Sunday, 31 October 2010

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Goodbye, Barricades

Thought there’d be a restful pause in the world’s bicentennializing, did you? Fat chance. What national pride—egged on by the tourism industry—hath wrought has no end. It’s as intrinsic to the modern world’s metabolism as beauty pageants and UN peace-keeping forces.
1989. It’s France’s turn. And I’ve come back from Paris with a thick dossier of what they plan to perpetuate, at home and abroad. Abroad? Oui. The French believe—not without their raisons—that their 1789 revolution marks the beginning of the modern world.
And they mean much more than French couture, although “Vive La France!” is the name of the seven-week-long sales binge at Bloomingdale’s. It will be like storming the Bastille, where Francois Mitterrand hath decreed there will be a new Opera, and toward which the French architectural community has unleashed a barrage of scorn sufficiently withering to twist the T-square of the Canadian architect who got the commission.
It wasn’t complete enough for me to do anything more than look at the outside. But frankly, I said with the local dissidents, so far.
Not so with another Mitterrand bicen maneuver—the highly controversial glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei as a newer and grander entrance to the Louvre.
As lucky fate would have it, I tried to take a close look at the new gate in the Cour Napoleon the day before Mitterrand was going to dedicate it, so I not only get an hour-long tour but found myself babbling in French at the end of my levitating experience with the dapper-looking minister of state for architecture.
He seemed pleased by my confession that what I had long expected to be a travesty was in fact a miracle. Or he may have been wincing politely at my accent. It’s always hard to distinguish with their cool, elite types.
Anyway, the Pei pyramid is a glory—unquestionably a world masterpiece, a guarantee that the experiment-risking Mitterrand will go down in the building’s history as a great benefactor of la gloire.
The day I left Paris for my flight back to Luxembourg, Le Figaro ran an interesting interview with this generation’s leading historian of the French Revolution, Francois Furet. He noted that when he began his specialty 30 years ago, there were two historiographical traditions in France about their Revolution.
The right construed 1789 as an explosion of modern evil; the left saw in it nothing but a benediction. Today, Furet argues, the consensus of opinion tends toward the more sophisticated view that the Revolution was a tremendous event that took a very bad turn.
He argues as well that rather than this being a moderated view, it is more complete and true than the one which prevailed in his youth. The Revolution forged the modern world you and I live in. It was a case of a country brutally assaulting its past to create democracy.
Three years later, the Terror put democracy on hold. And that was followed by the Empire, in which power was more despotic than in the ancien regime.
Furet sees a crucial watershed in French thinking about their tremendously divisive Revolution: Sometime between 1981 and 1984, the French left abandoned its old penchant for changing society by decree.
As I come out of the Metro, I see signs for Rue Marat and Rue Robespierre. Visiting City Hall to view  an early art exhibition on the Revolution (it’s a bottom-up view by a popular artist who came from the working classes), there’s a monument to the memory of Maurice Thorez, longtime head of the French Communist Party. And my friends live on the Rue Georges Gosnat, for decades Ivry’s deputy in the National Assembly.
All things considered, nonetheless, it appears that sociologist Daniel Bell was prescient in predicting the end of the age of ideology. Everywhere I went in Europe, businessmen were not talking abstractions; they were trying to figure out what the Common Market was going to do to their business prospects.
In Ascona, having a late afternoon tea with a London financier at Monte Verita, I had to agree with Bell: “For centuries Europeans savaged each other over ideas. It’s time to end such foolishness.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 19, 1989

Friday, 29 October 2010


Strangely there was a very interesting young Omani in my class at U of D.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Wall Street Mortgage Mess

Hmmmm! US has the world's highest incarceration rate but apparently no time for justice for wealthy liars.

You must be poor to get incarcerated in America. Take our former U.S.Supreme appointed President:: no punishment for DUI, no punishment for being AWOL from the Champagne Squadron. (Itself an upper class dodge to avoid Vietnam service), serial bankruptcies, the last of which involved unpunished insider trading. Hmm! It pays to be upperclass in America.

Bush took those funds stolen from his unwary investors to the Texas Rangers, where he became, pronto, a brush-collecting millionaire on a West Texas ranch. Nice example for our hyper-incarcerated poor youth. And we're teaching democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan? Please.

Blackwater has no valid teaching credentials. Nor Cheney's former employer.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tribute to the Gate: A true Golden jubilee

Over Memorial Day weekend, one of the grandest structures in the history of mankind will be memorialized: San Francisco’s Golden Gate will be 50 years old.
I’ll never forget my first viewing of the marvel: I flew in—my first transcon jet—to chair a panel on TV criticism at the National Educational Broadcasters convention, and my wife came along to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary with a flourish.
Jet-lagged, we awoke in the Jack Tar Hotel before dawn. “Heh,” a bright idea occurred to me in the dark, “Why don’t we go watch the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge?” Mary, whose metabolism was late rising, assented grumpily, in the spirit of the anniversary. The cabbie dumped us on the toll plaza, assuring us it would be easy to find a place to eat breakfast.
Shivering, we started to walk across the awesome structure, abandoned entirely at that hour except by a few of the hardiest of sea gulls, scudding about in the buffeting winds. On the edge of hypothermia (and only half way across), I confessed my geographical ignorance to my half-frozen mate: “It’s the sunset, I guess, that makes it Golden.” Looking up the bay, Alcatraz was barely visible in the dense fog, a prophetic emblem of a marriage that would end on other rocks just shy of another ten years.
But even freezing, I exulted in the presence of the greatest Art Deco sculpture in the world. (We got our Golden Sunset eight months later, aboard the S.S. President Cleveland, bound for Honolulu.) Since then I must have walked, driven, bused, flown over the G.G. a couple hundred times, and I have never failed to feel exalted. Hell, taking the scruffy #29 Muni bus home from Fort Mason, I used to sit in the back the better to get another fix of the Big One out the grimy back window.
So John Van Der Zee’s The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) has been no ordinary read for me. The epic of its creation is almost as levitating as the thing in itself. Begin with the “architect” of G.G. (his second wife used to refer to him endearingly by those initials), one Joseph Strauss of Cincinnati, five foot three and eyes of blue skies ever since seeing Joseph Reobling’s bridge across the Ohio (1866) in his home town. (Strauss astonished, nay stunned, his baccalaureate audience at the U. of C. by giving an address on bridging the Bering Straits!)
The mathematical genius of Charles Ellis really cooked up the G.G. as we know it, but Strauss did design the Aeroscope, a cantilever bridge on its end, that was the Ferris Wheel of the Pan Pacific Expo in 1915. There he ran into a real engineer, M.M. O’Shaughnessy, whose drive brought landlocked SF its water supply from high up in the Hetch Hetchy valley of the Sierras. They fell out, and Joe went on to make his only original contribution to the success of the scheme, a Bridge District that combined the economic interests of SF and counties in Northern California.
The plot thickened as politicos dickered—and Strauss covered the nakedness of his ignorance of suspension bridges by hiring on the superstars of the movement (O.H. Amman of the George Washington Bridge, Leon Moissieff of the Port of New York Authority, and Ralph Modjeski of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge—as his constituents.)
Indeed, there are a surprising number of Philadelphia connections in the Golden Gate’s construction—the several kinds of steel came in large part from Bethlehem subsidiaries in Pottstown and Steeltown. Philly was the inspection point for the materials which were then sent through the Panama Canal and stored in Alameda until each numbered part was called forth in a technological orchestration that makes you forget, momentarily, all the hateful things high tech has done to us since WWII.
The Oakland Bay Bridge beat Strauss to the WPA trough, so he had to wangle a $35 million bond drive through an electorate muddled by the media manipulation of Southern Pacific—which had a monopoly ferry service to Marin.
Opening Day, 200,000 pedestrians plopped a nickel in the turnstile to help with the hoopla. Says Van Der Zee: “Carmen Perez, and her sister Minnie were the first people to skate across . . . Florentine Calegari, a houseman on strike from the Palace Hotel, was the first person to cross over on stilts; he then turned around and crossed back . . .
“There were people who tap-danced across, a man blowing a tuba, people on unicycles and playing harmonicas . . . A woman, apparently in physical distress, was stopped by police, who discovered that she wanted to be the first person across with her tongue out.” Those people really knew how to inaugurate.
John C. Fermont had christened the entrance of the Golden Gate, an allusion to Constantinople’s Golden Horn. Strauss wanted to allude to the golden spike used to complete the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, by making the last G.G. rivet of pure gold. Alas, the malleable material wouldn’t rivet: a grubby Pottstown regular rivet had to do. The only thing that would tempt me to put down a book as delicious as this would be another chance to walk, ride, drive, fly, etc. over the G.G.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 20, 1987

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Reasons To Return To San Diego

