When I Am Summer

Orange is my favorite color and while I’m allergic to the fruit, orange things generally make me happy. I’m not sure why. Maybe there was some pivotal point in my young development whereby something wonderful happened and I connected that event to the color orange, or maybe not. Maybe it’s just one of those things and can’t be, and perhaps needn’t be, fully explained. It’s not just orange though, colors such as red and pink also please me both visually, and here’s the more interesting part, physically! As I’m not a neuroscientist of any sort, I can’t be perfectly sure, but I may be a synesthete. See, red, violet, orange, mandarin, pink, and vermillion aren’t just colors to me, they are feelings both emotional and physical. This reaction isn’t to these colors alone, but they are the ones with which I can “feel it” the most. There’s nothing more wonderfully orange and radiant than the sun itself, and that is why I am an absolute, fully fledged sun worshiper and lover of all things summer. I couldn’t be happier that here in the northern hemisphere, it looks like summer is well on its way and I for one am thoroughly thrilled!

Winter is hard for me most of all due to its absence of color. Leafless trees appear to be the hands of dead things reaching up from the grave; devoid of the color of life. During the long winters here in northern Europe, I struggle not to succumb to seasonal depression and most of the time it seems that the conditions will never end and I’ll have to live bundled up and surrounded by grays and browns forever. There’s nothing wrong with these colors in and of themselves yet, in me, they trigger a physical response that stiffens the joints, tenses the muscles, and gets me hungrier and hungrier by the day. I usually put on weight and only want to sleep. It’s hard for me to muster up enough energy to maintain social engagements and make time for fun in my life. Everything vibrates, but only barely and the lull of the bassline of life during winter months leaves my eyes as heavy as stones and my mind slow and lethargic. I tried light therapy and it didn’t work for me. It’s also not the temperature; where I live in Germany, the temperature is actually quite mild and real extremes are unusual. Still, I prefer warm climates and while the thermometer plays a role in how I feel, it’s not the whole of the story.

When spring starts, before the birds fly back and start their incessant singing, and I begin to see the first hints of color coming back to the landscape, it’s not unusual for me to experience near euphoria! The hair on my arms spontaneously stands at attention when walking by early blooming, albeit pale, flowers. Dabs of green at the end of weather-weary branches leads to a small but noticeably growing warmth at the base of my spine. By the time the temperature heads up and things start really coming to life and are in full swing, I’m drunk from color and a humming feeling grows throughout my body. As mentioned, this sensation is particularly piqued by oranges, reds, pinks, etc., but not only! In the summer I don’t just see nature, I really feel it. I am it. Every spindly vine, every thick growth of green haired shrub, the brushy pointedness of thirsty grass, it all meets in my body and I feel not so much as a human thing, but as a wholly new being born for just that season to experience orange, green, red, gold, yellow, pink, even purple and bright blue.

If this all sounds a bit crazy to you, it probably is. There is a very real possibility that this may all be simply a construct of my imagination, some overreaction to a natural propensity to enjoy warm weather and luscious environs — I don’t know! But, if you think this is all a bunch of hocus pocus, just imagine what it’s like with me at an art museum! Ha!

If it happens to be summer (or almost summer) wherever you are, I hope that you’ll get out and enjoy all that’s on offer. Who knows, maybe you might feel what I feel?! Happy (almost) summer, everyone!

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Some Things I Love (and Some I Don’t) About Germany

I’m an American, but I’ve been living in Europe for over a decade now, mostly in Germany. Obviously, there are some things about Germany that I think are pretty great, or I wouldn’t still be living here, would I? Still, there are also more than a few things about the place that drive me right up the wall, but I also know that the place wasn’t built especially with me in mind and that no matter where I live there are always going to be things that drive me mad. This post will focus on a few things about 21st century Germany that are both really cool and really not. Naturally, this is just my personal take on all of this and there are certainly people out there who will disagree with my assessments both positive and negative…but I’ve never been someone who’s much interested in pleasing everyone — so let’s get started!

 

Love #1 : Living History

There is old stuff everywhere. Beautiful, historic, documentary-worthy stuff is all around because European material culture was never subjected to mass destruction by colonists, and furthermore it’s still accessible and it is really inspiring. Coming from a country that, at least from a Eurocentric perspective, is rather new, it’s really special to walk down cobblestone streets and to be (within some historic districts) surrounded by half-timbered architecture. Living in a country where there are for-real castles is undeniably cool. For the most part, Germans appreciate their cultural heritage and take necessary steps to preserve it. I believe that this sense of cultural history, when visible as material heritage, can be a great tool for fostering social cohesion. Well done!

