Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Missing Moatsie

Is there an afterlife for the Alice-Leone Moats addict, after the matronly curmudgeon has passed on to cast a cool eye on the social arrangements of the Hereafter. (She died, I found out from the Inquirer librarian, May 14, 1989. Missing her stuff, it had seemed much longer ago.) After weeks of moping, I came up with the obvious answer: take a fix on her books. I began with her first, No Nice Girl Swears. Miss Moats (I'm sure she'd flinch angrily in her casket if I used the feminist honorific Ms.; indeed, I'm terminally skeptical of the journalist who used the diminutive "Moatsie" in referring to her; it seems the kind of hypercasual locution that would make her reach instinctively for her mad money.)

In some ways the twenty-three page rumination she wrote for the jubilee edition is more interesting than the dated advice of the main text. The "nice girl" title was not hers, but a funky substitute of a woman working in the office of her literary agent. Her title was "Modern Manners."l933 modern, that is. Indeed, she brags rather than complains that it is the only one of her many books "ghost" written. (But she was the ghost.) At a literary cocktail party, the publisher George Putnam exacted an instant promise out of her to organize and help write a "book of etiquette for young girls".

A few months later when he surprised her by calling to see if the book was done, she made the mistake of apologizing that she didn't have a secretary. He hired her one. And that fat was in the fire. Her account of how her secretary and she couldn't get started in the free skyscraper office at 42nd and Fifth (a real estate beau from Hohokus, New Jersey provided the space) deserves a Neil Simon treatment.

It ultimately became the publishing sensation of l933, with King Features syndicating it to the nation's newspapers under Hearstian headlines like NEW VOLUME TELL DEBS HOW TO HANDLE DRUNKS and ETIQUETTE FOR TAXICAB LOVEMAKING LISTS TEN METHODS OF ATTACK. These empty teases confirm the long and respectable ancestry of current supermarket tabloid come-ons. Her advice can be summed up in two directives: always carry taxi "mad money" and use it without much forethought. Readers who expected hot grapplings depicted didn't know Alice-Leone Moats.

Indeed you get the impression, fifty years of taxis later, she wishes the public would stop identifying her with this sensation of one season and remember her for her serious reporting on the Far East and the Soviet Union. Such as Margaret Bourke-White's exclamation in Hami on the edge of the Gobi desert about her husband Erskine Caldwell's reading habits: "That's extraordinary. Skinny darling has written more books and read fewer than any author living. And to think that one of them should have been your book of etiquette." Nice girls don't hitchhike on Tobacco Road either, although she went to finishing school in Aiken, South Carolina.

All her gall is divided into thirty parts. It is not counsel for the timid with apothegms like "Do as you please if you can get away with it." She chides "who cares?" attitudes with a little lecture on the kind of posture frowned at in finishing schools. "Except under the most extraordinary circumstances nobody ever bothers to sit up in a chair."(p.5.)

"By all means," she rationalizes,"sit in any position you like, so long as you have pretty legs." Smoking allowed? Anywhere, except on the dance floor..."for it is too simple to ignite your partner (don't misunderstand) or set a diaphanous dress ablaze." (p.6.) That interpolated "don't misunderstand" is about as naughty as Alice-Leone ever gets. It sort of takes away some of the reputed thrills of the Jazz Age. (Even though published in the depths of the Depression it was touted as a "handbook in the spirit of modern jazz age". It's also O.K.now to powder your nose in public and slap on a bit more lipstick. And no topic or word is taboo nowadays--if you use a "little geographical discretion".

As for nice girls "swearing": "an occasional 'damn' passes unnoticed, /but/ any systematic swearing on the part of a woman comes as a shock." But worse than shocking is tiresome--ladies who preface every sentence with "My God." So strictly speaking, the title of her book of manners should have read "Nice Girls Don"t Swear All the Time Everywhere."

Chapter 2,"Should She Ask Him In?" sounds like it's getting more interesting. Don't count on it. If a girl lives at home, no problem--any hour for any reason. The family, awake or asleep is sufficient chaperone. (Miss Moats must have had broad-minded parents!) It's the working girl living by herself who has to be careful. She sets three rules: midnight curfew, sobriety, and "know your man". Knowing your man is easier said than done, for it appears difficult for masculine mentality to grasp the difference between living alone and living loosely.

"Too often men overlook the fact that a woman in business earns her money in an office."(p. 10.) The trickier question is what to do when he asks you in. There she is solicitous of the boy friend's wallet by being willing to eat at his place. And in any case one had to follow Cinderella's advice by leaving early. And don't risk your reputation by leaving a man's apartment at dawn's early light. That's taking maximum risk for minimum pleasure.

Has petting a place in a modern book of etiquette? Moats mocks Emily Post's position that this practice "has no more place in distinguished society than any other actions that are cheap, promiscuous, or vulgar."(P.13.) "A sweeping statement, to say the least!" demurs our mentor. "If this august lady's rule were to be followed when separating the sheep from the goats, society would soon dwindle to well below the magical 'four hundred'." She tells her presumably no longer innocent reader that telling seventeen different men that they were the first to kiss her would soon be tested by the candor of the men sharing a bottle of brandy stag. To keep a beau from becoming a lover, avoid all romantic ambiences and in the newest peril (the taxicab) when all bright conversation fails, "there is always the cigarette." And here we had thought all along that fast women succumbed to the Chesterfield habit back then to be sexy and romantic.

Moats is instructive in the etiquette of Christian names in "this casual era." Already there was pressure building for instant bonhomie. "Ordinarily a young man and a girl use Christian names shortly after they've met, but it's up to the girl to take the initiative. It is impossible to give the correct length of time which should elapse before switching from 'Mr. Tabel' to 'Joseph'. Rely on your woman's intuition. During that uncertain period use 'You'." (p. 23.) Yawn.

Excuse me, Miss Moats. The same hierarchies of deference are spelled out with respect to older, different sex, nature of relation. It's South Carolina showing once more. Similar reticence surrounds the simple problem of how to encourage or discourage a young man who wants to see you again. If you want to take the initiative, invite him to a cocktail party but don't use his Christian name in your invitation.

Chapter seven through sixteen explain the politics of debutante balls. I have never felt so grateful to have grown up lower middle class. The sheer all inclusive obsessiveness of its details make me restless. But you can see with her conditionals and provisos that the system was already breaking down as a cordon sanitaire for society girls. The next three chapters are on getting married--or remarried. Which is to say, the payoff for the preceding ten. Never has a windup seemed so disproportionate to a pitch.

Then there are two chapters of traveling. You have the impression she is talking about really knockout women traveling alone. "The only way to avoid being picked up is to develop the psychology of the averted eye." (p. 115.) Heh, this is not Manhattan, 1989. This is taking the train from New York to Philly 1933! She must have been reading "Sister Carrie". Her advice on how to avoid talking to dining car "companions" is astonishing.

One of the real pleasures (and on American railroads perhaps the only pleasure) of traveling by train is the spontaneous conversations you can find in the bar car or the diner. Certainly the microwaved semi-fast food is not one of them. The stuff actually makes you want to fast. "You are not expected to talk to them," she advises, "but it only courteous to acknowledge their presence with a slight smile on sitting down and on leaving the table." (p.116.)

I'm glad I never received one of those discreet grimaces because I'm sure it would have unleashed a barbarous guffaw from me. "The main object, when traveling," she continues, "is to remain inconspicuous at all times." This by way of recommending a "smart suit of some dark material, or a very plain dress under a coat, with a small brimmed hat (the object being to hide as much hair as possible and keep it in place). . ." (p.119.)

Aw, Moatsie. Tell me you're kidding. She must have really suffered from "garrulous strangers" in her travels--for all the defenses she advises her readers to devise. She's much less tight when advising her pupils how to spend a weekend out of town or how to behave on vacations, presumably because her social contacts are less heterogeneous in those upper class milieux. Something of a snob, the Young Miss Moats must have been, or (could it have really been shy?) I think she overcame both disabilities, to judge from her work in the Inquirer in the 1980's.

Her last advice is on how to handle drunks. She is ruthless. Grab your mad money and run. I can't believe that if a real boy friend got sick from drinking, she'd abandon him. But that's what she counseled. "When your escort passes out in a public place, waste no time worrying over him. Get up and leave quickly; take a taxi and go home. If you are fond of the young man and don't wish him to get into too much trouble, you might take his money and other valuables before departing, leaving him only taxi fare. If you do this, he won't be able to get into any further mischief when he recovers."

Alice-Leone, you were one mean broad. But beguiling. Moatsie, I miss you. Ah well, I still have your serious books to do. That's a small consolation.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Black Art/Black Lives

Why is it that the more widely publicized and the better funded Black History Month becomes, the deeper the divisions between white and black Philadelphians grow? There is no one answer. And there are certainly no easy answers. But if we don't try to discover the roots of this paradox and remove those evil influences, our future as a city and a nation is doomed.

The first, and least satisfying, answer is the operation of what I call the Fourth of July syndrome. For the two centuries and more of its existence, 99 and 44/100ths of U.S. (that's us, you and me) did not act as if the achievement of an innovative egalitarian culture were the most important item on our personal and national agendas. Except during Fourth of July orations. If Christians display a contemptible hypocrisy when expressing their ideals "only on Sunday" to be closet pagans the rest of the week, then Americans who only pretended to be egalitarian one day in the year were HyperHypocrites.

Indeed it has taken a load of Hype to pretend that we were egalitarian souls when we began by committing genocide on the indigenes we mistakenly called Indians and built half of our economy on the buying and selling of slaves--three fourths, if you include the very very religious New England sea captains who also cashed in on what Melville called "History's foulest crime". His aphorism about the America he loved so much he hated its evils like no other writer since still seems prescient to me: "Nature's noblest chance blighted by history's foulest crime."

The direst consequences of this hypocrisy haunt the City of Brotherly Love at this very moment. And the crisis seems to deepen by the minute. Center City merchants are reluctantly voting to tax themselves a little bit more for cleaner and safer (and thus more economically profitable) streets. They're putting the cart of cleanup before the horse of a different color. The horse's ass of racism. The Koerner report didn't teach us to mend our ways. Last week's horror story that fully a quarter of black males between the ages of 20 and 29 have come under the control of our criminal justice system will be replaced by some greater horror next week. Our media batten on a horror of the week. It boosts ratings to talk superficially about the racial crisis at the same time that it motivates the white "victims" to abandon Center City more and more.

Most Americans now suffer from what I call Compassion Fatigue. They rationalize their increasingly crude and unfeeling responses to our common malaise with cop out drivel like "I've never owned slaves. Why are they picking on me?" I recently walked through the "Let This Be Your Home" exhibit at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum with a 24 year old Ph.D. candidate in architectural history from the University of Freiburg. The opening sequences take you through the South from which the blacks fled, at first for defense jobs up North during World War I, and increasingly just because the mechanization of cotton picking was wiping out the only jobs available to them, miserable though that employment always was.

There is a particularly appalling photo of a lynching victim swinging from a tree, with Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" in the background. Next to it is a great ugly crowd reveling in the brutality. She asked me where there was a black well-dressed man in the crowd. I was puzzled myself until the terrible truth dawned on me--he was standing out from the crowd because he was the next man to swing from the tree. There are signs from the segregated bus and train stations making their compelling point. "How long ago did they abolish that kind of segregation," she asked. I was ashamed to have to say 1965.

