Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Esthetic Masturbation: Our Era of Airhead Art

Damien Hirst is back—with a new masturbpiece. A platinum copy of a human skull (“research” suggests it derived from a thirty year old Victorian Englishman) “adorned” so to speak with 8,601 perfect diamonds, one a 52.5 carat gasper! The Bond Street jewelers, Bentley and Skinner, suppliers of diamonds to royalty since Queen Victoria’s Day say these roiling stones alone cost 12 million pounds, overall price 50 millions. It’s said to be the biggest diamond commission since the crown jewels and contained three times as many diamonds as the imperial state crown. For the love of God, what is dear Damien driving at with such largesse.

Couldn’t be that each following stunt raises the attention minimum. Hirst’s business manager, Frank Dunphy, frets that they’re letting it go too cheap. (Hirst promises no further editions.) “For the Love of God” turned out nice, Damien believes. He had been worried that it might have brought to mind an Ali G ring.( Is that the way they really do things in Kazakstan?) Alas, a photographer who had just been banned from shooting the masturbpiece, was heard to exclaim, “It’s a disco ball, innit? A 50 million pound disco ball.” (Maev Kennedy, “Diamonds are a skull’s best friend,” The Guardian, 2 June 2007.)

The masturbpiece is displayed, or deployed, in a pitch black room with narrow spotlight beams focussed on the dazzling gems. A five minute gawk for timed groups of ten is allowed, ten minutes for an interview with the artist. Previewers tended to stumble over each other! Ms. Kennedy speculates that might come from the thousands of flies clotted on a Hirst canvas hanging opposite the elevator. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, was allowed an untimed preview visit, and though he has no dough for it, he aspires to borrow it some day. The rest of Hirst’s exhibition--more cows, more fish, more butterflies, plus a formaldehyded shark, sliced lengthways this time--was no distraction.

Finally, the Artist seemed delighted by his Creation. He has the original skull back on his mantel, with gold copies of the almost perfect teeth (only one missing!). “To me,” he concludes, "it seems gentle, quite soft. I would hope that anyone looking at it would get a bit of hope, and be uplifted. We need to line the world with beautiful things that give you hope.” Heh, he’s no numbed skull, this philanthropic show off.

Meanwhile, back in Philly, at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, masturbation continues apace. Karen Kilimnik has finally achieved the retrospective that her strange, still difficult achievement deserves, “Karen Kilimnik: Finding meaning in scatteredness,” International Herald Tribune, 1 June 2007.) "For one thing, her show. . . is appropriately strange itself, beginning with a barren, seemingly empty, party’s-over gallery. It goes deep into her woman-child imagination, touching an all too American sense of emptiness. It also makes her efforts at installation art, which encompass materials as various as glitter, fake snow and blood, stuffed animals, ballet shoes and piles of party drugs, feel of a piece with her painting, photography, video and drawing.” Ah yes, the newest genre: yard sale art. Deep, deep.

“The show tours a scrapbook’s worth of the heroes, stars, victims and star-victims—both real and imagined, and from stage, screen, fashion magazine and tabloid—that are Kilimnik’s obsessions (and often ours too.)” Heh, speak for yourself Ms. Smith, not for your readers, or even the current befuddled generation. Why is it that today’s art criticism trying to grapple with metaphysical emptiness sounds like a failed term paper in epistemology. Smith praises ICA as “among the most adventuresome showcases in the country where art since 1970 is concerned.” “It chooses its subject well, keeps things accessible through the judicious use of well-written labels and brochures, and takes risks that prove that the curatorial discipline is alive and kicking.” But not necessarily thinking!

Smith describes Ms. Kilimnik as a 50 year old Philadelphian who has “made an international name for herself in the early 1990s with seemingly random accumulations of cheap objects and materials that functioned a bit like three-dimensional rebuses. Alternately girlish and demonic, they merged popular culture, personal fantasy, history and current, often violent events and fell under the heading of scatter art, a phenomenon whose definition and membership remains a bit blurred.” Ahem! (To my skeptical eye, completely out of focus!)

“Starting in the late 1980s, scatter art was a proving ground where early 1980s appropriation art was given a new life by infusions from early 70s Process Art. Its basic strategy of accumulations of separate images and objects—a kind of assemblage or collage, minus the glue—has had a pervasive influence on the art of the last fifteen years.” God help us. Let’s appropriate some abstract inexpressivist rhetoric and call it Scatterbrainless Art. “Kilimnik’s work offers a kind of lexicon of appropriations techniques.” With emphasis on the con, not the lexi. Smith allows that KK’S scatter pieces “can seem laughably slight on first glance, resembling failed attempts at store window dressing, make-believe,homemade stage sets by a theater-crazed child or a teeange girl’s messy room.” Heh, more masturbpieces. “Scatteredness is her art’s subject, its strength and also its weakness.”

“In its daring opening gambit the Kilimnik show telegraphs the destabilizing nature of her early work with what might be considered a curatorial scatter piece. The first empty-seeming gallery is daunting, double-height and a trifle dark.” And on and on. I’d rather go fishing than translate this gibberish. And I hate fishing.

Meanwhile, one more monitor of this nonsense is lost. Professor James Beck of Columbia University died last month. Here was a mensch. He attracted international attention for his savage criticism of so-called conservation projects, being especially critical of Nippon TV’s sponsorship of “cleaning” Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceilings. And Beck was especially upset by “scholars” who up-attributed minor paintings so they would sell for more. It was the crude beginning of the Art stock market that now disfigures the traditions of humanist art. The auction houses lead cheering fests every time some overcompensated globalization boobie raises the prices of our genuine masterpieces, not to mention more and more masturbpieces.

As Michael Savage put it in his Guardian obit (2 June 2007): “Beck’s writing calls to account the cozy relationship between art experts and the art market in “upgrading” minor works to the status of masterpieces. In doing so, he reveals the secrets of his trade; it is based not on magical intuition, but diligence. Careful scholarship, close observation, exact description this book is an inspiring object in the art-historical discipline.” Beck was unwavering in his defense of the artist: "The life works of an artist, his ouevre, should not be dependent upon the manipulation of tale spinners, academic snobs, museum fundraisers and public relations operatives.”

In calling attention to the current design exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt in Manhattan, Alice Rawsthorn deplores a world art establishment in which the designers work for only ten percent of the world’s population, leaving the other ninety percent in the purgatory of poverty and disease. We badly need a cadre of Jeffrey Sachs art critics who mock the venality and foolishness of current art institutions in the so-called developed countries. The spiritual emptiness of its medians is depressing, Damien. And you’re one of the greatest malefactors. And Karen Kilimnik would like to be. Let’s just hope for more James Becks, to restore sanity to the essential enterprise of artistic expression and enjoyment.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Leaping Leipzig

Leipzig took some of the meanest strokes of the late unlamented German Democratic Republic. The Marxist Morons tore down the most important church on the Main Square. (Leipzig also lost its pre-eminence as the Book Capital of Germany to Frankfurt, and is only slowly regaining that status.) Those politicized Christians got even eventually by unleashing candle-carrying faithful from the Nicolaikirche on Monday evenings. You could even argue that it was morally disgusted Leipzigers who pulled the central thread that ended up tearing down that wall in Berlin.

What a difference a decade can make when such people awaken. (My guidelines derive from a romance I started with a Leipzig architect at the opening of I.M. Pei’s Rock ’n Roll Museum in Cleveland in 1990!) Now every time I take the fast ICE train to Leipzig—an hour from my home in Weimar—I’m astonished at how thoroughly and quickly that city is shucking off its bad DDR habits. And so on yesterday’s foray I was more than ready—yeah, eager—to relish a triple ploy at the new Museum fur Bildenden Kunst, a five-minute sprint from the Main Train Station, itself incidentally still one of Europe’s grandest structures.

In the East Wing of the huge station, Die Zeit (the best weekly guide to all of Germany, especially including its weekly ads for museums) featured an annual photo show, F2. It’s a delicious re-run of the grand photos the paper runs every Thursday, to get you well prepared for the weekend. But I didn’t tarry long there, hurrying across the street to the Tourist Information Center to find out what all was going on and decide how long a day pass I wanted for public transportation.

After reading the daily Volkszeitung I had picked up while transferring to a fast train in Naumburg (famous worldwide for its Romanesque Cathedral), I decided to concentrate on the museum’s much-discussed Lovis Corinth retrospective. For 20 years I’ve been trying to remember that this German painter’s name wasn’t “Louis” but “Lovis,” so I was amused to discover that his name originally really was “Louis” until he gave it an artsy twist. Geesh! It was not the last goofy twist I was to find in his quirky, oddballish life.

The show is billed as “Lovis Corinth and the Birth of Modernity.” (It ends October 19, 2008). Corinth grew up Louis in Koenigsberg, 1858-80. Between 1880-86 he moved to Munich, Antwerp and Paris. Between 1887-91 he lived in Koenigsberg and Berlin. He settled into Berlin for a decade, 1900-11. In 1912 he suffered a heart attack that limited but didn’t end his artistic career. In 1919 he moved to the pastoral Walchensee near Berlin, where he died in 1925. There is a narrow range of themes, easily dominated by self-portrayals of Corinth at work as a painter. But the style begins in realism and ends in a cacophony of styles and media, ending with broad brushstrokes expressing a bold thick impasto.

A second dominant theme is a fiercely sadistic religious compulsion with, for example, close-up versions of Christianity, as in the actual nailing of Jesus to the cross, as well as a later close-up of a Roman centurion extracting the same nails. Grossly sexual allusions to the classics, viz., Bacchus and his couplings, complete Corinth’s narrow but powerful range of themes.

He is given to aphorisms. A still life of a wine bottle, for example, highlights these sentiments: “Eigentlich möchte ich je gern allein bei einer Flasche Rotwein sitzen und nur ein Bild durch den Kopf lassen.” I haven’t yet decided what is the significance of the grossness of the clambering men and women not seeming to enjoying their fucking. Somber human stilled lives.

If you don’t look carefully, you will suddenly find yourself in a suite of rooms styled in both a shaggy Jugendstil (and a slightly better Art Deco) and dedicated to Adolescent Sexist fantasies by a Hugh Hefner feel-alike named Günter Sachs. No Sachs appeal for this viewer. A film combo of jets, water skis and other not-yet-grownup manly obsessions, plus installations that stall comprehension concluded by canvases with pretensions to depth that I skimmed over brutally. Yuck.

