You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2009.

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The Ladette, indeed

Here’s another shout out for a great piece on Tracey Emin from the Times Online. Emin is having her first show in London in four years which, by design, should incite the usual contentiousness since it is an animation of a woman masturbating. Tracey is ready for the onslaught. “‘They’ll hate it!’ she laughs, resignedly. She loves a bit of mischief.”

Emin’s new show is called Those Who Suffer Love. She calls the film “My ‘Up yours!’ to the recession. It’s sad, but also quite sexy. It’s about, where does love go? Where does it disappear to? It’s not crude. It’s quite poetic.”

Emin is larger than life, particularly in Britain. There is much to admire about her—her pluck, her energy, her confrontational directness, her feminist sensibilities. She’s raucous and fierce, and I am always curious to see what she will come up with next. Her artistic career has been blindingly successful, something I celebrate with particular pleasure when the artist in question is a woman. Let’s face it, it’s been tough slogging for the art gals for a long time.

I had a few surprises in Kathy Brewis’ piece. One was how unpretentious and self-effacing Emin comes across. She’s fierce but gleefully kindhearted, this woman. The second was how simpatico I felt with her self-described approach to art. Emin states that she “makes more work about God than about sex,” a line that I loved reading.

Here’s a few more excerpts from the article by Brewis:

Like Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois, Emin makes art from her personal experiences, and this me-me-me-ness is one of the reasons some people react badly. The naked photographs — of herself. The “rude” drawings — of herself. The dirty, crumpled sheets on the bed — her own. The book — writings about herself, obviously. Yet she claims a universality in her themes of love, loss, good sex, bad sex. She is keen to channel her ego — which even well-wishers describe as huge — into something of worth. “I know I’m a sociopath, but I want to use it for good things.”

She has what Jeanette Winterson calls “a total and reckless commitment to herself”. In her studio, or rather one of her studios (this one is dry crafts — sewing, drawing; there’s another, for painting), there’s a picture of her with the legend “The boss” above it, and this is no joke. What Tracey wants, Tracey gets.

***

The Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak calls her “a heroine”. “For 20,000 years, women have found it remarkably difficult to be taken seriously as artists. Tracey represents a voice that had never been heard in art before — the mouthy urban woman. The ladette. The girl from Tesco. Art was intent on ignoring these streetwise female upstarts; it’s only now that they have managed to get themselves heard. And Tracey is the loudest and fiercest of them.”

***

She says she “makes more work about God than about sex”, and that, curiously, one of the few interviewers who really understood what she was trying to convey was from a religious journal, and it was reprinted in the Church Times. She talks of magic and mysticism, some of this a little girl’s yearning for reality to be different and some of it a mature spiritual quest. She’s three weeks behind schedule with the work for the new show, and says she needs the pressure to be pushed to an extreme, to produce something that isn’t just “fodder — I don’t want to just churn it out”.

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(© The Artist and Courtesy of Jay Joplin/White Cube. Happy Retouching)

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Michelle Obama spoke at the ribbon cutting for the opening of the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “First Guns” as some like to call our beautifully appendaged wife of the Prez, is as gracious in her remarks here as she is in so many other settings. Face it, during the last eight years (and painful to admit, in the Clinton era as well) we forget how to put “gracious” and “support for the arts” in the same sentence. She’s so reliably intelligent and right on. Reading this can’t help but make you feel just a little bit better about things.

Here’s the text:

Good afternoon and thank you, Emily, for that introduction, and thank you for reminding me. You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. (Laughter.) But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked.

So I am delighted to be here with you to celebrate American history through the arts. From the beginning of our nation, the inspired works of our artists and artisans have reflected the ingenuity, creativity, independence and beauty of this nation. It is the painter, the potter, the weaver, the silversmith, the architect, the designer whose work continues to create an identity for America that is respected and recognized around the world as distinctive and new.

The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art captures this spirit in presenting a variety of American art forms and providing a link to history for us to learn from, appreciate and be inspired by.

Our future as an innovative country depends on ensuring that everyone has access to the arts and to cultural opportunity. Nearly 6 million people make their living in the non-profit arts industry, and arts and cultural activities contribute more than $160 billion to our economy every year. And trust me, I tried to do my part to add to that number.

The President included an additional $50 million in funding to the NEA in the stimulus package to preserve jobs in state arts agencies and regional arts organizations in order to keep them up and running during the economic downturn. (Applause.)

But the intersection of creativity and commerce is about more than economic stimulus, it’s also about who we are as people. The President and I want to ensure that all children have access to great works of art at museums like the one here. We want them to have access to great poets and musicians in theaters around the country, to arts education in their schools and community workshops.

