“Art is an empty pursuit.” Is what I used to think in my younger years. Back then I had no art appreciation what so ever. O! My mother tried to teach my brother and I art appreciation when we were kids. During vacations to Europe, she dragged us to art galleries and opera’s. She even took us to Moulin Rouge in Paris where can-can dancers kick their heals up in the air topless. These artistic adventures were wasted on us. My brother and I were raised in north-western tip of the Arabian dessert in the Middle East. Like the chubby grains of the sand of the desert, water could seep through me on occasion, but I retained not one drop of it. As a child my favorite outing in Paris was either to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, not because I appreciated the unique architecture of the building, but rather because I appreciated the birds flying around the garden surrounding the magnificent building. In that garden I discovered that I could feed birds straight out of my hands. I would stretch out with a piece of bread and birds would land directly on my hand, shoulders and even my head to be fed. This to me seemed like the most magical experience in the world. My second favorite outing was to an amusement park whose name I have forgotten. My trips to the louver and other galleries with my mother seemed like a form of torture. Salvador Dali paintings made no sense and although I could appreciate Leonardo Da Vinci’s technical skills to produce life like paintings, in an age where camera are ubiquitous, his talent seemed passé. “Who needs art? you can’t eat art? Society doesn’t need artists, society needs people that can offer solutions to real problems, like doctors , engineers and researchers. Who would miss artists if they were all to disappear off the face of the earth one day… nobody. But we would all notice if doctors were to disappear one day”. Such was my thinking at the time. I am not proud of this, I am simply recalling that which I would rather forget.
It was not surprising, that I went on to study computer science at the university and graduated to dreaming about joining the rank of useful people who solved measurable problems using the polished skills of a well-educated mind. I had my plans, but fate had its own and my perspective shifted due to 4 year stay in the city of Jerusalem. A strange start to my art appreciation learning path.
I lived in many cities in the world and each had its pluses and minus. Jerusalem is the city I hated living in the most. In fact, I should say that I hated both Jerusalems. Jerusalem is divided into two parts, western Jerusalem (mostly Israeli) and eastern Jerusalem (mostly Palestinian). And I hated both equally. In fact, I should say that I hated all the Jerusalems, because the city was further divided into religious and non-religious neighborhoods. Touristy and regular places. It is really many cities lumped into one and each has its own distinct personality. And I hated all the psychotic, split personalities of that city. I hated the sign in Mea’a Sha’areem street that tells women not walk down the road when they are menstruating because it would be disrespectful to the ultra orthodox Jewish traditions. I hated the super aggressive Palestinian merchants in the old city that would harass tourists, essentially intimidating them to enter the store and buy something. I hated the stupid tricks priests would play on tourists in the holy sepulcher church by making the statue of the virgin Marry cry so that the tourist would be convinced that they were witnessing a miracle and open their wallets more widely. I hated the way Christian pilgrims would descend on mountain of olives in bus loads and crawl around kissing the ground and crying hysterically instead of enjoying the amazing view. And what’s up with calling little hills mountains? And puny trickles of water a river? Does a biblical mention render geographical features more grand? I hated driving behind a tank on a highway, these things are slow. Taking up two lanes makes the impossible to pass. There should be a law forbidding tanks on the road during rush hour. I hated taking the public bus because it was dangerous to touch the windows. Having witnessed several fist fights erupting because one person wanted to open a window and the other insisting that it needed to stay closed. I could go on for another three pages but I will spare you further torment. One of most unique experiences Jerusalem has to offer among many unique experiences is the privilege to meet a few Messiah’s. Jerusalem is a city that comes with its own syndrome, called Jerusalem Syndrome. It is a state of psychosis where the afflicted upon visiting the holy city believe that they are hearing voices from god that is telling them that they are a biblical figure such the Messiah or John the Baptist among others. The way I dealt with my anguish with my surroundings was that I created two compartments in my mind. I told myself: “Everybody around me is insane, but I am sane, I am ok, I don’t belong to this place, I just a tourist and therefore none of this will affect me”. I am not proud of this. It simply was what it was.
At this point you would be justified to ask the obvious question, why not leave and go to live somewhere else? Well! My husband whom I nicknamed Zaatara was attached to a job and he refused to leave. I tried everything in my arsenal to persuade him to move back to Vancouver. I tried every logical argument that my well-polished educated mind could muster and when that failed, I resorted to less noble means of persuasion. The silent treatment, seduction, crying, hysterics of all sorts, Zaatara was moved but nothing would make him leave his academic post. There was broken china and slammed doors. Once during a heated argument, I kicked the door of our oven smashing the front glass panel into a thousand tiny pieces which spilled across the tile of our kitchen. Zaatara was impressed but not enough to change his mind. I even threatened to join a peace activist group that works in the occupied territories because I read in the newspaper that foreigners who engage is such subversive activities get promptly deported from the country. My interest hovered around the delicious concept of deportation, rather than peace. I am not proud of any of this. I am just confessing my sins. But wait!!! Where is the art appreciation? … don’t worry…. it’s coming.