How appallingly late in our history. I have just finished reading Phyllis Rose's superb biography of Josephine Baker. Check it out from the Free Library. Its title is "Jazz Cleopatra". It is full of anti-biotics for Americans suffering that terrible intellectual disease I have called compassion fatigue. Would you believe this? There was a combat troop of blacks in World War I called the Harlem Hellraisers. They won 171 Croixs de Guerre from the French government for their bravery in action. But Black Jack Pershing wouldn't let them march in the Victory Parade in Paris. Might get uppity ideas to take back home, suh. He also secretly circulated memoranda forbidding fraternization between black American troops and the French soldiers they shared the trenches with. Is that sick or what?

Josephine was some prophetic lady. She struggled out of the slime of East St. Louis to star, first on Broadway, then become the absolute sensation of l920's Paris. During World War II she became a secret agent for the O.S.S., using her mobility and visibility as an entertainer to gather information from the Germans in North Africa and Portugal. After the war, she started her Rainbow Tribe, eventually a dozen children from all over the world, a paradigm of a future loving world community.

Surprised that you'd never heard about this great lady? The French knew and loved her so well that her funeral in Paris was the biggest since the war, rivaling the burial of national heroes like Charles De Gaulle. We don't know about such great black Americans because our media have lied to us by omission for centuries. Instead they O.D. us on the Trumps. Isn't that disgusting? And is it any wonder that America is reeling like a drunken giant from crisis to crisis.

Did you notice the PDN story (2/28/90) that fully 60% of the S&L failures have been attributed to outright fraud. But we little taxpayers are picking up the pieces to the tune of $2000 per family, with the final costs not yet totted up. And some of the S&L crooks are still floating around on the yachts they stole from U.S. (us, i.e. you and me). But a quarter of the black males have tasted jail--partly at least because they've been living in human hells devised by redlining S&L executives. Talk about perestroika. Talk about glasnost. Don't you think we need a little here at home.

The local museums have pitched in to make Black History month memorable. PMA has a throwaway show in one corridor. It's undercaptioned. It has the earmarks of a pro forma "we are as liberal as the next museum" response. But there are three lovely Horace Pippins, that great folk genius of Westchester. I suggested two years ago that they mount a proper centennial of his birth retrospective. No go. Just a little throwaway show. Maybe it's not better than nothing. Because it soothes compassion fatiguesters who can't salve their guilty consciences by a quick Sunday morning walkby.(I watched a bunch of them last Sunday when I went to check out the show.) PAFA is coming in a little late for Black History month with its Morris Gallery show on black artist Ray Saunders. He's an interesting painter. So don't miss it. And there were some fine black quilt makers in the recently concluded "Appalachian Quilts" show at the Balch.

But art is no substitute for life. Indeed, in America, it is my increasingly sad conclusion, Culture has become the Great Coverup. Buy art. See art. Love art. It's easier than paying your black workers a living wage. It's easier than looking at the social disaster of North Philly. It's easier by far than learning to love your black brothers and sisters. But as the great poet W.H. Auden once observed in a poem "We must love one another/or die."

Not that I want to downplay the art impulse. But art is only important as it enriches our human capacities to live more thoughtfully and more compassionately. My life has been enriched lately by our belated recovery of great untutored geniuses like Bill Traylor of Alabama, or Elijah Pearce of Columbus, Ohio. How many mute inglorious black Miltons are there lying fallow out there for our art historians and museum curators to discover. These outsider artists are particularly crucial to the hoped for healing of America's racial divisiveness because they reveal the astonishing potential (and horrendous wasted talent) of the ordinary black citizen. Walk in the shoes of the black student at the AfroAm. Proud?

Sunday, 29 March 2009

How Green Was My TEEVEE

Last summer when we vacationed on Cape Cod, we dug The Big Dig whether we wanted to or not, getting in and out of Logan International Airport. Eighteen Billion Dollars! (And still digging!) The original budget was for $4 billions. It set a new standard for pork barreling.

What a comfort, then, to see how Single Speed Design, run by two young Asian American architects (John Hong and Jinhee Park); has found a way to recycle 500 tons of Big Dig discarded steel and concrete--and win Metropolis Magazine’s first visionary competition—its $10,000 Next Generation Design Prize. The instigator of this canny historic recycling was one Paul Pedini, a civil engineer who had been supervising the creation of temporary bridges as the Big Dig dug in. He talked the authorities into letting him save the dismantled bridge elements to be eventually used in experimental housing.

It was an uphill struggle. Strange looking. Used concrete and steel beams? Who would want to live next to such Modernist Monsters. They were at first even turned down by a settlement of Walter Gropius-trained architects who have long relished the tiny Bauhaus inspired settlement, Moon Hill, that they had devised for themselves in Lexington, MA.

But Single Speed Design took Pedini’s challenge, until eventually they slowly sweet talked all those with the power to veto their project to go along. This green wavelet is the focus of one half-hour TV program in a cluster of six under the rubric, Design: E Squared.

Other topics include New York City’s successful program to put grass roofs on Battery City apartment complexes and Chicago Mayor Richard Dailey’s successful campaign to turn the Windy City’s downtown into a stunning green oasis. I walked through Frank Gehry’s sinuous elevated walkway towards Lake Michigan on my last visit there, and believe me, it’s a splendidly sensuous urban experience. It sure ain’t the Chi Town I experienced as a seventeen year old Swabbie at Great Lakes more than sixty years ago. (Who’d thunk old hack Richard Daley’s son would—or could!--turn green?)

Convincing a TV audience complacently used to its structurally Wasteful Way of Life is no easy assignment. But the producers have chosen a mix of informants, like the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, the man in charge of environment action at City Hall, local architects, and the editor of Metropolis Magazine.

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has appeared in an analogous series for CNN on Energy Efficiency. “We create abundance by design. Saving energy costs less than buying it!”) Lovins has helped Wal-Mart design more energy efficient big boxes. They have also designed a Hypercar which uses carbon materials instead of steel. It’s part of a continuingly engaging CNN TV magazine, “Global Challenges”, which juxtaposes international examples of intelligence in action—a vivid instance of what old guru Marshall McLuhan meant by “global village”.

In this edition of GC, Lovings is juxtaposed with a Thailand defender of the mangrove as a multipurpose solution to local agricultural problems, as well as Tim Smith, a upwardly failed rock star, who, wealthy from his noise generation in his early 30’s, adopted an abandoned Victorian garden in Cornwall, gradually transforming himself into a plant guru who seems to be regenerating not only that neglected garden but an entire sector of impoverished Britain.

His Eden Project, a Giant Geodesic snuggled into an abandoned china clay pit, would have thrilled old Bucky Fuller, plant lover that he was when he wasn’t scheming to reconfigure our architectural conventions. The tactic CNN uses is not to argue rationally but to show visitors enthralled, from gaped-mouthed young students to gabby old geezers. Turning green is not thereby a Puritanical mandate but a giddy adventure. I can just see cranky old Ted Turner grinning in satisfaction. With 99 and 44/100ths of our globe dingy Brown Fields (unlike the advertised Ivory Soap, it is sinking!) we need all the greening we can engender. That TV is finding ways of accelerating the process is hopeful.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Old Autobahn to Nowhere

Never has the aphorism “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” rang truer than in the forty year tenure of the German “Democratic” Republic. Since the falling of the wall, there has evolved a new fondness of recollection for the dissolved republic called Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East German Ossi’s. This psychological wave was accelerated by films like Sonnenallee and Good-bye Lenin.

But the real animus behind Ostalgie is the frustrations of living in the new six of a United Germany’s sixteen states. High unemployment, defective infrastructure, outmigration trumps nostalgia in the real world. So the opening of a DDR Museum this summer in Berlin is full of the significance of transition. Across the street they are finally tearing down the Palace of the Republic which Erich Honecker built on the grounds of a razed Royal Palace. Palace fans fought long and hard to “save” it. They loved their memories there—dancing and dining under the fancy lights of what the cynical jibed was Honecker’s “Lamp Store”.

The address of the new museum is Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 1 is a little white lie, to honor the head of the Communist Party who was murdered along with Rosa Luxembourg in the turmoil that followed the end of World War I. You have to actually turn off that main street and descend to a building along the southern bank of the River Spree. The real main street soon becomes Unter den Linden where the German Historical Museum has just opened a permanent exhibition on 2000 years of German history. The intellectual contrast between the two is shocking.One peddles interesting lore about life in the GDR; the other really assesses the meanings of German history in a serious way.

The DDR show begins with a description of how young people were taught how to think as Socialists. Young Pioneers for the lower grades. At fourteen you had the privilege of joining Freie Deutsche Jugend. (If you didn’t join, or you displayed contrarian tendencies in high school, forget about higher education or any specialties like nursing.) Founded in 1946, by 1985 about 80% of youth between 14 and 25 belonged to Free German Youth. TV and comic books used cartoon figures like Wattfriss (literally energy saver) to cultivate conservation habits and the Junkman to hype recycling.

The DDR made an honest effort to give workers free or reduced cost vacations, especially on the Baltic coast, the Harz mountains, or the woods of Thuringia—of if they were really lucky, subsidized visits to Communist countries like Poland and Hungary. My Ossi wife’s father was a pediatrician and he was expected to devote so many hours each summer to taking care of children on Baltic coast vacations. In 1982 the Free German Trade Union Federation owned 695 holiday homes, hotel allocations, and the cruise ship Arkona. They accounted for 1.7 million vacation trips that year, with families given preference.

In 1973 the GDR went international, with its Tenth World Festival displaying a new openness to the rest of the Socialist and non-Socialist world. But as the SED party tried to become more cosmopolitan, the people began to wonder why was more openness only a summer thing. The most long lived rock group, the Puhdys were first allowed to perform in the Federal Republic of Germany, then in the USA. I was astonished in listening for the first time to the notorious hit “Special Train to Pankow” to discover that it was GDR lyrics to “Chattanooga Choo Choo”!

One touching display talked about a young playwright named Edgar Wibeau who discovered in a discarded paperback copy of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of theYoung Werther”being used as toilet paper the story of a young idealist who committed suicide when he lost his true love. Wibeau wrote a controversial play about a worker undergoing a similar experience—to a bevy of disconcerted censors. Outside a viewing room where we watched the TV newsmagazine AUGEN ZEUGE (Eyewitness) you are informed that there were 39 newspapers, 2 TV stations and 4 radio networks but only one opinion. Every Wednesday, all the editors met to be given the party line! The theme of the newsreel was the Plattenbau apartments (prefab high rises) that were constructed beginning in the 1970’s to house the workers. The saddest thing was that during the entire half hour I didn’t see one person, young or old, smile.

But underneath the placid surface of total compliance, new energies were converging. The Berlin Zionist Community had developed a secret printing operation, with protecting the environment their cover theme. In November 1987 the STASI secret police stormed the secret basement, confiscated all the presses and jailed all the workers there. But the SED had gone too far: sympathizers light candles and stood in front of churches. The government finally gave in, and released the prisoners.

One of the most visited displays was a typical Plattenbau kitchen. Strangely, there is a sign warning visitors against taking away kitchen souvenirs because a video camera was watching them!