San Diego’s Balboa Park is one of my favorite places on earth, so they don’t have to throw a Diamond Jubilee party to get me to go. But they’re putting on a special effort to please their visitors in 1990, because 75 years ago they staged the Panama-California Exposition, to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (and to compete with San Francisco, which was then announcing it had gotten over the Earthquake with its “official” Pan-Pacific Exposition).
Praising the Panama Canal left San Diegans the legacy of this park. It includes one of the greatest zoos in the world and so many museums—art in general, 19th-Century art in particular, photography, anthropology, sports, history, space / aeronautics, and a gallery with local artists flaunting their latest works—that I get culture fatigue every time I drop in, usually once a year.
It’s only a three-hour Greyhounder ($20.85 round trip) from L.A., and the bus lets you off smack in the middle of downtown, a two-minute walk from the fabulous Horton Plaza and one minute from the Convention Tourist Bureau. I often stay at the Pickwick Hotel in the bus station ($30ish a night) when I don’t crash with friends. And the #7 bus in front of the station will drop you off at Balboa Park in ten minutes for 75 cents.
The development of the park itself is a great American success story. The city fathers set aside 1,400 acres in 1868 when cities all over the country were raising their civic sights after the horrible interlude of the Civil War. For decades it lay fallow, except for the louts that used it for a dump and the few civic-minded souls who now and then planted a bush or two.
But it wasn’t until 1892 that Kate Sessions, the Mother of the Park, made a shrewd deal with the mayor. If she could use some of the land for a nursery, she’d plant one hundred trees a year for a decade in the park itself and three hundred throughout the city. Think thank-Kate thoughts when you breeze beneath those lovely trees.
And the zoo began when a certain Dr. Harry Wegeforth heard a lion roar as he drove past the Expo grounds. He liked the sound and soon had schmoozed the city fathers into patching together a tacky flock of animals left over from the Expo, along with some people’s pets and mascots. In 1921, 100 acres were set aside for the zoo’s permanent site.
They held a name-the-park contest in 1910. Silvergate, Pacific and Horton were among the losers. The winner argued that there were vistas of the Pacific from the Park grounds that reminded him of the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to sight the Pacific “silent on a peak in Darien” in what is now Panama.
Most of the buildings for the Expo were plaster lath and chicken wire jobs that were never meant to last for the ages. One exception is the California Building, with its splendidly dominating Spanish Baroque tower. Now the Museum of Man, it is fielding an exhibition, “Celebrations,” on the way humans throughout the world hold festivals to commemorate important happenings (just like this Diamond Jubilee).
The History Museum features a photo replay of the original Expo itself in “Come to the Fair.” The Natural History Museum has “Reflections of China.” The Space Theatre across the fountain from NHM has a complementary OMNIMAX, “The First Emperor of China.” I had a most tasty lunch at the Café del Rey Moro. Get the quarterly sked from (619) 236-5717.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, July 18, 1990

Monday, 25 October 2010

On How Radical Christian Conservatives May Succeed

Hedges is right in fearing and rejecting the Tea-Tweeters.

My hunch is that Casino Capitalism is much more insidious and dangerous. They are highly intelligent and very educated. They see that Ronald Reagan's conscious deindustrialization of America makes an egalitarian America no longer tenable. And they want to get, and git it big, while there's still a lot to git.

They couldn't care less about the deunionized they have defeated.It was thrilling while it lasted. And downward mobility is all that is left for the masses.Too bad. And they,alas, have no more bets to Hedges.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

From Getty to Gehry: An L.A. art tour

Spring sprang so gloriously in Los Angeles that I astonished myself by not ever being terrified—driving my rented Mitsubishi up and down freeways, cutting in and out of lanes with the worst of them. My motivation was to see as much of that Southland art cornucopia as I could in three days. Lots.
And I don’t mean parking, although I stumbled upon the greatest boon of all in L.A.—a cheap, convenient (and safe) parking lot. It’s the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent secret at its Frank Gehry-rehabbed Temporary Contemporary. Just look for Joe’s (I’m not kidding) at the corner of Central and First Streets.
Incidentally, there is DASH bus service from the Union Station that covers, in two intersecting routes, almost everything of interest in downtown L.A. Don’t believe the myth that you’re helpless in L.A. without a car.
But my itinerary that day was from Getty’s old museum in Malibu to Gehry’s new one on Main Street in Santa Monica. The Getty caught my eye because it was capitalizing on the coincidence of Christian Good Friday and the Jewish Passover with a splendid gloss on the Passion of Christ, using its legendary collection of illuminated manuscripts to dazzle the eyes of even this no-longer-believing but nonetheless helpless Romanesque Romantic.
But listen to the curator speak in catalog: “The word ‘passion’ is derived from passio, the Latin word for suffering, of the physical and emotional trials he endured in the days before his death… For Christians in late medieval Europe, the Passion was possibly the Bible’s most significant sequence of events. As in the early Middle Ages, his death was interpreted as a sacrifice for the redemption of mankind, but there was a new meaning as well.

Beginning in the 12th Century, emphasis on Christ’s divinity yielded to a concentration on his humanity, a humanity that found its fullest expression in his death on the cross. Christ was God made man, and his terrible suffering allowed mortals to identify with him and to feel sympathy for him.” Good theology, good history, good English.
This was my first visit to the Getty, and I’d heard so much about how its profligate wealth was destabilizing the art market that I was unprepared for its pedagogical genius. The captions explicating the individual images were, to put it bluntly, the best art crit I’ve encountered anywhere, ever.
Take my favorite image of the 26 in the show (with throwaway side shows around the periphery so good in themselves that you’d gladly go to Malibu just to see them): “The Flagellation” (Psalter, probably Bruges, mid-13th Century).
The captious critic directs he untutored eye to the static Christ, suffering passively. He then shows how the twisted torsos of the whippers add kinetic pain to the composition, even observing shrewdly that the whip of the soldier on the left is all the more painful appearing because of the tip of it breaks through the frame. I do swear, Art 101 at the University of Detroit (1949) was never like that.
Stunned into catatonic euphoria by this brilliance, I ambled into the main hall to see James Ensor’s great diatribe against Belgian Christian complacency, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1889”—painted with mock prophecy in 1888. What curatorial canniness. Just juxtasuppose that the viewers got it.
I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, my mind abuzz with this visual feast, not even wondering which of this seafront manses was Johnny Carson’s, or which was Barbra Streisand’s.
But it’s still L.A., and you have to watch where you shouldn’t be going—in this case the right-hand lane, because you need to spin off left to get into the town proper. Finding Main Street is even trickier, though you end up going past the loveliest Art Deco City Hall in the Far West.
Gehry’s new Santa Monica Art Museum (1989) funkily wraps a diverse strand of shops around the entranceway. It’s almost difficult to find the front door! That’s how Mr. PoMo West removes the curse of overcultivation. (He and Mr. PoMo East, Robert Venturi, actually think that way when they’re designing cultural centers! Don’t dump on me.)
I got sweetly distracted by these forecourt foreplays. Take the Gallery of Functional Art. They were holding their fourth annual hootenanny on “the chair”—99% of which were distinctively abrasive to your median bottom (I insist that you should judge any and every chair a posteriori).
Or the Mercedes Lasarte Gallery, where Ms. Lasarte paints away in plein air for the delectation of the passersby and the burgeoning of her bank balance. Her marvelously lugubrious “Polo in Blue,” which is in the Thyssen Collection, had been black-T-shirted, so I promptly added a copy to my growing collection—now easily the worlds largest such gathering of sartorial trivia.
There is also a Ben and Jerry’s with bovine murals. I amused the hip Maliboob who served me a politically-correct Amazon RainForest Crunch ice cream cone (delicious, despite its ambiguous provenance) by deriding those Ludwig Mies van der Rohe minimalist surfaces as a case of “Less is Moo.” Jokes that bad actually sell in L.A.
Inside, the museum was a different story. The main exhibition rooms featured also-rans from the Helter Skelter show at the Temp Contemp—a survey of the freshest, funkiest visual art now coming out of L.A.
But the back room held the greatest Santa Monica treat: an installation exploring the complex harm wreaked by both anthropologists and tourists on pre-industrial cultures. I’m not much of a site-sculpture fancier, but this one was superb, using light and diverse materials with convincing eloquence.
From medieval Passion to PoMo empassionment, that’s the road you take when you go form the Old Getty to the new Gehry. Exhilarating stuff.
And fly into Burbank, instead of onto tarmacky tacky LAX. Southwest offers seniles like me absurdly cheap flights ($29 from Oakland or Las Vegas). And for booking ahead, Budget gave me a Mitsubishi Gallant for less than $18 a day, mileage free. (And believe me, those miles add up when you’re riding around L.A.)
You don’t even have to plot your moves ahead of time. Pick up the Friday L.A. Times or the Daily News for their great weekend guides. And the L.A. Express or Weekly will give you the more offbeat things that the mainstream media ignore.
I stayed with a girlfriend in L.A., but there are excellent moderately-priced chains with 800 numbers. Travelodge and Econolodge were the two I tried in both Vegas and San Francisco with great satisfaction.
I’ve always felt, when visiting L.A., like a water diviner who fears his magic stick will unwittingly douse him right into a septic tank. Yet I’ve never had a visit in the past 30 years which didn’t provide a few solid and memorable epiphanies.
I assure you the road from Getty to Gehry is like that every season. And probably always will be, as L.A. consolidates its future as the archetypical city of the 21st Century.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 21, 1993

