May our very own Scrooge sweetly sleep this revived “Holyday.” Mammon is our true faith, no matter how much the Archdiocese would have us return to pre-Luther Europe. We have our Sharia neighbors to remind us how dire such a Reaction-ary move would be.
For a century, the name of the game has been to break into the canon—artistic holy writs which were adjudged salvation material—writs also-rans to be dispatched into a limbo of learned scorn. Thus had we the Salons of Refuses, showing art which the regnant critical authorities had prematurely rejected as mere refuse.
Sometimes the issue is over whether or not a particular genre or medium is classy enough. The great furniture maker George Nakashima told me recently that he decided to defect from the practice of American architecture after a trip down the West Coast (where he had majored in the art at the University of Washington).
He and a school chum had seen a Frank Lloyd Wright house being “erected” in Palo Alto, so chintzy in its construction he revolted in disgust into furniture making, where he could control quality. The Chicago Tribune rebuked him editorially for going from a great art into a “demeaning” one.
Hordes of inferior crafts-persons agonized over whether throwing pots is a fine enough art, and sometimes destroy their function so as to disqualify the pots as mere crafts. How tiresome this Rodney Dangerfield syndrome of not getting enough respect has become.
Can you imagine Louis Armstrong worrying about whether he was artistic enough when he was cooking on his horn? The whole shticky think reeks of status panic, the psycho Achilles Heel of the perspiringly aspiring muddled classes.
Still, there are good, better and best, not to mention B minus Baloney in every art form, new or old. I was reminded of this in Wilmington where you can judge for yourself whether the National Academy of Fantastic Art (Houston) is giving us a new kick or just reflexing its self-indulgence muscles with the National Academy of Fantastic Art Invitational Exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum.
Nobody invited my opinion, but here it is: a pervasive yuck modulated with some truly moving pieces. Start with the yucky. Ray Harryhausen’s “Primordial Rage” is a bronze, because the latex models he made in London for movies have a short shelf-life, even half-life. The shorter the better, in my non-Godzillean opinion. Biodegradable junk ought to be allowed to return to a churlish Mother Nature when its function as a monster in Acne Flix have been satisfied.
On the other hand, not so facile. For Philadelphian Carl Lundren’s “The Senseless Death” is a Dorian Grayish tour de force of a clown skeleton in a disintegrating automobile. I could look at it many more times than once, which is not, alas, true of his “Take the ‘A’ Train,” an oil in which a foreground dragon frames a view of a distant (ho-hum) castle, in the middle ground of which is a graffiti-embellished subway train. As much as I despise the mindless macho of graffiti, I find their blobs and blurs more moving than this not sufficiently surreal landscape. Win some, lose some.
And what are we to make of Rikki Kipple / Stan Gilbert’s sculptural collages like “The Faerie Euphrates” which (we are encouraged to read) has, embellishing its ceramic lady’s bust, no less than these: “antelope pelvis, cardinal breast bone, snake ribs, snake vertebrae, sea urchin spines, blue jay feather, peacock feather, carnelian, lapis lazuli cluster, hand blown glass tears, antique Afghani silver lace, Italian marble mounted on purple heartwood, and three silver chime bells circa 1780.” The message damn near becomes the medium here. Maybe you have to like science fiction or horror movies to appreciate all of this stuff!
In my teaching ideal of leaving no literary stone unturned, I once found myself teaching a course in science fiction and hating almost every second of it, even though it was taught out of two self-described canonical anthologies. It’s all so sophomoronic, as if Ayn Rand had replaced William Shatner as the crew chief of the Enterprise.
And there was definitely a Star Trekkie cast to the museum crowd moiling in front of these woiks: They tested each other with trivia allusions that made me realize how terminally ignorant I am on the subject. Yuck to the tenth power. And yet. And yet. Wayne Anderson’s “Working Class Cows Visiting the British Museum” is a marvelous put down of welfare state culture faking. And Hap Henriksen’s “Urban Gargoyle,” which adorns the entrance, is perfectly marvelous, a real monster by a real bronze maker.
To complicate my simpleminded put-down, it’s Hap (of Kountze, Texas) who’s behind the movement to give fantasy art the respect that snobs like me are supposed to want to deny it. How did he get the idea? At the seminars and exhibits of the National Academy of Western Art in Oklahoma City, that’s where.
What’s saucey enough for the despised goose of Western Art could legitimize as well the neophyte gander of sci-fi fantasy. What the hell. Different strokes for different folks. If it’s a turn-on for you, relish it. But the bigger dreams of the fantasists are on hold down in Houston because of the oil bust. The best laid plans, etc. etc.
Meanwhile, over at the Brandywine River Museum, an aspiration of a different order is on display—to retrieve from what (I feel) is well-earned obscurity the Germantown painter, George C. Lambdin (1830-96). The show opens, if I may use that verb for so underwhelming a canvas, with “New Moon, True Moon, Trust I Say Who My True Love Must Be,” c. 1885.
Not me, baby. The ***missing text*** sculpture show on Eakins and his model problems, as well as his own unremittingly realistic vision of what was out there in Philly whilst GCL was putzing around with his silly ladies and unbelievably innocent girl children.
And don’t leave Brandywine without walking across the hall to see what real paintings are about, and real feeling. Andrew Wyeth’s “The Clearing” (tempera, 1979) is a moving male nude, from the top of his blonde hippie hair through his tanned torso down past his well-hung genitals through to his stocky cropped thighs just above the knees. Who care about the Helga flap? Here’s a male sensuality, an ode to the vigorous young stud.
There’s a Helga version, too, perhaps significantly entitled “Lovers” (in the plural) although we see only the nude buxom blonde with braids, in a drybrush dated 1981. but oh how we see her! She’s in front of a window, through which an inwardly blowing leaf gives a strangely mystical air to the piece.
The slatted light through the window picks up details of the body facing away from the window—the back of her neck, the tip of her left nipple, strands of her yellowish pubic hairs. What a marvelous salute to the lovable buxomness of the mature female. George, move to the back of the class.
If this duo of Andrew whetted your appetites as it did mine and if you are too poor to buy Wyeth like me, then settle for the Brandywine’s new cook book, For the Pot: Recipes from the Brandywine River Museum, garnished with Wyeths of different generations. You don’t even have to know how to boil an egg to relish this cookbook: $18.75 plus $2 postage and handling, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large
A false euphoria is spreading across the non-communist West because of the evident failure of socialist ideologies. What this sense of elation at the enemies’ discomfiture obscures is that discrediting socialism does not per se authenticate capitalism.
In the past 40 years we have been so involved in containing communist threats, real and imagined, that we have let social and intellectual deficits pile up that make Reagan’s fiscal deficits look puny by comparison. It is salutary to recall that Reagan’s simpleminded strategy was to bankrupt the Soviet Union by engaging them in a Star Wars race they couldn’t afford and to undercut domestic welfare through deficits so large even bleeding-heart liberals would take the Gramm-Rudman discipline. What Reagan didn’t anticipate was that Gorbachev would opt for peace and disarmament, and that Congress and his successor would play budgetary games in order to avoid cutting entitlements or raising taxes.
The evident disarray of the enemies of capitalism seems to give a world-wide warrant for American consumerism. All the world wants to consume as easily and as unendingly as we do. But signs are also evident not only that such consumerism is not exportable, but that it is creating gridlocks of its own at home.
The odyssey a few summers back of a barge of garbage with no port of its own is an emblem of consumerism’s problematical future. And the shiny new automobiles piling up on dealers’ lots are the scary flip side of the Cornucopia with severe digestive problems.
There is something silly about an economy which overproduces cars while bridges fail silently on rainy nights due to massive decay of a long-neglected infrastructure. And while the U.S. leads the world in the creation of personal garbage and business-generated toxic wastes, we’re trying to tell Brazil not to destroy its rain forests (even though they are being cut to provide more home on the range for fast-food hamburgers on the hoof) and to caution China against using fluorocarbons in its fledgling refrigeration industry after we have led the world in poking holes in the ozone layer. These are paradoxes of “successful” capitalism that the world can ignore only at its ultimate peril.
The crisis in socialism does nonetheless give us breathing space to try to formulate better ways of dealing with breakdowns in American capitalism. I suggest three to begin with: infrastructure, the welfare system, and mass education.
It would be ideal if we could find ways of using these deficits to resolve each other. With visionary political leadership I think we might very effectively use the pathologies of the welfare system to resolve infrastructure and mass education problems. But such an enlightened agenda is going to take a lot more political candor than we’ve been blessed with lately. There are vested interests in waging war, maintaining the dependency of a welfare class and avoiding the reconstruction of our infrastructure.
Take the military-industrial complex. Every time a base is threatened with closing, local politicos band together to protect the payrolls involved. It is clearly much more lucrative for us to wage hypothetical wars than to deal with the complications of peace breaking out.
I like to think of San Francisco’s Fort Mason as a portent of what could happen on a massive scale if statesmen turned the demilitarization of the American economy toward community purposes. Fort Mason used to be the disembarkation port for American troops engaging in Pacific Ocean hostilities, from our pacification of Filipino rebels in 1899 to our meeting the real communist threat in Korea. Now it is an alternative cultural arts complex with black, Mexican, Italian and folk art museums, as well as headquarters for Western Public Radio. It’s an earnest that swords can be bent back into plowshares.
It will take an enlightened kind of pork-barreling to transfer without too much local dislocation America’s productive energies from making generations of unused—even unusable—weapons to rebuilding our infrastructure. The trouble with our euphoria at socialist discomfiture is hat we are not even talking about the needed changes and the requisite leadership. The malaise of the New Politics by hearing and counterindictment is the main reason we are not talking about what the country needs. It is a new kind of circus: Nongovernment by special prosecutor.
Similarly with our welfare crisis. One of the least-noted discoveries of the Great Society’s war on poverty was the existence of a poverty industry more interested in pushing around huge subsidies (with an expanding retinue of welfare bureaucrats) than in making the poor autonomous enough to live without safety netters. America has rightly hailed itself as a nation of tinkerers, of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants experimenters. Where are the Edisons and Fords of the slums?