One of the saddest displays was about working women. They were coddled generously, with free day care, time off for birthing babies, and more and more access to good jobs and profession. But sadly, the patriarchal German fathers trumped these initiatives: the “freed” women found that they still had their old full time job at home, keeping house. Once again, good intentions merely led to more complicated frustrations. Incidentally, these museums seem to be mushrooming across the former GDR. There are no fewer than 30 small museums in towns along the border between the GDR and the FRC telling what it was like having their small towns split in two. And Trabbie old car meetings are also joining the Ostalgie Boom.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Overcoming International Provincialism

Before I began to visit Eastern (and Northern) Europe in the 90s, I discovered I had been an unwitting victim of what I have come to call trilateral (Paris/London/New York) undernational parochialism. Market-driven art criticism narrowed normal exposure to the artists who dominated those three markets. And ethnocentrism played no little part: I learned to relish German Expressionism later than necessary because the graduate schools (covertly influenced by those monopolizing markets) didn't get onto it as fast as they promoted Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism et al. Wars have a dampening effect--even on so-called objective intellectuals.

Perhaps the last laugh in this charade was played out at the Tate Modern in London last summer when we were urged to decide who was the Bigger Biggie of this Cultural Entente: Picasso or Matisse! (That artistic vaudeville act is now playing the Grand Palais in Paris.) When at last year's CULTURA in Basel, I delightedly discovered two galleries from Hungary, I knew the exclusionary attitude was slowly but surely disappearing. And when I visited at Munich's Kunsthaus! AVANTGARDEN: In Central Europe, 1910-1930 I realized that an aesthetic Maginot Line had been breached for once and for all.

This exemplary exhibition originated in Los Angeles, where the legendary Stephanie Baron had organized groundbreaking shows on the Nazi obsession with so-called degenerate art as well a cliché-dispelling take on the lost second generation of German expressionism. Her acolyte Timothy O. Benson is the eye behind a shorter version circulating in Europe, just opened at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. Like the new Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz, whose genius was long hidden by the double whammy of Nazi and Communist apparatchiks, this body of work was intellectually as well as physically inaccessible. It is the greatest of pleasures to be able to relish it.

And the museology is as creative as the work it so cogently displaying, using constructivist architecture to let you traipse delightedly through the fourteen urban scenarios (in this order, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, Bucharest, Zagreb, Belgrade, Ljubljana, Krakau, Warschau, and Lodz.) The catalog itself is a glory, melding maps of the cities cited with splendid color repros of the art and black and white images that create a three-dimensional feeling for where these creative activities were taking place.

For example, we see Jiri Kroha's interior of the Montmartre Café, its cubistic exuberance reminding the eye of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. (There is considered speculation on the idiosyncratic nature of Czech Cubism. I like the theory that it is a spin off of the Baroque facades of Prague streetscapes.) Equally delectable black and whites of Vlastilav Hofman's design for a graveyard entrance and Antonin Pfeifer's cubist frame for the monument to St. John Nepomuk, from avant-garde café to liturgical monuments, you can't get more ecumenical than that. And these old photos only prepare you for the visual joy afforded by Pavel Janak's coffee set and jewelry boxes, as fresh today as they must have felt in 1912.

And Josef Gocar's writing table and chair of 1915 makes the dining room set that Marcel Breuer made for Wassily Kandinsky look merely goofy, as displayed last summer at the Centre Pompidou's Bauhaus exhibition, severely distorted for being too dependent on the widow's gift to the museum. If it does nothing else, these forays into the terrae incognitae of Eastern Europe reminds of how tight ass the purported Weimar Creators were: Heh, Josef Albers, I've seen enough of those obsessive squares; and the yellow, blue, red/ square, triangle, cube tabula rasa esthetic of the Home Team has blighted our landscapes for a century, culminating in that reductio ad absurdum of the Bauhaus in the Plattenbau.

Karel Teige was never so tight in his socially conscious architectural visions, and marvelously clear in his typography. Strangely, I find his cover for Devetsil/The Revolutionary Almanach (1922) much more appealing after all these years than much of the fine art. And his title page for ReD (1927) is as scintillating as Constructivist art can be.

Not that the fine art is negligible. Otto Gutfreund's bronze, Concert (1912-13), is as kinetic a display of the collaborative energy in musical performance as that stolid medium allows. And Josef Capek's oil on canvas, Head (1914-15) is as sly a riff on that part of the human anatomy as ever I've seen. Otakar Kubin's Still Life with Box (1912-13) melds a Fauvist palette with Cezannish perspectives.

Underpinning these individual achievements is a lively picture of the groups and exhibitions in Prague which mediated these interactions from the melting pots of Berlin, Vienna and Paris. I can only record my delight at discovering so many new facets of European culture, more and more to be seen its its Euro totality. Like the marvelous traveling Mannheim show last season on the Year 1000, collaboratively deployed by Czech, Hungarian and Polish curators, this exhibition not only preens itself credibly, but foreshadows an era when we will all share a fully inclusive European heritage. (Down with the Undernationals!)

An added pizazz comes from recreating the Constructive architecture of Friedrich Kiesler, the Rumanian/Austrian visionary. And save at least an hour for the delicious chrestomathy of documentary films that is the High (and Exit) Point of the exhibition. I still relish the proto-Feminist Hungarian flick of three women pianists being led by a lady conductress! Perhaps it's its LA origins that accounts for its demotic appeal. Serious but not condescending. And don't forget if you get hooked as I have been, a much more extensive commentary (two fat volumes) in English from the Los Angeles County Museum is available on Amazon.com. If only Disneyland could be as solid and substantial!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A Lament over Our Two Americas

The most disconcerting aspect of the 2004 Election is the comatose electorate, including both GOPs and Dems. (There are a few Greens including of course Ralph Nader who do see what has been going on—but not many). Most Americans simply don’t realize how systemically divided our country has become. Of course there have been inklings from the beginning; the nefarious two thirds of person rule in the Constitution that guaranteed that slave states would have many seats in Congress with no slaves citizens: But up till recently we had been closing the gap between the Reality of limited justice for all and the Ideal of fair and equal justice no strings attached.

Take the twin careers of former Polish peasant Martha Stewart, self made millionaire and George W. Bush, legacy pseudo success: Martha now sits in prison for one indiscreet phone call, proving that uppity feminists are not above and beyond the call of a twisted justice system.

Then take George W. Bush. Unpunished drunk driver. AWOL even from the Houston Champagne Squadron. So he could get a jump start on real Vietnam Vets at the Harvard Business School where one of his teachers reports that this widely proclaimed Compassionate Conservative Christian found Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” “corny”: Some compassion: Some Christianity: Then this serial bankrupt did what is considered the Worst Sin of Capitalism. He dumped his Harken stock, betraying his stockholders by insider trading. The SEC rather lethargically called him on it but never punished him, even when he was long overdue on his reporting this felony. This grubby little stake was what gave him astonishing access to the Texas Rangers. And little wonder he became a born again Christian: By some as yet unexplained “miracle” his tiny stolen grub stake in the Rangers made him a millionaire Crawford TX rancher, who loves to clear his brush. Nice non-work if you can get it. But Martha can’t, in her West Virginia work camp.

And because he’s an archetypical Rubber Stamp, mega-felon Kenneth Lay financed his rise to the Governorship of Texas, where he did whatever the business community wanted while pretending to be a religiously driven populist: LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND; just neglect to finance the fatuous words. The TX test results are beginning to trickle in: Fraudulent populism. What would you expect from a man who brags he never reads newspapers and whose favorite philosopher is Jesus, and who smirks in a Yale address that “C” students have a bright future: LEAVE NO IGNORAMUS PREZ BEHIND. Kenny Boy is not in jail. But Martha is.

And what are we to believe about His Hammer, Tom DeLay, whom the House Ethics Committee “admonished” for egregious breaching of their rules. DeLay’s major success in the last Congress was to gerrymander a dozen or so new uncontestable GOP seats by a curious redistricting that left Texas geographers and demographers scratching their empty heads and complacent hearts. It’s time to retire the term gerrymander. Nowadays, districts are DeLayed. And elections are not won or last in Florida. They’re Jebbed: Jim Baker, Tony Soprano Scalia, and Dick Cheney go duck hunting and the Republic teeters off in another secret direction.

And consider the new-fangled Florida Poll Tax: It consists in sending State Police in civies (but sporting very obvious weapons) into neighborhoods where octogenarian blacks have fought for their voting rights for generations. To look for cheating: So tax-paid Pol-iceman intimidate old people for GOP majorities. That President Bush has not indicted those state police is a scandal: Martha reads about these crimes in her West Virginia work camp, but does nothing.

And consider how the media simply don’t get it. We were recently treated to a Beatification Ritual in which the future Saint Ronald was praised for single handedly destroying Communism (even though the CIA reports he never read said the Soviets were self-destructing from internal contradictions). The union-busting, Star-War fantasizing non-thinker was actually designing federal deficits to undermine Social Security and Medicare. Bush II dreams the same nightmares from the security of his stolen Texas ranch. The worst mistake President Reagan ever made was to de facto abolish the Fairness Doctrine: this led to the stupider and stupider waste of money on TV tsunamis of lies and counter-lies: Think of how our deteriorating schools could have been saved if these tele-debauch/debacle funds had been used to fix them.

How sad this all is. As a professor of American Literature, I used to tell my students that Am Lit was the greatest unread literature in the history of mankind: And that a people who didn’t read their great writers eventually lost their minds. That I believe is our present condition.

As I flush the slime out of my junk e-mail every morning (The American Dream has been cheapened to Bigger Dicks, Longer Erections, and More Naked Babes to Masturbate to), I wonder how we got so far off track. I think it began in the 1920’s when we made the Auto King—you could rise from Chevvie to Caddie in one easy life if you were lucky. Study? That was for drones: Save for the Future? That was for squares who weren’t with it soon enough. I grew up in Detroit in the 1930’s. So this is in my bones. I paid my way to a Ph. D by working in the automobile factories. I credit my not succumbing to this false life style to my Roman Catholic education, in which the Social Idealism of Pope Benedict XV prevailed.

The 1920’s began the infantilization of America that now threatens US. Tom Friedman has recently Op Edified on the impending disaster of our Sand Box culture: where adolescents who should be studying are frittering away their lives with video games and cell phones. Idiot voters for an idiot president. A Kerry victory will not reverse this degeneration. It will merely slow the speed of deterioration.

Which brings us to Iraq, the greatest threat to us and the world at this moment. Bush moralizing over the war reminds me of William Howard Taft’s banal comments on our then recent subjugation of the Filipinos. Yes, Virginia, America was an imperial power over a century ago. It wasn’t Iraqi oil then. It was coaling stations for our New Navy. He said, with terminal fatuousness as their new Governor General: “We are bringing our little brown brothers the blessings of Christianity”. Alas, for the poor little brown brothers, the Spaniards had done just that—three hundred years before.

So our Iraqi misadventure is not something new under the American sun. We’ve been there many times, done that something or another just as foolish many times before: It’s just that our minds, totally absorbed in sports statistics, have no space for the spaces beyond our Leagues, Little as well as Big. The Greek word “idiot” means someone who is locked into himself so completely he can’t communicate with others. Sound familiar? In those nefarious 1920’s we started to create the Celebrity Culture that has made idiots of us all. Movie stars, sports heroes, fashion queens. False lives. Not our own. And voting once every four years doesn’t make for a functioning democracy. Our bad habits have caught up with us.

