In T’s advice column Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I’m not sure if I have an actual question for you, but I do have a problem. I’m nearly 40 and I find myself at a crossroads that feels more like a dead end. I’ve spent much of my life and thought and income in pursuit of beauty in one form or another: design, fashion, the beauty or “wellness” industries. This is very much a professional hazard: My career in glossy magazines and advertising as a photo editor is all about making beautiful images of beautiful things that I’ve selected look even more beautiful. Often, when I think how much of my time I’ve devoted to my own appearance or to matters of aesthetics I cringe, though I’ve often been the person in any given room defending things like style and design from accusations of superficiality and frivolity.
There’s a clear irony here, given how much thought I’ve put into what things — art, interiors, people — should look like, that I’ve come to a place in which I no longer know what my own life should look like. I literally do not know what to do with myself and what I should believe in anymore, and this does, in fact, seem kind of frivolous, given the very urgent concerns of the society we live in. So it’s not something I really can express. Plus, I’m embarrassed to say that my standard of living definitely hasn’t flourished (I chose a career in the dying industry that is print journalism and it’s too late to choose a new one). I’m unable to save money for retirement and I get very anxious when I think about the future. Worse, I’ve lost my sense of meaning to myself. I feel like the culture has moved on without me, and I don’t know what to do.
Part of it might have to do with the fact that I feel alone in many ways and unsuccessful by most measures. I don’t own a home and no one needs me; I am nobody’s mother and now I am nobody’s child, as my parents are no longer living. My friends and peers have gone on to have families, to marry and stop working, or have moved to other parts of the country or even foreign countries. (It’s another issue, but I’m kind of astonished when I see how many of my peers, educated, once-ambitious women friends don’t work professionally anymore, and have either moved to another country or married a rich partner. Or both! It’s like they’ve given up.) I don’t mean that I entirely envy my friends, all of whom have private struggles of their own. I know it’s not easy for anyone and that nothing is simple.
But still, I’m not sure where this leaves me, though I am accountable to no one but myself. On good days, I can take a yoga class and still feel like life’s potential is still just around the corner if I’m just open to it; on bad ones, I feel such futility, like I’ve squandered my own youth and beauty in the hall of mirrors that is our consumerist society. Am I simply being solipsistic here? Or is this what getting older is about, acknowledging one’s comedown to the brutal reality of life? — Name Withheld
Courtesy of The Met Museum
“Woman Before a Mirror”, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897.
A: What you wrote is in no way frivolous; it concerns the entire value, direction and purpose of your life. It is a heroic question — or really a set of them, about growing older and how we remain relevant to ourselves and to the culture we live in. What happens when we no longer fit our own context?
I doubt, in fact, that life is a consequential progression — that this inevitably leads to that — like the plot of a 19th-century novel. In real life, our narratives break down, they seem to lose momentum or lack epiphany and meaning. Your plotline may not be a clean and conventional one (I’m not sure whose really is these days) and yet you judge it by the most conventional of measures. You value art and ideas over money, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t upsetting to feel unrewarded for a creative career you’ve worked hard for. You’ve realised that, in curating what we call taste, you’ve unwittingly become part of the system, the media-driven consumerist machine that creates the desire to possess things you’ll likely never be able to afford.
Further distorting your perspective is the fact that your once-ambitious, creative friends seem to have “given up,” as you put it — reordered their priorities around a different kind of fulfilment. There might be all kinds of reasons they’ve made the choices they have, including an awareness that the professional deck is stacked against them as mothers in a country that remains terribly regressive in matters like subsidised child care and parental leave. We all know them, the highly educated women who hold glamour jobs for a few years before marrying a corporate lawyer or finance guy, raising a family, running boards, taking up SoulCycling, etc. It is a time-honoured trope. Why judge them for that? Let’s focus on you.
Beauty — distracting, exclusionary, often more talismanic and notional than “real” — has never been a steady organising principle for life. Those of us who metabolise beauty like plants do sunshine have wasted a lot of air defending matters of taste and style against the obvious charges. We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are, like Monet haystacks or Kieslowski films or ombré prom dresses or Weimaraners. Possibly, even, the great fashion or art photographers who originally inspired you to become a photo editor in the first place have lost their magic, their images becoming trite and flat or limited in scope over the years. This doesn’t negate your career to date; it means only that your sense of what is beautiful has become more complicated, as you have. Your work is no longer satisfying to you because it is no longer relevant to the person you are.