A day care crisis is allegedly expanding exponentially as more and more educated women enter the two-salary work force. Why has no one figured out a way of helping welfare mothers help themselves by becoming day care providers for their own children and the children of the more middling classes?
It’s work that needs to be done. It’s work that ought to pay well.
Don’t tell me the daughters and granddaughters of those black nannies who nurtured many an upper-class child and cleaned many a middle-class household can’t be trusted to nurture latchkey children. The mix of black, white and Hispanic at an early age might even dissolve some of the racial animosities that are making our big cities more and more anxiety-ridden.
And please don’t tell me they have to be certified through a block of courses. That’s merely the mass education industry asking for its cut of entitlements in our poverty industry.
And why is it so difficult to find out a way to put corner crack dealers to work on our infrastructure? Here’s a case of how two wrongs could make a right. Heavy manual labor must be expended if the country is not to become a laughing stock of the developed countries. And muscle power is being wasted on street corners. Why are we so dilatory in putting such twos and twos together?
My answer is perhaps too simple-minded, but with fine tunings factored in. I think it will explain all we need to explain to get us off the deadening center our politics now inhabits. Our politicians are so busy cashing in on the over-privileged slice of America they control that they have no time to devote to the common causes we have hired them to attend to. They’re locked in PAC impasses. Or they’re serving servile apprenticeships in D.C. to equip themselves with the expertise to strike gold as government lobbyists.
Even cadavers can be lucrative. I’ve never forgotten my college chum’s reaction to my revisiting Detroit 15 years ago. “Detroit is dead, Pat,” he intoned, as we settled in for drinks at his new Grosse Pointe mansion. He then informed me that he had earned $300,000 the past year as a workman’s comp lawyer. Mighty lucrative corpse, I ruminated silently.
Socialism may well be in its death throes. But how thriving capitalism becomes in the future depends largely on how well we use the short breathing space we seem to be enjoying now.
When Larry King recently asked Iran's president about punished dissent in his country, he parried the question by alluding to America's leading the world in incarceration: 2.5 million--and rising. The most egregious disparity is blacks jailed for crack while whites are wrist-slapped for the more expensive white stuff they have gone to inner cities to buy.
Our paradigm of two systems of justice is George W. Bush's rap sheet: teenage DUI unpunished, AWOL from Champagne Squadron in Vietnam war, SEC free insider trading which loot started his Horatio Alger-like rise with the Texas Rangers. "Torture"? Lawyers let him do it!
There is a laughable discrepancy between our Leader of the Free World and duplicitous legal system. The privatization of incarceration is another new disgrace, like our hiring overpaid, uncontrolled mercenaries in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
The recent scandal of unlenient judges throwing teens into the clink for private profit shows just how corrupt we've become. Nation-building? Clarity should start at home.
Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina, is like you would expect a county seat 14 miles south of Danville, Virginia, to be on a Saturday morning on the brink of spring: sleepy, silent, seemingly abandoned.
I was there to satisfy my curiosity about one Thomas Day (1801-1861), a free black carpenter from nearby Milton, whose unique newel posts and related interior carpentry had been the delicious surprise in Catherine Bishir’s recent North Carolina Architecture (Chapel Hill, $59.95).
Yanceyville, I discovered as a looked around the central square for someone to direct me to Milton, is graced by one of the handsomest county courthouses in the whole country. A plaque established that it was built “around 1861.” I shot away with my trusty Olympus, trying to keep the newly blooming dogwoods from obscuring details like columns whose capitals were adorned with colored foliage—it turned out to be tobacco and corn!
Later at the symposium on Thomas Day, I learned that the vague date alluded to the long time it took for tiny Caswell County to finish this grand structure, and that the architect was a certain William Percival, who had designed many other splendid if unsung buildings during the same period. I was getting to like this Yanceyville place.
A man helping prepare the Wadlington store for Saturday business gave me directions to Milton. For it was there—an even tinier town (population: 235)—that Day produced his three decades’ worth of commissions for the local gentry. And it’s there that Day buffs, headed by Mrs. Marion Thomas, are trying to raise the $500,000 to restore the Union Tavern, where the genius carpenter supervised up to a dozen helpers—some white and some black slaves.
Just outside Milton, the McPhersons run a bed-and-breakfast called the Woodside Inn, teeming with Dayana. As I pulled into their drive, I was a little edgy about a huge, lumbering dog seemingly guarding the manse, a certified National Historic Place. I needn’t have worried: Beau (short for Beauregard) is one amiable old hound dog. He looked at me almost philosophically as I palavered him in a strange Yankee accent.
I tried to weasel in that Saturday night, but there was no room for me at the Woodside Inn because they were giving a “mystery dinner.” Still, with that Southern hospitality, Liz, the matron of this virtual Thomas Day shrine, took me on a Day by Day tour of the house, where I began with a genuflection before the highly vaunted newel post on their main staircase which, in Catherine Bishir’s book, had started me on my quest for more Day. Mrs. McPherson’s tutelage was like an ambient seminar.
On my way back to Yanceyville, I paused to scan the restoration in progress for the Union Tavern. They’ve got their work cut out for them there, but judging from the informed enthusiasm I found at the seminar in the Yanceyville Cultural Center, I have no doubt that Day’s day has finally if belatedly come to Caswell County.
A jolly gentleman by the name of Ben R. Williams—who’d retired to Yanceyville from his directorship of the State Museum of Art in Raleigh—amiably supervised things at the seminar. Duke history professor Peter Woods got the almost 100 seminarians into a properly reflective mood with a brilliant slide lecture on the tug of war within the hearts of pre-Civil War blacks between art traditions inherited from Africa and the Euro traditions among the elite they were bound to serve.
Then Williams triggered what I can only describe as a cultural revival meeting. He asked that we all contribute to the creation of a Thomas Day glossary. We never got beyond his first suggestion—the word “stucco.” You can’t imagine what a rich history that simple term contains when you start thinking about it in Caswell County.
During coffee break I fell into a schmooze with one Les Sadler, a retired Naval engineer, who purchased the damned-near derelict Yancey manse out on the road to Reidsville. He swooped me over there for a quick visit. Ah, bless my soul: I found another of the soon-to-be-legendary newel posts, as different from the Woodside newel as azalea is from dogwood. Was Sadler ever proud of the great acts of conservation and connoisseurship he and his lady are in the middle of.
In Court House Square, a tall, lanky middle-aged man approached me to ask where I was from. (He already knew about me from the man who first gave me directions to Milton!) “Philly,” I replied.
“Oh, really? I caught for the Philadelphia Athletics during the 1953 season.” Neal Wadlington and I had a tasty chat right there in the gutter in front of his sports equipment / general merchandise store.
There was one other Yanceyville who caught my eye but who proved mysteriously elusive all weekend—Maud Gatewood, whose prints were the treat of a faculty show at the Danville Museum of Art and History on Main Street.
Then I found she’d made note papers for the Thomas Day house and T-shirt designs and Christmas cards to raise money for the Union Tavern restoration. I bought a pack of the note cards for $5. (I consoled myself with these, since I couldn’t afford at the moment the $250 print I’d lusted after in her exhibition.)
I had four hours before I had to turn my car in and fly back to Philly, so I said what the heck, maybe I can track her down in Yanceyville. When I phoned form Reidsville, she promised to meet me in a half hour at “The Drug Store.” (That’s what’s nice about small towns—even the stores have generic names, there usually being only one of each!)
Quicker than you can say Caswell Messenger, there she was, ready to sit down and ramble about her career and ideas—both interesting, even impressive. (I vowed to start saving for that print in the Danville show that I couldn’t yet afford.) It seems she’d been all over the larger world—teaching in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, a longish Fulbright tenure in Vienna in particular and Europe in general.
But she’d come home to Yanceyville. I can see why. Even if there weren’t a Thomas Day to entice you there, Y is O.K.
I concluded my weekend visit to Yanceyville with a pitstop at the Caswell Messenger. Never have I seen such esprit in a 5,000-circulation weekly. The youngish editor is a born josher. We got on right off—as I asked him to scan his morgue for Maud Greenwood stuff.
His circulation manager laid a free copy of the paper on me (“I give away more of these than I sell,” she observed sweetly), and I piled back in my Prizm for the half-hour drive back up to the airport.
As I clambered onto the little jet prop puddle-jumper of a Jetstream for the short hop to a proper jet for Philly in Charlotte, I thought to myself: These Tarheels are marvelous to visiting strangers. I’d expected to be exhilarated by the Thomas Day stuff, and was. The friendly, open manner of the locals was unexpected, and deeply appreciated.
O, what heavenly Days that weekend turned out to be. I recommend you try it, beginning with a night full of Day at the Woodside Inn. Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 16, 1992
Guelph may rhyme with elf, but it’s no fairyland. Cruising Canada recently, I was levitated in Douglas Cardinal’s Canadian Museum of Civilization by a silversmith I had never heard of before. So when I read in the Toronto Globe and Mail the next morning that Lois Etherington Betteridge was the subject of a one-person show in Guelph, I asked the concierge at the Royal York Hotel how far Guelph was.
“An hour by train, and an hour and a half by bus,” he replied. Heh, I’d trek a lot farther than that for the kind of life I expected a roomful of Betteridges to give me.
The Macmillan Art Centre of the University of Guelph employs the brilliant ploy of having Robert Moriyama recycle an old school into a delicious exhibition space.
It reminds me of a schmooze I had at the Knoxville World’s Fair, where a local architect had taken a rundown old suite of Victorian houses and turned them into the Energy Exhibit. Later, when he went back to his Auburn University architecture reunion, visiting poohbah Bruce Goff sneered during his slide lecture of his (mainly) rehabs, “Don’t you wish you could do original buildings?”
On the spot, this heroic local architect decided in his heart of hearts he’d rather rehab great vernacular buildings than raise another bit of glitz. Bless him.
Well, Moriyama has a lot of Big Buildings under his T-square (Toronto’s Main Library, for a start), but his recycling job at Guelph is a marvel.
