"Religion teaches you to be satisfied with non-answers. It's sort of a crime against childhood." Richard Dawkins. In Michael Powell,"A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy," New York Times, 9/19/2011.
I’m a belated “convert” to that mix of the social and physical sciences that sweetly converge in paleontology. When I picked up the paper today and read that a bagger In Braunschweig had just uncovered the full skeleton of a 175 million year “old” Fish Dinosaur, I was dazzled by the wonder of it all. The etymology of miracle is the Latin verb “mirare—to wonder”.
The contemporary press is replete with such wonders: In India they have just found several new species of frogs, one of which meows like a cat! In South Africa, a cranium found by the aimlessly hiking but alert nine-year-old son of the lucky scientist forces paleontologists to speculate over putative connections of “Homo sapiens” and Neanderthals. Comparing their genomes they “wonder” if they intermarried, to use a term anachronistically.
You have to understand that when I was parked at Holy Rosary Academy, at age three, 81 years ago, I was subjected by German Dominican nuns to ten years of “miracles” that made me ignorant and afraid of life, and all of these alleged “wonders” squeezed into a mere 4,000 years. And almost three years at Sacred Heart, a Catholic minor seminary, didn’t expand my intellectual horizons a whit.
I say “almost” because the rector, one Henry Donnelly, expelled me during Easter vacation after catching me smoking after midnight in the Gothic Tower. We fawned before him because the hometown Detroit Tigers had given him a tryout as a shortstop. Theologically speaking, you cannot glean greater adolescent praise. It’s almost a near secular canonization!
Let me summarize their official “wonders”. God made Adam from the clay of Eden by his miraculous breath. Then He formed Eve with help of an Adamic rib. A mere 4000 years ago. And He temporarily separated the Holy Trinity by making a human out of his only begotten Son, who was dying for forgiveness for our sins. This inbred process saved us from eternal hellfire. But not too long after(33 years)he disappeared back in Heaven. (Did I forget to tell you how the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary not to fret but that she had been chosen to beget Jesus.) This faux miracle story let loose in the Holy Roman Catholic Church a false shame about sex (the true miracle of birth!)that festered two millennia later in the global sexual abuse of children.
This international scandal has been shamefully covered up by the current Pontiff who began as a liberal colleague of Hans Kung in Tübingen but panicked as an effeminate wuss because of “too liberal” seminarians identifying noisily with Liberation Theology—and fled to conservative Regensburg University. Greedy to rise in the hierarchy (don’t believe his smarmy piousness), he blacklisted his former chum Kung from teaching theology. And smashed Vatican II by trying to stamp out Liberation Theology completely, coddling up grossly with ex-Communist fighter Pope John Paul II.
Now Benedict jets around the world smiling affably at what few parishioners are left, as if affability excuses his suppression of Lib Theo. He’s no Miracle Man; he’s a internationally religious Rotarian, taking care of his Big Business—instead of freeing Latin Americans from their North American peonage.
The Church in Germany is right now spending millions of Euros getting crowds to miraculate (a neologism meant to suggest televised knee-scraping to His Holy Wholessness)! What an un-wonderful farce. The latest episode of PR Religion can be traced to Pius IX who fought Darwin and Modernism by declaring that the Pope (meaning, first, hisself) was infallible, whatever that doesn’t miraculously mean.
And his first miraculous declaration was the Immaculate Conception of the future Virgin Mary! God had arbitrarily condemned all humanity to the gratuitously lethal Original Sin, tough punishment for a “Loving God” for one bite of the Edenic apple. Would you believe that these unmiraculous fantasies are threatening to complicate the 2012 presidential election with Rick Perry’s fatuous fatwas about pushing Divine Design and mocking Evolution in mandatory Texas curricula?
It wasn’t until I was 19 that I confronted an intelligent allegation about miracles. In my first American Lit class. That voice from the Here and Now After was Walt Whitman: "The mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” My theology in a nutshell. I’d rather rot for eternity in hell than bow a knee to the contemptibly contentious Old Testament God or the neurotically greedy floggers of Indulgences that Luther went to a just war against. Those grossly irreligious sacrileges—buying one’s way out of Purgatory! A stupid invention of a soulless clergy. As dead-ended as a Popemobile.
The way to modern thoughtfulness (our Reasoning is the greatest everyday miracle there ever was) is handicapped as never before, in America of all places! Emptyheaded Tea Party twitterers blather at each other, thrilling insanely when Pat Robertson blames earthquakes on respect for Godforsaken gays. Last night as I watched Charlie Rose on Bloomberg TV interrogate Lisa Sherman, brilliant and gorgeous Harvard physicist, on her ways and means, I was relieved. We haven’t lost yet. But it’s getting closer and closer.
Richard Dawkins has just published his first children's book, "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What Is Really True."
This sandbox historiography further attests to the infantilization of median America. It reveals the high price we have paid for a sports/entertainer-dominated leisure. Not to mention the covert racism these pranks legitimize.
Patrick D. Hazard
August 27, 2011
I coined the rubric “Higher Goofy” to apprehend (if not comprehend) certain loose architectural muses such as Robert (Learn from Lost Vulgars) Venturi and Michael (I Can Destroy This Portland Park) Graves. I was wrong. They should be filed under Lower Goofy, along with Charles (How Do You Like My Plaza d’Italia, New Orleans?) Moore. Scenographic schmoozers rather than architects, all three. If Louis Kahn defined the greatest art of all as the making of noble spaces, I would argue this Terrible Trinity debases the art by creating work that results in the making of noble noises.
This brilliant flash of insight knocked me off my Greyhound horse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the University of New Mexico’s art gallery is currently honoring its occasional lecturer and permanent nearby resident, one Bart Prince. With a name like a cartoon character, this guy has got to be good. And is. Look at the shot of his so-called Submarine House I made the day after I stumbled onto his work being hung at the museum. He lives there. It’s full of the minute particulars William Blake argues must be there if someone wants to do him good. The pilotis are the right scale. The fenestration is spacey without looking like bad sci-fi sets. The thing rests comfortably among its foliage. The cast-iron gate shows that real artists have been at work.
The question becomes, “Who the hell is Bart Prince?” Ha, you thought all along the architecture magazines were valid and reliable guides to the universe of contemporary building, didn’t you? Wrong, Manhattan breath!
There are terrae incognitae all over the place in their defective mapping. Does it help if I tell you Prince’s mentor was Bruce Goff? Not a hell of a lot, eh? Because except for a recent retro at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (to celebrate the opening of the Japanese Pavilion there), Goff too is an underknown Okie of AmArch.
I’m sorry to say I don’t like Goff’s Japanese Pavilion. I’ll take my shoji screens plain, not gussied-up. And compared, say, with Frank Gehry’s marvelously fishy fish restaurant in Kobe, Japan, the JP in LA is a loser.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know about Goff. He may not always do the Wrighteous stuff, but he’s too good to be eclipsed by fast-talking schmoozers like the Terrible Trinity of Post-Modernism.
And I’ll tell you another Higher Goof we’d better not lose sight of—the Viennese irregular, Frederick Kiesler. Luckily for our mental health, the Whitney is right now compensating a while for its projected abuse-by-expansion of its Marcel Breuer home with a luminous gloss on Kiesler’s troubled career. It shows how he took his Otto Wagnerian tutoring and added to it De Stijl and Russian Constructivist tendencies for a really fresh and feisty synthesis. Kiesler’s Gallery for Contemporary Art for Peggy Guggenheim is still a joy to wander through. (There’s a mockup of it in the show.)
