Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932. Oil on canvas, 20 × 24 1/8 in. (50.8 × 61.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
I still can’t comprehend why the 20th-Century built American environment is 99 and 44/100% dreck and only 56/100% gold. Everywhere Golden Arches, and only in Bear Run, Pa., Wright’s “Falling Water.” And why in every small town in America do you find lovely old vernacular houses and churches while modern domestic building is for the most part pretentious piffle? It’s a puzzle.
So when I arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum last October, I was counting on their double header—on the arts and crafts movement (originating at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and now at the Detroit Institute of Arts, its final stop) and the machine age “esthetic between the wars” (originating at the Brooklyn Museum and now at its final stop at Atlanta’s High Museum).
What a lucky convergence, made even more serendipitous by the presence across the street at the Craft and Folk Art Museum of a show on Kentucky folk art. Now, if ever, I’d understand.
Take the more recent period first. Like all other Americans, our artists have been mostly too callow machine worshippers. Listen to Paul Strand exude in 1922: Man has “consummated a new creative act, a new Trinity: God the Machine, Materialistic Empiricism the Son, and Science the Holy Ghost. . . The deeper significance of a machine the camera, has emerged here in America, the supreme altar of the new God.”
He did qualify his enthusiasm by saying that “not only the new God but the whole Trinity must be humanized unless it in turn dehumanizes us.”
Richard Guy Wilson and others’ catalog, The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941, is a treasure chest of images and ideas about how the American artist responded to the machine. Margaret Bourke-White, whose image of Fort Peck Dam in Montana was the cover photo for the inaugural issue of Life magazine in 1936, shared Strand’s euphoria:
“The beauty of industry lies within its truth and simplicity; every line is essential and therefore beautiful.”
More or less. In 1927, GM started a styling section that countermanded Henry Ford’s Model T aphorism—“You can have it in any color as long as it’s black.” The consumer was to be schooled in the new “virtues” of obsolescence and installment buying.
Philadelphian Charles Sheeler was sent by N.W. Ayer to River Rouge to generate visual hoopla for the introduction of the Model A in 1927. His campaign started a fashion for eulogizing the machine and its products. Norman Bel Geddes, a one-time theatrical set designer, began using the term “industrial designer” in 1927 when he set up shop in New York to orchestrate the drama of mass consumption.
Following the prescient vision of Newark Museum (and Public Library) director John Cotton Dana—who argued that art had nothing to do with age, price or status as he organized dime store design exhibitions before World War I—museums and department stores collaborated to spread the concept of high fashion as both good design and art.
Why didn’t their vision take? Probably because they were Lord and Taylorized. What was needed was a demotic aesthetic grounded in the public schools, K to 12, like Richard Saul Wurman’s substantial workbooks for the Philadelphia Public Schools in the 1960s, or like the Walker Art Center’s Everyday Art Quarterly (known now, less polemically, as the Design Quarterly.)
When I studied these puzzles in Scandinavia, I found that the higher level of everyday design stemmed from governmental initiatives, like the Design Centre in Stockholm or the crafts cooperative department store across from the main train station in Copenhagen.
Now come with me across Wilshire Boulevard to the Crafts and Folk Art Museum. Don’t bother with lunch (as I always do) at The Egg and the Eye, L.A.’s finest omelet emporium. Come and schmooze with me over the Kentucky folk art show. Glory in the split-oak baskets, the white-ash chairs, the hickory walking sticks. Wow.
Then move on to the current batch of Kentucky M.F.A.s, whose notion of folk art is to make one-of-a-kind parodies of their state’s traditional crafts. Why one of a kind? Because they sell for inflated figures. The MFA-ification of the folk muse is yet another factor contributing to the mess around us.
Status symbols for the glitterati of Louisville and Lexington. What a waste. What a demeaning alternative to that taken by Sigurd Persson and the other Scandinavians who did their own things and enhance their common environment.
The arts and crafts movement failed for the same reason. It cast its lot with the upper middle class—Tiffany and friends. What we need is a Henry Ford of the built environment, who sees that if everybody doesn’t get cut into the good design deal in America, eventually nobody does.
I think Sam Hall Kaplan, design critic of the L.A. Times, probably understands that. His L.A. / Lost and Found: An Architectural History of Los Angeles (Crown, $27.95) is a marvelous way to end a search-and-enjoy mission in that puzzling city. I like the fact that his column is printed in the real estate, not the arts section as it is in Philly. That’s where he belongs, ameliorating the ameliorable, rather than stroking the culturally conscious.
There is one sad episode in his book that accounts for a lot of the mess. It’s the story of an idealist defeated by prejudice. Gregory Ain developed a 280-unit housing project on a hundred acres in the San Fernando Valley community of Reseda.
“The project, called Community Homes, was to be a model neighborhood, sensitively landscaped with parks, playgrounds and plantings. But after years of planning, the Federal Housing Administration denied the project financing. It seems some of the potential homeowners were racial minorities. This was a violation of something called Regulation X which, out of the fear that resale values would be harmed, prohibits federal funding for projects where there was a mixing of races.
“There were strong protests in which it was noted that many of the subscribers in question were veterans who had fought in the war. All was in vain, and the plans were scrapped, with the land eventually falling into the hands of the so-called ‘down-and-dirty’ developers.” Nice.
Regulation X marked the spot where idealists are undone by bureaucrats with rotten hearts. The arts and crafts movement failed because it didn’t reach out to the average American. Machine art got subverted by advertising agencies serving the Great God Turnover.