Love #2: Cultural Opportunities 

There is genuine civic support for cultural initiatives and institutions within German society. Sure the home-grown TV programs are mind-numbingly boring (had to fit that jab in somewhere), but world-class operas, theaters and philharmonics are affordable for everyone and there are even discounts for students, the unemployed, and people who have social or economic hardships. As a person who believes that the greatest power of art is to lift us all out of the mundane and into the world of imagination, into a place where new ideas and means of looking at things is enabled, I think this is just fantastic!

Love #3: Food/Drink Quality 

Please mind that this is not in any way, shape, or form praise for the German “kitchen”! With this point I only want to tip my hat to the fact that the quality of the food on sale is, in my estimation (and I’ve been eating food my whole life, so I reckon I’m expert enough to make this judgement), higher than in some other places I’ve lived. Chemical processing, artificial colors, milk that isn’t milk and cheese that isn’t cheese, aren’t such a big thing over here. Yes, it’s on the rise, but at the moment, it’s still pretty well possible to rest assured that you’re getting what you’re paying for. I love junk food as much as the next guy, probably a bit more, but we all know that stuff will kill you in the long run!

Love #4: Less Puritanism 

While this is a bit of a blanket statement, and certainly not accurate across the board, there is a greater acceptance of human sexuality here (in that it is an actual thing that exists and that one needn’t be ashamed or guilty of). Although Chancellor Merkel has openly stated that marriage equality isn’t a priority for her government (BOO!), the recognition that humans are sexual beings and that the human body isn’t just a physical representation of a sinful nature, is certainly progressive. Nudity is ubiquitous and I find the embrace of the human body and sex positivity refreshing.

Don’t Love #1: The Myth of German Efficiency/Punctuality 

I know what you’ve heard. It’s a lie. A dirty, low-down, evil lie! Public transportation is the WORST! Because I knew that I would write this blog, I focused on how often my tram (which is supposed to get me to within a block of my workplace in eight minutes according to the schedule) was on time last week; Monday to Friday — zero times! To be fair, it was once late by only three minutes which isn’t so bad, yet it also didn’t come at all twice meaning that I had to walk to work twice last week! Now, it’s only a walk of about 30 minutes, but that’s a long time in the morning when you’re trying to get to work and not expecting to have to hike the whole way (although at this point I should be expecting that there’s always a very good chance I’ll have to walk)! Did I also mention it’s really expensive?

Don’t Love #2: Resistance to Change

There’s a general election in the summer. Merkel will win again. I called that the day after the last election and in the course of local election season (now), it’s looking like I’ll be proven right. Despite the fact that her refugee policy has been hugely unpopular among the Germans, she’ll almost certainly win again. Most Germans will tell you it’s because there’s nobody else who could do the job, that they have nobody better to choose from. Yeah, in a country of more than eighty million people, they believe that there is not one person who might have a political vision better than Mrs. Merkel’s. I argue that in reality, the aforementioned opinion has nothing to do with politics whatsoever, but is rather the outcome of a national aversion to change of any kind. Even German cities have a kind of provincial vibe to them, it’s still not a sure bet that restaurants and shops will accept anything but cash, and WiFi hotspots or services are about as frequent as leap years. They like the status  quo and that’s not a good thing if you ask me.

Don’t Love #3: Opening Hours…None

Whatever time it is where you are right now as you read this, everything in Germany is closed. This is because everything is closed all the time, especially exactly when you need it to be open. There’s not much more to say about that other than, if you’re coming to Germany, just make sure you bring everything you will ever need because all shops will be closed forever.

Don’t Love #4: Only One Right Way 

German Person: There is only one way to do whatever needs to be done, and it’s the right way. The right way is the only way. I know the right way, and you don’t. You don’t do it the right way, and I do. Why don’t you do it the right way? It would be better for everyone if it were done the right way!

Non-German Person: Oh. Okay, but can’t it also be…

German Person: No. That is not the right way.

Non-German Person: Are you sure, because…?

German Person: Yes, I am sure.

So there’s my little, grossly inconclusive list of things that I absolutely love, and some that I don’t, about Germany. I have to admit that living here has taught me a lot about myself and challenged some of my fixed ways of thinking, and has, in my opinion, made me more tolerant and a multi-perspective thinker. There are so many places that I want to experience and live in and so I don’t think I’ll live here forever, but it’s been both an incredibly challenging and enriching journey thus far, so thanks, Germany! You do you!