Courtesy of Netflix
A still from Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (2019).
No doubt you have given a lot of thought to the problem of who gets to decide what, in our culture, is beautiful: The historical gatekeepers have clung fast to notions of white privilege, of exclusionary and divisive ideas what women should look like. In fact, I would be far more concerned for you right now if your notions of beauty weren’t under question. To what end, beauty? Does it really mean anything? Honestly, screw beauty, I’ve thought many times, I’m done with worshipping at its airbrushed altar, done with writing about the art I’ll never be able to buy and the glowing interiors I’ll never inhabit, the arbitrary standards of self-presentation I’ve absorbed. And then I’m back online contemplating Jil Sander evening dresses on final sale.
The fact that you are turning 40, that you’re at a kind of midpoint, is important here. We’re so busy — by we I mean women — being looked at in the first half of our lives, I wonder to what extent we’re distracted from the force and potential of our own looking. The triumph of creation over passivity, of being the observer rather than the observed, has been the consistent story arc of women in Western art. Sometimes, it is even the subject of the work itself, as in the paintings of Berthe Morisot, in many ways the most radical of the Impressionists, in whose melting brush strokes and increasingly abstracted figuration we can see Modernism coming. But the bigger revolution here, to my mind, has to do with her reversals of gaze: Morisot, who posed for Manet and influenced his style, painted women regarding themselves in the mirror in anticipation of being seen, or looking directly out at us from the canvas with awareness that we are looking at them.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that your way of seeing things, including yourself, seems not wholly true or right or your own, and is in dire need of a refresh. It feels reductive and merciless, informed too much by the very aspects of our culture that have become deadening to you. I wonder if what you’re craving is a less placid form of beauty, one that’s in keeping with the richer and more complex person you have become — art that is more than a flawlessly lit and composed image and that demands more of you than a well-trained set of eyes.
In any reflected life, there will be clarifying moments in which you travel to the edge of the shore. Art, at its best, does this mimetically, challenging us to see things differently by offering a set of open questions, rather than a verdict delivered from on high: a field of view that speaks to the times we live in, rather than turning its back to them.
The last time I had this kind of palpable, urgent experience of art was while watching “Atlantics,” the French-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s debut feature, which won the Grand Prix this year at Cannes. It is, by any measure, a beautiful film: Set in coastal Dakar; the background is a churning seascape. In the foreground is a cast of beautiful characters — Ada, the heroine, and Suleiman, her boyfriend, though Ada is engaged to a different man, Omar, who is from a wealthy family. (Take it from Ada: Marrying money will never, ever, save you.)
“Atlantics” is really a ghost story — and this feels just right, the way our intuition haunts us before reaching the brain as actual knowledge. The film also takes a hard look at all of the things that complicate the way we see ourselves, from our friends — most of Ada’s are envious, superficial, or judgmental — to our families, who either betray us out of love and fear — Ada’s delivers her to the humiliating virginity test insisted upon by Omar’s parents — or are otherwise unavailable to guide us when we need them most. Diop is unsparing in showing us the close coexistence of beauty and ugliness, power and powerlessness. We are drowning in such disparities. Suleiman, who has not been paid in four months, is on a quest for a better life, but the focus here is on Ada and her efforts to reconcile the demands of her culture with those of her soul — a classic heroic journey, which is by definition a solitary one.
You are on another kind of quest: to rediscover the world you inhabit now, in all of its paradoxes and potential, and to engage with it sensually, armed with your own particular toolbox and your newfound sense of scepticism. You’re seeking new paths to the shore, new things that sustain you, and this requires doing the work to find out what that looks like. It requires acknowledging the value shift that probably began happening inside you long ago.
You’re ready now to make those changes. This might involve switching to a publication with a better value match, one that you admire and actually read, or using your photo-editing skills at a business or nonprofit whose ethos you can get behind — or even teaching a class at an art school and enjoying the satisfaction of passing on your skills to a sharp-eyed new generation who will, in turn, challenge you. It might mean taking a class yourself, or attending a lecture series at a museum you love; it certainly suggests visiting those friends you have in fabulous foreign places, as well as seeking out new experiences on your own and forging new and beautiful connections. It will require risking compassion to create an expanded and possibly destabilising relationship to visual culture. This is your second act, and it will be thrilling to see.
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