August 29, 2010

Looking for the Unexpected

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I don’t like museums. I have fought many internal battles in which I have tried to force myself to like them, but generally, I have failed. Now, I have simply come to accept that I much more appreciate art that is not collected specifically for people to view and appreciate, art that you do not expect to find. I will refer to this type of art as “unexpected art.” In fact, I can think of many more instances of unexpected art that have affected me more than any exhibit I have seen in a typical museum. Here are three such examples.If you have ever attempted to be a vegetarian in Central Europe, you can appreciate my first encounter with what I now call unexpected art — the most incredible vegetarian restaurant right in the heart of Prague: Lehka Hlava, or “clear head” in English. This restaurant was unexpected both in its art form (cooking is a widely enjoyed, but not always consciously appreciated form of artistic expression) and in its location. The Czech Republic is known for veal schnitzel; Tofu and salads are hard to come by. “Lehka Hlava,” however, defied all my qualms about finding food I would truly enjoy in my new, if transient, home. In “Lehka Hlava,” everything from the décor to the food shouted out “don’t worry all you obnoxious, free spirit vegetarians and want-to-be free spirit vegetarians, there is a place for you in Prague.” It was dimly lit, with alternative decorations and plants. The menu had a substantial number of options, everything from salads and sandwiches to Asian-inspired dishes and pasta dishes. My favorite dish was a tofu stir-fry, and I was also a devoted fan of the vegetable kebabs. I don’t know the etiquette for critiquing food, so let me just say that “Lehka Hlava” is probably my favorite restaurant in the world. I was no longer just a lost soul starved for tofu and tempeh — it was really that good. My second example of unexpected art is a film I viewed of thousands of ants building a nest. Sounds weird? I agree, which is maybe why I kept watching it instead of moving on. I actually found this piece of art in a museum in Vienna, Austria, but I am categorizing it as unexpected art because I would not typically think of it as art or even worthy of much attention. The best way I can explain the appeal of this “art” is by pointing to the awesomeness of seeing, close-up, how creatures so much smaller and simpler than us do such intense work. Of course there is also the irony that the film was a piece of art that encompassed the ants building their own piece of art, like how Shakespeare stages Pyramus and Thisbe within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Maybe that’s a little far off, but it really did remind me of that idea, I swear. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this unexpected artistic experience was that although my friends and I watched the film for a significant amount of time, we felt the need to make fun of it, referring to it later as “the ants that won an Oscar.” Despite our appreciation of it (as shown by the length of time we watched it in comparison to our viewing time of anything else in the museum), we still struggled to accept such a bizarre exhibit as art.In July, I was confronted with another instance of unexpected art, this time in the U.S., while I was volunteering at a psychiatric hospital. One of the patients, a man with schizoaffective disorder, constantly asked staff for pens, pencils and paper. So avidly did he want to draw that one time, upon losing a pen, I realized he had stealthily sat down next to me and when I put a pen down, snatched it when I wasn’t looking. He scribbled on about 20 to 30 pieces of paper per day. At first glance, his work looked like scribbles and words that didn’t make any apparent sense, papers that littered the floor and annoyed other patients and staff alike. One day, however, when I looked closer at his papers, I saw that on a few were comic-like drawings of superheroes. The drawings were incredible — they could have been taken straight from a comic book. What appeared to be just one more remnant of this man’s disorganized behavior was incredible artistic talent. If you like museums, great. If you don’t, remember that you don’t have to drag yourself to one to surround yourself with art. As the new school year begins, make sure to take the time to observe your surroundings. You might be surprised at what you find, whether it is an art form you don’t normally take the time to appreciate, a natural phenomenon you’ve never before thought of as art, or the work of a most unexpected artist.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten