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Mrs. Maisel's Emotions

October 5, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spoiler alert: if you are midway through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe you should bookmark this post because I am going to talk about her character development throughout the first season. If you are not yet familiar with this show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a young Jewish woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary. From a wealthy family, she is well-educated, witty, beautiful and well-dressed. After separating from her husband, she moves back in with her parents. Due to the unexpected shame and frustration of her situation, Miriam Maisel (“Midge,” played by Rachel Brosnahan) stumbles into performing an improv act in which she questions who she is and what to do with her new situation. Standing in the front of a room of strangers and disparaging yourself seems like an odd way to deal with her emotions, and yet it is what she does. Why does Midge resort to comedy? Was it a rational decision, or an emotional one? Must it be one or the other? Is a comedic representation of painful events some sort of emotional release?

In the Syntopicon, Emotion is listed as one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. The discussion of it is always extremely rational. Looking at emotion through the lens of reason may be the best way to understand it. However, to me, it seems like this idea would really benefit from a more broadened world view. After reading the discussion of Emotion, I have many lingering questions. Is it an activity that requires thought, or is devoid of thought? Also, why did Kant introduce the idea of emotion in the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, but wait another hundred pages to actually discuss it? As another example, Spinoza generated a long list of emotions (all of which stem from either desire, joy or sorrow). His list includes things like over-estimation, audacity and drunkenness. (Maybe Midge’s drunken state is to blame for her first stand-up routine?) While I don’t believe that Spinoza defined drunkenness as inebriation, there is a real lack of understanding about what emotion encompasses. Being emotional is often portrayed as messy, loud, aggressive, or overwrought, but it can also be none of those things. To that point, Spinoza’s list also includes benevolence, despondency and confidence. I am struggling to understand emotion as a state of being, versus emotion as an action, versus emotion as reaction, versus emotion as a form of knowledge.

In the show, Midge is not really messy or overwrought. Instead, she’s funny. Therefore, I wonder if comedy might complement the path of reason as a means towards understanding emotion. Midge’s first two on-stage experiences were successful. (Do note that she was tipsy for both, however.) When she realized that people reacted favorably to her rambles, she decided to go on stage in earnest. Midge prepared for this experience with notes and contemplation of things she found humorous. Only, this time, she was not funny. This third performance was a rational choice, whereas the previous two seemed to be accidental. Did reason interfere with comedy? Does comedy require a level of emotional ownership, a personal connection to the humor? Why are Midge’s self-deprecating stand-up routines funny, but not the bits of human inanity? After bombing on-stage, Midge’s manager Susie (played by Alex Borstein), explained that improv works until it doesn’t work, and then you have to work at understanding what makes a thing funny. So, Midge began to prepare her shows until she worked up to a successful 10 minute stand-up routine. Sometimes, comedy seems to be an instinctual art. The ability to gauge when something is funny or not seems instinctual, but really, it requires a great deal of emotional education. Many of the jokes throughout this series stem from painful events. She mines these experiences to find humorous nuggets in them, but she is also painfully aware of the double meaning hidden under each joke. A comedian must find this very specific balance between boring or tired details and overly abstract narration.

In the Syntopicon, Adler states, “Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something intermediate between the one and the other” (328B). I wonder, however, can we definitively state that emotion is not knowledge? In seeking out comedy, Midge is not choosing bad behavior, but rather solving an emotional dilemma. Perhaps these comedy acts demonstrate a level of irrationality. Is this a demonstration of the Aristotelean idea that when emotions rule, we lack reason? Adler summarizes this point: “That a man may act either emotionally or rationally, Aristotle thinks, explains how, under strong emotional influences, a man can do the very opposite of what his reason would tell him is right or good. The point is that, while the emotions dominate his mind and action, he does not listen to reason” (331B). In the case of Midge, I argue against that notion, however, because while her improv does carry emotional content, they are not unstructured. Construction requires logic.

Maybe Midge has encountered a version of Heidegger’s idea of Dread, and it is this powerful fear which actually draws her on stage. Or is comedy a path that analyzes the gap between something like Freud’s id and ego? Adler summarizes Freud’s belief in saying that he “sometimes goes to the extreme of insisting that all apparently rational processes – both of thought and decision – are themselves emotionally determined; and that most, or all, reasoning is nothing but the rationalization of emotionally fixed prejudices and beliefs” (332B). This idea might help explain Midge’s attraction to improv. She explicates the obvious in a funny and universal way that connects to a broader audience. Near the end of the first season, Susie invites some bigwigs and reporters to see Midge’s solid routine. Only, when Midge arrives on stage, she impulsively decides not to make fun of her family for once. Instead, she pokes fun at a local icon whose hypocrisy bothers Midge. Though the routine was funny, innovative and personal, Midge is ostracized. What behavior explains this irrationality? Is it emotional response? Or is Midge asking questions through humor that would sound absurd through reason?