I blame the Star Artists of the Bauhaus for that wrong turn off the Autobahn of Classic Paintings called Freie Kunst. Free to be foolish, as it turns out with that “lady” (who shall remain Numbless) whose Turner Prize installation was the disheveled bed where she had just been fucked— complete with her used condom! Daring? Just plain dumb. Original? Like a new variation of AIDS. Pleasure? Assthetic, perhaps, but fleeting (like a quick fuck). How can we get these wandering esthetic Brats back on the Autobahn of true genius and innovation? No Idea. Staus (traffic jams) on the Turnpike of Life.

Museums, like life, are full of mysteries. But I found no mystery in the open face of a sweet teenybopper guard. It was her first day on the job, and I the first questioner who broke the hymen of her new career. May all such interrogators be as sweet as I tried to be when I sensed her beginning jitters.

I’m not sure about the hugeness of the main room, where a gigantic David was so towering that one can’t even imagine room enough for a testy Goliath. And the waitress in the museum’s café could learn some manor manners from that young Azubi guard on her first day on the job! There’s a lot more there than Corinth and Sachs.

But I had to hurry on to that DDR History Museum, where each visit lessens my incomprehension of my wife’s East German refusal to stand up to authority when abused. This visit it was the scandal of an East German secret agent kidnapping a baby and the ultimate happy ending of her repatriation, so to speak.

Back to the Main Train Station, and a sleepy Regional Bahn ride home. (It’s cheaper!) Leaping Leipzig, emerging from the DDR Muck. It is grand to see a rebirth of freedom.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Peanuts Envy

Sometimes it is a pleasure to remember a real flop in one’s life. Once I had a mad May/December crush on the young woman who played Patty in our college production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown!” (Some colleagues tut-tutted my calendric understatement by suggesting it was really more like a January/December romance.) After her graduation, she lived briefly with me in my large, recently emptied, divorced house. In 1975 I took up the offer of my former prize Annenberg student, John Bigby, to become the Andreini Fellow in his Media Department for 1975-76 at Santa Rosa Community College.

One of the first efforts I made to justify my free wheeling sinecure was to call Santa Rosa resident Mr. Snoopy himself to see if he would come to my Media class to help me inaugurate a Peanuts video series. To my astonishment, he asked me in a most unfriendly way where I got the videos and was I paying royalties on the showings.

After I recovered from my dumbstruck silence, I explained they were in the files of the Media Department and I considered it “fair use” to use them as documents in my course on contemporary media. Only later did I understand his distemper. First he abhorred to his dying day the Universal Syndicate’s renaming his strip “L’il Folks” as “Peanuts”! Secondly he had been ripped off in his early free lancing days as a hard scrabble cartoonist by another press syndicate which he felt had really ripped him off.

To this ultra-sensitivity in a folksy cartoonist I suppressed my Peanuts Envy until I read in the Sonoma News Herald that Schulz was premiering a followup musical called “Snoopy!” just before Christmas in San Francisco. Ah, Youth! And adjacent senility. I called “Patty” in Philly and urged her to come out for the premiere which I would be reviewing for my weekly radio interview show, “Museroom West,” on KALW-FM, the public radio channel for the San Francisco Unified School District.

I had already Fed Expressed an early Christmas present in the form of a dazzling wraparound skirt designed by a Bay area artist. She complied and the afternoon of the premiere I found myself flying from Santa Rosa dinky airport to San Francisco International—to meet “Patty” flying in on United. Wrapped, it benignly turned out in that wrap around skirt set off gloriously by a black cashmere sweater and her blonde hair. My knees were weak from joy—not osteoporosis!

The musical was a funky romp, and the after party at the most famous nightclub in SF was an interviewer’s dream. Even Mr. Schulz was friendly after our Nordic interview in September. I decided to push my luck (and consolidate our former relationship) by taking her to my favorite watering hole in SF, the Top of the Mark. I ranted on about my newly discovered architect genius, Timothy Pflueger, who had saved a depression era five star hotel, the Mark Hopkins, from banktuptcy by designing the Top. I figured the panoramic views would reignite the coldest heart. “Patty” was suddenly very silent. She was on the verge of tears, my first such lachcrymalic experience in my favorite pit stop.

“I want to go home!” she wailed between gusts of tears. I had booked a place for us to stay in the Mark Twain hotel, symbolic of our former literary past! This final ploy only accentuated our mutual discomfort as I tried like a brother to get her an early return ticket in the midst of a airline strike! I did, as I consoled her through a chaste night that was to have been our renewal. It is crude I know to think of such a catastrophe in fiscal terms, but it did set me back almost $800 once I put her on the limo back to SFO.

Alas, “Patty” was to miss the piece de resistance of our now twice blighted romance—the John Beecher welcome back to SF at the downtown Unitarian Church, a few painful steps from the abandoned Mark Twain. Beecher is the most neglected poet of our generation, because his politics and skeptical beliefs belie the fatuous covert Episcopalianism that corrupted the study of literature in the New Criticism. His disaffection began in the 1920’s where as a Cornell English major he spent his summers working for tuition money in the U S Steel works near Birmingham, AL where, as it happened, his father was the plant manager.

His first book of poems was entitled “Report to the Stockholders” in which he chided the management for their inhumane work policies. Eventually, Beecher became a professor at San Francisco State University where he refused to sign a loyalty oath (“designed in Sacramento,” Beecher sneered, “by a used car salesman”. He lost his job. But two decades later the Supreme Court took his side in an appeal, and he returned to teaching at SF State.

The Sunday service was devoted to his description of his two decades of estrangement, dragging a oxygen tank behind him. The liturgy was by William Blake and Walt Whitman. Beecher’s theme: Believe in the Constitution, but look for work! He had spent most of his time down in Burnsville, N.C. where his wife Barbara nurtured him through some really tough times.

I found his poetry only through sheer serendipity. I was reviewing an exhibition of Southern painters at the Birmingham Museum of Art where the director happened to be the son of the longtime editor of the Atlantic Monthly. So our lunchtime palaver turned to my first career as a professor of American Literature. He allowed as how I ought to go out to Joe’s, a hippie hangout on the rim of Birmingham to talk with Joe about John Beecher.

I did. And that’s how I got my first copy of his Collected Poems (Macmillan, 1976). He was a black hole in the American canon because like another major lacuna, Scots poet, Hugh Macdiarmid; his poetry was too leftist. (I only learned about Hugh through Maurice Lindsay who was running the documentary department of Border TV. I was passing through because the U.S. Office of Education had sent me to find out why British commercial TV had livelier literature programs than American public broadcasting. Lindsay, a free lancer who later became the head of the Scottish Civic Trust, had made a fine half hour about Macdiarmid called “Rebel with a Cause”. The answer to the USOE was simple: put poets like Lindsay in Scotland or John Ormond in Wales in charge of production. Our typical PBSers came from college AudioVisual departments.)

It happened that Beecher’s gig at the Unitarian Church was on December 9. The next day, Emily Dickinson’s birthday, I had scheduled an open noon hour poetry reading at Santa Rosa JC in the Amherst recluse’s honor. After Beecher’s sermon I palavered with him about our imminent outing and asked him if he wanted to join us. He did. And he was a knockout to a group of students now proverbially hip about poetry. John Beecher remains a hero of mine, and one of the missing major figures in our literature.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Saving Relics

Holy Jesus! The Christian theologians of America have a suddenly sinking sensation—as James Cameron, the man who gave us “The Titanic”, promotes his new “Discovery Channel” documentary on ossuaries found at a Jerusalem construction site. He contends these two stone “coffins” contain the “human” remains of not only an unresurrected Jesus, but also his stand-in father, Joseph, his mother Mary, his wife Mary Magdelene, and their only begotten son.

You can’t get more contentious than that. O.K., no DNA. The names on the tombs are as common in Jerusalem of that era as Tom, Dick, and Harry were—before status happy American parents starting naming their offspringlings after movie stars. A statistician asserts that at best it’s still a 600 to 1 shot that they are the almost Holy Family and related add-ons. At worst, a zillion to one. But what is embarrassing—aside from the huffy puffy bombast of suddenly incredulous and sneerful theologians—are the astonishing details this fuss has flung up from the dustbins of Christian history.

Take Jesus’s foreskin. (Carefully.) Would it surprise you to learn that during the High Middle Ages no fewer than fourteen churches in Europe claimed to have this idiosyncratic one of a kind relic. (It did this ex-Altar Boy.) When one such “copy” was offered to Pope Innocent the III as a pious gift, he flinched and changed the subject. Indeed the whole range of relics were multiplying at so exponential a rate that the Council of Trent blew its theological whistle at what it called the relics of pagan superstitions and excoriated the scramble for filthy lucre this dingy business had generated.

In the wake of the foreskin as relics were Veronica’s Veil that wiped the suffering brow of Jesus during his Passion, the Holy Sponge with which he was offered vinegar and water, the Lance that pierced the heart of the Crucified Saviour, the Tears of Jesus during the Passion,the Holy Umbilical Cord, and (God Save Us!) Jesus’s Milk Teeth. Once you start collecting relics, there’s no stopping the imaginatively greedy. And the Council of Trent ukases didn’t keep King Henri V in 1421 from seeking out one edition of the foreskin from a church in Colombs to ensure that his wife, Catherine of Valois, would have a safe birth. (Heh, who would have thought that a foreskin could be a perk?) Custom has it to bury the aforesaid skin in the ultimate ossuary of the mother. (The word “relic” derives from the Latin verb, “relinquere”, to leave behind.)

It was such wholly foolishness that prompted Martin Luther to nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Erasmus of Rotterdam used wit as his weapon against this “miraculous” multiplication of fig leafs and fishy customs: he reckoned there were so many slivers of the Cross Christ was crucified on that he must have been hung by an entire forest. Saint Catherine of Siena claimed to have an orgasmic experience with her copy, and the 17th century Renaissance pundit Leo Allatius claimed that at least that part of the sacred member had ascended into Heaven--where it became the rings of Saturn. Medieval superstitions were burning out as vaudeville jokes.

Why fuss over such arcane trivia. Well, one recent reason is the sudden re-release of such Sacred Nonsense by Islam. Our Christian traditions grew out of similar absurdities, although the Dover PA hassle over intelligent design and evolution shows how close we remain to our pagan beginnings. Recidivism is the Original Sin. Islam kills people for violating the strictures of Sharia Law. A poor soul in Afghanistan was killed for converting to Christianity. During the Inquisition we burned people to death for esoteric unbeliefs.