We want all children who believe in their talent to see a way to create a future for themselves in the arts community, be it as a hobby or as a profession.

The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.

The President recently nominated renowned theater producer Rocco Landesman to chair the National Endowment for the Arts. Rocco’s entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to being a bridge between the philanthropic, non-profit and commercial arts community will ensure that all types of art and creative expression are provided fertile ground to live and to grow.

And that’s what we hope to do at the White House, that’s what we’ve been trying to do at the White House. We’ve been trying to break down barriers that too often exist between major cultural establishments and the people in their immediate communities; to invite kids who are living inches away from the power and prestige and fortune and fame, we want to let those kids know that they belong here, too.

I want to applaud the Metropolitan Museum of Art for all the outreach that you do, for having kids like these here today to be involved in this and to experience this and to share this with us, because this is your place, too. So we’re very proud of the Met for the work that they’ve done.

So we are excited. Thank you for including me. And now we can get to the — we’re going to cut the ribbon now.

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An essential tension exists in the making and the marketing of expression—be it books, plays, paintings, music, newspapers or blogs. Finding an audience is an essential step, but it is not as simple as the usual quantifying approach suggests. One of the big ideas in the Internet space over the last five years is Chris Anderson’s Long Tail and his claim that this was a delivery system that could put you in touch with the “right” audience, wherever they are. I subscribe to Anderson’s point of view but there are lots of other factors in that process that are being played out across so many fields. Here’s an excellent piece by Douglas McLennan on his blog diacritical that articulates some of those issues:

A movie studio exec once told me that if it were true that Hollywood was only interested in making money, the studios would have long ago ditched what they were doing and made porn. Huge money in porn, apparently. Who knew?

Much as it’s easy to dismiss the moguls for chasing money, there is an aesthetic at work. And much as it’s important to have an eye on the bottom line, to succeed over the long term, it’s rarely good business to stay focused only there.

This is especially true on the internet, where publishers can track exactly what people are reading. When Salon.com first launched 15 years ago it had a terrific culture section. Music and book and art reviews, essays, an amazing literary travel section. Salon had lots of money early on and it built a sophisticated tracking system that could tell exactly what readers were reading.

When Salon got into financial difficulty, it increasingly (and unsurprisingly) focused on stories that got more traffic. Editors discovered that any headline that had a sexual reference got a spike in readers, even if the story wasn’t about sex. Soon the headlines were a spicy bubbling brew of them. Eventually much of the culture coverage melted away.

It’s easy to fall into the stats/data trap. Most new bloggers I’ve known get enslaved by their stat counters. They’re reading me in Bangkok! In Peru! Pretty cool! It’s quickly apparent which kinds of stories “sell” and which don’t. As a publisher of blogs at ArtsJournal, it’s easy to see what blogs get traffic and which don’t.

At some newspapers, if a story hits the home page and it doesn’t immediately get clicks it gets pulled from prominence, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. At some newspapers, the ability to track readers through a site ends up driving the news product. So you have sections full of reader-submitted pet pictures and navigation architecture that values traffic over important stories.

Most arts organizations learned long ago that following the crowd doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained success. Surveying the audience you have gets answers from the audience you have, not those you’d like to have. Program only for the audience you have and you set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns, attrition ensuring erosion.

In the old production model, artists created and audiences consumed; newspapers reported and readers read. Interaction 1.0 was a conversation up/down in which the audience talked back to the artist or newspaper. Interaction 2.0 is the artist or news organization attracting an audience around content and making it possible for that audience not just to talk back to the artist but to interact with one another. Everyone’s there – initially at least – because of the content, but they’re loyal because of the community.

Which makes it even more important to be clear what kind of community you’re trying to build. Most newspaper comment sections are crap because editors don’t take care in curating them or developing the community who comments. They let traffic drive content rather than content drive traffic, and as a result they don’t have audience they wish they had. Arts organizations fall into the same trap if they plunge into social networking without being clear what kind of community they’re trying to build. The goal can’t just be numbers. Otherwise, just make porn.

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The Day of the Sun

Arriving early at the limit of understanding,
I managed to find a good seat,
and settled in with the others,
who were fanning away the heat

with their programs full of blank pages.
The orchestra was in place,
and soon the show started.
First, deep space

rose high and flooded the stage,
immersing all the spots
where our thoughts could have fixed
if our minds had thoughts.

Which they didn’t. Then
the sun came out and stood.
That was all that happened,
and ever would.

–Vijay Seshadri

I was introduced to Seshadri’s work through my friend Jessica Bridger who studied with him while she was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence. Lucky Jess.

