Friday, 31 July 2009

Eden as Eldorado, part two

As Ronald Reagan would surely not have said,"There he goes again!", namely construing the AD in purely individualistic terms. That is the greatest American fallacy, legitimizing the AD by celebrating how many millionaires (inflation, in more senses than one, makes that billionaires.)

I remember, oddly, the first book review I wrote in College English, of John Dos Passos' "USA". It ends with the anti-hero trying, with outstretched thumb, to hitch a ride back to New York City. My juvenile epiphany was that this country was good at making mendicants as well as millionaires. America has been indulging, for the most part unwittingly, in the most egregious double entry bookkeeping in the history of mankind.

I first became personally aware of this systematic mendacity when I went hiking across U.S.23 into the woods behind our summer cottage on Lake Huron. There I literally stumbled across humungous pine tree stumps, some up to three feet in diameter. Up until this at first puzzling discovery I was more than content with the (as I came to understand belatedly) second growth birches that were the glory of our fifty foot wide lot facing a thirty foot bluff on the Huron shore.

Where once I relished these sweet but dinky birch trees, there must have been millenium old stands of virgin pine.

Which brings me back to Grandpa Fitz, who had achieved more than moderate success in the American Dream department by organizing their obliteration! Hmmm, I pondered, because by then I was in graduate school.

As a boy, our elders had devised a Fourth of July family ritual of driving north about fifteen miles to the Lumberman's Monument in Oscoda. It has been in nearby Ausable that Grandpa Fitz had done his lumbering. There were three lumberman in that monument--two workers with huge bandsaws flanking a man with a notebook, clearly the organizer of the tree cutting. He was alleged to be Grandpa Fitz, and we basked in the warmth of having had such a distinguished forebear.

I could hardly wait until September--when school opened again at the Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, Michigan--to let it be known among my classmates that my maternal grandfather was a Big Deal. Alas, at the first opportunity, one of my classmates challenged my interpretation--that guy in the middle was his grandpa. Out of such ironies does historical revisionism stem.

But I come not to dispraise my grandfather, but to bury false assumptions I came to learn as a teacher were endemic among Homo Americanus. "Making It"--to use Norman Podhoretz' premature memoir title--is what America is about. Your only responsibility is to make it "on your own" so long as you let others cut their own trails. Nothing could be more solipsistic.

Growing up in Detroit I became more and more aware of how vilely we were treating what were called "the colored". In 1943 I was working at my first job--selling women's shoes--at Gately's, a downscale downtown store with easy credit on Michigan Avenue. I had very snootily developed a negative attitude toward the Wasp/Ivy Leaguer who ran the store--until I saw him give safe harbor to a terrified old Negro fleeing from a howling mob. My first awareness that genteel facades don't matter if behind them is a humane spirit.

My first revisionism, alas, was that my sweet old Grandpa Fitz was a marauder as a lumberman! It would take Teddy Roosevelt and other early environmentalists to teach US that thoughtlessness had environmental consequences.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Eden as Eldorado, part one

Prologue: You can't teach American Literature for thirty years and not think about the meaning of the American Dream. Everybody has a variant of AD of course: Mine centers around my maternal grandparents who emigrated from Ireland in the 1880's and settled in Michigan where Edward became a lumberman in the state's virgin pine forests--and succeeded well enough to put his eight children through college.

My mother May was the last of the eight and taught middle school in Hamtramck, Michigan. After two years as an aviation radar technician in the US Navy, I studied philosophy on the G.I.Bill at the University of Detroit and then worked for a Ph.D. in American Civilization at Western Reserve University.

My resume includes a Ford Foundation fellowship in New York City on learning how to use the new medium of TV in the English classroom, six years as radio-TV editor for Scholastic Teacher, trying out those new ideas; a Carnegie postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to create a new course on "The Mass Society" for their department of American Civilization; writing the first curriculum for the founding of Penn's Annenberg School of Communication; serving as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at the University of Hawaii; advising Time-Life Films for four years on what BBC TV they should distribute in the United States; writing a weekly column for ten years in an alternative paper in Philadelphia; and spending the last 20 years deparochializing my Americanist slant by traveling and studying in Africa, Asia and Europe.

If following your impulses to grow is fulfilling the American Dream, then I've been a successful dreamer.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Language of Adam, take two

and Adam named all these things, Genesis

Linguists tell us that not only do countries in which the same language is spoken have many and changing dialects;but they also allege that each person has an idiolect, a dialect which is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint.I would like to describe the American idiolect on the grounds that it reveals our evolving character as a nation. We see the world and speak about it to ourselves and others through an idiolect which transcends
regional boundaries.

Take the word "New". It was an understandable reflex of Western European countries to domesticate their new territories by prefixing the name New to it. New Caledonia, New Hebrides, New Guinea, New England. Like so much in the colonializing experience it was only "new" to the "discoverers". There is an interesting story about the first English settlers in Virginia believing that a polysyllabic word the natives were always using in their presence was the indigenous name for this turf.

Only much later was it discovered that it was the local Indians' way of saying, "You are wearing very nice clothes". And I think all of us with a zest for languages bless the Amerinds for their onomastic splendor: Tallahassee, Winnepasauke, Minnesota, Mississippi, Shenandoah. How much more glorious than New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey.

But it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century that American onomastics took on political overtones with the modifier "New". It was Teddy Roosevelt who opened the chorus of News with his program for the New Nationalism in 1900. Why then? I think because Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the frontier closed in 1890-- in a paper at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, celebrating the 400th anniversary of our "discovery" --a year late because of the Panic of 1891.

If the frontier was no longer to be the alembic of the American character, of "this new man the American" was how Crevecouer phrased in his "Letters from an American Farmer" in the formative years of the Republic, then how could we go on being the world's last best hope (as Lincoln put it in the harrowing midst of the Civil War--talk about whistling in the dark!)

TR believed we could do it with a New Nationalism that thrust us, no apologies needed or even allowed, on the world stage of imperialism. Twain and William Dean Howells hollered mightily that it was a sellout of the real American Dream, but they were ignored as Emerson and Thoreau had been in criticizing our take over of huge chunks of Mexico in the 1840's. TR's white man's burden entailed building a first class Navy and steaming it around the world as it took possession of fueling stations in Guam and the Philippines.

Woodrow Wilson got elected in 1912 under the rubric of the New Freedom--after Teddy, dissatisfied with the way his protege William Howard Taft was not assuming the new global burdens he was formulating under the New Nationalism, split the Republican vote with his Bull Moose Progressivism, making Wilson a minority president. We know how FDR coined the term New Deal and Kennedy New Frontier to marshall its voters into electoral victories. New had become a cliche encouraging us to ignore how the realities of America were drifting ever farther apart from its visionary ideals.

Instead of closing the great Expectations Gap of egalitarianism, the country copped out with advertising that emphasized giganticism and speed. Big Macs, Whoppers, Mount Rushmore--our language encourages us to believe that Bigger is by definition Better. Biggest ocean liner, longest railroad, fastest airplane, we think hyperbolically, not carefully.

We also put great stock in being laid back. Free 'n' Easy is how the Saturday Evening Post taught us to think. The casual enclitic I call it. Workers might be living in tenements, slaving away in factories, but our public rhetoric encouraged them to think they were living in a Paradise of Casual.

Even the way we award excellence has this tang of the casual. Apart from the Oscar, named after someone's uncle, we award Emmys, and you make your Awards list. The nomenclature is casual.

Not everyone speaks in the same idiolect however. Notice how the dream deferred, to use Langston Hughes' resonant phrase, worked out onomastically in the colored, black, Afro-American, African-American community. It's Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines--Lady Day, the First Lady of Song--an unending self-naming accolade of compensatory royal naming.

Until a certain generation couldn't take the contradictions, as in Cassius Clay renaming himself Muhammad Ali. The "Cassius" of course refers to a noble Roman, a method of self-legitimizing endemic in the more educated sectors of those we now are enjoined to call African-Americans. The American idiolect, in short, encapsulates the ways we have lived over two centuries. Using it as a mirror, we can speculate on how to do better in our closing of the Expectations Gap.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Marshall McLuhan and and Sylvester Weaver: Two False 1950's Media Prophets

In 1957, I was awarded a Carnegie PostDoctoral Fellowship to create a new interdisciplinary course on the Mass Society for Penn’s Department of American Civilization: a heady assignment for a newly Ph.D-ified 30 year old. It was to be a two semester course: Fall-- Mass Communication (Print, Graphics, Broadcasting); Spring-- Mass Production(Industrial Design, Architecture, Urban Planning).

Its program was simple: against a brief history of each specialty, identify the work of outstanding current exemplars in each sector, say, Saul Bellow, Ben Shahn, Paddy Chayefsky; George Nelson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane Jacobs. And speculate on how their influence could be multiplied. The dominant alternative had been humanists wailing about the dead end of mass culture. I was to plan it the first year—and start teaching it the second.

Serendipitously, the billionaire Philadelphia publisher, Walter Annenberg, in 1958 gave Penn $2,000,000 to found the first Ivy graduate school of communication. Faute de mieux, I became the gofer for this enterprise as well, spreading words of our ambitions throughout the media and academic communities. Because Gilbert Seldes book, “The Seven Lively Arts”(1924), had turned me on to mass culture studies, I talked the brass into appointing him the first Dean. And thus became his gofer! What a ride.

My good luck in the emerging field had begun in 1955 when the Ford Foundation awarded me a grant in New York to explore the ideas I posed in my first published article ,”Everyman in Saddle Shoes” in Scholastic Teacher: I had assigned my East Lansing MI 10th graders a Paddy Chayefsky play, “The Catered Affair” and an Edward R. Murrow documentary, “Harvest of Shame”.

I even created a weekly TV series, ”Everyman Is a Critic,” on Michigan State’s new UHF channel. Each week a different pop topic: music, TV, fashion, hot rods et alia. Scholastic even appointed me radio TV editor to invent the one page “Teleguide” to make it more practical for teachers in the boondocks to assign TV sight unseen. I keyed them into Stephen Scheuer’s nationally syndicated series, TV Key. (Steve has deposited those scripts at Yale’s Beinecke and his TV interviews at Syracuse for future historians.) And I translated my Penn colleague Herbert Gans’ enlightened ideas about the edifiable sides of popular culture for teacher readers.

