24 June 2013

Les oeuvres d'art

I don't remember how the question came up but someone at my book group asked a few months ago what we would buy for ourselves if money was no object.  Several waxed raphsodic about private libraries and loads and loads of books, yet I opted for works of art.  I love reading and am a highly textual person, but I don't have to own books as long as I can read them, whereas having art on my walls is something I do need, for inspiration, reflection, and happiness.  Some of my readers know that my family is currently living in what was formerly a home belonging to Paul Cézanne's sister, but there are no remaining artworks here on the walls.  That, coupled with our own budgetary constraints, means that I get my art fix with cheap prints.  Several postcard prints on the walls around my desk refresh me when I glance away from the computer screen: Louis Janmot's Fleur des champs 1845, and Picasso's Jacqueline assise dans un fauteuil 1964, and I've added a postcard photograph of David, by Michelangelo 1501-04, all of which I have had the great fortune to see in their original form, at Lyon's Musée des Beaux-arts, Aix's Musée Granet, and Florence's Galleria Accademia.

The fact that we live in a part of the world right now where I can first view an original piece of art, and then purchase a print of it is a huge privilege for me.  In Aix, art is all around, and I can just walk down a few streets to the local art museum, Musée Granet as I did yesterday, to enjoy some visual feasts of amazing oeuvres (works) by Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, and my newest discovery, Camoin.  A new two-part exhibition is taking place simultaneously at Aix's museum and Marseille's Musée des Beaux-Arts, called Le Grand Atelier Du Midi (The South's big studio).  All of the artworks, collected from around the world, have as their point of origin, le midi, or the area on both sides of the Mediterranean, meaning the south of France and the north of Africa, where French and other artists came in a steady stream particularly since the late 1800s, to take advantage of the amazing light on both shores and to re-interpret themes by each other, of bathers, of the sea, of ports, of lone pine trees and mountains.  I feel I could never get tired of looking at some of these pieces, and can't help being a little envious of a young family friend who is a museum guard at Aix museum's exhibition this summer.  Standing around and watching visitors for hours is perhaps already tiresome, but think of the visual pleasures she receives each time she needs to avert her gaze from her work for a moment.

19 June 2013


Beehives at Mt. Ste Victoire, near Aix en Provence

In my Introduction to Sociology courses, students learn about the levels of society and how these all fit together to comprise what we call the social structure.  I sometimes talk about these as boxes that fit or nest into ever larger ones.  We can start with individuals, the smallest box, but it is the following boxes, where individuals are grouped together, that interest most sociologists.  These are the boxes containing small interpersonal family or friendship groups, and medium ones filled with larger groupings of individuals, like student bodies or employees, and bigger ones with more formalized groups that we call social organizations, such as schools or companies.  Then we have bigger boxes we might call social institutions into which those organizations are grouped, and that we might describe as school systems, or economies, and so on.  These all fit into the biggest box, the one containing all the cultural elements and the structure of a society, and give all of the members therein a shared social identity.  Society is thus the biggest box. 

Last week I had an a-ha moment about an even bigger social box.  I was in Florence, IT, listening to the keynote speech at a European-organized international education conference, about the new Erasmus for All educational and training program planned by the European Union to begin in 2014.  Simultaneously, one of my sons was in Prague, CZ, participating in a European Union-sponsored school exchange program which will eventually be subsumed into this new overarching program.  (I previewed the Comenius school exchange in an earlier post, see Ponts, Feb. 2013.  Here's more about the conference and my paper: Creating Excitement...in Florence, IT, June 2013).  I suddenly realized how interesting this was to be hearing about and participating in closely-coordinated and funded educational activities on a supra-societal level, and I wondered where my U.S. students would place the EU in the nesting box schema above.  For Europeans living in EU member-states, they transcend their own national-social structures and the identities that go with them every day, as they reach into their wallets and pay for something with Euros.  In sharing a currency, that thing that all societies need in order to exchange for goods and services, these people share some important social markers, at the very least, an economic identity.  They are part of their own national box but also fit into a bigger social box that we might call Europa.  Clearly though, the bigger the box, the more complex the social interactions and identities therein.  For example, for his class trip, my son needed Czech currency and not Euros because the Czech Republic is not part of the EU currency union yet is a EU member-state.  And if we look at education as it is being coordinated on the European level, sharing educational ideas, training efforts, philosophies, and resources (the budget for Erasmus for All is 19 billion Euros over 7 years, according to the keynote speaker, Lorenza Venturi) both unites and complicates the social identities of the members.  Sharing a currency is one thing, sharing education is yet another, because education is that essential social tool through which we create and pass down knowledge, values, and norms--all those tangible and intangible pieces of culture.  Individual member-states have their own educational cultures yet through European 'cooperation', a pan-European educational culture is also being created, and with that, a distinctive social identity.  The features of this identity are still evolving, as every member-state and the members therein want to weigh in; see how secular and religious ideas compete for influence in "A More Secular Europe Divided by the Cross" by Andrew Higgins, June 17, 2013, The New York Times.  The situation is different in the U.S., even with our 50 states and their own educational systems, perhaps because the cultural and institutional pieces are quite similar and they all easily fit into a bigger social box called the U.S., and where the knowledge and culture that is being created and disseminated, whether in Washington state or Georgia, has a distinctive American character.  (And this character influences teaching and presentation styles too, which I could not help but note as I heard presenters from the U.S., England, Quebec, the Netherlands, South Africa, Taiwan, and Japan.)  What I'm becoming more and more aware of, particularly through the educational channel, is a transcendent European social identity, that stems from a supra-national entity we call the European Union.  If I think about it in terms of nested boxes, this is a pretty big box, with a fairly loose lid, that currently contains 27 other sets of boxes (or social structures).