Seculars must defend to the death the right of theologically hypersensitive people to believe whatever, as long as they don’t harm or kill people who disagree. Who would have thought before 9/11 that we’d be staying awake nights trying to figure out what to do over fatwahs. Heh, I studied Scholastic philosophy under the Jesuits, and still concede it stretched my brain. But in graduate school, logical positivism simply erased its credibility for me. Transubstantiation to me is doing philosophical back flips off the Low Board: dazzling but useless.

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount remain to counsel all, religiously orthodox and unbelievers alike. But it is helpful to study the “evolution” of superstitions enough be able to hold your own Council of Trent. Pagan traditions and peddling lucrative fantasies are unworthy of the brain God gave each of us, to use as we see fitting, i.e., freedom of the will.

Forethoughts not foreskins make a world more civilized. As my secular saint, Eugene Victor Debs once proclaimed as his motto in life: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.”

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Missing Max

As a Walter Gropius “expert”, I should know the Swiss architect/designer Max Bill (1908-94), and alleged inheritor of Gropius’ Bauhaus mantle, backwards and forward. But until as recently as yesterday, he remained a shadowy figure. I knew he was reputed to be significant, but I really didn’t know why. My fog began to lift a little about twenty years ago.

I had just gotten off the plane from Zurich where I had been wowed at their Design School by an exhibition of Robert Maillart’s thinly concrete Alpine bridges, such heavenly spaces that they seemed almost almost too ethereal-looking to risk driving on them. And he had started out making down to earth level bridges lumpishly heavy by contrast. Man, I wondered what epiphany had zoomed him up into his heavenly high risers. I’d been mulling this on the plane, reading the catalog. It had been such a transformation.

And so it happened by a miraculous coincidence that I was mulling that book on the train to Greenwich Village where I was scheduled to interview the perhaps most under-recognized architectural genius of our era, an Argentinian named Emilio Ambasz. He had attracted my attention by his work for ten years as the head of the architecture/design section of NY MOMA. He had circularized, for example, all the auto makers of the world about designing a better taxi. The head of GM mocked his overture with a snippy reply to the effect that GM sold 50,000 taxis last year, young man, and we don’t need your help, a sentiment Ambasz repeated verbatim in the catalog of the subsequent MOMA exhibition, which maneuver drove that GM prexy up a wall and into court. The judge threw out the complaint in minutes.

I had also learned that the head of MOMA’s executive committee, also the president of CBS-TV, warned Ambasz against alienating the business community with such tendentious appeals. Emilio responded by successfully teasing a $5,000 subsidy from Dr. Frank Stanton, then the so-called brains of CBS! I like that kind of steel in a humanist.

So there I was, riffling the catalog, next to the locked elevator to Ambasz’s office when a elegantly dressed young man suddenly appeared. I asked where to find Ambasz. “That’s me,” he coolly smiled as he held the elevator door for me to enter. Just to break the ice, I flashed the book at him. My God, did he unleash!

He told me that as an 18 year old boy in Resistancia, Argentina (where the indigenes had made their last unsuccessful defense against the “conquistadores”), he had found a book by Max Bill in a second hand bookstore that explained how he could be both an engineer and an architect. Reading Max had emboldened him to send an idiosyncratic school application to Princeton where America’s greatest expert on Maillart, Donald Billington, taught. That professor found Emilio’s bizarre application beguiling and admitted him sine die! A year later Billington posed a complex mathematical problem to the freshman student who promptly solved it, standing there. “Emilio,” Billington decided on the spot, "You are now in graduate school!”

So I knew I had to get deeper into Bill, but I just never did. This year, however, is the centennial of his birth, and MARTE up in Herford, Westfallen fielded a show last winter that stressed musical parallels. And the sculptural illustrations were miniature abstracts, totally unmoving. So I just assumed that as Philip C. Johnson had bloated the Gropius rep for his own devious reason, so Grope had hyped Max. Until last night, that is, when Mon Ami, Weimar’s art film house ran a new Swiss film on the entire career of Max, narrated with love and zest by his forty years younger widow.

MARTE had badly distorted his sculpture which is monumental. Only a trip in situ or a brilliant film can turn you on to these huge abstracts. There’s a literally explosive sequence where he’s blasting apart a cliff in Sardinia followed by the excruciatingly complex details of delivery of the raw stone by sea, followed by footage of the idiosyncratic tools he “deployed” (“used” just doesn’t get their complexity) to turn this rough Nature into astonishing shapes. Only a moving picture is up to the demands of “criticizing” this work. That’s a New one for me, film nut that I’ve been for over sixty years!

And I didn’t realize either that the Ulm school was originally financed by one million DM’s of Marshall Plan money. And it looked like our State Department closed it down because of Max’s disagreements on Apartheid as well as the Vietnam war. Max was always a loudmouthed leftie, from the Nazi era forwards. I’ve always been puzzled as well by Gropius’s peculiar reply to the students who begged him to stop the school’s closing. He told them there’s no connection between art and politics!

Both Mies and Gropius were miles behind Max in political courage. They were just shy of being de facto Nice Nazi’s. Max is the heroic man in 20th century design. It’s high time the reporters and scholars caught up with him. His widow may even do it on her own. She makes a superb impression in this film. For details on renting or buying a dvd (19.99 Euros), click.

Friday, 26 December 2008

More Lessons from the Bauhaus

In the ten years I’ve been studying the history of the German Bauhaus, the legendary Weimar arts school that opened in 1919, one overwhelming trend has prevailed. A new generation of female scholars has buried the Bauhaus patriarchy for good and always. It had it coming. Walter Gropius early on announced a ukase that there would be a 30% quota on female applications. (He feared they would overwhelm the student body, their leisure time enrollments at art schools looming large.)

And the women suffered a Beruf Verbot as well— they couldn’t enter the allegedly prime architecture course. They were shunted off into woman-friendly occupations such as weaving! (A supreme paradox here is slowly emerging: As the architectural reputation of the Bauhaus proper sinks inexorably in the West, the international stature of women weavers like Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers rises dramatically.)

Not that the architectural exclusion mattered in point of fact: Such a highly discussed curriculum didn’t actually exist until Gropius quit in a huff of frustration in 1928 and the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer took over as director. His frustration stemmed largely from his fear that Herbert Bayer was messing with his wife Ilse and because a local newspaper editor was harassing him "for double dipping" a second salary as adviser to the "ideal Suburb Törten, to my eye the ugliest on Earth."

There were other instances of patriarchal distortions. Upon my arrival in Germany in 1999, I asked the Bauhaus Berlin Archive director Dr. Peter Hahn why there had been no exhibition of so creative a Bauhausler as Marianne Brandt (1893-1983) while minor figures like Herbert Bayer were given full-scale retrospectives. Hahn took me over to a library file cabinet and showed me his collection of Brandt photos. I asked when he had exhibited them. Not yet, but patrons could buy them for several hundred dollars!

Hahn could have told me (if he knew) that Dr. Anne-Katrin Weise had recently written a thesis on Brandt at Humboldt University in 1991 as well as her Habilitation in 1995! And that Weise had been agitating for an exhibition in Brandt’s hometown of Chemnitz (aka Karl-Marx-Stadt during the East German regime) to no avail. Dr. Ingrid Mössinger, the very creative head of that city’s art collection, has such aspirations— so we can be sure such an exhibition will ultimately come to pass, however shamefully delayed, more than 40 years after Brandt’s death.

Her brilliant career was cut brutally short twice—once by the Nazis and then by the DDR. To the former, Brandt was “decadent.” To the latter, too Formalist! And, admittedly, that city’s excellent Industry Museum has started a biennial design competition in Marianne’s name for artists under 40.

But it wasn’t until the Swiss Miss, Dr. Anne-Marie Jaeggi, succeeded Dr. Hahn that Brandt got an exhibition— not of her canonical metal works (still in mass production after 50 years by the Italian design factory Alessi), but of those filed photo collages Hahn had shown me as evidence of the archive’s awareness of Brandt’s importance. Jaeggi is one of the most productive of this new cadre of female Bauhaus scholars, with solid books on Gropius’s “hidden” designer, Adolf Meyer, as well as a study of Gropius’s first factory, the Fagus shoelast plant in Alfred am Leine in North Rhine Westphalia.

But Jaeggi is not alone: Two new Ph.D.s published a catalog for a Dessau exhibition on neglected Bauhaus women architects. Neglected? They were virtually unknown until retrieved by these woman scholars. The Finnish photography curator at the Folkwang Museum/Essen set an admirable example in 1995 for the Dessau show when she organized an exhibition on German women photographers in the 1920s. She showed how the invention of the Leica 35 mm camera made the emerging profession of news photographer accessible to women with cash enough for a Leica and heart enough to crash another male precinct. Many had both. (My count was 53 retrieved photographic careers.)

Anja Baumhoff has written the standard book-length study of gender discrimination at the Bauhaus. And most recently, Kathleen James-Chakraborty has put Bauhaus Modernism in perspective with German Architecture for a Mass Audience (Routledge, 2000)—showing how structures like Max Berg’s stunningly Modernist Centennial Hall (1910-13) in Breslau antedate glib Bauhaus claims for architectural innovation. Her fresh perspective perceives such large audience structures as indispensable new media for broadening working class access to political participation. Dr. Chakraborty, just become professor of architectural history at University College, Dublin, has also edited an indispensable volume of essays, Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War (University of Minnesota, 2006). Most of those essayists are female.

But pride of first place must surely be reserved for that ur-feminist, Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders, the belated follower of that tough-minded 12th-Century nun, Hildegard von Bingen. Lüders was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in politics in Berlin (1910). She directed women’s work (and related child care) during World War I, and was elected to the Weimar Parliament, with two Nazi incarcerations for mouthing off (her inspiring autobiography is entitled Never Fear!). After World War II, Lüders helped West Berlin get up and running again politically. And Otto be praised, the speedily diminishing German patriarchate (the days of Kinder, Küche and Kirche are mercifully almost over!) belatedly honored her in 2005 by dedicating the new Bundestag Library on the Spree as the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders House.

But I am not concerned here with delayed honors, but with prescient architectural criticism. In 1927 Mies van der Rohe made his first effort at achieving international stature by assembling a cadre of 17 European architects for “his” Weissenhof Siedlung. Dr. ”Never Fear!” Lüders had the temerity to immediately criticize Mies’s apartments in the Deutsche Werkbund quarterly, Form (1927), from the point of view of a woman and mother.

Alas, she pointed out, Mies’s design provided no room for removing wet clothes. The external steps between floors had gaps through which tykes could fall perilously. The excessively glassed-in walls created pneumonia-generating floors on which infants crawled at their own risk of sickness. And, cruelest blow of all, when you opened the kitchen door, those same gratuitous winds blew out the flame. Little details. (Less isn’t always more!)