In the final episode of Season One, Midge discovers her true self on stage. Throughout this series, she has struggled to create a name or find an identity. But at the end of her final set (which the audience assumes was largely improv built upon the past 24 hours of her life), she defines herself as Mrs. Maisel. She charts her own path through personal experience which she then turns into universal experience. Her confidence stems from her comedic abilities.

As a final thought, it is important to mention that only three female voices find their way into Adler’s history of Emotion: George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. I feel very strongly that we could broaden this category by looking into other resources. The Syntopicon includes Freud, but what about the poet H.D. who was Freud’s longtime patient? Or why not include Arjuna’s struggles on the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita? Translation studies may also assist by helping us to understand how different languages categorize emotions. To me, it seems clear that more work must be done on the category of Emotion.

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Interview with an Artist

September 18, 2015

Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, recently interviewed Lea Anderson, an artist whose work, Memoryfeeld, touches upon many of the Great Ideas. The interview is posted in its entirety following a short introduction of Lea Anderson.

Lea Anderson, a San Diego native, has lived and worked in the New Mexico art community for over a decade and has discovered much during her adventures in the dramatic, colorful, and wild desert environment. Fluent in both two-and three-dimensional visual languages, she creates living, philosophical worlds that echo the formal variations seen in natural systems. These themes are explored through individual works, full-scale ambitious mixed media installations, and solo exhibitions using a wide variety of both digital and traditional media. She has exhibited throughout New Mexico and the United States, as well as internationally in Bangkok, Thailand in 2010. A recipient of numerous awards for her artwork, she was also awarded “Albuquerque Local Treasure” in 2010. In 2013, Anderson was the Guest Curator for the exhibition Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque. Anderson has just completed her tenth solo exhibition, the installation piece “HOLOCENE GARDEN” with Santa Fe’s mobile gallery Axle Contemporary in Spring 2015 (4/17-5/17), and she has been invited to create an installation for the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History as their 2015 Summer Artist-in-Residence.

 

Image: Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

Alissa Simon (AS): I am struck by the way that humans age. We do not know exactly why organic matter weakens/degrades as it ages. Looking at a piece like Memoryfeeld, I am curious about the effect of emotion on organic matter. How do you see emotion combining with physicality in this piece?

Lea Anderson (LA): Most of us are aware that our memories fluctuate, degrade, and even re-surface over time. In Memoryfeeld, the physical materials are significant to the meaning of the piece. Each of the 1000 pieces is made using a method called “Image transfer”. Image Transfers are made using an ordinary b/w toner-based photocopy and clear acrylic gel. To get the photocopy image to transfer into the gel, I had to spread the gel (mayonnaise consistency) on top of photocopies of past images of my own artwork (to represent my personal memories). Once the gel dried, I soaked the paper/gel combination in water for a few minutes until the paper could be scraped away. The black toner was then embedded in the clear gel- and in effect, my memories were then trapped in the semi-transparent membrane-like gel pieces. One of the important things about a photocopy is that it is not an exact replica of the original - it is a simplification and a generalization – another appropriate metaphor for how we store our memories. While imprinted and stored somehow, our memories are not exact replicas of the original experiences. In Memoryfeeld, some of the individual forms are large and colorful (I added paint), some are clear, some are cloudy, some are buried, some sit on the surface, and some are incredibly tiny. This differentiation could demonstrate both the degradation of certain memories over time, or through aging, or through trauma, as well as the exaggeration or embellishment of certain memories based upon intense emotional resonance.

 

AS: The idea of love is often ennobled...meaning that humans make extra allowances for love. It appears that love ranks as a more powerful emotion than any of the other emotions. In addition, there are various types of love: mother/child, husband/wife, love of self, friendship, etc. Do you feel that your work represents an emotion of such diversity? And if so, how? Is it the sole emotion represented, or do emotions bleed into one another (desire, fear, hate, jealousy, etc)?

LA: Because each individual piece in Memoryfeeld is made using photocopies of older artwork (and segments of older artwork) that I had made over many years, there are many representations of my own experiences - love is certainly there (in certain pieces) in many forms. If I had the time, I could talk about each ‘memoryshape’ individually and reference all kinds of emotional, philosophical, and symbolic content. One of the things that may lend authenticity to this piece is that each individual component still represents a range of experiences and time periods from my past. While a memory might be experienced as a point of focus, the boundaries of where it begins and ends or what the sights/sounds/sensations that are associated with that memory are never 100% defined or even fully repeatable, even if you call up that memory again and again. Likewise, I believe no singular emotional experience is really possible, either definitively in Memoryfeeld or in our own internal collection of memories. Emotions absolutely bleed into one another, and can even change over time (our interpretation of them) as our own values or understanding of the world continues to evolve.