And a guy who thinks art museums ought to be abolished can’t be all bad. It was Kiesler’s apercu—long before the Museum Building Boom diverted our attention from our deteriorating common environment—that it doesn’t profit a culture like ours to build ourselves Better Mansions for Art whilst the streets become uninhabitable. Heretofore I’d only known Kiesler’s Endless House, a funky enough Utopian scheme. But I didn’t know that, like the social humanist architect Bertrand Goldberg, Kiesler early in his career tried to get mass-produced housing of high-design quality into the matrix of American architecture.
That both Goldberg and Kiesler’s dreams came a-cropper is less an indictment of them than of the sickening cabal between successful architects and the racist, elitist construction industry and unions. Pruitt-Igoe (St. Louis) and Miami Overton in flames are instances that are belatedly teaching us the high cost of such architectural isolationism. And unlike a much lesser artist like Jean Arp, Kiesler’s biomorphism leads to usable furniture that still pleases my eye (and butt).
Boy, have we got a lot of revising to do in the history of modernism. Get up to the Whitney before April 12th, or indict yourself for your own culpable ignorance. And tell Manhattan museumers to get off their provincial duffs and let us learn about the likes of Goff and Prince. How dare they immerse themselves in their own provincialism—and us in the process? I’m reminded that Texas lit great Larry McMurtry’s favorite T shirt reads, “Minor Regional Novelist.”
That’s the same guy who reviewed Woody Allen’s Manhattan in the Red Cloud, Nebraska, daily as a “minor regional masterpiece.” Nice shot, Larry.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 4, 1991
As a youthful baseball nut, I find the European obsession with soccer totally irrational. If I couldn’t catch ESPN snatches of American baseball and football on German TV, I’d go temporarily insane during their “football” playoffs. Down with Arnold’s stiff upper limbs and British imperial detritus.
Patrick D. Hazard
September 2, 2011
As a certifiable Art Deco-dent, I’ve been particularly interested in the Orinda Theatre preservation controversy (“Save Orinda’s Treasure,” The Tribune, 6/26/84). So Saturday, I deBARTed at Orinda to take a look. Believe me, I couldn’t have been more underwhelmed. Far from being a treasure, local or otherwise, the Orinda at its pristine best was only a slick exercise at the end of Moderne boom. Now, maimed and decrepit, it in no way deserves the crocodile tears that are being shed on its behalf.
I say this as a preservationist to my very marrow. No, this is not an issue in preservation; it is an attack of nostalgia ambiguous blessing of modernization as symbolized by The Crossroads shopping complex.
And it is crucial to limit preservationist energies to saving the truly remarkable and invaluable. I literally will circle the globe to get an Art Deco fix. Last fall, I “discovered” and relished the Colegio Salesiano in Macau, the great Bank of China in central Hong Kong, and the stunning People’s Hotel on the banks of the Pearl River in Canton. These are world-class Deco, true masterpieces that I am happy to report are alive and flourishing—which is not true, in general, of Deco in the Third World. (The Deco boom cut short by World War II in former colonies in Africa, Latin America and Asia, was the last architectural presence of the European powers.) By these standards, the Orinda is wholly negligible. To speak of it as the “little (Oakland) Paramount” is sheer self-deception.
And I found it in such a pitiable condition that a bulldozer would almost be a merciful coupe de grace. Its ticket kiosk has been removed—replaced by a ticket window that displaced one of the coming-attractions poster displays, and from which booth the fully automated projection booth is run. The wooden Deco Doors with their sandblasted decorations have been replaced (only the phone booth door remains as a memory of that Deco design feature). And the ceramic water fountain, now isolated from the patrons by an added barrio of popcorn- and soda-vending counters, stands there in shame, a makeshift base of the vendors’ electronic calculator. And anyone who has looked at the interior murals lately and still calls them “magnificent” needs a crash course in art appreciation. They are gawky, pretentious allegories; poor old Thales (the Greek philosopher who invented the “air, earth, fire, water” paradigm) would turn over in his grave at the mere sight of them—even without the googoo red and blue back lighting that is turned on in the ceiling during intermission.
In short, there is no architectural merit in the structure—the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the contrary notwithstanding. Remember the Trust is after constituents—any constituents! And they are hard to come by in Kleenex America. And the Trust tends to be elitist and anti-commercial in its biases, ironic in the extreme when it comes to Deco, which was always a quintessentially commercial mode.
Are there historic reasons for saving the Orinda? On this point, I wonder why the building is not one of the 14 on the historic mural outlining the “treasures of Orinda” outside the BART station. And I am puzzled as well to discover that this historic treasure rates only six lines in Muir Sorrick’s “The History of Orinda: Gateway to Contra Costa County,” the only volume I could find on the village in the excellent local history collection of the University of San Francisco. The ubiquitously eponymous Donald Rheem figures far more in that local history—as the builder of Rheem Highlands (1948), Rheem Glen (1951), and Rheem View Acres (1953). In 1949 he built the Rheem Building at the crossroads; in 1954 he began a shopping mall known as Rheem Center with a Rheem Theatre added in 1957 (those 840 comfy seats in the Orinda are bequests from the since converted Rheem theater); in 1955 he began Rheem Valley Estates; for variety’s sake, Rheem called the next unit Donald Drive. Perhaps Mr. Rheem’s publicist should have been assigned to the Orinda case!
In all this hoopla, nobody seems to have taken a fair look at Clark Wallace’s Crossroads project. It’s just assumed that a modern shopping complex needs to be a decline from an Art Deco movie house. If that kind of thinking had prevailed in Orinda in 1941, they’d be defending a Spanish Mission theater! Fashions change—in architecture as well as in clothing. Every great Gothic cathedral in Europe replaces some lesser, but nonetheless lovely, Romanesque church.
The issue should be quality, not the blind defense of a building because it’s the only thing Orindans trying to incorporate as a city can rally around. (Teddy Roosevelt used to say of the Spanish-American War—“It wasn’t much of a war, but it was the only war we had.” The Orinda isn’t much Deco, but a walk along its Main Drag last Saturday night makes me think the locals may be right—it’s the only architecture they’ve got.) But let’s critique the Crossroads honestly and openly. Is it an architectural monstrosity? Some of the greatest architectural spaces in America are shopping centers—Victor Gruen’s Northland in Detroit established a great tradition of excellence in that genre.
There may be sentimental and political reasons for saving the Orinda, but there aren’t good artistic or historic ones. The tears that are being shed in Orinda attest to only one thing—most Americans haven’t the vaguest sense of what is great, merely good, and painfully godawful in their architectural heritage.
If the Orindans could use this flap to deepen the community’s sense of what great architecture and interior decoration are, and why those things are crucial to keeping a community’s sense of self-esteem and consciousness high, then this brouhaha could become more than a tempest in an Eastbay teapot. Calling Clark Wallace a philistine is just cheap self-righteousness. This either / or mentality merely exacerbates a murky debate. We need more light and less heat. Let’s have a dialogue not dual diatribes on the Orinda preservation debate.