That annus mirabilis, 1955-56, brought me in contact with Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan and NBC’s Pat Weaver through the good services of Roy Larson whom I met cold at a White House conference on education. He was so beguiled by my plans that he set me up with an office at Time, Inc. that miraculously opened all doors. (It turned out he was on the Ford board that had given me my New York grant.) Weaver’s “Enlightenment Through Exposure” and Marshall’s “the medium is the message” were my shibboleths!

Alas, the both turned out to be false media prophets—a disillusionment that helped me devise more credible sources of meliorism in mass culture.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Fallabilities of Modernism

The New Assertiveness of atheist speculation (Richard Hawkins, Christopher Hitchens) opens a greater debate over the legitimacy of Modernism in general. On the centennial of Marinetti’s Declaration in 1909, it is wise to assess the state of that Ism and its antecedents. What looked like a brave speculation (get rid of Libraries!) now seems fatuous in the extreme.

If as most assume, the battle for Modernism began in late eighteenth France with Voltaire (Ecrasez l’Infame, i.e., do away with the Catholic Church and all the orthodoxies it legitimized), then Modernism reveals its true colors: it’s a covert theology. Romanticism, then, turns out to be a covert, secular religion which preaches that Medieval Asceticism is a delusion.

Basel’s Art Museum recently organized an exhibition on the magic of Everyday Things. It expressed eloquently that romantic vision: stop worrying about the Eternal Beatific Vision: learn to relish everyday wonders, miracles indeed, flowers, animal, landscapes, everyday rituals as captured “for eternal viewing” in genre painting. On the level of Literature, the new gospel was the secular poem, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.

Walt actually talked about the poet as a secular priest. The trouble is this new covert theology should submit to the same kind of philosophical judgments as the New Atheists render unto God’s truth. Some Modernist genres, like, say, old Dada, or the newly emerging Free Art of the Installation, as in Tracey Ermin’s recent Turner submission of her freshly fucked in bed, complete with her co-creator’s used condom! Bald but boorish.

Like their forefucker, Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal dedicated to one R. Mutt. Or in my opinion most Abstract InExpressivism of the drippy provenance. Once you shout “Ecrasez”!, almost anything goes. And as the art market for new millionaires takes over the functions of art scholarship and criticism, we succumb to the blandishments of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Morons deface our cityscapes with their barbarous “signatures” and aesthetic Op Edifiers bless their blasted soles with praise of their innovative “art”.

One classic move in this modernoid direction was Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monumental to the Third International." We are so used to seeing replicas of his maquette that we begin to think he really made a multitasking cluster of auditoria, moving chronologically, in steel and concrete. Norbert Lynton’s last book about it, “All Wood and Dreams” (Yale, 2009) tells what a real flop it was, even spinning off imitative sculptures like Johannes Itten’s for the Bauhaus.

Tatlin died, shortly before Stalin, dreaming of a bike like airplane. Unlike Alexander Rodchenko, who gave up utopian schemes, the better to master the new art of photography, Tatlin remained a slave to his romanticized Modernism. After a century of Modernist schemes, it’s high time we were more Voltaire-like, disentangling ourselves from the many dead ends of Modernism.

Mind you, this is no plea for a return to medieval theology. It’s a cry for being as Voltaire like as we can as we sort out the gains and losses of Modernism.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard, 1951) suggested a striking way of using the strategies of explication de texte for the analysis of popular culture. For many impressed young English instructors, McLuhan's imagination had discovered a way of using high culture to exorcise the devils of mass- and mid-culture. McLuhan explains that his anthropological approach to American popular culture almost forced itself upon him when he found himself teaching midwesterners Freshman English after finishing a Ph.D. dissertation on the medieval liberal arts curriculum in England. McLuhan, in effect, found himself in a "strange country" whose language he did not understand.

He did his field work among homo boobiensis brilliantly, and The Mechanical Bride holds up solidly today despite McLuhan's disavowal of it as the product of "a victim of print culture." Indeed, The Mechanical Bride seems to me to provide the way to retain the achieved values of the Gutenberg revolution (p. 135) much more persuasively than The Gutenberg Galaxy. In fact, one must confess an increasing incomprehension of McLuhan's work, beginning with the later issues of Explorations, the now terminated magazine on media problems which was supported by the Ford Foundation.

Some supporters of McLuhan defend his unique approach by describing him as "prophetic." He is the intellectual frontiersman who blazes a trail for less sure-footed mortals who will then make a roadbed broad and level enough to carry the freight of civilization's institutions. The trouble with this defense of McLuhan is that he blazes away at every tree in the forest-and even the most dedicated road-builder refuses to macadamize in circles.

Still one has learned so much from McLuhan that one tries to follow the leader far beyond the point of too much exasperation. Preliterate man communicates by speech in a world of acoustic space. Simultaneity and interdependence characterize this richly resonant tribal society. Writing, which follows the end of nomadism, and printing-to a much greater extent-transform the spherical "ear and now" of preliterate man to the linear "eye am" of Cartesian and Newtonian man. McLuhan's fearless symmetry now suggests a world returning to a retribalized global society based on electronics.

This eerie cosmos of rock and roll and Telstar is "the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth" (p. 135). Granted, but what, as C. S. Peirce might ask, do the differences mean for intelligent action? McLuhan promises another volume, Understanding Media, which perhaps will get down to cases. One hopes it will be more responsible than this one. For McLuhan's reading is so catholic, one needs to be a polymath to know when he is making sense and when not. But inevitably he mentions a book one has read as carefully as he expects his to be-and the result is shocking.

Television in the Lives of Our Children, by Wilbur Schramm and associates, is much too complex and solid a book to be dismissed contemptuously-and on the shaky grounds of McLuhan's own incredibly speculative theory of the television image as made by "light through" instead of "light on" its surface. "When we see the reason for the total failure [reviewer's italics] of this book to get in touch with its announced theme, we can understand [McLuhan argues apodictically] why in the sixteenth century men had no clue to the nature and effects of the printed word" (p. 145). No one who has any acquaintance with the Schramm canon-and no one should presume to write on communications who does not have a thorough familiarity with it-can pretend that he is insensitive to media differences or to the history of communications.

To so refuse to come to honest grips with Schramm's sociological mode of understanding media change is to subvert the conditions of academic discourse-and, incidentally, to put the whole "mosaic" theory of media comprehension in a strange light. When McLuhan makes a hypothesis a minute and gives scarcely a shred of evidence-either his own or in the long quotations which constitute better than a third of the book-it is impossible to check out all his wild surmises. But when he touches an area where the reader is informed, belief unwillingly suspends itself.

So when McLuhan speculates in a fast aside-"as today, the insatiable needs of TV have brought down upon us the backlog of the old movies, so the needs of the new presses could only be met by the old manuscripts" (p. 142)-one wants to remind him that he is comparing the expedient of the American television industry with the way parts of western Europe responded in their various ways to the Renaissance and Reformation.

More prudent industry policy which understood America's real needs would have greatly increased the coverage of local reality on American television, leaving the competing movie, with its groaning archives of once-expended fantasy, unknown on television. Cuban television features four-hour harangues; Italian television instructs illiterates; French television teaches groups of farmers. The analogy between print and electronic media history, then, means nothing when looked at closely. It is a pity that McLuhan has chosen to grandstand with chapter titles ("glosses").

For example: "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave." To extend his metaphor, he forgets how hard the coral reefs that make surfing possible are on one's "sense ratio"-and that a pearl-diving surfboard is no fun even to the "audile-tactile man.”

One suspects something like self-justification in one of his many asides, this one on his intellectual ancestor, Harold Innis: "There is nothing willful or arbitrary about the Innis mode of expression. Were it to be translated into perspective prose, it would not only require huge space, but the insight into the modes of interplay among forms of organization would be lost. Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of urgent need for insight. A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding" (p. 216).

Perhaps so, but why, then, does McLuhan so often cite the strictly linear-and brilliantly insightful-prose of Chaytor, Diringer, Dudek, Goldschmidt, Hadas, Jones, Kenyon, Lowenthal, and Wilson? Almost a third of "his" mosaic is their linearity. Indeed, for the student of media history, their various texts--and McLuhan's bibliography--are useful, even indispensable.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Bauhaus Shuts Down

The Dessau Bauhaus Stiftung memorialized the end of the Bauhaus 75 years before with a Tagung in the Oscar Schlemmer/George Muche Haus in Dessau (July 22, 2008). Dr. Peter Hahn, former director at the Berlin Bauhaus Archive, spoke about Mies’s last days as the Bauhaus’s third and final director. I added what I learned about those closing days when the Nazi propaganda chief Alfred Rosenberg maneuvered to shut down for good that “nest of Communists”.

It was my good fortune to meet the best student in that final 1933 class, the Chicago architectural genius Bertrand Goldberg—at an after party at Charles and Marjorie Benton’s during the Chicago Film Festival in 1977. In an ice-breaking joke, I told Goldberg I was giving up teaching film history to become a drug pusher in Chicago so I could afford living in his masterpiece on the Chicago River, Marina City.

His response to my joke was an invitation to join a group of out of town architects’ visit the next day to his Women’s Birthing Center at the Northwestern University Medical Center in downtown Chicago. It was a luminous experience: the architects were torn between praise for his genius revealed to them by Bertrand’s explication of the structures uniqueness (a central nursery was surrounded by a suite of private rooms for the new mothers) and their awareness that back home in Peoria that they would never ever play genius in their straitened circumstances!

That serendipitous encounter led to my habit of becoming his tutee every time I visited Chicago. It was a grand, if thoroughly ad hoc, curriculum—visit the latest Goldberg, followed by a lunch of explication. Only my parallel encounters with his Chicago pal Studs Terkel were as enlightening.