When the Cheney cabal tells George to go to war in Iraq because they see down the road we will collapse as an industrial nation unless we control that oil, George repeats Condi’s clichés. Except the Saudi hijackers flew into the WTC and the Pentagon because they couldn’t beat us any other way, lacking equivalent armament. Just as the Palestinians use human martyrs because they don’t have the four billions of armament we give the Israelis every year to “defend” themselves. We’ve told ourselves these lies for so long we no longer can think straight.

Bush, in his AW SHUCKS simplemindedness, buys the myth that the End Days are coming. And we send thousands of poor young people (the rich stay home, as always, in Champagne Squadrons whenever possible) to protect Halliburton’s profits, using God talk to ease the pain of those who really suffer—and die.

It’s a mug’s game, as we are beginning to see—in these Two Americas, where black, brown, and poor white go straight to Death Row, while our least favorite Felon, the First Felon, executed more DNA denied prisoners than any other governor in Texas history. It’s called compassionate conservatism, or Rove Raving, or shrewd electoral politics.

I call it what it really is--the cynical and complete corruption of the American Dream, of justice fair and square, for all. And that includes Donald Rumsfeld for his interrogation procedures, Kenneth Lay for his extortions, and George W. Bush for his unpunished felonies, including imaginary WMDs. At the very least, the First Felon should give a presidential pardon for Martha Stewart—so she can go to John Kerry’s Inauguration. It’s only fair. With liberty and justice for all.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Modernoid Architecture in Dessau

I got to know Dessau in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt while writing a book on its most internationally famous institution, Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Thuringia. As its state legislature drifted slowly rightward under the pressures of the first Democratic, post-imperial Germany (Thuringia had the tacky distinction of being the first state to elect a Nazi minister—of education, no less), the Bauhaus moved to the liberal Dessau in 1925, where the mayor Fritz Hesse had welcomed the Bauhauslers so warmly that Gropius could build the school’s iconic Modernist campus (1926).

The American architect Philip C. Johnson was then cruising Europe looking for modernist buildings he could “brand” as the International Style at the about-to-be-founded Museum of Modern Art. He phoned Albert H. Barr, Jr. in Berlin--MOMA’s founding director--to urge him to visit Dessau, where he enthused over the new Bauhaus complex as “the greatest Modern building.”

(Johnson didn’t bother asking the professors and students inhabiting these structures, or he would have found them bitterly complaining about its excessive glass, which made them freeze in the winter and sweat mercilessly in the summer. This turned out to be a common complaint about Modernoid architecture--my neologism for “bad Modernist.”)

That great self-taught Detroit architect Albert Kahn (also a German immigrant in 1880), who became Henry Ford’s handyman, sneered at the Bauhauslers as “the Glass House boys.” Indeed, their Techno Hubris of overusing hot new materials like glass, steel and cement is in my opinion a self-destructive trait of Modernoid architecture.

As Nazism emerged as a false solution to the economic turmoil following World War I, the leftie mayor Fritz Hesse lost power to the new Nazis, and the Bauhaus got its second director, the Swiss Communist, Hannes Meyer, in 1928. Gropius fled in disgusted frustration to a private office in Berlin. Meyer was canned in 1930 for his leftism. (He took his ideas to Moscow!)

Mies van der Rohe became the third and final Bauhaus director in Berlin, where the Bauhaus rented an abandoned telephone factory. Mies tried in vain to get along with the Nazi hierarchy. But his history as the designer of a memorial (1926) to the two founders of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg made him a persona not so very grata to the Nazis, who closed the school for good in 1933.

After a rocky history as a changing institution under the Nazis and the German DDR, the old Bauhaus building settled into a future (1994) as a seminar for mid-career design professionals seeking solutions for the difficult dilemmas of architecture and urban design. There are tours of Bauhaus Dessau, including the three Master Houses Gropius built for his star artists: Paul Klee, Lionel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche and Marcel Breuer. (Gropius’s own house was destroyed by bombing in World War II.) And there is a brilliant wall history of the Bauhaus.

The next “must” stop is a short walk from the main train station, the spanking brand-new Federal Environment Department. The architectural duo Sauerbruch and Hutton were lovers while studying at the Architectural Association in London. In 2004 they built this colorful tribute to Germany’s commitment to ecological salvation, cannily using the former duke’s private entrance to the train to his Wörlitzer Gardens as the common entrance for this new public facility. It is full of clever innovation, such as using the old Duke’s Door to enter a new egalitarian era.

It also sprinkles differentially blooming flowers here, there and everywhere. More astonishing is their deployment of weeds--yeah, weeds--to suture together transitional spaces. After three attentive visits, excluding that glorious day in 2004 when I schmoozed with the overtly loving pair, I predict this bi-national pair will be the first to receive a joint Pritzker Prize.

The other “must see” in Dessau is the Hugo Junker Museum. Junker was one of the great German scientific polymaths, on the same level as Max Planck. He was a physics/chemistry professor at Aachen before World War I, where he began to design domestic and commercial heating and winter equipment, including an all-steel prefab house. All of this early commercial gear is housed in the former airplane factory that first gave Junker international fame. The museological standard is higher and more accessible than any other I have observed in 60 years of obsessive museum crawling.

Hitler confiscated Junker’s stock in 1933 and “imprisoned” him in Munich, where the Gestapo could insure this liberal humanist wasn’t slipping aeronautical secrets to potential enemies. He died two years later, testifying to the fact that Hitler’s evil ways were not limited to the abuse of Jews.

The art scene is very vigorous, what with the annual Kurt Weill Festival every January. His foundation’s headquarters is in one of the Master Houses, on Frederick Ebertstrasse, just off Pushkinallee. I also had a stimulating interview with architect Lutz Meixner at the City Museum (in a brilliantly renovated Castle behind the Marienkirche and not far from City Hall). Meixner is a graduate of the Bauhaus Uni in Weimar. His show displays 125 of the 650 sketches of local buildings he has drawn as a hobby since he graduated. In the rest of the museum the city’s history is clearly described.

Finally there is the Tierpark, just off Pushkinallee, past the bridge over railroad yards. The zoo is celebrating its 50th year. I had a marvelous outdoor lunch of a spargel omelette there at the WaldSchange, a name that alludes to the medieval custom of changing all the post horses every so many miles.

Dessau is a very modern city with great medieval credentials, which includes the Anhaltische Gemälde Gallerie (read: State Painting Galleries). Wait until its three great Lukas Cranach paintings return from a retrospective at Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main. Stop as soon as you detrain at the Mobility Center to pick up a fistful of up-to-date data on plays, concerts and art galleries around town.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Shopping Til You're Dropped

At breakfast the morning I visited Shopping (Frankfurt's Schirnhalle to 1/12/02, then to the Liverpool Tate), the headline for a free advertising weekly read DIE KIDS IM KAUFRAUSCH! The subhead explained that this new passion for shopping began with six year-olds insisting on only the highest priced brands! Ah yes. First it's college students filing for bankruptcy because of over indebted credit cards. Then it's high school teachers complaining that their students Handys are subverting the learning process. And now parents have to contend with moppets wanting only the best, like their similarly under-aged peers! How did we ever get onto this ever escalating running machine?

It's a question, alas, the polysyllabic, postmodern curators never get around to in their catalog, cutely priced at 29.99 Euros. (Entrance tickets are also bargain priced at 6.99!) Ha.Ha. But its no joke when parents on the firing line have to deal with over-entitled moppets. On the train back to Weimar, I read in Euro am Sonntag that New York retailers are in a tizzy because in their frantic attempts to get the Christmas gift sales rush cooking early, they'll fallen flat on their fiscal faces this year. (When I was in college fifty years ago in Detroit we used to mock the stores for starting their Christmas season before Thanksgiving; we teased that eventually it would be a Labor Day kickoff! They're there this year already.) Deepening their gloom, there is this year no MUST BUY toy to wangle before sated buyers. Christmas tree ornaments are already on sale.

But it's question every serious citizen in the advanced nations should be asking. We do not resent American CEOs getting up to 500 times the pay of their lowest paid workers out of envy, but out of fear. Fear that the house of cards were building will collapse into utter ruin. Similarly, we want the workers in developing nations to paid more for the goods they are making for us because they must earn enough eventually to also buy the goods they are making. That is the sharply contested axiom (by his competing automakers) that Henry Ford tested in 1915 when he inaugurated his $5 a day wage.) If you don't spread the wealth you go boom and bust.

The golden chains we forge to keep consumers consuming is a form of slavery. God knows it beats the Gulag and KZ Lager by a long shot.. But its Emerson's Things are in the Saddle/And ride mankind all over again. And advertising blather blocks citizens from acquiring the sophistication that is a necessary if not sufficient condition for surviving and thriving in a technological civilization. Right now, stock brokers watch the monthly Consumer Confidence index from the University of Michigan with as much attention as they do the Dow Jones. Remember President Bush's injunction to Americans after 9/11: Lead normal lives, i.e. keep buying. We beleaguered consumers are up to our eye teeth in credit card debt, but to be truly patriotic we have to keep buying! Our increasing indebtedness has been the engine dragging the world economy for several decades. If we tank, European and Japanese investors take back their dollars. And then? Simply on Benthamite grounds, we have to aggressively spread the income, just to keep our factories humming.

Blue collars have known the pain of such busts for over a century. Only with the dotcom collapse are white collars beginning to feel the pinch. The old mantra, SHOP TIL YOU DROP; becomes the much more ominous SHOP TIL YOU'RE DROPPED: Plummeting income and retirement accounts will put unpaid to this joyride. One of the more clever artifacts in the Schirn show is an overlarge shopping cart . One wag suggested it was for the corpses of the shoppers who dropped. The animus behind the show is that the era of the killjoys who despise shopping is over. Puritans, get lost. Alas, where we used to look to museums for clarity and insight, we have here only glib, thoughtless capitulation. What began with the Guggenheim hyping Harley Davidson's ends with the whimper of Andy Warhol's glib formula that the museum is becoming a department store, and vice versa. (It all began with the cheap joke of Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes.)

And yet there are estimable sidebars at this Sell Out. I didn't know, for example, that Hannes Mayer, the second director of the Dessau Bauhaus, forced out because of his Marxist values and ending up in Moscow as head of their City Planning, worked with Swiss coops to tutor the new consumer in what wed now term Green politics. Or that the Dadaists like Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray led a movement to make the new department store show windows artful methods for presenting their stylistic shticks to a wider public. Or that the great visionary, Friedrich Kiesler, actually wrote a book on show window design. (I did know that my favorite artist of the twentieth century, Sonia Delaunay, gave the first lecture on fashion at the Sorbonne in 1927. She kept her manic depressive husband during the first World War doing fashion herself. But the displays are curiously patriarchal. You'll find no Marianne Brandt classics here, even though she was the first woman to run a workshop at the Weimar Bauhaus.)