Heh, no mystery here. Mies wasn’t creating a dwelling, whose parameters he had carefully thought through for its future inhabitants. He was creating a work of art! He was after fame, this poor Aachen stone mason’s son, who even bristled at having to take orders from the higher-class Walter Gropius (his supervisor in the Legendary 1910 Berlin office of Peter Behrens, where Corbusier was the other Azubi). This is what I call the Philip Johnson Fallacy: Architecture begins—and ends—with a capital A. When Johnson was belatedly a student of Gropius at Harvard, PJ mocked Pius for his obsession about building working-class housing. A is for Art, the parvenu from Cleveland shrilled throughout his long, long career.

And when Johnson created a Mies simulation as the first modern house in Houston (1950) for the de Menil family, famous for their legendary art collecting, the roof leaked so furiously and long that the de Menil children thought the always-returning roofers were the architects! Johnson made the terminal mistake of insisting that these aesthetes use only Mies furniture in “his” house, deployed the way the master would. The de Menils told him to get lost and allegedly never spoke to him again. I suppose it was unpoetic justice that when Mies got around one night to visiting Johnson’s notorious Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., he said, “It looks like a Hot Dog Stand” at night.

Mies wanted Corbu to be his Top Attraction at Weissenhof, thereby securing his own international reputation as an architectural leader. When I visited "The Corbu" in 2002, as part of a 75th anniversary Weissenhof symposium, I couldn't imagine living in such a concrete unjungle. Last year, as it seems to happen to most Modern Icons, it was reduced to an uninhabitable Visitors Center.

Ditto Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. And, of course, the Farnsworth House in the Chicago suburb of Plano. Created as a weekend escape for his girlfriend, Dr. Farnsworth, Mies' house was the mistake of being a replica of the tropical Barcelona Pavilion--outside Chicago, hot in the Summer, freezing in the Winter. Not to mention the marsh engendered mosquitoes the rest of the year, it became too expensive to live in, and, their romance over, she took him to court for the non-habitation's excessive energy costs.

Final audit? It's now a Visitors Center, dedicated to the "genius" of the poor stone mason's son from Aachen, who spent a haunted life worrying about his own status and stature. So you might say that those first two female doctors, Lüders and Farnsworth, were early warnings to the Patriarchy that its days were numbered.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Nearly Wrecked in Reykjavik

The trouble began just after we landed in Reykjavik. In a hurry to take my meds, I grabbed a backpack identical to mine, except for three little color-coded strings. Aargh: At the hotel, the bag proved to be full of ladies shoes. I mean think Fetish City! It was 0200h before my meds got through Customs. And it was as bright as day outside. Holey Moley. I couldn’t get to sleep. Wondering what the gal with too many shoes looked like, from the ankle up. I’ll never know.

Alas, at the airport, no lockers! And my flight is the next day! (To move my appointment ahead a day would cost me around 800 more dollars, obviously a fiscal impossibility.) I spy a phone connected to a local motel. The Alex Motel. He’ll pick me up, free, in ten minutes! A 21-year-old local. Polished by an exchange year in Indonesia. Taking a degree in math at the U of I. If you’re using Keflevik International— Iceland’s only global connection since NATO took its missiles and left for home— think Alex. They actually have a range of services—camping sites, a trailer park, old-fashioned Route 66-type cabins, as well as the standard hotel room where I put up. Free computer. Marginal breakfast. But I stock up on powdered coffee and do-it-yourself soups. Big TV in “the living room” abutting the reception desk. I took a three-hour ramble into the airport’s namesake.

The next day I was still a universe away. That evening sun, she don’t go down.

Reykjavik’s main business street is an architectural revelation. It seems that at the turn of the 20th Century Iceland had rotting wooden roofs—and plenty of fresh fish. Britain had scads of corrugated iron—and many hungry mouths to feed. They swapped. Eventually what was good on the roof was even better as siding. Add a pinch of Carpenter Gothic’s decorated eaves and such, and you’ve invented the most beguiling vernacular architecture on the whole globe. Paint those corrugated iron sidings with bright barn colors, and you’ve created a unique genre to stun the smug cosmopolitan.

A local architect proudly took me to an innovative high-rise whose glass-enclosed balconies are designed to foil the erratic high winds that plague the island. Except two condo ladies had moved all their ugly Borax furniture out on these glassed terraces, thereby engendering in his staunchly libertarian heart a real burn. By the time we had arrived at his prime achievement— a $6 million villa overlooking a lake in a massive lava field, designed for his own contractor— he already seemed accepting of how those aesthetic slobs had disfigured his sylvan terraces. (He was learning it was not easy having thoughtless clients.) I traipsed throughout this three-storey house built over an indoor swimming pool.

The art scene on the corporate level was OK, but they try too hard to achieve the Higher Goofy at the National Gallery— a maze in total darkness except glimmers to mislead you into “feeling” you’re about to find the door out. Meanwhile, back at the City Art Museum, there are more arcane games. No permanent collections to gew and gaw over. But one grand exception that would make a trip a must until the end of August: the 40th anniversary of the Nordic House, a cultural center to encourage northern intellectual fraternity. By Alvar Aalto! With a comprehensive retrospective of the greatest Finnish architect of our time.

And the shops. I’ve never seen so many stores featuring superbly creative work, from jewelry to clothing to home furnishings. And I saw a collective bless the side of a nondescript house with a quirky mural praising Iceland’s inscrutable mountains— all in honor of Independence Day, June 17, which occurred in the middle of my one-week visit. A bus pass– for one day, three days or a week— is an unbeatable bargain. The buses go everywhere and frequently, and schedules are clearly marked. Iceland is the best-brochured territory I’ve yet encountered. Not only are they intelligently written, they’re great book art to boot.

I’m not going to babble at length on Iceland’s food. Hostel breakfasts were solid if eggless. But toward the end of my stay, I asked my photo lab technician for a good place to eat fish. He gave me clear instructions to a place on the harbor, in the last of three parallel rows of former warehouses, which are behind the Orange restaurant. Asking for a menu, I was shown a small fridge with a glass door. I picked whale, along with the tastiest lobster soup I have yet consumed. You sit on kegs. You babble endlessly with a constantly moving flux of interesting people.

The only other venue with such pizzazz is the top-floor coffee shop of Eymundsson’s, the biggest bookstore in town. USA Today and the Herald Trib both on sale. I was skeptical about all the blather I had read about Icelanders being the most literate 300,000 currently inflicting the earth. But they are. Honest to God. Damn, where Philly has one free Metro daily, the Icemen have five to choose from. What a way to grow! Best week yet in my life.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Going Appalachian

I started "going Appalachian" at age 18— at the Gulfport (Miss.) Naval Air Station in 1945. I had just come from my hometown, Detroit, where droves of poor Southern whites and equally poor Southern blacks were rushing into the lucrative defense industry’s factories and squabbling over the tiny housing inventory. They were laying the kindling for the bonfires that would destroy my hometown in the ’60s.

Gulfport whites would grimace when I, always a racial egalitarian (blame those Dominican nuns at Holy Rosary Academy!), would hustle to the back of the bus to Biloxi, where the best Liberty was. (Pleased but puzzled blacks would smile nervously.) These teenage memories flooded my recollections the other day as I eagerly entered the glorious Gee’s Bend (Ala.) quilt show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

My later Appalachian mentors were Bill Ferris and Judy Peiser, who bonded in the ’60s at the Jackson (Miss.) Public TV station: he planned the Center for Southern Culture he would found at Ole Miss; she dreamed of a Center for Southern Folklore that she eventually built on Beale Street in her hometown of Memphis.

Judy was especially effective as a mentor. In 1977, she introduced me to James "Sonny Ford" Thomas, the middle nickname memorializing his chopping cotton— until Bill and Judy put him back in his proper place as a great blues singer. That same day Judy persuaded us to go to Yazoo City to visit the great quiltmaker Pecolia Warner. She took out her huge inventory, from which I would ultimately choose seven, for a piddling $75. I later gave six of them to the Ole Miss art museum— to memorialize Bill Clinton’s appointing our Bill Ferris the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, by far the most intelligent decision Clinton ever made.

Gee’s Bend, a tiny islet in the Alabama River, has justly earned an international reputation as a major center of black American creativity. But I was amazed at the raggedy condition of a third of these quilts. The one Pecolia I kept for myself is by far handsomer than even the best from Gee’s Bend. In its excruciatingly diverse patches of soft orange and two pushy shades of light green, it’s the absolute treasure of my entire artistic life. And that sweet old septuagenarian made it.

There are no fewer than three solid complementary exhibits, one in the Perelman wing of a local celebrity’s quilt collection, and a black photographer’s New York Times assignment of picturing the Gee’s Bend’s sweeties. Finally a solid self-taught folk artist from Boise, Idaho struts his anonymous stuff. All of this leading to a day long Art Museum symposium on the great artist Anon.

Nevertheless, this show is a major move in a neglected esthetic genre. Don’t miss any of it, even if you can’t afford (or even carry!) the superb $50 catalog. Well done. Somewhere in the hereafter, Anne d’Harnoncourt has a mile-wide smile.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Reich-Ranicki Flap

It was deja all over again, this unending brouhaha in the German media about Reich-Ranicki, the so-called Pope of German Lit Crit: in actual fact he’s a Polish Jew refugee now in his late eighties. Let me say, as a onetime Roman Catholic seminarian mercilessly kicked out of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary by the Rector when discovered me after midnight in the Gothic Tower trying to learn how to smoke without suffocating—with my equally ignorant pal, Jim van Slambrouck, it’s bad enough having a human loose in the secular world who supposes he is infallible on all matters of faith and morals, let alone some glib refugee pretending to settle all literary questions posed to him apodictally.

Most of those queries in FAZ and Die Zeit are barely literate, even by my fairly loose standards. So I’ve been wildly amused by this Papist simulacra (the word itself makes me “smile” that he is truly “laughable”), especially when he returns an Award to a TV network whose allegedly low standards make him flinch esthetically!

It all reminds me of the Daedalus conference on Mass Culture held in 1960 in the Pocono Mountains between Philadelphia (my Heimat) and New York, location of the upper middle class caverns of Upper West Side New York eggheads who believed at the time (alas, still do, mostly) that their intellectual shit on the subject didn’t stink. I was the chosen offering to be sacrificed at this shameless reiteration of foregone conclusions. I mean they were from Harvard and Columbia and I was merely an untenured assistant professor of American Civilization at Penn (and worst of all, the writer of the first curriculum for the first Ivy League Graduate School of Communication and a lecturer on media history therein). If I may simplify their rhetoric, I was the first Trojan horse’s ass to infiltrate their precincts unsullied by the realities of mass culture.