03 June 2013

La phonétique française

In recent months, an English friend and I have been exchanging examples of what we find to be amusingly vague artistic descriptions of French cultural events and performances, particularly as we've come across them in regards to the Marseille Year of Culture.  (You can find out more about this Year of Culture's happenings at www.aixcentric.com.)  My latest find is from the website of the French performance company that put on a huge spectacle (performance or show) in Aix last Saturday night.  The professional company Transe Express describes itself as inventors of imagination:

Transe Express play in open spaces to provoke the meeting of a public. Without limitation, the artistic mediums and modes of expression are the ingredients for our creators. Music, visual arts, prouesses, circus skills, fire, literature, metallurgy, opera, rock, dance, with a preference for theatre, found at the corner of each of our philosophical stones. Shock creations which at times invest a stage, non-conventional spaces but principally the streets ; Intriguing the public in their everyday lives ; Unique adventures to transform a city, to «dress» a strong moment of an era. The team is constituted of a hundred actors, aerobats, acrobats, bell ringers, dancers, percussionists, singers, string quartets, welders, technicians, forgers and others that make up the motley crew who regularly realises the project of the Company : Ephemeral creations or repertoire shows, close proximity, aerial or ambulating spectacles.

No, this isn't a bungled translation from French; it's meant to sound like this, and I've read many equally and strangely vague descriptions in French.  In a way, the language reflected the show we saw, which was really amazing, but also really hard to describe precisely.  (We've had other similar experiences last summer, see Les spectacles, July 2012).  This time, along the main boulevards in town, we saw floats of giant human dolls singing in opera-rock falsettos, acrobats playing the drums with their bodies, and giant mobiles of human musicians swaying under construction cranes in the night sky.

All of this floatiness, in how some French express themselves in words and actions is perhaps related to something else I only just realized concretely about the French language, and that is that French is not a phonetic language.  The precise sounds and pronunciations (and sometimes spellings) that I use as my guides, especially as these come from Finnish and even from German, should really be forgotten when it comes to pronouncing and trying to understand spoken French.  I took an illuminating course on la phonétique française (French phonetics) this year in which I learned rules about the sounds French words make.  One learns about the sounds themselves by learning how to use the lip and tongue in slightly different combinations, and then these sounds correspond to so many different spellings that it's hard to keep everything straight.  I don't have them down well yet, but I do better understand that I can swallow quite a number of letters in many words.  For example, for non, nom, n'ont (no, name, don't have), I can just drop the last letters when speaking, or I should listen really, really carefully to the context because these are all pronounced exactly the same (approximately: noh).  It all feels very loose and imprecise.  I even get tripped up on phrases that aren't homophones as there are plenty of rhyming sounds in French that can also trick unsuspecting listeners.  How about the radio story last week about the anti-gay marriage protests which were led by what sounded like Brigitte Bardot?  I thought her thing was animal rights?  In fact, yes, she is the former French hottie-turned animal rights activist, and it's a woman named Frigide Barjot, who is involved in the anti-gay rights protests...who has taken on this name as a pun on Mme Bardot's name, amusing herself and also obviously confusing foreigners trying to get a handle on French!  Here's what I think: maybe the lack of phonetics in French, all the many different spellings that come with the same sounds or almost similar sounds that change just a bit with little changes in one's lip and tongue positions, maybe all this looseness is somehow related to the floaty, ephemeral, gauzy, non-conventional, limitless fashions in which the French language mirrors and paints pictures in the sky, of adventures and breathtaking spectacles which capture our collective philosophical imaginations...?