It prepares you for Betteridge (whose hubby, by the way, does the very good photos). Ms Betteridge, it turns out, is a year younger than I am: The vivacity of her oeuvre and the wittiness of her sly silverine jokes had made me infer someone 20 years younger. Heck, she’s been at it going on 40 years already.
She was born and raised in Ontario. After opening her own studio, she took time off to take an MFA at Cranbrook. Her American training put her at the center of Scandinavian Modernism, where functionalism is the central tenet.
“Form and function,” to quote the excellent catalog, “must necessarily harmonize in an all-embracing interdependence, while understatement rules in clean lines, simple forms and unadorned surfaces.” She admits that Eliel Saarinen’s silver urn of 1934—customarily the centerpiece of Cranbrook’s social functions—was her main mensch in a development she otherwise insists was an isolated one.
She rejects anything that smacks of industrializing, e.g., spinning. She limits herself to the ancient techniques of raising, forging, fabricating and chasing. Only rarely does she cast, except in her jewelry.
She took a six-year “sabbatical” in Britain during the early 1960s, then concentrated on two exhibitions: the group show “Metiers d’art/3,” 1978-79, and her 1981 personal retrospective. Happily, this freed her fancy, easing her into her current glorious mode, of which “Honey Pot” (1976) is a good example.
Its form is inspired by the natural world: “Its undulating, semi-spherical body is modeled on a wasp’s next, while the recessed lid has the shape of a honeycomb with a bee on it. Unlike the abstract and anonymous designs of earlier years, this one has a specificity and personalization which emanates from the everyday experience of the maker. Objects such as this whisper delightfully of enchantment.” (Etherington, Betteridge, Silversmith: Recent Work, Art Gallery of Hamilton.) “Madhatter’s Tea Party” (1988) explains itself.
You think that’s all that Guelph offers? Ha. Wrong, South of the Border breath.
Ask the curator for her dinky but true map of the best places to eat. And save time for the Civic Museum of Waterloo Street. It’s got a fine exhibition called “Passages,” on the successive waves of immigration that have mellowed the stiff-backed Scots and Brits who give the country its marvelous stability and sobriety.
But there’s still more reason to Guelph it. Through May 26, the little G (population: 50,000) holds its annual Spring Festival (box office, 519-821-7570). It began in 1968 as a volunteer-run fete with a $27,000 budget; now it has a professional staff and an international reputation, battening on a budget of $400,000.
The astonishing thing is the number of local businesses and Canadian corporations which pick up the tab for one or more of its score of events. Not like our “one corporation gets its name on all the publicity” sponsorship.
Diva Wilhelmenia Fernandez opened festivities on April 27th. My favorite attraction of the festival—the Lenny Solomon trip—paid tribute to jazz-violinist greats Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith and Eddie South. The Shevchenko Musical Ensemble treats the elves of Guelph to Russian and Ukrainian folk music, with male chorus, mandolin orchestra and folk dance troupe.
It all culminates in the free block party on Carden Street, Saturday, May 26th, featuring the Juno-award-winning children’s performer Sandra Beech. If a lineup like that doesn’t move you northward with reasonably-priced tickets ($6-$24, with discounts for seniors and students), budget motels and easy transportation access, you’re a hard-hearted traveler indeed. Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 16, 1990
The only time we met, in a BBC screening room, Nancy Thomas introduced me as "an English professor". She looked like I had just farted at her, and took her pals several rows away, in an otherwise empty studio.
If I were to make a list of Dispensable National Assets (DNA’s), at the tip would be Joan Rivers. No, I don’t wanna talk. But when Channel 29’s News billboarded her guest as superfem Gloria Steinem a while back, I decided to test my late-night capacity to resist nausea.
Gloria was in excelsis Deo over her book Marilyn Monroe. Yuck. Did we need a 41st major volume to commemorate the silver anniversary of MM’s death? Rivers also was touting a recent issue of Star, which bad a big puff on the centennial of Hollywood.
As a certified centennial analyzer (Americans are afflicted with an unfortunately non-terminal disease called centennialitis, or AIDS of the mind, presumably caused by a mutant virus when the affliction of nostalgia crosses endemic amnesia), I went prowling for a Star. It’s one of those supermarket boobloids, and I’d never had the experience of making a request wrapped in brown paper.
In it, I learned that Hollywood was founded by a Kansas prohibitionist, and that the florally sexy name came from the summer home in Illinois of a chance acquaintance on the train. Marvelous. A prohibitionist’s haven destined to be the Booze Capital of the Universe was christened in hype, the four-letter word that was soon to form the soul of Tinseltown.
The only time I found myself at the corner of Hollywood and Vine was when I attended the world premiere of Selma!, the 1975 musical on Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Huntington Hartford Theatre. Actually, the cross street, incredibly enough, was Selma. Tommy Taylor, a black Vegas night club singer, had had a sort of religious experience about bringing King’s message to a popular audience. I love it. The choreography for the march from Selma to Montgomery was funky stompin’.
It was too good for Hollywood. Later at a cast / sponsor after-party at the Brown Derby, I asked Redd Foxx why he was putting his hard-earned bucks behind so speculative a venture as a sociological musical. His answer was Sanford clear: “So young black entertainers coming along won’t have to put up with the crap I had to in Hollywood.” So it was only because I feel that Gloria Steinem can do no wrong that I picked up her Marilyn / Norma Jeane (Henry Holt, $24.95) from a FLOP rack. It’s an absorbing probe of pre-feminist exploitation of working-class women by sick and craven men. When Norma Jeane was given the nom de marquee Marilyn Monroe (the former to suggest Marilyn Miller, he latter a family name that was euphonius) she had to ask autograph seekers how to spell Marilyn. Maybe to deliver on her cute boast to newsmen that she was “blonde all over,” she began to bleach her pubic hair, once badly burning herself.
Her eager regimen of self-education led her to The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, about which she wrote in her unpublished autobiography that Steinem uses brilliantly in her seven essays: “bitter but strong … He knew all about poor people and about injustice. He knew about the lies people used to get ahead, and how smug rich people sometimes were. It was almost as if he’d lived the hard way I’d lived. I loved his book.”
But not producer Joe Mankiewicz, who warned her not to drag such stuff onto the set during the McCarthy frenzy: “I wouldn’t go around raving about Lincoln Steffens,” he counseled his innocent starlet. That sorely misused human being (her early life reads like a handbook on the varieties of child abuse) was sort of a Rorschach blot on whom individuals projected their own characters.
Compare Groucho Marx’s playfully generous epithet—“Mae West, Theda Bara, and Bo-Peep all rolled into one”—with Jack Paar’s bitchy snarl—“I fear that beneath the façade of Marilyn, here was only a frightened waitress in a diner.” Or Mailer’s macho rumination that having sex with her would be like having ice cream. (To his frustration, he never got a single scoop.)
Steinem ends her speculations about this emblem of our national imagination’s malaise with believable guesses about what Monroe might have made of herself were she 60 today. Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large
Robert Zaller’s review of Silverhill by InterAct Theatre makes me wish I were a Gekko enough to call Lufthansa for a fast trip to Philly. Never even heard of the playwright (Thomas Gibbons) nor his plays.
The high aesthetic price of a comfortable retirement in Weimar! Patrick D. Hazard Weimar, Germany November 19, 2010
What would I do with Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount?
I’d raze everything but John Haviland’s noble perimeter walls. At the ESP Task Force open house (held recently to culminate the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual convention), I learned from Dr. Norman Johnston’s excellent notes for prospective guides that the original interior has already been hopelessly compromised by additions, rehabs and transformations.
Mutter Museum director Gretchen Worden rhapsodized to the press about turning the hulk into a major tourist attraction, though her contention that Eastern has been a tourist attraction from the beginning is an egregious bit of logic-chopping.
Dickens visited it because he was obsessed all his life with the drubbing he and his family took in debtor’s prison and bitterly resented his experience as a child in the prison blacking factory. And DeTocqueville visited it because he came to America on a prison inspection mission.
Even if the tourist approach wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, the location of the abandoned complex has three strikes against it. Open house visitors were visibly a little edgy about parking their cars out front. One sports car owner had to shush away a local boy who wanted to “borrow” his wheels for a whirl around the block. Fairmount gentrifiers have trouble enough with security several blocks away.
And Worden’s contention that on-the-spot studies of penology would have many times the impact of a mere “civics lesson” is unpersuasive. When you get right down to it, the Quaker theory of rehabilitation through solitary confinement is surely one of the silliest “good” ideas to emerge from the Enlightenment.
Add to that the later heritage of Marvin Wolfgang’s gang of Penn penologists who couldn’t think straight (for a generation his cadre of criminologists were aggressive rehabilitators—until they did a neat 180-degree turn to quick and predictable punishment), and turning Eastern into an adult theme park might even disillusion visitors over the mental fitness of our intelligentsia.
The Eastern State Task Force is tactically vague when you ask them what the bill might be for turning the derelict facility into an adult Disneyland. Councilman John Street says he thinks he could wangle $3-5 million out of City Council for “stabilizing” the facility. That’s Council talk for putting roofs on the decaying complex, presumably by affirmative-action contractors.
Eastern State talk inside the shambles introduced me to a new term—RFP, “request for proposal.” And that’s where the fiscal plot thickens.
It will take a couple of years (and presumably many, many Eastern State task forcers) to reconstruct the history of the prison’s deterioration. And just as much time and money to do an RFP for turning it into Penology Preserved: A Theme Park!
As a Ph.D. in American Civilization, I judge the “thinking” of the Eastern State task force criminally murky. As a taxpayer, I will resist to the death the fantasy that for a few millions we can create a self-supporting tourist destination. It would take ESP of another feather to make such a pipe dream materialize.
The task force did propose one practical notion—to sow grand golden flowers along the outside. Which brings me to my proposal: Turn the razed interior spaces into a greenery Peace Park for the beleaguered, amenities-starved inhabitants of North Philadelphia.
And if there’s money left over after the seeds, ask Jimmy Carter to make it a Habitat for Humanity entrepot, where tools and materials for rehabbing the houses of North Philly could be stored in a minimal facility for teaching jobless black kids how to use hammers and saws.