And here we are, an allegedly democratic culture, falling apart at the seaminess of street people. Just because a lot of corner-cutting folks had got “theirs” and couldn’t care less what happened to those who hadn’t yet got theirs. Until we learn to live up to our putative ideals of sharing, we deserve to fester in the mess around us.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 20, 1988
In a papparazzi culture in which mindless clickers distract us from any possibility of serious truth, Liebling is a welcome break. His simple seriousness is a blessing. In Germany, they call your favorite one thing or another a Liebling-whatever.
This is my first look at Liebling's work so he can't yet be my Liebling-photograf. But his work is lovely, and his "politics" grown up! I love what he has to say about the superficiality of our museum life. "The Politics of Everyday Life." I get it.
Little did Columbia prof James Harvey Robinson foresee, when he wrote The New History in 1911 that 75 years later some 5,000 Phillies would be eating their way through three centuries of local foods. But that’s an offshoot of what happened after he told his fellow historians to stop concentrating on the history of politics for fresh looks at social and intellectual trends.
And when Fernand Braudel was creating the luminous The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II out of his head in a Nazi concentration camp, did he think that his annaliste style of everyday life history would prompt two staid antiquarian institutions—the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania—to organize scrapple fry-offs, local beer and wine tastings and ice cream supersocializings?
But that’s what they did for “The Larder Invaded: Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food.” The exhibit-plus closes with a bang-up finale on Saturday April 25—a full day of lectures, workshops and panels. For registration, call Anne Broussard at 732-6201.
Anne is the kind of flack who, when she sends you a copy of the show’s catalog, describes it as “fresh out of the oven, I mean, hot off the press.” If you can’t make it on Food Freakout Saturday, get the $10 catalog—it’s the tastiest trip I’ve made since I went fortune cookie-ing in Shanghai.
Like the Super Sommelier who worked the Marriage Feast at Cana, these party-throwers have saved their best vintages for last. Curious about how the hoagie came to be? Let William Woys Weaver in the catalog be your guide:
“Since the Centennial, the hokey-pokey man has become a curbside institution in Philadelphia. In him, the black pepper hawker was replaced by the Italian selling ices, sandwiches, sausages, fresh breads, ‘Zoologicals’ (animal crackers), and little salads that were in fact miniature antipastos. Ever sensitive to current fads, he became a barometer of shifting public tastes. When H.M.S. Pinafore first played Philadelphia in 1879, the city’s Vienna bakeries cracked out a new loaf called the ‘Pinafore.’ But the hokey-pokey man left the most lasting impression with a brilliant bit of street savvy, for when his antipasto went into the boat-shaped Pinafore loaf, the hoagie was born. In name, hoagie evolved from hokey-pokey.”
Makes you want to break out in a G and S aria almost, don’t it? Ain’t this history good enough to eat? This is also the first “populist” catalog I’ve seen with all the 1,000 captions for the show miniaturized on microfiches slipped into the back cover. As ingenious as a hokey-pokey man with a mini-Vienna.
Especially interesting to me was the way turtle turned from “slave” food into Bookbinder luxe. And they conquered the seasonality of the green sea turtles, which came in aboard ship only when they were running, by pressing the local terrapin into service, sometimes veneering their “lowly” flesh with green sauces. The rise of the colored caterer in the late Revolutionary period is also instructive these days when idiots and not so artful Dodgers are theorizing that blacks are not capable of management.
It’s a sign of Philly’s structural sense of inferiority that only 5,000 visitors (barely 40 a day) have hit the happy train to 13th and Locust. Those venerable institutions deserve better audiences than that. People who would mortgage themselves at Le Bec Fin somehow find the Free Lunch hour at “The Larder Invader” infra dig.
Phooey. I can’t hardly wait to see what those magicians of the dusty stacks have up their sleeves for our edification and amusement next. Dulce et utile, folks. Step right up. The dyspepsia you lose will only be your own.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 22, 1987
A funny thing happened on my way through Marsha Moss’s suite of 25 site sculptures, “A Celebration of Art and Nature,” at the Horticultural Center Arboretum in Fairmount Park. I had gotten there early to avoid the crowd, so I was mapless in that marvelous trove of trees.
As I followed my nose from one sculpture to the next, my eye caught a “piece” that from afar seemed to be an asymmetrical collocation of antique bricks deployed on a cement base, garnished by a swatch of asphalt (as an old visitor of such arrangements, I’m ready for anything).
But as I came close, I epiphinated that my aesthetic open-mindedness—nurtured by 30 years of telling students to give the innovative writer a chance to work his or her magic—had come me acropper. What I was beholding was a vacated structure site; the bricks were placed there to reduce sueable pratfalls.
And at another point in my self-directed itinerary, I espied a stone Japanese lantern sweetly deployed with some nice old gneiss. Gadzooks! I told myself, I must be losing my eye. It was an ancient embellishment astride a culvert. But I loved its gneissness and its mossy patina and hierarchical shape.
Thinking it all over on a three-week Trailways trip to Expo 86 and back, I decided it was time to declare war, however a minority of one I might become—however gauche it may appear to be against Art with a capital A—against the cruder excesses of site sculpture.
I was pleased to pick up some moral support. In Tacoma, the voters recently passed a referendum to remove the neon squiggle sculpture from their sports arena. In St. Louis, street people pissed on Richard Serra’s Korten salute to Twain placed on the splendid axis that leads to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, that soaring parabola of stainless steel that competes with the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. as the most eloquent public sculpture of our time. And yuppies applauded the pissing.
