“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

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“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

Come for the Gorgeous Ladies, Stay for the Wrestling

With the release of season 3 of Netflix’s GLOW, we take a moment to reflect on professional wrestling, the art of storytelling, and empowered women.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

This may come as a surprise to some who know me, but I used to watch professional wrestling as a kid. Every Monday and Friday night, my brother and I would sit down in front of the TV to watch a rotating cast of burly men (and occasionally women! Trish Stratus FTW) fight each other inside the ring and out. For nine-year-old me, it was the height of entertainment. A Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure sat next to Barbie in my closet and when the show pulled off moments of magic—like the Undertaker rising from the dead in a glorious comeback—I was absolutely blown away, eyes glued to the screen.

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John Oliver tells it like it is. Photo: Imgur

Somewhere along the way, however, my passion for WWE faded and I almost forgot that episode of my childhood. Then I watched GLOW on Netflix and remembered why I used to love wrestling so much. Set in the 80s, GLOW follows a group of oddball women who come together to form the first all-female wrestling show. Here was wrestling presented to me as I remembered it. Not as the butt of a joke. Not as “fake” fighting. Not as mere “soap opera for men.” In fact, GLOW’s particular iteration of wrestling includes very few men at all.

GLOW, which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was an actual all-female wrestling show that originally ran from 1986 to 1990. It was ridiculous and over-the-top, with storylines about good and evil and walking stereotypes for characters. It had comic interludes and rapping and sketches. It was the modern day equivalent of vaudeville, entertaining millions with theatrics and a sense of humour.

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The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Photo: Huffpost

You might wonder why a show centred around people fighting each other would incorporate song and dance and tomfoolery. Well, while wrestling is now a billion-dollar industry, it actually began in side shows, carnivals, and vaudeville theatres. Wrestling is not just fighting dressed up with spandex and costumes but a form of performance art in its own right. Characters are larger than life, with designated “faces” (the heroes who garner our sympathy) and “heels” (the villains we love to hate) as well as storylines taking place inside and outside the ring to drive conflict. But while the wrestling is for show, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s true that the outcomes are fixed and the moves are rehearsed. But the athleticism is real. It takes immense strength and ability to make wrestling look real, limit injuries, and throw your body around over and over, night after night.

The magic of GLOW is that it understands that wrestling is more than just play-acting fights. It’s also just plain fun. The real heart of wrestling, as GLOW proves, is its capacity for humour and creative storytelling. Although GLOW starts with a focus on Alison Brie’s Ruth Wilder, it quickly turns into an ensemble piece, showcasing a diverse cast of brilliant and funny women. And that’s what GLOW, both the original wrestling show and the Netflix show it inspired, is really about: a bunch of women empowering themselves and each other through wrestling.

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The cast of GLOW (Netflix). Photo: Deadline

In the penultimate episode of GLOW’s first season, the ladies attend a fancy gala, pretending to be recovering drug addicts in order to raise funds for their strange and struggling wrestling show. One by one, they make a show of speechifying to the rich crowd. But when it’s Ruth’s turn to take the stage, she breaks through to something real, admitting to a room full of strangers that she’s made mistakes, big ones, including sleeping with her best friend’s husband.

But then I found wrestling. And it saved me. Coming to the gym every day and seeing these women struggle to use their bodies and learn something new and . . . we did. And it’s a better feeling than drugs.

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Ruth (Alison Brie) describes the power of wrestling. Photo: Netflix

Like the best art, wrestling has the capacity to save. Not in the way a doctor might save a patient, but in the way that only art can—by showing us that we are not alone. GLOW is a TV show that embodies the spirit of pro wrestling. It has comedy and drama and characters you want to root for. And, of course, gorgeous ladies who come together, learn something new, and struggle to use their bodies in ways no one expected of them.

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

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From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

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Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

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Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

I Hope It’s a Funny Depression

As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question.  Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?

I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?

There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?

Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

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Gretchen (Aya Cash) day drinks, lashes out, and eventually opens up about being depressed in You’re the Worst. Photo: IMDb

You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.

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Mental illness is nuanced and requires equally nuanced representation (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Photo: Giphy

So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.