Image: a single memoryshape in Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

AS: When we create, what are we trying to create? A type of wisdom? Knowledge? Understanding? Human connection? Truth? What do you contemplate before/during creating a piece of artwork as complex as Memoryfeeld (or other works of your choice)? You demonstrate a vast emotional journey, perhaps a unique and singular journey...for what purpose? To better understand emotion? Self? Humans?

LA: Hmm. Maybe a chicken/egg question here…. I believe all of those are mixed into the recipe. While I can’t speak for all who create, I think most generally the act of creation provides an experience for the creator, and for those who encounter the creation, in order to make all of those “whats” possible. The physical/productive creative act itself is one aspect of that experience, and then the contemplation of, final function of, or interaction with the creation is another arena for more experiences. For Memoryfeeld, I can’t say that the idea was in any way fully formed when I began. I had a short time period in which to make it (6 weeks), so I had to act/produce immediately. Knowing the transfer technique was a way to produce a lot of material somewhat rapidly, I began with the technique and associated materials, and then the ideas were born as I pondered the conceptual implications of those materials. I believe most of my work begins with a general decision about materials (or for an installation piece relates to the space I’m given to create within). The development of the idea and process of actually making are intertwined. Idea development feels as though I’m attempting to solve a 100-sided, morphing Rubik’s cube, and yet I’m not really sure what the “solution” state is supposed to be. The various possibilities are turned around and around, shifted, revised, reversed, and fiddled with until I finally come to a resting point; maybe never solved as neatly as I’d like, but to a certain level of satisfaction.

What is my purpose in this creative journey? I see the creative act as a form of literal magic; of evidence that there is more to our world and existence than we can possibly understand, that there is some kind of “other” - a place, a dimension, or a source that we are feeding from, transforming energy from “there” and bringing it “here” through creativity into physical and/or virtual and/or ponder-able reality. This is true of Memoryfeeld and of all of my other works.

 

AS: How does the mind of the observer enter a complex work of art such as Memoryfeeld? Does it logically enter, and then follow a logical/reasonable path? Are logic and emotion bound together in some complex form? Is there a correct way to enter a piece of art?

LA: I do think there is an immediate physical response to Memoryfeeld. Logically, the mind of the viewer is going to associate their response with something familiar. Because Memoryfeeld is not an actual “thing” from the tangible world that anyone has seen before, they must begin to make connections to stored knowledge to interpret it. This is incredibly interesting to me, because there are an infinite amount of associations that can be made, each person filtering their visual response through their own personal Memoryfeeld and finding similarities. Any emotional response would also be connected to this set of stored associations. I’m fascinated to hear what those are, and if they are similar or completely different than what I ascribed as the original meaning in the piece. No, there is no correct way to enter a piece of art. It really depends on their cultural background, their visual sensitivity, and their learned behavior (or lack of learned behavior) around anything labeled “art”.

 

AS: As the artist, do you remove yourself from the piece of art in order to maintain symmetry? Or is it better to feel presence? Does it depend upon the piece?

LA: I assume you mean symmetry in an ideological sense, not in a visual sense, and you mean it as another word for ‘balance’ or ‘democratic ideological availability’. I believe that I am ‘in’ the piece when I look at the work, and if someone is exposed to my ideas surrounding the work then I am in the work in their understanding of it to a certain extent, but someone who doesn’t know me or my ideas about the work can access it on completely open terms. By removing/intentionally not including/distorting recognizable and potentially loaded imagery from most of my work, I assume that viewers tend to have to respond instinctively and associate more generally. Both the informed and the naive reaction are valid. It is highly unlikely that anyone would read the piece exactly as I intended it without an explanation, and that’s perfectly ok with me. Some people like to know what the artist was thinking about and some people are just as happy to find their own meaning. I think that’s an especially exciting aspect of art viewing.

 

AS: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise of Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, claims that a person's will is moved by beauty. What 'aesthetic force' (Sarah Lewis) changes us as artist and as viewer?

LA: It seems that ‘aesthetic force’ refers to a ‘powerful response’. It also seems that any discussion about the conditions that foster the creation of an ‘aesthetic force’ consistently includes the debate about the quality of ‘beauty’ as either an important ingredient in art or a quality that diminishes the legitimacy of art. I do believe that those of us using contemporary English language as our way of interpreting the world around us have come to most often connect the word beauty with the word pretty… which is frequently used as a light compliment but also quite regularly in terms of shallow or morally insubstantial. It might be true, at times, that something that is beautiful is also pretty, but I propose that we more intentionally use the word beautiful instead as a synonym for powerful. I believe that something powerful might also be pretty, but something powerful might also be horrifying, tragic, offensive, confusing, and so on. By using the adjective beautiful as a synonym for powerful rather than for pretty, then beauty can more accurately be called a necessary ingredient in art and in ‘aesthetic force’. “Power” is what changes us… beautiful Power.

For more information about Anderson's work, visit her website: http://www.leaandersonart.com/ .

For questions regarding this blog or interview, email asimon@hmu.edu.

 

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