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Diaspora Diversity

All Diaspora Jews are not treated equal. Each culture, with its traditions and unique customs, deals differently with the Jews it comes to deal with. And Jews often treat each other differently as we know in Philly where the Northeast Russian Jews are not proving easy to assimilate within local Jewish institutions. This awareness struck me poignantly when I visited the Judiska Museet in Stockholm last Sunday.
Saturday night at the great fireworks in front of City Hall inaugurating Stockholm’s year as the Cultural Capital of Europe, I fell into conversation with an old man who was a dead ringer for Groucho Marx, except for no mustache and no cigar—he had the beret! He introduced himself as Aron Neuman, father of David who was organizing the Arkipelag art exhibitions, and the founder and president of the Jewish Museum, on Hålsingegatan 2 (Tel. 08-31-01-43), a few metres from the St-Eriksplan stop on the Green Line metro.
I had made a brief visit there in 1995 on my way to the Auschwitz 50th anniversary commemoration, acting as the European Jewry correspondent of the Jewish Exponent, but not yet with the support of Mr. Neuman. They opened their archives, and now I have a solid impression of how Jews now fared over the years in the “most liberal” Scandinavian country. Then “Svenska Dagbladet” had run an editorial on how shamefully Swedes had neglected the public memory of Rauel Wallenberg. Now there was a maquette in the museum for a projected public memorial. Now, nearly no one could direct me to the museum, just a stone’s throw from a major subway stop. Then nobody had known, and I had to telephone for guidance.
Amazingly, the first contact between Jews and Swedes took place between 700 and 900 when Vikings began trading with the Khazans living between the Black and Caspian Seas. Even more amazingly, a large part of the Khazans professed Judaism. Then for five centuries there is no Jewish presence in Sweden. (Possibly a few of the many Jews ejected from their homelands between 1200 and 1400 may have ended up in Sweden, but their presence is undocumented.)
Things began to change in 1645 when Queen Christina consulted the Jewish physician Benedictus de Castro (Baruch Nehemias), the first Jew known to have set foot on Swedish land. The pace picks up. Four adults and eight children are baptized into Christianity in 1681 in the German church in Stockholm in the presence of the King and Queen. Converts to the Lutheran faith are granted special privileges. But in 1685 a small number of Jews who settled in Stockholm are ordered to clear out within a fortnight. Up until then there had been no legal prohibition against Jews settling in Sweden.
During the Swedish Period of Liberty (1718-1772) successive decrees are issued, all harassing the Jews. The same general hostility towards Jews existed throughout Europe. But in 1774 Aaron Isaac becomes the first Jew allowed to practice his religion in Sweden. In 1775 a Jewish congregation is formed in Stockholm. The town of Marstrand became a free port where people are allowed unrestricted freedom of trade and religion, and a Jewish congregation exists there until 1794.
In 1782 the so-called Jew regulation is proclaimed. It restricted settlement rights and the right to engage in manufacture and trade. Between 1780 and 1815 Jewish congregations are founded in Gothenburg, Norrkøpping, and Karlskrona. In 1815 the Jewish question is debated in Parliament where Jews are accused of having caused the economic crisis of the time. A majority pushed through strict regulations which effectively ended immigration. Jews number about 800.
By 1838 the Enlightenment is leavening even Sweden and a decree “concerning the rights and duties of Mosaic believers in the country” abolishes the “Jew Regulation” and liberates them from many oppressive regulations. In 1870 Parliament passes a resolution granting Jews full civil rights.
Between 1880 and 1910 there is a large influx of Eastern European Jews, mainly from Russia because of the pogroms of 1900-10. Still, the Jewish community is relatively miniscule—increasing only from about 3,000 in 1880 to 6.500 in 1930.
When the Nazis seize power in 1933 only a handful of Jews make their way to Sweden. In 1938 restrictive rules are introduced for permits to settle in Sweden. This in effect meant they would be rejected in Sweden if suspected of abandoning their own home country.
In 1942 about half Norwegian Jewry manages to flee to Sweden. In 1943 almost the whole of Danish Jewry flees to Sweden. From 1945-46 about 10,000 Jews are rescued from Nazi concentration camps to Sweden, most of them women, through the efforts of the Swedish Red Cross and UNRRA, the American aid organization. About a third of those rescued stay in Sweden. Between 1956 and 1972 about 3,500 flee from political turmoil in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Now about 18,000 Jews live in Sweden, mainly in the big cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmø.
Some 10,000 individuals visit the Jewish Museum each year, not including school and other cultural groups. Café Viola honors Aron’s wife, and serves great tarts and coffee. Its exhibits (early Jewry portraits, Auschwitz details, wedding ceremonies) are small but eloquent. It’s a great way to spend a Wednesday or Sunday, where there will be the most local Jews to schmooze with.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Anger is OK

Anger is OK, if it’s against the right things. The trouble with the American TeePee Party types is that they’re angry at the wrong things.

Always have been, alas. We American Exceptionalists have been Exceptionally angry at the wrong things. Everyone but us!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Bob Woodward's Dark Side

Would you believe it?! Watergate is really Vaporgate, and Deep Throat is a thumbed nose.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A Quick Jaunt On N.Y.’s Museum Mile

Getting off on New York’s Museum Mile is a snap. Take the M4 bus on 32nd Street, across from the Seventh Avenue side of Penn Station. Get off at 103rd Street and Madison and walk south on Fifth Avenue, beginning with the 1939 World’s Fair show at the Museum of the City of New York.
The International Center for Photography at 1130 Fifth Avenue is celebrating the founders of Magnum. At 1083 Fifth is the National Academy of Design with the Treasures from England’s Fitzwilliams Museum. The Met, at 81st and Fifth, has an absolutely luminous cache of Velazquez.
Jenny Holzer’s megashtick at the Guggenheim (until Feb. 11) is another triumph of technology over (if you’ll forgive the pun) illumination. The one hour and 45 minutes’ worth of LED commentary running along 513 feet of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramps cost $400 per (non-)linear foot.
Not that she’s got a plot, other than to appear cute and not try too severely to Naim Paksize attention spans with swifties like, “I love my mind when it’s fucking the crack of events,” or “Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest.” Confucius Hazard say: Short snappy remarks do not Socratic wisdom lead up to.
When I asked Holzer how much the site-specific LED bytes cost, she reached for but did not invent an aphorism: “More than steel sculpture, but less than paper or canvas.” When I asked her what she read to feed her aphorizing mind, she replied, “Not much, I’m busy as an artist.” It shows. Happy ‘90s.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard at Large, December 27, 1989

Monday, 18 October 2010

On a Review of Lee Friedlander’s "America by Car"

Professor Zaller's attempt to theologize American history is neither a sendup of America nor a rueful love letter. It's mystiphysics, posing as historiography. A photographer is free to be as gimmicky or cute as his rental cars permit, but deep insights into our history? Just about as deep as the Abstract Inexpressivism of Pollock, that sad dead end of Modernism.

As for "Our Slum on The Hill" (D.C.?), American hubris remains the Original Sin of our Puritan forebears. Tell that to the 100,000 Iraqis killed during our benign Liberation of them. Zaller does allow we removed or annihilated the Indigenes before moving on to more practical business (Slavery?) "but not without religious connotation as well." The "official" Closing of the Frontier in the 1890's made US "no longer a destination but a journey." The road novels of Kerouac led to "a cast of hipsters perpetually seeking the fix at the end of the night."

Blah. And Nabokov's crisscrossing the USA to find Lolita's sweet spot. Ugh. His connecting Ike's Interstate Defense Highway with moral searchings is merely silly, like the bridges that were too small to let defensive weapons through. And LA's was not the only place to lobby legislatures to cripple mass transit to free the auto to bamboozle US. "Whoever said America was supposed to make sense?"

Has he already forgotten the John Winthrop engendered hubris that led step by false step to our almost totally dysfunctional Republic? An the end of an Auto Parade? Come on. Enjoy your minor clicker, but don't apotheosize his hobby and our history.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Rich Wars

On SCAD scandal: It was Ronald Reagan who enthused over his personal commitment to let Americans be rich again. He should have added that his outsourcing the industries that made a middleclass possible was the second half of his moronic philosophy. $45.000 per student is a real multiplier.

I wonder if the tenure-less faculty was equally blessed. Fit this madness into the structural delusion that America, the City on the Hill, is exceptionally lucky that an Evangelical God keeps making us Number One. Eisenhower's final warning of the threats of a military, industrial complex proved oh so sadly true.

Those multiple grunt suicides yesterday in Fort Hood reveal a truly class-ridden society in which underclass peons take the hits while upperclass West Pointers know it takes wars for US lucky few to make General. Bush's fraudulent war to make the Middle East safe for democracy was preceded by LBJ's adolescent fear of losing in Vietnam. As if we didn't.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

EYE 95: The Interstate of Access to Visual Delight

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: Dinophilia is clearly an infectious disease, to judge from the Sunday crowds of eager patrons spilling halfway down to Arch on 19th. “Dinosaurs Past and Present” comes from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History before slithering on to its next stop April 19th. What’s the fascination? It’s more than Godzilla fever and less than simon pure esthetics. The return of the figurative is part of it, along with long-deserved respect for “scientific” specialties like bio-medical illustration.
But this genre is more moppet-centric than most art, although the unaccompanying adults I overheard talked the same way the visitors to the Delaware Art Museum’s recent fantasy and sci-fi national expo did. “Man, a thirty-two foot neck! What an animal!”
The most interesting tidbit I picked up from the ANS Dinorama spectacular that opened a year ago was how speculative all these “artistic” creations are, from the color of the skin and the shape of the scale, not to mention which way the retrieved bones hang. (With delightful lack of abash, the Academy fessed up that it had been hanging one of its prize fossils upside down for decades!) That’s all right. If the kids learn one thing they should deduce that SCIENCE is no fill-in-the-blanks “Wheel of Fortune” quiz show, but rather a meticulously controlled sequence of induction / deduction always up for the grabs of revisionism. A healthy humility for a techno-whizbang culture.
I like the historic drama in a canvas like Mark Hallett’s “The River: A Jurassic Dinosaur Panorama: National Dinosaur Monument Park 140 Million Years Ago.” But the really delectable pieces are the allegedly supporting, fill-in material. Take Colorado schoolmaster Arthur Lake’s marvelous color pencil drawings of the excavations in 1877, which got Yale’s and Penn’s paleontologists into a disgracefully spiteful academic harangue. Or P. Berger’s splendid black and white section of the Brontosaurus Excelsus vertebrate. He was just telling it like he saw it for his class lectures, but the elegance and grace of Nature absorbed artfully gave my eye great pleasure. Check it out.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: No Mannerist I, nor do I go gaga over the burin and its works, mostly. But I must say the Dutch printmaker Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) caught me by my eye the other day. He did over 400 prints in 23 years, at which point he abruptly turned to painting for good. I’m glad he waited. His miniature medallion of his wife Margaretha Jansdochter (1580) is just a marvel of radiant economy.

At the other end of his scale is his most famous image, “The Large Hercules” (1589), a tour de farce in which the great muscleman of classical times would make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Charles Atlas eating sand, so humongous has he drawn the various pectoral and less showy curves. This knobby man emblematizes his force by draping the skin of a Nemean lion loosely over his capacious shoulders. He’s bracketed by smaller versions of two of his feats—wrestling Antaeus on the right and dealing with Achealous disguised as a lion on the left. They were fools to mess with such a mensch.
I was interested to learn that Goltzius got into his medium so that he could make mass editions of only the better known artists like B. Sprange, whose “Adam and Eve with Serpent” (1575) he thereby made accessible to those upwardly mobile Dutch burghers who wanted to garnish their new abodes. (Heh, not all of them could afford Vermeers!) The sexy sinuosities of the Primeval Pair must have given a Hugh Hefneresque kick to those fantasizing about it, but how the nondescript mutt in the foreground figgers into this lubriciousness I’ll never know. There’s also a centerfoldish aspect to his “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan” (1585). In the left background we see Vulcan at his forge while Mars is pounding away on the anvil of Venus. In the nick of time, the sun god Helios bares all.
Meyerson Hall, The Graduate School of Fine Arts, Penn: I wonder how many visitors to the Institute of Contemporary Art’s major exhibitions know what they’ve been missing by not walking up the left flight of stairs to the corridor outside the Dean of Architecture’s office. Quite apart from getting clued in on the plethora of speakers they have, like, say, sculptor Harriet Feigenbaum lecturing on Environmental Art, Reclamation and Reality,” March 25, Towne Building Alumna Hall, 6:30 p.m. She gave a brilliant illustrated lecture on her schemes to heal the wounds of landscape in the Scranton coal region at PAFA’s recent daylong symposium on the state of public art in America. Hers is a minority attention. This flight up I was not disappointed either.
Christopher L. Sholes, who spent twenty of his twenty-eight years of Foreign Services in India and Pakistan, started a second career in 1977 by exhibiting his photographs about the cultures of the region. “Living Gods, Hindu Faces” were 34 color photos about how deeply embedded Hindu religious life is in the everyday environment of the people of India. And a remarkable aspect of this small but beautiful show of a professional diplomat turned professional photographer was the scholarly captioning supplied by Dr. Nalini Shetty.