The Pain of Nostalgia

Nostalgia hurts us. Reliving past joys causes us pain, but why? And why does this nostalgia translate to media we enjoyed at a different time in our lives?

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you ever felt inclined to revel in the past but found that it just hurt too much?

Last night, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV and I felt instinctively drawn to it. Why? Because The Wizard of Oz was my favourite film as a kid, from when I was about three or four. It’ll always have very strong sentimental value and I’ll always feel quite attached to it. It’s also an excellent film for its time, a cinematic masterpiece that makes a big impact even now.

But when I tried to watch the film yesterday (admittedly after a very long and trying day), I almost physically couldn’t handle it. Instantly, I found myself on the verge of tears, regardless of what was happening in the story at any given time. (For the record, it was the part in which the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) infiltrate the witch’s fortress trying to rescue Dorothy (Judy Garland). Dorothy was calling for her Auntie Em in the crystal ball as the hourglass trickled down, and I was done for.) I felt that familiar clenching in my chest that strikes when I feel intense nostalgia (or interestingly, when I feel anxious). But this pain seems the most potent when I’m thinking about good days gone by, and how far removed I am from them now.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939). Photo: Flickr

My childhood is a safe haven which in times of difficulty I sometimes crave. While I won’t be short-sighted enough to assume this is the case for everyone, I want to examine nostalgia as a common element of the human experience, whether it’s for one’s childhood or a different time in one’s life.

Why couldn’t I watch the film without experiencing physical and emotional pain? Because nostalgia is so powerful that we feel victim to it, and any past emotions we felt are felt again – this time accompanied by loss. We’re not in that moment anymore and we can never be again. We’ve learned in The Great Gatsby (1925) that “you can’t repeat the past”, and trying to recreate it can cause intense suffering. But nostalgia gives us so much deeply rooted longing that we’re often gripped by it unexpectedly.

One of my favourite TV series, Mad Men, uses the concept of nostalgia to great advantage in the final episode of its first season. When Don Draper makes an advertising pitch for the newly patented Kodak carousel slide projector, he delivers a presentation so moving that one of his colleagues runs from the room in tears.

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Mad Men 1.13, “The Wheel” (2007)

Knowing that nostalgia is supposed to hurt may not mitigate our tumultuous experience, but it can offer some shared comfort as we all navigate the inevitable passage of time.

The question is, do we choose to brave the pain and relive our wonderful memories, or do we stuff them away to avoid the emotional turmoil? The second option is arguably worse for emotional health in the long run – though it’s admittedly hard to look back on a golden age from a new and learned perspective.

But then again, aren’t our good memories worth it?

At the Movies, Music is the New Sports

The recent proliferation of superhero movies leaves us with specific associations regarding blockbusters. Sports films had their heyday in the 1990s, but does the imminent release of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman signal a resurgence of music biopics?

By Serena Ypelaar

Is there a sports team that everybody likes? No way.

Are there bands/musicians that (nearly) everybody likes? I think so!

Why am I asking these questions? Mainly to posit a recent theory of mine that music biopics are the future of the film industry. The upcoming release of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), in which Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen, and Rocketman (2019), starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, got me thinking about the marketability of popular cinema genres these days.

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Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Photo: YouTube

Ever since the Harry Potter films were finished (which in my completely unbiased opinion set the standard for franchise/adaptation blockbusters), I’ve felt like there haven’t been as many blockbusters that don’t wear thin. The creative industry of Hollywood seems increasingly stale with its endless superhero reboots. I feel sorry for the dead horse that is the Marvel franchise – it’s taken so many beatings over the last few years (Infinity War is aptly named). Just when you think nobody wants another superhero flick, people still flock to the theatres without fail.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Marvel keeps making the movies because people keep watching. Movies are creative, but they also have to sell, which is where formulas come in. With the ever-pressing need to make more high-grossing films, it looks like we might be in for an oncoming surge in music biopics.

Why do I think music flicks are so universally marketable compared to, say, sports? Well, for starters, I know from experience that sports are highly emotional, and at times, controversial.