And there is a suite of instructive sites recapping Consumerist Parodies from Claes Oldenburg's The Store to the Fluxus visual riot of hilarious contempt for Art with a capital A. These reconstructions are well worth the 6.99 euro bargain price ticket. But we pay museums to think for us, not to pander to the companies that fund the exhibits. The only signs of ATTAC mentalities is an opening photo of armored supercops protecting a Nike supershop. You enter the show through a well-stocked supermarket. I wondered about the marvelously fresh fruits and vegetables. They are replaced every three days with the old stuff being gifted to homeless services. Its about the only gesture of social responsibility in this Paean to Purchasing. And don't miss Groucho Marx's superb satire, You Gotta Sing to Sell in a collection of selling scenes from a score of movies.

Meanwhile, across the Main, at M.A.K., is an even more uncritical take on consumption by one Murray Moss, a New York shopkeeper who has escalated to an eminence as freelance adviser on the significance of Design. Its called I Think, There I Shop. Hoo Ha. Not much thinking a whole lot of sloganizing. This exhibit is supported by the Ambience and Tendence shows at the Frankfurt Messe, which show the retailers what the hottest new items are for madcap consuming. Vitrines display Good Taste from all eras and price the ones still in production. I value my Alessi catalog more than this freebie. Out of it I found how to buy Marianne Brandt egg holders and fruit dishes.

And M.A.K.s director, James M. Bradburne, hits a new nadir in the corrupt interpretation of an artists famous aphorism with this gloss:And, in a world in which identity is increasingly defined by what one buysI shop therefore I am declares the artist Barbara Kluger the choices one makes as a consumer increasingly define who we are and the shape of the world around usat home, at work, at play. Kluger's mocking of the Cartesian dictum thus blurs into the kind of hustling that would turn a museum into a market place. What a low blowhard.

I SCHLEPP THEREFORE I CRAM could become the motto for the philosophy in which the tail of the museum store wags the dog of its programs. How sad. How self-defeating. Crazed consumers don't add a whit to a soundly growing economy. Thoughtful social criticism, bereft of Prada piffle, could however.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Germany's Industrial Archaeology

In the ten years I've been casing Germany (going on four as a permanent resident of Weimar) I have never been so impressed culturally as by the efflorescence of its industrial archaeology, It's mainly so far in the old Ruhr industrial districts, but is gradually spreading all over the nation. My first epiphany was in Oberhausen in 1995 where the insides of an abandoned gasometer had been deployed to explicate the industrial history of Germany in an exhibition entitled "Das Feuer and Die Flamme".

I was literally speechless.It is a heady experience to climb to the top of that structure and gawk on the greening of the Ruhr Gebiet. I knew that World War I was partly due to Britain and France's edginess about Germany's catching up with (and threatening to surpass) them in its delayed industrialization. But its particulars were a continent away from my graduate education in American Literature. Some years later I returned there for a Christo show, which included a detailed tour of other abandoned industrial structures (factories, power plants, all the "ugly" effluvia of superceded technologies.) I almost decided, partly from fatigue I guess at having to metabolize so much at one fell swipe, that they were overdoing it!

Then I serendipitously dropped off at its inauguration as a museum (I was on my way to savor the ducal gardens in Woerlitz, having just imbibed a seminar in Dessau on Ernst Neufert, the visionary who industrialized architecture) of an old brown coal power plant at Vockerode. The architecture was stunning in its industrial simplicity, a side of German architecture that had been totally eclipsed by the likes of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Strangely, a similar oblivion has submerged the reputation of the greatest architect to come from my home town of Detroit. Albert Kahn (1869-1942), emigrated from Rhaunen near Frankfurt with his rabbi father in 1880. The eldest of seven sons, he didn't even finish high school in Detroit, but apprenticed to an architect who was so wowed by his draughtmanship that he got him a traveling fellowship to Europe to prep himself, without formal education, for his great career as the architect for Ford's mass production.

He knew about the Bauhaus and openly scorned it--as "razored" architecture. Which didn't endear him to the Germanist Phillip Johnson who became the de facto legitimizer of architectural reputations until this very day. In 1940 the immigrants Gropius and Mies met with Kahn at the University of Michigan. They wanted war work, and Kahn had become the de facto Albert Speer of the American defense industry. He repaid their scorn by judging that they knew how to make museums and skyscrapers, but not factories. All the more odd because the great grain silos at American seaports had been the first stimulus for German modernists to streamline their architecture. It's the insides of factories Kahn believed they didn't understand. They were to him facile façade makers.

Now, there is at Essen an exhibition of equal importance on the architects Fritz Schupp (1896-1974) and Martin Kremmer (1895-1945) called "Symmetrie und Symbol" (until 3 November) at their "masterpiece", the Zeche Zollverein XII (1927-1932). Their use of grandly geometric steel girders to support mining equipment is as breathtaking as, say, Wren's St. Paul. And their constructivist use of brick would make even Mario Botta envious, it is so finely detailed. A catalog of specialist essays explores their ouevre in great and clarifying particulars. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to latch on to this German innovation.

(Unrelated, but pertinent is an exhibition in Amsterdam-until December 1 at the Stedelyk Museum of the industrial photos of Bernd and Hilla Becker on the occasion of their receiving of the Erasmus Prize: the two of them have almost single-handedly invented this genre of the typology of industrial buildings.) The Germans are exorcising the snobbery that equated Old and High Class with architectural achievement. It is a development that deserves to be emulated throughout the world.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Lethal Hubris of American Exceptionalism

The first time I became skeptical about the American doctrine of Exceptionalism was in planning a new course on The Mass Society for the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. That American Civilization seminar attempted to assess the impact of mass production and mass communication on the American character. It was in the midst of a deepening recession and Fairfax Cone, a leading advertising mogul at the time, tried to whistle in the deepening economic dark by assuring his New York Times readers that America was still The All Time Hit on Humanities Hit Parade. It seemed like an especially fatuous observation, but it started me thinking.

I had learned in my colonial American literature courses that the Congregationalist divines in Massachusetts Bay had actually argued that God's covenant with them had kept the New World empty so that they could be a City on the Hill, setting a good theological example for the corrupt Old World. (Tell that to the Indians, I huffed, with characteristic graduate student scorn.) It was that seed of American Exceptionalism that morphed over the ensuing decades into Manifest Destiny, Lincoln's last, best hope of Mankind, and finally into its current form, The American Dream. (It stunned me to learn that this ideal originated during the Great Depression, another whistling in the dark scenario if there ever was one!) And it also interested me to observe that the American politicians obsession with the New began shortly after Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the Great American Frontier closed. TR's The New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's The New Freedom, FDR's the New Deal, and of course John Kennedy's the New Frontier. Why this obsessive trait of trying to ignore our accumulating history by attempting to reaffirm the tabula rasa freshness of that City on the Hill.

My theory builds on the hypothesis that the American character has been deeply split from the very beginning of our experiment in egalitarian democracy. How could it be otherwise? Jefferson's Declaration of Independence said one thing, our effective genocide of the native Indians and our complicity in Negro slavery affirmed something quite antithetical. Americans from the start believed they were in Eden, but they acted as if they inhabited Eldorado. Our Superego said one thing, our Id the opposite. We are only gradually and partly integrating those conflicts in a secure Ego. That split also accounts for our almost manic depressive swings from HyperIdealism (say, The Peace Corps) to unabashed greed (as symbolized by the Enron Era).

I also explain our Violent Past and Present from a similar lack of integration. Our penchant for the death penalty is surely related to our suppressed fears that our long exploited underclasses would wreak compensatory vengeance on us if only they could. The heat lightning prefiguring such paybacks we saw in the Watts and Rodney King riots. The gap between what we say we stand for and the way we mostly behave has to be occasionally closed by outbreaks of violence. It is pathetic how slowly even a minority (professional historians) have discovered such outrages as the Tulsa obliteration of a black neighborhood after World War I. It wasn't until last year that I happened to pass through Duluth, MN when their first black mayor was memorializing a similar eruption. Black soldiers had fought for America, and they wanted equality. They were crushed, even in Farmer/Labor Minnesota. Sometimes, when I compare how much more Europeans are sensitive and aware of their national histories than Americans it seems that the real American Exceptionalism is blindness to our own heritage, warts and all.

9/11 has only exacerbated this national fault. I was appalled on a recent visit to my home town Philadelphia to see that the public buses all kept flashing GOD BLESS AMERICA on the sign that tells you where the bus is going. And there was a great controversy over the discovery of slave quarters on George Washington's property, where the new Constitution Center was being constructed. After a loud squabble, the National Park Service agreed to include that embarrassing detail about the Father of Our Country's experience where he lived as our first President. To be sure, 9/11 with one cruel stroke obliterated the illusion that we were exceptionally secure between two protective oceans. (Saner heads had long observed how undefended we were by economic migration along our southern frontier.)

A major lesson of 9/11 has yet to sink in: the creative destructiveness of our global capitalism makes us exceptionally vulnerable to the passions of other people our benign imperialism is uprooting.(And those people also include untold American blue collars whose jobs have slipped first into Mexico, and now into the coolie labor Far East.)

The opening months of the Bush administration revealed how the ideology of American Exceptionalism played out, clad in faux Texas cowboy gear. No to Kyoto, to nuclear testing, to banning landmines, to creating an international criminal court,to paying UN dues. During his UN speech, President Bush presumed he was ingratiating himself with his international infra-peers by rejoining UNESCO. He was actually drawing attention to the neanderthalic impulse that motivated the US to abandon an organization we should have wrestled to improve from the inside.

And the insolence of the President sneering at a reporter who had the courtesy to address President Chirac with his fluent French only reminds us of his fumbling Spanish aimed at bamboozling his Hispanic Texas constituency. Exceptionally oblivious one might infer to a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, to cite a former president who was exceptionally open to what he could learn from the rest of mankind. (One day in Honolulu when I was interviewing the leading journalist of Kerala, India, he told me how Jefferson risked death by hiding some grains of a new variant of Italian rice in a hollow walking cane so he could improve agriculture in Virginia!) Now there's cultural exchange!

American Exceptionalism was once a relatively harmless delusion for an immature society; today it has become a lethal hubris that could do us in. We are not,of course, the only Exceptionalists in this world, only the most powerful, and possibly the most reckless and most dangerous because of our blindness to others. The Israeli-Palestinian standoff is based on the Jewish belief that they are God's Chosen People, and therefore have an uncontestable right to Judea and Samaria, and a God-given right to ignore the sanctions imposed by the same UN that gave them their country. And the Muslims are driven by equally exceptionalist assumptions about Allah and Mohammed. The World dearly needs a surcease from these Exceptionalist fantasies.

In 1961, when I was the first director of the American Studies Institute at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii, I said that it was the greatest American idea since the Declaration of Independence. American and Asian students mingling as they prepared careers for modernizing their diverse countries. It was a Declaration of Interdependence. An exceptionally far-sighted idea, somewhat diminished by my discovering that my number two had spent the last ten years in the CIA. (He was their mole!) But no matter, in the real world we must take the bitter with the sweet. Which really means rejoining the human race with our undeniably exceptional powers to change our common world for the better, if only we could descend from the High Horse of Exceptionalism. Even cowboys have to leave their saddles some of the time.