Seshadri was born in India but left when he was small, spending most of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio. His collections include The Long Meadow (for which he won the James Laughlin Award) and Wild Kingdom.

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The latest “venus figurine” find from the Hohle Fels cave in Germany is an extraordinary portrayal of the female form. Wow. This one is a knock out. So expressive, so wildly physical.

What baffles me is the word used in much of the press coverage of this 35,000 year old sculpture: pornographic. Hello? Pornographic because it is explicit in its portrayal of breasts, belly and vulva? If the definition of pornography is sexually explicit material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal, is that the intention of this piece? I’m not getting it.

We can never know what these images meant or how they were used in their original context, so that reaction is more a reflection of our current cultural predilections and point of view. That hackneyed response aside, this piece carries its own archaeological significance.

From a piece in the Times Online:

Paul Mellars, of the University of Cambridge, wrote in a commentary for Nature: “The figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman, with an exaggeration of sexual characteristics, large, projecting breasts, a greatly enlarged and explicit vulva, and bloated belly and thighs, that by 21st-century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic.”

He added: “It is clear that the sexually symbolic dimension in European, and indeed worldwide, art has a long ancestry in the evolution of our species.”

While abstract designs carved into pieces of ochre are known from at least 75,000 years ago in Africa, Dr Conrad said: “This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art.”

The Venus has radically changed archaeologists’ views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic, or Stone Age, art, he added.

The figure is at least 5,000 years older than similar figurines found in the same part of Germany. Dr Mellars said that the sexual imagery was consistent with other carvings made at a similar time, such as depictions of the vulva scratched on rocks in western France and phallic symbols made out of bone.

The figure is headless and a ring placed where the head would be suggets that it was worn as a pendant.The ivory has been discoloured a reddish brown over thousands of years.

Dr Mellars said that the discovery shed important new light on the art and belief systems of the Aurignacian period, during which Homo sapiens spread through Europe.

Aurignacian art generally features animals or figures that are half-human and half-animal. Representations of a duck-like bird, a horse’s head and a human body with the head of a lion were found in Hohle Fels cave in 2003 and dated to about 30,000 years ago. Dr Conrad said that the Venus challenged previous views that “strong aggressive animals or shamanistic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even of Europe as a whole”.

Dr Mellars said that the discovery added to the evidence that “fully representational, figurative art seems at present to be a European phenomenon, without any documented parallels in Africa or elsewhere earlier than about 30,000 years ago”.

This, he said, could potentially be linked to the evolution of the modern human brain.

“How far this ‘symbolic explosion’ associated with the origins and dispersal of our species reflects a major, mutation-driven reorganisation in the cognitive capacities of the human brain — perhaps associated with a similar leap forward in the complexity of language, remains a fascinating and contentious issue.”

For another report on this find, I’ve posted an article from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting.

Finally, word from those on the inside track has it that Obama has picked someone to head up the National Endowment for the Arts: Rocco Landesman.

Here’s the report from the Times in which Tony Kushner has a very memorable quote:

“It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” said the playwright Tony Kushner. “He’s an absolutely brilliant and brave and perfect choice for the job.”

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More about Our Man Rocco:

Choosing Mr. Landesman, 61, signals that Mr. Obama plans to shake things up at the endowment. While a major source of money for arts groups around the country, it has historically been something of a sleepy bureaucracy, still best known to some for the culture wars of the 1990s.

Since then, the agency has been trying to rebuild its image on Capitol Hill, along with its budget. The current allocation stands at $155 million, and though Mr. Obama has requested $161 million for 2010, that is still short of its high of $176 million in 1992.

Mr. Landesman, who would fill the post vacated by Dana Gioia, is expected to lobby hard for more arts money. But he is not famous for his skills as an administrator or diplomat. Rather, he is known for his energy, intellect and irreverent — and occasionally sharp-elbowed — candor.

In 2000, for example, he caused a stir by accusing nonprofit theaters of being too much like their commercial counterparts. And, as a producer of “The Producers,” Mr. Landesman created the controversial $480 premium ticket to combat scalpers.

“Rocco speaks his mind, which is probably one of the reasons he was chosen,” said Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale and American Repertory Theaters. “Rocco does not defer his opinions.”