For example, Plate One, “Priest in a Temple Doorway” would be just another funky bit of exorcism without her positioning it in time and place: “A priest looks out of the door of a temple dedicated to Shiva. Sculpted on a panel beside the door is the figure of a river goddess, symbol for the holy river Ganges which Shiva is said to have caught in his matted hair as it gushed earthward from heaven.” This is Horace’s formula dulce et utile at work, the sweetness of the pictures and the enlightenment of the captions. All our schools, form elementary through graduate, need such artful embellishment. In Shanghai, waiting for the #20 bus, I realized there was such a photo gallery at the terminal stop. Almost missed it too.
Art Institute of Philadelphia: If mass consumption is the engine that fuels American abundance, then the graphic designer is its prophet nonpareil. No packaging of desire, no sales volume, no mass abundance. I think few would question that the Renaissance mensch of this esthetic specialty is Milton Glaser. That man can deal with any problem of design. Original drawings, paintings, posters, book illustrations, album covers, calendars, games, and packaging. For a local philanthropic touch there was the 24”x36” lithograph he designed for the Philadelphia Orchestra, sales of which poster will keep the PSO more happily tootling.
As co-founder of the internationally renowned Push Pin Studios, Glaser combines genius with unpretentiousness. And like our Walt Whitman, who would have adored his demotic genius, Glaser contains multitudes. His assignments run the gamut from graphic breakthroughs like New York magazine to designing the observation deck and restaurant theming for Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. (Before this show, I didn’t know I owed him my greatest acrophilic thrill in North America—the only high rise competition he has there is Timothy Pfleuger’s Top of the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, but that’s pitting Berkeley against Jersey, a difficult handicap.)

His most ecumenical assignment has perhaps been redoing the Grand Union supermarket chain—encompassing advertising design, packaging, marketing strategies and architectural and interior design. My only quibble is one I made about Saul Bass on “Two Cents Worth!” a Honolulu radio program in 1962: What a pity such talent must concentrate on 90 seconds of “The Man With the Golden Arm” logo. Bass chewed me out for 90 minutes on the phone—for praising him!
State Museum of New Jersey / Trenton: “Pinelands: Tradition and Environment” is a beguilingly popular piece of family museology (through April 3 with a day long symposium on March 14). It cases those one million acres we know as the Pine Barrens with sharply focused eye (the photos by Joseph Czarnecki of the American Folklife Center are world-class images of its variegated locales) and are finely tuned to the cadences of local speech (salt hay farmer George Campbell muses, “Half the enjoyment of working outside is going down in the meadows and seeing the osprey and the eagle taking the fish.”)

Each of the exhibition’s five sections—meadows, cedar swamps, rivers and bays, farmlands, and upland weeds is preceded by such an epigraph on an introductory photo mural. What the details add up to is a paean of praise to the tinkerers who took received ideas and implements and adapted them to this “barren” environment. Fecundity is clearly in the eye of the adventurous settler.
The tools they devised are a delight to dally over: salt hay rakes as well as special horse shoes to keep the animals from bogging down in the squishy turf; eel pots and eel spears that are as marvelous shapes as you’ll find anywhere; boats for the special aqueous natures of Delaware River or Barnegat Bay with delicious names like sneakboxes and garveys; scoops to harvest blueberries or cranberries that are marvels of vernacular design, and fykes to trap snapping turtles and progues to probe for sunken cedar logs; man, our South Jersey ancestors sure knew how to improvise.
Tarry long enough to savour the New Jersey Network videos.
Reprinted from Art Matters, March 1987

Friday, 15 October 2010

Bumbershot in Seattle

I love Seattle, and if it didn’t rain so much—I think I’d move there. It’s fine by the locals that I don’t—they count on their “bumbershoots” as shields to keep the masses away. The Bumbershoot Festival, over Labor Day Weekend, warns the weatherman that they even name their good times after the umbrella.
My first visit to Seattle as in 1962, to speak at a University of Washington academic convocation on communications, the professors’ contribution to the Space Needle World’s Fair then under way.
There was a nudie girlie show at the Fair, but the local professors were shy about showing up at the complementary ringside seats (if one of their students was shedding, what would it do to their bell-shaped grading curve?), so they blessed the visiting firemen with the burlesque show.
Thus, did I find myself sitting next to Mortimer Adler, the distinguished philosopher, wondering what scholastic philosophical points he might find in our grotty enterprise. He seemed singularly unmoved, especially when I accused him of being a peeping Thomist.
Many years later, I bumbershot with a young lady who was eager for me to go to the Willy Nelson concert that was the centerpiece of that year’s Fair. It was good. I hate crowds, but I love enthusiasm and skill, and Nelson and his musicians were at the top of their form.
But there was to be an ante climax (if I may pun crudely). Just as the lights went out in my pal’s bedroom, the phone rang. It turned out that Willie’s drummer was her high-school sweetie. And he wondered if they could—er-get together. Quicker than you could say Fort Worth Senior High, she had driven over to Bellevue, and I lay on the brink of sleep ruminating on how evanescent rockin’ and rollin’ could be.
Even worse things were in store for her: She rejected her loose life and became a born-again Christian. Our next visit was in her evangelical church, meeting the dour young man she had agreed to marry.
This is a great year to visit Seattle because the state of Washington is celebrating its centennial and trying especially hard to be attractive. The premier exhibit is surely the visual essay on the Pacific Coast Indian art at the U’s Burke Museum. But the way to not miss anything during Bumbershoot Weekend is to plunk down 75 cents for The Seattle Weekly.
It’s the Welcomat of the region—except that 32,000 customers pay for it. It’s good for more than its listings. I got so attached to it as an alternative weekly that I’ve been subscribing this year to read its first-rate lead articles on environment, politics, the sexual revolution, whatever.
There’s a downtown bus. Make sure you see these sectors, moving from Amtrak to Greyhound: An art gallery district, Pioneer Square, Pike Street Market (if you’ve only got time for one lookaround, make this it).
Then I’d go out to the Fair site, taking the monorail because it’s there—and because the intervening blocks are tacky. There’s a science museum, a kid’s museum and a fine old food-fair hall. I used to like the ethereal sci-fi Gothic architecture by Minoru Yamasaki a lot more than I do now.
I went up to the top of the Space Needle to see what its Sunday brunch was like. The view is much better than the vittles. I think I’d hold out for dinner (which can be pricey). But if you like breathtaking views, only the Top of the Mark in San Francisco is in the same league.
Finally, try to get out to Volunteer Park (there’s a Saturday / Sunday bus pass worth using). That’s where the Seattle Museum of Art is, an Art Deco job now in the throes of expansion.
Its permanent Asian collections are a perennial joy to me. There’s even a Philadelphia connection: Richard Fuller, the man who put it on the Asiatica map, was the brother of Virginia Fuller Atwood, Beaver College’s prime patroness. She gave many fine pieces to SAM also.
After stuffing my retinas with Asian art, I asked the friendly and garrulous head guard if he could recommend any good fish restaurant in the vicinity. He could and did—Boondock’s on Broadway.
Alas, I almost got booted out of Boondock’s for having the temerity to finish off a credible local Riesling left from the night before when I had stuffed myself with clams and sourdough bread at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
Seems they have a state corkage law—no brown bags allowed. You must surrender your BYO bottle to the management, which legitimates it by pouring the liquid into their glassware. (Some places charge a corkage fee. Boondock’s didn’t.)
I settled down to some serious bouillabaisse slurping. It was so stocky, in so sweet a sauce that when the waiter asked me whether I liked it, I pointed proudly to the gleaming white of the bottom of the tureen, so meticulously had I sopped up the soup with (gulp) several extra servings of sourdough bread.
Thus I commenced the final leg of my weekend saunter through Seattle in a sweetly beRieslinged condition at the Pike Street Market. The fish stalls are outdoor museums of great visual excitement, especially the humungous salmon.
Kitty korner from Greyhound is the Vance Hotel, where they have a King County Tourist Bureau—abandoned on weekends, the only fly in their tourist ointment. But don’t despair. The Emerald City publishes a quarterly pocket-sized events guide, where you can check out what’s going on in the KINGDome and other major entertainment venues.
And if you like to be led, rather than waterbug around the way I do, contact METRO (624-PASS) for their $2.50 ticket to all the sights in Seattle and King County.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark - Hazard-at-Large, August 16, 1989

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Casino Capitalism

On adjuncts: The disgraceful absence of peonized adjuncts from that White House conference fulfills Ronald Reagan's fatuous brag that he made it possible for Americans to be rich again. And Pat Buchanan recently OpEdified that hiring minorities was succumbing to the "egalite" plank in the French Revolution that led monarchy and nobles to the guillotine, as if 500 to 1 disparities between executive and worker pay was somehow a punishing execution of the rich.

Our Casino Capitalism which motivates our Wall Street connivers to bet on losing mortgages is simply sick. As long as individual greed outpoints community charity, we're sliding into a tragic fall.