Friday, 20 March 2009

I Think Before I Shop

Do you know what is thrilling to a design nut like me? To go to a good design show and find two of your favorite purchases under the spotlight. That happened to me Sunday when I went to MAK/Frankfurt to look into an exhibit called, I Think, Therefore I Shop. (A word later on that pretentious and fallacious takeoff on Barbara Kruger's I Shop, Therefore I Am.) The good news was my serendipitous encounter of another unrelated show called Less Is Better (a much more agreeable formula than Mies van der Rohe's puritanically narrow Less Is More), a tribute to Braun Design's resident Genie, Dieter Rams. (My two treasures are a small bedside clock that tells you, lighted, in the middle of the night, what time your insomnia is clocking, and a larger, but still agreeably compact, stereo radio with my favorite frequencies ready to punch up.) Both are clad in black dull lacquer, with controls in highly visible white, green and red.

It was a great pleasure to learn about the career of my benefactor, and see the whole range of his creations in the vitrines. Designers are even more anonymous creators than architects, and I firmly believe that the low level of median design in the advanced economies derives mainly from an utter lack of basic education on the subjects for future consumers. MAK is a pioneer in extending this education. Only last year I was relishing at MAK their display of the annual Braun student design competition.

And recently on a trip to Stuttgart, their exceedingly attractive Kunst/Design posters at the main train station inveigled me into a trip to the airport to see another Braun show. It was a watershed experience for me. The art half of the exhibition was full of half-baked avant-garde pieces, not one of them worth even a cursory glance, let alone sustained meditation. They were on the level of last year's Turner prize in London which went to a Kunst Klutz who designed a space where the lights went on and off, period. Come on. Is that a reasonable payoff for the millions of Euros we invest annually in Fine Arts curricula?

Meanwhile, across the hall in that airport concourse, the design half was luminous in its collection of everyday objects in which technological intelligence and aesthetic feeling were melded into transcendently and permanently attractive objects. Braun not only designs well, it is educating future consumers to understand the importance of such designs. The only other such broadly based mechanism is the firm, MANUFACTUM; which was started because its founder couldn't find common necessaries well designed enough to relish while using. He even tried to institutionalize his vision by opening a store in Weimar's Neues Museum during the city's tenure as Cultural Capital of Europe. Alas, there wasn't enough trade to make it profitable. (You can still get his mail order catalog.)

Kitty korner to the Neues Museum on Rathenauplatz is the Thuringian Design Center, whose director, Hans-Joachim Gundelach has the vision of kick-starting the flagging Ossie economy with good design. One of his stars, Wolfgang Schneider, after losing his job as head of design for Robotron in Sommerda after Unification, soon started winning design prizes to get back in business.(My favorite is a children's colorful plastic sled which won me brownie points when I dragged one home to St. Paul, MN for my granddaughter three Christmases ago.) And then, of course, there's IKEA. Gundelach tells a sad story about how he got several Thuringer Wald furniture firms to go into production only to have IKEA switch to cheaper sources in Poland and Bulgaria.

Gropius surely had the right idea in 1919 when he urged his Bauhustlers to bring art and technology together so everyman could afford the best in design. Braun is flying his flag. Murray Moss, of I Think, Therefore I Shop is misleading, bringing Ambience and Tendence trade shows from the Frankfurt Messe into MAK. The museum is no market place. It should prepare consumers to market thoughtfully. I THINK BEFORE I SHOP.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Shticks and Stones: The Pseudo-Populism of Robert Venturi

Robert Venturi first appeared on my architectural radar in 1972 when Time/Life Films commissioned me to shoot his Guild House and the Vet (which was then the newest thing in baseball stadia) for school filmstrip versions of Kenneth Clark's BBC series "Civilisation." (We had to invent a twentieth century episode because Sir Kenneth not only didn't like his times, he often seemed to pretend they didn't exist.) My behavior at the Vet caused a family dinner table scandal since I had been in the Phillies dugout for the entire game but didn't know who won--my mind was somewhat distracted by my sharing the experience with the photographer, Roy DeCarava.

The Guild House was a puzzle. I literally drove by it several times because, in spite of its hugely out of scale lettering (a pre-Las Vegas intuition?), because I didn't believe that this structure, slightly above the depressingly low esthetic median of public housing, was worth shooting. Fast forward to his Louis Kahn lecture, in which he explained his approach to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of Art in London as one of decompressing the intimidation ordinary Joes feel in the face of High Culture. Gulp. It's a fine structure, one of the few of his I genuinely relish, but it's as High Culture as you can get in Trafalgar Square, which is to say as high as a kite. The last Venturi I've traversed was his Seattle Art Museum, where the oh so grand staircase not only intimidates casual visitors in search of a particular gallery but frustrates the staff I talked to trying to find my way around. Grand is as grand goes, to the pseudo-populist.

In the video that introduces visitors to the show, a Penn professor alleges that the reason many architects loathe his esthetic is because they resented his dethroning the Bauhausian heroes of the first phase of modernism. That is, RV deflates their heroic version of their stripping turn of the century architecture of its excessive ornament. But in the next minute of the film RV slyly and ever so humbly identifies his own facile facadism with Michelangelo the Mannerist. Unhuh. Bad Mannerism I would call it.

And then there's the souvenir phase, when marketers commissioned the Names to do interior degradation--plates, cup, and other saucy appurtenances of the newly upwardly mobile with more cash than taste. Oh what puzzles these will be at the garage sales of the late twenty-first century. Oddly, when the First Couple of American architecture submit to the discipline of another highly traditional culture, viz., the rug that grew out of their Asian trip, or the decor for a Japanese resort hotel, they please my eyes big time. And I love their fire houses, especially the one in Columbus, IN that sacred American place that shows how great a small city in America can be--when it has a great patron, such as Cummins Diesel.

But "learning" from Las Vegas? Such a shtick. My father was a real estate dealer there when it was first attracting international attention (1930-70) so I've had plenty of opportunities to check out the complex contradictions of RV's gloss on that ugliest of cities. (The 2000 Census "taught" me what I long suspected: it is not only the fastest growing city in America; it is also the most socially dysfunctional in indexes like teenage pregnancy, suicide, addiction.) Of course, you don’t learn that by dazzling Penn students jetted out for "Research". They've never learned as I have by its mean back streets.

Let's put it this way: we survived the facile geometries of Mies and his many mice. And we'll survive RV's architectural flash in the pandemonium. I take heart from a recent visit to Finland to celebrate the centennial of the birth of a really great architect, Alvar Aalto. Through a pious odyssey of his buildings. As I always do when I stay overnight in Helsinki, I take a pre-breakfast ramble about Finlandia.

To my astonishment this time, it was entirely bereft of its travertine cladding. I sought out a building engineer relaxing over a coffee and he explained: the travertine which dazzled Aalto in Italy couldn't stand the rigors of Finnish winters. I asked if they were going to replace with a tougher granite. "Oh, no," he smiled, "after a long centennial debate, we Finns decided to give him the material he loved, even though it will cost us $25,000.000 in twenty years. He's our icon after all. Our icon."

After breakfast I went to the Finnish Museum of Architecture to see the centennial show. Alvar began the story of his career by reminding viewers that architects can make mistakes!!! Amen. Strangely, when I was making a similarly pious odyssey in Arizona on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Taliesin in Spring Green, WI, I was shocked to find some concrete painted to resemble redwood.

I asked Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer who was leading me around what gave. He explained that Wright was so dazzled by the sheen of the redwood in irrigation sluices that he decided to use it in Taliesin West. Trouble was that without the lubrication of the water, the redwood deliquesces in the hot Arizona sun. As in all life, win some, lose some. It remains to be seen how long young architects will remain dazzled by the pseudo-populist esthetic of the RVSBA outfit. Not as long as the Bauhaus plagued us. I hope.

(Current Newsweek reports the $4million crisis over the Farnsworth house outside Chicago, the only Mies house in the U.S. The original client sued him for the outrageous heating bills his glass facades cost her before she abandoned it. DOCOMOCO, the group trying to save modern classics from the very modern wrecking ball are trying to raise the dough. They should settle for a good video on how purist intentions come acropper.) We need a good, non-self-serving, film on the Venturi/Brown operation, and not a little demolition.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Early, Funky Kupka

Towards a New Era: Kupka: Graphic Works, 1894-1912, Musee d'Orsay (Paris). Ends October 26. Part of Bohemia Magica (May-December 2002), a French tribute to Czech culture.

To a viewer used to thinking of Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) as a pioneer of abstract painting (peer of Kandinsky and Delaunay), it is serendipitous to find him trying on diverse artistic identities in Paris as a young man. No longer a small town boy, metropolitanized by educational stints in both Prague and Vienna, he had first of all to find ways of surviving economically in the heady ambience of a Paris fast becoming the world center of aspiring artists. He did it mainly by illustrating books, working for new satire magazines, but all the while angling for opportunities to become a free artist, liberated to pursue the esthetic visions which would culminate in his career as a pathbreaking abstractionist.

What first strikes you is his funky boldness, whether in limning a raw sexuality in illustrating classics like "Lysistrata" or "Song of Songs" or raging visually against a society he saw as corrupted by money. He wore his flaming ideals on his sleeve, in crafting images like the crucified worker in Chaplin's "Modern Times" or in joining the Czech Foreign Legion in World War I. Indeed, his "mature" work came only after his Paris won prestige started landing him sizeable honoraria from Czech institutions.

The Kupka we see in this fascinating gloss on the emergence of a vibrant Czech culture is a young man nervously on the make, not sure how he's going to support his artistic aspirations but damn sure to give it his funky best. In these eighteen years (between the ages of 23 and 41) there were many Franz's trying on this or that mask. All the time, just squeaking by financially.

He was perceived at age three as a gifted drawer. And he was encouraged insofar as a poor family could, until a cross stepmother put an end to his aspirations. Apprenticed to a saddle maker, he showed his bent by crafting a business sign for his master. That man also introduced him to spiritualism, after which he became a medium to finance his art studies in Prague. He channeled his favorite Czech artist, Josef Manes. In Prague and Vienna he studied mainly under proponents of history painting, then the most prestigious genre. That background would stand in good stead when he undertook a giant project of illustrating a multi-volume history of the world.

Finally, age 23, he minded the main chance and moved to Paris, scrabbling for years at odd jobs. He fell in with a Danish couturier, who advanced him money and got him jobs in fashion illustration. And he illustrated stories for newspapers in Berlin and Prague. But the big breakthrough was working for the new satirical reviews in Paris which channeled intellectual dissent against the Biggest Three Evils, Big Money, the Church, and the Army. There he hit his stride doing special issues for a review with the cockeyed name of "Butter Dish". It is astonishing to realize that these cranky, outraged images (like those you see today in IMF/World Bank picketing!) came from the same muse as his later, mature works.

He settled down in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, in 1906 with high visibility artistic neighbors like Jacques Villon and Marcel Duchamps, but he was a loner who rarely joined their meetings. The exhibition poster, "Prometheus in Red and Blue" (1909-10) shows him fiercely experimenting with the isms rampant in the French art world, solidly on the way to his own synthesis in abstraction. The watercolor on paper is a raging meld of Fauviste color and broad stroke Pointillism. He got a sinecure from Prague to introduce Czech art students to Paris. (Once it was cut off because the academicians were miffed at his frontier esthetics! He got the job back, only if he agreed to turn his paintings to the wall when he was lecturing the neophytes.)

When Alfons Mucha got a big show at the Jeu de Paume in 1936, the Czech ambassador to France talked them into including Kupka. Mucha's Sarah Bernhardt posters got all the attention. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the Museum of Modern Art's prescient director, Alfred H.Barr, made him the focus the same year of a first, "Cubism and Abstract Art" and observed that Kupka was "one of the least known but earliest pioneers of abstract."