Talk about prisons. The people in Eastern State country are already prisoners of fear. Liberate them.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 15, 1989
One of the marvels of American literature is that you never know where the next genius is coming from. This is especially true of the demotic genre of humor. Who could ever infer from the homely precincts of Hannibal, Missouri, that it would nurture the false hick schtick of Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Or that. Columbus, Ohio, could engender the laureate of the quintessentially neurotic husband and wife of James Thurber?
So it should not confound us that the newest original voice of American humor hails from “The End of the Road”, viz., the village of Homer, Alaska, which failed to break the 4,000 barrier in the 1990 census.
Thirty-four-year-old Tom Bodett actually hails from Sturgis, Michigan. A drop-out from Michigan State, he lit out for the territory in his 20s, had a bad accident working timber in he Alaskan panhandle, and shortly thereafter landed for good in Homer—which proudly calls itself the Halibut Capital of the World, based on a fleet of almost a hundred charter fishing boats.
Easterners generally assume Bodett started his writing career doing droll pieces for Homer’s public radio station, KBBI-FM. But the editor of the state’s largest-circulation paper, the Anchorage Daily News, corrected me: “He broke into print doing pieces for our Sunday magazine.”
The KBBI humorous bits caught the ear of “All Things Considered” producers, and before you could say Motel Six, Bodett had a lucrative contract as the voice and writer of self-deprecating promos for the cheapest motel chain in the country.
He and a fellow Homerite, piano-playing composer Johnny Bushell, made their strongest pitch for national attention in a 67-week, hour-long variety show featuring the characters from “The End of the Road” that ran on more than 100 commercial radio stations nation-wide.
Part of Bodett’s new book, The Big Garage on Clear Shot: Growing Up, Growing Old and Going Fishing at the End of the Road (William Morrow, $18.95), is the straightest talk I’ve ever read about the perennial difficulties of growing up and growing old in blue-collar America. But another smaller, sharper part is Joe Sixpack quiche-bashing. (Press coverage of Bodett’s hometown audiences for the radio show indicate that the quiche-bashing plays better than the sociology.) On the sociology side, it’s easy to see that scheme working itself out successfully.
Norman Tuttle is on the cusp of 14, and the chapters that deal with his being bullied at school, being caught red-faced if not red-handed as his girl’s first babysitting assignment aborts when the parents come home unexpectedly, and being accepted as a near adult on his first deer-hunting trip are marvels of observation clearly presented.
The other side of Bodett’s muse may play harder—though it reads better. Take congenital liar Doug McDoogan, whose errant whittling prompts “a blue rinse lady from Anchorage” to turn him into the hottest folk sculptor in the 49th state. Joe Miller, a college dropout from the Midwest, moves into the next apartment, and the way they watch sci-fi episodes on a TV with no audio is delectable parody.
In another episode, Bodett has his sociological radar turned on, and the way the fishing boat captain finally accepts the greenhorn Joe by giving him his own coffee mug is a masterpiece of understatement. But there are definitely two Joes rolling around in Tom’s head.
It will be interesting to see how this Janus-faced young writer learns to deal with his built-in paradox: He’s himself a Joe Sixpack at heart, with a very, very short fuse for upper-middlebrow foolishness.
If achieving universal significance from the raw data of your own quotidian turf is the mark of a good writer, then Tom Bodett is a voice to watch. He’ll be leaving the lights on for us in more ways than one if he can fuse those two visions into one.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 26, 1991
Homer, Alaska is the kind of village (it fell far short of a hoped-for 4,000 in the 1990 census) where everybody not only knows everybody else but runs into them daily. I flew down there from Anchorage (half hour by air, six hours by circuitous two-lane roads up and around the Kenai peninsula) to look into the Tom Bodett End of the Road phenomenon.
The man who mans the light switches for Motel Six was down in L.A., so I settled for an interview with his piano-playing cohort, John Bushell, also known on radio as Johnny B.
“Meet me at the Etude Music School, across the street from the Junior High,” he advised.
“Bring me a tape of the radio spot on seat belts you did for the Alaska State Police,” I pleaded, ignorant as I was of everything the pair had done on commercial radio because it was never broadcast in Philly.
Etude is a warp out of a metronome. Arriving ten minutes early, I tiptoed around the room where musical instruments were sold to Homeric youth being prodded towards Culture, trying not to disturb the youngster doing plinky-plunk-level lessons for his teacher.
Johnny arrived with a coterie of moppets. It turns out that after graduating in media and drama from Boston U., Johnny had spent the first six of his years in Homer being the jack-of-all-arts teacher for the junior high across the street.
A feature story in the sprightly weekly, The Homer News, explored the theme of how likely fame was to spoil homeboy Tom. A sidebar story raised the potentially threatening story of how sad Johnny might become—always in the shadow of Big Tom.
Bushell is grateful rather than envious. He relishes having had to choose from among the hundreds of audition tapes for their hour radio series. Why did they quit? Burnout is the quick and perhaps too easy answer.
“Doing a new 20-minute story every week was a strain on Tom,” Johnny B recounts, “and getting the music ready was no picnic for me, either.” Tom’s tight contract with Motel Six was at first a stickier problem. Reports are that Bodett had to dip into his own book royalties to keep the series afloat.
Tom then became the folksy voice-under for Fox TV. Maybe you caught him on Fox’s Tom Night: “Hi, Tom Bodett announcin’ the world premiere of Tom Night, Thursday on Fox. We’ll sit around watchin’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Drexell’s Class’ and ‘90210,’ drinkin’ diet sodas, eatin’ high-cholesterol snacks.”
I was amazed to learn on the advertising page of the New York Times that all this final “g” droppin’ (calculated to bring down the wrath of high falutin’ Eastern elite elocution teachers) is the faux naïf tactic of a Lubbock, Texas smoothie named David Fowler, who turned Motel 6’s brain on; only the tonsils are Tom’s.
Lubbock and Homer are soul-mate-makin’ venues. And back in Homer, Johnny B unabashedly basks in the media spotlight cast by his much more famous media buddy. Like Bodett, Johnny B is a Huck Finn of the North, engagingly without pretense. The next morning, as I walked over to the Trailside Market from the Driftwood Inn to get the Anchorage Daily News, a jogger whizzed past me on the Sterling Highway. To my astonishment, he greeted me: “Hi, Patrick; can’t stop; Johnny B.”
Like I said, it’s that kind of a village.
The afternoon before, I was interviewing the curator of the mask show opening that night at the town’s astonishingly rich Pratt Museum. “Do you think the reporter who did the Bodett profile for the Homer News will be at the opening?”
“No,” she replied, “but there’s their art critic, Jan O’Meara.”
Bingo. I had sampled the collection of community responses to the infamous Valdez oil spill she’d just edited and self-published. In the current issue, she was reviewing an eloquent photo-essay by Linda Smoger on the mission generated by Homer residents to clean up Cape Mars as their own mitzvah for the Exxon ecological disaster. So we had a good deal to talk about besides masks.
As our palaver on oil spills and art wound down, I expressed my frustration that Bodett was in L.A. “Not any more,” she smiled, pointing to the just-returned writer slowly savoring the show with his son Courtney and wife Debi.
It was entirely characteristic of this publicity shunner that he was taking in the show alone with his family. (Visitors have taken to decamping outside his house to have their Polaroids taken; he has parried their unwanted attentions by posting a “NO VISITORS, PLEASE” sign.) Knowing his predilections, I asked if I could phone him the next day for an interview. Grateful for my reticence, he uncorked the unlisted number.
Homer prides itself as the Halibut Capital of the World (unlike Tom, who puts himself down playfully in a book bio as coming from Sturgis, Michigan, the Curtain Rod Capital of the World). Homer also has appended to it, reaching out into Kachemak Bay, the world’s longest spit (that’s five miles of sand, not spit.)
At its tippiest tip rests “Land’s End,” the village’s toniest spa. I decided to hitchhike out there, hoping to get a few more local angles on Bodett’s rep. well, as friendly and folksy as Homer may be, 26 vehicles whizzed by my thumb without so much as slowing down or blinking their lights.
“The Book Store” caught my eye. (Homer fancies the generic: “The Barber Shop” sits on the path to the Pratt Museum.) I joshed the lady proprietor, saying how nobody was leaving the lights on for me on the Sterling Highway. A 30-something woman in front of the Alaskana section sprang to the defense of the village. “I’m going down there to pump out my boat. You can ride with me.” Hey, thanks.
She introduced herself as Terri Lyons. “Holy cow,” I said, “I bought a sculpture of yours yesterday at Ptarmigan Arts.” It’s four pieces of wood funkily deployed as “Pink Salmon on Rye.” She confessed to having concocted a companion piece, “Halibut on Whole Wheat.”
Just as Terri was about to ferry me to Land’s End, who should phone “The Bookstore” but Tom the B himself. Seems his latest, The Big Garage on Clear Shot, had come in early to the Pratt. Had she ordered?
“Don’t hang up,” I hollered. I perpetrated my interview right there, on Bodett’s nickel. Heh, I’m a “Waste not, want not” Philadelphian. (Actually, phone calls are still only ten cents in Homer, slim compensation for $3.50 beers and $3.25 Tropicana quarts.)
As I was disappointing myself with a very mediocre Cioppino at Land’s End, a bevy of superannuators started to gather in the restaurant—for what turned out to be the quarterly bash of the Kenai Peninsula Retired Teachers Association.
Their leaders enjoined me to sit in—an illuminating pitch from two members of the Nature Conservancy on how to keep the Indians from giving clear-cut rights to the lovely stand of evergreens across the bay. And her husband even took me to the airport, where I killed time with KPRTA-ster Letitia Carter, who was waiting for her Cessna to be gassed so she could fly off.
Homer, Alaska, may be at the end of the road, but it’s the beginning of untold interesting serendipities. Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 17, 1992
Wow! Who does this Hall think he is? nixing Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson in one fell stroke. Now if his new book explains the corruption of American Exceptionalism, I wanna read it! Talk about "talking turkey"!