The middle class that the New Deal nourished has been dumped by outsourcing. Those $100,000+ professors who thrive off the white slavery of the adjuncts, a disgraceful trahison des clercs, will do US all in. Walt Whitman would be rightly appalled.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Media Messages

Please note the McLuhan and Father Ong allusions!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Traveling Healthy

Can you think of a bigger bummer than getting horizontally ill just before a long-planned trip? I can. Getting abysmally sick during a long, planned trip! For all diseased gall bladders are divered into three parts: before the trip, during the trip, and after you’ve returned “safely” home.

Take the sad but instructive case of my old friend, the Welsh poet/filmmaker John Ormond. When I took the train out from London three years ago to visit him in Cardiff, Ormond seemed less ebullient than usual. Normally, he’d want to immediately fire up his VCR to show me which Welsh poet he had most recently given his loving, knowing treatment. Clearly, something was wrong. John, he explained sadly, had Lyme’s Disease.

The annual high point of his life was making his way down to a vacation retreat high in the Tuscany mountains where he relished long solitary walks. Alas, he’d been ticked for good there. God knows for how many years. But as his symptoms defied the nostrums of local medicine, his friend the Irish poet Seamus Heaney had a tropical medicine specialist from NYU flown over to try to figure out what was ailing the man who has done the most sensitive TV films on poetry in our century. Lyme’s was his fate, diagnosed too late to cure the affliction. Thus it was that two years ago I picked The New Criterion to find Leslie Norris’s elegiac poem to John. He was already gone.

Which brings me back to my “before” and “during” categories. Do a little advance thinking about what specific dangers your planned itinerary will subject your body to. The U.S. State Department (202-647-5225) publishes regularly updated advisories on which perils are where. If you’re really paranoid, the Centers for Disease Control (404-332-4555) will get into even more gory particulars; they’ll fax the details.

Such details are more important than any visas you might need to enter strange lands. Unless of course you want to risk having that Universal Customs Officer in the Sky stamp the River Styx on your passport. And you ought to find out beforehand what specific protections your regular health insurance provides for overseas emergencies. Get it in writing.

And if you have to pay medical bills in a foreign currency, make sure to get a reading on the exchange rate for that day. Pay in Visa or Mastercard if you can, because it’s easier to contest such bills. If you hold a Visa Gold card, you can even seek medical assistance through their 800-VISA-911, an easy number to remember under stress. My HMO, for example, cancels my Medigap coverage if I’m out of the country for more than 90 days. And of course Medicare isn’t valid at all overseas.

If you lack portable medical coverage in emergencies, be sure to get temporary coverage that suits your circumstances at the same time your travel agency is arranging luggage insurance. (Heh, your bod is your most important baggage!) International Assistance Association/TravMed Programs (800-732-5309) will give you limited coverage for $3 a day. IAMAT (International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers) will help you find an Anglophone doctor if you don’t have Visa Gold (716-754-4883).

When you think luggage, think hernia. Choose washable gear suited to the season of your travels, and limit yourself to three days of changes. Every kilo you add to your suitcase is a permanent drag on your vacation mobility. The Romans knew what they were talking about when they dubbed luggage impedimenta.

Before you go, you ought to make yourself a private little first-aid kit, with duplicates (to be stored in a bag other than your fanny pack or shoulder bag) of all required medications, along with a backup prescription from your doctor in the unlikely event that your two caches simultaneously disappear. Stuff a thermometer in there with a passing prayer that you’ll never need to use it.

And some sun block. As a Hibernian with fair skin who fried himself to a crisp under the merciless Lake Huron sun every summer from 1932 to 1949, I’ve now got to make skin cancer trips to my dermatologist. Only last month did I for the very first time suffer that greasy kid stuff onto my pockety epidermis—while floating around on Lake Powell above the Glen Canyon Dam. I couldn’t believe the state of my skin the next morning: unharmed by the Arizona sun. Don’t you be that tardy and careless. Add a supply of Immodium AD to deal with Montezuma and his minions throughout the world.

And listen to two sad stories of mine so you won’t let your guard down.

I’ll never forget my morning at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad some thirteen summers ago—neither for aesthetic or anesthetic reasons. For you see, I had the greatest attack of the runs in my life there as I was trying my darnedest to relish a room full of Matisses, a great swatch of Derains, a delectable lode of Kees van Dongens. Alas, every time my spastic colon sent me tight-buttedly into a hallway looking for a crapper, an alert babushka compensated for my lack of Russion with her compassionate eye. I didn’t say a word. I just followed her to a door which she opened silently to reveal a mechanism to relieve me. This happened no fewer than four times.

I could write a familiar essay on the toilets of the Hermitage if it wouldn’t be too traumatic for me to re-run that home terror movie. Finally, I gave up and retreated, solo, to the tour bus—where I huddled at the back until, alas (where was it all coming from!), I had another run! Where, Oh where? Russian tour buses have bars at the back but no toilet. I spied a bucket the cleaning lady had left in the far back corner. Necessity being the mother of violating conventions, I shat in the bucket. And looked innocently away when the rest of the tour frowned at the scent in the back of the bus.

I go into the gory details to impress on you that even a colon-coddling paragon of recta-rationalizing like me can let his guard down. How? The day before I had driven myself to thirsty exhaustion looking for the Finland Station, where Lenin had arrived sealed in his train but ready for revolution. My motive was its reputation as top-of-the-line Art Nouveau. Which it was. But when I plopped down on my bed in the Hotel Leningrad, I discovered that our supply of bottled water had run out. Rats.

Get dressed. Go down and talk a barman into selling me a few bottles to tide me over for the night. Too pooped. Rationalized that a first-class hotel wouldn’t have unsafe water in its taps. Right? Wrong. It only takes one false step to start you running. Call it the Mensheviks’ Revenge. Up to that point in my three-week “Arts of Russia” tour, I’d been meticulous to drink only watery beer or bottled water. One misstep, and floooom.

You’d think I’d have learned for good that lesson, right? Alas, just last year I flew up from the hot dry clean air of Oaxaca to the hot polluted air of Mexico City to take part in the Winter Symposium, a ritual during which the writers of Latin America blame all the evils of the last 500 years on—you guessed it—the U.S. of A. But I was willing to put up with this vicarious abuse masochistically because it was being held at that architectural showplace, the University of Mexico City.

I stumbled upon a poet architect in the parking lot of the architectural faculty who volunteered to drive me around and show me the high spots of Mexico City architecture the following day. Agreed, with pleasure. But as I went from meeting to meeting, with side excursions to the luminous Central Library, a combination of the hot dry clean air I’d been baking in for several days in Oaxaca and the hot dry polluted air of Mexico City made those glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice on sale in the kiosks that dot the campus irresistible. The thirstier I got, the more of the ambrosia liquid I consumed.

I barely made it back to the Holiday Inn/Airport. Talk about the Halls of Montezuma. I spent the next day ruing the O.J. I’d thoughtlessly imbibed the day before instead of taking the promised architectural odyssey. It was obviously those insufficiently washed glasses that carried the pesky bacteria my insides were unaccustomed to. And doubtless you’ve heard of how the purest-looking ice cubes can be just as lethal as they melt conspiratorially in your (very) mixed drink.

Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of keeping your liquid intake uncontaminated. The sickest I ever got in my travel life occurred fifteen years ago when I was Eurailing across Europe to spend an Easter in Greece.

When I got off the British ferry in Dieppe, partly to go native, partly to save money (this trip was to last three months), I stocked up on cheese, sausage, bread, and wine to last me the three days or so my dawdle would take. I love French bread, and I was really getting off on making these little French sandwiches, and washing them down with a very ordinary rouge.

It was heavenly until halfway across on the ferry from Brindisi to Patras. Hell hath no fury like a colon scorned. I thought I was going to die right on the spot. I staggered off the boat and up the main street and into the first hotel I saw. For twelve hours every major orifice in my body, inferior and superior, Vesuviated. By noon the next day I was fine enough to hop on the train to Athens.

Moral of the story: Eating bad food is only a temporary hell. Hole up and let Nature take her courses.

And it isn’t only eating native that can foul you up. The second worst such encounter came in Hiroshima, when I’d tried to compensate for several nausea-inducing Japanese breakfasts by spring for the familiar sign of Dunkin’ Donuts. Except the coffee was vilely undunkable. And the donuts were crazy. So it wasn’t the terrible trauma of going through the museum about the atomic bombing at Hiroshima that made me deathly ill by noon, but pseudo-Americana.

As I lay crapped-out on a bench in front of the museum, the curator who had just been attending to my intellectual needs asked me why I looked so sick. Because I was, was my simple groan of an explanation. Kind lady that she was, she saw to it that I got to a nearby house of two American missionary friends, who gave me a sack to recover on.

Every once in a while you’ll have a real emergency, not just a passing inconvenience. That happened to me in Nashville some eight summers ago.

About two o’clock I got the worst stomach cramps and started passing blood. Uh oh. I grabbed a cab to Metropolitan Hospital, and asked Emergency what was going on. Nothing to worry about. A mild prostate attack. Take this Bactrim and call your doctor in the morning when you get home. They took my HMO card for payment, but HMO played pingpong with Nashville for several months until I shrieked at someone in Blue Bell. Just a reminder to keep all records from such encounters, no matter how trivial-looking.

Heh, my traveling isn’t country-to-country calamity. I just tell you the low spots to encourage you to be prudent. Don’t over-drink or over-eat on your way over. Attend to your circadian rhythms. (Crapping out in a hotel the first day is the best insurance you can take out for not messing up your trip with a lot of pesky illnesses.) And listen to your metabolism. When my rear end starts dragging on a trip, I look for a quiet, blue-collar café and order a bowl of soup. Nothing like home-made vittles to calm the old system down. Dawdle creatively. There are a few pleasures I relish more than, say, having a café and croissant in the Gare de l’Est while reading the Trib after an overnight train from Zurich or Vienna.

And when you get back, think of unlucky John Ormond, who didn’t know what hit him until it was too late. Check out any peculiar symptoms with your doctor. Traveling healthy just takes a little extra care before, during, and after your trip.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Waiting for Somebody

On Gail Collins on Waiting for Superman:

I was a teacher for thirty years, the first three in E.Lansing High School, the rest in colleges and universities. I left a tenured full professorship when my mother died, and I was thus free to roam the world as a freelance critic for a Philadelphia alternative weekly.