Sometimes we’d walk his Boxers, once encouraging them to pee on Cardinal Cody’s lawn, at a time when that Red Hat was scandalously in the News! We also gossiped about his teacher Mies as the best student (extrapolating from the excellence of his oeuvre) in that last class in Bauhaus Berlin. Our last meeting in 1995 (he died in 1997) was on the day that Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma so we were in a very serious mood when we discussed Mies and his last days at the Bauhaus.

My companion, a social worker from Lubeck, on her first American visit, fidgeted nervously with me at the Chicago Hilton as we waited for our date with Goldberg. He picked us up at the nearby Institute of Art in his sleek sports car and whisked us to his private club in a skyscraper overlooking his Marina City masterpiece.

His Gropian idealism was still evident as he explained how hard he had worked to get Union financing for this building designed to reverse the creeping suburbanization of that era. Goldberg was very disappointed at the general abandonment of Gropius’s ideal of fusing art and technology to bring good design to “the working classes”. Philip C. Johnson wrote nasty private letters about how obsessed Pius was over the working classes in his lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

As far as Mies was concerned, Goldberg said he was obsessed with living down in Alfred Rosenberg’s Nazi mind his pro-Communist Denkmal to Karl Liebknecht/Rosa Luxembourg (1926). Indeed Mies tried, unsuccessfully, to suck up to Albert Speer for almost five years—without success, Finally, Walter Gropius got him an assignment on Jackson Hole, Wyoming: a rich American’s summer home.

The Speer episodes recall just how groveling he was to Hitler. Arno Breker, Hitler’s Lieblingsbildauer, used to crash a Chancellery dinner whenever he had a former pal from his 1920’s in Paris to save from the Gestapo (Picasso and Jean Marais were two of his biggest “saves”. Speer on such occasions would chew Arno out for jeopardizing zheirclose associates. (Read “Speer”.)

But Breker always remembered the little informal lecture Hitler gave Breker secretly when Hitler, Speer, and Arno silently entered Paris after the defeat of France in 1940. Remembering, perhaps, his own sad days when he flunked out of Vienna Art School, Hitler told Breker not to worry about all the putdowns of the sculptor Hitler was fielding (think Speer!).

He realized that artists never understood politics, and that he didn’t want Breker to live in a garret: indeed the ranch he bequeathed to Arno was the envy of the entire Hitler cabinet—and the flight plan of most when Berlin was being bombed to dust at the end of World War II.

Those will remember how anxiety-ridden Mies was about being the poor Aachen mason’s son in Peter Behrens’ Berlin Office in 1910, flinching when he had to report to upper class Pius. It is rumored that Mies was Harvard’s first choice to head their Graduate School of Design in 1938, but that his English was so bad that Pius got the job, another bitter status pill he had to swallow. He was now in America, eager to change the Armour Institute of Technology into I.I.T. (Armour smelled too much of pig!)

Friday, 24 July 2009

In Annenberg’s day

Nancy Sweeten sounds like my kind of woman, and I’m sorry I missed her in my four years at Penn (1957-61). But I didn’t miss Craig and I’m sure he was glad to see me go off to Honolulu. As Gilbert Seldes’ "gofer", I crisscrossed the continent telling all the old Journalism School brass how great we were going to be.

At the first meeting of the Annenberg School’s board I passed the pre-meeting minutes by teasing Walter Annenberg by asking him if the comics section he had expanded the day before was his idea of "raising media standards." Gaylord P. Harnwell, then Penn’s president, looked like he was on the brink of stroke. Walter finally smiled, so unaccustomed to being teased are wealthy brutes.

The next year my Greenbelt Knoll neighbor Leon Sullivan mocked me at the community pool one Saturday about the refusal of the Inky to print a word about his Tasteekake boycott. Bright and early Monday I was being frisked in the elevator to Annenberg’s Broad Street eyrie (my first and only such experience in my boring life!). At first he was speechless. Then he called in his exec ed, E.Z. Dimitman, whose response was, "We hired a colored boy last summer, but he never cut the mustard."

I allowed as that had nothing to do with Leon’s complaint and informed them that The Reporter was running a story the following week and that if they had any interest in raising standards, they’d beat them to that story. They didn’t. And Craig gave up on me as a front man.

Of course, it was the end of my A School career.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Getting the Willies in Weimar

While I was watching the 5:30 a.m. broadcast of CNN's "American Edition", an armada of what turned out to be German paddy wagons started to block off Seifengasse as it ends in Beethoven Platz. Huh? I relish my attic in a just renovated 1784 villa, not just because it's two minutes by foot to the Anna Amalia Library where I read the international press every morning on the Internet, but because it's usually absolutely bucolic.

So, the President of Iran was ending three day state visit which began and ended in Berlin, where he got a promise of half a billion investment dollars. Bild, the saucy tab, headlined its Thuringen page, "Three Thousand Officers Keep the President of Iran from the People: Chatami's Picture of Weimar: Scharpshooters and Museums."

The SWAT-like-looking marksmen were stationed on the top floor of a popular bar overlooking Goethe's House on the Frauenplan. When a couple of young idealists draped a banner reading "Where are the imprisoned students?", stormish troopers stomped up to their eeyrie and confiscated their banners and leaflets. (Chatami snuck in the secret back door of Goethe's house!)

The occasion for Chatami's visit was the dedication of a monument to Hafez, the fourteenth century Persian poet who so influenced Goethe, he wrote one of his most popular books, The East-West Divan, about Iran's national poet. One of the merely 300 protesters (in five different approved groups) sneered that Hafez would have been with them on Theatre Platz (in front of the Goethe-Schiller Denkmal). Hafez, after all, was a persona non grata in Persia for criticizing the mediocrity and pretense of his overlords. He got back in their good graces just as he was about to die.

Bernd Kauffman, who was the leader of last year's Cultural Capital events, before returning to his regular job as head of the Weimar Classical Foundation, sniffed that Goethe would have led a movement for police reform! 3000 policemen to control 300 protesters, who were limited to TheatrePlatz, a safe ten minute walk from where the action was. Locals grumbled that even in 1984 (before the DDR folded) the Chinese president was heckled face to face on Market Square. Others grumbled,"Are we back in Stasiland?" True, on the last state visit of an Iranian bigwig--in 1967, for God's sake, one person died in a riot.

When I tried to go to the Library, with my girlfriend and her passport to get me safe passage to the Place of Democracy,one officer said NO! and another accompanied us back to our flat. It was unreal. Until a Puma helicopter whisked Chatami back to Berlin at 4:58 p.m., the city (pop. 60,000) came to a halt. Even the police were pissed at the overkill. 200 officers trucked in from Hamburg (six hours to the North)had to put up with sleeping in the classrooms of a gymnasium, with no toilets and no showers. They marched to their duties in high dudgeon.

After an elegant lunch at the leading hotel, facing on Beethoven Platz, Chatami went to the Castle and talked about cultural exchange. He urged his listeners to be patient as his country tried to forge a democratic civil society on an Islamic base. Bild captured the common spirit--with a photo feature on the miniguillotine Iranian authorities use to hack off the hands of thieves! I have rarely seen the media so outraged in my two years of living here. Thirteen of the 300 were arrested and then released.

One happy note. Edward Said, Daniel Barenboim, and Bernd Kauffman came up last year with the fresh idea of inviting promising young musicians from Germany, Israel, and several Arab nations to rehearse under Barenboim for a concert tomorrow night. But last year's great idea almost collapsed for lack of funds. Bild pitched in by selling a CD of DB's favorites. The director's enthusiastic, ecumenical humanism really connects with the young performer--who make friends no political settlements could ever encourage. Weimar remains a little schizzy, one foot in its troubled past, another timidly figuring out how to follow Barenboim's example.

The cops are gone today, and I see out my window that tourists are now gawking at the new statue (although a paddy wagon starts guard to forestall grafitti). Seifengasse is once again the sleepy street on the rich end of which Goethe lived. But it is scary to see just how close to the surface the old habits of control remain.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Higher Goofy's End Time

We all laughed indulgently when that crackpottie Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal R.MUTT and named it “The Fountain”. A century later Damien Hirst soaks a skinned beast in formaldehyde and we gaze solemnly like we’ve just been gifted with the Beatific Vision. Just as the Evangelicals tell us we’re approaching the End Time, I, like Camille Paglia, an affable atheist, declare that our aesthetic Ism Spasm that began funnily with Marcel and turned truly groaningly gruesome with Damien is approaching its own Apocalypse. Prelapsarian, I too played the Anything Goes game. Now I regard 99 and 44/100ths of It as aesthetic masturbation, alone or multiple. And it doesn’t float.

It is time to blow the whistle on the artist’s spurious century-long use of the term “experimental” that has been surreptitiously stolen from serious science. It is the intellectual glory of the hard sciences that no genius no matter how widely hailed is free from the discipline of gathering evidence to support hypotheses.

The semi-hard social sciences have developed their own analogous empirical methods—almost guaranteeing that their generalizations are credible. But our soft, so-called gut courses speculate in freely floating ways so blatantly evident in the Frenchification of critical discourse in the last generation, practicing which eagerly ambitious intellectuals plan to rise on the gas of their quirky “hype”-otheses, no matter than it gets in the way of students understanding literature, music, or art at their feet, or better their feetnotes. Blah plus Blah equals Blather, an obnoxious equation.

In “Creative” (the real God must shiver gruesomely at this distortion of his six day week) Art, the crisis is even worse. Beginning back in the 1920’s freaky gasbags like Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus in Weimar designed warming up exercises for students before they exerted themselves esthetically. And the other superstars on the faculty (Kandinsky, Feininger, Schlemmer, and lessers) added to the confusions, as they got off on dumping the old Academic Curriculum where students actually learned to draw.

(I exempt Paul Klee from this indictment, because I love his quirky work too much to consider him a bad influence on anyone.) Today so-called “Freie Kunst” covers anything an undereducated art student considers any Damien Hirst type shtick (to get a rep that sells) goes. Simultaneously our urban landscape gets more and more disgraceful. Underinhabitable. Museums flourish while our cities get nearer and nearer to their End Time.