It was 25 years ago that I ran into my first anti-craftsperson, and I’ve been terminally puzzled ever since. I was the new kid on the block as director of the Institute of American Studies at the East West Center in Honolulu, and I was shaking hands in all the adjacent departments. The chairman of Art wanted me to be sure to meet the new ceramicist in the department, a prestigious find they had just lured over from the Mainland.
Well, my God, this friendly guy, who obviously was capable of great feats of clay, showed me around his current cache of pots. Gorgeous, except they had all been smashed, twisted, tweaked off—so as to destroy their obvious original function. Pottiness. Anti-pots. Why, I mused, a born lover of beautified clay, why oh why muck them up? “I’m not interested in functional crafts,” he replied, “I want my stuff to be art.” Holy Toledo. Ugly up the beautiful and you get art? It struck me as demented, even perverse, then; and it continues to strike me as dumb today. In a world where quotidian ugliness escalates around us, such an esthetic is not only dumb but dangerous. I know this is heterodox, but so be it.
We are confusing ourselves with what I dub the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome. Craft doesn’t give enough respect, so strive to become an “artist.” Phooey. I was talking to the legendary furniture maker George Nakashima the other day about these silly status panics and he said that when he decided to go full time into furniture back in 1941, the Chicago Tribune editorialized condescendingly that he was “demeaning” himself to go from the nobler art of architecture (he practiced in Japan and India after graduating from the University of Washington in architecture) to the “mere” craft of woodworking. Imagine. The luminous shaping of woods he has practiced to the delight of the world for almost fifty years “demeaning”!
These dark thoughts moiled through my head as I killed time last month at the San Francisco International Airport waiting for Eastern’s “Moonlight Special” to fly me cheaply to Newark so I could attend the opening of the dazzling new American Craft Museum which is now snuggled ever so grandly into the first four floors of a CBS / Gerald Hines Interests high rise on the spot where the old crafts center used to be.
The Airport Commission in San Francisco had an idea almost as bright as the ACM’s condofying itself with a nice $750,000 nest egg from the developers—namely, use those dead spaces that take the airplane traveler from the ticket counter to the departure lounge as a museum. Showing while I killed time creatively was a monumental and truly illuminating essay on the chair as art and artifact. You never had so damn much fun waiting for an airplane in your life. Making a memorable chair, after all, is the great rite of passage for the American designer / craftsman / architect. All the biggies were there: the sweetly bentwood of the Thonet Brothers began the parade joined by Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia, Esherick, the whole beguiling canon of Great Chairs. Except that the proof of judging is in the sitting. And a great many “classic” modern chairs are patently unsittable. It gives me a lower back pain just to look at the Dutch Constructivist Rietveld’s “sitters” (my etymological conscience won’t permit me to use the term “chair” in his case).
And there’s that Wrighteous man called Frank Lloyd. If ever an architect designed unsittables, it was he. And he knew it! Captioning two of his unseatable sculptures for getting an instant pain in the ass: “My early approach to the chair was something between contempt and desperation.” Wrong, Wright! You were succumbing to the hubris of the twentieth century crafties hungering to be ARTISTS; you were subordinating somebody’s posterior to your analytics.
I’m not going to mention where this subversive shame over the allegedly lower prestige of crafts led: Phillip Garner’s “Tee Vee Chair” (1986) in which the picture tube has been scrapped to allow for a mini-settee of a sort inside the old front room furniture of an abandoned first generation television set. He, ho, ho. Make mine, SONY, baby, and leave this ironic trash to the dust bins of heavy handed over-expensive humor. Objects re-trouves.
Nor will I rue Frank Gehry’s quirky decision to abandon his successful line of corrugated cardboard furniture. (It cost $7.50 to make his basic armless which sold for $37, according to the splendid exhibition of his work now at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.) I mean, Frank, us peasants could actually afford to buy your stuff. Why did you abandon us for the megashills like Robert Venturi whose pseudo-Chippendales cost thousands of bucks for those foolish enough to buy them. (I’m happy to report that the Denver Art Museum’s sedentary plebiscite a year ago gave the Thonets more votes than our New Techies: their minishow in the foyer arranged a selection of the most famous—and a few infamous—modern chairs and asked visitors to vote with their rear ends. That’s my kind of participatory assthetics.)
These were the nightmarish dreams I had during the Moonlight Special. (Eastern dumps you as unceremoniously as possible in Houston at 2:30 a.m. CST and turns you loose to find the pier for Newark plane leaving at 4:00 a.m.) Thank God the Airbus 300 seats were not designed by some upwardly mobile assthete.
I was a wreck when I got to New York City, but the elegant peekaboo façade of Bruce Fowle of Fox and Fowle Artchitects restored my spirit. (The name sounds like something Monty Python might think up for an anti-vivisectionist skit, but his achievement there is world class, name or no.) The maniac Manhattan walkerby is very hard to tempt off any sidewalk but Fowle has taken great panes to see that they do drop in.
Paul Smith’s theme for the inaugural is “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” a title very endearing to a type like me that taught metaphysical poetry for thirty years. It’s simply splendid the ways the floors flow—your eye drags you on, beguiled by what its retina is picking up in the next room or level. Simply scrumptious. You could drool about there just on the architectural nutritiousness of it all. But of course it is also filled with wonders.
Philadelphia-born Albert Paley is one of the art-making wonders of this skuzzy continent. I first went Paley at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, where the magical mystery turns of his forged steel joins the old Beaux Arts manse of the older Hunter with its new internationally stylish addition. What a jointure. Perhaps the best in the country—something old linked to something new by the bluesiness of his borrowings. He turns cold steel into warmly spiritual swirls. Oh, how I love his craftinesses.
And, sure enough, as I prowled, looking for yet another Paley fix, he’s there—a lectern, whose sinuous underpinnings support horizontal brass and copper bands to hold the reading material. I swear you could not give a boring lecture from such a lectern. (And there’s an equally luminous Paley in Darrel Sewall’s lovely swatch of acquisitions that garnished the 10th running of the Philadelphia Craft Show, in this instance a plant stand, whose glory only the most elegant of flora could stand the competition of. But that is getting ahead of my craft spiel.)
Smith divides the show into four sections: The Object as Statement (here’s where those who despise their earthy crafts strive most idiosyncratically to soar off into the empyrean sky of ART); The Object for Personal Adornament (in the old days we called these things clothes and jewelry, but what the hell!); The Object as Vessel (sometimes they hold things, and sometimes they don’t—even want to, cf. category one above); and, ahem, last and most definitely least in the hearts of the Arties, The Object Made for Use (which we used to call, remember? CRAFTS).
The publicity photos in this last category picture a table desk (Garry Knox Bennett, 1985), a steak knive set (Philip Baldwin II, 1985-86), and “Fireplace Site I” (1985) by Philadelphia’s Paula Winokur. And while I relish the skill with which she etherealizes ceramic materials, if I were a log, I would rather watch than visit her and—(if or but) irons. It’s pushing it to say her “site” is for burning. It’s for looking and loving. And that’s crafty enough. I love to look at lovely things. Isn’t that a function? Satisfying my thirst for beauty?
That’s the false dysjunction that corrupts so much of our palaver about art vs. craft. I’m reminded of one of Marshall McLuhan’s favorite aphoristic allusions. When you ask the Balinese what their “best” art form is, they answer “We don’t have any art forms; we just do everything we do as well as we can.” Precisely.
Now I pride myself on being a no-nonsense type of person, and I find perhaps half of the sacred totems in the New York show pretentious piffle. But I also believe in Herb Gans’ pluralist esthetics (live and let others love in their own diverse ways.) And I would defend to the Voltairean death their right to be quirky in their own ways, whilst all the while reserving the right to insist that we need well-made objects for everyman’s use (the original ideal of the Weimar Bauhaus before they sold out to Fortune 500’s after their own painful diaspora).
And you never know when a “useless” object will touch you powerfully. After scrutinizing the cutlery carefully (it’s difficult and dumb to make knives that don’t cut; but it is also exhilarating to see knives that dazzle the mind’s eye while nestling powerfully in your cutting hand), I wandered around ready to be dazzled. Oh what a dazzle there! Leonore Tawney’s “Indivisible Point,” a delightfully vertical cascade of red threads more dense (but asymmetrically so) in the center, where a gentle knottiness describes a low horizontal arc slightly below the center. Useful? Ah, are butterflies useful? Is an Elm Tree crafty? Are the islands off Matsushima artfully deployed?
Next functionless question. Ms. Tawney’s marvel is deployed in the catalog ($29.95 paper). Museum Hours at 40 W. 53rd (The F Train / Museum of Modern Art / Fifth Avenue stop is your best shot from Penn Station / Amtrak) are Tuesdays, 10-8, Wednesday through Sunday, 10-5, closed Mondays and National Holidays. On the wall near the Object Made for Use is the comment that this section represents “the growing interest in making unique items for specific functions.” Aha! Rediscovering the wheel of craftiness. Coming full circle so to speak.
And speaking of circle, there were connections between the New York inaugural and the Philadelphia annual. Take Donna Look who won the $250 check that goes with being praised by her peers, the Craftsman’s Award. Up in the wilds of Algoma, Wisconsin, where the breathing is easy and the birches are plentiful, she and a high school chum from the equally famous Wisconsin hamlet of Mequon (Class of 1966) have been splitting a studio in the woods. (Her partner is a goldsmith.) Donna makes baskets (functioning ones) of birch bark. They are astonishingly lovely. She’s self-taught. Been at it five years, and while she experiments with other natural fibers and materials she is not about to abandon her successful birch roll.
She does three shows a year and drove her treasures down from the woods in her 75 Ford Econoline van. And happy as a clam. She should be. Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanaki reports that the lucky displayers who pass the jury’s screening can make as much as $25,000 in sales over the weekend. The 24,000 admission-paying browsers have pushed the Women’s Committee net for Philadelphia Museum of Art to over a million dollars during the past ten years. And the mini-expo of acquisitions at the Armory showed it. Lovely.