Patrick D. Hazard is a San Francisco-based writer. Reprinted from the Oakland Tribune, July 5, 1984
Americans, I do believe, are going a little nutsy over museums. I have it on the authority of Michigan adman Bill Truesdell’s Directory of Unique Museums (Phoenix: Oryx Press) that there are now museums for tattoos, birds’ eggs, cookie jars, beads, firefighting equipment (“The Hall of Flame,” I love it!), ventriloquists’ dummies, booze bottles, clocks, popcorn, Coca Cola memorabilia (95 years worth holed up in Elizabethtown, Ky.), stoves, anesthesiology (this one is a real gas), handcuffs, bottles, teapots, Chincoteague oysters, postcards, barrels and old fans. There are also museums of rice, strawberries, nuts and the potato.
Thus there arises that peculiarly American crisis—the transition from compulsive collecting to a museum proper, so-called. My new subscription to Grit (The Williamsport, Pa., weekly slice of offbeat life in America) has provided me with such an instance.
Meet Sam Aguirre of San Diego who has been collecting Mickey Mousabilia since the tender age of six. There are now seven thousand Disney-derived artifacts cluttering up his living room, kitchen and bedrooms. He turned down Walt Disney World’s offer because he wants his collection to be accessible to the Southern California that nurtured his benign obsession.
His most cherished MM is a rubber Mickey Mouse piloting a World War II fighter plane. They sold for 15 cents in 1942 but now are worth over $100. During the war, patriotic children donated their rubber toys to Uncle Sam, thereby making the few that survived worth their weight in EPCOT shares.
His MM soap figurine that sold for a nickel in 1936 goes for $35 in better antique shops everywhere. The first MM recording, “Mickey and Minnie’s in Town,” varies in value from $25 for a scratched copy to $100 for one that has never been played. (Heh, some people had taste even back then.)
Who knows where all this Mickeyphilia will lead? David R. Smith, director of the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, speculates: “We are now seeing a new generation of Mickey Mouse fans who want to see the old Mickey cartoons and toys. Companies are showing great interest in producing new toys and products. The Disney company is putting more control on their characters.” What a relief.
Up the I-5 in Long Beach, Slater Baron has been collecting lint. From her dryer, where else? Where else is also all her students’ and friends’ dryers, that’s where else. What for? She carves lint sculptures for a putative Never-Never Land. “The magic of our laundry room gave me a way to tell tales and create adventures which we all shared. There really is magic in our world.”
You’d better believe it: Her favorite creation is a 27-item, six foot panel entitled “The Six O’Clock News,” which depicts her parents watching television. Now there’s a museum in the making.
If contemporary life can be such fantasy fare full, why be surprised that the Mermaid has spun off a really beguiling swatch of tails under view (through February 28) at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 321 Chestnut Street. This is no Mickey Mouse Linterama deal, however. It’s a world-class museum that capitalizes shrewdly on our city’s being a world-class port.
It’s been here 25 years, as it proudly trumpeted in a luminous display of its catches this fall. I still wouldn’t know about it had I not read about its reconstructing the kind of racing boats popular during 19th-Century Philadelphia down on the waterfront.
Don’t miss the Mermaids exhibit. It’s rich in art, folklore, anthropology and fun. Listen to this old Sea Shanty to get its funky drift:
My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night;
The offspring of this strange union were three:
A porpoise, and a porgy, and the third was me.
Put yourself in a sailor’s boots: He’s drawn night watch, he’s as horny as an altar boy during Lent, and a porpoise swooshes by the bow, flashing a phosphorescent tail at his sleepily bugging eyes. Then put him ashore on liberty, get him a little grogged, and voila! Tales about tails.
I was surprised to learn that the Greek sirens who lured sailors onto their rocks (hello, Scylla; hello, Charybdis) were half bird, half woman.
I also didn’t know that mermaid was a synonym for prostitute in Shakespeare’s diction. Things were going on in Ye Olde Mermaid Taverne that were never dreamt of in my tenth grade English class.
Two of my favorite tail pieces involve Biblical revisionism. In the Nuremburg Bible printed by Anton Keberger in 1483, a mermaid, a merman and mermutt do dog paddles on the periphery: they were not allowed on Noah’s species-saving vessel.
And then there is the Philly feminist, Linda Lee Ominsky, whose marvelously 3-D wall-hangings recently graced the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s walls. She sexes up her Jonah and the Whale tale with three merladies whose bosoms are coyly bra’ed in stars. Come on. It’s the nipples that were arousing those nocturnal sailors.
The show reveals as well the ambivalence of male sailors’ about those midnight wenches. There are evil merpersons, whose tresses are seaweedy rather than flaxen blonde. After all, women to them were like the sea—sometimes nurturing, sometimes death-dealing; sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. I personally hold it against my eponym, St. Patrick, who allegedly drove the merthings (as well as the snakes) off the island. For shame, killjoy.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 18, 1987
Nature’s fairest hope marred by history’s foulest crime. That’s how Herman Melville characterized slavery in putatively egalitarian America. A timely epigraph for this Black History Month, in the shadow of resurfacing racism from Howard Beach in the North to Cummings, Georgia, in the South.
When an NPR reporter asked a Stars-and-Bars-brandishing loco yokel where the blacks ought to go—“Back to hanging from trees, like in the old days.” Lovely. And Arizona’s G.O.P. governor rescinds the outgoing Dem’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, for starters.
What good does a King holiday do for U.S. and, especially, for them. That thought hovered over my head as I read David J. Garrow’s monumental new biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, $19.95).
An epilogue warns the reader about the dangers of secular idolatry. His Morehouse classmate, Charles Willie: “By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity—his personal and public struggles—that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”
This formidable work of scholarship, alas, not only demystifies and demythologizes King, it also disillusioned me, not a little.
I’m crestfallen to learn that his books were mainly ghostwritten. And though I always dismissed contemptuously the Commie talk as cracker McCarthyism, there’s absolutely no denying his dependence for ideas and strategic advice on one Stanley Levison, the Communist functionary who rates half a column in the index, but of whom I had never even heard a word.
The book raises other issues in my mind that simply never occurred to me before. The infighting among black groups must have been terribly costly. The NAACP feared, rightly, that SCLC might drain off its liberal do-gooder donations. And SNCC came along to despise SCLC as closet Uncle Toms.
The Urban League and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters added to the turf wars. It’s amazing that so much got done, given all this beige, black and brown backbiting. (Yes, Virginia, Southern black churches were color conscious—the lighter the holier, and the more upper class.)
Then there’s the macho side of King. He expected Coretta to manage the kids while he was frantically jetting about. Coretta was outraged that he didn’t let her join LBJ’s after-party the night of the March on Washington. His intimates agree that the couple were on the brink of divorce when he was assassinated.
But what really surprised me was to compare the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, with the Garrow biography. Take the Montgomery boycott. In the book, it’s a record of organizing car pools, litigation against ten-cent fares, empty buses. On TV, we see hordes of cleaing ladies footing it to work.
And you’d never guess E.D. Nixon and Fred Shuttlesworth had longstanding grudges against King from the warm nostalgia of their TV interviews. Burying the hatchet is one thing, but rewriting history on camera is another.
Sometimes the TV supplements the book powerfully. Alabama State English professor Jo Ann Robinson is luminous on the tube—but just a foot soldier stealing time on her college’s mimeo machines in the book.
While the book diminishes my valuation of King, TV gives me new heroes. Moses Wright, the grandfather of Emmet Till, the murdered 14-year-old from Chicago, is just splendid in court, pointing a fearful but unintimidatable finger at his grandson’s assassin. “Thar he!” two words that will ring down the ages as long as we detest injustice.
