Thursday, December 8, 2011

Youth and Beauty: Art and The American 20s

I admittedly spend a remarkable amount of time staring at subway ads. It usually happens those nights, (or mornings) when my bag is a size that restricts any form of entertainment, and has only room for the one necessity of these times; sunglasses. That is all a 20-something needs at say 8am or even noon, when she walks to the subway to start her stretch home to Brooklyn. While I wait for the train, I stare at the ads; how many times have I played Magic Eye with that Ides of March movie poster, painfully, dizzily trying to blend Ryan Gosling’s perfect face into George Clooney’s perfect face; until I’d like to throw up, that’s how many times. Often the alcohol consumed the previous night undeniably aids in this cycle.

I consider myself an extremely observant person; I’m a writer, isn’t that my job? I live primarily in my head, so much so that when a stranger asked me for a light last night while I was studying a menu, I did two double-takes and still questioned her, “me?” Perhaps that had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t smoking. I suppose I look like I have a light, I look like a smoker, being in my mid-twenties with overzealously chopped bangs from my haircut that was my first in over six months specifically for my Cleopatra costume (haircuts are expensive and unnecessary unless aiding in a costume).

But yesterday, as I was stepping off the train, headed to my job as a college-educated babysitter, but don’t get me wrong, I am also a college-educated cocktail waitress, a college-educated caterer and ahem, I am a writer; my observant self noticed a subway ad I had not seen before but that struck me so much that I considered the awkwardness of doing an ‘about-face’ only for a moment before backtracking, or marching, rather, to properly look at it. ‘Youth and Beauty’ it read, the words emblazoned across the angular face of a jazz-age Gatsby or some other attractive, tragic young man. Two ideas, youth, beauty, so heavily contemplated, and then, the finer print, ‘Art of the American Twenties’.

My first, and obviously incorrect reading was to immediately think, in my self-centered 26 year old universe, ‘ahhh, youth and beauty, the glory of being a 20-something American.’ Perhaps it’s not me being self-centered, perhaps I’ve only been absorbing my American culture for twenty some years, what these years are supposed to mean, what they used to stand for, what I should be doing, and I consider myself a good little soldier, i.e. staying out all night, having one-night stands, finding myself, losing myself, etc., etc.

Take these notions, though, versus lately, where everything I read is worrying about us 20-somethings; we have no jobs, (well I have 5!) we have no future, we are as disillusioned as teenagers, the economy is bleak, we will not be more wealthy than our parents, we are living off fresh fruits and vegetables and unemployment checks, and many of us, white and college-educated have even considered food stamps. We owe a ton to the government, and we don’t care. We’re camping at Wall Street and we don’t know why, but I heard there’s free pizza? New York Magazine recently featured a cover-story picture of a guy I might date with the words ‘sucks to be us’ scrawled across his scrawny chest. The article promises that us kids are ‘kind of alright’ but presents a montage of mug shots of 20-somethings along with their education and career stats looking more like the prison pictures at the Tuol Sleng in Cambodia than ‘alright’.

Enough about us already world! My head is too cluttered with the contradictions of what I was told I was supposed to do and what is confronting me and my fellow 20-something Americans, so thank god for this subway poster, because shit! it reminded me of what the twenties are actually about; youth, beauty, decadence, experimentation, grand mistakes, new beginnings and final goodbyes, and how like the ‘American 1920’s are those same notions? No matter that I originally, for seconds, misinterpreted the poster, I saw it for what I wanted to see, the selfish, inventive twenty-six year old I am, and I am so much like a toddler that I had the bright idea to go to this exhibit, since I’d been meaning to go to the Brooklyn Museum anyway, and interpret the art in my own, erroneous way, as art of the youth and beauty of the American twenties, and all that this decade of our young and hopeful lives is meant to stand for and be about.

In typical twenty-something fashion, I show up to the airy museum and offer a dollar to the twelve dollar suggested donation. I am overwhelmed at the emptiness of the museum, the air is especially brisk today and I am feeling depressed because I have to go to work in a few hours. I think about the times I walked through the halls of the MFA Boston by myself, my freshmen year at University, seven years ago. When I write seven years, I am suddenly struck at the amount of time that has passed between me and my freshmen orientation, and those first few months of total and complete freedom. That was before I was twenty, before I had to balance the sweet taste of freedom with the bitterness of the reality of taking care of myself; the now.

As I get out my pen to take notes on the exhibit, the middle-aged security guard stops me, and launches into some story about how the curator wouldn’t even allow an old woman her sitting stool in the galleries, so precious is this collection. I try to ignore the rambling and study the words in the exhibit explanation which jump out at me madly, ‘potent youth’! ‘sustaining value of beauty’! The security guard rambles on, now she is saying (to someone else) ‘Isn’t she so cute? I just think she’s so cute!’ I look up and smile abashedly, not knowing what is happening, but knowing I am the cutest thing in the room. The she continues, ‘Just look at her fat thighs!’ And I whirl around to spy a painting of a short round young woman, by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, condensed in a revealing swimsuit, part of the Body Language section of the exhibition, and though I am engrossed in my wall-reading, I walk all the way back to rear of the collection, and rebelliously get my pen out again. In all truth, I am told to put my pen away all of five times during my hour stay in the exhibit, all of which I ignore.