It was during the winter of my personal discontent, that I met my co-worker Boris. Boris was an elegant man about 15-20 years my senior who walked into the office with smile on his face on most days. He had an endless stream of stories, when he wasn’t describing his adventure skiing in the Swiss alps, he would describe in detail the proper way to enjoy good wine and cheese. Once he described to me how taking salsa dance classes was helping him deepen his relationship with his wife. Working with Boris was fun. He didn’t seem to belong to any of the madness of Jerusalem, he seemed to be on a different plane than anybody I knew at the time. Although I liked and admired Boris, I also sometimes secretly resented him. “What is so great about your life Boris?’ The question would pop in the dark recesses of my brain, never to see the light of day. “Why can’t you be miserable like everybody else?”. His constant cheerfulness and that ever present bounce in his step could, on occasion, be grating. One day, he showed up at work in a state of ecstatic delight. When I asked him about it, he told me that the night before he had seem a painting by a famous artist being displayed for only a few weeks at the Israel Museum. “You are this excited because you saw a single painting” I said sarcastically. “ It is just a painting, paint splattered on a canvas”. His art appreciation seemed silly to me. I tried to suppress a laugh but traces e of one showed through anyway. Boris looked intently into my eyes and said “ihath, this is a once in a life time opportunity to see a master piece”. Then he handed me a paper handout that he got at the museum with information about the painting before walking away towards his desk. I wasn’t interested in the work of art but that sparkle in Boris’s eyes, the enthusiasm in his voice, mysteriously I found myself purchasing a ticket at the Israel Museum that same evening. I found the painting that had caused Boris’s delirium and position myself in the seating provide right in front of the painting. “I will sit here and stare at this painting until I see what Boris sees in it, I want to get what is so great about it” I told myself with determination. Art appreciation through determination. I began to read the leaflet that Boris handed me and discovered that I was looking at a painting by famous Austrian called Gustav Klimt. The painting is depicting a biblical figure named Judith who uses her beauty to get close to an army general, only to severe his head with her own hands to save her people from destruction. The heavy use of golden leaf makes the painting look luxuriously dazzling. Judith is standing tall in a revealing outfit staring right at the onlooker. She looks confident, self-satisfied, her face baring orgasmic expression. But when I looked down, in darker corner of the painting there is a severed head of the general held by the head scalp with Judith’s hand. The painting seemed psychotic to me, with the upper part looking incredibly beautiful and then lower part looking disturbing. I looked into Judith’s face: “Where is the shame? Where is the remorse?” there are none to be gleaned. That is when I heard a feminine voice in my head that seemed to be coming from Judith. The voice said “ihath! grap hold our life”. I jumped up from my seat and looked around to see if anybody else had heard anything strange, but all the people in the gallery were milling about same as before. I shook my head and thought “No, no, no I just imagined that”. I sat back and resumed my quiet contemplation. The feminine voice came back and this time she was aggressive and annoyed, she said “ihath! grap hold of your own life”. I jumped out of my seat and ran out of the museum in a panicked haste, jumped into my car, drove home and ran straight to bed where I covered myself with a blanket and I proceeded to shake like a leaf in terror. My thought process went like this “O Darn! It’s official now, I am insane. I beginning to hear voices inside my head, I have arrived to Jerusalem, I now belong to this place.” Luckily the voice did not say that I was the Messiah. But still, this art appreciation was terrifying, this was something that my logical mind could neither explain nor deny.
A few weeks from that incident, I woke up in the morning and sat on one side of the bed. Zaatara was sitting on the other side of the bed. In calm voice I told him: “I am leaving Jerusalem and moving back to Vancouver in 6 weeks”. On that day, there was no broken china, no slammed doors, no arguing and no hysterics of any kind. I did move to Vancouver according to my schedule where I continue to create my own self-made somewhat happy ever after. This I do feel proud of. Who knew that a lesson in art appreciation would lead to this point? I am as surprised as you.
After that, I learned to always have a good walk into any art gallery in my path. I discovered a magical world where ideas, feeling s and experiences can be communicated though non-linguistic means. Art appreciation is my terrifying friend. However, I always make sure to avoid looking at any original art by the great Gustav Klimt, for fear of what the voice might say to me next. What if the next time I hear the voice it says:” ihath! go find boxer Mike Tyson and kick him in the shin …. just for fun …. just to see what happens!” Would I have the wisdom to pass? or Would I feel compelled to obey? … I prefer to keep that an unresolved mystery.
Would love to hear your story about art appreciation? Is there a particular work of art that did it for you?
A couple of weeks ago I published a video of me reading this story , here is the story of my art appreciation in written form with a few embellishments.