Saturday, 30 June 2012

A Really Big Shew

Ed Sullivan showed he knew where the Prime Time nerve of the American public was with his early TV catchphrase—“a really big shew.” That packed them in, for in America, almost from the beginning, Big was Better, and Bigger was Best. There has always been an Expectations Gap in a culture that casually assured Everyboy he could grow up to be President, while in reality most of the people most of the time had much more mundane expectations. The Metaphor of Bigness thus became our psychological safety valve, easing the tension between promise and reality.

That’s what first came to mind when I caught the opening last summer in Buffalo of the opening of “Niagara,” of images of that unique natural phenomenon (opening January 22nd at the New York Historical Society). Father Louis Hennepin published the first eye witness account in 1697, the most salient feature of which is his grossly overestimating of the actual height of the cataract. This exaggeration so charged up the imagination of his readers that in the second edition he upped his inflated estimate even more!

There’s another elephantine aspect to this collection of over 250 paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, photographs and memorabilia from sixty-eight private and public collections. The Megashow is the esthetic expression of this American hunger for the grandiose. What has been happening in the past decade of Megaexhibiting is a display of curatorial logistics that is a triumph of long distance phone calling over artistic insight. After seeing such a plethora of Niagara images, I began to understand what Ronald Regan meant when he argued that when you’ve seen one giant redwood tree you’ve seen them all. This is particularly apparent in images of what appears to me to be incommensurate with mere artistic skill: the Niagara is just too overwhelming to be captured with equivalent power in a static image. Even Frederic Edwin Church’s “Niagara Falls” (1857) is a disappointing ho-hum, juxtaposed to the briefest film clip, not to mention five minutes of ogling the torrent in the round. It has been widely argued (and persuasively disproven in my judgment) that the Holocaust was too horrible to ever be captured truthfully enough in word or image. Not so. But my net conviction after seeing “Niagara” is that it’s simply not meant for static media.

This emerging judgment was snapped firmly in place at the end of my viewing by seeing a superb half-hour film, “Niagara Falls: The Changing Nature of a New World Symbol” (Produced and directed by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films). When I wondered (on my bus ride over to complete my Niagara caper with a reviewing of the Falls themselves) why the film pleased me so much and the disparate images so little, I concluded that the film was anthropological, while the discrete images a mere pyrrhic victory of temporary curatorship. The film is much better at explaining, for example, the rise of the Niagara tourist industry, a pre-jet age Honeymoon Central. In short, what the film achieves and the “art exhibit” misses is that the real story of Niagara was not what was going on in the studios of artists wowed by its immensities but what was and wasn’t going on in the hearts and imaginations of the tourists.

A film is the proper medium for bringing together in a comprehensible way all the daredevilry of going over the falls in a barrel or tight rope walking across it—to the astonishment of the hyped up tourists and those who read about the exploits in their hometown newspapers, vowing doubtless that they would take the train there next summer and see for themselves. The more I think about it, in fact, the more I wonder whether a really well-edited film about a painter or a genre or a tradition doesn’t achieve more in purely esthetic terms than the increasingly “social” significance of the crowds moiling around in confusion at your typical Megashow. They click in turnstiles for fiscally beleaguered art institutions, but I’m beginning to wonder how much art insight those by-ticket-only mob scenes generate.

Another aspect of this exhibition that is much more significant than the mainly mediocre artifacts assembled is the occasion for the show itself, namely the centennial of the establishment of the Niagara Reservation. One could argue that the successful fight against gross commercial debauching of the Niagara site (and it had become a world-class Mess) was the first instance of historical preservationism in America, if you stretch that category to Natural History, restoring a site to its predeveloped condition. It’s a neglected success story in American cultural history (Jonathan Baxter Harrison, who was later to distinguish himself with the Indian Rights Association, joined forces with America’s first art historian—Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton—to organize a letter writing campaign in the then fledgling Nation magazine to save Niagara from commercial desecration). It was a heartening example, smack in the middle of the Gilded Age, that those who cared could triumph over the careless if they got smart politically.

Buffalo being so close to the Falls, I was eager after an afternoon of image mulling to see if the Real Thing still wowed me the way it has so many times before—first as an early married, then with the kids, and later May-Decembering. And how. I chose the highest viewing point—I couldn’t help but notice it had just been renamed Minolta Tower (with a credible mini-museum of photography at the observatory level). I gathered these thoughts in a haze of recollection and rumination, pampering myself with a dinner of Canadian pheasant and a New York white wine.

By dessert time I had decided that, except for the film, the best part of the day had been an adjacent exhibition just down the street from the Albright-Knox Gallery—at the Erie Historical Society, on how Niagara had been used in advertising campaigns during the last century. Frequently a cascade of unrelieved kitschiness, still the exhibition was more memorable than its higher class art expo because, all things considered, Niagara has meant more to the commercial marketing imagination than to the Muse pure and simple. The “meaning” of Niagara thus is best approached through the Sunday 2:00 p.m. afternoon films and lectures (the film, January 26, followed by lectures February 2 and 9 by contributors to the catalog, $20 at the Museum Store). The show itself will continue to flow until April 27.

