March 2010 Archives

On thesising

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I've tried not to yammer on incessantly about what's involved in pursuing two master's degrees, as I don't imagine this topic is of much interest to people who aren't in the process of doing it, and they of course already know what special kind of hell this can be. I also use the (highly faulty) logic that if I have time to write about writing, I have time to do the writing, so instead I focus on valuable, time-sensitive topics like shoes and makeup and food. Or my cat. Or how I worry about being alone my whole life, or whatever I do blather on about most (I tune in and out).

But this is a major part of my life, and currently it is the thing that occupies literally every day. It is, and I'm not exaggerating this, constantly on my mind, and nearly every other facet of my existence gets measured against my thesis. This is only a small part of why I'm so, SO ready to be done with it.

I got an invitation to a symposium where selected other students from my department would present their completed master's dissertations, and for God knows what reason, this time I really paid attention to the titles and topics. Probably because I don't like myself very much and needed to add another item to the voluminous Thesis Insecurities and Anxieties list.

I had a professor once who referred to this style of titling as Academic Hypercolonics. I'm sure you can come up with some kind of an example, but the general format goes:

Cheeky Clever Title: A Mind-bogglingly complex analysis overwrought with buzzwords and terms you have to look up, requiring multiple readings to even discern the general topic.

Bonus points if it includes verbing a noun, rethinking a paradigm, identifying cultural shifts, or deals with something that by its very nature sounds obnoxiously obscure yet effortlessly sanctimonious.

Nine times out of ten (honestly, it's way way more), I read the titles of art history and theory papers, and I have an immediate "OMG, who the F caaaares?!?!" response. I am hopelessly impatient, and I get tremendously annoyed by things that seem tedious (how did I even get into a master's program in the first place?). It seems to me that those devoting their research to the exhaustive examination of cultural minutiae are even more predisposed than your average academic to the rigorously abstruse.

I know that I've written about this before, but there was a time when I was reading theory and criticism articles for an MFA class, and they were so dense and overwrought with appropriated philosophical vocabulary (often misused) and agonizingly unclear language that I reverted to looking up every other word with a dictionary and diagramming out really, precisely, what they were saying. Big shock, most writing about art does not actually say anything. It dances around in a lot of specialized tautology and self-referential terminology to achieve, essentially, a vague characterization of an artwork's theorized cultural impact. Or, avoiding any hard aesthetic judgments or qualifications, achieves criticism which is merely descriptive at best. Art criticism is, of course, its own animal, and I understand the need for this type of cagey, noncommittal writing (kind of). But art history? Really??

The way I understand the history of art is probably different from most because I have always looked at art as a painter and a person captivated by visual stimuli. If it's beautiful, or sexy, or makes me feel something visceral, I'm probably going to like it. If it's disgusting and ugly and weird, but intriguing, I'm going to spend time looking at it and also enjoy the experience. I'm not so upfront about what I think is "good" or "bad" (or in MFA terms "successful" or not) because I recognize that is all subjective, but I still have an instinctive, immediate response. I'm either interested or not, and so my definition of "bad" art is that which just falls flat and doesn't interest me. Wholly subjective and unscientific, and I'm okay with that. If it leaves me cold, I don't like it.

I also subscribe to the belief that throughout time, most people's system of aesthetics veers closer to mine than current art theory and criticism would have you believe. I trust my senses more than conceptual conceits, and I feel like if I have to read multiple tomes of smug, intellectually problematic and self-important theory (rife with hypocrisy) to say "Okay... I think I get it...." then it's not really my style of art. (I would argue it may not even BE art, so much as a masturbatory intellectual exercise, but that's another can of worms.)

So what matters when studying art history? Looking through an historical lens, we have the benefit of already knowing a work's impact from the time of its creation to present (more or less). We cannot, of course, predict what will become important to future generations (Botticelli was largely dismissed as a middling also-ran for centuries), nor can we guarantee that the art we value most now will even exist, if the materials are not handled in a future-minded way (hello, art conservation science!). We can, however, look at the background of a work's creation (patronage and commissions, predominant sociopolitical/religious etc ideology, reference images and sources, documentation of contracts, specifications about materials, working methods and techniques, and so on) as well as the immediate cultural climate in which it was received. In this way, looking at a painting now, and reading how people felt about it when it was made, we can tap into what it was like to live then, to think and feel in the artist's time, and to know a little more about being human as a consequence.

These connections are probably what draws me most to art history. Political history can tell you what happened, but the art and literature and music tell you how it felt. Voices carry over time and give you another version of existence, in other times and places and with different beliefs. This cultural material is, in many many ways, the literal stuff that connects people over time and unites humanity. (Obviously it's tremendously important to me.)