Indeed, the three day conference, of which I was the concluding speaker, literally ended with the Isaiah like poet Randall Jarrell waggling his beard at me, thundering:”You’re the Man of the Future, Mr. Hazard, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there.” Alas, his prognostications were 180 degrees removed from those future realities, as I actually perfected ways of alienating the academically powerful by quickly and candidly identifying their intellectual contradictions. And he committed suicide a few months later, denying himself the pleasure of recognizing how wrong his predictions of my future would turn out to be! Indeed, I was doubly sad because I truly relished teaching his poetry. But I was not surprised that the issue of Daedalus appeared with nary a mention of my paper! Smug minds smother together.

What was so toxic about my ratiocinations about Mass Culture? Nothing. The “No’s” just knew absolutely nothing about the alternatives the new kind of society presented to their half educated students and their own total ignorance was no adequately hopeful propadeutic. I had received a Carnegie post doctoral fellowship in 1957( while the ink on my degree was still wet) to create a new course on “The Mass Society” in Am Civ. First semester on Mass Communication (print, graphics, and broadcasting, viz. from Gutenberg to Warner Brothers to Alistair Cooke), second semester on Mass Production, (industrial design, architecture, urban planning, i.e. Christopher Dresser to Charles Goodman to Jane Jacobs and Victor Gruen). The rationale was to identify creativity in the new genres, speculate on conditions to help them fructify and tell students what we had found and encourage them to do likewise. The humanistic Clerisy unfortunately was so consumed with despising Levittowns, they committed the greatest and as yet unrepentant intellectual trahison of the twentieth century. This simple rationale occurred to me while I was finishing my Ph.D. coursework at Michigan State University and teaching English at East Lansing High School (1952-55) for dissertation money.

The Reich-Ranicki’s of that era were prefiguring the antics of this Polish/Jew refugee. Mock the mass mush, and pretend to be above the battlefield. Yet, when I was not correcting misspellings in their papers, I began to notice certain instances of stunning creativity on TV, allegedly the grossest of the most massive media, e.g., the plays of Paddy Chayefsky and the documentaries of Edward R. Murrow. I’d assign those TV programs and then have the tenth graders write in-class essays on the previous night’s broadcast. I can truly assert over fifty years later than I had no greater class epiphanies than after watching Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame”--on the horrible conditions suffered by poor American farmers as their pain made the pleasures of Everyman's Thanksgiving Dinner possible, or by Chayefsky’s play,” The Catered Affair,” about a Bronx taxi driver’s conflicts over giving his daughter a fancy wedding.

I’ll concede my classes of these children of GM execs or MSU professors was ideal. But equally promising results have analogously accrued later in the most diverse situations: When Michigan State opened a PBS TV station, my twelfth graders fielded a weekly blatherama (Everyman Is a Critic) on their pop tastes in food, fashion, and leisure time commitments, from souped up cars to rock “Noise” (to my ears). As de jure MC I sat by, silently, to begin and end arguments, if and when they arose.

My first national publication, “Everyman in Saddle Shoes,” which Bill Boutwell printed in 1954 in Scholastic Teacher recounted these efforts . Its publication led to a Ford Foundation Fellowship in New York City 1955-56 to try out the ideas. Boutwell appointed me radio-TV editor of Scholastic Teacher where I devised a one-page Teleguide which teachers in the Boonies could use as a one-time teaching plan.

I served until 1961 when I was appointed the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the East West Center of the U of Hawaii. I had to quit Scholastic (sadly) because “Variety” couldn’t reach me in time out in the Mid-Pacific. NBC’s Pat Weaver was especially helpful in 1955-6 because my palaver legitimized his semi-Utopian concept of Enlightenment through Exposure (expose the masses to opera and soon you’d have a country of opera buffs. Roy Larson, publisher of TIME was so impressed he gave me an office at Time-Life to facilitate my access to busy media movers and shakers. (It’s astonishing what that Time-Life telephone number can do as a call back!) In short, the business community was eager to have the schools raise the standards of their audiences.

It was the Reich-Ranicki’s of that era who dragged their feet. An example: I organized TV, radio and film festivals at the annual conventions of the Modern Language Association. In 1964, the brilliant filmmaker David Meyers had stunned the MLAers with his new film on the poet, Theodore Roethke. The Brooklyn poet Marianne Moore was so moved she gave Dave a green light for a film on her work. I asked John Fisher, MLA’s Executive Secretary for permission to solicit the members for donations to finance the film. His gofer, Mike Shugrue replied: “It’s been a bad year for the members on Wall Street, Pat. Maybe later.” Later was too late. Marianne died the next year, unfilmed!

Incidentally, this also began the era of the $100,000 humanities professor, simultaneous with the peonification of the graduate teaching assistant. I’m ashamed to add as an American that the Brits and Scots and Irish were significantly more open to humanizing mass media when I became Time Life Film’s adviser on which BBC, Telifis Aerin. and Scottish TV media our American company should buy. A crucial difference was they had excellent poets making their TV films on poetry, such as John Ormond for BBC Wales and Maurice Lindsay for Border TV.

American humanists blew it while London's Royal College of Art eagerly made possible my retrospective of “Twenty Four Hours of Unseen American Television”-- just as Dr. Howard Springer, Commonwealth Education Secretary, cleared the way in Lagos in 1968 for me to show a film on Nigerian Lit at the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference so that other Commonwealth countries could eventually assemble a World Library of International English Lit. That’s what Literary Popes should be doing instead of whimpering helplessly about how bad TV is. It’s mainly lousy because of their short-sighted treason of abandoning it to commerce. My sense is that Reich-Ranicki has been Holocaust hustling for so long he’s forgotten how to think freshly about the future he’s so miffed about his past.

That’s an expected weakness of Popes, literary and otherwise.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Year of the Klimt

2008 will be remembered as the Year of Gustav Klimt. When Liverpool preened as a European Cultural Capital, the Klimt exhibition at their new Tate Liverpool was its best foot forward. The catalog, with the beguiling subtitle, "Painting, Design, and Modern Life,” is a fire sale steal at 19.99 pounds. And "Gustav Klimt: Der Beethoven--Fries: die Kontroverse um die Freiheit der Kunst" (ed. Stephan Koja, Prestel, 2008--Anna Amalia LI 47350/79) explores a curious scandal.

But the big story on Action News (Philly TV Talk!) is the exhibition at Vienna’s Belvedere bearing his name but really celebrating a summer and fall of esthetic exaltation surrounding the 60th anniversary of 1908 of Franz Joseph’s ascension to the Hapsburg throne. It cost 50 euros and could give you a hernia if your subway connections are severe. (I recommend you book on line the Friedrich Engels Youth Hostel on the Northern rim of the city with good public transport to the South and West train stations.

It appears that the great Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann devised a super villa of smaller, expendable structures, touting “small” achievements like jewelry, house fixtures, posters—you name some minor visual genre and these Jugendstylists had hit home runs in that park as well, not just in the seminal genres of painting and sculpture. The glory was historical, but the curatorship was timely and contemporary. Soon I was weak from visual orgasms, and it wasn’t just the Upper and Lower Belvedere’s, separated by a longish hike of garden parks.

The whole damn center of Vienna has just been officially dubbed the Museum Quarter, for God’s sake. (Not that his alleged omnipotence guaranteed he could run this non-stop Merrython.)The Leopold was showing Edward Hopper, too cutely metaphysicalized with addenda which only proved the curator could really s t r e t c h a rather useless if deep sounding point.

Hopper was a mediocre draftsman with a good shtick—the lonely crowds that constitute an only apparently chummy American people. Don’t get me wrong. I relish Hooper’s quirky half-truths about my Native Land. I just resent some intellectually upwardly mobile Aussie getting mistyphysical over a very good but not too brilliant American painter. Let sleeping shtickers lie shallowly, and let some deep thinker of a critic pick on someone with the same brain size about some really deep painter. I don’t enjoy fake profundity.

And next to the numb, dumb Hopper was a fully alive Christian Schad retrospective. This pioneer “Die Neue Sachlikeit” (The New Objectivity) held a patented maneuver to neutralize some of the grosser excesses of German Expressionism. I love my Kirchner like the next bloke, but I also relish some countervailing aesthetics! Heretofore I had seen only a tiny sampler of his painterly idiolect at Aschafenberg, his hometown on the northwestern reaches of Bavaria, just south of the boundaries of Hesse and Thuringia. He’s a minor genius, but genius nonetheless!

Needless to say, such Big Things don’t just happen. As I picked up yesterday the first copy of my trial subscription to Der Standard, Austria’s best daily, I spied a half page ad toting the city’s astonishing commitment to Kultur! It was headlined WIEN HAT DAS MEHR (Vienna has MORE!) Supporting Culture is an investment in the future! And how! Its 23 million Euro budget for 2009 is 13 million more than last year.

Now it’s the canny ways that money is deployed that caught my attention: “Money for Creative Young People” had the Motto (in English) CASH FOR CULTURE: 1,000 euros for talented kids from 13 to 29, no matter they want to do artistically—Film, Musik, Kunst, Tanz, Mode, Internet, Theatre, TV or Radio. An art lending library from which you could rent any work of Arnulf Rainer for 2.50 euros. What a city! What museums! Book online a night at the Mercure (Acor) across the street from the Art School Adolf Hitler got booted out of! There’s also a very newly hip architecture museum, which I will assess soon in an essay on the astonishing efflorescence of this new genre of museum.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

My Love Affair with Architecture

How did I get turned on to architecture? The more I think about it, the more ancient my passion for the subject becomes. I was born in 1927 in Battle Creek, Michigan, but when my father abandoned us in 1930 we moved to Detroit, where it would be easier for my mother as a single parent to find a job teaching, for which she trained at Central Michigan University (when it was then called Mount Pleasant Normal School.) She soon got a job teaching eighth grade at Dickinson Junior High in “nearby” Hamtramck (actually it’s a tiny urban island surrounded entirely by Detroit and full of both automobile factories and the Polish workers who manned many of them.)

It wasn’t too long before I was relishing my first masterpiece, the Fisher Building by one of my great heroes, Albert Kahn. (I was astonished to see only last week on German TV a documentary about Albert Speer’s design work at Peenemunde’s rocket factory featuring the unlikely document of Albert Kahn’s handbook on design for mass production!)

