teacher mentioned that her students, when they read Atwood's stories, feel "overwhelmed and depressed" which seemed to please the author. Her advice to the young students who feel that way is this: It's just a book. Close it. Take it as a cautionary tale and work hard to not let these things happen.

Which summed up the entire evening nicely. I hope that her talk will be available online or in print somewhere. She was brilliant as expected. Which explains the crowd that filled two rooms completely.

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