The trouble with King Day is that it detracts from the masses whose character has made civil rights a reality. I have the suspicion as well that the King adulation is a guilty white establishment’s final scam. The lousiest bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis is named after him—it leads to that city’s Camden, East St. Louis, a more bedraggled ghetto you can’t imagine.
The onomastic frenzy that followed King’s KKK killing (Kennedy / King / Kennedy) is a cheap way to quiet down the surliest of blacks. Notice, we don’t have W.E.B. DuBois Squares or Malcolm X Boulevards. It was King’s message to the black community to keep turning the other cheek that the white community found reassuring. DuBois was too brilliantly implacable to appeal to the Man, Malcolm too bitterly near the edge to be revered by Whitey.
I used to think Kinging things was a way out of our racist maze. I went to Atlanta for the opening of the MLK Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change in January, 1982. I had checked into the Peachtree Plaza, and early next morning I went to the Sun Dial revolving restaurant atop the hotel to ogle.
Around the perimeter, everything over three feet in height was marked. I was surprised to find a young black man with binoculars up there. It turned out he had just graduated from the Medill School of Journalism, and his first job was to scout traffic for his radio station. I asked him where the King Center was. He pointed southeast. And the black Atlanta University? He waved southwest.
“Neither made the cut, I see,” pointing to all the perimeter landmarks. He laughed cynically. “What’d you expect? It’s still Atlanta.”
At the inaugural press conference, I recounted this experience. If looks could kill honkies, Jesse Jackson would have murdered me on the spot. After a painful pause, Mrs. King replied: “I’m glad you brought that up, because I complained to the assistant manager six weeks ago.”
When I got back to Philly, I wrote the head of the Westin hotel chain, saying I didn’t think it was very first-class not to mention those two black landmarks. He assured me he’d take care of it. Having a sundowner six months later, I eagerly eyed the rim for changes. No Atlanta U. No King Center.
Wait! E-B-E-N-E-Z-E-R C-H-U-R-C-H slowly hove into view. Phooey. No cracker expensive-account aristocrat was going to be upset by that moniker.
That’s when I dedicated that the naming game was not as significant as stiffening the backbones of the Moses Wrights of this country. Two years ago, I went to a jazz festival in Peabody Park in Atlanta. It was agreeably integrated. They were sharing a common joy, not demanding an equal-time holiday. Better to patronize some good jazz performers than be patronizing a man with a holiday half resented.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 4, 1987
Blogging the truth about undercivilized teenagers shouldn’t identify perpetrators who deserve private counsel. Our “Let it all hang out of the sometimes thoughtless Facebook culture” complicates the tuition of teenagers stumbling out of broken family homes and other wrecks. Our viral pop cult is corrupting many, including, I would speculate, teachers hungering for instant Internet fame.
It ain’t the high school I first entered as a teacher in 1952! Where the students were eager to be silently counseled. We’ve created the mess called Mass Culture. Now we must try to recivilize it. A grim future. (And how reassuring to discover Ronald James to persist in being harmlessly aggressive. Bless him— and Dan, for giving him his first perch!)
Vaclav Havel is not the only Czech phenomenon astonishing us tired old democrats of the excessively consumerized West. Saul Bellow’s theme in A Dean’s December—that Americans are prisoners of pleasure whilst the Eastern Europeans are prisoners of pain—is surely confirmed by a Humpty Dumpty communism falling apart before the non-existent legions of John Paul II.
The Land of Jan Hus is not, of course, as papist through and through as the turf of Lech Walesa and Our Lady of Czestochova, but religious idealism is surely a major part of the spine-stiffening that got the Easties through four decades of darkness.
One of the last things my wife and I did together before we capitulated to divorce 21 years ago was to spend two weeks in Czechoslovakia. We exited four days before the Russian bear pounced on “Socialism with a human face,” thereby destroying my belief in that ideology “once and for all.”
I put it that way because when I went to see the Czech modernist photography show recently at the International Center for Photography in Manhattan, I ran into Cornell Capa, the capo of that institution—as well as of socially responsible photography in the 20th Century. I told him of my “permanent” disillusion with socialism. He teased me with a quick “But what about now?”—meaning social democracy may yet be redeemed by the very suffering which socialism’s “enemies” inflicted on the honorable.
That fortnight in Czechoslovakia was one of the most radiant in my life: “discovering” in Prague my passion for Jugendstil; a luminous encounter with a folk carver on the funicular up to Strebe Pleso in the High Tatra mountains (his walking stick, mailed to me from Brno after the invasion, remains the best souvenir I’ve ever been given); Koscie, whose glorious cathedral has some images of mine in the Metropolitan Museum’s photo collection; Bardejev Spa, where I first encountered apparatchiks flaunting their clout in a watering hole which had once been the playground for the exploiting wealthy; and Bratislava, where we started schmoozing two young architecture students who took us home so we could watch the evening TV news of the Prague Spring.
Strangely, I have no recollection of Czech modernist art during the two weeks, maybe because it was officially out of favor, or maybe because my eyes were so dazzled by the plethora of historical styles (medieval, Baroque, Jugenstil) of surpassing grace.
Well, I finally caught up with that amazingly fertile period in the art life of that country at the Brooklyn Museum, where “Czech Modernism: 1900-1945” holds sway through May 7th. Bohumil Kubista (1884-1918) was perhaps the most exciting discovery for me, his cubist (what a nom de chisel!) woodcut “Plea” exemplifying what seems to me the keynote of Czech modernism: the subordination of aesthetic innovations to the service of political, social or religious ideals. I like that: Primary values receive primacy of place.
Kubista was an organizer of Osma (“the Eight”), the first modernist movement within the loose rule of overall Czech modernism. Osma lasted only two years, to be replaced by SURSUM (as in the Catholic ejaculation, Sursum Corda—“Let’s lift up our hearts”), which transformed Symbolism into Expression.
I also loved Zan Zrzavy’s (1890-1977) “The Good Samaritan,” an oil on canvas, where a stabbed man is getting a pieta treatment. His “Self Portrait in Straw Hat” suggests transvestitism, as does his “Self Portrait as Moroccan.”
In February, I had the treat of seeing (at the MOMA of Paris) the first retrospective of allegedly the greatest Czech modernist, Frantisek Kupka, a provincial who came a long, long way from his small town. In Paris he did wonderful satiric covers for Assiette au Beurre (a forerunner of Le Canard Enchaine) that my friend architect Serge Renaudie collects obsessively.
Kupka began as an impressionist and symbolist but gained his (temporarily diminished) reputation as an innovator of colorful abstractions. I enjoyed seeing his entire development, but forgive me if I think his illustrations for the magazine and books and posters are his work with the most lasting pull.
Which leaves photography, last but surely not least. The International Center for Photography show is most interesting to me for its Dadaist / Surrealist images—and for its advertising photography. The two had a way of cross-fertilizing each other even in the 1920s. I was also struck by the political photography—a kind of Sudetenland Bauhaus, if you know what I mean.
Magazines were started to stimulate good design in housing and what the Germans call Siedlungen, or self-contained communities, which they were pioneering in the 1880s in settlements like Siemensstadt, a Berlin neighborhood for workers.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has given its own highly-valued boost to the Czech boom with its retrospective of Josef Sudek, an amateur who achieved professional levels of images in several genres. His spookily surreal images of both architecture and his own window sills are a great pleasure to discover.