Note that both arch and memorial are unabashedly abstract. So this Brancusi-lover has no quarrel with abstraction per se. I love Arp and much Henry Moore and many lesser-knowns. This issue is more complicated than abstract versus realistic. I think it has more to do with the cheapening of art values through too-rapid democratization and the creeping cruddism of excessive commercialism.
At Expo 86, SITE, Inc., the world leader in quickly degradable ephemera, has included Superhighway 86, an undulating stretch of highway bogged down with real vehicles of every sort (including self-propelling Nikes), all sullied over with the pale case of concrete (to make it more universal, the SITE people boast unconvincingly). It shoots off into the sky, going literally nowhere. My emblem of the state of site sculpture.
I think my disenchantment began to build up emotional pressure as long ago as summer 1968, when my wife and I visited a major outdoor sculpture exposition in London’s Battersea Park, that lovely demotic pleasure oasis on the Thames Southbank. They had the luminaries—Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. But the median performance was technoposturing, the unhappy conjugation of high technology and low talent.
As I pondered my malaise, my eye caught a flotilla of fledgling ducks, iridescent necks fluffing in the wind, as they mastered the subtle art of river navigation.
My heart leapt up. The marvel of their species, their modest display of their DNA, made an indelible mark on my spirit. I turned to my wife and uttered what is allegedly unutterable for the upper-middlebrow: “I opt for the ducks.” My sensibility has never been the same. It was a Blakean experience, seeing the world in a grain of sand. Or Whitmanic: “The mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.”
The press release for the current show asserts that all of the works “reflect the artists’ visual, conceptual and / or spiritual responses to nature.” Oh yeah? Well, if true, all I can say is that their muse carries damn little current. Three dogs sniffing the next mutt’s pheromones. Ha. Ha. Cute, but silly. Though Greg Olson’s “Address: A Domestic Victory Arch,” which pokes fun at military victory arches with its homely iconography of rolling pin and serving plate, is at least moderately witty and “sited” (if I may use the term) in human history, unlike most of these tabula rasa pretenses at communication.
Which brings me to another key experience in the evolution of my sculptural taste. At Oakland’s Sculpture International 1982, supposedly the world’s greatest gathering of sculptors, I became painfully aware of the abysmal ignorance of their own craft displayed by the artists in conversation.
Just because I like to put things in perspective, I had spent several hours in the Arts room of the San Francisco Public Library reading up on the history of sculpture in the Bay Area and of 20th-Century sculpture in America. I didn’t run into a single sculptor who had the foggiest notion who had preceded him in the craft.
Their airy art began with David Smith, Mark de Suvero or Richard Serra. Humanism was the furthest thing from their minds. They wanted to connect with humungous commissions—now. They weren’t there to learn, brother. They were there to ear. The more the better.
Which brings me to Gary Weissman, who contributed not only a site sculpture in Fairmount Park, but a site performance, the centerpiece of the opening day celebration. I asked him if he had a gallery, and he said, without a trace of embarrassment or irony: “I sell realistic pieces, bronzes, down at the shore. You’ve got to play both sides of the coin in this game.”
You do? I find that kind of cultural opportunism disgusting and a disgrace. Shame on him peddling. Not that all site sculptors are cynical operators. I had a long and inspiring conversation with Herb Parker, whose sod temple was a hit of the show. He’s a 33-year-old from E. North Carolina who lives in an unheated warehouse in Albany, a visionary who is edgy about selling his stuff (“I don’t want to become a commodity”) but is burning with a benign energy to create sod ephemera that affirm man’s unity with nature.
I dig him. I’ll take Herb over Gary any day, not because I believe in voluntary poverty—especially in the realm of ideas—but because Art is significant only when it humanizes, deepens the individual and / or strengthens the bonds of community.
Precious little of that is going on in our current art scene, which is trying to assimilate thousands of art grads each year into a system of school / museum / gallery / media that is already revoltingly venal.
Marsha Moss said on WHYY-FM’s Fresh Air that the 400 entries, from which she chose 25, were amazingly diverse. I don’t believe it. They’re always goofy, sometimes—but rarely—well-crafted. And always searching for a sellable signature. Dark thoughts, I know. But that’s the way I see it.
While I was waiting for the map, I fell into an instructive conversation with the head of the arboretum, John Allen. He said there were more than 300 species in his gorgeous grove (they are so succulent it took a great deal of self-discipline to keep my eyes on the sculptures). And I noted two new plantings, with simple but eloquent headstones, tiny sculptures saying what the trees were for—to honor the memory of two former managers, well-beloved.
Ducks and trees. Go look at those trees and tell me if all the loose talk about artists being “creative” is not presumptuous beyond belief. Let there be some mimesis. And more mimosa. We’ve had it up to the ridge of our noses with Bauhaused artists who struggle mightily to create ex nihilo and end up with only an emptily narcissistic nihilism. Go for the trees.
And get behind that marvelous, prize-winning proposal made in July to strew black-eyed Susans on every square inch of waste ground in Philadelphia. Nature is mighty. And man better get his tiny act together by fitting in, rather than playing God.
Ex nihilo? Nuts.
Patrick Hazard is a freelancer presently living in Holmesburg and one of the most prolific writers since Alexandre Dumas developed finger cramps. Starting next week, Patrick will have a roughly weekly column, “Hazard-at-Large,” running in “After Dark.” Be prepared.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 17, 1986
Harry "Mike" Hazard A poem by my son Michael on my brother Mike (born May 28, 1920; died June 13, 1980).
Rallying in the home stretch to make up for lost time,
my namesake and achingly alcoholic Uncle Mike transformed
himself into the champion relative at the nursing home.