Friday, 29 June 2012

The Power of Images

I'd be interested in how David Freedberg approaches a nonentity like Jeff Koons. Or the over-vaunted visual gibberish of, say, Kandinsky. The ism spasm we call Modernism has, I predict, given a pseudo-seriousness to tradition doubters seeking a credible secular faith. The Era of Gibberish will fade.

The Perils of Making it in Olney

The fracas in Olney over Korean-language street signs reminds me of my visit to Korea in 1983. On October 10th of each year, the Koreans celebrate the creation of an alphabet by King Hangul, with a national holiday.

For a retired English professor, that was really astonishing—to see a people so dedicated to literacy they’d set aside a day to remind themselves what a blessing their king had given his people.

It was, of course, a great breakthrough for democracy of learning—reducing the 8,000 ideographs of classical Chinese to a manageable series of symbols. Scholars have argued as well that Hangul is the most perfectly attuned alphabet, symbol matching sound with great precision—none of the asymmetry that makes spelling in English a world-class pain in the memory.

The Olney Koreans went through the proper channels, getting city approval for their $3,000 worth of 26 signs. They claim they wanted to help older Koreans find their way around the new neighborhood, a possibly disingenuous explanation. More likely, they mainly wanted to feel more at home in a city where blacks bumped them off in North Philly and where, generally, in the blue-collar neighborhoods in which they can most easily get a foothold, they are derided as “gooks.”

No matter. It makes you wonder how much of the Lady Liberty centennial was a farce of fireworks, so little do her ideals prevail today in our neighborhoods.

The Koreans are used to being reviled and abused. The Japanese occupation of their peninsula between 1910 and 1945 has got to have been one of the ugliest episodes in the generally hateful annals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And the Koreans that the wartime Japanese shanghaied to their islands to do the dirtiest work in World War II are still treated like scum on Honshu and Hokkaido. (The most recent outrage is a law to require fingerprinting of all foreign nationals, but which is generally assumed to be a way of handling the Koreans “stranded” there.) So those street signs are probably, above all, a kind of psychic band aid for a people who have taken a lot of drubbings in the 20th Century.

To monolingual Americans, foreign signs—like foreign languages—are mostly a lot of goofy noise and gibberish. But that’s not the big issue in Olney. The big issue is that the Koreans are just too damned successful for their (the neighbors’) own good, “their” in this case being the two- and three- and four-generation Irish and Germans whose American Dream has been basically static for years and years (and, what is really damaging to their psyches, in Reagan’s two-tiering of America seems to be slipping behind.)

This is different from their cousins in Juniata Park and Frankford and Kensington. Those blue-collar ethnics are singing the blues because blacks “wreck the neighborhood”—even though some of those precincts seem dominated more by hoods than by neighbors.

The problem in Olney is that the Koreans are upgrading the neighborhood. Envy, that Achilles heel of egalitarian democracies, rears its ugly head. The current “Yellow Peril” is that these immigrants work too hard, save too prudently, upscale themselves too fast.

“There but for the grit of harder work, go I and mine,” grouse the blue-collar ethnics who are enraged by having to swallow the dust the industrious Koreans leave in their wake.

I’m convinced that this is a variant of anti-Semitism: The lazy hate Jews as well, for doing too well. And the trio of T-shirted, beer-swigging young whites who “lynched” the signs are an apt emblem of their own problem. They’d rather fight the success of others than switch their own lifestyles to more productive ones.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Learning From Portugal: at the Lisbon Press Center

It is instructive to remember that Portugal was once a Super Power—in the sixteenth century, Europe’s first in fact, until Spain got the drop on her, doing a better job of milking her colonies. As we build up in fact, to a Columbian quinquecentennial frenzy, it is also salutary to deconstruct the Age of Discoveries.

Prince Henry the Navigator, the certified godfather of that “Great Age,” organized Europe’s first think tank, in Sagres, on the Southwest Atlantic coast of Portugal, to which he invited the best mapmakers, navigators, and shipbuilders, the better to consolidate his country’s lead in the race to amass the wealth of the Third World—long before it assumed that name to go with its perennial subordinate status. Price Henry, we’re now told, only got onto a ship once himself, and he got so seasick he never set foot off land again. Heh, nobody ever said a thinker had to get his feet wet.

On Madeira, which has two Christopher Columbus museums—one in a wine cellar on the main drag of the capital Funchal, the other off shore on Porto Santo, memorializes its “discover” by Portuguese sailors in 1419 with a humungous statue to Prince Henry. It also concedes recently and openly in its scholarly quarterly review that the islands were already shown on fourteenth century Italian maps, and that in any case the seafaring Arabs knew about them since the eighth century. 

But Imperiums need grand beginnings, and filiopietistic historians down the ages have been only to willing to write what was deemed needed for the national honor. By the way, Christopher Columbus first enters the historical record in Funchal in 1476, as the defendant in a law suit. He came to Porto Santo to cash in on the sugar boom, married the daughter of the island’s governor, but then got involved in the wrong end of some litigation questioning his probity as a sugar factor.

