Thursday, October 17, 2013

Teaching our daughters to curtsy: Thoughts on the power of a gesture in art

"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" by John Singer Sargent
You might be as lucky as my wife and I have been to rear children in a day and age where the easy choice is to be cynical about culture and life in general. If you chose that path, who could blame you? There's evidence for a dumbed-down society all around you (especially if you look for it). I say "lucky" because the beautiful things in this world still shine brightly like flecks of gold in a gold pan amid the black sand. The thing is, you need to know where to go to find the beautiful things sometimes, just like when you are panning for gold.

Kelly and I were blessed with two sons and two daughters and I refer to myself as the luckiest guy in the world. Each personality different than the next, our kids developed their own likes and dislikes, chose their own friends, and learned to see the world through their own eyes. It is fascinating to watch their development into fully-functioning adults who end up asking if they can borrow the car.

As parents, she and I found that they are all hungry for information to handle life's social settings ... basically, they didn't want to mess up in public. We tried to teach them the good stuff that we were taught for such occasions, such as saying 'please' and 'thank you' (our parents' generation was taught to "mind your 'Ps' and 'Qs'").

They learned from us to say 'yes sir' -'yes ma'am' and to say 'pardon me'. (As a side note, our youngest -- a tenth grader--told us he got in trouble in elementary school by a substitute teacher for saying 'yes ma'am' to her. She took it as a slight, not in deference to her station.)

Our kids took music of one kind or another, participated in plays, dance, and other performances. One of the cultural niceties we encouraged was for our boys to bow and our girls to curtsy at the end of their performances. I had no idea that the curtsy went completely out of style, but attending their performances proved this to be so. Not one of the other girls who performed at recitals curtsied. Not one. They all bowed like the boys did.

If you are not familiar with the curtsy, go YouTube it. It should be listed right there next to videos on dinosaurs, Quisp and Quake cereal, and bell-bottom jeans.

My daughters curtsied. Can you guess what the response was?

That's right. There were instant audible gasps of surprise and even delight in each case.

Why was that the response?

I am reminded of the original Star Wars film where an aged Obi Wan Kinobie is instructing Luke in the use of a light saber, expressing his yearning for "a more elegant age."

That's what the curtsy is; it harkens to a more graceful age. It is a simple, sweeping motion; a graceful gesture. It's like a bow, only better.

What was going on here at this recital was a surprising connection to the lost ways of a highly progressive society. There was a unanimous deference to a more elegant age when the curtsy was expected, and that this simple gesture resonated with an electric arc that made the women in attendance joyfully and spontaneously verbalize with 'ooh' and 'ahh' and the men … well, it took their breath away.

Deference, yes, but, more than this ... the curtsy was (and still is) a brief, but unmistakable expression of power. It is a connection that acknowledges the appreciation of an audience. At that moment, the person who bows or curtsies is king or queen of the universe. The curtsy, in particular, seems to tug at the best that's in us.

Classy, to be sure, but the curtsy is about power, make no mistake about it.

Power in a gesture is what I am discussing here.


All these play a role in the physical gesture of appreciation that is as apparently lost to common usability as is certain antiquated languages. In this case, it's non-verbal and it speaks volumes.

Those who are tuned into the vibe of culture can find moments where gestures that are kind and speak of respect and of class can offer them opportunity to reach through the dumbed-down and the meaningless.

Power of Gesture in Art

There is subtlety in the works of artisans of days gone by that can be missed easily. To understand the language spoken by the artist often takes work before the dance or the musical score can be truly absorbed.

Here's a 'for instance':

My wife and I were invited to go with friends to see a few Shakespearean plays at a festival. Prior to the event, our friends suggested we read a specific packet with the backstory and critique of each play, and we did so. There we were at the plays and in each case, it was daunting material that was thick with nuance and metaphor ... context. I can't speak for my wife, but it would have been lost on me for sure. Having learned a little more of the language of a Shakespeare work allowed me to have a fuller, richer, more interesting experience watching the plays. Hard work rewarded!

A more elegant brushstroke is what you experience by the masters of painting when you make the same effort to understand the work; the artist.

If you can, look closely at the strokes of John Singer Sargent or Richard Schmid. They don't waste strokes when they paint. They don't. Look closely. Brushstroke economy isn't necessarily the goal, but supreme confidence in their skills brings about supreme brushstroke economy. It's a byproduct of knowing where to go next. Great athletes do the same thing. How did they get in position to catch the uncatchable fly ball (Willie Mays - Polo Grounds) or to get an open look for a 3-point dagger in overtime to win a basketball game while double-teamed (Michael Jordan - all the time)? How did they consistently do it and make it look easy? They thought several moves ahead, that's why. 

That's confidence. That's power.

Thinking about painting, ask yourself if there is discipline to the shapes that you see.
Ask if there are contemporaries of the artist whose work had an influence in the colors. The composition. The subject matter. When you get into the history and the mind of the artist, you get a more rewarding experience and a deeper appreciation for the things being communicated.

So often, young artists in all media come onto the scene hell-bent on breaking rules. All good and fine. But there is a universal 'knowing' among artists that unless newbies at least make an effort to understand first the concepts embedded in the rules that they are so focused on breaking, they have no context ... no credibility. And more often than not, just end up being forgotten. It's kind of like hearing a joke and then re-telling it yourself, and then learning later that the original joke-teller was actually there when the funny thing happened and THAT'S why it was funny in the first place.

Joke falls flat.
Newbie slinks away.

Proverbs 16:16
"How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver!"

LDS Articles of Faith 
#13 "... If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."


First you learn.
Then you look closer.
That's where greater enjoyment lives.
That's where art lives.

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