At the wire, this mother's son, who'd drunk his life away
at the horse track, rose more daily than the sun.
The inner circle of residents, as they are called, raced
and jockeyed for the royal ride of his teasing horseplay.
The annunciation of his last toast to the sport of kings,
after the first leg of the Triple Crown, drew tears of praise,
just as his galloping gourmet birthday for Gramma's eighty-fifth
was talk of the home for days. So witness after solitary witness,
the witless and the terribly clear, like shot after shot, inalienable
as the interminable arguments of alcohol--all testified at last call,
this son came from nowhere to become Michael the Archangel.
It is instructive to learn at “The National Sculpture Society Celebrates the Figure 1987,” that the NSS was founded in the 1890s out of the stimulus to civic sculpture provided at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago by the heavy hitters of the craft—Saint-Gaudens, MacMonnies and Daniel Chester French.
It was the figurative “one percent for art” sort of patronage before the International Style ruptured the national alliance between Beaux Arts architecture and figurative and allegorical sculpture. Indeed, one of their first pro bono ventures was the 1898 Triumphal Arch for Admiral Dewey in the old Madison Square (the plaza, not the “garden”) by 27 members of the art trade association.
This highly touted “first time in more than 50 years outside of New York” exhibition is interesting but hardly exhilarating. It is divided (with not a little gall) into three highly unequal parts—a historical sequence, the current membership and invited contemporary nonmembers.
Of the three parts, I’m moved to say: The oldies are definitely more golden than the newies., and the invited “stars” (Butterfield, Baskin, Hanson, Segal et al.) may be felt to be needed, but the examples chosen are hardly luminous—in fact I find Segal’s masturbating woman, “Nude on a Redwood Chaise,” (1983) as tacky as the orange shade he has tarted up his white plaster model with.
Cheek by jowl with Tom Wesselman’s lovely “Steel Drawing / Standing Nude Edition” (1986) or even John De Andrea’s dreamily mythic “Classical Allusion” (1987), Segal’s work seems calculated simply to antagonize, like his Greenwich Village homosexual lovers.
Since these 150 works were assembled in celebration of We the People 200, there is a visible effort to be aggressively ecumenical. Only such a commitment could account for carting a pompously rhetorical “General Pulaski Equestrian” (1976) all the way from Spartanburg, S.C., to leave no Pole unturned in an eagerness to provide a little bit of something for everyone.
That, I suppose, also accounts for the Donald DeLue “Thomas Jefferson” (1975) and “George Washington Kneeling in Prayer” (1966). The DeLues on the Federal Building at Ninth and Chestnut are far superior to my eye (and 50 years old this year, I noted on my last amble past them). Maybe bas relief can sustain the patriotic rhetoric better than in-the-round Foundling Fathers.
It may also account for the cases of splendid medallions cast by members of the society over the years—you can even finance your own small medals in an era when Big Money goes to the Corten Troops. Don’t miss the amusing cat chasing a mouse in cheese, a marvelous bit of metallic wit.
Even the busts seem a bust to my eye—Wilson Goode is not that Negroid looking, nor is Edward Koch that fat. Maybe the plethora of images of political figures that inundate us every day make verisimilitude an unrealistic aspiration. Perhaps we prefer caricature, even the unintended one of a too-friendly couple—Franklin and Eleanor.
I hope this doesn’t sound misanthropically perverse, but I find the animal images most beguiling in the show, especially Cleo Hartwig’s work. Her “Owlet” (1969) uses a creamy Tennessee marble brilliantly, polishing only the eyes, beak and feet, leaving the rest downily soft. And her bronze “Guinea Fowl” (1986) is a delectably Precisionist abstraction of that beast. How marvelous that Ms. Hartwig (b. 1911) is still hard at work. She was the highlight of the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s retrieval of figurative American sculpture from the 1930s and 1940s last spring.
But there are other wonders, such as Beatrice Fenton’s bronze “Wattled Crane” (1943). I note that this bird is from the Academy of Fine Arts aviary, and that Philadelphian Fenton was born a hundred years ago (1887-1983). What a joy for the eye it would be to see a roomful of her animals—she must have created a zoo of her own in that long a life.
Also delighting my zoomorphed eye were Charles Rudy’s terracotta “Sleeping Pig” (1952), Jane B. Armstrong’s “Rhino and Baby” (1976), Shayne Haysem’s African sneezeweed “Vulture” (1985) and Carole Lewis’s terracotta “November Bird” (1984).
I’m sure that the NSS didn’t mean to go gaga over animal sculpture when they carted in all their monumental stuff. Sorry, folks, the big stuff feels mighty little to me; but the unpretentious snaps of our feathered and furry friends use materials inventively in ways that pleased me. And I’m a figure lover. But not with the Elie Nadelman, Jo Davidson and Gaston Lachaise they trucked in for this one.
National Sculpture Society Celebrates the Figure: At the Port of History Museum, Penn’s Landing, through November 15.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 11, 1987
Having trouble deciding what to send old Aunt Flo for Christmas? I’ve got two perfect answers: The smaller size is the “Slice of Southern Life” gift pack (hominy grits and other infra-Mason Dixon snacks and goodies), a steal at $24.95 from the Center for Southern Folklore, at its brand new 152 Beale Street digs, Memphis TN 38103. (901) 525-FOLK.
The larger, non-economy size is the momentous, nine-pound behemoth known as the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ($53.50 postpaid, from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, Oxford MS 38677).