Overwhelmingly, my hypothesis that the roaring twenties of America can be seen as a kind of broad allegory to each American’s 20-something years seems to be reinforced by the exhibit. That fanciful decade is so much like this ten years we so desperately desire to escape and hold on to. I wonder, as most do in this age of information, if this (genius!) point has already been widely discussed if not touched upon by someone prior. And then I realize I don’t know how to spell genius, at least, not without spell-check. No matter.

We are, especially now, in a time between two great obstacles, not quite ‘the Great War and the onset of the Great depression’ as Teresa A. Carbone, Curator, writes, we are more submerged in both at the same time; the great war being fought all over the middle east, endlessly, and the great world depression where our economy is as dreary as a Seattle Sunday. Somewhere in the cracks of those two facts we have this naïve, probably ignorant feeling that everything will work out for us, us kids; that we will be happy, because the 20-something still carries that unique sense of invincibility that was never broken, since we didn’t die yet. We are liberated yet ordered like Carbone notes, ‘artists created images of liberated modern bodies and the changing urban-industrial environment with an eye toward ideal form and ordered clarity’; while we dance recklessly into the daylight, we sleep until afternoon the following day, there is method to our madness, it all makes sense when pondered over drunk brunch, where we complain about not being able to find a job.

The back gallery is titled ‘Silent Pictures’ and Edward Hopper’s Night Windows glows at me in the striking resemblance the scene carries to so many corners in Brooklyn. My Korean friend, an artist, upon his first visit to Brooklyn and with limited English skills, stated only that Brooklyn looked just like an Edward Hopper painting, and though of course the population has increased, the desolation in contrast to the city is always peaceful. The paintings’ description notes that the art was interpreted as racy, and with a fierce ‘emotional impact’ and I think on nights at my ex-boyfriend’s east village apartment, where the fire escape has lent me a rivaled view to Hopper’s eye-level voyeurism. We are all peeping Tom’s, in New York, but in our twenties, we are constantly watching each other to figure out what move is appropriate, what should ‘we be doing?' We are always moving in a pack at this age, young wolves, or at least, raised by wolves.

The following gallery entitled ‘Uneasy Peace: Views from the Road’ reminds me instantly of the difficult reckoning of home versus where you are now. Most of us 20-somethings are away from home, wherever that is, whether figuratively or literally. A painting by Ross Eugene Braught shows a bright, beautiful tree, twisted and familiar in its crevices and intricacies against the backdrop of some pastoral fields of color, and I immediately absorb this sense of what home should feel like; the dream of home, which perhaps is only viewed from the road leading away from it. When I return to Los Angeles, everything is a peculiar shade of sand, like smog, and a city built on an ocean desert, this ugliness offends me, until I see the ocean, that stretches beyond, further than the city, and seems to erase the ugliness behind me, or at least excuses it. As I get closer to the painting with my notebook, I read the title, Dead Chestnut, and winter becomes beautiful again.

At 25, I moved to New York. I’m no small town girl showing up with a suitcase and small change either; I have traveled the world, in particular, my last trip before my arrival in New York was traveling haphazardly through the entire country of India, a true mecca for a 20-something. We were everywhere, hanging out in the cafes, studying maps, and investigating such foreign religions and customs, continuing our college education as best as we knew how. In New York, you’re not allowed to be as obvious about the education you’re being given. Education must be taken in stride here, quietly absorbed from behind your laptop shield in the cool café that just popped up in your decrepit neighborhood.

If the twenties themselves are a hill you can be over, then I have begun the silly tumble towards thirty. In other words, by twenties standards I am old. At twenty-six I feel, in fact, a little like a ‘has been’. I cringe when my younger friends are celebrating birthdays facebook entitled ‘quarter life crisis’ and those celebrating who have accomplished something more than I at their youthful advantage. But it is all relative. And we are all getting old, being young already seems far away. Even as society adds years to the age you can get married and have babies, age is ever-important.

Which naturally leads me to beauty. The youthful confusion, the questioning and the general lack of respect a 20-something receives is certainly the less enjoyable side of this magical ten years. There is no such beauty that exists as in one’s twenties. No Lolita could hold court against the long legs I’ve seen in Williamsburg. There is a cool mix of understanding and excitement, we know we are beautiful yet we are only beginning to realize what we can do with it. There is so much sex to be had, and so much beyond that we can get with a mere smile, if it is curved up just the right way. And also, what really tattoos itself on our brains in the twenties is the knowledge of how fleeting this moment is. Our twenties seem at once expansive and completely confined, we turn thirty, or we give up this beauty for the safety and stability of a relationship that goes beyond sisterly love.