The sad fact is that we have "outsourced" K-12 education to playpen media. Until we retrieve this gross "trahison des clercs" we will send half-educated consumers to college to learn how to make compliant consumers of their peers and those, unluckiest of all, underclass dropouts, not only from failing schools, but into unfulfilled lives.

America is fast becoming a class society committed to making millionaires and minions for the Millies. We will continue to thrash around with childish Tea Parties until we realize how dishonest we've been about our nonexistent Exceptionalism.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

What’s Hot in Alaska?

Cruise ships disgorge hundreds of thousands of visitors to Alaska randy for glaciers and towering mountains covered with sleek Sitka spruce. They ooh and aah right off the Exhilaration Index.

On my first visit to Alaska, I hyperbolized with the most goggle-eyed tourist. But I was pleasantly surprised to find so many new ideas percolating in the 49th state better known for moose hunting than for nursing the Muse.

But unless my fortnight there was mysteriously atypical, the Land of the Sourdough is not an intellectual backwater. Indeed, in some ways, it seems presciently ahead of the Outside (as locals refer to the Lower 48).

First in long-range significance to me was the third Northern Regions Conference, 600 policymakers and journalists from eleven countries with a stake in the 1 percent of the human race that lives above the 60th parallel.

The governor of Hokkaido convened the first such polar palaver in 1974, but because of the U.S.S.R.’s stonewalling about returning the Kuril Islands to Japan, Moscow boycotted both the initial and second conference, convened by the Canadian provincial government of Alberta in 1979. But a delegation of sixty post-glasnost Russians were all over the place smilingly networking like Rotarians at the Third powwow.

Alaska Airlines announced with a flourish during the conference that it had just gotten landing rights for summer tours to Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, and Magadan. I noticed a story in the Anchorage Daily News about a Magadan teacher spending a year teaching Russian in the Kenai Community College.

But the biggest initiative, announced with a flourish by the Lapp governor of Norway’s Trondheim Province, concerned the practicability—possibly the imminence—of a Northeast Passage. Ships could save themselves 6,000 miles on a trip between Asia and Europe by following a route across the north of Russia through a passage kept free from May to October by Russian icebreakers.

But the Northeast Passage was merely the most dramatic of the overtures the polar nations were making to get on each other’s agendas of self-interest. More pressing are the currently volatile issues of air and water pollution (those Arctic wastes only look pristine; toxicities are building up inexorably, and even more permanently, as the temperatures discourage the normal processes of bio-degrading), fishing rights, oil and other mineral leases, and mundane things like reducing the horrible loss of life and boats on the Arctic fishing grounds.

Information flow is crucial to the shaping of mutual agendas, and concurrently with the major conference was a briefing of a score of Russian journalists on life in Alaska and the rest of the Union. Howard Weaver, the ebullient and self-made (“I started out in high school covering wrestling for $5 a pop!”) editor of the Anchorage Daily News was the high I.Q. compere of this unusual bit of perestroika.

He was ably complemented by Alexandra McClanathan, publisher of a remarkably state-wide weekly, The Tundra Times, which aspires to be a catalyst on all the issues confronting a multi-ethnic state. A particularly interesting feature covered the burnout of the only native Indian interpreter on the evening TV news in the bush town of Bethel.

He poignantly explained why he didn’t want to be a cold freeze Dan Rather but insisted on relating news events to the pace and priorities of his Indian viewers. I don’t know how much the Russians were getting out of these briefings (a great deal, I expect to judge from the pertinence of their questioning), but I was fast escalating to higher plateaus of comprehension.

There was even the pleasure of an international film festival on the themes of the conference conceived by the feisty Cyrano’s Book Store and Café. It began with the American premiere of Paul Simme’s first fiction film on how a Lapp teenager learns to value the traditional wisdom of his grandfather living in the bush: The old man’s teaching him how to snare ptarmigans for food in the winter, and how properly to pluck them for cooking were marvels of traditional wisdom presented with easy-going pedagogical brilliance.

The filmmaker is only 30 years old, with ten years of Swedish TV documentaries under his belt to give his new muse heft. He explained to me that this was an autobiographical fiction; he was the know-it-all youth, and he badly wanted to get the message to the new generation of young Lapps that they shouldn’t dump their millennium-old inheritance for a mess of mass media potheads.

The second film was a significant revival—Willard Van Dyke’s 1933 “epic” for MGM on an Eskimo badly abused by European fur traders. The Mounties who pick him up for murder, only to be beguiled into identification with this somewhat too Noble Savage, are a bit too Dudley DoRight for my suspension of belief mechanism.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A Russian Tale (Constructivist Division)

Last December, whilst Gorby was busy batting away Yeltsiniki flies as black and thick as August, I was serendipitously ingesting stiff snorts of the arts of the USSR and before in drafts as numbing and levitating as a fifth of Stolichnaya vodka.
It all began with an exhibit I saw at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, generated by the University of Washington: “Art into Life: Russian Constructivism, 1914-1932.” What a honey it was, and what a pity it didn’t travel farther. But you can console yourself with a paperback edition of the catalog ($32.50, attention Karen Statler, WAC, Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403).
Russian Constructivism has been regarded by most mainstream (i.e., Euro) art historians as an embarrassment—when they’ve considered it at all. All those goofy projects like Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” (1920), surely the most maquetted no-show in the history of monumental sculpture.
Quoting Joseph Giovannini’s brilliant essay on the state of Russian modernist art studies (New York Times Book Review, Dec. 30): “In keeping with the fervent utopianism of the period, a group of young artists who called themselves the Constructivists (they were constructing a New Society for Mass Man)—including Gustav Klucis, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Aleksandr Vesnin—sought ways to integrate art into the fabric of daily life in the new state.
“Abandoning their studios for the streets, factories, theaters, and schools, they turned their talents to creating a remarkable array of objects intended both to advance the cause of the revolution and to serve the needs to a vast public.”
That’s more or less what the Bauhaus in Dessau, Weimar and Berlin proposed to do with German capitalism. Both aspirations failed: The Russian because Stalin lowered the boom of Socialist Realism; the German because Mies and Gropius became Graphickers for the Fortune 500.
I still get off on the photography, photomontages, and graphic design of Rodchenko; and I still love Popova and Stepanova’s designs for mass-produced fabrics. That their dream came a-cropper tells us more about the history of Russian tyranny than about the ultimate significance of their ideals.
My second Russki rendezvous took place ten days later in L.A., when I went out to Westwood to look at the new Armand Hammer Museum and its inaugural show, “Kasimir Malevich, 1878-1935.” First, some nasty words about the museum of the lately-deceased eponym. Hammer’s vanity surpasses anything I’ve yet encountered in the ego-centralizing world of High Culture.
A humongous and egregiously bad full-length portrait of the donor hisself dominates the stairway to the main portal. To its lower right is a framed letter, en francais, from Danielle Mitterrand to AH, telling him what a great guy and giver he is—translated into English for the great unwashed who want a scrubbing.
There’s one Van Gogh in the museum that’s as glorious as the other four VGs are gross: you couldn’t give them to me. And there’s enough Daumier to start a separate museum on him. (I’m with Will Rogers on Honore: I’ve never seen a D. I didn’t like.) And then there’s the separate dark chamber in which we’re beseeched to genuflect before Leonardo DaVinci engineering drawings ever so humbly dubbed the Codex Hammer. (Sorry, Leonardo, you only made them drawings; Armand bought ‘em.)
Which brings us to Kasimir. I just love his cubistical peasants. Their rotundities make you want to reach out and caress them. You remember those old snides about Khrushchev’s dumpy fat wife, Nina? Well, Malevich transforms the dross of their flab into the glory of his canvases. Here’s a Midas of the mawky.
But when Malevich dropped this genre and tried to invent Suprematism, he lost me—and became almost as boring as the ridiculously overrated Kandinsky (as the Godfather of Ab Ex, he had to be theogonized). Happily, Kasimir gave up the Big S when Socialist Realism started rearing its ugly headlessness. Unhappily, when Malevich returned to his Precisionist-looking peasants, he’d lost the knack.
But I return again and again to his first fine, careless cubistical genre paintings of the peasants he knew so well, being one himself.
The third stop on my month-long Russki odyssey took place in D.C. The Welcomat’s Kiki the Olson came raving in after Christmas about how she and Sam had levitated over a Smithsonian sally on 600 years of Moscow, as seen in its arts and arty facts. When Kiki says go, I go. It warn’t as glorious as the old Keek touted, but was well worth the trip. I be an Ikon Lover. Stasis is the way I want them.
Incidentally, Washington’s Union Station, in a crude maneuver to keep the homeless from living out of their lockers at 75 cents a day, has upped the ante to 75 cents for the first half hour, up to a maximum of $4. It would be almost as cheap to check into a hotel or get a hernia operation after carrying your bags around. It makes you want to start a luggage storage revolution. Rodchenko, comrade, where are you when I really need you?
But there’s good news coming: MOMA is fielding a retro of my very favorite mental Russian girl friend, Popova, this coming season. When I told my Intourist guide in Leningrad I had the secret hots for Lyubov, she smiled: Lyubov means “love” in Russki, she explained. Nice, eh?
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 24, 1991

Friday, 8 October 2010

Econ 101

Ah, so true! Reagan broke the air traffic union and kick-started off-shoring. Clinton clinched. The short and unhappy life of our industrial middle class.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


On Carlin Romano, Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking: Surely, the issue is not science versus cosmology.

The issue is the tendentious God-flogging of those who want to turn our science-based institutions into mendacity machines, viz., the systematic efforts to banish evolutionary science from the high school classroom or the televised effort I observed yesterday on CNN of an Atlanta mega-preacher working his congregation into a frenzy of false approbation over three young men who are suing the allegedly homophobic preacher for seducing them.