Good historical art, to me, is different from interesting contemporary art, but I use similar criteria to evaluate it. What I want to see, when looking at the piece, is how the artist felt when making it. How they used the materials, and to what effect. What it was to be alive in that time, place, and circumstances, and how they treated their subject in relation to that. As I said, this is because I look at art as a painter, and I know how most of it is made (or I work to find out). Painting is a tool to try to understand the universe, like math or language or botany, and I want to see that inquiry and exploration mapped out in the work. The "art" of being an artist really happens mainly in their head, and the "stuff" of art, I think, exists almost as a secondary entity to keep track of what they were doing. It's like having access to a scientist's notes on an experiment.

I have a silly and emotional connection to art, an historical camaraderie and tenderness that makes me weep when I see an anonymous painter's brushstrokes on a bird in Pompeii. I think things like "He really had fun painting this," and I get all mushy and overwhelmed. I'm really okay with that, and I've come to terms with the fact that I probably don't belong in art history as a field because I am just plain not interested in the overwrought intellectual arguments (often done faultily anyway) - it seems to me if that were the approach I wanted to take, I should study pure philosophy, but not call it art history.

I look at my thesis and I worry that it's trite and stupid and that anyone who is not really interested in flowers and Italian Renaissance painting and herbal medicine and Venice could have that same "OMG who caaaaaares?!" response that I have to other people's topics. I also get paranoid that it's all made up and has no factual basis beyond my own desire to see something that's not there (oh the falterings of confidence are fantastic on this one), but I keep transporting myself back to the first time I saw these paintings, when I noticed these adorable little rows of recognizable and identifiable flowers, and I thought "Hmm, what are they doing there??"

I've thought almost as much about the process of thesis writing as I have thought about my actual thesis. I talk with other students in my program, about their projects and their research strategies, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing something completely wrong. One friend, a pure art theorist writing on a contemporary conceptual artist, started by deciding he wanted to write on this artist, looked at all the artist's work, read everything that's been written about it, and synthesized an argument from there. I'm not gonna lie, that approach holds little interest for me, and I'm really happy that I started with an original observation and back-tracked through a whole pile of different influencing factors. I matched my research method to the Renaissance approach to ideas, and even if it's been scatter-shot and wobbling along in a bizarrely non-linear way, it feels right, and true to the work. I haven't been trying to retroactively apply my own ideas about art onto something anachronistically... I think it's more a thing of trying to tease out what is already in the work, what mattered to the artist and patrons, and what was in the air.

But knowing what's in the art isn't all of it. A scientist friend sent me a brilliant paper from this lab known for its extraordinary volume and quality of publications, on writing a paper. Among many marvelous insights, it had an unforgettable passage about what a scientific paper is, which seems applicable to any type of academic research (bear with me on this):

Realize that your objective in research is to formulate and test hypotheses, to draw conclusions from these tests, and to teach these conclusions to others. Your objective is not to "collect data".

As a corollary in art history, I would offer that it's also important not to start with a system of assumptions and manipulate your research to "support" editorial claims. There is a middle path where you can look through research objectively and sensitively, to learn as much as you can, and then say, okay, I think this is what this all adds up to. Then there has to be that "so what?" moment, where you unpack what that means to anyone else and explain why that is interesting for humanity.

I might be completely wrong about all of my methods and ideas, but after years of this research, inconceivable exhaustion and frustration, I think I've got some things to say. I hope they're interesting.


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What I meant to say, before I got all starry-eyed about food and tirade-y about running, is that I really want to get my thesis finished so that I can get on with my life.

I've been in grad school entirely too long, and it's really time to move forward (to another degree, heh). It's not being in school that's a problem, it's the way I put the rest of my existence on hold and dismiss things, sliding them down the priority scale to "I don't have time for that," when really, I should MAKE time for the things that matter to me.

I keep thinking through how to do things differently, how to stop the incessant worrisome chatter in my mind that strips the joy out of experiences, that nagging sensation at the base of my skull that relentlessly bitches about all the things we have to do and how behind I am on everything. I don't know when I started saying "I wish I could, but I just don't have time," but it falls effortlessly from my lips these days, even as I find myself blatantly, shamelessly wasting time.

I don't want to spend any more of my days avoiding work or lamenting how long I procrastinated before buckling down and getting something done... but I'm sure I will. It's finally spring, the sun is out, and it's almost warm enough to start going out on the water, but I am sitting indoors on my computer, listening to the birds through the windows and wondering if I can take a walk with my camera for a little bit (instinctively, my mind says "I really can't"). This was all completely avoidable.