So why can’t I just enjoy and stop carping? Because crafts at the Armory were obviously the preserve of the Mainline and Yuppiedom. That’s great as far as it goes, but for a Walt Whitman / Louis Sullivan visionary like myself that’s not nearly enough. Come with me to Stockholm so I can show you a larger, sounder vision. There in the basement atelier of Sigurd Persson last year I found this renaissance Swede working on the mechanical drawings for a mass produceable dust sweeper. Bright red plastic (he mailed me one several months after it had gone into production), it’s so ingenious I love to use it: it may indeed make an honest housekeeper of me it’s such a marvel of design.
Now I didn’t go to his studio to see a sweeper. I went there because at the 900 anniversary celebration of Helsingborg (the ferry port for Denmark, where Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle graces their harbor) there was a luminous expo of his glass, silver, clay, as well as mass-produced designs. His maiden sisters run a gallery of his glories in the center of town, and they blessed me with books which are in effect mini-retrospectives of his achievements in these diverse media.
In his studio he wanted most to talk about his abstract sculptures. They’re fine too. But my point is that the Scandinavians have never succumbed to the schizoid splits our crafts traditions have becomes heirs to. His royalties from mass production subsidize his expensive crafts and his virtually unsellable sculptures. When I went later to the new Swedish Design Centre in downtown Stockholm, they had the same message: they seek a sensible symbiosis between the highest quality arts and crafts and their mass production industries. We have abandoned the masses to the kitsch floggers. Not in Scandinavia. They feel a sense of responsibility to the total built environment.
To them, no person is a consumer of himself entire, but a part of the Mainstream. Do not ask for whom the Scandinavian designer toils (his American counterpart toils mainly for the rich), he toils for thee. And their countries are better for it, visually and sociologically. How did Motel T America, the bastion of quality for all, become the fiefdom of special servants for the well-to-do? Answer that troubling question, and you’ll know why America is mostly a visual disaster with tiny oases for the privileged. Reprinted from Art Matters, Vol. 6, No. 4, Dec/Jan 1986/1987
Dear Der Spiegel: Thanks for your thoughtful cover story on the American Dream. As a retired university professor of American Literature, I used to tell my students that Am Lit was the greatest “unread” literature in human history, and that a people who didn’t read their great writers would eventually lose their minds.
Three generations of infantilizing television have done the trick, as my former English professor colleague Neil Postman predicted in his prescient book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Alas, that is our current predicament. Instead of the wisdom of our great writers like Whitman, Twain, and Melville, our lazy sandboxed masses listen daily to media morons like Rush Limbaugh whose shtick the last time I tuned him in was repeatedly referring to our President as Imam Obama. For such trash, Newsweek just reported that he made $53 million last year as well as that magazine’s cover story on American “leadership”.
I came to Weimar ten years ago to research the idealism of Walter Gropius. In graduate school I was taken by Nicholas Pevsner’s observation that Pius wanted to create a school where art and technology could fuse “to bring good design to the working classes”. Alas, that still pertinent ideal was scotched by the Cleveland parvenu Philip C. Johnson, who talked MOMA/New York into underwriting his obsession that only Art, capital A, not the client’s needs and desires, mattered in Architecture. Luckily for US, the brand new MOMA leadership with Barry Bergdoll has changed their tune to “humanitarian architecture”. (See my blog www.MyGobal Eye.blogspot.com.)As a homeless working class boy in Depression Detroit( I worked the auto factories to finance my doctorate) that Bauhaus ideal was irresistible. When Weimar became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999, I came to visit—and stayed!
America’s “Exceptionally” sad story begins with the seventeenth century Puritan hubris that we were an Exceptional People God blessed to lead the world. Eventually this self-bestowed arrogance was deployed to cover up our two Original Sins -- Indian genocide and black slavery. Indeed we have become a schizoid nation, alternating between bold initiatives like the Peace Corps and perennial outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence. The current Tea Party frenzies led by that zero from Alaska is the latest manifestation. There, sad to say, will be more and more such outbreaks if America never grows up.
Look at the math. Top executives outearned workers 30 to one in the 1970’s. Now it’s a scandalous 300 to one ratio. Ronald Reagan that glib B actor unleashed the madness when he proclaimed a return to an era where Americans could be rich, breaking the air controllers union as his first maneuver. He urged overpaid execs to kill the other unions that had made a growing middle class possible by outsourcing, first to Mexico, then to Asia. And he jettisoned regulations that led Wall Street to concoct hateful “derivatives” with which finagling financiers could even make a bundle betting on bad investments. And Wall Street’s response was outrageous bonuses after Obama bailed them out.
Ike warned Us about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his final address to the nation. But we ignored his warning as every congressional district maneuvered by gerrymandering their cut of the expenses of war. Nixon cynically rejected the draft because he (correctly) predicted the anti-Vietnam students would stop bellyaching if they didn’t have to join an all volunteer army. So America built a two class army, working class soldiers and elite commanders.
While every congressional district got their cut of the boodling war budget (Cheney cannily made it possible for his Halliburton and their Blackwater to steal freely as mercenaries beyond the law) and his lapdog “superior” landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare so very prematurely” Mission Accomplished”, wrapped in the flier gear he went AWOL in during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile our infrastructures deteriorate at an increasing rate! Our schools are jokes. And our rhetoric unbelievable.
One final note: “The American Dream” as a national motto dates only from our 1930’s Depression, a facile whistling in the dark slogan, trumped only by ad exec Fairfax Cone’s silly bleat about the 1957 recession: “Don’t worry: America is still the All Time Hit on America’s Hit Parade”. It was the headline the night I got my Ph.D. Whew! They had me worried.
Meanwhile, back in my 1784 villa, upgraded in 1999, Seifengasse 10, Weimar (Goethe lived a #1 and his rich, untouchable girlfriend Charlotte von Stein at #25, where she covered for the secretive Duchess Anna Amalia), I flinch at the way Germans seem to spell Goethe God! (I’m a Schiller man, ever since I learned how Goethe exploited his working class lover, Ms. Vulpius, marrying her after twenty years, only to de-bastardize his son.) And I thrill at the way the general public here are fighting to keep Hellmut Seemann, a superb administrator, head of the Weimar Classic Foundation, against the machinations of an uppity legislator. Now there’s healthy politics. Oh, and I just sold my Louie Kahn house in Philadelphia. I’m here to stay, Johann!
PARIS: The Grand Palais welcomed record crowds this summer to the exhibition (at New York’s Met through Jan. 6) memorializing the death of Georges Seurat. It was a puzzle. First of all, the Three Biggy paintings—the London National Gallery “Asniere,” the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Grand Jatte,” as well as our own Barnes’ “Poseuses”—were all conspicuously absent, all the more so because they were “represented” by life-size black-and-white reproductions. It was like celebrating Noel with neither Jesus, Mary nor Joseph.
Each institution had a different reason for no-showing: fragility (London), high insurance (Chicago), and irredentism (Merion). Maybe it’s just another sign that humongous retrospectives are on the way out, victims of their own excess.
As I was ogling the “Poseuses,” my onomastic mind started revving over the etymology of the title. Was it literally “posing,” or was it better titled “The Models?” A lean, elegantly-dressed Frenchman was sharing the frame with me, and I turned to him with a query about the meaning of the word in French.
The issue so intrigued him that he turned to a very short but equally smooth-looking Frog friend to pool their linguistic resources. It remained a moot question, but before you could say Philly, I was giving Jeff and Mutt a take on Dr. Barnes, the fortune derived from a cold medicine, and the blue-collar hassles the ex-Kensington self-made millionaire got himself into with a still-too-tight Main Line.
Jeff turned to Mutt: “You remember that black stuff we used to have to take as children? Barnes made his fortune on our poor health!” Jeff, it turns out, was the recently retired French ambassador to West Germany, and Mutt the same to Ireland. They were obviously in a state of high bumptiousness—enjoying a second adolescence, even—from their recent defection from the Quai D’Orsay.
And Barnes’ placing the control of the foundation in the hands of black Lincoln University (which, although unknown to my French friends, had graduated students like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, whom they had dealt with personally in their diplomatic lives) further intrigued them. It almost compensated for the gaps in their pleasure at the Seurat centennial.
But not me. It started me thinking. I well remember as a high point in my introduction to art the heady concept of “retinal mixture”—those light dibs and dabs of color getting together, not on the canvas proper, but on the back of the perceiver’s eye.
To this day, like Pavlov’s dog, I shift closer and farther in front of a pointilliste canvas, seeking the magic distance at which the glory is triggered. I must say, I begin to believe I’ve been a victim of ocular brainwashing.
It surprised me to learn that Seurat died at 31, wiped out by diphtheria. No wonder he had such a small oeuvre and interesting really only because of his optical schtick. At the Grand Palais, the only pleasure I really got (apart from schmoozing those D’Orsays) was perceiving the intricate class commentaries implicit in many of his paintings.
The circus audiences are the most obvious ones. They’re stratified by class—richest closest, poorest farthest away from the action, to infer from clothing and posture. But that’s not much of a visual pleasure.
And I was soon entertaining darker thoughts. I was thinking that “retinal mixture” was a load of crap. And that Modernism from first to last has been poisoned by what I can only dub pseudo-empiricism. From Monet to Pollock, the word “experimentalism” is the sacred mantra that forestalls all objections or lack of convictions.
Art, beleaguered by the rise of science and industry, has tried to shelter itself under the ideological umbrella of innovation and experiment. The trouble with this false analogy is that artistic “experiments” never seem to fail. Whatever odd turn an artist comes up with, it’s a priori significant, exacting a claim on our serious attention.
Phooey. Only a piddling handful of scientific experiments “succeed”—subject, alas, to the cruel discipline of replication.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 24, 1991
“Cosby” details the life of television’s most popular star
Ronald L. Smith’s Cosby (St. Martin’s, $12.95) looks like your typical show biz fluff from its cover, but I picked it out of the new book rack anyway, eager to appease my Cosmania with a quick riffle. Wonder of wonders, it’s so solid a job I slowed down to savor, and ended up reading every last word.
For a start, it’s really instructive recent cultural history, placing Bill Cosby solidly against the shifting kaleidoscope of pop humor since the war. Smith is especially deft at revealing how Cosby stuck to his last through all the ebbs and flows of entertainment fads. He is also very helpful in describing how the comedian dealt (and still deals) with his “no win” posture of never pleasing either black ideologues or white media eager to cash in on a pseudo-controversy.