Manic theism is dangerous, as in Shariah law or enraged anti-abortionists killing doctors. As a former professor who majored as an undergraduate in philosophy at a Jesuit university, and "did" logical positivism at its apex in graduate school, Carlin's loving skill in tracing the congruities and disparities of Toulmin and Hawking is a glorious remembrance of long forgotten lucubrations. But like a scientist with faked evidence, life is not a seminar.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Ex Corde

Regarding David B. House, Catholic Colleges 20 Years After 'Ex Corde': Abandoned by my father who disappeared with his secretary to Las Vegas,my first ten years were spent at a Dominican academy followed by almost three years at a Catholic minor seminary (I was ejected at Easter by the Rector who caught us smoking in the Gothic Tower at midnight.)

After two years in the Navy (1944-46) I spent three years studying philosophy in a Jesuit University. I won the Midwestern Province's annual senior essay contest with a rant entitled "Needed: More Redblooded American Catholics" by which I meant people fighting for social justice like the Commies were at that time. When I went off to graduate school two of those Commies exploited my innocence by appointing me chairman of the new Thomas Jefferson Forum. When I went back to my home U over Christmas, my metaphysics professor greeted me warmly with "I hear you've gone over to the enemy!" Merry Xmas! Period.

Luckily, Paul Hallinan, my Newman Club chaplain, defended me before the Cleveland Chancery with "It's a University, gentlemen. We're seeking the truth:" He was speaking to John Krol, then a very ordinary Ordinary, later a right wing Cardinal in my hometowm. Paul became the first archbishop of Atlanta, an intimate of Martin Luther King. Only my sociology professor, John F.Coogan, S.J. had the balls to fight Father Coughlin and Detroit racism. Readers curious about my auto-laicized life can find it here my blog or at Broad Street Review, the online magazine of the Philadelphia University of the Arts.

The intellectual morons who invoke Cardinal Newman to criticize President Obama at Notre dame would better waste their cerebella studying Sharia Law which is the way the RC was before the enlightenment. The Pope who feebly fought Modernism in the 19th century with the fatuous doctrine of infallibility (the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin), thereby insuring that celibates in the 20th century would abuse children with impunity and their bishops and Pope Benedict XV would all piously lie about these real Sacrileges.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Promise and Perils of Chosenness

"This almost chosen People" indeed! To corrupt a prescient Melville, "Nature's last best Hype." Surely we doth protest too much. Our Winthropian "City on a Hill" revealed its pseudosacredness in our wars with the Amerindigenes, not alas culminating in the Trail of Tears.

American Exceptionalism is exceptionally self confusing, making our uncritical citizens schizoid. The president of Iran parried Larry King's TV gibe yesterday about Iran's persecution of dissidents by his noting 2.5 million jailed Americans, grossly disproportionately poor and minority.

As for Israelis, both Catholics and Muslims believe they're divinely chosen. Not to forget the Evangelical Christians who are eagerly welcoming the End Time. They may indeed hasten that fate with their Godforsaken foolishness. These sentiments from an ex Catholic seminarian who considers his mentors, I.F. Stone, Gilbert Seldes, Studs Terkel, and Bertrand Goldberg. None of them believers.

Monday, 4 October 2010

No Travail in Vail

Ominously, the tour itinerary read “A Two Hour Stop in Vail, the Skiers Paradise.” But it was May. Not a snowy slope in sight. Which was perhaps a blessing for this ski-o-phobic, who still blushes at the recollection of the first (and only) time he took his teeners skiing at Pine Knob in Michigan. I didn’t break a leg or do anything to earn slopey credentials. Instead, I landed very ignominiously on my butt, simply trying to hang on to the primitive tow rope. I slunk off the bus, hoping maybe there’d be a compensatory mountain trout dinner al fresco.
The Vail Transportation Center, for rationalizing the shipping of platoons of skiers to their assorted slopes, was a surprisingly satisfying piece of Plain Modern architecture. It makes the prevailing Shilly Chalet style—Alpine Alpo if you’re looking for a sneer worthy of its doggishness—look all the worse to the architectural eye. For, unlike most skiing villages in Colorado, which are mining towns looking for a viable future, Vail—I was to discover in a very creditable hour-long video—started from scratch when a canny New Englander raised enough scratch to float all the condos that cluster to form a village of transients.
Another surprise! I may be a flop as a skier, but I found to my delight that the history of skiing is absolutely fascinating. Which is what I found in the Skiing Heritage Center on the ground floor of the Transpo Center. Skiing Heritage Center!? (If Cleveland can lay a Rock and Roll Museum on us, why can’t Vail take a penetrating look at the past it has turned into a profitable present?)
For a start, skiing started among Nordic workers in the nearby mines, after work, to while away those long winter hours. A primitive kind of skiing anyway, with a pair of 11-foot-long barrel stave-like runners, and one long pole to fend off trees and other unserendipities.
And later on, who were the first to ski “seriously?” Mailmen and ministers! No kidding. They were the only workers with motivation enough to risk the impassable mountain passes with unpredictable avalanches. Going over the Red Mountain pass (11,000 feet-plus) between Silverton and Grand Junction, our tour guide pointed out two side-by-side funereal monuments—one memorializing highway workers who had their overtime tickets punched on three separate occasions in the past two decades, and one praising the mettle of a minister who had disappeared until spring when an Easter snowstorm had caught him and his daughter driving between Easter Saturday and Sunday church meetings.
Indeed, we almost didn’t get to go over that time-saving pass ourselves because heavy rains had dumped boulders eight to 10 feet in diameter onto the roadway—just before Memorial Day weekend. To turn such big ones into little ones to cart away took an all-night dynamite session. Had they not opened it up, it would have added 300 miles of backtracking to our trip from Durango to Grand Junction.
That’s why Otto Mears, the man who first conquered Red Mountain pass, is still a local hero. In the fine city attic of a museum in Silverton, I learned what he charged on his personal “toll road”: $1 for one span of horses or mules, 25¢ for a horseback rider, a nickel for each steer, sheep, or pig.
The Vail development grew out of the National Ski Patrol formed in 1938 to encourage safety in the newly booming sport. They argued that the experience of the Finns in turning back the Soviets in the White War meant that Americans should also train such troops. They did, under harrowingly hairy conditions. When the ski troops were finally deployed to chase the Germans out of the Apennines, there wasn’t snow enough to take their skis in a dramatic April campaign. But their valor and energy impressed everyone in command, and the story of their battle group is gratefully highlighted in the Heritage Center.
One beribboned vet came back to Colorado less one leg but nonetheless started winning skiing prizes. He put his steely will behind a scheme to raise money back East, after an oldtimer showed him the Vail setting, ideal for development.
How to turn a minority pastime into a big-league sport? The Flying Norseman joined Barnum and Bailey in the teens. In the ‘20s his notoriety encouraged Sunday skiers to form weekend clubs. Then Colorado native and ski fanatic Lowell Thomas turned on his dulcet tones for covert adverts for the sport in his radio broadcasts and movie newsreels. The stage was set for big time investment. If you were bold enough to put down $2500 in Vail Associates in the 1960s, you were worth $2.5 millions today.
Vail has no fewer than three Welcomats, free weeklies with as much opinion as advertising. From them, you infer that not all is heaven in this four-season Eden. The big money is winter wealthies. Summer is daytrippers after “Having a wonderful pit stop, don’t you wish you were here too?” T-shirts.
It takes some finagling to get these diverse constituencies to jibe. Throughout the no-longer-wild-enough West there is a housing crisis. No room for the minimum-wage coolies in their inns. And the gaming option has its downside. The entire graduating class of Cripple Creek (a town “blessed” with a gaming license) was quoted as splitting the old home because casinos had wrecked their ambiance. There’s no slope like a slippery economic slope. Can’t snow the locals, who get stuck with the tacky jobs.
So the next time you get stuck with the lemon of a May Sunday in Vail, make a refreshing lemonade in their Ski Heritage Center. I even learned what the Sitzmark Hotel means: the imprint your behind makes on the snow when you suddenly stop skiing midway down the mountain. I’m a world class Sitzmarker.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark - Hazard-at-Large, March 23, 1994

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Tough Women, Easy To Read

When I read that Grace Paley had been nominated as a kind of writer laureate of the State of New York, I had two reactions. (1) Let's give her a fuller look than the casual reading I've given her work so far. And (2) good God, not more awards.

Culture is on an awards binge. People who haven't been caught reading a serious book in the last two decades, if ever, pass out Medals of Freedom. Cosmetic aesthetics. Smile at the artist. Give him a free pat on the back. But don't pay the only tribute that matters: a boon of serious attention.

Now, having just read Grace Paley's first two short story collections (I have to go to the Main Library to obtain a book of poems and a novel), I think she really is worth cherishing.

The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) seems focused on her Jewish upbringing. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1972) is more ecumenical, reaching out in a surreal way to the kind of culture conflict that enfeebles America today.

"Goodbye and Good Luck" is a fine example of the former genre. Aunt Rose is telling a restless niece the real story of her single life. She had a short and unhappy tenure in her first job at a novelty store, which she quit because she couldn't have a window assignment. She does it her way, quietly but firmly. Her second job at a Jewish cultural center escalates into a mistress-ship with a priapic Yiddish actor. She doesn't whine that he's married; she savours what she can of him and waits patiently. Aunt Rose is a strong and admirable woman.

"The Loudest Voice" is a hilarious satire of Jewish kids being pressed into public school service in a Christmas pageant. Arcane disputes over the disloyalty implied by Jews acting in the pageant and the anomaly that none of the Christian kids get in the act are overridden by the question of who has the loudest voice in school. It mocks cultural exclusionism of every kind.

It's the same GP who touts herself on the jacket of her second book: "This is Grace Paley looking better than usual because she's in photographer Karl Bissinger's house, among his green thumbs and in the eye of his camera. She's a New Yorker, and has been a typist, a housewife and a writer most of her life. Right now she is also a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. She's a somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist. She writes short stories because art is too long and life is too short. All of this is fairly accurate because she wrote it."

Shades of Philip Roth's "The Facts." Grace her own Zuckerman. Her playfulness is often bizarre and weird. But it's never not delightful. She suffers from little tics--using a neologism like "cunt-ski" to express a woman's contempt for her man defecting to blonde youth. And she has a neat way of working story titles into the narrative, as in both the title stories.