Fisher Body made chassis for many auto companies. My experience of Kahn was the gaily and grandly, nightly illuminated tower of the Fisher Building which my Uncle Dan Fitzpatrick referred to as the GillyHooBird’s Nest, his Hibernian confection to explain why each working day shortly after he arrived at our rented home on Mendota Avenue, he would “hear” a swoosh of wings and find that the GillyHooBird had just left another Mars bar or a Baby Ruth on the window sill next to our front door. Only many years later did I invent the critical term, Beaux Deco (it was a blend of Beaux Arts and Art Deco) to describe that skyscraper’s style. By then I was working my way through graduate school in Cleveland working at their Fisher Body factory where I had the undemanding job of squirting adhesive where the rubber mats on Chevrolet station wagons were about to be laid.

This is neither the time nor place to tell you all you should know about Kahn, but enough to know why he gave me my first passion about architecture. He was born in Germany, the first of a rabbi’s many children, and when they immigrated to America in 1880 they ended up in Detroit, which was about to take off as the automobile capital of the world. Kahn, like another neglected German immigrant architect, Timothy Pflueger, far across the country in San Francisco, didn’t even finish high school. He had to go to work to help feed and clothe his siblings of a very fruitful rabbi’s wife.

Luckily for the future of what the Germans came to call Fordismus, he hired out as a draftsman in the preeminent architectural firm of his adopted city. His genius with a pencil was quickly rewarded not only with rapid promotion but a fellowship in Europe to make up for his limited formal education. His greatest contribution to factory architecture was to study the mass production process and then build a structure to accommodate those patented needs. That’s what he did in Highland Park in 1914, complementing Henry Ford’s instinctive epiphany of paying his assembly workers the then magnanimous wage of five dollars a day (it outraged his competitors!) so his workers could become his consumers. By contrast the shoe last factory Walter Gropius “designed” for Fagus in 1910 was a fancy see-through glass case into which production facilities were stuffed, ex post facto.

Kahn’s factories were a pleasure to work in. I still remember with both visual and acoustic joy the bright-lightedness of the Fisher Body production line in Cleveland. Admittedly I was only twenty four at the time, but the summer before I got married (1950) I worked his Lincoln-Mercury plant in Detroit with similar pleasure. The summer of 1949 had been, by contrast, a noisy, dirty mess, working the midnight shift at a Chrysler stamping mill in Hamtramck.

So it was one of my first pleasures of becoming a Weimar immigrant (mainly to write a book about Walter Gropius’s social philosophy about fusing art and technology to bring good design to the masses) to see the first and still most important film about Albert Kahn, Dieter Marcello’s “Albert Kahn: Architekt der Moderne”. Dieter is a renaissance type who not only was interested in theater but also was an automobile worker and union steward in Stuttgart before he moved to Wayne University in Detroit to get an M.A. in sociology with a thesis on the auto industry.

One of the besetting evils of early Modernism (blame this mainly on Philip Johnson snooty hyper-estheticism) was its Platonic character. Mies van der Rohe, of course, is not only one of the most overrated “architects” of the new age but also its greatest sinner. Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lueders, surely the most underrated feminist in modern EuroAmerican history—until the Bundestag finally got around to naming its new library on the Spree after her—writing in 1927 in the quarterly “Form”(the scholaly magazine of the Deutsches Werkbund, founded in 1907 to help Germany catch up with the UK's industrialization) subjected Mies’s apartments in the purportedly path-breaking architectural community, Weissenhof, to a devastating critique from the point of view of a housekeeper and a mother.

She pointed out the perils of exterior staircase so thoughtlessly designed that a small child could easily fall through its interstices, to the pneumonia generating floors full of frigid winds for babies crawling on them because of excess glass at both ends of the room, kitchen doors, which when opened let the winds blow out the gas flame, no place to take off wet clothes, and so on. Kahn, whom Mies and his mice mocked for the historicist villas he made for the new automotive gentry in Grosse Pointe, countered by calling the “innovators” the “glass house boys”. While Kahn was designing meticulously functioning factories, Mies and his star Weissenhof architects were making uninhabitable housing, unless you got off, uncritically, on living in a celebrity generated house.

The two apartments Mies tried manfully to get Corbusier to do at Weissenhof have recently been “elevated” to the ambivalent status of Visitor Centers. A suite of concrete chambers, it is disconcerting just to make a short “visit” through it. Ditto Mies’s Farnsworth House(1950) in Plano, IL. Imagine another Barcelona Pavilion (1929) outside Chciago. Too hot in the summer. Too cold in the winter. Dr. Farnsworth, who became his client after falling in love with the man (not the architect), eventually took him to court for excessive energy costs! It also was just demoted to a Visitor Center, to celebrate Mies’ “genius” as an architect.

Kahn was contemptuous of such design abuse. As I took a good look at Weissenhof in 2002 during a 75th anniversary symposium in nearby Stuttgart, I was astonished to see right across the street from Mies’ failed Starchitect publicized housing the Friedrich Ebert Houses(1927), named in honor of the first President of the Weimar Republic. I discovered that the Stuttgart SPD housing department wanted to collaborate with Mies. Mies would have nothing to do with such “socialist”collaboration. Mies was after fame, and infamous he would finally become! Conservative architects from the adjacent art school challenged him on not worrying about such simple things like waste water and utilities.

Don’t let me be misleading, among the over thirty architects amassed at Weissenhof, there were some enduring winners—Peter Behrens, J.J.P. Oud, Hans Sharoun. But mostly it is avant gardey blah. Contrariwise, the Ebert Houses have aged very gracefully, their rough field stone exteriors making a quiet transition from late Jugendstil to early modern. Snobbery aside (If one ever lived in a Mies apartment, repeated mindlessly among many Lakeshore Drive high risers in Chicago), any lover of architecture would chose an Ebert over a Mies.

The Ebert interiors pass on the wisdom developed in innumerable public housing projects in Vienna, Amsterdam, and Berlin before and after World War I. The tragedy of the Corbus-ification of American public housing is that it ignored the accrued wisdom of Social Democrat housing in Europe(not forgetting, for example, that the dwellers had to begin with a decent wage, not welfare handouts). Lord save us from arrogant architects who want to impose their obsessions on the dwellers. Less is moronic in this case.

In 1987, the centenary of Corbu’s birth, I made a pious odyssey of the Swiss architect’s masterpieces. In La Choux de Fonds, where he went to art school, I was astonished to discover that he never studied architecture. He studied watch making, in the Swatch capital of the world. His first international prize at Turin in 1902 was for a watch! Indeed his Jugendstil villas in that city remain for me, except for Ronchamps, his most pleasing achievements.

In Marseilles, at his iconic housing complex, a young woman carrying her baby onto the elevator where I had been chatting with the concierge about Corbu, invited me to visit her flat. She explained to me it was one of the “prolonge” apartments where the inhabitants had abandoned his mezzanine effects for more useable space. Her mother-in-law widow lived across the hall in a “pas prolonge” original design which she invited me to compare. Her father had been a colonial administrator in North Africa and his collection of indigenous art was so luminous that I am not sure I’d really gotten a good look at the mezzanine innovation, I spent so much time relishing the African art. But I do know that when I saw my first Corbu in America, the Carpenter Visual Center at Harvard, I was dumbstruck by the clerestory in their movie theatre. How outright tacky to insult the art you’ve been hired to celebrate: here’s gratuitous glare in your eye moviegoer. Modern architecture is full of such arrogance.

But Kahn was not the first inkling I had of great architecture in Detroit. North on Woodward Avenue is Cranbrook, that arts complex which George Booth, publisher of the Detroit News, created to “civilize” the same nouveaux riches auto millionaires Kahn was building villas for. After Kahn inveigled Saarinen to come to Ann Arbor, where Kahn had designed most of the first main structures for the University of Michigan, Eliel succumbed to Booth’s pitch that he head the new Cranbrook art school, bringing along another Scandinavian, the Swede Carl Milles, to teach sculpture, partly by adorning the campus with his own works.

For a generation it became what the Bauhaus aspired to be, a visionary center for social creativity in the twentieth century. And its graduates were not limited to furniture or housing designers. Edmund Bacon, later to be the planner of Philadelphia’s Center City renewal, not only got his chops in Bloomfield Hills, his first job was moving up to Flint where he pioneered social housing until the real estate lobby chased him out for being too “Red”.

Eliel’s son Eero teased me towards a civilized Modernism (neither Prefabby like Mies nor Goofy like Gehry) with his General Motors Tech Center in Warren,MI. And his Yale ice rink. And the St.Louis invitation to the West. And the TWA Terminal at JFK. As well as the Dulles airport. It was a great loss that he died at age 51.

Still in the Detroit of my youth there was also the indigenous Minoru Yamasaki, with a swatch of attractive buildings for Wayne University. Until they expanded it beyond prudence, his Lambert Airport in St. Louis with interiors by Harry Bertoia was one of my favorite airport layovers. But somehow Yamasaki overreached himself with the flaming gas top of the Detroit Gas Works. And there are those who argued long before 9/11 that he built the World Trade Center too flimsily.

Finally, I learned from the Austrian immigrant Victor Gruen. Though never a Shopper with a capital S, I learned from his Eastland and Northland and so on that shopping precincts could be civilized before Big Box architecture turned them into parodies of architecture. So my love began with Kahn and Saarinen. I like to say that I have a Finnish sensibility held in check by a German American’s common sense.

I love Marimekko, and had the good fortune to get to know its founder, Armi Ratia, before she died. And I regard Alvar Aalto as one of the great humanists of our time. On his centennial year, I spent some time in Finland honoring his past by visiting his monuments.

There have been others, on whose contact I will comment briefly, largely because they too are neglected. Timothy Pflueger, Emilio Ambasz, Douglas Cardinal, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Saul Wurman, Jean Renaud and Jose Caldas Zanine. That we know so little about these geniuses has forced me to think about the paradoxes of architectural reputation. And that we know so much about their overexposed contemporaries is the real problem. Hustle is no reliable guide to architectural genius. Careful, selfless work for the client is.

This passion for architecture was hyped by an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in which my five fields were two on American Lit (my teaching specialty), American art and architecture, American philosophy and its European antecedents, and American economic history. Such training led me to my only original idea in thirty years of teaching. I asked my Am Lit students to write a term paper on a Great American Building. Harvard started this interdisciplinary Ph.D in American Culture in 1936, to help celebrate its tercentenary. Am Lit in the 17th century was theology; in the eighteenth politics; and it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that it achieved belles lettristic stature.