I have a lot of social stuff planned in the coming weeks because I expected I would have finished my thesis by now (having no actual plan for how to do so other than Just Doing It). I neither want to cancel plans, nor spend concerts, operas etc. worrying about how much work I have to do. I want to be able to spend afternoons sitting outside with friends, talking and relaxing and saying how relieved I am to have finally gotten that damn thesis out of the way.

More than anything, I want to stop looking at everything in terms of time and whether it was well spent. There is no intrinsic value to time, and its elasticity enables one to stretch it around whatever level of consequence seems most appropriate to a moment. I want time to stand still again because I am no longer constantly cognizant of its passing. I want to listen to stories without rushing to the conclusion so I can wrap up conversations. I want to gaze lovingly in someone's eyes and will the universe to wrap itself entirely into that instant because nothing else matters.

The only way to get time back is to write this thing and calm the hell down.

Oh hi

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I have a browser infidelity problem, which is to say I almost exclusively use (and love) Chrome, except for Facebook and Netflix, where I use Safari, and this blog, where I use Firefox because the Flash interface doesn't work in Chrome. Also, occasionally, a bit torrent download will open automatically in Opera, which I didn't even know I had installed, but I can't figure out how to override that setting.

I really don't like Firefox anymore, as it is agonizingly slow and clunky by comparison, and also, I haven't sorted out why no matter how many times I set the box to "use the rich visual editor when writing," I can no longer get the cute WYSIWYG interface to work, even in Firefox. (Suspect the issue is to do with this installation of Wordpress, really don't want to take the time to sort that out.)

What does this mean? Pretty much nothing, just another lame excuse for why I don't write as often as I'd like. I want to make grand promises that once I submit the draft of my art history thesis, I'll start acting like a real person again, but I can't actually be sure of that fact yet.

To summarize the last 19 days or so... I am super, super stressed trying to write my thesis and have made extraordinarily little progress, unless you count watching all of My So-Called Life on Hulu (I mean, you're supposed to seriously hate Rayanne Graff, right?). Also the first two seasons of Arrested Development. I knit two pairs of socks. I finished a painting... I've been doing anything I can think of except write this stupid draft, and I am amazed even at myself for the lack of dedication toward the main thing that can keep me from graduating this spring.

For no particular reason, here is a list.

Foods for Which There Exists No Quantity I Cannot Eat (have I made this list before?):
- chips and salsa
- pizza
- ricotta gnocchi in fresh tomato sauce (my recipe)
- homemade lasagna, especially with Italian sausage, green peppers, and mushrooms (are you noticing the theme of cheese + tomatoes?)
- mushrooms sauteed in butter and olive oil
- Caprese salad, bonus if it's made with mozzarella di Bufala
- beef tacos with avocado, pickled jalapeƱos and fresh cilantro (among other things)
- tomato soup
- Thin Mints
- Junior Mints
- red Twizzlers or any kind of red licorice and wow, do you remember those Twizzlers filled with green apple goo?
- oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip cookies (my favorite dark chocolate and cranberry ones with orange zest are even better)
- BLTs
- super ridiculously sharp Cheddar cheese
- Brie (and yes, I eat the rind)
- my mom's crab dip, with Wheat Thins
- corned beef
- spicy hummus with crackers
- spinach salad with creamy Parmesan dressing
- bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches
- cheese and mustard sandwiches
- asparagus
- artichokes
- Brussels sprouts
- eggplant parmigiana
- zucchini sliced and sauteed in olive oil with a ridiculous amount of fresh black pepper
- basically any filled pasta (tortellini, ravioli, stuffed shells, manicotti etc.)
- Campbell's Chunky soup, chicken corn chowder
- Italian wedding soup
- Progresso Chickarina soup
- almost any soup you'd find in Au Bon Pain (I really love soup)
- chimichangas, smothered in salsa and cheese
- crab rangoons
- California rolls (but this is the only kind of sushi I really like)
- macaroni and cheese
- chicken tenders, especially if there is both barbecue sauce and honey mustard
- dark chocolate
- and while not technically a food, Diet Coke, without which I would probably lose my will to live

I've probably left some items off, and my comfort food choices certainly point to why I will be having quite the struggle to get back into a bikini this summer. I guess I like talking about food just as much as eating it because making that list was really surprisingly comforting.

I actually hate running

When embarking on recent attempts at weight loss, my mother and I were talking about the types of exercise we preferred. She's good at doing things like Tae Bo with a tape, whereas I consider any exercise conducted in my house to be so grossly unpleasant that it feels like torture. (This realization was very helpful because it made me stop buying fitness DVDs and give up the constant "oh I'll just work out with something at home" excuse.)