Over 1,600 pages devoted to almost 1,300 topics divided into 24 categories, this is a ten-year labor of love for almost a thousand specialists in particularities of Southern U.S. culture, organized by co-editors Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, respectively a professor of history at Ole Miss and a professor of anthropology and founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
Ferris (his persona is aggressively demotic, from the days of his tape recording materials on the Delta Blues at considerable risk to his person in those pre-integrated days) and Center for Southern Folklore director Judy Peiser met while working for Mississippi Educational Television and discovered they shared a passion for saving the old ways from cultural macadamization.
If we’ve long admired the South for its storytelling propensities, we must now learn to love this latest generation of Southerners for their media moxie. As these two ideal Christmas presents suggest, they know how to get the message out.
My fascination with Southern peculiarities began in 1945-46 when I was stationed as a swabbie in Gulfport, Miss., Corpus Christi, Tex., and Pensacola, Fla. As a Detroit troublemaker, I used to rile the feathers of the locals by sitting at the back of the bus when I went on liberty. And gawk awkwardly at the Sophie Newcomb girls hanging out at the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, there to be picked up by officer types (not by the likes of us acne’d sailors).
My interest broadened as I pursued a Ph.D. in American culture, with an emphasis on literature. The serious study of literature was dominated by Southerners, not the least of whose power was wielded from Duke University, where the scholarly quarterly American Literature was published.
Does the encyclopedia have Pecolia Warner? It sure does, putting my visit to her and her husband Sam in Yazoo City in finer focus. Does it have James “Son” Thomas? Sure enough. I met James in Peiser’s screening room, where it slowly dawned on me that he was one of the two blues singers in the film I was watching.
The other singer had just died, and James had dropped by to take back the soundtrack to assuage his loneliness at having lost a good friend. He asked me and my companion to visit him the next day in Leland, Miss., where he popped open some cold beers and gave us a private concert in his living room.
There’s a fine piece on Hodding Carter, an instructive one on James Kilpatrick, and an enchanting essay on that Carolina Israelite, Harry Golden, with his preposterous tactics for solving the integration crisis.
I have a few nits to pick, as in the amusing gaffe in the Rosa Parks piece calling the girl who was arrested before her “Claudette Colbert” (it’s Colvin). Some flaws come from a low level of information, as in misnaming the Trost Brothers—those architectural pioneers in concrete construction in El Paso—“Frost and Frost.”
And no Matthew Nowicki, the Polish émigré who designed the State Coliseum in Raleigh and trained many as dean of the School of Architecture. And I can’t believe that an encyclopedia with room for Colonel Sanders can’t find space for John Portman, the Atlanta hotel designer who had done more for Southern tourism than all the finger-lickin’ fast food entrepreneurs in America.
I was pleased to see that Ted Turner got a good entry. I think he’s the best thing to have hit TV since Pat Weaver took early retirement.
But there is a filiopietistic side that makes me uneasy. Sam Walton surely deserves attention for parlaying small town five-and-dimes into the formidable Wal-Mart Empire. But there’s a down side to his achievement that a scholarly resume must include. I remember a tasty Southern-dominated dinner conversation on Amtrak last Christmas between New Iberia and Houston during which two Montgomery exiles just returning from trips “home” deplored the way the Wal-Mart phenomenon had eviscerated the center of small towns.
There are other gaps that puzzle me. No Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. No Millard Fuller for Habitat for Humanity. Appalshop gets an entry—but not the Center for Southern Folklore. I think it deserves one just for the vandal-proof oral history plaques it has mounted on Beale Street.
And no Mud Island! Roy Harrover’s innovative walk-through sculpture of the lower Mississippi is the most important piece of tourist architecture in the history of the country. I was so dazzled by it when it opened in Memphis in 1982 that I sought out the architect and listened to him explain how, energized by his contact with Yale’s Vincent Scully, he transformed the mayor’s order to get the hippies out of blue-rinse Overton Park and onto the mud flats that came and went with the imperial whims of the river.
He made Mud Island into a participatory monument to the history of the Lower Mississippi. I don’t mind giving Graceland its due, but shouldn’t a scholarly tome also come down on the side of seriousness as well? Folklorists bend over backwards so far they can’t see the sequoias for the jack pines!
But it’s a great achievement, and I make these suggestions only to further its inevitable second edition. Meanwhile, start your Yule with Penn professor Hennig Cohen’s luminous gloss on folklore and literature. You’ll bless that South Carolinian all 12 days of Christmas.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 13, 1989
Dr. George Washington Carver (ca. 1945) by William H. Johnson. Image courtesy of the American Art Museum.
Make no mistake about it: America has a world-crass talent for hiding its diverse heritages. Take Emily Dickinson. It took 70 years before we got the proper text for her poems. And her peer, Walt Whitman, is still read mainly only by his fellow poets. As fine a novella as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening took three generations before the feminist critics could shoehorn it into the canon.
And that’s just the mainstream lit. The new immigrants fled as fast as they could from their different values in a mad dash for Americanization, until affluence tempted them to recover their heritages.
When it comes to reds and blacks, there were worse things than cultural amnesia. For the most part, the Indians were reduced to airport-art production—although there is now at the Renwick Gallery in Washington a remarkable exhibition of the leading edge of Amerind art of the past two decades. To me, it was one of the most exhilarating shows of the year.
Black heritages were forced underground. When cotton cultivation became mechanized, Southern Negroes swarmed north to cities in search of work, and a kind of cultural apartheid emerged, symbolized by so-called “race” recordings. A few well-off whites slummed uptown at the segregated Cotton Club in Harlem, but for the most part, the richness of black culture remained invisible to mainstream America. So, sure, in these United States of Amnesia, we’re always anxious to find our buried ones.
