On Degas and Old People

“I think teenagers would relate to her defiance,” one woman says. She is one in a group of twenty to thirty people my grandparent’s age who are in front of a replica of Degas’ Little Dancer. They are sitting on fold out chairs, discussing works of art with an intelligence and interest that is almost frighteningly intense. The museum guide who leads the discussion has brought up the subject of how teenagers would react to this piece of art, and I can’t help but feel defensive at the prospect of them discussing my age group.

The guide says that if he were leading a discussion with teenagers he would not have mentioned such strong language as “prostitution” in relation to the work of art. He would leave out the information he had given this group and go straight to asking how the statue makes them feel. “In one word, how does this make you feel?” he says to his theoretical audience. “Do you think they would relate to this statue?” he says to the real one. The group seems unsure of how to answer this, and it is then that the woman I referred to earlier says that yes, she thinks teenagers would relate to this. I feel like giving her a high five. Teenagers would relate to her defiance, she continues. Others nod in agreement.

The museum guide has noticed me standing there and gestures for me to come over. He asks me a similar question to the one he posed to his theoretical band of teenagers just a few minutes before: “Would you mind telling me what you think this statue means in one word?” I don’t hesitate at all. “Vulnerable,” I say.

Little Dancer is a well-known sculpture that you have probably seen an image of at some point. It is of a ballet dancer who is fourteen years old. She stands in fourth position with her hands clasped behind her, her shoulders curving slightly forward. Her drab tutu is made of simple, cream colored cloth with a similar cloth forming a loose bow around her hair. Her face inclines upward and her eyes are almost closed. Her position is lazy, as if this is where she stood naturally rather than a purposeful ballet pose. She is skinny and unremarkable, but it is she and no one else who Degas chose to immortalize in this sculpture.

I see vulnerability written in her posture, how she is slouching slightly in a way that isn’t balletic. I see it in her shoulders, which turn forward as if to make her smaller, despite the fact that her hands are behind her back. I see it in her skinny body which set her apart from the dancers of her day, who were more robust. She may have been shamed for her small body just as dancers today are shamed for “larger” bodies. I see vulnerability in the very fact that she is the subject of a piece of art, and that she was subjected to an artist’s scrutiny to be shown how she is seen through his eyes.

I said all this (much to my own surprise) to the discussion group, although maybe in a less articulate way. But there is more that strikes me about her. What makes her the ultimate example of vulnerability is that she is at the juncture of childhood and adolescence. This piece of art was created when she was at the brink of self-awareness, when she didn’t fully have the body of a woman but didn’t fully have the heart of a child. In a weird way, I hurt for her. Who knows what standards of perfection she was subjected to, and who knows how she was beginning to perceive those standards in relation to her identity. She has an air of naiveté about her (the half closed eyes, the tilted chin) that seem to say that she is still a child, full of emotions yet lacking in self-awareness – good or bad. But that will all change soon.

Two people thanked me as I left for sharing my thoughts, and later another woman who was part of the group ran into me and spoke to me for a moment. She thanked me for sharing, saying none of them had even imagined she was vulnerable! She was excited and kind and asked me if I though Degas had picked her intentionally for her small size. I was struck by the fact that she really cared about what I thought and took it seriously by asking such a question.

I do not know exactly what any work of art means, and I certainly don’t know exactly what this experience means. But I can’t help but be struck by the different interpretations presented by myself and the discussion group. It seems a perfect example of the gaps but also the connections between age groups. Older people often look at us and see individualism and defiance where we are indeed vulnerable. And while their mistaken perceptions can hurt us, there is also a fervent desire in so many people to simply understand. We make a mistake if we shut our mouths around them and assume they are disinterested. We need them to know where we hurt and what we think so that we can give to each other like humans do.

I also want to say something about perfection before I close. I think it is the vulnerability and raw expression in the Little Dancer that makes it such a good piece of art. The “imperfection” of her nonchalant pose is what allows us to see who she might have been. There is a reason that Degas’ sculpture of a dancer in penché isn’t that iconic. All this to say, I think there is a way to balance perfection and vulnerability today in the ballet world. People want to see who you are and it would be a mistake to keep that gift from them. If the ballet world were to embrace honest expression not just as a way to draw in an audience but a way to live your life I think we would see healthier people and better performances. There must be a way to balance presentation of your idealized self and presentation of who you are right here, right now. If you don’t want me at my sickled foot you don’t deserve me at my quadruple pirouette. Or something like that. 😉

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Social Media and the questions we (don’t) ask

This year I am making a commitment to spend less time on social media. Why? Because more often than not, I don’t feel happy spending time on it. It’s funny, but we very rarely stop to ask if social media makes us happy. In fact, it is almost assumed it doesn’t make us happy. When brought up in discussion, people are quick to say that social media is the perfect place for unhealthy comparisons and a lack of accountability. After a short conversation we move on, never bothering to ask the deeper questions that could lead to healthy discoveries. That is why I am here, thinking through a few questions of my own.

How does social media perpetuate comparison, and how can we make it a healthier place for those who feel stifled by that? Well, for starters, comparison has always been a part of human nature. We have done it for a long time, long before social media was a part of our lives. We can’t blame Instagram. Comparison can be healthy or unhealthy, but more often than not it is unhealthy. In the case of Instagram specifically, social media presents us with idyllic pictures of other people’s lives. We all know this. There are also unspoken social norms that you have to adhere to, live having a cute caption or only posting your best photos. I think Instagram would feel like a safer “place” if we stopped insisting that we all use it in the same way. Some people just aren’t gifted at taking photos, or don’t like thinking up captions, or simply don’t want to engage in the same way as everyone else does. If we accepted that as okay instead of judging how other people choose to use it, we could come to see individuality in a new way and have less comparison. It’s also worth saying that if you don’t feel at home on Instagram, you can use other sites that fit your personality better, such as Twitter.

What I am most interested in is this: how does social media affect mental health? Mental health is talked about a fair amount on social media, but not often do you see a post talking about how social media itself affects mental health. This is a question that is, of course, very individual. Some people feel uplifted by social media, and some do not. Some people are okay with a lack a privacy, and some are freaked out by the thought of people knowing what they ate yesterday. Across the board I would say this: social media is meant to be consumed in moderation. It is a virtual world, “virtual” meaning “in theory but not in reality.” It is an outlet for sharing life, not something to live through. And if it makes you unhappy, you are not required to use it.

Well, there you go. Those are just a few of the many questions I have been pondering. I would be curious to know how different people use (or don’t use) social media to make it beneficial in their lives!