As the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five Broadway houses, Mr. Landesman is accustomed to calling the shots, not working within a bureaucracy. Arts executives say this is a plus. “He is a great entrepreneur and producer and it indicates to me that the administration wants to have somebody in this position who will be much more than simply a distributor of funds,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “The relationship between the government and the arts needs to be energized. It needs someone like Rocco…”

His directness may prove refreshing to official Washington, and his affinity for country music, horse racing and baseball may help grease the wheels in his conversations with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

While Mr. Landesman has spent his career in the commercial theater, he earned a doctorate in dramatic literature at the Yale School of Drama and stayed on there for four years as an assistant professor. “It’s an odd choice,” said Mr. Brustein, who taught Mr. Landesman at Yale. “It’s certainly not one that I would ever have thought of because Rocco’s always been associated with the profit-making world and the N.E.A. is nonprofit.”

Though a creature of the for-profit theater, Mr. Landesman has put his force behind work that other producers might have considered too risky for Broadway, like Mr. Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” and the musical “Jelly’s Last Jam.”

“He’s really smart and he’s really savvy and will really fight if he believes in something,” said George C. Wolfe, who directed both productions.

More from my side of the room, where I’m having trouble speaking (and painting, to be honest) but so appreciate finding the words of others that hit on target.

I’ve had a life long frustrating dance with the complications, transparencies and overt discrepancies around gender. It is one of those ambient weather systems that I have been flailing my arms at for as long as I’ve been alive. So thank you to Laura Collins-Hughes for her great piece on gender in the arts from her blog, critical difference:

It’s such a hoary cliché that you’d think people would be embarrassed to let it pass their lips, but there it was, coming from the mouth of Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of London contemporary-dance temple Sadler’s Wells.

The question put to him was why no female choreographers are among the “raft of commissions” he’s just announced for the coming season. His response, according to Charlotte Higgins’ piece in The Guardian: “‘It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field,’ said Spalding. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to commission them.'”

His disavowal reminded me instantly of the time, back in the mid-’90s, that The New Yorker came out with a women’s issue, in which almost none of the cartoons were drawn by women. There were a couple — three at most — which was par for the course any other week but striking, and strange, for that issue. So when Lee Lorenz, then the magazine’s cartoon editor, popped up on a public-radio show, my then-boyfriend called in and asked why that was. Simple, Lorenz explained: Female cartoonists just aren’t interested in the single-panel format.

Ah.

Sort of like how women aren’t wired for science. Or were emotional females just overreacting a few years ago when Larry Summers suggested to a conference on workforce diversification that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” were to blame for the low numbers of women in science and engineering?

Summers’ speech is breathtaking for many reasons, but one of them is the sheer accumulated mass of familiar, multipurpose sexist statements cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism. Then the president of Harvard University, he addressed the issue of fairness in hiring by noting that “there’s a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools.”

That may be true, but it takes an almost willful myopia not to see that myriad, sometimes elusive factors — such as encouragement, mentoring, and hostility real or perceived — have a substantial and direct bearing on both an individual’s decision to pursue a field and his or her success in it. If a given group faces more obstacles to professional development, it follows that fewer of its members will emerge in the top ranks.

Spalding sounds similarly willing to believe that the level of female representation in choreography is out of his hands.
“Choreography is still male dominated,” he said. “It is something I am aware of, but I can’t make the programme representative for the sake of it. I have to choose the best.”

Even if — just for the sake of argument — all of the best choreographers were male, Spalding would still be looking at the wrong end of the problem. The questions in dance, as in other fields, are straightforward: Are women given a fair shake along the way? Do they get those early commissions? Do experienced choreographers take them under their wing? Are artistic directors, male and female, willing to show a little faith in them? Or is that just for the guys? It’s not that women require special treatment; it’s that they frequently don’t get the same treatment that men do — not even in the arts, an area perceived by the culture at large as feminine.

Back in 2003, Mark Lamos directed an all-male production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Yale Repertory Theatre. It was Lamos’ rather fascinating attempt to get audiences to see a brutal, highly problematic play in a different light, partly by removing the discomfort inherent in watching a man abuse a woman. It didn’t quite work — Shakespeare’s ending is heartbreaking no matter what — but it was a memorable production.

More memorable to me, however, is an anecdote Lamos related when I interviewed him before the play opened. It was about a development that had taken him completely by surprise: When the men who had women’s roles donned skirts in rehearsal, they suddenly had a harder time being listened to. That hadn’t been Lamos’ intention, nor had it been the other actors’ intention; no mind games were being played. It just happened. And it had to be pointed out to them by the men who were being marginalized.

Instructive as that was for the company (what decent actor or director wouldn’t seize that discovery and use it to feed the performance?), it made immediate sense to me, as it likely would to any woman or girl who’s ever had to fight to be heard by a group of men or boys.