There was a masterpiece near our school, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom synagogue. I used to take my students there so they could relish a great building in situ. Mostly they were radiant. But one middle aged student (she had raised her children before pursuing a degree) said it was a great building all right, except when your daughter was getting married in the rain. (The roof leaked!) For decades it seemed a leaky roof was a sine qua non of a Modernist icon. Philip Johnson designed the first Modernist house in Houston (1950) for the deMenil art collecting family. Its roof leaked for so long and so relentlessly that their children thought the ever-present roofers were the architects! (He also insisted not only that they use only Mies van der Rohe furniture, but they deploy it the was the Master would!) They told him to shove it, and never spoke to him again, come rain or come shine.

So I urged my students to learn how to talk back to architects who tend to show off rather than serve their clients. We will be plagued by Starchitects like Frank O. Gehry and Richard Meier (who impose their sellable shticks on a public with no sense of the importance of function in architecture) until the public demands their rights as clients and inhabitants. In a truly demotic architecture, an informed public calls the tune. People are just learning how to speak for themselves. Those term papers were their innoculations against arch-abuse!

Camille Paglia: Intellectual Firebrand

Camille Paglia, that University of the Arts intellectual firebrand, has been too long absent from the SALON website. What a pleasure to read her today once again. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on John Fiske fifty years ago, it was to discover how difficult it was for a humanist without private means or a university job to earn a living as a professional historian. I took my epigraph from New England preacher Theodore Parker, who contended that the intellectual in our new egalitarian democracy had to “think with the saint and sage, but speak with Common Men.” There have been damn few such creatures in our cultural history—William James, John Dewey, Dr. Albert Barnes, W.E.B. Dubois—and in our generation, surely Camille Paglia.

I hadn’t realized until recently how hard it had been for her (born in upstate New York to two Italian immigrants in 1947) to get the academic status she was entitled to. Indeed, she has been a quirky, tactical troublemaker from the beginning, I just picked up on her with her first major work, “Sexual Personae: From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson” (Yale, 1990). It had been her Yale dissertation (1974) and she offered it to seven publishers and five agents before she finally talked Ellen Graham at Yale to take a chance on a controversial thesis. One can imagine that she was always a feminist, long before she found intellectual reasons for her beliefs, this “feminist who feminists love to hate”. Her father was teaching romance languages at LeMoyne College when a Belgian colleague did Camille the favor of a gift of Simone Beauvoir’s “Second Sex”.

She had been working for three years on a biography of Amelia Earhart until the French feminist broadened her horizons. Her “peers” mocked her as a feminist bisexual egomaniac. Even though her Yale mentor Harold Bloom helped her to get a job at Bennington, that free wheeling free thinking college up in the country, she quit in disgust in 1979 over intellectual disagreements. She became one of those itinerant scholars that are such a disgrace to our new system of $100,000 star professors surrounded by proles without health insurance or pension rights. She even taught nights at Sikorsky Helicopters, and scraped by freelancing for that New Haven alternative paper, “The Advocate”, with topics like the oldest pizzeria in town, or about a house that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Basically, her wrangle with the feminist establishment was that they taught young women to hate men yet were themselves intellectually deficient in art history, science, and political history. It was a blessing for her to find a spot in 1984 as a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts, that shrewdly blended the College of Performing Arts with the Philadelphia College of Art in 1987. Ever since reading “Personae” I’ve been mesmerized by her capacity to relate the most demotic aspects of our Pop Culture with very esoteric High Culture. She hangs out intellectually with the likes of Bill Maher and Matt Drudge as well as her Yalies.

In the this interview in SALON, for example, this activist Democrat worries about Condi Rice’s current agenda, and sees that as part of her predicament, a Ph.D. under Madeline Albright’s father at the University of Denver prepared her to deal with the Cold War that is no longer here.

Consider her last visit to Baghdad—where her plane had to circle the field to avoid surface to air rockets, hop a helicopter to the Green Zone because of too many IED’s on the highway, and meet the Prime Minister in the dark because the electricity failed. The Bushies chose Rice and Powell to wean the African Americans away from the Dems, but that didn’t make it easier for Condi and the General. She worries about Bush’s mental state, inferring from his intonations and pace that he is living on the edge.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Camille talks boldly about being a practicing atheist—at the same time she urges that college students study the history of religions, as necessary to maintain ethical balance in our confused civilization.

What a talk show host she could be. NPR has probably become too timid to give her a slot. She worries about the conservative ranting that’s going over our air waves. Such blather is antipathetic to the kind of humanism she professes. Will we ever grow up enough in Philly or the United States to listen to Ms. Paglia. Long shot, but not impossible.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Onomastics as Geriatric Sex

As my passions began to ebb in my seventies, I was astonished to perceive that I was getting more and more kicks from onomastics—the semi-science of naming! Geesh. Better a tacky seaport than a shipwreck, eh? Anyway I didn’t start out onomastically. I didn’t learn the term until graduate school. (It comes from the Greek word “to name”, ONOMAZEIN.)

As a Roman Catholic seminarian in the 1940’s I actually studied Greek for almost three years—until I was peremptorily thrown out over Easter Vacation by the Rector Monsignor Donnelley, who caught me and Jim Van Slambrouck smoking in the Gothic Tower after midnight!

But my word sensitivity started far earlier when my beloved kindergarten teacher at Holy Rosary Academy explained her own name, Sister Mary Felicia. “Felicia,” she explained, “came from the Latin for 'happy'.” She was that all right, and that’s she made me most of the time. My Irish mother, May Fitzpatrick showed her Gaelic humor by naming my first dog, a Mischling mutt if ever there was one, “Heinz”, alluding to the 57 varieties of dog he seemed to embody. By the way, the name "May" is Americanized Roman Catholic Mariolatry; she was born May 19, 1895, so her mother Catherine memorialized her as a Mary born in May.

And I learned early the precariousness of naming. My elder brother, Harry E. Hazard, Jr. was in the hospital for infantile paralysis at the same time I was being operated on for a bad ear infection. When some smart ass Irish nurse was told that my name was Pat, she joked, "Ah! Pat and Mike, eh?” And my brother was Mike for the rest of his life.

The first time I got a jag on about names was when I had started going to the Paradise Theatre in Detroit, where the “colored” name bands played—between western flicks and vaudeville gigs like Pegleg Bates. Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, King Oliver, and later, in my hometown Motown Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. It didn’t take me long to conclude that his compensatory onomastics derived from a feeling of enforced inferiority in the Pre Civil Rights Era. And I couldn’t help being pleased when Cassius Clay, the name itself suggesting a patina of Roman elegance, opted for Muhammed Ali, arguing intelligently that he had no dog in the Vietnamese Hunt. I couldn’t help noticing either that singularly inventive moniker, Aretha. If I had a nickel for every sweetly odd “black” name I picked up on reading the Detroit Times, I might have become a linguist.

Names were indeed magical. Heh, ain’t that the genesis of it all, in Genesis. Naming Creation. My first wife was twice German, Schneider father Stocker mother. So when we came to naming our three, German was still post World War II putz. So Hibernian names prevailed. Michael, middle name David, for euphony’s (and my middle name’s) sake. Katherine Anne Porter was a reading passion for both of us English Lit parent when our first daughter came along. We dubbed her Catherine Ann Hazard, but we had internalized the allusion. Our third child became Timothy Mark. Timothy because it’s sweet name. Mark because it gives a lilt to the formal appellation.

Fifty years later, there was only one thing my forty year younger German wife wanted. A baby, before she got too old to try. First she tried Jena doctors. NO GO. For two reasons. It didn’t take and you couldn’t know who the sperm donor was. So off to more relaxed Berlin where my wife could actually schmooze with the donor, a budding scientist in Potsdam. And her in vitro took on the fourth take.

During the pregnancy we talked and talked about possible names. She hadn’t wanted to fly blind in vitro and end up with a Turk or a black. But the pain of Germanic names was almost more than I could take. LEOPOLD? I could never talk to so named a Kraut. EBERHARDT: I’d rather he be Lion-hearted. JOHANNES? OR ITS CUT RATE VERSION HANNES: Yuck. I’d rather “he” (science let us in on this “secret” early) carry the moniker Charlemagne than some of those we rejected out of hand.

I think my wife grew tired of the debate and conceded the field to me. Now I had been brought up to think Saint This and Saint That. Patrick was an interesting Roman, roaming up North to to civilize the unChristian Celts. But I’ve never been a professional Hibernian—I even refuse to drink on St. Patrick’s Day as a way of protesting drunken foolishness. But it wasn’t until I was writing a story on an Irish poet in Belfast that I learned the real St. Pat story in an exhibition at the Ulster Museum. The Cult of St. Patrick didn’t begin until the twelfth century when immigrant Lords of their newly acquired manors (remember Guillaume le Conquerant) devised it to manage his lowly Irish peasants.

So it wasn’t Hibernian Pride that prompted me to name our first multi-culti child Daniel Patrick after the New York Senator Moynihan. I liked his story. Born poor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he was (aged six) moved to poor New York neighborhoods, shining shoes at that age to help family finances; attended a tacky second rate University (Tufts), and only later as a confidant of Richard Nixon (he explained our urban malaise through the fatal concept of “defining deviancy down”.) I had been brought up to believe you needed patron saints to guide you through life’s perils. As an atheist approaching a happy senility, I no longer believe in Saints qua Saints. (I still admire Saints Francis, Elizabeth, and Martin!) But I want to honor secular statesmen/women types: If I had a girl child now I’d consider her honored to be named after Eleanor Roosevelt or Dorothy Day.

As for Onomastics as Geriatric Sex, no Sunday of mine is complete until I savor Bill Safire’s latest sally into the multifarious universes of Names. My pal Walt Whitman used to sing in “Leaves of Grass” that “the hinge of the hand puts to scorn all machinery/and Mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.”

How true... But a tongue trumps a wrist any day, doing its work.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Bertrand Goldberg: True Blue Bauhausler

Witold Rybczynski, perhaps the most influential architectural historian of the current generation, has observed that the loss of social idealism among the Bauhaus principals (always excepting Walter Gropius himself) is an interesting story that deserved to be told. Peter Blake, the German immigrant who became the outstanding American architectural journalist of post World War II America, deplored this loss of idealism in his memoir, “No Place Like Utopia”(1997), and considered it as the most significant moral failure of the architectural elite in our time.

But there were a few who kept the faith, principally among them, the Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997). He was in the last class of the Bauhaus, 1933, which the Nazis shut down (before his graduation) in a former telephone factory in Berlin. He even went on to work briefly for Mies van der Rohe’s office in Berlin. I last talked with him in April, 1995, a day no Midwesterner will ever forget—the day Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He picked me and a German friend up in his racy convertible at the Chicago Institute of Arts, and took us to his club, high in a skyscraper overlooking his chef d’ouevre, Marina Towers.