How could this happen? I wasn’t certain until I read about the Moscow Luxury Fair where their few new gazillionaires show off their indiscretionary income by buying baubles for billions. At the same time that Green Refs warn that the proliferation of airplanes constitutes a grave climatic threat, the Virgin man Branson has announced a new space tourism for the young at heart and obese of wallet.

And that Irish Lepercon Mike O’Leary of Ryanair responds to criticism of his overexpansion with a “fuck you” attitude: Go take British Airways old planes away from it if you want to reduce carbon emissions. I have started to form a GREED WATCH, gathering examples of how our technopia is digging its own (and our) grave. Meanwhile, we have art and architecture schools where the little aesthetic dwarfs, mainly middle class kids with parental subsidies, fiddle while their suburban Romes burn, dreaming of a Pritzker SurPrize some day.

What to do? Call a rotten art establishment rotten, to begin with. Pampered rich pampering the rich. Alan Riding, my favorite art outrider (IHT, 11/2/06) exults at how the Tate Modern is attracting kids with gizmos like the current one of a hyperslide that gives their visitors a creative surge, according to its German designer. P.T.Barnum did the same thing better in New York two centuries ago. A Sucker Born Every Minute? Make that Every Nano-second!

My son, Michael, a documentary maker, expressed pleased astonishment today in an e-mail about the Tate’s actually putting real artists on its Board. Incidentally, the architects who made the originally grand power station that Herzog and deMeuron (the Swiss Twins--they have been pals since age seven! I just discovered) turned into the Tate Modern were not seeking to create quirky Titanic Squibbles. They wanted to turn the superfluous structure into a convenient, useful place to look at art.

Ditto, Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, the two unknown geniuses who created the most beautful building in Germany, Zeche Zollverein in Essen. Most beautiful? Absolutely. After all it was the Midwestern American grain silos which turned Gropius and Mies onto Modernism in the first place

I always remember at this point what Marshall Mcluhan told me in an intense esthetic debate I was having with him. “Remember, Pat,the Balis don’t pretend to have ART at all: they just do everything they do as well as they can.” It was during the Ages of European Kings that we started distinguishing between Capital A Art and small c craft. Art was for the rich;craft for the poor. We were supposed to have learned to get over that false distinction from the Bauhaus. But as long as there are auction houses eager to let the rich chase each others bankrolls, we will have overvalued art and undervalued lives. And artless museum execs eager to expand, expand, expand.

We have too many “artists” in the developed world today scrambling over each other.We need to thin out that noisome crowd with more needed occupations. When I watch the Berlin Zoo on TV, I am sure we need more vets and animal custodians. They are blessed people helping helpless animals. We need more garden planters. Trees and flowers could diminish the visual disasters of our cities and countrysides. Better street furniture. Newer elementary schools. More prefab houses for the underpaid workers. Individualism has run amok. We need artists who want to create a community, not an instant rep for sellable schtick.

DaDa is DoDo. Dada is Daid. Long live communal vitality.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Many Happy Returns; Baruch

Reared an Irish-American Roman Catholic, and even with a Philosophy major from the Jesuit University of Detroit, Baruch Spinoza was, till I ran into the work of Princeton philosophy professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (she is a novelist as well), just a trivia question: what idealistic philosopher ground lenses for a living. On the 350 anniversary of his excommunication from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam at age twenty-three, Goldstein makes a strong case for his being a major, perhaps even central, figure in the European Enlightenment, surprisingly, through his influence on John Locke, a spiritual godfather of the constitutional American Republic. (See “A view of the truth: Spinoza’s faith in reason," NYT/ IHT, 31 July 2006.) Talk about not knowing my forebears.

Goldstein, a specialist on Baruch, deplores that so little attention has been paid to this anniversary because “Spinoza’s life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable.” She explains that the reasons for his excommunication remain “murky”. But the “logic” behind his vilification throughout Europe is crystal clear: "Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways.” In the 21 years before his death at 44, he studied the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he arrived at are amazingly timely in our new era of Islamic martyrs and Christian intransigent theologies.

1492 meant something entirely different to Iberian Jews than it does to American patriots. It marked their banishment from Spain and Portugal to more open minded regimes like that in Netherlands. They either had to convert to Christianity or leave for parts unknown. The Iberians had just “outed” the Moors—so it was theological clean up time, with the Inquisitors keeping a lethal eye even on those Jews who “converted”—they suspected that once a Jew “carrying the rejected of Christ in their very blood” always a Jew. So Goldstein postulates that the Iberian Inquisition was “Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.”

Baruch’s response to this all enveloping religious intolerance was to try to “think his way out of all sectarian thinking”. He observed how people have a tendency to view as true which furthers their own programs of aggrandizement. He decided that only Reason could void those “false entailments” He concluded that in so far as each individual was “rational”, each share the same identity. Gifted with this splendid capacity, each of us has the responsibility as well as the right to exercise in life’s crucial decisions.

That is why he considered the emerging democratic spirit as the most superior form of government. That is why he railed against governments which impeded the growth of science which furthered the physical safety that allows us to develop our rational potentials. Analogously he rejected clerical control of government because it was de jure irrational, rejecting all other interpretations of reality

Greater Christian Europe banned his books. But the more banned, the more read they were.Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is pure Baruch, just a language away in its Lockean formulations. Baruch believed it was Reason that made each of us a being of unlimited value.

This outraged the Absolutists who thought they needed the revelation of God to make each individual inestimable. It’s a law of nature, Baruch reasoned, not a divine revelation! And in this era of “religion infested politics” many would argue with Spinoza. The happiest 350th anniversary return would be a return of Islamist, Jew and Christian to his clarity and purity. Many happy returns to US, Mr. Spinoza.

(To get the full Baruch, read Professor Goldstein’s new book,”Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”.)

Monday, 20 July 2009

Turning Green

It used to be that architects aspired to design the tallest buildings in the world. The race really quickened in the nineteen-twenties with Philly's own PSFS building designed by George Howe and William Lescaze. (For fifty years Philly counted itself out of the Height Race with its pious ukase that no building shalt be taller than the Calder Penn statue atop City Hall. It took the German Helmut Jahn to break that taboo, with his Liberties!)

The Empire State Building quickly trumped it, soon to be upped by the fancy, schmancy Art Deco Chrysler Building (still my all time surge in skyscrapers!) Hohum with the Sears Tower in Chicago, and sorry, Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center may have been the tallest Evil Symbol of the American Devil, it was also Tackytecture.

As a native Detroiter I was forever wishing the best for that local boy made tall, Minoru Yamasaki. But he goofed big on this one, a failure that civil engineers are not so civilly asserting that it wasn’t very good internally either. (I will still remember fondly, dearest, our February 1982 birthday party at “Windows on the World”, which at its certain height at a certain time of day even made New Jersey look beautiful!)

Alas, we’re out of the Can You Top This race now. (Although my Numero Uno of the Moment, Santiago Calatrava, may put U.S. in the race once more—in both Chicago and New York.) The Petronas Twins in Kuala Lumpur have the bragging rights for a few nanoseconds as those Oiligarchs are practicing the New Hubris with their Petrodollar Heightened Towers. Daniel Libeskind has got the clever idea—not Height but Right as in his 1776 foot replacement for the vanished WTC. I’m not a bit depressed.

PBS is now showing us the saving futures of High Rises. And the color is green. Cesar Pelli’s Glass Geometry Lesson next to 30th Street Station is passe before it even has the green patina of age. His son Rafaelo is the newest guru. In Battery Park City he is noodling high rise apartments with an astonishingly green agenda. Nothing is wasted. Broad roof terraces recycle rain in miraculous ways, saving heat in the winter and cooling off in the summer. Leave no waste unused! Use it twice. Hell, recycle it for eternity.It’s still the same old H20 with no other possible lives but steam and ice.

Meanwhile in Midtown, architects you’ve never heard of are designing Green Towers right in the thick of it. One Bryant Square has a 200 acre plot set aside for the new HQ of Bank of America, where all the quirks of turning green are in full force. And 4 Times Square (I’m not sure I relish the new Baroque Addresses of these Green Havens) has already achieved Green Star status.

In the PBS video I saw these new horizons of sound environmental policy are explained in the clearest English, by Paul Goldberger, lately dean of the Parson School of Design and inheritor of the mantle of Lewis Mumford at the New Yorker, ably abetted by the editor of Metropolis and the several pioneering architects of the new Green cadre. It’s so easy when you put the motivation of more profit behind creative minds. Green architecture is already making more green bucks for its initiators than the sloppy old brown wastrels we became too easily accustomed to.

And noble Lord Foster has shown that even old buildings can be jiggered greenfully if a noble mind is applied. His Reichstag in Berlin and his newly bloomed Hearst Tower on Eighth Avenue both attest to the redemptive capacity of casually badly designed buildings to the Green Ethic. If you abstain from television because it isn’t green enough for your mind and emotions, think again. Each of the DVD’s are available for $19.99.

You’ll be so glad they did—architects, that is, before they reach for their Pritzker stars. Ungreen architects will soon be sneered out of the profession. The ingeniousness of their solutions makes this old Navy radar tech thrill at his recollection of electronic wonders during World War II. Down with the pushy, prissy Pritzkers with their Titanium Baubles and Men’s Pissoir White Tiles. Shticks are no longer Chic.

Green is in. Green is on. Long flourish the living world around us not yet obliterated. Check local listings.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Pig Shit and Solar Panels

The Green Revolution has become so institutionalized that you never know from whence the next bloom will blossom. Take 34 year old Heiner Gaertner’s 135 year old, 200 acre pig farm in Buttenwiesen, a village near Augsburg, Germany. The trouble was when his 69 year old father turned the spread over to him in 2002, it was verging on bankruptcy. Brazilian pig farmers were raising them for half the cost in Germany. He considering selling most of his property, keeping only the family’s stone house his great grandfather built when he kept cattle, chickens, and other animals.

