Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On Virility and Art (and Commerce)

First, let me say that it is a new year, and, well, happy New Year 2014! This is the first post of the new year. If you can believe it, the Gier Spot actually turns five this year! Considering I only have about ten posts, that means I only average two posts per year... and I kid. But every year I aspire to post more. We'll see if it finally happens this time around.

Also, in case you're wondering, I did complete the Paleo Challenge! I went 30 whole days without eating grains, soy products, dairy, legumes, processed sugars, or drinking any alcohol. All told I lost about 18 pounds. Not bad for 30 days of dieting.

But, let's get to the main idea. A post on Virility and Art and Commerce:

I recently attended a special holiday concert at my institution of higher learning, Loyola University Chicago, featuring the jazz band, wind ensemble, and several choirs. It was called JOYOLA (thus the pun) and it was a festive affair. I enjoyed it very much.

A few weeks prior, I attended another cultural event at Loyola, this time a student production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. It was definitely student theater, but I also enjoyed it very much. As you may be able to tell, I try to attend little events of art and culture like this as much as I can. I think they're worth it. In fact, I believe they make work worth it. What's the point of living and working so hard if you can't be merry and enjoy the fun part of life, the arts?

But that's actually another point for another time. What brings me to my point is that in attending these events, I gazed around the rooms to study the audiences. I'm horribly inquisitive and easily distracted, though incessantly observant, and I don't tend to forget things. The audiences in both cases were dominated by women, often aging women. Men were definitely a minority at each function. In fact, at the Shakespeare play, women were such the majority that I struggled to find in the room another male about my age, though there were some. (I of course don't have any exact figures from these events, you'll just have to take my word for it. But I assure you I'm not exaggerating.)

OK, la-di-frickin'-da! So there were more women at these cultural events than men. That probably won't surprise anyone and makes hardly an original point. The Fine Arts have had feminine connotations for hundreds of years. As Billy Elliot was taught, "Lads do football, or boxing, or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet". Luckily the crux of that movie is that they can and should do ballet, no matter what your average, mildly abusive, working-class British male gargles at you when you're a kid.

But I just worry things are getting worse, that we're going the wrong direction in a time when we should be becoming more accepting. The United States has become a tremendously polarized place in our time, that's no secret. We're set apart by politics, social class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing income gap and speedy increases in ethnic diversity are the two most salient drivers of this polarization, in my opinion. But without a doubt gender dynamics are being affected and things are changing between how men and women relate. And I'm actually more worried about men. And it goes beyond their lack of passion for the fine arts, as I'll explain.

Women no doubt have their issues, too. They face immense pressure within our media-driven culture to look good, and are constantly judged by their appearance, even though many of them are brilliant and talented and making great strides in a variety of fields. But though it still continues to struggle for ground, women have a movement to call their own. They have made great progress over the last century and a half, and advocate well for themselves. Now they are about as likely if not more likely to be employed than men. In relation, men are struggling to define themselves; they appear stuck in an antiquated mold, clinging to a set of values and careers and an outlook they believe appropriate, and are unable to venture into the appreciation of anything outside their strict perceptions, such as any form of art that is isn't mass produced and male-centered, as just one example.

An older photo, actually from early January 2013, but appropriate because it's taken in front of an American cultural hub. 
Perhaps it's only logical to struggle against it: men have dominated in social power for likely the entirety of human history, but for once they feel their dominance may be slipping, and don't want things to change. They're happy to stay where they have been for pretty much all of time: right on top (that's not a sexual innuendo, but it's cool with me if the thought crossed your mind).