Favorite Writer Like black playwright Charles Fuller who cites Herman Melville as his favorite American writer, Cosby claims he’s learned his craft mostly from Mark Twain. With the two strikes of an abusive drunken father and a Philly ghetto environment against him, Cosby can’t praise his fourteen-hour-a-day, clean-somebody-else’s-house mother enough for reading Twain to him.
Young Bill was also lucky to have Miss Forchic as a teacher at Fitzsimmon’s Elementary School. Her advice to teachers in the NEA Journal (when she got an award in 1972 from the American Association of School Administrators) has the seeds of the benign family style that has made Cosby the most familiar and likable TV star in twenty years of TVQ’s ratings: “Talk less. Speak quietly. Listen to the children . . . never belittle anything the child says or embarrass him in front of his peers. Instead, help each student to shine in his group.”
You can also see the comedian’s reactive humanism emerging out of the institutional racism of Fitzsimmon’s—the Bing Crosbyish putdown of Mahalia Jackson at a Christmas program, the shame Cosby felt at the nonstandard English accent of his grandparents.
“Gifted” We see Cosby dropping out of prestigious Central High, “where ‘gifted’ meant cliques of smug, self-assured, and disdainful kids.” Germantown High he found more comfortable, but when he flunked the tenth grade there, he dropped out. His “school” was radio, where “Suspense,” “Inner Sanctum,” and “Lights Out” opened the wonders of storytelling to him, and where imitating Jerry Lewis and Senator Claghorn gave him his first experience with trying on personas.
Then there was early TV, watching Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner performing on “Your Show of Shows,” with teenage Cosby dreaming of being Caesar’s second banana. The “friendly” comics of fifties TV (Benny, Gobel, Burns, and Sam Levenson) were also a turn-on and a training ground.
Cobbling After dropping out of Germantown High, he tried cobbling. But leather soles were not the stitches he wanted to leave people in. Bored by a series of menial jobs, he joined the navy, as a stateside corpsman. Cosby was outraged at the chintziness of keeping the flag after it had ceremonialized a burial at sea. So he clamped a cadaver’s hands onto the flag. Rigor Mortis did the rest.
“He wants to go with his flag, he loves it. . . .” Cosby explained to his shipmates, horrified at the sight of the Stars and Stripes sliding into the sea along with the corpse. He was already working out routines.
Soon he was running track for the navy. There’s one tasty story of how he was forced to go to the back door of a diner in South Carolina where the black help compensated with a hero sandwich that had all the “unexploited” white teammates begging Cosby to let them go to the back door at the next segregated stop.
Cover room At Temple University he scrounged for dough to cover his room and board, including tending bar at The Cellar. There he tried out jokes he had written down from TV and the new comedy records. The night club was so tiny, he had to get up on a table to be heard, but the ceiling was so low he had to do his gig sitting down—a sitting-down stand-up comic.
Especially interesting is the section on how he broke into the Greenwich Village night club scene, and the professional way he and agent Roy Silver went over tapes of routines and hours and hours each performance, trying to see what worked and what didn’t.
A turning point was his marriage to Camille Hanks in 1964. Their honeymoon was a transcontinental series of nightclub dates. As corny as it may sound to the jaded sexual pioneers of his era, Cosby had chosen the monogamous straight and narrow, preferring, for example, when he globe-hopped for the “I Spy” TV series to travel with his wife, mother, and first child—to consoling himself with the ever-so-available groupies.
“Man and Boy” And he didn’t hesitate to take on Hollywood’s economic mores either—when he decided to finance the film “Man and Boy” about a black family’s frustrated efforts to homestead in the West.
Cynics said there was no market for such a picture but Cosby can be one stubborn fool when his values are at stake.
When controversy arose, for example, over whether it was prudent to tell children in his Fat Albert series that tonsillectomies don’t hurt much and that tons of ice cream for recuperating patients were no mean compensation for the pain anyway, Cosby characteristically didn’t wing it.
The show’s producers contacted the assistant dean at UCLA, Gordon L. Berry, and put the question to him. He in turn put the question before a panel of teachers and professors for approval. The panel could not reach a decision because one of their members, a professor in the UCLA psychiatry department, was out of town, and his view point was vital. Production waited while a pediatrician was consulted. The pediatrician pointed out that not every kid can eat ice cream anyway, because some kids are allergic to it. The question was tossed back to Dr. Berry’s CBS-and-Cosby-approved panel of anthropologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and specialists in children’s education. (p. 128)
We’re so used to this kind of group dumbing-down of scripts by TV bottom-line watchers that Cosby’s respect for children almost sounds like a parody of the “real” thing.
But the networks remain the slowest learners on God’s green earth. The were uneasy about his proposal for a series based on “warm, gentle humor.” They found the name Huxtable “uppity” and recommended (unsuccessfully, of course) that they change Heathcliff’s last name to Brown!
Cosby told his writers: “I don’t want jokes about behinds or breasts or pimples or characters saying “Oh my God” every other line. What we want to deal with is human behavior.”
I attended the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference in Lagos in 1968 to persuade the ministers to make a TV film like “Nigeria: Culture in Transition” for each of their regional English literatures. Such a library would make a solid foundation for a globally involved International English curriculum. Alas, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate to be, who MC-ed that film and who I wanted to appear at the screening at the American Embassy, had just been incarcerated for taking the Biafran side of their Civil War. (I had met him at the First International African Arts Festival in Dakar in 1966).
And I had been using this film as well his own work as I began to internationalize my traditional Am Lit course. I had also discussed my plans with Chinua Achebe whose novel “Things Fall Apart” had been the most successful work in my expansion plans for International English literature. He was a Biafran who fled to America because of the Civil War, the first in Africa since they decolonialized. Now, as Nigeria celebrates its 50th anniversary of freedom, I learn that the war started because oil rich Biafra wanted to be free. That continuing fracas around Port Harcourt still enfeebles the largest nation in Africa.
There was a decent audience at the Embassy Aud for the screening. But as I wrapped up the meeting, I saw a cluster of people at the exit. I inquired who they were, and the Embassy rep said they were all critical of the showing! I was soon to see why! A reporter from the Lagos daily offered to drive me back to the Federal Palace Hotel. He didn’t say his vehicle was a motor bike, and that machine plus Lagos traffic makes my hands still sweat every time I see a showoff performing solo.
What a surprise awaited me at the hotel. Three CID (that stood I soon learned for Criminal Investigation Division) detectives followed me upstairs to my room. The first thing they did was turn on my Uher tape recorder: they suspiciously asked why the tape played Major General Gowon, the head of state! “It’s the speech he gave to open the conference!” I explained, dumbstruck.
They riffled around the many papers I had collected, and wanted suspiciously to know what the ten rolls of film contained. “Conference events. And Lagos shots. For the film I am planning.” In short, they confiscated the recorder and camera, as well as the tapes and films. Then they said I had to talk with their lieutenant and led me to their cruiser.
It was dark by then, and there were no car lights nor street lights, because of the war. I suddenly remembered the BBC-TV stringer who offered to buy my gear the day before. I began to speculate that they were out to swipe the gear. I was never so happy to be taken into a police station! The lieutenant was bright enough to see I was only a professor from London where I taught that year. But he took my gear and tapes. The next day, the Canadian ambassador shamed them into returning my gear, but it was six months before I got the tapes and films back in London, developed.
Dr. Springer, the conference exec, explained the Paranoia: He had told me I could go anywhere at the conference—as long as I didn’t get in the way. When they announced an airplane trip to Kano, the Muslim quarter in the North, I signed up. At flight time, there was one seat free. So I went. A few minutes after we flew off, the Ghana education minister arrived, pissed that he had been bumped by an American! That eventually morphed into the charge that I was a CIA plant! Imagine! The CIA conceivedly might have been spooking me. Never vice versa.
But what I have now belatedly learned is that humanitarian aid has been co-opted by the warriors, beginning with Biafra: Philip Gourevitch spells it all in the New Yorker (November 5,2010) in ”Alms Dealers: The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Aid” , a splendid review of Linda Polman’s new book,The Crisis Caravan (Metropolitan Books, 2010). She mocks the proliferation of NGO’s as MONGO’s (My own nongovernmental Organization!) Basically it is a call to NGO’s to accept critical scrutiny. It’s not enough that they’re idealistic or pretending to be. She insists on asking questions to which they have no acceptable answers. How is it, for example, that there have been 10,000 NGO’s in Haiti in the past 50 years and the people are poorer and poorer.
Polman starts with the London tab, The Sun, which ran photos of starved Biafran children, “withered little wraiths”. It awakened the same Americans who were complaining to LBJ about the Vietnam War. It was the first war covered by TV. LBJ pleaded vis-a-vis Biafra: ”Get those nigger babies off my TV set.”
And yet aid to Biafra was miniscule: total expenditures was less than three days cost of taking lives in Vietnam, or 20 minutes of the cost of the Apollo 11 flight. Still the UK, with an eye on Biafran oil supported the blockade by sea. And Nigeria insisted “Starvation is a legitimate weapon, and we have every intention of using it.” Night flights were used, the greatest short of the Berlin Airlift. The most enduring legacy was the human rights watch.
By the time Sierra Leone was embroiled in a civil war, hand amputations became the crime of the day because it triggered the most sympathy. When we “started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us.”Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow aid. An evil new system. And war lords started “taxing” NGO’s. Liberia’s Charles Taylor was satisfied with 15%. Ethiopia and Somali went as high as 80%! Christian NGO’s saved Sudan slaves only to discover that raised their value on the slave market.
Linda Polman's book describes the founding of the Red Cross. Henri Dunant observed the Battle of Solferino on 6/24/1859. 300,000 were killed that day. He returned to Geneva to found Red Cross. Frances Nightingale took a different lesson from her involvement in the Crimean war. To reduce the cost of wars to her seemed to make them more attractive. So our efforts to be more sensibly humanitarian remain a major global responsibility. It’s going to be harder than modernizing a curriculum. But those humanities must include self criticism for the idealistic. Together, we better become responsible international citizens.