But it was no easy sell, because the new EU countries like Poland and the newly integrated East Germany had larger acreage and were therefore more viable economically, even though his farm with broad, flat meadows in the gently rolling countryside of Bavaria was attractive enough, but no easy sell. (Mark Landler, “Hot German July Doesn’t Face Farmer Who Reaps the Sun”, NYTimes (July 28, 2006).

He realized that the collapse in WTO tariff negotiations as well as threatened farm subsidies would not protect German farmers much longer. Gaertner, a recent graduate in agricultural engineering, was astonished at the great clusters of windmills that dotted the landscape of a classmate in Northern Germany.

Alas, wind is just not as permanent a feature of the Bavarian ecology as the coastal areas. And besides locals were getting antsy at bigger and bigger collections of those noisy, bird hating blades. Gaertner thought solar! For Germany passed a law in 2004 that guaranteed solar parks two to three times the normal price of electricity generated.

Both he and his classmate, Ove Petersen, were totally in the dark about solar power generation. So they sat down and tutored each other in the do’s and don’t’s of the new method of power generation. 10,050 solar panels later—and $5 millions in debt for construction costs—his generator were humming as well as earning him $600,000 a year (at that rate he can pay off his loan in 15 to 16 years!)

It can light up the nearby village of 7,000, but the electricity company also uses his capacity for heat waves to supply the air conditioners. Paradoxically this really hot July (the hottest on record since meteorologist kept track of such data) reduces his generators to only 83 percent of capacity! Heat slows down everything and everyone!

Where does the pig shit come in? Biomass is the magic word. When the sun falters, the 1000 pigs he’s kept make up the difference. You can’t always count on the sun, but the pigs never stop shitting! Meanwhile, Gaertner believes that even though he expects the government to reduce the subsidy, he’s safely on the track away from red ink. Greener thinking keeps him in the black!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Compassionate Conservative Deckalogue

Thou shall blaspheme God by pretending He speaks to you.
Thou shall secretly worship the God Mammon, who makes the rich richer.
Thou shall not take the name of the Poor in vain.
Thou shall take Medicare from your parents.
Thou shall make money from Capital Punishment, building more prisons for the poor.
Thou shall steal the pensions of your workers.
Thou shall make a mockery of marriage by blackmailing gays.
Thou shall poison the earth by forbidding stewardship.
Thou shall pay the poor as little as you can get away with.
Thou shall hire illegal immigrants and house them in guarded pigsties.
Thou shall pretend to be Christian when elections are close.
Thou shall stack the deck of opportunity.
Thou shall burn in Hell for eternity for your perfidy.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Discovering German Patriotism

German playwright Thomas Brussig was recently quoted on website (It renders into splendid English the thoughtful essays that are the glory of German daily journalism.) that he had stooped to the widespread shtick of the World Cup of painting his face with the colors of the German flag, red, black, and gold. He had succumbed to the new German patriotism.

Not the immediate Post-War denial of Nazism and the Holocaust. Nor the bitter overreaction of Joshcha Fisher’s generation to this deal. Nor the astonished wonder (and surprised pride) of the Economic Wonder that attested to the ultimate soundness of the German economy. It reminded me of my flight shortly after President Reagan’s Bitburg debacle when my seatmates were three generations of German, Opa had been a war prisoner and still an Aryan freak, his mainly silent son who turned out to be a successful entrepreneur, and his utterly charming teenage daughter (who almost made you agree to Aryan superiority!)

So long before I settled in Germany in 1998 to write a book on the Bauhaus, I had decided the Krauts had already saved themselves. It puzzles me that writers are still worrying about the humanity of their tribe! In the intervening years, I have been fascinated by “discovering” astonishing Germans, dead and alive, that Germans know almost nothing about!

Take Dr.Marie-Elisabeth Lueders. I stumbled onto her story in the University of California Press reader on the Weimar Republic, namely her 1927 “FORM” critique (from a mother’s perspective) of Mies van der Rohe’s apartments at the Weissenhof Siedlung outside Stuttgart. She found no room for children’s wet outdoor garments! And the kids got pneumonia from the cold floors continuously (if inadvertently) refrigerated by the winds between the excessive glass. And open the kitchen door and the same wind blew out the stove flame! In other words she argued, Mies was not making architecture but ART. His pride and joy on the roster of Starchitects he had assembled was Corbusier. Last year, Corbu’s apartment was demoted to a Visitor Center, otherwise uninhabitable!

Wow! I enthused. Where did this broad come from in Kinder, Kueche, and Kirche Germany? I ordered her autobiography by interlibrary loan from the state capital, Erfurt. Its title (“Never Fear!”) intrigued me. Strange,that my research library –the world famous Duchess Anna Amalia Bibliothek—didn’t have it. It turned out she was the first woman to get a Ph.D.(in Politics) in 1910. She directed Women’s Work and Childcare (two interrelated responsibilities!) in World War I. She became a member of the Weimar Parliament until Hitler silenced her and twice incarcerated the troublemaker. She ran a woman’s academy in Dusseldorf to pass the time creatively. After World War II she returned to politics in Berlin.

The kicker? For several years I was unable to find any German who had ever heard of her. I mean educated people in a University town. What a relief, when I read in Die Zeit that last year the new Bundestag Library was named after her. Finally. That’s sensible patriotism.

Now take an Admiral whose name and address I have mislaid. He was a Berlin butcher’s son, and I asked him how he moved up so far in status to become the head of the German Annapolis. He explained that there had been so many Nazis in the Navy command that an ambitious young man could rise as fast as his energy allowed. But it’s not his secular success that interested me. I ran into him in Warnigeroda, a port city adjacent to Rostock.

The Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, whom I greatly admire, spent some time there, as far as I can see because the nude Baltic beaches nearby appealed to his sexual identity in ways that Norway didn’t. “My Admiral”, as I fondly call him, had spent some years in Oslo as part of the NATO command, where he had cottoned to the quirky painter, and vowed to make a museum of the home he lived in summers in Warnigeroda. That’s where I met him, looking over his work of love. But the real story gets more interesting. He decided that the old Admiral portraits that filled the walls of his Annapolis were out of date. He started hanging modern paintings there, and eventually on German warships! Now that’s German patriotism, if you ask me.

One final discovery. Franz Itting, a self made electricity entrepreneur in the tiny South Thuringen village of Probstzella. (Thuringer Landes Zeitung feature writer Sabine Brandt unconvered this local genius for me.) He eventually had sixteen villages connected to his generators. Big Deal? He paid his workers more than the going rate. And he built cheap housing for them. And in 1927 a Folk House so the whole community could celebrate and relax together.

They called him “Rote Franz”, red Franz for his Social Democratic ideals. Needless to say Hitler put him in the klink. For not being rightist enough. When the DDR took over, they decided he wasn’t left enough. So they put him in jail as well. Did Franz lose his idealism. Hell, no! He snuck out of the DDR through Berlin and set up another electricity company over the line between Thuringia and Bavaria. His daughter Sonia is currently trying to get her inheritance rights back and the Folk House restaurant is back in service with its hotel soon to follow.

I could go on with my spare time project, “Germans I Would Have Loved to Have Known”, an expanding list of offbeat innovators who have slipped through the cracks of contemporary Germany. My ideal of Patriotism is to retrieve these idealists and make them accessible It is a scandal that MittelDeutschRundFunk has not done a feature on Franz—although you can scan a piece on Hitler and the War every other week. Remember Hitler and feel glum (and superior). Discover Franz Itting and you’re challenged to change your life for the better. Harder to do, too.

Indeed I’ve found a zillion reasons to be patriot proud of Germany, none of them having to do with the World Cup!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/Six

All things being equal, then, an intelligent photo essay by Bruce Davidson on juvenile delinquency is more “cultural” in any meaningful sense of the term than a reproduction of an El Greco; and a TV documentary by Chet Huntley on the American image abroad is more “artistic” than a 90-minute production of a Greek play by “Omnibus”; and the NBC-TV “Home” show, dedicated as it was to respecting the growing sensibility and intelligence of the American housewife, was more in the interests of a living culture than the timid support of safe classics on television by either “Hallmark” or “Dupont Show of the Month.”

Part of the problem of standards in mass communication is that the humanists (whom society endows to speculate freely in the public interest) have not really learned to ask the right people the right questions about the right kind of excellence. Instead of becoming becalmed by recollections of the glories that were the pride of Greece and the grandeurs that were becoming to Rome, the humanist must learn to identify more quickly the first glimmerings of excellence characteristic of the arts of mass production and mass communication.

Having identified this new aesthetic excellence, he must teach the mass patron how to recognize and demand more of the same. High standards from past cultures will never be an adequate replacement for rising gradients of taste within our own. Nostalgia is no substitute for vision.

There are certain signs that humanists are taking a more realistic stance by encouraging excellence in the media of mass communication. The Saturday Review’s collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum on an exhibition of “photography as a fine art” extends further that journal’s tradition of intelligent criticism of advertising, journalism, movies, and broadcasting. The fund for the Republic’s Mass Media project has shown in a number of occasional papers how relevant an informed criticism can be. Louis Lyons’ series of interviews on “The Press and the people” for WBGH-TV, Boston, makes one want all the more a continuing dialogue on the performance and ideals of the mass media in American life.

But still more heartening is the emergence of a new generation of creators in the popular arts who are not bothered by what have now become lazy clichés about alienation and the inevitability of commercial corruption. A playwright like Paddy Chayefsky has written some of the best criticism of popular culture available to its own patrons (e.g., the comment on girly magazines and Mickey Spillane in “Marty,” or the entire theme of “The Goddess” for that matter). And Rod Serling’s moderate complexity is what probably gives his penchant for recognizing good material (executive power struggles, the “failure” of success in Hollywood, labor corruption) its effectiveness with his TV audience.

The curiosity of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge about writing original material for the movies is a great advance of the schizophrenia of the generation of Hemingway and Faulkner between doing “serious work” and doing a movie. What the humanities must especially insist upon is that creators within these new forms not take their artistic responsibilities lightly. Serious novels are not compensation for hackwork.

The mass media are potentially great art forms, and all they need to fulfill their potentials are great artists and great audiences. But this should not be discouraging; it is equally the predicament of every other art. Integrity of form and content, not size of audience, nor complexity message, are the criteria for good art.