Which brings me to one of my favorite harps. Our art history agenda has been poisoned not by Eurocentrism (as the Afrocentrists argue), but by covert Kraut-bashing and Eastern Europe-ignoring. Last September in Budapest, I was stunned by the outstanding painters and sculptors I had never even heard of—and I don’t mean Victor Vassarely!
Even when I go to a dinky museum like the new one in Vernon (the train stop from Paris for Money’s Giverny), I am amazed at how outrageously we skew our art historical agenda to a few overblown SuperPowers (MOMA’s recent hypertout of Picasso and Braque is an egregious example).
There was more good 19th-Century animalier art in Vernon (the French seed their provincial museums with mini-masterpieces) than any kind of art in all of Giverny. I used to think the Academy was an institution you could rely on for perspective. I’ve decided they’re so full of consultants for hire that you’ve just got to get out and look in the other museums in other countries for yourself.
All this Czech stuff busting out all over is fine, but it highlights the provincialisms and venalities of our art establishment—like the Gettys getting Alan Bond’s unpaid-for Van Gogh. Heh, get some Czech, you Malibu Midases, and stop flaunting your petro-dollars so crudely. We want to see life steadily and as a whole. Right?
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 2, 1990
Here’s a triple play that will thrill your optic nerve to its quick. A super show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) and two at the American Craft Museum across the street.
Take the E train from New York’s Penn Station ($1 in change, no bills like in Philly) and get off at the Fifth Avenue stop—the third stop on the way to Queens. You’ll see the banners flapping in front of MOMA when you emerge from the bowels of 666 Fifth Ave.—a building I dubbed the Jules Feiffer Tower when it went up in the 1960s because, architecturally, it is “sick, sick, sick.” (You grizzled ones will get the gag: let the inexperienced look it up in the Village Voice archives.)
Exhibit One: “Vito Acconti: Recent Work” (MOMA, through May 3) exemplifies his recent allegation that folks who go to museums expect to be destabilized but that people in the street have no such expectations. Site your sights accordingly. Provocative.
Exhibit Two: After lunch at MOMA (my regular is the soup du jour and a small bouteille of wine to relieve fatigue), cross the street to the Craft Museum to giggle your way through the Higher Goofy of “Ohio Boy” Jack Earl, a faux naïf whose aorta beats as one with mine (through April 24).
Exhibit Three: At the Craft, also glory in the splendor of “John Prip: Master Metalsmith” (also over April 24). In these drear days of the MFA-ification of crafts as “fine” art, it’s distinctly positive to have well-made alternatives to the abounding crapola.
Levine (11 months my junior) and I grew up (1927-1951) together, when Detroit set a good example of mass production for the entire industrialized world. After the GM 1937 sitdown strike, newly strong unions created a rising middle class that could even afford a “summer place” Up North. As Michael Moore recently argued, Ronald Reagan initiated the destruction of this new middle class on that cruel day in August 1981 when he broke the flight supervisor’s union. Today, the elite 1% make 500 times the workers pay, and that nascent middle class has been cruelly destroyed offshore.
When Library of Congress chief James Billington recently declared Levine Poet Laureate (from October 2011 to May 2012) champions of the expanding underclasses cheered. Including me! But hoopla motivated me to read for the first time his not entirely successful autobiography, “The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography” (The University of Michigan Press, 1993), serendipitously( and astonishingly)accessible in the weak American collection of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar. Reading it substantially changed my estimation of his importance as a working class poet. His drawing room Anarchism that bloomed as he identified with the losers in Spain’s Civil War in a long visit to Barcelona struck me as an affectation rather than a philosophy of life.
And his post election suggestion that there be a competition for Ugliest Poem, and that he didn’t give a shit if The People didn’t “go” for Poetry with a Capital “P”, sounded to me as adolescent as Tea Party Twaddle. A Good Guy pose. The most interesting parts of “Bread” were his contempt for his Iowa instructor Robert Lowell and his complementary respect for his other professor, the Minnesota poet, John Berryman.
And when he finally lands on his feet at Stanford, his mentor Yvor Winters mindless fear of Robert Frost’s visit (he had recently criticized Frost) reminds of high school factions! Halfway through a public reading, Frost noted a student slobbing. He shouted “Sit up! Where were you raised?” Half the audience instantly improved their too casual postage. And when they left, no one said a word, and no one clapped. ”In my judgment, Levine is no Dorothy Day idealist, but an anarchical climber whose shtick is identifying with the abused workers.
Incidentally, simultaneously we did blue collar jobs to finance our doctorates. My takes included the night shift at the Wonderbread Bakery (“It’s a wonder anyone would want to eat it!”), where I monitored a fleet of giant wheeled vehicles in which the dough was rising, often overflowing onto the filthy floors, whereupon I scooped up the dirty dough and heisted it back into the vats.
Lincoln Mercury where I supervised the spot welding of the basic car frame, the first step in their mass production. Selling shoes to poor black women, in a downtown department store for workers. Midnight shift at Chrysler/Hamtramck where I monitored the noisiest stamping machine I have ever encountered. Squirting glue under the rubber floors of new Chevrolet station wagons at Fisher Body/Cleveland. Hoisting harvested peas for a shucking machine in Bay City. Janitor for East Lansing bank before I got my first teaching job. There were, alas, more boring things than correcting papers! Much more.
I must say, English Department meetings mainly turned out to be more mind blinding. Indeed, I relished the new experience of hobnobbing with blue collars, not to forget that there were quite a few graduate students there doing the same stint. I still remember the Italian fella in Cleveland who asked the newly married me, daily, "Have you dunnit in the bathtub yet?” Looking back sixty years, I learned more there about class and social aspiration than all of the sociology texts I ultimately labored through.
But back to Levine’s nomination. The London “Guardian” reported an astonishing run on his books at Amazon. None to sell. I can imagine an idiosyncratically illiterate literatus hurrying to find what the fuss was about! Felix culpa for Philip! He finally gets the reading he’s deserved all along. And one observant journalist noted that in spite of all the fuss, the two local Detroit dailies could only come up with a casual local comment and a wire service obit. Heh, who’s surprised? When we left Detroit, he for Fresno and me for Philly, there were two million Detroiters. Now I’ve heard it’s fast approaching 700,000. Over 80% black, not exactly Levine’s constituency. They could use some good poets, not investing all their energies into Rap and similarly evanescent, underliberating creations.
And one wonders about the short tenure of our PL’s. Tennyson’s tenure for Queen Victoria lasted for almost her entire reign!(At least our PL’s tenures end on Walt Whitman’s birthday, still our grandest guide to what becoming truly egalitarian truly involves.) And recent PL’s like Robert Pinsky and Kay Ryan have devised savvy schemes for involving the heretofore uninterested masses. In Weimar, they celebrate Goethe’s birthday, August 23—every year. I wish Phil would throw a party for Walt like the one we had at Harleigh Cemetery, Camden in 1974, to celebrate the English teachers of America’s raising the money to repair his crumbling mausoleum.
The writer of this unconscionable piece is obviously an embittered and unhappy man with, at best, a superficial knowledge of poetry. When he says that Levine’s anti-Fascist stance in the time of the Spanish Civil War is “an affectation” and calls the men and women who were slaughtered at the hands of Franco and Hitler’s air force at Guernica “the losers,” he demonstrates, even if subconsciously, a repugnant mindset and a heart without compassion.