The brouhaha (and it is laughable) over post-Modernism obscures a more salient condition of our cultural malaise. For most of the twentieth century avant-garde Modernism (if it’s new, it’s got to be good) has eclipsed mature critical discourse. Oddly, the Jesse Helms demagoguery over Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano has forced the art community to think freshly about the role of art in human communities.
In “Art For Whose Sake?” theatre critic Robert Collins writes: “In 1990, the war over government funding of the arts will be fought in earnest, and the outcome is by no means certain. One thing does seem likely, though. The relationship between public money and art has already changed irrevocably. Artists, art institutions, and funders are asking themselves questions they wouldn’t have dreamed of asking just nine months ago. Suddenly, people have become much more careful about whom they might offend with their art. In this sense, Sen. Helms and his allies have already carried the day.” (Twin Cities Reader, January 3-9, 1990, p. 9.)
What Collins doesn’t make explicit at all is that the crisis only really affects artists who have been following the Modernist ultra-experimentalist line. What we might call for the sake of argument the anti-Modernists (cowboy art, duck stamp art, wildlife art, aeronautical art, indeed all those despised genres which had the temerity to cherish readily recognizable images that a minority of a tax-paying public chose to create in) are not affected at all by this crisis in public funding.
And though these “outsider” artists are a minority of creators (since the M.F.A. establishment went uncritically Modernist shortly after the McCarthy crisis rendered abstraction less contentious than figuration), their putative audiences form an overwhelming majority of the viewers of Art. That is the message behind Richard Serra’s “Tilted Art” having been tilted right off of Foley Plaza to a has-bin in Brooklyn. And it is the same tax-paying majority whose penchant for the recognizable has been mocked by the Modernist establishment which ultimately gives Jesse Helms his clout. He who pays the piper finally calls the tune. No aesthetic taxation without commensurate representation.
And Collins sees this with a clarity rare among Modernists: “To accept funding from a government agency means giving up a portion of your autonomy. To think otherwise is foolishly naïve. Artists are always free to do as they choose, but they can’t expect public money to support their every whim. Presumably, the federal government is in the business of funding art because art somehow serves the public good. Government support of education, for example, is based on the same principle.
An educated electorate being necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy, we readily funnel money into our schools.” Ah, there’s a major rub. For money has never been funneled equitably into the lower schools—the better-off suburbs got more and more, the desperate inner cities got less and less, with entirely predictably results, a callous two-tiering of opportunity, esthetic and otherwise. It is these intellectual deficits that antedate (but were immeasurably deepened by) the Reagan Administration that serious people, artists as well as appreciators, must begin to address.
Collins’ citing the analogy of the financing of mass education inadvertently pinpoints the heart of the problem. NEA funding is by and large Bandaids for the failures of art education in our common schools. In Canada and Europe where, paradoxically, education is in fact more egalitarian than in ours, arts, patronage is much more vigorous at both the personal and public funding levels. And here is where we must ruthlessly expose the role of Modernism in exacerbating the arts crisis.
For Modernism, in my judgment, is a cluster of assumption that bitter twentieth century experience has exposed as fallacious: That unceasing experimentation is a good per se (this is actually a false analogy with scientific empiricism where failed experiments are, to use the philosopher’s jargon, publicly verifiable: no art experiment is ever judged a failure, a latitudinarian posture that has given cranks and mountebanks free rein); that the more avant the innovation, the deeper the esthetic experience—a fallacy that has driven each generation of art students to perpetrate shticks that are uniquely marketable to them—so Sherrie Levine manhandles classic photographs, Cindy Sherman trots out yet another context for her narcissism, and Jenny Holzer achieves aphoraphobia (fear of aphorisms) by the increasing vacuity of her L.E.D. one-phrasers.
Realists of the country, unite: you have nothing to lose but the sneers of an exhausted Modernism.
Philly’s Puerto Ricans (125,000 of them live just North of Center City) don’t have a hell of a lot to shout about. Daily News reporter Juan Gonzales noted in September that Hispanics in general—and PRs in particular—are falling more and more behind in the two-tiering of America that has accelerated during the Reagan Recovery.
He reported that 42 percent of PR families in this country are below poverty level, “and 48 percent of PR families (probably many of the same ones) are headed by a single parent . . . Most troubling is that the trend is getting worse, not better . . . and a wide gap is developing between PRs and other Hispanics . . . For instance, in 1959, PR median family income was 73 percent of all U.S. families. In 1984, it was 46 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures . . . Both poverty level and the percentage of single parent families is much lower among other Hispanics.”
Gonzales speculated about these intra-Hispanic disparities and wondered if U.S. colonialism is one factor. My understanding of analogous problems in Liberia and the Philippines makes me think yes. But the crisis cries out for action, not philosophizing.
At the very least, the Hispanic community can be grateful to have so eloquent a rep as Gonzales on the city’s People Paper. And Puerto Ricans can walk proudly as well through the main hall of the Free Library on Logan Square and the very inspiring and informative exhibition there called “A Salute to the Puerto Rican Community.”
I’ve only been to Puerto Rico once—for a Third World Writers’ Conference in San Juan in 1982—but my eyes still resonate from the natural beauty of the place, and my heart warms as well remembering the friendly openness of the people putting on the conference.
But I saw there what I had already seen in 1977 in Cuba: an infrastructure geared to tourists with big bucks and a hunger for instant pleasure. (In Cuba, the old hotels were rotting away, but the floor show at the Copacabana differed from flesh flashing at our own watering holes only in being somewhat more modest and stuffily politicized in story line.) And the despicable odor of exploitation hung as heavily on the streets of San Juan as it did in Havana.
But the Free Library, of course, is right in accentuating the positive. I knew from TV ads this summer that Rita Moreno was a PR, but I had missed the fact that Jose Ferrer was as well. And there is a fascinating historical hypothesis on why so many PRs have excelled in baseball—recent archeology has unearthed courts for the Taino Indian soccer-like game, Batu, in which only head, hip, shoulder or knee could keep the ball going toward the enemies’ goal.
And I mean enemy. I chatted up Domingo Negron, the graphic artist at Gran Enterprises, whose Taino petroglyph-inspired banners grace the upper perimeter of the Free Library exhibition. He told me that in pre-Columbian times the losers could be enslaved or sacrificed. Talk about sore losers!
Another graphic highlight of the show is the cluster of masks by Noe Lugo, the man who also designed the mural now under construction at the Taller Puertorriqueno at Fifth and Lehigh, a work of the Anti-Graffiti Network supervised by Jane Gordon. (The network has gotten such a wave of bad press, you owe it to yourself to drive by and see TAGN at its best.)
That irreducible idealist, Thomas Eakins, would be delighted to learn that his house in Spring Garden had become a cultural center. But there is political history as well as art to learn. It surprised me that there are an estimated two million PRs in the continental U.S., when the total island population is only 3.2 million.
Visiting the universities in Puerto Rico prepared me to believe that the illiteracy rate is only eight percent and that an impressive 140,000 are attending higher education—seeking ways out of the poverty that has enfeebled their communities since the Depression. Twenty-two percent remain unemployed; 44 percent of youth 16 to 24 are out of work. And although the inhabitants of the island commonwealth were awarded U.S. citizenship as early as 1917, it wasn’t until 1948 that they were allowed to elect their own governor, Luis Munoz Marin.
Your appetite whetted at the Free Library, pay a visit to the Taller at Fifth and Lehigh, and talk to cultural coordinator Luis Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in communications at Temple, who’s also a featured columnist (“En la brega cultural”—on the cultural struggle) for Community Focus, the 40,000 circulation weekly “serving the Hispanic community of the Metropolitan area.”
“We just got distribution in Camden,” the quietly enthusiastic organizer boasted. “Communication is a problem for us. We want the entire community, not just Puerto Ricans, to feel welcome here. We’re proud of our heritage and are eager to share it. But except for the alternative weeklies like the City Paper or Welcomat, we can’t get any notice at all.
“And when Channel 6 came out here to tape coverage of our Frank Espada photography exhibition, they concentrated on Councilman Angel Ortiz—and didn’t even mention where these photos could be seen! Very frustrating.”
Hernandez is a very knowledgeable guide to the ambiguities of communications—he is finishing his own doctoral dissertation at the moment on the genesis of consumer culture in his native island (he comes from the small spa town of Aguas Buenas) from 1898-1954. “From when the Americans first came to when television arrived,” he adds wryly.
This year’s major attraction at the Taller (“workshop”) was a collection of 50 posters funded by the Puerto Rican Council on the Humanities. The themes and images were a short course in the history of Puerto Rican culture: the centennial of Juan Ramon Jimenez, a Nobel literary laureate in 1957, a Spanish writer who spent the end of his life in PR; the importance of coffee to the economy (before America took over from Spain and made the economy a sugar monoculture, coffee in the highlands was equal to sugar in value); idiom and identity; humanism and folklore; the influence of the Caribbean in PR; voluntary legal services; the African heritage; the access of the handicapped to culture; the historic role of Puerto Rican women; the role of the plastic arts as a factor in humanization and socialization; and, one that stuck out like a sore thumb because of its Anglo angle, “A Conference on the Works of Irene and Jack Delano.”
“Who were the Delanos?” I asked Hernandez. In a reprint by UPR art historian Teresa Tio which he gave me, I learned that the poster movement in PR started in 1946 in a small Cinema and Graphic Workshop under the stewardship of mainland American artist Irene Delano. “Silkscreen was the chosen method; it was the cheapest, not requiring mechanical equipment and, by virtue of its superior plastic properties it offered broader possibilities than did printers’ ink.”
A few years later, the poster movement (which combines artistic skill and social commitment) boomed when the workshop was transformed into an autonomous government agency, the Community Education Division.
And though the posters are gone from the Taller, you can see the latest exhibit there, an exiting collection of fine arts prints done by 21 artists from nine Latin American countries.
A Salute to the Puerto Rican Community: At the Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets, through November 30. 686-5425.
Latin American Artist Prints: At Taller Puertorriqueno, 272 N. Fifth Street, through December 12. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 426-3311
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 26, 1986