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Introducing…Christian Schad!

Aschaffenburg Germany is a small and picturesque town at the very northwest border of the southern German federal state of Bavaria. It can easily be discovered on foot, though there’s honestly not that much to see. I do recall a rather bulky collection of cork architectural models housed in a beautifully Romantic royal residence, that while “impressive”, I could understand neither the need nor the inspiration for. There’s also something called the Pompeiianum, a fully reconstructed townhouse from Pompeii that was built by King Ludwig I in order to provide German artists with first-hand inspiration in the classical style. While it’s interesting to take a look at, it’ll leave you wondering why it’s there and if it’s anything more than a tourist oddity these days. Mimicking many other German towns along rivers, the mentioned palace sets up on the lazy banks of the river Main and because there was nothing much to do there, and being unable to generate a spontaneous plan (I had done zero research before arriving), I decided to visit the handsome if somewhat awkwardly opulent residence. After breezing through the aforementioned less-than-riveting cork gallery, I continued aimlessly meandering among the open rooms of the residence which were sometimes decorated in varying chronologically inspired designs, and to my amazement, entered into the zone of the residence temporarily serving as a home for a part of the Christian Schad Gallery. Don’t worry if that name doesn’t ring a bell, Schad has been an oft overlooked and, in my estimation, a grossly underappreciated figure in western art, particularly of the European tradition and even within his movement. This entry will therefore unabashedly uphold as its sole purpose a thoroughly subjective praise of Schad, shedding light on why he remains my very favorite painter.

Feel free to look up all of his biographical data if you’ve got nothing better to do. I figure a painter’s work should be his vitae and therefore, here, I’m going to focus on a couple of my favorites from his oeuvre. I’m not one of those people who is attracted to things simply because they are obscure. I’m not a Luddite who opposes newness and shuns what everyone else is doing (obviously, this is a blog after all), but I am someone who will like something or someone despite the public’s awareness or opinion. Usually, I’m attracted to something based on an instinctive intuition of the object’s psychological dimension. While I realize that this all sounds a bit esoteric, I only mean to say that, for me, visual art is often a primarily visceral experience and only later do I turn to the conceptual side of things. In order to capture the intricacies of a psychological state of a subject in a painting, I believe the painter needs an intimate understanding of that very mental state. Christian Schad, in my opinion, is a stellar example of an artist who inhabits the emotional topography of his paintings in a confessional, yet unsentimental, way.

As a part of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) school which sprung up in 1920s Germany, Schad’s paintings maintain a distance and coolness reflected in his rejection of texture and strict adherence to an almost photorealistic slickness. His canvasses seem barely covered in paint and yet they are complete; no layering here. His strokes seem absent from the story, forcing instead a steely concentration on the subjects in the work. My very favorite painting is, Count St. Genois D’Anneaucourt (1927), which is a portrait of the count with two figures behind him. The figure to his right: a lady with a sheer green dress and a white feather in her hand, and to his left, with back turned to the viewer and face in profile, so that we see that the lady is merely dressed the part, a very well known cross dresser of Berlin’s club scene. The count’s head is slightly turned toward us, but remains expressionless, detached. The whole scene is charged with a resigned and static eroticism. Things are not what they appear. The count is not quite settled in his place in the world. The full-on embrace of in-betweenness in this painting validates the viewer’s desire to reject easy categorization and imparts a secret that the count may not even know himself.

Another of Schad’s works which I find particularly inspiring is a portrait of Egon Erwin Kisch (1928) wherein again the subject indifferently gazes out at us as might a bored primate at a zoo. Kisch’s curvy, tattooed body contrasts with the cold geometry of the cranes crisscrossing the background. What I like most about this painting, is that we can see that Kisch is slightly annoyed; perhaps he finds this whole business rather foolish!? Kisch was quite a rascal and daredevil and sitting for a portrait doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that he would have enjoyed. Like any good friend though, he obliges the artist, yet cannot contain his inner monologue, speaking to us through the subtilty of a slight expression. Schad does the subject no favors, neither adapting his mood to our expectation of him, nor his body to our artistic sensibilities of masculine beauty. The tacky tattoos mock our bourgeois notions of decency, in much the same way that industrialization and the ravages of the mechanized first world war had done to Germany. Through portraiture, and highly objective portraiture at that, Christian Schad whispers what nobody is saying, yet what everyone is thinking — we’re all just bluffing.