August 17, 2011
Patrick Hazard replies:
Until I read Levine’s “ought to biography” and his grandstanding remarks at being chosen laureate, I was a great Levine fan. I cited my years of university teaching only to give credibility to my sad belief that most of the poetry writing phenomena don’t give a hoot or a holler for those at the short end of the American cashocracy. I do. So did Levine.
Oh, come on Patrick, poets have always invented their personae. Think Edith Sitwell. Think James Whitcomb Riley, my Indiana hero.
What about Levine’s poetry? He was named poet laureate for it, not for his presumed working-class credentials, which after all are largely the emphasis of journalists who are always looking for a handle to write about poets, or artists of all kinds.
You will notice I do not list all the dirty or cushy jobs I had before I was rescued by the draft board and sent off to win a war.
University City/ Philadelphia
August 17, 2011
Editor’s note: The writer is a retired English professor at Penn.
Folks who worry about hyperinflation-induced food riots and general mayhem in Argentina needn’t. As long as you’re reasonably prudent (don’t wear grabbable jewelry and watches when you join the crowds, park your passport, currency, and credit cards in the hotel safe), Buenos Aires is like Atlantic City with gauchos.
I passed half of my five-day sojourn with the tours my group visit entitled me to; half following my nose. And I only got nicked once by a cabbie.
The trip to the Recoleta cemetery was exceedingly interesting, not only for the widely diverse architectural styles of the individual mausoleums, but for the glimpses of Argentine history you pick up if you listen between the lines of the tour guide’s spiel.
She took us, for example, to the grave of the heavyweight boxing champion Luis Firpo, the legendary “Bull of the Pampas”; and though even this largely geriatric crowd had to think hard to remember who he was, Argentina’s once having been Number One at something was clearly important to this temporary basket case of a country.
The same rueful recollection of grandeur bygone spiced up her comments on the soccer stadium where Argentina had not so many decades ago surprised everybody by garnering the World Cup. The same theme emerged from her wry commentary on the humongous public sculptures that the grateful immigrant communities (Spanish, then German, then Italian) donated to their adopted country during the Centennial celebrations in 1910.
Strangely, in a city where there seems to be a bronze general on horseback on every other street corner, there is no monument to Juan Peron. Right now, he’s still the man to hate among the upper classes, the ones who commission big bronzes. At Cinacina ranch 75 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, owner Raul Ramirez paused from supervising the mouth-watering open pit barbecue we were benignly fated to tangle with to give me his gloss on Argentine politics: “We hated them for 20 years; then we give them a monument.”
I noticed such a portent on all the President Menem election graffiti painted on the concrete stanchions of the expressways out to the ranch. They bore the initials, P.V., which Mr. Ramirez explained stood for “Peron will conquer” in Spanish.
“We were the third strongest currency in the world in 1940,” he noted gloomily. “And look at us now.” He raises jumping horses on the ranch when he’s not feeding tourists—2,000 a month during the peak of the season, at $20 a gorge.
We were offered an extraordinary Gaucho Serenade for a second dessert. The “help” took off their aprons and danced, sang and played folk music of beguiling energy and grace. For me it was the high point of the trip.
There was a souvenir shop that had some authentic goodies—a pure wool shawl for $20 will give you the idea. But I set my heart on one of the wine pitchers, decorated with a folk spray of flowers in rose, the cracked craziness of its glazes adding all the more to its power. I guess it was the first time a gringo had tried to buy some of the furniture. Mr. Ramirez held a hurried consultation with his wife and agreed to let me take it away for 400 Australs ($8). It’s a honey.
There is a small but absolutely delicious museum next to the farm. I feel about working tools the way Will Rogers claimed he felt about people, “I’ve never met a tool I didn’t like to look at.” There are spurs and stirrups and bridles galore, remnants of the era when Argentine beef was a world standard.
And the fewer blemishes on the leather, the better the price in Europe. So the inventive gauchos picked up on an Indian invention, two balls of stone connected by leather thongs which whomped the cattle to death without the mess that swords or shot would entail. A wall full of them constituted one of the nicest site sculptures I’ve relished in many a moon.
Little Palermo Park is another must look at. I lucked out there on the political side as well, striking up a conversation with a resting jogger at the teahouse, who consults with the big firms to cool down the workers with bad confrontational habits from the Peronists era. Amazingly, he voted Peronista in the recent presidential election. “We’ve had to change along with everybody else,” he explained.
Imagine my joy when I opened the English daily Herald to discover that the Sixteenth Annual International Book Fair was opening the next day at the Municipal Exposition grounds, kitty korner to the Museum of Fine Arts. “Japanese Treasures” were on display, but minor-league stuff compared with what I have practically O.D.ed on. But the Argentine 19th- and 20th-Century stuff was fresh to me and well worth a long dawdle.
I schmoozed with the PR people, where I learned I was a month too early for one of my favorite architects, Alvar Aalto. So they appear to be plugged into the international art scene fairly securely—surprisingly more so than Brazil, as I was to find on my next pit stop in Latin America.
The Book Fair was a kick. For a retired English professor, any such collection of books is hog heaven, even when the language is Spanish, in which I read haltingly and speak not at all. But as I cruised the floor, there were two epiphanies, one small—a handsomely designed black sweatshirt inscribed with signatures of all the literary biggies of Argentina—and one very, very big, an interview with Jorge Luis Borges’ widow.
XXXXXXXXXXXXX that Borges married her five days before his death to insure that she inherited his goods. The writer’s family, who hadn’t been too solicitous of his condition in life, freaked out at this deathbed union, but the courts came down on her side. While I was talking with her, a contingent of teenagers from a private high school converged on her like she was Madonna—the pop star not the virgin. Their ebullient joy in her presence was remarkable.
There’s yet one more must visit in B.A., the so-called La Bocca (“mouth”) district where a river flows into the wide, wide estuary of the Rio Plata. The Italian immigrants who first settled it built their shacks out of the leftover odds and ends of the construction jobs they took up. And they painted their flimsy digs with leftover paint, of the wildest hues. Now the district has been retrieved as a hippie artist colony with an eye on visiting tour groups like ours.
One final new treat for visitors, the new Museum of Modern Art, had a show of works chosen by a jury of the best-known artists in the city. The exhibition was interesting enough—especially a 70-year-old sculptor’s randy parody of the Ubiquitous General on Horseback sculptures. But the enduring treat is the architecture, a recycling of an old cigarette factory by the city’s preeminent architect, Santiago Sanchez Elias.
There were other minor delights: walking through the train station, with the train shed patterned on London’s Victoria Station; a new bus terminal full of lively travelers and attentive peddlers; a pedestrian shopping district, Avenida Florida. B.A. is OK.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 7, 1991
My German mother-in-law, Dr. Med Lisa Heinicke, just sent me a clipping from her professional monthly (Deutsches Arzeblatt, 29 Juli 2011, C 1391) touting the centennial of Walter Gropius’ first major building (along with his “silent” partner, Adolf Meyer), the Tagus-Werk, the 1911 shoe last factory in Alfeld am Leine in Niedersachsen. UNESCO has just declared it part of the World’s Cultural Heritage. Its “pioneering” glass façade curtain wall was described as “a Palace for the Worker”. As a Depression era Detroiter whose GI Bill had run out, I was happy to work three summer in car factories for financing my Ph.D. But, mind you, there were no Palaces.