And back in Prague, his far out stuff in the National Gallery ("formalistic and incomprehensible to the people") was stored away under lock and key, shown only to visitors from the West who asked for it. Talk about little honor in his own country.(But not forever: the catalog lists over 140 major exhibitions all over the world.) One of his few consolations was support from his Maecenas, Jindrich Waldes, Czech industrialist. He took Kupka's neglected work to the United States and quietly gave the painter twice what he got for it there.

In fact, if you can't get to Paris for this celebration of Kupka's early struggles to find his eye, the catalog (at 39 euros) is a splendid consolation: a richly detailed chronology of his entire career, generous illustrations in both black and white and color, and fascinating images of him, where he lived and worked, and critical essays on his tortured development. He may have ended up a sad and frustrated isolato, but he left a lively heritage for us all to savor.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Strangely Disturbing Book

I’ve just finished reading a strangely disturbing book, Mark Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (Regnery, 2008).

The most credible (and thereby disturbing) part of his argument is a summary of how Islam is repopulating European countries like France, Holland, and then U.K. Islam will outpeople the native Dutch in the foreseeable future. Many Hollanders are fleeing to Islam-free venues like America, Australia and New Zealand. (Steyn is a Belgian who emigrated to Canada.) He is appalled by jihadists living on the welfare dole in Europe while plotting a Caliphate! And deplores British churchmen who, in a Multiculti frenzy, say, Heh, you wanna Sharia law here in the U.K. O.K., already.

He prefers the resolve of one General Sir Charles Napier in India. "This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will. In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of 'suttee'—the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands. . . ." Napier was impeccably multicultural: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well: we also have a custom: when a man burns a woman alive, we tie a rope around their neck and hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” (p.193.) He deplores as well the French who try to pretend that the Moroccan youth burning cars outside Paris are not jihadists.

Steyn gets on slippery ground when blames the European reactions on their being victims of the welfare state. The falling native birthrates makes EURABIA vulnerable to invading Muslims. But surely, they can pass immigration laws that keeps Sharia ideologues out or if they lie, in jail. Indeed Steyn feels America has been chosen by history as the Last Stand. And he deplores how it is going welfare too. I don’t deny Steyn’s allegations that Europe is signing its own death notices.

Surely we can refine our Multiculti generous habits so they can exclude Caliphakirs. It’s intolerable to have polygamous wives all on welfare. Or financing jihadists whose only work is planning the destruction of so generous a host. Common sense politics. And no nonsense punishments for evil deeds, clearly defined. But admittedly it’s late.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Gehry at the Goog

Maneuvering through the crowds milling the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum for the Frank Gehry retrospective reminded me of 1959, the day it opened. Serendipitously, I found myself in line behind Adlai Stevenson waiting for a first glorious look at the Wright work only surpassed in brilliance by Falling Water. Since I despise celebrity culture, I declined to schmooze with one of my political heroes. However, a half hour later our paths crossed again in front of a Cezanne. I succumbed. "Governor, how about I take a picture of you to bait my Republican students at the University of Pennsylvania?" Not missing a beat, he replied: "Nothing more far out than a Cezanne, please." (A few weels later, the New York Times reported that his most avant-garde of friends had been indoctrinating him with forays in SOHO." )

No such innocence in Gehry Land. When I ran into him at the reception for Sir Norman Foster at Mies' National Gallery in Berlin palavering with a gaggle of former Pritzkers, I joked, "What do Pritzkers talk about at affairs like this?" "Stealing each others commissions," he replied jauntily. Since the other schmoozers included Renzo Piano, Kenzo Tange, and Richard Meier, no chance of that. The Titan of Titanium is, he and his flacks insistently remind us, sui generis. They couldn't steal his style even if they wanted to, ruler of his computer domain as he is. The question is: is Frank Gehry an architect?

The question really came into focus for me at a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at the Vitra Design Museuma in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany in 1999. I suddenly found myself exhausted after climbing to the second floor to finish my visit. Why? The steep staircase was a function of his funky outside Higher Goofy facade. He doesn't design his buildings inside out. Outside in, no matter what it does to the program. His fancy facades, his shtick, rule. And I also was squinting, to scrutinize the prints. Why? Same reason. Insufficient illumination because of his outside-in designing.

Gehry, I decided on the spot, is a walk through sculpture maker, all aimed at proclaiming his genius--even if the inappropriate designs lead to such a monumental failure as his American Center in Paris. Ironically, his new Deutsche Bank in Berlin by the Brandenburg Tor, thanks to the iron hand of German architect Peter Mittmann, has the curlecuing contained in the atrium, entertaining the customers who are curlecuing in their own ways. To put a Gehry facade outside in the Brandenburg sector would be a gross insult to the German visual heritage. Schinkel trumps Gehry, just as the Berlin Guggenheim down the street is as unremarkable on the outside as its exhibitions are remarkable on the inside.

You say, "How about the Bilbao?" I'm glad you asked that. For except for the humungous space he has reserved for his buddy Richard Serra, art's answer to a floundering steel industry, the spaces are ill conceived for the calm viewing of art. (Try the new National Gallery in Berlin's Kulturforum if you want to see architects serving painting and sculpture instead of competing--unsuccessfully in my judgment--with their sisters arts as Gehry so often does.) His Weismann Gallery at the University of Minnesota, on the other hand, is full of glare in the galleries because the Titanium Exteriors take over from both Art and the nearby Mississippi.

Gehry's ouvre, this is to say, is a triumph of shtick over style. A great architect doesn't depend on a gimmick (computerized titanium) to land commission after commission from clients more interested in being connected with the hottest genius of the day than with solving their own problems. Great architects like I.M.Pei, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava make each assignment the occasion for a unique solution of a client's problems. Shtickmeisters force every client's program into one highly sellable cliche. Gehry's hegemony in contemporary architecture is an outward sign of the inner lack of judgment our cultural elite betrays by their herd instincts. Running with the pack is the key to preferment and promotion.

How different, say, was Louis Sullivan is his series of farmer/labor community banks in small midwestern towns. The interior of banking needs prevail, but his "jewel box" aesthetic rewards each of these small towns with an icon for the ages. I never tire of visiting Owatonna, MN the first jewel box I savored, back in 1968.

I have since relished them all, using Greyhound to get to these far flung glories. I'll never forget my visit to his THRIFT inscripted jewel in Sidney, Ohio. I had spent the night with my graduate school roommate in nearby Dayton, so I was the only passenger on the earliest service. When we broke onto the New England green of a village there, I asked the driver if he'd give me a few minutes to ogle the Sidney bank. "Sure," he replied congenially. "I need a good smoke to keep awake." As I climbed back on the bus, he observed, "You know I've passed that bank a hundred times and I never noticed how beautiful it is."

I smiled to myself. What an allegory about Americans ignorance of their visual heritage. Ask the first fifty people walking down Broad Street who Louis Sullivan was and you'd draw a blank. Alan Iverson? 100 percent. Oddly, you'd probably get a high percentage of Gehry's if you showed them a photo of Bilbao with its utterly disgusting Jeff Koons' "sculpture" of a pooch pushing up daisies in front of the Gehry icon. At least I will admit that Gehry is a better sculptor than Jeff.

But architect? Only by the screwiest of criteria.He's a walkthrough sculptor all the way. Don't let those spun aluminum screens he's hung from Wright's luminous skylight deceive you. Long after the Harley Davidson and Armani exhibition are visual history, the Wright will reassert itself. Thomas Krens may think he's serving History by using this show to fund his Gehry Dream by Battery Park. He'll only be stealing from the public schools which are dying from lack of supererogatory millions. Our cultural life has come to this: Showing off, instead of showing up.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Around the Mediterranean in 90 Days at 50

It was 1977, I was about to turn 50, and I was antsy restless. I had been teaching for twenty-five years, from 7th-8th grade English/Social Studies (whatever that was) in East Lansing while I finished my Ph.D. in American Studies, to writing the first curriculum in 1958 for the new Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. There with the chutzpah of an assistant professor without tenure I had hornswoggled the brass into taking my choice for the first dean, Gilbert Seldes. He had turned me on to the serious study of pop culture with his pioneer book, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924).

And I became his gofer, criss-crossing the USA telling academics and media businessmen how great and unique we were going to be! Talk about thrilling. It led to extra-academic jobs like going into Time Life Films every Tuesday to advise them on which BBC films they ought to distribute on public TV and in the schools. We used to start each Tuesday screening with Monty Python’s Flying Circus—until the boss, Peter Roebeck, showed up one day and warned me that he wasn’t paying me a thousand bucks a month to look at that crap. Feigning chastisement, we managed to let WTTW Chicago see some samples and Monty immigrated to America.

My best student at Annenberg was a media polymath from Texas named John Bigby. In 1975 I had organized a prize competition at the Free Library of Philadelphia for college investigative journalists to honor the ideals of onetime Penn dropout, Isidore Finestein Stone, the greatest investigative American journalist in the twentieth century. (The Izzie, as we called the award, went to Arizona State University for a monthly audit of Arizona Media called “The Pretentious Idea”, that being the response of the editor of the Arizona Republic daily when the students asked him to help!) John asked me to come out to his stomping grounds in Santa Rosa to preach Media Crit to his junior college masses.

What I enjoyed most was a weekly radio series I did for KALW-FM, the public radio station of the San Francisco Unified School District, called “Museroom West”. Its motto was Ezra Pound’s “Literature is news that stays news.” A high point was sitting all night at the Great American Music Hall with Dizzy Gillespie and Kermit Scott, the first man to give him a gig in New York at Minton’s on 52nd Street. Scott had “declined” to a stevedore slot in Oakland’s new Container Port across the Bay from the outmoded wharves of San Francisco. He was eager to show Diz he could still play. His tenor sax was rowdy and completely convincing. Hefting cargoes hadn’t hurt his chops.

Incidentally, Diz was in town because a bureaucrat in the San Fran educational hierarchy fancied herself a blues singer. She got the bizarre bopper a gig at the prestigious Lowell high school—to motivate students to better math! (Oh those Federal grants!) As if anybody had to motivate anyone at Lowell. (Her part in the evening’s music was only C-. But what the hell!) “Museroom” was my (and my friend Mary's) free ticket to all the entertainment and art in the Bay Area. My prize Santa Rosa JC student, Robert Anderson, did the gut work on the tapes.

We did memorable takes on the scat jazz duo Jackie and Roy, a marvelous post production drink in with Peanuts man Charles Schultz at the Barbary Coast, after the premiere of “Snoopy”, his hilarious (albeit flop) successor to the “Peanuts” musical. I had invited out from Philly the smashing nymph who played Patty in the Beaver College production. We ended a glorious evening at the Top of the Mark bar, where I showed her a panoramic view of my Bay domain. And told her the story of its greatest Bay architect, Timothy Pflueger. (I organized an informal society called the Pflueger Pfloggers, to give him the Rep he was disgracefully overdue). Alas, it was not enough to keep her in the Bay. We trudged gloomily backed to the Mark Twain Hotel, where I booked her onto the next United flight back to Philly. (Can’t win em all. But you can have a ball trying.)