Hence my eagerness to discover fresh riches at “Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art 1800-1950” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I was disappointed. True, I’m delighted to learn about Joshua Johnston, an early 19th-Century folk portraitist. And the luminist landscapes of Robert S. Duncanson are a pleasure to savor.
But hidden black heritage? No way. Henry O. Tanner? I’ve never been able to see what all the excitement about him was—and in any case, he’s never been hidden, especially in Philadelphia.
And Horace Pippin? He’s one of the most esteemed folk painters of our time. (I wish some historically hip curator in this region would do a full-dress retrospective of him in 1988, his centennial year.) I keep gravitating to his canvases at the Brandywine and Philadelphia Museum of Art whenever I visit there.
He deserves the kind of long look that the National Museum of American Art gave William H. Johnson several years back. Now there’s a hidden talent it was a joy to rediscover at PAFA. And the exhibition does a service to displaying regionally recognized sculptors like Sargent Johnson, whose work has always pleased me at the Oakland Museum and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And I’ll bet West Coasters are equally grateful to take a good look at Selma Burke’s work, that glory of Bucks Country.
And I’m genuinely excited by Archibald Motley, Jr., a black Precisionist with a funky day-glo palette. And Palmer Hayden’s evocation of John Henry is relishable. But for the most part, this show only goes to underline how much greater Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence are than their black precursors. There’s a great Lawrence and a so-so Bearden in the show, a kind of two-man coda that eclipses the main symphony.
That Renwick Amerind show comes to mind. Better to nurture current creativity among living artists than to pretend that there’s more hidden than there really is. Let me take one local example. Because I went to interview Max Roach at the Afro American Museum during the Mellon Jazz Festival, I killed time waiting for him to arrive by scanning the walls of their Aud.
It was my great luck that Max was late, because on the walls were the luminous hyperreal drawings and geometric abstracts (they grew out of border decorations) of 31-year-old Blaine elementary school art teacher Jimmy Mance. The lushness of jungle foliage also energizes his muse, and his lovingly detailed pen and pencil sketches communicate that piety.
It turns out that Mance won Mayor Goode’s first annual Arts Award in April. (It’s always reassuring to know you are not alone in your enthusiasm.)
Now PAFA went to LA to pick up on Betye Saar, whose black gimlet eye turns souvenir kitsch into memorable assemblages. And I’m glad they did. But how about some PAFA exposure soon for Mance? He’s a crossover talent who needs some patrons.
In a gallery / museum complex that buries budding artists under bushels of inattention, let’s do some affirmative action exhibiting that lets talents like Jimmy’s shine. I’m not telling you not to go to PAFA. I’m urging you to think, after going, about the special problems of minority artists.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 14, 1987
My ex-pharmacist / art gallery bureaucrat friend drove me back to his Socialist Surrealist Corbu high-rise just across from the new soccer stadium under construction, apologized for the dog pee smell in the elevator, and opened the door to an apartment radiant in its selection of art, most pieces with a unique Lithuanian angle.
He and his wife offered me delicious coffee “made in the Turkish manner,” then plied me with Danish chocolates from an almost empty box, a souvenir from a recent joint Lithuanian-Danish exhibition. The rarity of these treats was evident from the six-year-old’s shyly asking for a second piece (before the pig from Philly sucked it all up?).
The ex-he’s-done-it’s wife was a marvel. She’s part of a team of six researchers gathering data on the 300,000 Lithuanians who were deported to Siberia in the 1940s and 1950s—one tenth of the population. The Russians decimated key cadres—teachers, journalists, lawyers, political activists of every stripe, and especially Lithuanian nationalists—in order to better consolidate their occupation. (Their crappy style can be seen in their turning the church of the country’s patron saint, Casimir, into a museum of atheism!)
Her group—helped by the donation of three Toshiba computers from CARITAS, the Catholic Refugee service—has gathered 9,000 questionnaires from survivors of the camps. With this data, they hope (in their capacity as Repression Research, Inc.) to help the returnees with sticky things like pensions and places to live. Or help them, indeed, to return from Siberia, where a good many still languish.
The lack of rancor that accompanies the recital of such horrors was surprising to me, with one exception—the heat lightning of anti-Semitism, which greeted me everywhere. I asked this couple over dessert—after I had taken them and their kids back to the Astoria for dinner—whether I was making a mountain of anti-Semitism out of a few molehills of sneers and snide comments. No, they conceded, I wasn’t making it up.
Their explanations went something like this: Jews dominated Vilnius before the War. So part of the problem was the old chestnut, Envy. But that wasn’t the biggest reason. Many Jews, perhaps naturally as part of the anti-Nazi underground, became only too prominent, eventually dominant, in the Soviet nomenklatura. Expediency made them too accommodating, in the Lithuanian nationalists’ judgment.
But most bitterly, the Lithuanians resent what they regard as a Jewish monopoly of the genocide theme: The Communists tried to wipe out Lithuanian culture the way the Nazis attempted to obliterate the Jews. The manager of the Astoria’s café put it to me this way in a spirit of rare candor: “We respect the Jews; we just don’t like them.” I think it boils down to a pervasive fear that the Lithuanians could end up not running their own country—again. In any case, today it’s the least vicious form of anti-Semitism I’ve ever run into.
When I tried out this hypothesis on the curator of the Jewish Museum in Brussels a few days later, he bristled: “After Jerusalem and Istanbul, Vilnius was the most important center of Jews in the world, and they tried to wipe us out.”