Indeed, the leading designer of factories in the pioneer automotive phase, Albert Kahn, became my ideal architect from an early age (3!) because my Uncle Dan identified him as the designer of the Beau Deco Fisher Building in midtown Detroit, whose illuminated nighttime golden crown was slyly named the GillyHoo Bird’s Nest, to “explain” the mysterious appearance of candy bars on the front window sill when he returned from work as the supervisor of delivery trucks for the Crowley –Milner department store.
Later, in graduate school, I learned that Kahn, the first of six children of a Jewish rabbi, came at age 11 to Detroit in 1880. He never even finished high school, not to even think about architectural training. Indeed he was so gifted a designer that his bosses, who headed the City’s leading architecture firm sent him to Europe for a year in 1891, to polish his skills by studying the European architectural heritage.
Eventually, Henry Ford’s architect, and the leading factory designer of the twentieth century. Kahn mocked Gropius’s ambitions. He knew from experience that a good factory was not a Palace for the worker, but a structure specifically designed to facilitate the mass production of certain products. Each factory was designed from the ground floor up. The roof was then designed to control light in that process. Facile Facadism was thus an egregious architectural error. He called the Bauhaus in general the “Glass House boys.” Therein lies the first stumble of Modernism.
In 1851 Great Britain celebrated their domination of industrial production with the first World’s Fair in London. To attract attention, and simultaneously provide a convenient structure for huge crowds to ogle global achievements, it devised the Crystal Palace, utilizing the newly accessible materials of glass, iron (later steel), and cement. Our first generation of “modern” architects mistakenly adopted this triple ploy of materials in ways that defeated the purposes stated.
Take the Dessau Bauhaus designed by Gropius and Ernst Neufert which opened to much praise in 1926. American architect Philip C. Johnson Phoned the future director of the Museum of Modern Art/New York/1929 in Berlin (scouting new art for future exhibitions) that it was the greatest modern building he’s seen so far, as he cruised Europe looking for examples of which he would term “The International Style”. Sure, it made great images for the new Leica pro’s who were making a new modern art of photography. But ask the Professors and their students. Too much glass. Sweat in the summer and freeze in the winter! They hated the way it worked on them!
And take Mies van der Rohe, as an Aachen mason’s son always number two to Gropius’s upper class provenience, (his great uncle, Martin Gropius, was the last great pre-modern German architect.) As assistants to the really great Peter Behrens (whose luminous Berlin Turbine Hall (1910) had practically no glass!), Mies had to report to Gropius, and he hateed it! He believed if he made great art, he would gain the status he hungered for! (It only messed his work!)
For example, he organized the experimental Weissenhof community outside Stuttgart in 1927 by gathering 17 great or promising world architects. The proto-feminist Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Lüders criticized his apartments in the Deutsche Werkbund quarterly, “Form” for two much glass that endangering the health of crawling babies! Not to ignore the fact that the wind blew out the gas stove when you opened the kitchen door! Corbusier’s flats for the same experiment were abandoned to service as visitor center because the concrete was uncongenial for habitation. The Barcelona Pavilion (1928) used excess glass, but he was forgiven: It was a visual wonder that attracted visitors in that city’s World Exposition!
As late as 1950, Mies was making the same mistakes! The weekend residence he designed for his Chicago Doctor girlfriend had much too much glass. So much that she sued him in court for excess energy costs. (She lost the case. And Mies lost the girlfriend!) Years later, as several tenants declared it inhabitable, it was given the “ignominy” of reduction to a Visitor’s Center. Incidentally, Philip C. Johnson whose “Architecture is for Art” belief corrupted American commercial architectural for a century. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest architecture exposition concedes his mistake. Ironically, Johnson created his own Crystal Palace in Connecticut, Mies mocked it as looking like a hot dog place at night!
There were other bad habits at the beginning of Modernism: flat roofs (inspired by the traveling architects “marveled” at the flat roofs of Morocco. Their foolish abandonment of the gable (the greatest design breakthrough since our ancestors abandoned caves!) has made leaking roofs a plague of modernist architecture.
No genius completely avoids these Original Sins of Modernism. Corbusier’s first modern building was a home for his parents in Vevey, Switzerland, adjoining Lac LeMan. Unfamiliar with effects of temperature changes on concrete, their building was soon afflicted cracks in the concrete. Corbu made do with aluminum sheaths.
Heh, every new human adventures has its negative complications. It’s no solution to ignore them.
Incidentally, I was motivated to come and live in Weimar when I discovered in Graduate School that Gropius wanted to use art and technology to make good design accessible to the masses. Me too, as a former member of that exploited working class. But we no longer need Palaces! (Those “Crystal Palace” days are mostly over, except for Arabs and Africans and persecuted minorities.) We still do need strong unions, fairly shared incomes and social protections like health care for all.
A version of this article is published by Broad Street Review.
This is the second recent piece on Toulouse, surprising us to see in this case the melancholy of entertainers for the bourgeosie as the other essay revealed the sadness of whorehouse women. This is indeed dynamite. The Nouveau in the Art is social compassion for the abused, not just vicarious entertainment for half-blind 20th century "patrons" of art.
Hard “G” Gerald Weales raps Santorum’s knuckleheaded ploys effectively.
I’m reminded of the automobile insurance salesman in East Lansing in 1952 who immediately lost a sale by “Pat"-ing me as he unleashed his spiel. I’ve been “Patrick” by request ever since.
Pseudo-friendliness is an American weakness. Morton Cronin wrote a classical rebuke in The New Republic in the 1950s when he described the pushy boss who first-named his staff until they crossed him. He then expressed his power by last-naming them.
(Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles by Patrick on Chattanooga.)
The Hunter Museum would make a trip to Chattanooga a joy even if there were no new Tennessee Aquarium. Perched nobly on a windy bluff, a ten-minute jog up the hills that make Chatty such a topographical glory, the Hunter is my favorite regional museum.
Albert Paley—the great forger of iron curlicues—joined the stately mansion that was the UrHunter Museum to the new addition with a forged fence so glorious in its serpentine curvings that it may be the best jointure in the history of American architecture.
Philly has a place of honor at the Hunter’s front door: Alexander Calder’s “Pregnant Whale,” a witty stabile in yellow, white, red and black. There’s also another Paley nearby, “Garden Gate.”
So I was prepared to expect something grand when I flew down to Chattanooga for opening day of the Aquarium. But not a world-class masterpiece. By Peter Chermayeff, founding member in 1962 of the Cambridge Seven, who have had their slide rule’s way with the aquaria of Boston, Baltimore, Osaka.
It’s William Blake’s “minute particulars” that make this one such an effective work of architecture. This $45 million facelift for where Market Street runs into the Tennessee River is chock full of inventive ideas.
Begin with the cladding. It’s like Venturi’s PoMo multicolored brick at Princeton, but it’s softer in brown, beige and almost yellow. When you get up to it, you realize why: The aggregate simulates fossils embedded in stone. Sun and clouds play an unending game with its surfaces.
The shape of the structure is two huge trapezoids separated (and joined!) by a vertically rectangular reflective glass wall. It’s Kaleidoscope City. What a way to end the main drag of a town that once was on the visual ropes.
I had the dumb Irish luck (yet again) to be ogling these traipsing trapezoidals when Peter C. hisself ambled by. I laid a pop quiz type question at him: How did this job—coping with a river bluff—differ from Baltimore, where you had an inner harbor to deal with?
Oh me, oh my! Did that ever unleash a brilliant improvised lecture on the architecture of unification—buildings which draw pre-existing parts together to form a more visually satisfying whole.