That weekend was not a total flop either. The next day, a Sunday, the poet John Beecher was to give him his wonderful return speech at the Unitarian Church. Beecher, the son of an executive at the U.S. Steel mill in Bessemer, AL, had passed his summer vacations making school money at that rolling mill. And he got his first book of poems from those experiences. "Report to the Stockholders” in the late twenties. He went on to work for numerous New Deal agencies to reform some of the deficits he observed watching his fellows at the steel mill.

His leftist politics inevitably snared him in the McCarthy trap, California version. Teaching at San Francisco State, when as Assemblyman he described as a used car salesman from Sacramento, put through the state legislature a loyalty oath for teachers. John told him to stuff it, and was blacklisted for fifteen years until cooler heads prevailed. His “sermon” this Sunday amounted to “Stick by your beliefs but depend on the Constitution.” The State Supreme Court had just ruled that tacky oath unconstitutional, and John had his job back—even though he had to teach with an oxygen tank dragging along behind him because of his emphysema. The “liturgy” that morning was Blake and Whitman. It was the last religious experience that really moved me.

It happened that the next day, December 10, was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. I had planned a Poetry Read Out (the word slam up until then still only referred to doors). I asked him if he’d drive up to Santa Rosa and join the noontime bash. He did, and he was stronger than Mick Jagger in his audience contact. Or the beatific Beatle John. It was such a sweet consolation prize after my former girlfriend fled back eastward with so much dispatch. Santa Rosa was a great experience. Macmillan published a collected Beecher, a great poet who was “silenced” in college classrooms by the boilerplate Anglicanism of the New Criticism. I hope more readers eventually repair this great injustice of timid English professors, afraid to be marked as Marxists.

I found other pals, and lived out in the woods with one, especially at first, a sassy Okie named Mary Mueller. They called it Camp Meeker, a former Methodist summer revivalist venue. If those Golden Born Again Oldies only knew how we aging hippies misbehaved in their old haunts, they would have nervously shuffled their angelic slippers Upstairs. Mary ran the graphics department at SRJC. She had two perky teen kids, having disengaged herself from a philosophy professor who proved too thoughtful for her Okie elan. Her brother, Billy Epton, who taught art at the Maryland School of Art in Baltimore, was married to one of the greatest realist watercolorist of our era, whose premature NY Times obit made me bawl. My days with Mary would draw me back to Santa Rosa when I decided, after my mother’s death in a nursing home in 1982, to return there to try my luck as a freelance writer.

One morning in my daily read of the San Francisco Chronicle, I saw that a group was forming to study Mandarin in Shanghai. Hmm. The Asian Art Museum was giving that museum its first non-Chinese exhibition ever. Now if I could get a scoop, my local future as a freelancer might be more secure! I had clips from the local Philly dailies, mostly art reviews and Op Eds, and some travel stories for the Christian Science Monitor. I wasn’t exactly a rank amateur. So I signed up. It was the most instructive move I had yet made. And as you shall read, I made the cover of San Francisco FOCUS, the monthly magazine of KQED, which under the leadership of Jim Day, was easily the best local public television station in the country. The second most interesting was when I decided to celebrate my 50th birthday by going around the Mediterranean in 90 days. Not yet a world traveler. But I had created courses in African Lit and Commonwealth Lit at Beaver. It was high time I qualified myself for the task.

So I was reluctant to go back to Arcadia U as a plain old English professor—after all that stimulation. I took a year off. In a nostalgic mood, I called my first girl friend, Fran, then happily married to a Dow Chemical engineer in Midland, MI (with five Ph.D. children!) She met me in Bay City (where incidentally I had spent my first ten years at Holy Rosary Academy) and she drove us to my mother’s Tawas summer cottage, Birchloft, on Lake Huron, where we had courted with the wild abandon of first timers almost thirty years before. (It was my first hint that nostalgia is geriatric sex!) As we looked out on the deep freeze of that beach, holding hands platonically, we both knew we entering a new phase of our lives.

So why the Mediterranean? It had gradually dawned on me that I loved most of all the art forms created along its littoral, from Coptic in Cairo, to Romanesque in Bari, early Christian churches in Larnaca, and of course my then and still deepest passion, the Modernismo of Barcelona. And I had morphed my curiosity about literatures in English other than Am and Brit into a rubric, “International English”, basically Commonwealth Lit and U.S. I had gone with such aroused curiosity to Dakar, Senegal for the First World Negro Arts Festival in 1966 and to Lagos, Nigeria for the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference in 1968. These visits had made me curious about Francophone North Africa. So there I was at the Eastside Airline Terminal in New York on the eve of my 50th birthday, being seen off by the MOMA film director Bill Sloan and his librarian wife, who were used to my strange voyages of discovery. After one stop in Madrid, our Iberia jet deposited me safe and sound in Casablanca early on my fiftieth birthday.

I began my lark with my first pigeon (grandly called “columbine” in French, but I could tell) watered down with a very ordinary Moroccan red. My first astonishment was the prevalence of Art Deco architecture in Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangiers. Wherever the French had colonialized—even Port Said, they left their architectural mark. I have been a certified Art Decodent ever since first glancing at the Chrysler Building. I didn’t realize until I read in a local paper that beyond the High Atlas mountains that there was a highly touted Almond Festival in a town called Tafroute that I had spent almost a month in Morocco. I had to pick up speed! So I arranged to take the overnight bus to Tafroute from Marrakech.

It was a night I shall never forget. Innocent as I was about February temperatures in the “High” Atlas mountains, I had put my luggage atop the bus. Mohammed the driver and Omar the baggage master, amused by my pidgin French, let me ride shotgun in the front of the bus for better photos. I was ecstatic about the views until sundown. Then there began a series of meteorological extravagances, first rain, then sleet, finally snow as we climbed higher and higher. The bus slid, bounced, strained its gear shift, all of this perilously close to steep gorges with no guardrails!

I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. And I was freezing to death. The only thing that save me was their chummy pitstops every half hour or so, where M and O chatted up with local friends and gave me eye popping coffees next o open braziers. About three o’clock in the morning when I was beginning to regret I hadn’t gone to Portugal, I looked back from my front seat and there wasn’t a head to be seen. Every wise local was using his jellaba as comfortable peejays. And I emphasize his. There wasn’t a woman on the bus.

Gradually, we descended into the valley of Tafroute and miraculously, broad fields of almond trees with pure white blossoms made the miserable night worth. Not only was the Festival a lark, but I collect animal sculptures for what I grandly call my Hazoo. I have never had such a grand day of collecting anywhere in the world. I still get the shivers as I fondle them in my office, reminding myself of that frigid nightmare.

The only other voyage that competes with Tafroute in my memory is the train from Cairo to Port Suez. First, I was the only “European” on the trip, an identity it took me a bit to adjust to. Alas, I sat down with a troop of Egyptian soldiers, one of whom thought it was a great joke if he could arrange a liaison between me and an old shrew that sat nearby. She became as pissed as I, eventually. He knew just enough English to be a pain in the ear. Finally, his captain told him to knock it off. Which led to an even more puzzling experience. The captain was learning English by reading American comics.

Have you ever tried to explain the subtleties of Snoopy to a foreigner. It’s no snap. There was an extra buzz to the experience because Charles Schulz had been the de facto Duke of Santa Rosa. As the visiting media maven, I had organized a Peanuts TV Film Festival and called him to see if he would grace the opening with his presence. To my amazement, he was apoplectic. Had I gotten permission to use those videos in a public showing. I was uncharacteristically speechless! Bigby explained it to me later: when he was just breaking into the comics game, a syndicate really screwed him financially. And although he was by now a multimillionaire, he still was hypersensitive to the slightest possibility that he was once again being cheated.

We kissed and made up later that year at the opening of a successor to “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown!”, namely “Snoopy”. I invited one of my best friends from Philly who had played Patty in a college production and we were thrilled to mingle with the cast at the post opening party at the Brown Derby. That train ride almost ended calamitously. As the train neared Suez, I noticed riders getting lined up next to the windows. As the train was almost stopped, they started popping out the windows! Geesh. When in Suez, do as the Suezzies do. I hopped out just as it slowed to a stop. Total Darkness. The station still a good walk ahead. I started towards it—when I tripped over a piece of steel left from some rail repair job. My head took a real rap and bled like crazy. I staunched the bleeding and started cautiously looking for a hotel. Whew. I know it was April 14 because the next morning I had to phone my daughter Catherine for her 23rd birthday.

The most memorable trip I had was on Easter Sunday. I had fallen in with a biologist from Munich and we agreed to meet at Paleohorus, where she had booked an old farm house for an overnight. Alas, I had to get up very, very early the next morning (Easter Sunday)-- to catch a bus from Ghania to Heraklion, where I was booked that evening on the ferry to Alexandria. Everything was fine until the driver announced an hour layover in Rhytmion, about halfway to Heraklion.

I decided to use the hour reconnoitreing the town. I headed for the old Venetian Port after securing my luggage on the bus. Suddenly I saw a man in a finely tailored suit sweeping away the detritus from the Saturday night debauch. I told him he was the fanciest sweeper I had run into since starting my 50th birthday odyssey. He explained that he was a lawyer from Athens and that he had purchased this bar/restaurant rather than go to a psychiatrist! He called it Barbarossa because there was a huge fissure right over the bar which he attributed to a Crusade battle.

I asked if he minded if I snooped around. The first thing that added to my amazement was a book collection so up to date that it featured a brand new edition of the Greek poet George Cavafy—from the Princeton University Press no less. And ceramic glasses and jugs of international standard. Alas, I had only a handful of drachmas and my passport jammed in my jeans pocket. But I asked him how much two tan mugs with striking dark brown bands were selling for. Needless to say they were way above what I had in my pocket. But he congratulated me for my good taste. These were his best works. From the oldest ceramics atelier in Greece. Maroussi. “You mean the Henry Miller Maroussi.” “Absolutely,” was his proud reply.

Suddenly, he took both off the shelf and started to wrap them. “But I’m broke,” I explained. “Ah, but you have excellent taste—for an American,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.”I’m going to give them to you, young man. HAPPY BIRTHDAY.”: Mamma mia, I thought, for my good luck. I was beginning to get nervous about what was left of the hour layover. I thanked him profusely for his generosity and hurried back to the bus station.

Just short of it I heard great Easter choir music coming out of the local church. A Zorba clone was eyeing me from a café table next to the Church. “Christos anysti.” (Christ is risen) I aimed at his eye. “Oh, is that the way the CIA is worming its way into Greece these days.” In perfect American. “Me, CIA. You’ve got to be kidding, or really goofy.” “Heh, sit down and have an Easter drink.” “I would, Zorba, but my bus is about to leave for Heraklion. Give me a rain check. And where did you learn such colloquial English?” “Detroit. I worked making Chevvies for years.” “Heh, Detroit’s my home town. On my next trip, the drinks are on me.”

Little did I know what a nasty surprise was awaiting me at the bus station. I looked in vain for my bus. For any bus. There weren’t any. And no one spoke English. All I could do was repeat the word “Heraklion”. He mimed a departing bus. I pointed to the telephone. He called the station where the manager assured me that my luggage would be on the bus that arrived back at 3 p.m. I had two hours to go back and smooze Zorba and have a cheap fish lunch. Whew! I hugged my mugs and got ready to bug Barbarossa some more. Some troubles can be serendipitous.