Granted, someone tried to wipe out the Lithuanian Jews—whether Nazis, or Soviets, or Lithuanian collaborators—and mostly, succeeded. There appears to be at least some blame to go around. Whether there will be enough empathy to exorcise these fixed positions remains to be seen.
Not everyone enjoys political discourse as much as I do—so don’t get the impression that Vilnius is one uninterrupted seminar on political history. My specialty is collecting and writing about art (politics is a hobby). Art lovers will have a field day in Vilnius. The Astoria is right across the street from the National Art Museum, so be prepared to spend several glorious hours savoring painters and sculptors our parochialism has kept us from even knowing—especially the sculptors and the printmakers.
And kitty korner from the classically designed Museum is a modern exhibition hall, where, when I visited, there was a sister-city art show from Austria, and a ravishingly interesting exhibition of 19th-Century images of Vilnius. Everything but the local allusions delighted me, and I asked a young woman with a preschooler in tow if she could explain some of the history.
Did she ever. She turned out to be the art critic of a local weekly, Republicas, and the daughter, I later discovered, of two of the country’s leading intellectuals. Incidentally, because she can’t afford a car and can’t stand the crowded conditions on public transport, she always ambles about to art shows with her kid at hand.
She took me on a brief architectural tour of the University district. The buildings were mostly run-down, but are absolutely and brilliantly idiosyncratic in their variations on traditional historical styles: I can’t remember when I’ve seen racier changes rung on standard classical tunes.
She took me to the newest sources of high-quality crafts, where I fell in love with a bowl carved from a cherry burl, the base of which was a grotesque boar. A steal at $200. But they didn’t take Visa. In three other venues I bought art of world-class quality for peanuts. Ten works, $30!
There’s a marvelous architectural museum in old St. Michael’s church. (It was weird to observe that between the wars the major genre was churches; after the Russkis, sports stadia.) The museum, by the way, is across the street from the quirky brick St. Anne’s that Napoleon liked so much he dreamed of moving it. And next to the restored cathedral—which the Soviets for a while tried to turn into an automotive repair center—there’s an ethnological museum of surpassing interest. And hang out for lunch at the café across from the National Museum. The artists and writers who gather there to schmooze over their coffees are as delectable as their native pastries.
I spent a day as well in the former capital of Kaunas (a few hours away by train), where there’s a lot of Deco architecture—because that’s when they built the capitol and cultural buildings. The National Museum there has much richer holdings than its counterpart in Vilnius. And if you walk along the promenade that leads from the city center, you’ll eventually come to the Old Town, where I found a marvelous photographic gallery.
I also lucked out when the secretary to the director of the ethnological museum invited me out to her house in Traiku, the medieval capital, with a storybook castle in the middle of the lake, 25 miles or so from Vilnius, a $25 cab fare. Up at dawn as I usually am, I was trying to find “by ear” the train station I would eventually need for the trip back to Vilnius—train-track sounds, whistles, etc. I didn’t even come close, ending up on the opposite side of the village.
But in the odyssey, I ran into umpteen farmers going about their age-old chores. Leading a horse to a job, taking a cow out to pasture, carting wood home. Strangely hostile people—to this stranger, anyway. Usually, I can get wordless encounters to blossom into a semblance of friendliness. Not in New Traiku. When I asked my new friend what was the problem, she explained that there was an unfriendly mix of peoples in the village—Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, even Russians. And they kept to themselves.
Didn’t know how to handle the next potential oppressor, I guess. It could have been 250 miles, not 25, from cosmopolitan Vilnius. A few hours later, when she showed me where the train station really was, the young people putzing around on their bikes and with their fishing gear there were more Vilnian.
I must have really walked into the woods before breakfast! I can’t wait to get back.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 13, 1994
Trying to “do” Vilnius almost did me in. But my initial misadventures aside, I relish the memories of my first five days in the capital of Lithuania as much as any travel I’ve ever undertaken. Those 700,000 or so Vilnians have made an astonishing recovery from their 50 years of servitude (although they seemed, while I was there, to be doing a little backsliding—under the pressure of Russians threatening their oil and natural gas supplies).
But first the bad news, to aid travelers unfamiliar with the minute particulars of that place. Let them avoid the frustrations I stumbled upon in my ignorance. Because the only usable tracks between Warsaw and Vilnius run through Grodno in Belarus, you need to waste five or more hours getting a transit visa from the Russian embassy, a goodly cab ride from Central Station.
But in order for them to accept your two passport photos and $27 for a “transit” visa, you must first get a Lithuanian visa, a few steps from the U.S. Embassy. But not so fast. To get a Lithuanian visa, you need a rail ticket which you can pay for with your Visa at the Orbis office in the Hotel Metropole.
If there are long lines at any of these three points, you can blow more than five hours. I would have preferred spending that time at Warsaw’s marvelous Poster Museum (a 4,000 zloty bus to Wilanow), or at the equally delectable Caricature Museum (at the Center City end of the 122 bus, kitty korner from the Adam Miekiewicz statue in Old Town).
My original plan had been to hop, skip, and jump to Helsinki with day-long stops in Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. The sleeper from Warsaw to Vilnius was only a slightly improved box car, but it does have a safe place to stow your luggage—the board bed pulls up to reveal a trunk-like box underneath, not a small boon in a train system that is experiencing a robbery boom.
In the Russian Embassy I listened to the lament of a German businessman on his way to Moscow whose shoulder bag had been nicked while he dozed off for a few winks on the overnight train form Berlin to Warsaw. Part of his misery was the low, low-tech Russian passport office where the miracle FAX had yet to rear its electronic head.