He pointed to the left where they’re promoting a future Hilton hotel and to the right, where they’ve already broken ground for a visitors’ center. Then local artist Ted Sanderson ambled by, and I collared him, a bit skeptically: I’d heard that the siting he and a young SITES architect had devised for Chermayeff’s building cost $10 million.
Ten MegaBig Ones for landscaping? Five minutes into his explanation—Ross Landing was to be the civic navel from now unto eternity—I was humbly eating Moon Pie. The locals got $20 million worth of ideas and verve for their money.
You walk across a raised wavy concrete ramp and suddenly realize you’re reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “American Dream” speech about Lookout Mountain, that very bastion of Confederate Rebbery. Walk over here and you’re reading a mini-anthology of Cherokee lamentations.
Slowly, it dawned on me that all the concrete squares with Sequoah’s and other sentiments on them were cracked. I thought to myself, what damned cracker vandalistic gall. Except they were cracked on purpose to remind us of what we did to the Indians. Broke our word on every occasion.
Those two siters have given us unending sights for sorely deadened eyes that will last until 2042, when they’re going to open the time capsule they planted on May Day—with an organic chemist’s analysis of the toxicity of the Tennessee River water. Concrete softened with the gentle imprints of fossil leaves. Bricks and slabs of different textures. Trees of every ilk.
And we haven’t even entered the building yet! Inside, superb architectural detailings almost distract you away from the fauna. First you ascend to the top floor on an escalator topped by a series of TV’s playing burbling brook images and sounds. As you walk off the escalator, bingo, there’s the Big T before your very eyes.
You can ogle up and down the river—there are three bridges. Next comes a brilliant series of illuminated maps which tell you what the Big T has been up—and down—to, the Ohio River in Paducah, Ky., where it quickly empties into the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill.
What a perambulating old meandering snake of a river. It pokes its nosey waves into the nooks and crannies of ten states. Begins as an itty bitty creek—and there’s a lovely visual bordering that simply lists the quirky names of all those tiny feeders—and ends as a really big one, worthy of emptying into the Mississippi.
Here’s where the thrills begin. You slowly down-ramp, with sidebar excursions into every dimension of this big river system. I thought they were cheating on their promise to be the world’s first fresh water aquarium when I saw a squid murkily disporting itself. I said to a docent, there ain’t no such animal in fresh water. He patiently explained I had reached the Gulf of Mexico. His eyes said, “Dumb Yank.”
You remember the old tune which went “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly?” Well, they do it together at the Tennessee Aquarium. A particularly saucy duck was monsooning on the customers as she preened her feathers and practiced vertical takeoffs. And though I’ve groused all my life, at T.A. May Day I saw my first grouse, sulking in a tree—then flying away.
There’re rattlers and alligators and water moccasins, piranhas and barracudas to appeal to the crudest macho in us. Only the otters disappointed the crowds on opening day—secretive, always “out to lunch.” And I’ve only, so to speak, scratched the surface of the water. I’m a quick study when it comes to museums, but I was astonished to discover that I had spent four solid hours sucking up to this mess of fish and fun. And I was ready for more, but they were putting away the animals for the night by putting us out.
The next morning, I did what I usually do before breakfast: I cruised for architecture. Man, does Chattanooga have it. And the zany ups and downs and ins and outs of its topography make them even more interesting.
Jesse Tugwell's Medusa
Philly’s name was mud on the banks of the Tennessee in Chattanooga last May Day as the locals dedicated their dazzling new fresh-water aquarium. Well, make that the Philadelphia Daily News’ name because of the allegations and plain inaccuracies of Kurt Heine’s piece about the “aquafever” boom and the as-yet-unopened Tennessee Aquarium he had never seen.
Mark Kennedy, the Chattanooga Times’ youthful version of Peter Dexter, kurtly chopped Heine on his heiny by pointing out that Choo Choo City has only 150,000 inhabitants, not the 450,000 ascribed to it. Then he wondered aloud to me if this Philly that was trashing Chattanooga’s urbane aspirations was the same Philly whose mayor pioneered police helicopter bombing as a form of urban renewal.
A bad day for Philly, but a great day to be alive in Tennessee. As an Aquarian by birth, a dedicated global aquarium watcher, I don’t hesitate to assert that Chattanooga’s newest attraction ($8.75 a pop, unless you’re a member, and it seemed that every second Chattanoogan I palavered with had joined up) is the best aquarium in the world—architecturally, pedagogically, even commercially: It sells Appalachian folk art of the highest quality at its store.
It wasn’t always thus in that run-down industrial and train town that Glenn Miller and Tex Beneke made famous in 1941. As I munched contentedly on a splendid dinner—grilled shrimp with a perky hot pepper garnish, lobster bisque soup, lamb chops in a crusty cover, plus a bottle of Choo Choo Zinfandel—in the refurbished box car that goes by the name “Dinner in the Diner,” at the Holiday Inn / Choo Choo, I realized that I’d been 14 when first I heard that tune as a pimply-faced teenager in Detroit.
I was 50 years old (1977) when first I got an ogle of that notorious train station that ended Tex’s tuneful trip. Pardon me, boy, but the town was a total mess. Yucko.
A few years later, I passed through a somewhat less tacky Chattanooga—the Tennessee Valley Authority had put up some interesting buildings. I was flogging TV poetry films from Britain, which put me in touch with Paul Ramsey, the poet in residence at UT / Chattanooga. And his quilt-making better half, Bets. What a couple. Still, their town seemed terminally blah-ridden to me.
My next visit was to see a two-woman show at the Hunter Museum of Art, featuring quilter Bets and her friend and sculptor, Jesse Tugwell. I popped for a Bets, getting in before she became internationally famous—she’s out of my financial league these days, although I can and do afford her marvelous books about Southern quilts form Clarkson Potter publishers.
And I bought Jesse Tugwell’s forged and hammered iron “Medusa,” whose tortured locks provide a place from which to hang the press credentials I save from my worldly travels in swift pursuit of the Good Life. I think of it as a kind of Hazzed-up Tugwell.
My girl and I were in a tip-top frame of mind that morning, which explains how a tightwad like me loosened up his purse strings. We had driven a rented red Pinto from Nashville Airport the day before, lazied our way down in a southeasterly direction through Sewanee, cutting across the northeastern corner of Alabama (our car was regassed by two halfbacks from the state high school football champions—which means a great deal more in Alabama than it does to me), settling for the night in a familiar sounding Trenton (Georgia).
Next, we went to the New Salem Fall Arts Festival, full of the quirky and crafty idiosyncrats that grace the hollers and villages of the mid-South. In a glow from schmoozing with these artists, we were underprepared for the greatest serendipity of all: As we approached Chattanooga, we ran into the First World Hang-Gliding Championship—crazies jumping fearlessly off Lookout Mountain.
I mention these bio-trivia because at least half the charm of Choo Choo City is what’s popping within a day’s easy driving range. For example, when I sweet-talked easygoing Sally Brooks to let me have a quick look inside her closed folk art store across from the Hunter, she told me her partner in American folk art flogging, Jim Hedges, was down for the day to the Howard Finster Festival in Summersville, Ga.
Sally’s only been at it for two and a half years. But folk art is getting so big she’s got customers galore in Minneapolis, Chicago and other non-Southerly parts. But if visiting the Hunter, save some time for her folk cache—and for a marvelously bizarre glass collection—across the street.
(Part one of a two-part article.)
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, no date listed