The public arts of mass production and mass communication, then, need patrons with more aspiring sensibilities and professionals with more sensitive consciences. The central responsibility of the humanities in mass education from kindergarten through professional school is to create a climate of responsibility for these public arts because on them the sanity and health of our civilization rests. Maverick scholars in established disciplines (John Kouwenhoven in literature, Siegfried Giedion in history) suggest how easy the transition could be when we decide to reinvest our critical energies from and overemphasis on the traditional arts of literature, painting, and music to a balanced consideration of the aesthetic imperatives facing everyone in a mass society.

For example, we train students to be discriminating in the literary choices from grade through graduate school, but we rarely give them a chance to examine objectively the kinds of choices they will make almost everyday in industrial design, architecture, and civic design. Even the long slighted arts of painting and music are lately getting much more of the attention they deserve in a balanced aesthetic curriculum. But the newest art forms brought into being by a wedding of technology and the human sensibility – the photoessay, the feature and animated cartoon, the television play and documentary – these are strangely and myopically neglected in our formal curricula. The longer we neglect them, the more likely we are to be victimized by mediocrity.

We can spare much else, but if we are to develop a mature civilization that supports both private pleasure and public purpose, it is essential that a dialogue of growing complexity constantly examine those external landscapes through which we profess our common interest in order and those interior landscapes of belief and value without which a true community is impossible.

This can only be accomplished if we use mass education at the general and professional levels in many more imaginative, untried, and hopeful ways than we are. This will happen much more quickly if the humanities begin to demand of the future as much as they expect from the past.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/Five

School design is especially important because of its long-range effects on design in domestic architecture. It is hard to imagine that pleasurable contact with good school buildings can leave the next generation as complacently acquiescent in jerrybuilt ranch house modern as we are.

On the level of corporate prestige, Reynolds Aluminum is setting in motion a similarly helpful competition when it awards a modern piece of sculpture in aluminum (designed by Theodore Rosczak and Jose De Rivera, so far) for the best business building using their material in the preceding year. Perhaps these same farsighted companies will sponsor free films summarizing the results of their architectural competitions for use in the schools. Such firms stand to gain from a more rapidly rising gradient in American taste and understanding.

That there are commercial firms sensible enough to identify their corporate interest with the long term stability and growth of the total community is evident from Dow Chemical’s recent sponsorship of “Highway Hearing,” a motion picture explaining the Federal Defense Highway Act, and from the Edison Electric Institute’s collaboration with the American Institute of Planners and the American Society of Planning Officials on a film about the planning process, “Planning for Prosperity.”

Perhaps the best way to educate the general public to want and demand adequate city planning is to start with microcosms of good planning in their own experience. Victor Gruen’s planned shopping centers at Northland and Eastland in Detroit and Southdale in Minneapolis as well as his plans for downtown pedestrian malls in various cities ought to be at the center of the humanities curriculum in the public schools.

By considering them, children would begin to take for granted an orderly environment in which the everyday activities of shopping are enhanced by amenities such as landscaped gardens, and sculpture for play and for contemplation. The same kind of schoolroom speculation about other planned places such as Saarinen’s General Motors Tech Center will gradually generate an every-growing demand for order in the total urban environment.

Even the much maligned Levittowns embody for the first time on a large scale important planning principles. Elite critics fail to see the irony in their disparagement of the Levittown’s undistinguished and monotonous designs. For this visual mediocrity is largely due to their own failure to democratize architectural criticism quickly enough. It would be much more to the point if they would assume that the essential purpose of instruction in the humanities in mass education was precisely to influence the kinds of aesthetic decisions Levittowners will later be called upon to make.

The responsibility of the new patron to the external landscape applies in a comparable way to the consumer of mass communication. The public arts that shape our interior landscapes of belief and value – print, film, and broadcasting – are almost as unexamined in mass education as are the public arts of industrial design, architecture, and urban planning. This is probably true, in spite of its total lack of logic, because the humanities as a vocational specialty has regarded its role as being that of conservators of true Culture against the onslaughts of mass production and mass communication.

Obviously with such a prejudice it is nearly impossible to help a mass society seek out and nurture its own distinctive arts. Almost inevitably from such a view the humanities become compensatory for the “inadequacies” of the mass society. Also, from such a perspective, the classics become sterilely the eternal benchmarks against which to measure the trivialities of the present.

This orientation of the humanities as a profession in mass education is not a little responsible for the frustratingly slow growth of the arts allied with mass production and mass communication. The humanist, much more than he knows, has been engaged in self-fulfilling prophecies of despair. If he wants to be an adequate critic of mass communication, he must identify the many kinds of excellence already in the media and use the public schools to broaden the patronage for that kind of excellence.

In practice this would mean much less time on the explication of poetry and fiction, considerably more on the arts of graphics, photography, and photojournalism, popular music and comedy, film and broadcast documentary, motion picture and television drama. And the basic criterion here should not be how well the mass media present the Culture of the past to large contemporary audiences (although under certain conditions this function can be important and liberating), but rather how well these new public arts shape the formless experience of the present for their patrons.

It is not tragic, as Randall Jarrell would have us believe, that the modern school child does not know who King Arthur was; but it is tragic if that child is barely aware of the moral and aesthetic dilemmas of the present because of exposure to mindless and irrelevant entertainment – or possibly, because the poetic temperament has retreated to esoteric self-congratulations with other poets.

This is important to stress because in response to criticism, mass media policymakers, partly in deference to the erroneous assumptions about the humanities they share with their intellectual critics, cite long lists of “classics” recently presented over television, or the number of color reproductions of great paintings reprinted in magazines, or the staggering volume of Beethoven LP’s distributed by the recording companies. This is to confuse the artifacts of past culture with the creation of a living contemporary one.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/Four

There is the same disparity in architecture between the elite and popular levels of discourse – between, say, the contents of the big professional magazines – Architectural Forum, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record – and the real estate sections of the local newspapers.

Time, Inc. deserves special commendation in this respect for its brilliant coverage of architecture in Fortune, Time, and Life. One hopes the readership for some of their features is high, but that happy possibility is doubtful – given the narrow range of the cultural objects the company issues on filmstrips for school use. Life has school materials on any number of landmarks in Western art and culture, but their first-rate America’s Arts and Skills appeared only in a prestige volume (Dutton, 1956) and Life’s monthly architecture and design features lie fallow in its photo-morgue.

John Peter of Look produces equally good photoessays on design and architecture. Ironically these low readership magazine items are in color; yet an excellent book like Peter’s Master of Modern Architecture (George Braziller, 1958) is condemned to black and white even at the prohibitive price of $15. There is a cruel and unnecessary paradox in the fact that these extraordinary materials for an adequate criticism of architecture fall on blind eyes in mass magazines at the same time that our schools painfully and with little apparent success try to develop a generation’s sensibility by forced reading of second-rate Victorian poets like Longfellow and Lowell.

(In fact, if one had to choose between the humanities textbooks used in many schools and colleges and the best in American journalism, there would be no doubt in my mind that our best journalism would be more effective in developing mature patrons. For the most part the journalism is written by better writers who have the advantage of an audience of uneducated readers rather than an audience of overcritical peers in mind.)

It is worth noting here that the successful communication to a general audience of critical standards from one’s own profession takes more than good intentions. The American Institute of Architects has failed signally to achieve rapport with intended lay audiences in at least two major film efforts, “Architecture, U.S.A.,” and “The New Age of Architecture.”

The color in the first film is amateurish, but more crucially, it discusses domestic architecture in terms of houses very few in any conceivable mass audience could afford. “The New Age of Architecture,” on the other hand, tries to influence the quality of design in the next $500 billion worth of American building with a film that even proved boring to a local A.I.A. chapter – largely because the broken accents of Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Saarinen were not adequate vehicles of meaning but also because the film was a paste-pot job – not a whit worthy of the glorious architecture it damned with its fumbling feint at praise. It is significant, too, that the film is advertised as free for use on television – and yet it is 42 minutes long!

On the other hand, in celebration of its centennial, the A.I.A. sponsored Frederick Gutheim’s handsome book of pictures on “One Hundred years of American Architecture.” An important and effective series of critical articles or films could be made on its color folio “Ten Buildings in American’s Future,” e.g., the Lambert Airport by Yamasaki in St. Louis; the Hollin Hills development by Charles Goodman in Fairfax County, Virginia; the planned shopping center by Victor Gruen at Northland in Detroit; and several others.

It is particularly important when discussing excellence in the arts of a mass society to discuss the archetypes of our future landscape, such as airports, shopping centers, factories, and development housing. They will become paradigms for generations of architects.

Further, the quality of most private housing is perhaps crucial to the total shape of our visual landscape; and the future of well-designed prefabricated homes is signally important, given the fact that 85% of our homes are not designed by architects. Charles Goodman’s designs for National Homes of Lafayette, Indiana, are particularly heartening in this regard; and that firm’s free movie explaining the compatibility of prefabrication and good design is a model of effective communication. The work of George Nelson and Carl Koch in striving for the industrialization of good architectural design deserves wider attention, too.

In fact, the kind of criticism of the public arts of a mass society we are calling for here would always focus attention on instances which seemed to suggest the possible coexistence of high ideals and mass marketing. Alcoa’s “Forecast Collection” – commissions to individual designers for plastic speculation about the future shapes of everyday objects – is a good example of how marketing economics can encourage good design in theory.

The same firm’s book, Schoolhouse (Simon and Schuster, 1959), edited by Walter McQuade to guide local boards of education in their construction of contemporary school buildings, is a brilliant example of how competition between basic materials suppliers can lead to design progress in practice as well.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/Three

The “data” for eloquent and persuasive photo essays, films, and broadcasts on industrial design for the general public exist for the taking in intelligent journals like Industrial Design, Craft Horizons, and the Design Quarterly (formerly Everyday Art Quarterly) of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker has shown particular initiative in its publications and Christmas exhibitions, the latter helping shoppers find where in Minneapolis they can buy which good designs at what prices.