Such reflexive dismissal of female points of view is, I suspect, one of the key factors keeping women from anything approaching equal representation in the top ranks of the arts: Far too often, we raise our voices, and no one hears.

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Larry Summers, the perennial poster boy for gender babble from someone who should know better.

I’ve been following the Rose Art Museum’s undoing here and on Slow Painting. Over the weekend London-based The Guardian ran an article about this unfortunate state of affairs as well. Reading about the Rose from that Eurocentric point of view brought on another layer of frustration for me.

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Funding crisis … Visitors tour the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, January 2009. Photograph: Essdras M Suarez/AP

Facing what has been described as a potential $79m (£52.5m) deficit over the next six years, a dwindling endowment and a near-exhausted reserve fund, Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced earlier this year that it had no other choice but to close its prestigious Rose Art Museum and sell the 8,000-piece collection. Prior to releasing the statement, it made a last-ditch effort to solicit funds from donors, but many had lost money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the university came to the conclusion that it was out of options.

Economic hardship or not, this didn’t go down well within the art world. For one, these were not the financial problems of the museum – which is largely self-sufficient – but those of the university. Secondly, the loss would simply be too great. Established in 1961, the museum’s world-renowned collection includes early works by masters such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. It also has a long history of hosting extremely significant exhibitions, from Joseph Cornell’s solo show at the Rose in 1968 to Dana Schutz’s first solo show in 2006, which ran concurrently with a Matthew Barney exhibition.

Deciding to shut down a museum of such stature and sell off its works is an extreme option. Brandeis should have tapped the Rose’s fundraising expertise instead. After all, internationally recognised art institutions don’t achieve their reputation without the best development staff in the country. Moreover, as a means of protecting valuable public resources, the ethical code of the Association of Art Museum Directors prevents the sale of objects for purposes other than acquisition. The ensuing debate gets complicated very quickly. In response to public criticism, Brandeis now claims the museum will remain open as an educational centre, with studio and exhibition space. University president Jehuda Reinharz went so far as to describe this as a demonstration of the institution’s commitment to the creative and visual arts community. The statement was understandably poorly received; a learning office is not equivalent to a world-class art institution.

Brandeis also created a new panel to explore further options for the future of the Rose, and last week announced the museum would be staffed for the summer, while it continued to look for alternative sources of funding to support the university. But the Rose already has an independent administrative body designed to direct the museum’s future – its board of overseers. And the mere fact that the Rose employs staff now is not evidence of Brandeis’s support: due to a failure to renew contracts as of June the Rose will have no director, no curator, no education director, no administrator, no funding stream and no programme.

If these actions look ugly now, they will only get worse: a statement on the museum’s website insists that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has insisted the Rose remains open in some capacity, and that it will weigh in should the university attempt to sell the collection. The Rose also now employs a lawyer and is looking for legal documents relative to the trust of the museum. It has all the makings of a long and very messy legal battle. But if the university’s financial situation is as dire as it claims, gambling what money it does have on a court case to legalise the sale of the art collection doesn’t look like a particularly safe bet. It could take years to win – if they win at all.

Jet

Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth

and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,

and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.

And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though

no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.

–Tony Hoagland

Love this.

Tony Hoagland has published three volumes of poetry: Sweet Ruin, winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Donkey Gospel, winner of the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets, and What Narcissism Means to Me. He also has been the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Collaborative group Lead Pencil’s “Arrival at 2 a.m.”

For those of us with pioneer DNA, being lazy is tantamount to committing the worst criminal acts, like dealing drugs or murdering baby seals. So posting a shout out here instead of coining my own words is not, I repeat, not laziness. I’m getting ready for a show next month.

Other artists who know the code will tell you what that really means: Managed panic. And sometimes not so well managed panic. No matter how much work you have, no matter how many pieces are completed, a voice inside your head—speaking rather loudly, I might add—has convinced all the rest of you that it is hopeless and you are done for. A sunk ship. A failed rocket launch.

Don’t tell me otherwise. People who know me dismiss this annual cycle of high drama, yawning when I share my consternation. “You always pull it through, honey” says my partner and advocate Dave. How do I explain that this time is different, that this time it just isn’t going to come together in time and all is lost!

Huh? You talkin’ to me babe?

So here’s something a bit more expansive and upbeat, and refreshingly not about me and my woes. Regina Hackett writes Another Bouncing Ball, a very intelligent and compelling art-related blog. Her posting called “Light as a stringed instrument – the sequel” includes images like the one posted above—a fabulous collection of some of my favorite “light” artists, like Fred Sandback and Alyson Shotz. Stop in. Guaranteed to lift your spirits. It did mine, at least for right now.