April 29th, 2011


Water Lilies at the Nelson

Last weekend Marc and I found ourselves at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. We had two reasons to be there: three panels of Monet's Water Lilies are on exhibit through the summer, and last year the museum renovated the rooms around the American Indian collection.

The Water Lilies was amazing, of course, but Marc and I couldn't help but feel a little conflicted about it because we're so used to celebrating starving artists depicting the raw pain of life, and here we are looking at giant panels painted over a course of years in a serene garden. Oh but not just any garden, one owned and cultivated by the famous artist and his hired gardeners.

My favorite Monet piece at the Nelson is definitely Boulevard des Capucines, completed in 1874, 41 years before the Water Lilies panel they have was even started. It's a painting of people on a Paris street on a gray dismal day, with only a few bits of color from street vendors. All the people are just going about their activities, living their lives at that moment, captured as if you can feel their mood. The space around them is beautiful.

Water Lilies is plants, painted over a period of decades. Investigation has shown that Monet painted and re-painted over them, making the piece more muted and watered down over time, if you ask me the repainting made it feel more like a memory. I don't feel like any concrete emotion was communicated. It's too broad. Of course it made me feel tranquil and serene but is that really the point of art?

Mom's going to hate me for this entry, she loves Water Lilies. The more I think about that the more I find it to be a little ironic, since this is the same woman who loves folk & protest music from the singer-songwriters in the 70s. She and Dad both have implied to me that it was vain and naive for disco to come around and divorce real messages from the music of the day... people liked disco because they could go dance and move with the music and forget about the wars and inequality and turmoil that Woodstock-era songs were about. So here's Water Lilies, painted while world war I was starting to spin up... is abstract expressionism the disco of the 1920s?

Anyway I'm not an art expert, haven't studied it extensively, all I know is how I feel so take my ponderings with that salt. I'd still recommend the exhibit because there's lots of good information about the paintings and they're displayed beautifully, on a curved wall, low to the ground, you can get three feet away from them and feel really "in it". But Water Lilies is not going down as my favorite thing I've seen at the Nelson.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a terribly smart & funny book by Peggy Orenstein... the successful author version of me I swear. I related way too well to that sudden fear a feminist gets when she learns she's having a daughter, the "Oh hell I'd really better get this right!" idea, the yearning for your daughter to fight the narrow materialistic definition of womanhood you see everywhere, the fear that you'll accidentally replace it with your own an equally narrow anti-stereotype vision. Orenstein did fine, she says, raising a daughter with no suffocating expectations of gender... until the "dog eat dog" world of preschool hit. All it takes is one boy to yell "trains aren't for girls!" and Thomas the Tank Engine is shoved to the bottom of the toy box, and your little independent woman is begging to play princess and wear nothing but pink sparkles. Now what will you do, mom?

You'll hear the same arguments from a million parents and marketing departments: rampant princess culture is what girl's want, and it's not hurting anything, so why don't we all just go with it? Whether you're booking your seven-year-old a manicure party or giving your kindergartner a spray-tan before a beauty pageant, we're all doing the same thing. Toy makers love it. Every time they can segment and direct products towards a specific market, they get more sales. Did you buy your son a blue Leapfrog? Well you'll have to buy your daughter a pink one! Kids feel great about it... around the age of three they're really starting to develop that sense of "self" that makes us so human, but haven't really fleshed out the idea of permanence yet. They don't understand that plumbing is enough to make you a boy or girl, they think you have to be one: act like one, look like one, don't accidentally slip onto the wrong side or you'll lose what you've worked for.

So what's wrong with it? Well for one, we're exposing kids to stereotypes awfully early. How you look and what you buy shouldn't define you, but it's tough to shake that idea if it starts when you're three. Why is the APA telling doctors to look out for eating disorders in girls under 12? Why did girls in a college study perform more poorly on a math test after trying on a bikini, yet boys showed no difference in scores no matter what they tried on? Princess dresses on preschoolers is almost like a gateway into Bratz dolls.

The slab-sized division just isn't that great for kids developing brains. Eventually we have to learn to get along, although today's domestic abuse and divorce statistics show we're not doing a fantastic job at it. The truth is that boys and girls are a little different... girl brains really are wired to have a slight advantage in verbal skills and boys have a slight advantage in spacial perception. The differences aren't huge, they aren't even as notable in the height difference between men and women, and everyone knows you wouldn't go seeking the tallest people in a crowd and come out with only men. But they're there. We only make life hard for ourselves when we try to amplify the differences by marking vast separate territories between girls and boys. One large study found that girls with older brothers had better-than-average spacial perception, and boys with older sisters had better verbal skills than other boys... see what environment and interaction can do?

The world didn't used to be so insecure about gender expression. The original EZ Bake oven was teal (can you believe it) and 1900s-era pictures of toddler boys almost always had them in ruffly white dresses, just like their sisters.

So what's a parent to do? The last chapter of the book has very good age-specific appropriate ideas... you obviously can't ask a three-year-old probing questions to get them to think critically about culture wars, and you can't use "NO" as the answer to everything a 14-year-old asks you. Orenstein urges parents to seek out practical toys, support manufacturers who don't make everything into a pepto circus. Seek out movies for your kids where the characters aren't stuffed into BOY and GIRL roles, they just happen to be girls or just happen to be boys... she actually prefers anime films like Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. Disney movies can sometimes be see okay... I loved the smart, inspired Rapunzel in this year's Tangled. But go to the toy store and suddenly the Tangled makeup kit, styling head, and jewelry kit are right there to remind me that a big part of Disney isn't excited about Rapunzel's ambition. They're here to sell her clothes.

Overall this is a great book and a quick read. Orenstein's blog is worth a bookmark too. She's done a wonderful job navigating a very tricky subject, and has given me so good tools for my daunting task as a new mom.