  1. Not everyone likes sports. Nearly everyone likes music of some kind (correct me if I’m wrong).
  2. Of those who do like sports, they have a team/athlete they love, and teams/athletes they HATE. Just look around during the World Cup or the NHL – people are at each other’s throats over sports teams.
  3. The competitive nature of sports (win/draw/lose) is much different than the non-discrete, creative nature of music – it’s possible to like many genres without needing to “beat” others (award shows aside).
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Sports disagreements can loom large; there’s a deep sense of loyalty to one’s team that doesn’t hold as much emotional tension in music preferences. Unless you are Nickelback. Photo: Gifer

Maybe my evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a certain type of community that comes from music. There are songs that seem exempt from hatred, and it’s this phenomenon that I think makes music flicks much more viable than sport flicks. Not that there can’t be good sport films, but in terms of mass marketing, making a film about a timeless and popular band has a higher chance of box office success than a movie about a given sport, team, or athlete who has a smaller group of fans.

For instance: one of the most timeless songs of the twenty-first century so far is The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”. I’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in my generation who couldn’t/wouldn’t belt out the lyrics at a moment’s notice (COMIN’ OUT OF MY CAGE AND I’VE BEEN DOING JUST FINE) upon hearing the opening chords. I wholeheartedly expect a Killers biopic in thirty years’ time titled Mr. Brightside, because what better way to bring in the masses than by using a tune that’s instantly recognizable and which personifies the band itself?

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Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis… Photo: WeHeartIt

It certainly seems to be the strategy that the teams behind Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have employed. Based on the widespread popularity of both these musical acts, I almost wonder if the storyline even needs to be stellar, as long as the cast puts on a good show musically (just ask Mamma Mia!). The film industry is under pressure to deliver some fresh takes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t draw upon timeless old classics in a new light. After all, classics are guaranteed popularity.

Perhaps, based on the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, music flicks will take off – I certainly wouldn’t mind. May they pack a more satisfying punch than the exhausted superheroes can muster.

“I could do that. Even a BABY could do that!”

Seeing art that you feel you could have made can be a disorienting experience. The way art is critically acclaimed can be unfathomable to those of us who aren’t well-versed in art valuation and criticism.

By Serena Ypelaar

What makes art art?

Who gets to decide?

I’m sure many of us have experienced that moment in an art gallery when we are so bemused by a piece of art that we react as skeptically as the title of this blog post: I could do that. To which our inner voice might reply: But you didn’t. 

How much of art’s success lies in talent? Timing? Luck?

Does public appreciation elevate our work, or diminish it? Some artists would kill to be recognized in prominent art galleries worldwide, while others might be more commercially motivated and hope to make a living on their art. Still others might be repulsed by the notion that everyday people might appreciate their creations en masse outside of a venerated space like an art gallery.

When I was in London this past May, I had the privilege of seeing a play about one such artist, Mark Rothko.

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Alfred Molina, left, and Alfred Enoch, right, star in Red at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. Photo: Evening Standard

The play, Red, stars Alfred Molina (of Indiana Jones and Spiderman 2 fame, among more “artistic” films) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films; How to Get Away with Murder). Molina plays Rothko, the American painter who was known for his large red abstract paintings. Enoch plays his assistant, Ken, who, in contrast to his counterpart, praises the emergence of pop art from artists such as Andy Warhol.

Rothko rose to prominence during the abstract expressionism movement in the 1950s and 60s. Set in the twilight of this era, Red follows Rothko’s internal conflict after agreeing to paint commissioned works to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant, placing his art in a setting that he ultimately feels is pretentious and inappropriate. He must therefore choose between commercial success and his artistic ideals, causing tension in his understanding of his identity as an artist.

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Molina as Rothko and Enoch as Ken. Photo: The Telegraph

The 90-minute play raises an excellent dialogue on what constitutes art, what kind of recognition art merits, and who gets to truly define how we consume art.

This is where Alfie Enoch’s character shines – he starts as an unassuming apprentice, but by the middle of the play he’s firing off rebuttals against Rothko’s resistance to mainstream consumption of art.

Regardless of what you think about where art belongs, Red emphasizes the disparity from person to person. I might think that the pinnacle of artistic success is landing a coveted place in the halls of the Louvre, for instance, but someone else might think it a truer success to see their work all over town, enjoyed by more people and more frequently (like Banksy, for instance). There are unspoken hierarchies and beliefs about modern street art vs. the timelessness of being validated by art institutions.