Considering our mutual preference for sports-based exercise, we agreed that the winter has really limited our options, but now that the weather is becoming more hospitable (thank GOD for spring), it will be nice to get out and do things.

I just about died laughing a few weeks ago when my mother said, "I wish I could enjoy running, the way you seem to."

I absolutely hate running. Probably as much as anyone else or maybe even a little more so. Yes, there used to be a time in my life when I loved running (and was kind of good at it), but that is about a million years ago, and now running is straight up penance for me. I run when I feel terrible about myself and need to beat up my body for a while. I run when I am stressed and angry and frustrated and feel as though I have done nothing of worth with my life. I spend a lot of the time alternating between yelling at myself and trying to turn up my iPod to drown out the yelling in my head.

My reason for running is the same as it ever was: I need to establish some sense of control. I don't think running takes as much discipline as going to the gym or sticking at something dull indoors because those present the constant temptation to blow it off or quit. With running, I can get as far away from home as my legs and self-loathing will take me, and then it's up to me to get back again. Even if I walk, I can't escape exercising, so as long as I get myself outside and moving, I will do something.

One of two things happen when I get home. I either achieve some extraordinary runner's high and sense of self-worth which allows me to move on with life, or I still feel awful, but I can shrug and say "at least I ran a few miles" and feel adequately sore for a while, as I scarf down comfort foods (see above).

I don't imagine my relationship with running is in any way healthy or productive, but as I said, it's penance. I don't think I'm supposed to like it.

Getting my act together

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Concluding the eye saga, for now

Rereading my last post, I realize how neurotic I was being, but the eye doctor went well. He said I have aconvergence insufficiency, and that I'm basically never going to regain binocular vision or depth perception, but that at least my eyes themselves should be healthy. The headaches, he said, should be fixable if I do a series of eye muscle exercises (wheee!), and my prescription hadn't changed as much as it felt, so much as my eyes were just getting worn out.

Because I needed new lenses, I went for new plastic frames that wouldn't have a nose piece to dig into my face. I don't love them, but they're at least tolerable. I have to just accept that I look like a big nerd in glasses and remind myself that much of the time, I'm going to be wearing these at the library or with a lab coat anyway, so there's little hope of looking like a badass.

My mother (with characteristic saint-like patience) helped me pick these out, and she endured my endless complaints about the design issues I had with plastic frames. I noticed that a lot of them will have one outer color, a neutral of some sort, and then have a second inner color like a lime green or bright purple that is supposed to give some kind of characteristic flare or style. I just keep wondering how people can wear those, though, if everything you see is surrounded by such a specific color?! I finally had my mother try them on, to check if I was being crazy, and she felt the same, "How can you see anything but purple in these??" Then again, she's as sensitive to color and visual things as me, so maybe there exists someone who doesn't mind seeing the world juxtaposed with one color.

I also hate excessively wide temple arms (yeah I had to look that up - I would have called them handles), as they interfere with peripheral vision. That's part of why I went with these that provide some transparency with the wires, even though I really hate the design that makes. Lastly, I am not a huge fan of logos or sparkly things on just about anything, so why on earth do I want them on my glasses, all over my face??

One day, when I've got nothing better to do, I'm going to design super utilitarian eye glasses frames that do exactly what I want and flatter my face. If such a thing can be done.

Also, I'm fat

Whenever I have stressful things going on in my life, I try to find some aspect I can control. Nine times out of ten, that aspect relates to my weight or appearance, since they're usually top on the list of things I'd like to change about myself anyway. I realize I'm stressed about my thesis and graduating and all the other stuff coming up, so I've been trying to change my eating habits and start exercising (this is another part of why I was especially bitter about getting sick, as that all went out the window).

This weekend my mother and I made it formal, starting a diet that cobbles together some of our previous memories of Weight Watchers, various plans on eDiets, and basic nutrition. It was tempting to do something dramatic like Atkins, but I can't do that to my body right now, and I think it's more realistic to lose weight by following a balanced diet, since that's what you'll need to do to maintain weight-loss anyway.

For exercise, I'm going to make myself go running some more. I had been running 3-4 miles once in a while and wearing my pedometer to make sure I was getting a decent amount of aerobically-effective walking in throughout the day. I was predictably thwarted regularly by snow, lack of daylight, illness, etc., but I'm putting my faith in March that it will become more hospitable to fitness.

Anyway, I have a separate diet and exercise blog, so that's probably all I'm going to say about that until I'm all "OMG, I lost five hundred pounds, hooray!!!" Heh, that will be a nice day.

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