The Museum of Modern Art has also done much to promote the intelligent criticism of man-made everyday objects with its teaching portfolios for the public schools and its tradition of “good design” shows. Its activity in this field reached a distinguished high point in the winter 1958-59 with Greta Daniel’s and Arthur Drexler’s major exhibition on “Twentieth Century Design.” It is symptomatic of the peripheral support given such critical endeavors that no documentary film of the show is available for mass distribution.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has concentrated more on organizing elite symposia and conferences than on broadening popular understanding of good design, but neither dimension of the problem should be neglected. Jay Doblin’s work at the Illinois Institute of Technology, especially his recent juried selection of the hundred best designs, is notable. All these rather isolated first steps provide the broad base of knowledge and experience necessary for a popularized criticism of industrial design.

In creating and disseminating a vision of excellence for a mass society, perhaps the place to start is with individual designers whose work within a marketing society is an embodiment of idealism and craftsmanship: Leo Lionni, Charles Eames, George Nelson, George Nakashima, Saul Bass, Paul McCobb, and Isamu Noguchi.

Are these exemplars of excellence well enough known to the patrons of a mass society? Is their unnecessarily low visibility at least partly responsible for the more depressing aspects of the man-made environment in America?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/Two

In discussing the external landscape created by mass production, it is convenient to distinguish between industrial design, marketing, architecture, and city planning. The raw material for an adequate criticism of all three areas lies ready at hand for intelligent development.

In every case this development would amount to making available to the ordinary individual at a range of intelligible levels the information and theory already circulating in professional circles. In establishing this critical confrontation, the new media of communication are essential – partly to make up for lost time, but equally as much because they are the most appropriate vehicles for this type of analysis.

The newer media of photojournalism, animated cartoon, and television documentary are eloquent enough, in the hands of professionals, to close the “message gap” between the information of everyman as patron and the unsettled conditions of patronage in the new art forms of mass communication and mass production. Since most of these new forms are themselves highly pictorial and visual, the newer media are perhaps more ideally suited to a broadly based criticism than are the more traditional channels of printed communication.

Thus both urgency and the innate qualities of the arts under consideration suggest the wisdom of using the newer media to bring the new consumer rapidly abreast of his responsibilities as a patron of the everyday arts. The general strategy of this much-needed criticism of the public arts, then, would be simply to increase the rate of information flow between professional elites and the mass consumer whose median taste establishes the quality of our culture.

The recent economic and ideological crisis over Detroit’s ‘insolent chariots” provided an excellent opportunity for the establishment of a mature criticism of industrial design in America. Unhappily, the elite continues to choose the easy and inverted snobbism of European small cars for the much more demanding task of explaining to the ordinary man why the psychological symbolism of chrome and fin is immature and unsatisfying.

A successful film like Roger Tilton’s “Seven Guideposts to Good Design” (Louis De Rochemont Associates), on the other hand, aims to develop such increments of awareness in the ordinary customer. There ought to be scores of similar films created, perhaps under the direction of the American Society of Industrial Designers or the Industrial Design Education Association. For these professional organizations, such activity would not only give them present outlets for their idealism, but it would also insure designers future relief against their being squeezed on the producer’s exploitation of immature consumers.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Problems of the Arts in a Mass Society/One

The most important single fact about Culture in contemporary America is that patronage of the arts has been democratized and criticism of them has not been. Most of the difficulties arising from this lag have been falsely imputed to the emergence of “the mass society.” A great many “crises” in taste would gradually disappear if the energies of our cultural institutions were systematically and imaginatively reinvested in these new contexts of patronage.

We thereby would clarify for new and insecure patrons the aesthetic choices a different kind of society demands of them. These acts of patronage stem from the rise of the new institutions of mass production and mass communication. Yet mass education for all practical purposes simply ignores these new arts and their new modes of patronage, effectively turning unexperienced patrons over to the unexamined blandishments of advertising.

A desirable humanities curriculum in a mass society would make it possible for everyone to lead an examined life as a patron of mass production and mass communication. A realistic agenda for the humanities, then, would provide for the most rapid creation and widest diffusion of a body and tradition of criticism that encourage the support of excellence within these mass institutions.

The important thing to remember is that priority must go to the encouragement of excellence in our society’s central institutions. For these set the tone of the society. All else is secondary in the humanities, except as it ultimately contributes to the health and growth of these central institutions. For in the last analysis, the humanities strive to render everyday life more humane. And everyday life in America today can never be much better than the conditions of life encouraged by our central institutions of mass production and mass communication.

There is even a sense in which Sunday Culture can become a kind of highbrow escapism from the inadequacies, moral and aesthetic, of our work-a-day culture of automobiles and television. The humanities must constantly be on guard against succumbing to that kind of “cloistered virtue.” Alienation from mass culture is never an acceptable substitute for its gradual humanization.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Walk in Another Man's Zoris

As the first director (1961) of the Institute of American Studies at the East West Center of the University of Hawaii, my job was to devise schemes for explaining America to Asian students and visitors. Our first “mission” was to debrief a group of Indian journalists who were about to go on an extended visit to the Mainland.

We tried to imagine what they would want to know. We thought it prudent to prepare ourselves to deal with the usual litany of American errors: racism, materialism, isolationism, Disney superficiality. After bringing our grueling seminar in self-recrimination to a close, we dispersed, ready to greet those Brown Indians on the morrow.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our first cross-cultural confrontation. The Indian journalists didn’t want to ask us embarrassing questions about our hastily assembled self-indictment. The first question they asked was: Why do you treat your old people so cruelly?

Huh? We were of that first generation of American parents who wouldn’t think of inflicting themselves on our kids. And we had grown up thinking of grandparents as things to be seen only on holidays! Yet one of the first things I had noticed in adjusting to life in Honolulu was how the Asian moppets always seem to hike to elementary school with a grandma in tow. I couldn’t help envying those Asian oldies. Significance? The time had come to divest ourselves of the glib explanations we were eager to foist on our visitors, and learn to listen to what was really on their minds.

Not long afterward I had a second epiphany. In those days I hosted a weekly radio program, “Pacific Profile,” in which I pumped an unending line of interesting visitors for tidbits of their expertise. Today’s visitor had been a puzzle, the editor of the leading paper in the Indian state of Kerala, which was then the center of Communist ideology in that subcontinent. By the time the interview was over I felt thoroughly battered by the man’s ideological body-blows, and seeking a peaceful common ground during our drive to the airport, I started to talk about Thomas Jefferson.

“Ah, Jefferson, that slave-holding partisan of freedom,” he began, as I swerved to miss an errant lane-cutter on the freeway. But he then shifted abruptly to his favorite Tom story. “Did you know that Jefferson almost got arrested in Italy for secreting a new and embargoed variety of rice in a hollow cane?”

No, I replied, that was news to me.

Now I consider myself something of a Jefferson buff. I had read “Notes on Virginia” and knew all about how Jefferson was researching new possibilities for agriculture in his home state as he traveled around Europe. Why had I missed this tasty item? It was simple. I was not from a Third World country, where an impending agricultural revolution was turning out to be the difference between life and death to starving millions.

This essay was also published in STORIES TEACHERS TELL.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Kindergarten-Sommerfest 2009

Danny boy, cute as the dickens, clicked by Daddy.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Patinaphobia as a Systemic Flaw in Modernoid Architecture

A disconcerting phenomenon in Modernoid Architecture is its failure to achieve Patina. Older classic buildings like the medievally created Cathedrals get finer with age. Many Modernoid structures never achieve Patina: more characteristically they self degrade rapidly, often collapsing visually. Let me give as a revealing example, Richard Meier’s Museum of Applied Art (1985) in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. I cite it because I have closely observed its rapid degeneration over the past thirteen years.

In his Auftakt Rede Mr. Meier thanked the Burgers of Frankfurt for giving this commission to him a Jew, a contemptible instance of Holocaust Hustling! He asserts as well that his new structure is a homage to the “Jugendstil” villa that was the original museum building for Frankfurt’s astonishing Museum Mile on the bank of the Main river, the so-called Schaumainkai Avenue.

This falsity reveals an astonishing architectural illiteracy for one of America’s first Pritzker laureates. That villa is a purely Grunderzeit structure, and a feeble instance of such in any case, without the tiniest smidgin of Jugendstilia. Then Meier asserted that his MAK structure was an innovative, idiosyncratic solution to art display. Alas it is rather feeble replica of his High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia—down to replicating in Frankfurt the dysfunctional ramps he pioneered in that Southern U.S. metropolis.

I first visited MAK in April, 1985, shortly after it opened. I was puzzled by the sight of workmen affixing white sheets to the windows facing the Main river. My PR guide explained that Meier had been thoughtlessly dazzled by the efflorescence of high rise skyscrapers there in the so-called Manhattanization of Frankfurt’s. Meier had over-fenestrated to captivate museum visitors beholding that site! It was only April, but the building could not not carry its heat load!

As an art critic I was dismayed by how this fenestral fiddling had wrecked the interior lighting: Here puddles of darkness, there, blazes of too much light! Indeed, when the architectural blipopcracy of the City of Frankfurt offered the adjacent Museum of World Cultures a Meier, they responded,”Thanks, but No Thanks!” They preferred to redo their three villas. When I asked Mr. Meier about the truth of these rumors at the opening of The New Getty in L.A., he abruptly concluded our interview, and strided off in a huff!

Sunday, April 12, 2008, I visited the revolutionary Russian Porcelain exhibition at MAK as an element in my spring round-up review, “Frankfurt’s Fruhling Kunstfest”. The show itself was innovative and instructive, but I was visually appalled, entering and leaving that complex. Walls were covered with lesions of scrofulous patches. Jointures were especially vulnerable to lesions.

If the Original Sin of Modernoid Architecture was the gratuitous obliteration of the gable, returning vulnerability to snow, rain, and pathologically leaking roofs, then the second weakness was technological hubris, the uncritical employment of newly accessible materials like glass, steel and cement. No one denies that grand, even great, buildings can of course use new materials. Rather, innovation for its own sake defies the prudence and historically derived expertise of tradition.