And what makes art good, anyway? We’ve tossed around this idea for decades; centuries, even. Molina and Enoch discuss the issue too, but their characters’ disagreements in the play prove to us that the answer is difficult: I love classical art, particularly realism and/or landscapes, others love abstract art, others may not “get” contemporary art or consider it art at all, and so on.

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Outside Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

In an effort to avert conflict, I’m tempted to say we should all just get along and like what we like, but it’s not as simple as that. The fact is that artworks’ supposed value (both from an artistic and commercial standpoint) has a very real bearing on institutions’ collections policies. Galleries have to decide what’s worth collecting, and curators base their acquisitions on research, market value, context, and more.

I don’t really specialize in that area of museum work, but I do know from my degree that an institution’s collections, and its acquisition decisions, deliberately reflect its collecting practice. Consider that the next time you think, I could do this – but don’t stop thinking that. The decision is yours to make. Whether or not you consider a work a piece of “art”, the fact that you decided by looking at the art and using your own critical perception is comfort enough for me.

“Canadian” is not a genre

As we near Canada Day, we question Canadian content standards and come up with some top playlist picks for the long weekend.

By Serena Ypelaar

I didn’t come up with the title for this post myself – it’s a slogan coined by Dine Alone Records, the Canadian independent record label based here in Toronto.

We can take some pointers from its message, as Canadian art is often dismissed – from literature, to visual arts, to music, and more. It’d be interesting to see what percentage of music in our libraries is Canadian – I’d wager most Canadians have 15% or less. But the fact is that there is so much Canadian music out there – and it’s good. 

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Canadian Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo: Flickr

What is it about being Canadian that automatically garners less attention? We even have poorer-quality versions of American reality TV shows, and a terrible Netflix selection compared to our southern neighbours to show for it.

In our current political climate, feat. a tariff war with the United States (which, let’s be honest, flares up every so often like a chronic wound), why not support Canadian musicians and invest in some local talent?

Here are some concise, but by no means comprehensive, top picks for quintessential Canadian listening. Enjoy my quick recs below.

A Tribe Called Red: Essential Indigenous electronic/hip-hop; mandatory listening. Songs to Start With: “R.E.D.,” “How I Feel”, “Bread & Cheese”

Billy Talent: Political commentary & punk rock all in one. Crisp guitars; crisper lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Try Honesty”, “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, “White Sparrows”

July Talk: Jarring juxtaposition of vocals – guttural/masculine vs. soft/feminine. Songs to Start With: “Headsick”, “Blood + Honey”, “Picturing Love”

Alexisonfire: “The sound of two Catholic high-school girls mid-knife-fight”.* Songs to Start With: “Boiled Frogs”, “Get Fighted”, “Midnight Regulations”

*I can’t describe it any better than they already have…

City and Colour: Mournful lamentations nursed by Dallas Green’s voice. Songs to Start With: “Casey’s Song”, “Waiting…”, “The Lonely Life”

Arkells: Anthemic, buoyant daytime rock with a touch of motown. Songs to Start With: “Where U Goin”, “Cynical Bastards”, “John Lennon”

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Mike DeAngelis and Max Kerman of Hamilton band Arkells, at WayHome Music and Arts Festival 2016. Photo: Flickr

Death From Above: Industrious duo at the junction of bass & drums. Songs to Start With: “All I C is U and Me”, “Crystal Ball”, “Romantic Rights”

Tanya Tagaq: Daring, innovative, and traditional Inuit throat-singing. Songs to Start With: “Uja”, “Sila”, “Retribution”

Mother Mother: Three-layered high-pitched vocals on a base of synth and strings. Songs to Start With: “Ghosting”, “The Stand”, “Infinitesimal”

Sum 41: Sprawling spitfire of classic punk rock with heavyweight choruses. Songs to Start With: “Still Waiting”, “Open Your Eyes”, “With Me”

USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker): Lucid, lively electronica fuelled by lyrical emotion. Songs to Start With: “Damini”, “Vulcan”, “Freakquency”