Indeed, there is a crisis of masculinity upon us. And it can be observed in young boys, adolescents, and adult men. Boys and male teens struggle to show emotion or even recognize their true feelings. Our society has feminized this expression. (By the way, where is a great place to express yourself if not the arts?) Perhaps it's one reason why many teen boys designated with an anger disorder are actually depressed; they just don't know how to show it. And men seem unable to mold their identity to the changing world. They refuse to venture away from profit-driven careers that fit the antiquated male archetype, like business, sales, and finance, even though those aren't the fields which are in demand any longer or expected to grow in the coming decades. Men are, perhaps now more than ever, hung up on status: one must have the highest paying job, the best car, the nicest clothes, and most physically attractive girlfriend or wife. Perhaps we see it as the only way to express our dominance anymore. We have to prove our worth to ourselves and to others.

And, men seem to have no time to appreciate the arts. That is, after all, the main example I cite in this post that leads me to how and why are men are struggling. They likely see art as a feminine pursuit, like attending the opera, symphony, theater, or museum. This observation has been made before, of course, and perhaps I'm over generalizing. But I just want to know, why does it have to be a weird for a male to like classical music or jazz? Why is strange to find a young guy who digs opera? Why go to see an arty film and you'll find a vast majority of women in the audience? I just have to wonder.

OK, so I'm probably talking about a few different things here. Gender, yes. But also many of the fine arts, like opera and symphony, don't have many followers among younger generations in America of either gender, and their leaders are fearful that there will not be a sufficient following to sustain them in the not too distant future as their patrons die off. Also, many of these art forms do take some education to be able to appreciate. They tend to be much less accessible to the common person than the pop music and film and TV shows that are constantly dumped on us by the mass media. Even I may struggle to appreciate some opera, which I've been told one must be educated on how to understand, but once you've learned its basics, you'll be addicted.

And again, if my sentiment doesn't seem that original, it is not. There are many who have dealt with the issue of a crisis in masculinity since the very start of the 21st Century. Films such as American Beauty, Fight Club, and American Psycho all address it, and all came out within the window of about one year. Even American Psycho's antihero, Patrick Bateman, is a devout music lover and is chastised for it in the film (although this certainly doesn't warrant the retributive violence against women he commits, or thinks he commits, in the film/book). It has also been addressed in recent documentaries and books, such as The Mask You Live In, a documentary film by Jennifer Siebel Newsome, and a recent book by Hanna Rosin called The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.

Thus, the point has been made, but things still continue on the same path. How do we change them? One way struck me after a good male friend said something highly poignant on the subject to me on the phone today. That is, men are often afraid to pursue fields that are seen as typically un-masculine and "chick jobs" because they are afraid of what other people, particularly men, and especially their fathers, will think. I mean just look at Gay Focker and his relationship with his soon to be father-in-law when he found out he was a murse; men of previous generations often do not see these new career paths as appropriate jobs for men and what they intended for their sons and grandsons, even though they are becoming the more viable options for employment as the economy changes. And they also probably don't teacher their sons to appreciate the arts if they don't appreciate them themselves. Even my father hasn't seemed to quite come around to the fact that I'm becoming a social worker, though he has been supportive at times (though I'm very lucky he has taught me a lot about music, and he and my mother a lot about appreciating movies and other art forms).

The point is, changing our perception of masculinity and men's relationship to art will take a vast shift in the meanings and symbols of many of the most fundamental systems in our society (i.e. the family). It will not happen over night, but if women can make progress on how society views them, why not men? Why not, something of a men's movement? Perhaps calling it a 'men's movement' is too combative, and would only serve to widen the gap and animosity between the sexes. At least that's my idiosyncratic take. Whatever we call it, it will take the work of counselors, mental health professionals, thinkers, philosophers, authors, public figures, and parents. I'd like to be something of all of those in my life, so maybe that's what qualifies me to write this post.

Anyway, these are just thoughts that have been recurrent to me as I try to live my life as a culture buff. Remember, it all started with just taking in some Shakespeare. If I can just change the perceptions of the very few who actually read this by sharing my thoughts, it'll be worth it. Because hey, there's nothing wrong with being a guy who likes taking in a little Shakespeare. And no one should think otherwise.