“Signature “ architects like Meier are especially vulnerable to the hubris of techno abuse. His dazzlingly white surfaces (I mock him by calling his shtick MEN’S URINAL MODERN) much too easily succumb to the slings and harrows of outrageous defects. Indeed, the Brentwood zillionaires residing between the Getty site and their delightfully dazzling Pacific Ocean sunsets were so fearful that the reflective excess of Meier’s enameled white metallic surfaces would annihilate their “natural” sunset pleasures that they used their clout to veto Standard Meier Shtick. That is why the Getty’s external cladding is Travertine.

Alas, Travertine can also be a bad choice. Alvar Aalto, in love with Tuscany, clad his majestic Finlandia Hall in Helsinki in Travertine. But that material is very vulnerable to Finnish winters! The porosity of that material means water can invade weaker surfaces. Freezing then causes chards to break off and hit Tourists: Can’t have that!

The Aalto epigraph for his centennial exhibition reads NEVER FORGET: ARCHITECTS MAKE MISTAKES!! The great Finn thereby initiates a profoundly significant and badly needed sense of criticizing architects immunity from criticism.

Monday, 6 July 2009

More Loos Thinking

The Viennese architectural ideologue Adolf Loos (1870-1933) has long been a puzzle. His idiotic ukases about ornament being a crime always seemed to me to be psychiatric. That he would actually be referring to the glorious curlicues of Viennese Secession art/architecture (to my eye the greatest peak yet in the history of architecture) but not to Victorian second and third handed clichés just struck me as nuts, plain and simple. And there are enough aberrations in his tortured personal life to validate just such a snappy judgment. But the more I noodle his paradoxes, the more I began to see him as a typically defective example of the excesses of Modernism.

Take Voltaire, clearly the OPA of Modernism. His formula for doing away with the Catholic Church—ECRASEZ L’INFAME ! (Obliterate the Monster!) was the birth cry of Modernism. The Ancien Regime must be undone, piece by piece by piece, no matter how long and painful the process. Looking back, busy as we are burying such callow, inhumane tactics, we see it now for the adolescent like raging that it unhappily was. The only crime in Loos’s ideology is such loose thinking!

These thoughts came into suddenly sharp focus as I looked out the windows of the Number 18 Turin bus taking me from my pension next to the iconic Mole Antoniella (a criminally excessive complex of unnecessary ornament, if ever there was one!) to the World Architectural Congress at the Lingotto former FIAT factory, as free from unnecessary ornament as Albert Kahn’s Ford River Rouge complex outside Detroit.

I found unexpectedly great pleasure to my own surprise in the several generations of high rise apartments in their stunning diversity in heterogeneous detail like balconies, doors, window deployments, surface cladding. In short, I relished more and more the infinitely diverse signatures architects had devised across the centuries to please the eye while giving a building its idiosyncratic signature.

We must begin to see Modernism as a partly insane political program to obliterate all the “certainties” of the AncienRegime”. Life drawings, historical allusions in architecture, figurative sculpture, domestic gables—anything and everything, in short, that expressed the “accepted certainties” of politics, religion, and philosophy for the preceding centuries of enforced pre-egalitarian order.

A century later, we see the tacky underside of this revolutionary ideology: installations like the Turner contender of a woman’s disheveled, just fucked in bed, including her companion’s used condom. How despicable a mature rationalist like Voltaire would find such childish maunderings. It reminded me of a graffiti in the Academy of Arts/Berlin feature film (1969) about the silly shenanigans at their Freie Universitat in 1968, “Fucking is a weapon in the Class Struggle!”

Such ideological trash shows just how immature the underside of Modernism has become. When Bauhaus UNI “Freie Kunst” professors helped honor the retrieval of a grand Van de Velde villa from three decades of abuse as Weimar’s STASI HQ, a highly praised installation was 40,000 sheets of the typing paper the spies used to indict citizens for revolting against “socialist democracy” strewn willy nilly along the halls of the rooms which had been used to harass noncompliant citizens!

Adolf Loos’s silly opinions on decoration as a crime seems almost credibly believable by comparison!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Trouble(s) with Modern Architecture

Apologia pour vita mea: I’m often asked how a retired professor of American Literature presumes to pontificate on the subject of Modern Architecture. A good question, but a false premise. I don’t profess a specialist’s preparation. (Indeed, the closest I got to such special savvy was the “D” I got in mechanical drawing when as an nineteen year old ex-Navy aviation radar specialist I signed up for a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Detroit in my hometown!) What a shock for a student used to All A’s report cards. I decided on the spot that my profession must be one where sloppiness was an asset: I became an English Professor.

No, I bring the everyday experience of using architecture to my task. If I were gifted enough I’d aspire to be the Ralph Nader of American architectural criticism. Indeed, I believe our American architecture is a median mess because almost no one attempts to help the common man (I think of our public schools) learn how to judge their man made environment. I can offer one sterling exception to this dismal cultural failure: Louie Kahn’s protégé Rickie Wurman and his architectural partner Alan Levy in the 1960’s devised just such a curriculum for my second hometown, Philadelphia. It was an aspect of the enlightened era Cranbrook Art Academy educated urban planner Edmund Bacon brought to our city.

But my interest in architecture derives equally from the depressing architectural privation of my youth. I was “homeless” in Depression Detroit from 1930 to 1944, from age three to seventeen. My father absconded with his secretary to start a second life in Nevada, ending up as a highly successful real estate agent in partnership with the mayor who had made Las Vegas into a boom town. My mother was forced to teach in a middle school in Hamtramck, then the Polish “suburb” of Detroit. Her survival tactic was to double up a rental with another beleaguered teacher, in this instance a nun who just kicked her habit.

They would rent until summer vacation started, then switch to a cheaper summer cottage, and in the fall find another apartment! Ad infinitum, until the New Deal kicked in, making it possible for my mother and a different teacher to buy a new house in the last undeveloped sector, the Northeast. Meanwhile, I was parked a hundred miles to the North at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, along with my only other sibling, Mike, seven years older than I.

The “kindergarten” teacher (I was her only student!) Sister Mary Felicia really taught first and second grade when she wasn’t my virtual mother, turning me over to the nuns in the kitchen! I was a rebel from the start: when my Mother prepared to return solo to Detroit for the first time, she tried to ease my pain by giving me a $5 bill, not peanuts in those depression years! I tore it in two and threw it in her face.

And I date my interest in architecture to those weeks before I was parked in Bay City. The ex-nun Justine Fitzpatrick had her father boarding with us. Uncle Dan I called. He was in charge of deliveries at Crowley-Milners, the number three department store in downtown Detroit. When I first saw Albert Kahn’s glorious Beaux Deco Fisher Building (1928)with its golden illuminated crown, my Hibernian “uncle” called it the GillyHoo Bird’s Nest. And most weekday evenings, as he settled in to read the Detroit Times, he’d ask me suddenly, "Did you hear that whoosh of wings, Pat? It must be the GillyHoo Bird!” And sure enough, as I hopped outside on the front porch, there’d be a Mars Bar or a Baby Ruth!

Later I would learn about the remarkable career of Albert Kahn, that first child of a German rabbi’s six, who emigrated at 11 to Detroit in 1880. He had to work so he didn’t even finish high school, let alone architectural. He was so gifted a designer his proud bosses sent him to Europe for a polishing! I remember with pleasure that my first work as an autoworker was spot welding the Lincoln and Mercury mainframes in one of his factories.

When I went to Weimar in 1999 to write a book on Walter Gropius’s architectural idealism, I was motivated by reading Nicholas Pevsner’s pioneer book on architectural modernism which taught me that Pius founded the Baus to bring good design to the working classes! And I was stunned that the filiopietistic Germans were abysmally ignorant of Kahn’s greatness! Dieter Marcello’s superb film, “Albert Kahn: Architekt der Moderne” was unknown. I gave my copy to the Bauhaus Uni library and invited Marcello to Lecture in Weimar.

Partly it was because Kahn was contemptuous of what he sneeringly called the Glasshouse Boys. He convened a Tagung at the University of Michigan in 1941 on Defense Factories. He invited the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, Gropius and Mies. He chided them for not designing factories by first studying the production process and then enclosing the production lines.

The Bauhaus was still the prisoner of the Glass Palace (1851) Showoff Syndrome: It’s evident in Gropius/Meyer’s Fagus shoelast factory (1910) and Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion (1928) as well as his ripoff Neue National Galerie (1968) which was designed to show off Bacardi rum in Havana until Castro said Nyet! In Havana it was concrete. In Berlin it was steel. Its first floor is good only for goofy shows of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Or for Pritzker Prize receptions. (I attended Lord Foster’s canonization there in 1999!)

Finally, my own architectural decisions. Our first house in Dewitt in 1954 (next to Michigan State) was a prefab redwood sheathed Cape Cod with three bedrooms, $400, $40 a month! (Teacher’s salary $3600!) In a former corn field! Designed by the most neglected architect in American history, Charles Goodman! OK so I had to put the tile onto the living room. At the same time that Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann were failing at the General Panel Corporation. With a money bleeding office on Park Avenue in New York. And a production plant in an abandoned Los Angeles airplane factory. (Goodman worked out of National Homes, Lafayette, IN-- dead in the middle of the country--and understood banking mortgage traditions.)

Our second (1956-1959) was a rental in Levittown, PA, after I got a Carnegie Postdoctoral fellowship at Penn to create a new course on the mass society (communication and production.) The Ivy eggheads mocked the three Levittowns (in NY, PA, andNJ), but Arthur Levitt was generations ahead of their facile cynicism.

Our third was the best ever (1959- ), a three bedroom, two story modern house it turns out was secretly designed by the great Louie Kahn, in Greenbelt Knoll, the first successful experiment in integrated housing in Philadelphia. So it is clear I don’t reject modern architecture. I want it to shed its bad habits. Those tics derive from the intellectual flabbiness of Modernism, which happily seems to be fast coming to an inglorious. Before I crit the trouble(s) with modern architecture.