Art, Beauty, and Permission

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This is a picture my wife took of me the other night with her new camera. To a lot of people, it’ll be just a good picture of me taken by my wife. For the two of us, however, it means a whole lot more.

After many years of not being able to do her art due to a grueling work schedule and fears about other people’s reactions to her pictures, my wife has decided to pick up her photography again. If you ask her, she’ll probably joke that it’s all my fault. In some ways, that’s the truth: I helped her decide which camera to buy and then encouraged her to buy it. To put it another way: I was a person close to her giving her permission to go and do her art.

Our society is really weird about art. We love art and revere artists (to an extent) and yet our culture actively seeks to put down artists, especially if they do things that are really different. There is a culture of treating art as if it were somehow “less useful” than other things that one could be doing. Many artists (whether they do it professionally or not, regardless of skill level) will hear things like: “That’s just luck.” or “My kid could do that!” or “Can you make any money from that?” Insinuating that the art is just some sort of hobby, and that if you’re not going to try and make money from it, then it’s not “serious” art.

In the arts, there are a lot of gatekeepers and jealousy. Both my wife an my mom are visual artists. The wife does photography (among other things), and my mom does impressionistic paintings in several mediums. Both of them have experienced through the art world (mostly through clubs and shows) an antagonistic attitude toward what they do. Sometimes it’s jealousy, either in regards to skill, time, or tools (this happens a lot with cameras, it seems). Sometimes, especially when being judged in shows or being chosen to be shown in a gallery, there’s a “gatekeeping” that happens when the judges either don’t like your art, don’t think it’s proper art, or have some sort of jealousy towards the artist for whatever reason. Add on top of this issues of gender, race, age, attractiveness of the artist, etc. This is just true for the visual art, but for all types of art. We have a lot of gatekeepers in our society who decide what is “real” art and what they consider “just a hobby.” I mean, think of Bob Ross. Now, his paintings aren’t my cup of tea and I find them kind of boring, but his paintings influenced millions of people to get into art. But there are gatekeepers in places like New York who totally pan his art and wouldn’t consider it “real” art or Bob Ross a “real” artist. Yet, Bob Ross painted nearly every day and it made him feel fulfilled. Regardless of the art, isn’t that what is thought of as a “real” artist: someone who makes art?

Is all of the art that’s created going to be good, highly skilled, or everyone’s cup of tea? Of course not. But it doesn’t meant that it isn’t art, and, in an ideal world, it shouldn’t mean that people should get jealous of another’s skill or equipment. Unfortunately, it will happen, because, as I like to say, we’re all humans doing stupid human tricks.

These stupid human tricks aren’t just limited to the reactions to artists, though. This picture is a picture of my body. My fat body. My wife titled this “Gina being classical” and really loves this picture of me. She told me that it was a beautiful picture.

I didn’t believe her…at first.

All of the old tapes, all of the crap about beauty standards, came rearing their ugly heads in my brain. The first thought I had was “wow I’m so fat!” which got the brain weasels dancing to ugly, unworthy, and all of the other crap that has been instilled in my brain over the years. I’ll admit, that when she posted it to Facebook, I was worried about what others would think of the picture. I know there are people who would see this picture of me and fat shame me (even if only in their heads), or decide that I need to be told what I can do about my health. In other words, I know there are gatekeepers of beauty, deciding who and who is not beautiful. Our culture is really horrible about bodies in general, and fat bodies in particular.

But then I kept looking at the picture, and once the brain settled down (somewhat), I saw more. I saw that this is how I am, and how the world sees me. Most importantly, I finally saw this as how my wife sees me: big, bold, complicated, and, yes, beautiful. I feel her love for me in this picture, and that she saw the beauty of my body as it is (even if I didn’t).

And, surprisingly (to me anyway), many people on Facebook agreed with my wife’s assessment. This is a beautiful picture of me. I have permission to be beautiful in this body, regardless of what others think.

Technically, both us don’t need permission from anyone else to do our art or to feel and be beautiful in our bodies, but with the way our society is, sometimes we need to get that permission from outside ourselves to feel justified in taking that power. But once the decision is made in your heart, you realize that you never needed that permission in the first place, nor do you have to justify your art, or your body, to anyone.

Navel Gazing about Worthiness and Writing

Most of my life I’ve had a hard time feeling worthy of any praise or positions I’ve gotten. I think a lot of that intersects with imposter syndrome too: I could do the thing, but then people will find out I’m a fake and I’m not worthy of their praise or accolades. Also, there is a part of me that can get jealous of others when they get accolades for something I feel I’ve worked just as hard to do. This was especially true of my undergraduate college days. I did a lot of hard work, and learned a lot in my classes, but I didn’t test well. Looking back now, I wish I had realized that I was better in the humanities than the sciences (because I did get accolades for my writing), but I was determined to be a biochemist. I wasn’t a bad biochemist, but even when I was working in the industry, most of the work I ended up doing after a few years was some sort of writing or editing (in addition to lab testing). I wrote SOPs, inspected labels, edited SOPs and other documents, wrote or edited validations, and other tasks like that. I also ended up doing some computer work because I seemed to be the computer geek of the group (I can pick up software programs fairly fast).

When I went to seminary, I was writing all the time. It took my first few papers to really get into the groove of writing academically again, but when I found that groove, I seemed to just write. Although, I do procrastinate horribly, especially if it was a paper topic I wasn’t really into. There were a few papers where I deserved the grade I got (boy were they stinkers), and at least one paper I wrote that I should have gotten a higher grade on, but the professor didn’t like me. (Since it wasn’t that bad of a grade, I didn’t bother fighting her on because at the time I just wanted to get done with her class. There’s a lot of other reasons for that.)

I suppose that where this is going is that I would see other people getting awards for their work and wonder why I wasn’t getting the awards, too. What made my work less worthy of public recognition than others? Granted, there was the practical side of it: the awards had rules: you had to have a certain grade point average or test score, or a professor had to nominate your work, or you had to somehow know about it and apply for said award. Another side, to quote my wife, is that people sometimes get awards for doing something unexpected of them, where for you it’s something expected.

I think, though, it took going into corporate America to really start thinking that my self-worth can’t be based on the job I do. That is a problem with being raised on the east coast, because on the east coast, your job is as much of an identity as your sexuality, gender, or any other form of identity. I tell people a lot that the biggest difference between working on the east coast versus the west coast, is that on the east coast, the first or second question that people will ask about you (after introductions) will be about what your job is and who you work for. On the west coast, people are more likely to ask about you first before getting around to your job: do you live around here? What brought you to California? What do you think of the Giants? (Or alternately, they’ll talk about their own history and you end up chiming in about yours during the conversation.)

But I’m finding that my self-worth is starting to be more reliant on the work I do with others and my relationships with myself and others. It’s not easy, because it’s hard getting rid of the “I’m not worthy of X” tapes that stick in one’s head. Or the little kid in yourself that says “Pick me! Pick me!” when it comes to awards and things. It’s a process, and some days I know in my heart that reward can be a simple as being able to do the same work, same ritual, more than once. Or to be able to do it at all.

Or, I’m just mellowing about that stuff as I get older? Possibly….