Arcade Fire: A convergence of 6+ hipsters producing indie rock with accordion and keyboard at the fore. Songs to Start With: “Ready to Start”, “The Suburbs”, “No Cars Go”

Monster Truck: 70s style blues rock backed by organs. Long hair & denim required.   Songs to Start With: “Don’t Tell Me How to Live”, “Old Train”, “For the People”

Hollerado: Personable indie rock with a genuine sound and hard-hitting beats. Songs to Start With: “Too Much to Handle”, “So It Goes”, “Got to Lose”

Drake: No description needed for Toronto’s resident rapper… Songs to Start With: “Passionfruit”, “Over”, “God’s Plan”

Our Lady Peace: Low, crooning vocals replete with reassuring lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Innocent”, “All You Did Was Save My Life”, “Angels/Losing/Sleep”

Avril Lavigne: Do I even need to explain this? Songs to Start With: “Complicated”, “Sk8er Boi”, “I’m With You”

Cancer Bats: Gritty underground metal; shredding, cymbal-smashing oblivion. Songs to Start With: “Hail Destroyer”, “Beelzebub”, “Gatekeeper”

Three Days Grace: Bass-heavy garage-rock with brutally honest insights. Songs to Start With: “Just Like You”, “Never Too Late”, “Last to Know”

Sam Roberts Band: Even-paced alternative rock with laid-back guitars. Songs to Start With: “Brother Down”, “Them Kids”, “If You Want It”

Half Moon Run: Serene assertions on the human condition, featuring folksy acoustics. Songs to Start With: “Nerve”, “Trust”, “Narrow Margins”

Wintersleep: Guitars, synth, and experimental riffs with a sprightly rhythm. Songs to Start With: “Lifting Cure”, “Metropolis”, “Santa Fe”

alanis
Alanis Morissette. Photo: Wikimedia

Of course, there are also the Canadian classics, which you might consider revisiting for the long weekend. I’ve created a track-by-track vignette of essential Canadiana:

  • Rush – “YYZ”
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Working for the Government”
  • Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69”
  • The Guess Who – “American Woman”
  • Gordon Lightfoot – “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”
  • Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”
  • Alanis Morissette – “Thank U”
  • Sarah McLachlan – “Building A Mystery”
  • Great Big Sea – “The Chemical Worker’s Song”
  • Neil Young – “Heart of Gold”
  • Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”
  • Leonard Cohen – “Treaty”
  • k.d. lang – “Constant Craving”
  • Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Canada Dry”
  • The Tragically Hip – “Bobcaygeon”

Obviously I omitted a bunch of bands/artists, mainly because I don’t listen to them enough to consider myself worthy of making thoughtful recommendations. Other Canadian artists are included below.

Shad, Lights, The Dirty Nil, Anne Murray, The Jerry Cans, Shawn Mendes, Sloan, Tegan and Sara, Michael Buble, Metric, Simple Plan, Young Empires, Joni Mitchell, Nelly Furtado, Bruce Cockburn, Jann Arden, The Trews, Corey Hart, Alessia Cara, Ron Sexsmith, Diana Krall, Stan Rogers, BROS, Feist, The Beaches, Moneen, The Darcys, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Said the Whale, Constantines, Marianas Trench, Silverstein, Broken Social Scene, Big Wreck, Nickelback, PUP, Dear Rouge, Blue Rodeo, Hedley, Fucked Up, Toronto, Great Lake Swimmers, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Teenage Head, Down With Webster, Thousand Foot Krutch, Matt Good Band, The Tea Party, The Sheepdogs, Hey Rosetta!, The Elwins, IllScarlett, Prism, I Mother Earth, Black Lungs, Chromeo, Japandroids, Whitehorse, Protest the Hero, The New Pornographers, Joel Plaskett, Northern Voice, Serena Ryder, Lost Cousins, Moist, Neverending White Lights, Platinum Blonde, Stabilo, Saint Asonia, Finger Eleven, Templar, Theory of a Deadman, Wolf Parade, Yukon Blonde, Born Ruffians, Black Bear.

Over the years, so much of Canadian identity has been built on what we’re not (namely, American). Let’s talk about what we are, for a change. It’s something Canadian music does well, if we only listen.