The second collection is tarter, more worried. This pacifist is definitely getting more combative, and perhaps her anarchism is a little less cooperative. "The Little Girl" is a harrowing tale of a black stud who specializes in picking up white teen girls and bedding them down before spitting them out. This time he bites off more than anyone can chew. And “Northeast Playground” is the funkiest commentary on welfare babies I’ve ever encountered.

But “The Long Distance Runner” is easily the most surreal gloss on our discontents. A middle-aged lady takes to jogging through her old Coney Island neighborhood. Which has changed, to put it mildly. She is “captured” by the blacks who now live in her old apartment. The only thing more bizarre than her captivity is the absurd distinctions we have built up around our racial differences—from Forsythe County south to Yonkers north. If only those entrenched warriors, white and black, could ingest her combative pacifism.

Paley hasn’t written a lot, but what fine takes on New York City. So read her, even if she has been beatified by the State of New York. She’s one tough-headed woman.

And, courtesy of the alphabet and the Dewey Decimal system, I ran into another tough-headed lady the same day at the Torresdale Branch. For who do you think sits next to PALEY, GRACE in the branch? PARKER, DOROTHY, that’s who.

My notion of Parker was the Algonquin round tabler who zinged lines like “Guys don’t make passes at gals that wear glasses.” Think stuff. So what a joy to read The Collected Stories (24) of DP (Modern Library, 1942).

It’s a different part of New York, for the most part—much of it prefiguring Tom Wolfe’s high melodrama of high stakes Park Avenue by almost 50 years. She is great on the pampered digging their own holes in frenzied love affairs. And the way young people were just learning to love by long distance telephone is still as fresh as an old-fashioned phone ring. And Parker is not only adept at life styles of the rich and infamous but also perceptive about the pains of moving up and down in the American class system.

“Big Blonde” is especially moving in this respect, tracing the slow slide of a gal who forgot how to be a big laugh. And “Arrangement in the Black and White” blasts an early form of radical chic right out of the drawing room.

Franklin P. Adams—the “Conning Tower” columnist who didn’t like to be conned—speaks truly in his foreword: “It seems foolish to me to write a forward to the stories, the satires, the concentrated hatreds of stupidity, pretentiousness and hypocrisy contained in this volume. Nobody can write such ironic things unless he has a deep sense of injustice—injustice to those members of the human race who are victims of the stupid, the pretentious and the hypocritical. These victims, my mathematics assures me, are in the majority. Therefore Dorothy Parker likes more people than she hates…”

What a neat parlay. Paley and Parker.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark - Hazard-at-Large, July 12, 1989

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Real Treasures Of Saint-Denis

SAINT-DENIS: The Louvre’s hottest summer show was alleged to be a gathering of the treasures of the royal cathedral here, where for several centuries French kings and queens deigned to be buried.
I don’t deny that the stunning porphyry eagle lectern commissioned by the Abbot Suger was good enough to get me back on a plane to Paris just to drool over it for another half-hour. And the sweetly complicated simplicities of the Carolingian and Merovingian illuminated manuscripts left me, as usual, gratefully weak at the knees.
But wait a minute—most of the rest of these “treasures” any self-respected curator would have consigned to the basement trash bins were it not for putative and real connections with the French throne. All these gewgaws attest to, in my opinion, is the erratic tastes of successive monarchs.
Moreover, in the footnotes I read that most of the real treasures had been trashed already during the French Revolution—because the monarch’s church was such a hated focus of Jacobin wrath. No matter: Here were these hordes of glassy-eyed tourists elbowing each other to get a close look at the Royal Dreck and going slackjawed at the clichés being laid on their empty heads by the brainwashed docents. Come on. Crap is crap, even (maybe especially) if the royal anus has had its way with it.
I decided I couldn’t write about the treasures—real or otherwise—of the Cathedral if I didn’t give it an ogle. So, scrutinizing my trusty Metro map, I saw that the banlieu lay at the end of the No. 13 line, so off I went to the Faubourg St-Denis.
It was a Saturday morning—beautiful April weather, lovely lovely. I stopped at City Hall, which has got to be the best leaflet-heavy cultural office I’ve found in France so far. (Which was lucky for me because, inexplicably, the tourist office is closed Saturdays and Sundays.) The Cathedral is stained glassless, except for a few mediocre pieces some pious but incompetent artists have put together to hide the nakedness that followed the Revolutionary iconoclasts.
I pushed on several blocks to the Art and History Museum, because a squib in the local paper promised that there was a centennial exhibition for local art hero Paul Eluard. Excellent.
He had many gifted and generous friends who donated works to their surrealist buddy to keep his memory green: Picasso, Max Ernst and many, many others. It was such a rich gloss on the surrealist phenomenon that I would have gladly returned to Paris with my money’s worth.
But wait. The museum was a recycled convent which had just won a Council of Europe prize for its architectural grace. It seems that Louis XV built it for his daughter, who wanted to head up a Carmelite order. (Did you know Carmel comes from the Palestinian caves, where early monks outdid themselves in abstemiousness?) In fact, the walls are covered with the masochistic mottos that the royal daughter got off on.
There’s more. Several rooms are devoted to the failed Commune of 1871. Paintings. Propaganda tracts and posters. Flags. Everything you never knew you wanted to know about that idealistic flopperoo. But history so palpable you could almost smell the gunpowder and hear the moans of the dispatched street soldiers. St.-Denis also happened to be the hometown of the guy who wrote the lyrics for the Marseillaise. So there’s a big take on his life—and his funeral.
I just love it when I stumble on real (and untrumpeted) treasures. I had a great gab with a woman student from Martinique who was guarding the (nearly empty) galleries. And a further palaver with the guard (who proudly showed me through the backlog of major exhibitions already staged) makes me confident that you should set aside a day on your next trip to Paris to taste the true treasures of St.-Denis.
I had my first FLUNCH there as well—that’s better than fast food; let’s call it QUICK CUISINE, where speed doesn’t destroy national standards of gustation. I took a stroll through the local Carrefours hypermarket, where I was greeted by the meanest German shepherd I’ve ever encountered. Luckily he was chained to the guard, who needs it (he said) to protect himself on his nocturnal rounds.
There’s a decided North African caste to this blue banlieu, and I made a mental note to hit some of the Moroccan restaurants on my next visit. My advice to you: Pick up a Friday "Liberation" and check out what’s happening in the ‘burbs as well as the provincial cities. That’s how I found out about a Vuillard retrospective of great power in Nantes, now a quick three-hour dash form the Gare Montparnasse via the TGV Atlantique.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 5, 1992

Friday, 1 October 2010

Warsaw On Two Million Zlotys A Day

Arriving in Warsaw can be a terminally depressing experience. Central Station is in the midst of the most Godawful infrastructure fiddling I’ve ever experienced in a major metropolis. It’s labyrinth upon labyrinth getting from the station to your hotel.
I chickened out when I took the wrong exit on the underground passageway and immediately checked into the $135-a-night Holiday Inn across from the station. It’s easy to decide to become the Duke de Visa in such turbulent surroundings.

So I bought a map for 15,000 zlotys (you soon feel like a millionaire with your almost 10,000 zlotys per U.S. dollar—my room came to a cool 1,300,000!), copies of the English language weeklies Warsaw Voice and The Insider to plot my moves. The language is so opaque that you stare numbly at place names without comprehending anything.

I decided after a few hours of wheel-spinning to buck up my spirits by visiting the American Embassy. Good move—although almost fatal when I asked a guy in the street which way to the USA.

He said he was driving that way. In a beat up Trabbie, it turned out. He ripped the fender off the car to the left of him backing out of the parking lot, set off that poor bloke’s burglar alarm, and lurched off in a series of near misses as he “eased” into the suicidal flow of traffic.

At the embassy, a bright young grad of Ann Arbor showed me how to get to the foreign journalists’ press center and kicked in his favorite jazz venue and the stores that sell Polish jazz. Dale Prince lives up to his last name: Assiduous in his pursuit of fluency in the difficult indigenous language, eager to watch the devolution from Communism’s command economy to the puzzling ambiguities of the marketplace, he’s the kind of diplomat you dream that America is repped by throughout the world. But guess it isn’t (not often enough, anyway).

Interpress not only let you type but has a cheap, tasty menu. Borscht soup and shish-kebob today for $4. Surprisingly few speak English, compared with other press centers I’ve visited internationally. Lots of Russian. Although I don’t hear it spoken anywhere. Glad to be almost rid of them, I guess.

Ambling back to the hotel (Warsaw hasn’t heard of a straight street, at least in the Centrum), I espied a Max Ernst poster in front of a museumish-looking building, so I sneaked up the steps even though I’d been told all museums are closed Mondays.

Good move. They were in the final stages of getting prepped for an opening that night of a German exchange show on the caricaturists of the Weimar Republic. My meat and potatoes, on the Kraut Kick that I’ve relished for the past five years. Before you could say Georg Grosz, Nina Cognac had blessed me with the catalog, two photos and two invitations to the 8:30 p.m. opening.

I survived the long Teutonic opening speeches (darkened into deepest Polish by lively translators!) to drink perhaps more than my share of Bulgarian white wine—called “Sophia”—and canapés I had to swallow hard to do away with. The crowd was lively—a mix of mad artists, cultural reps and poor students after the free treats.

The show added a few more elements to my fast-filling-in picture of 20th-Century German art, especially the new-to-me woodcut artist Gerd Arntz, implacably proletarian without being boring or mendacious about it—as in his illustration of the high price of bourgeois play above-ground resting on the bitter work below in “Oben und Unten” (1931). I like him.

Nazism drove Artnz into Holland, where he did an illustrator’s dogsbody’s work, having no exhibition of his own for 43 years. It was as good to meet him as it was to palaver with the Poles and (sponsoring) Germans.

And it was a puzzle finding my way back to the hotel in the dark. The only positive thing you can say about the totally ugly Palace of Culture the Soviet wished on the Poles is that you can’t get lost downtown if you keep an eye peeled for it. It is mercifully (if slowly) being covered with advertisements.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 8, 1991