There he talked with great enthusiasm about his desire to fight suburbanization by making Center City Chicago habitable again, and how he had talked some unions into sponsoring it financially. It was the old Bauhaus idealism of over sixty years before, still burning fiercely in his heart. I had first run into him in 1977 at a Charles Benton after party for the Chicago Film Festival. (I had advised Benton for several years on which NBC-TV programs he should buy for distribution on the cultural circuit of schools and museums.) When I saw Goldberg’s ID, I joked that I was giving up teaching to become a drug dealer at Marina City (1959-1964), that being the only way I could afford on my salary to move in.

He found that corny joke amusing enough to invite me to his downtown Northwestern University Hospital the next day. He was meeting a group of out of town architects eager to look closely at his thin shell concrete construction of a Maternity Ward there—it was designed so that the babies occupied a round central space, with their mothers circling the center with their own rooms. It was inspiring. Most of them were out of town ordinaries, caught between their own limited budgets and tight deadlines and an inspiring experience with a genius.

In the two decades before his death (1997) I got in the habit of pitstopping my two Chicago heroes, Studs Terkel and Bertrand. He had me visit as many of his other architectural achievements as I could. I still remember visiting his home in the Near Northside where, walking his dogs, he feigned a campaign against his quirky neighbor, Archbishop John Cody, by having his Dobermanns piss on the ecclesiast’s lawn.

He earned his rep as an innovative designer: his first big job was to create in 1938 a series of small shops for the North Pole ice cream firm. They could be assembled, disassembled and transported easily. If Gropius only knew! “Its flat roof was supported by tension wires from a single, illuminated column rising up through the shop’s center. Glass windows and a door formed a box below the roof.”

During World War II he experimented with plywood boxcars, demountable housing for the military before and after the War. He also designed mobile vaccine laboratories for the U.S. government. And noodled around with his friend “the design scientist”, Buckminster Fuller. Goldberg was one of the few Bauhauslers who never forgot the original idealism, even though Mies had jettisoned it when he took over the school from Hannes Meyer, Gropius’s successor in 1928, canned because of his left wing activities.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Lonesome Eagle: Avram Noam Chomsky

The London monthly Prospect recently held a plebiscite on the world’s 100 leading “public intellectuals”. Philadelphia born (7 December 1928) Noam Chomsky was judged Number One, with 4827 votes. Second place Umberto Eco garnered half that number, with 2464. Richard Dawkins, the professional atheist, came in third, followed by Vaclav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Krugman, Jürgen Habermas, Amartya Sen, Jared Diamond, and Salman Rushdie. A heady bunch. But the irony is that while the so-called MSM (mainstream media) speak often and thoroughly on the other PI’s, Chomsky’s distinction is that his probing analyses of the contradictions in the American Empire are just as consistently ignored. In plain fact, he’s too tough an intellectual adversary for most of our lightweight journalists to get into the ring with!

Chomsky, the son of a teacher, majored in linguistics and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remembers as models the language professor Zelig Harris and philosopher Nelson Goodman. The Spanish Civil War and Zionist connections were the first influences on his political philosophy. After Penn, he took a year off at Harvard to work on his dissertation, which was accepted in 1955, “The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory”. In 1957 he published the seminal work,”Syntactic Structures”, which earned him international fame--as well as an assistant professorship at MIT. His subsidiary career of political agitation began in 1964 with his intense objections to the Vietnam War. His website lists a prolific outpouring of polemic,the latest concerning the possibility of war in Iran.

My hunch is that the MSM pointedly ignores Chomsky’s analyses because he’s usually way above their heads. Which, alas, are characteristically empty. Take so close a neighbor as Canada. Edward Wasserman, Washington and Lee professor of journalism, recently complained in (April 16, 2007) that there were no longer any American bureaus in Canada. None! He insists that our newspapers “should poke and prod and demand that we pay attention to people abroad even when they are neither disaster victims nor terrorists.” On the contrary, Wasserman alleges, “by their inattention, the media perpetuate the dangerous belief that our divine right is to speak and be heeded, never to listen.” I was astonished to read recently that in the notorious Green Zone there was only one American fluent in Arabic! Talk about fighting in the dark.

Notoriously monglottish America is thus paradoxically incapable of running an Empire. John Kerry was alleged to have stumbled when he casually observed that if you didn’t study hard, you’d end up in Iraq. He actually stumbled upon an embarassing contradiction in our Armed Forces. As we have seen so brutally in Abu Graib and Haditha, our fighters are schizophrenic, the GI Joes and Josephines have tended in the post Nixon Volunteer Army to be small town “losers” by metropolitan standards, officered by upwardly middle class winners. In a more and more mindless war run by two Vietnam Era AWOLS. (I consider V.P. Cheney’s “other priorities” as deferring to his preference to stay home.)

And infected by American Exceptionalist rhetoric, most Americans, with unusual exceptions like Noam Chomsky and former New York foreign correspondent Steven Kinzer, really still believe that America has never been interested in Empire. Even Christopher Hitchens was astonished to find researching his biography of Thomas Jefferson that we were fighting for our Mediterranean “rights” against the Barbary Pirates even before 1800! As a president, he had the difficult task and retrieving the Navy cruiser. U.S.S. Philadelphia and its sailors. Kinzer’s seminal book, “Invasions”, on the other hand, shows how beginning with the takeover of the Hawaii Islands, we have been an imperial force unstabilizing the world in our own strategic interests. Only a handful of fully informed critics like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky know about this history, chapter and verse, and how that complicates our current struggles against Islamic foes.We are literally flying blind into these whirlwinds.

Take the current crisis over Iran. Failing miserably in Iraq our war mongers fantasize about taking on Iran, just as their failure to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan had moved them to invade Iraq. Compare this adolescent fantasizing with Chomsky on the perils of war with Iran, which he believes will inevitably lead to World War III. On his website, he asks rhetorically, “What If Iran Had Invaded Mexico"

Chomsky’s newest book, “Interventions” (Open Media Series, City Lights Books, $12.95) is actually Old Hat, forty- four 1,000 word op ed pieces written between 2002 and 2007. Never knew he was writing op eds? Yup, the New York Times syndicate! Published widely abroad, and in a few unknown local U.S.papers. But never once in the New York Times itself! Is that not an intellectual scandal? We must be content with Maureen Dowd’s increasingly cute political psycho dramas and Thomas Friedman’s more and more boring pep talks about improving and greening business. Wonder what you’ve been missing. I did. Here are some swatches:

Take John Bolton, recently if briefly, our Ambassador to the United Nations (p.126), “Last November (2004) the UN Committee on Disarmament voted in favor of the treaty by 147 to 1. The unilateral U.S. vote is, in effect, a veto. It provides some further insight into the ranking of survival of the species on the list of priorities of government planners. Earlier the Bush administration sent point man John Bolton to inform Europe that lengthy negotiations on enforcing bioweapons were over, because they were not 'in the best interests of the United States,' thereby increasing the threat of bioterror. That is consistent with Bolton’s forthright stand: "When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow. When it suits our interests to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests, we will not. It is only natural that he should be nomiated to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, in a calculated insult to Europe and to the world.”

Chomsky also has an historical memory to shame our median op edifiers. He knows that “democracy promoting” Paul Wolfowitz was one of the most important supporters of Indonesia’s Suharto both as Reagan’s ambassador there and later( pp.52-53) and that John Negroponte practiced his democracy spreading skills as our Ambassador to Honduras, legitimizing the CIA’s Contra scheme to subvert Nicaragua.(p.90). And there was more to the CITGO story of Hugo Chavez’s offering cheaper heating oil to the poor of Boston and the South Bronx. “The deal developed after a group of U.S. senators sent a letter to nine major oil companies asking them to donate a portion of their recent record profits to help poor residents cover heating bills. The only response came from CITGO.” (p.155.) He explains how Washington trained El Salvador military assassinated six Jesuit priests and Archbishop Oscar Romero, his country’s “voice for the voiceless”. (p.122).

But more signifcantly, he chides the economic establishment for ignoring the real traditions of democracy in America. “In the United States,” he explains, "we enjoy a legacy of great privilege and freedom, remarkable by comparative and historical standards. We can abandon that legacy and take the easy way of pessimism: Everything is hopeles, so I’ll quit. Or we can make use of that legacy to further a democratic culture in which the public plays some role in determining policies, not only in politics but also in the crucial economic arena. These are hardly radical ideas. They were articulated clearly, for example, by John Dewey, the leading twentieth century U.S. social philospher, who pointed out that until ‘industrial feudalism’ is replaced by ‘industrial democracy,’ politics will remain “the shadow cast by big business over society.” You have only to taste the current hubris of the corporados who have successfully financed Bush’s disabling of the trade union movement as well as hard-won traditions of corporate surveillance to know how disastrous these changes have been.

And Chomsky is ignored because he mocks so successfully. Take the attempted privatization of Social Security, a battle fought out against the background of croney incompetence in the Katrina Affair.” Opinion and official policy are once again in conflict. As in the past, most Americans favor national health insurance. To cite just one of many illustrations, in a 2003 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 80 percent regarded universal health care as ‘more important than holding down taxes’. Quite apart from these considerations, Social Security is based on an extremely dangerous principle: that you should care whether the disabled widow across town has food to eat. The Social Security ‘reformers’ would rather have you concentrate on maximizing your own consumption of goods and subordinating yourself to power. Caring for other people, and taking community responsibility for things like health and retirement—that's deeply subversive.” (p.132.)

And he can sneer sharply when called for. “There’s a good reason why the United States cannot tolerate a sovereign, more or less democratic Iraq. The issue can scarcely be raised because it conflicts with firmly established doctrine: We’re supposed to believe that the United States would have invaded Iraq if it were an island in the Indian Ocean and its man export were pickles, not petroleum.” (p.162).

And, yes, the City Lights Books cited as publisher is the same one that brought out Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl!” in 1956! Indeed, the book’s cover is from the painting “Unfinished Flag of the United States” (1988) by one Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Old poets never die, they just take up painting. Unfinished is the key word. Chomsky wants us to live up to our ideals, not matter how hard the prospect. It is a disgrace that the New York Times Syndicate publishes his op eds, but won’t publish them in America’s “newspaper of record”. Sulzberger, Jr. should stop spouting bromides and start publishing the world’s most respected public intellectuals.