In 2018 Aschaffenburg will be opening a Christian Schad Museum as the first project in the construction of a new museum quarter which I can only hope won’t include a purpose-built structure for those dull cork models. While there were some successful shows that included his work during his lifetime, Schad turned after WW II to more experimental work and became something of an artist’s artist, well-known among experts, but largely forgotten by the general public. His work hangs in world-class institutions in both Europe and North America, with many pieces also in private collection. Schad was not an unsuccessful artist, but he was not, and in my estimation is still not, a public artist. Like many of his subjects, Schad kept himself at arm’s length. Now you know.

(Count St. Genois D’Anneaucourt, (1927) Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) (Portrait of Egon Erwin Kisch, (1928) Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

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Reinvention & Boy George

From time to time, things need to be redone, reformed, reinvented, rethought, reassessed, etc. Surely, this ongoing process of renewal brings about change and that’s something scary for many people, and that’s pretty normal I’d say. Fear is fine, it’s paralysis that kills, in my opinion. We must keep moving. While there are countless matters of smaller importance that we all have to reconsider on a daily basis, I reckon that for many of us, the major things in our lives exist someplace on a pretty consistent continuum of status quo. Big adjustments necessitate periods of recalibration and this can be disorienting. I think I can safely assume that most people don’t enjoy having to map out new coasting coordinates in rapid succession and on a never-ending loop. Exhausting! In terms of personality and character however, a recent series of disparate events has led to me considering if in fact this may be just what I need to do; reconsider. I prefer a life of sensory gratification however, and so for me, change is not so much frightening as it is just so much effort! This is exactly one of those nagging aspects that I’m currently having to examine. Looking at oneself  is not really fun, and I imagine that’s why our eyes are designed to look out into the world and not at ourselves! We’d just hate ourselves too much to go on living otherwise, unless we were full-fledged narcissists — which some people are.

Curveball:

Remember Boy George from the hit 80s band Culture Club? Did you know that he had a massive career starting in the late 90s and into the 2000s as a highly sought after DJ? It’s true! He was one of the first DJs that made that medium into a celebrity-making profession. What’s interesting about this is that unless one was in that particular music scene at that particular time, it might be easy to consider his recent gigs as a TV talent show judge as something of a comeback. In reality, he hadn’t gone anywhere, he’d simply changed, and not always for the better — there was that incident where he was arrested and convicted for false imprisonment! Also, photos from this period show him looking bloated and unwell from years of drug abuse. To me, what I see there, is someone who was a bit lost but still brave enough to venture into a new art form and to try things that may not be successful in terms of “public perception.” I believe that every second of it was difficult, confusing, and also invigorating on some level. Being lost and having to refind your way is not always pretty, but it is growth. Seemingly, things are in a good place for Boy George these days and, I for one, applaud his success. Moreover, it’s his ability to find spaces where he can reinvent the creation that is Boy George, that I find most inspiring. Fundamentally, it seems he has maintained his core personality, while stumbling, fumbling, writing, singing, risking, and eventually winning.

I’m assuming that there’s a different way for each person to figure out what they need to do and to renew themselves continually, while still slopping through the messes that we get ourselves into in life. Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to fully realize that mistakes, while stingingly incapacitating, needn’t become markers of my indulgence in slovenly non-action. And, when the actions I do take don’t lead to the outcomes I’d expected or hoped for (which is most of the time), or indeed when the exact opposite occurs and everything blows up in my face, maybe I can slowly start learning to accept that as part of the process and not as an insurmountable obstacle to overall growth. I wonder if snakes feel compressed by skin that they’ve outgrown before they shed it? Probably. Looks evolve. Styles evolve. People, for better or worse, evolve.

On his critically acclaimed 2013 album, This Is What I Do, there is a song titled, Live Your Life, and in it George suggests that running around and wasting precious time was all part of it; that despite all of the, sometimes drastic incarnations in style and decision-making skills, the core of him has remained the same and only he can reimagine what he is:

“Everybody said the boy will change

Many years are gone but the truth remains

The truth remains…”

All-in-all, as I inch my way toward middle age, I am amazed at my own reinventions which were admittedly sometimes way off mark. Still, I’m not who I was, and while it may sound ear-bleedingly cliché, I’m not who I will be. So, I’m just going to work on reforming, reconfiguring, and reevaluating myself as I am now. It’s probably time for another version of myself and I’m looking forward to him being something that reminds me of an earlier model, but who is hopefully, better, wiser, healthier, more aware, and truer.

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