My “bunkmate,” incidentally, was a thirtysomething housewife returning to her two children in Grodno. She showed me her brand-new passport proudly, with her kids’ photos included. She eyed me dourly at first when she perceived that due to the lack of an electronic reservation system, I was to be her nocturnal companion. Soon we were sharing each other’s travel snacks.
Nary a comprehensible word (other than my halting spasibo) passed between us the whole night. And we both flinched about midnight when a barbarous Russian passport officer nearly banged our door down. He mimed me an impromptu lecture on the battered condition of my passport, which made me wish I knew enough Russian to reciprocate with a homily on the terminal rumpledness of his uniform, not to mention his tacky manners when awakening weary travelers.
Once again I noticed the most dispiriting aspect of the totalitarian heritage: the powerless compensate for their powerlessness by throwing their pitiful powers around when given any chance.
Alas, as we pulled into the Vilnius station at 8 a.m., little did I know the hurdles I still had to jump before starting to relish Vilnius. To put your luggage in a locker, you need three rubles (two cents at the exchange rate) as well as a 15 kopeck piece to activate the Rube Goldberg mechanism. No place to change the rubles in the station. I mimed that they should guard my gear as a went out on the town in search of three rubles!
No sign indicated where the center of the city was, so I started following the first tram line radiating out from the station plaza. Wrong, Mercator-breath: It turned out, I inferred several misdirected blocks later, it was going to a distant suburb. Finally, by relentlessly plying my infantile German on anyone who could be distracted from their trying to get to work on time, I found a woman who knew where a bank was. Except I eventually discovered it was the wrong branch.
A crude map and more interrogating of people in the street got me to the right branch, except that my last informant was a fiftyish woman with a relentless intent to get my dollars for her rubles. (She was planning a trip to Chicago!) She waxed eloquent over her generously giving me 130 rubles to the dollar instead of the current 126, as we hiked quickly down the street. Finally, I had to outsprint her and climb quickly to the third floor where the exchange office was.
Now sufficiently rubled, I wondered which bus would take me back to the train station. Be advised that no familiar word like gare or bahnhof is involved. The Lithuanian word for station is SOTOS! So I had to pretend I was the little train that couldn’t (making chuffing sounds) until a young man held up five fingers and pointed to a tram stop. I bought tickets at the adjacent newsstand and crammed myself on the next #5. (And I mean sardine city! I have done rush hours on Tokyo subways that seemed expansive by comparison.)
A warning. Write down the tumbler numbers of your locker—actually four letters. I couldn’t remember mine, and when I came to collect my stuff the next morning, the attendant had to undo five before finding mine—to the cacophony of security bells clanging loudly at each wrong number. (That operation cost me a 28 ruble surcharge, and you’d think I had just given them a $10 tip instead of a two-bit penalty!) The low cost of living in Lithuania (as opposed to the high cost of fleeing out of there by Lufthansa because I couldn’t bear another train ride!) still staggers my inflationary mind. Luggage stowed, I was now free to cruise until the night train to Riga.
As it turned out, I couldn’t think of leaving Vilnius—until five days later, when an Air France pass was about to run out. I hadn’t been walking for ten minutes before I stumbled on the divine Hotel Astorija, 1902, but deeply into a Neo Deco rehabbing under a joint Norwegian-Lithuanian venture.
A Danish ecologist told me at breakfast one morning that he had stayed there six months before when it was a pigpen and cost $2 a night. (That’s the price of the fleabag across from the station.) My bathless room now cost me $29. A thoroughly beguiling Avis-try-harder staff is fast turning their two-star into a four-star.
“The Corner,” a little café making do until the restaurant is restored, has a limited menu with just enough Lithuanian goodies to make it zesty. They only take MasterCard (which I had left in my luggage) but decided I looked too tired to be a crook. I came down from my ruble-induced funk by soaking in one of their huge bath tubs.
And now for the good news:
The trouble with the good news is that it is so good that it invites skepticism. The people are euphoric from having stared down the Bear successfully, and are so grateful to their own firmly held heritage—which seemed to me the principal source of their strength and endurance—that to an outsider their psychological condition appears too good to be true.
So into the third day, I began to test my theory about their sweetness as a people against any and everyone I ran into from outside. To a person, they not only agreed, but they also were astonished as I was by the evident energy and purpose of so recently liberated a people. Didn’t matter whom I grilled (a Mercedes Benz truck salesman from Munich, a retired postmaster from Fort Lauderdale, an electrical engineer from Stockholm), they agreed I was not exaggerating in my belief in a rare condition of post-liberation bonhomie.
Take the assistant director of ARKA, the avant-garde art gallery next to the Philharmonia Hall, two minutes by foot from the Astoria. Like his mother, he trained to be a pharmacist and practiced this profession for ten years, until he tired of the venality of the Moscow professors who wouldn’t approve his doctoral dissertation (on the ecological impact of pollution on certain herbs like thyme) unless he plied them with the free vodka he had to schlep to Moscow every three months.
At the gallery he makes a measly $30 a month, has to borrow his father’s car to get to his high-rise apartment on the outskirts of town, and depends on the second salary of his wife, a trained psychologist, to make ends meet. Nobody in his right mind, however, would feel sorry for him, his beautiful wife, and two lovely girls, 6 and 11. (End of Part I.)
(Editor’s note: We think Patrick went to Vilnius within the past 18 months, but since he’s once more somewhere over there, we can’t ask.)
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 6, 1994