The gallery displaying portraits, ‘Close-ups: Scrutiny, Perfection and the Twenties Portrait’ gave an insight into the human experience more than any other. Insight into being a person in the 1920s, or a person in their twenties? They seem more in and of the same here than any other place. What can you see on a person’s face? Can you see the years of her life? And in our twenties, how many years are there, of real life? Nickolas Muray’s 1925 portrait of Gloria Swanson presents her head cradled by her shoulder and hand, a technique which purportedly denotes ‘self-invention and containment’ a valley most people in their twenties seem to stretch like lazy cats between. Allegedly, the pose has something to do with a beautiful woman’s depth, but by the mask-like quality the image portrays that depth is quite shallow. However, the curator goes on to explain that the Freudian obsession of the times suggests ‘external likeness (to) offer only a hint of the complex psyche of any individual.’ And perhaps that’s where beauty has its limitations in our twenties. We are more beautiful than we are complex, even if we are quite complex.

The ‘Erotic Natural’ section is tucked away in a hall between two of the larger galleries, and features delightful nudes of course. Peter Blume’s Torso and Tiger Lily is exceptional in its presentation of body parts, in particular two round, pink nipples, that are so separate from the body as a whole and yet still, according to the museum curator, ‘surprise the viewer into unexpected intimacy’. I’m not sure I agree though, in fact, what wants to be intimate seems more typically an attempt at intimacy, or a blind, forced and uncomfortable encounter that we at once desire and are repulsed by. Of course there is special, rewarding and emotional sex to be had in our tweties, but it seems many people trade it willingly for rough and ridiculous, meaningless dream-like hazes of drunken rolling.

Last night I walked into my kitchen to find my roommate and her two visiting friends huddled in the corner giggling uncontrollably. They were making vegan muffins, it was Sunday evening, darker than usual the first day of daylight savings. As I turned to grab a broom I spied the image on the computer screen they were gathered around; it was a diagram of a vagina, and even so, if I couldn’t decipher it, my 20/20 vision read ‘The Vulva’ at the top of the page. Instead of ignoring whatever was going on, I stated the details of the situation aloud; “I feel like the parent that just caught you masturbating, I see what you’re looking at on the screen, stop treating me like the other and tell me what’s funny!’ One of the friends gasped a breath and exclaimed “(Your Roommate) has never looked at herself in a mirror!’

This I found, rather strange. Confusing at least. I began to study myself this way when I was quite young. Twelve even. But what I realized, is that though it we may be mature for this scene, it could have never taken place in a kitchen full of 30 something girls. At some point, though we imagine it will be sooner rather than later, the joys and ridiculosities of childhood will need to be bid farewell. Forever. But now, as for studying our vaginas in handheld mirrors, how analogous for the age! My nether regions are under a microscope, shaved and exposed for people who don’t even know my middle name. Not to mention favorite color! The forced intimacy through sex, but also, the digging up of issues and feelings not meant to be dwelled upon over weed and wine. This decade between our adolescence and our adulthood is full of examining things meant to be hidden. What will we find that hasn’t been found before? We are still learning about what our vaginas consist of.

And finally, as I’m exiting the galleries, I reach the point of my entry, where I ran from the meaningless chatter about an hour before. Quiet now, I return to the painting that had threatened to chain me to that garbling security guard, in ‘Body Language, Liberation and Restraint’ perhaps the most cunning of all the titled galleries. That line we walk in our twenties, between utter freedom and the idea of really losing it all, and having no way to pick up the pieces, could likely be studied in the way we move and interact. Splayed but controlled. Tripping and shaking off the tumble. Seductively befriending strangers and then hurrying off alone.

The Beach, (not pictured) by Guy Pene du Bois is so precise in the portrayal of that certain hour before evening, dusk, the lighting is all too familiar for my age, the hour of planning, the hour of uncertainty, what will happen this night? The painting is renowned for the modern society it depicts, men and women, barely clothed, engaging in conversation at the seaside. At this time, du Bois was mingling with the Fitzgeralds and other young American notables, in Westport, Connecticut. It was probably summertime, though it always is somewhere in your twenties, and the horizon was across the country and sunrise beckoned from only mere hours in the future. Oh, of youth and beauty, we can only imagine the possibilities that evening promised for the ever-expectant young, the beautiful and damned.

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Born and raised under the Los Angeles sun and smog. At sixteen spent some time in LA County Juvenile Detention Center, although never really learned her lesson. Moved to Boston for the classic college experience. Spray painted graffiti in the Paris Metro during six month stay in the Marais. Survived an ultra fabulous and frightening internship at Vogue Magazine while living at a nunnery in Hell's Kitchen. Lived a year in Seoul, a city which can only be compared to a Disneyland theme park. Written four hundred sixty-four words of an undisclosed masterpiece novel. Currently pondering her next adventure and also the meaning of her memoirs from an artist's loft in dirty Brooklyn.