But on my third visit to Portugal over the past ten years, something else has attracted my attention: the near unanimity among Portuguese intellectuals questioning the U.S. use of force in the Gulf War. I know such minor powers’ quibbles don’t play well during the post-Victory euphoria. (But remember how unexpectedly short the post-Berlin Wall fall euphoria was: we seem to be measuring our manic depressive national moods in nanoseconds these days.)

British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd expressed his solidarity with Bush and Baker recently by snooting Portuguese President Mario Soares on his official visit here for his having the temerity to sign a manifesto devised by the leading Portuguese intellectuals deploring American behavior in the Gulf. Hurd rather herdishly cancelled a long-planned meeting with Soares at the last minute. Tacky geopolitics, if you ask me.

I interviewed the editor of Jornal Letras (very Americanly known as JL) because this week the 25,000 circulation weekly of ideas was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its post-Revolution (1974) existence. I asked him about the Soares incident, and he explained that the horrors of the decolonizing wars in Angola, Mozambique, and lesser territories like Cape Verde, and Sao Tomas between 1961 and 1974 had given the Portuguese an unforgettable memory of what war is really like, and how you ought to move heaven and earth before succumbing to the temptation to simply exercise devastating superior power.

These intellectuals, and not a few Portuguese businessmen and public policymakers as well, are scared out of their shoes at how complacently Americans, from Bush to the lowliest G.I., regard those 100,000 Iraqi casualties. The American “They asked for it, buster!” mentality is deeply disturbing to Europeans in general and Portuguese in particular. They regard it as a kind of culpable innocence capable of wreaking great damage in the world.

And of course they sense that the hubris of Bush’s victory will inevitably lead to more American tragedies. As our friends, they are strangely sad at their helplessness at explaining to us decent American cretins what surprises History has in store for us. And they know in their bones that American mistakes will do them harm as well. So they empathize with U.S. because their fate is inextricably tied in with ours.

The Portuguese have learned to live with the loss of their Superpowerhood with grace and dignity. It’s too bad for the larger world that we Americans are such insolent and slow learners.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Steve Jobs' Home

Homeboy: I had no childhood home as my abandoned mother sent me to a boarding school. But my first chosen residence as a husband was a Charles Goodman National Homes Cape Cod prefab, $6000, $400 down and $40 a month. His work in a demotic America deserves the praise squandered on hip phonies like Frank Gehry whose buildings are covert walk-through sculptures to his alleged genius. Boo to these avantgarde booboos.

And I spent four years in Levittown, which contrary to the Upper West Side Manhattan snobs, was satisfying good value. For 50 years I had the great pleasure of owning ($23,000, 1959) a Louis Kahn three bedroomer in Philadelphia’s Greenbelt Knoll, that city’s first experiment in racial integration.

Now I live, retired, with pleasure in a 1783 villa in Weimar, Germany. Phillip Johnson parvenue obsessions have corrupted American discourse on what is “great” as opposed to “grate” architecture. Everyone in America deserves a satisfying residence, in spite of the banksters who fiddle with mortgages and suppress lower class income.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Motor City Poet

On Philip Levine:

I grew up in Detroit (1927-50) but not in the same city as Mr. Levine. I had to work factories as well after my GI Bill ran out, to finance my Ph.D. in American Lit. But I relished the contact with blue collars: it made me as well a lifelong spokesman for the deprived in Detroit. Levine (born 1928) seems to make a shtick of his factory work.

I wrote no publishable poetry, but wrote essays on the pretentious self delusion that America was a dreamland of upward mobility. It’s a prison with exploding incarceration rates for the black and brown. Levine flaunts his anarchism in Barcelona. He needs to concentrate more on Baltimore.

See my review of his award on the website of the U of the Arts, Philly, where I lived for 50 years (1957-2007) until I moved to Weimar, Germany.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Tacky Trenton?

EYE 95: Roving, curiously, along the Interstate in search of civilized sensations

Tacky Trenton? When my son asked me why I was visiting Trenton (isn’t it, he asked, just like Camden), he displayed a common snootiness that keeps many, perhaps most, art lovers in the Delaware Valley from realizing what a treasure house the New Jersey State Museum was and is. I’m never amazed enough at what I find there. Currently, they’re preening the Acquisitions (some from gifts and some from a special $1.5 million legislative grant last summer) they’ve recently gathered in—in their effort to make the Museum a major center for the study of twentieth century art.

There’s a splendid Ralston Crawford (Whitewashed Barn, 1937) that is less photographic, more painterly than Charles Sheeler in its homage to the barns in Bucks County. And there’s an undated (Speedwell Dam, 1960’s) by a brush wielder new to me, German born Edward Kranich (1826-91).

It’s on the edge of the luminist tradition, but more subdued, Sunday-fineried folks getting ready to ferry over the Delaware from the left bank, where a very gneiss mill house and delectably technical-looking sluice, awaits them, that placid old river running right down the middle. I’d like to see more canvases by this unpretentious painter (and in fact the Museum’s newsy bulletin says there is another one, a gift as well). Oh, take another look in those old Jersey attics, folks.

But the prize to my eyes is Horace Pippin’s salute to black domesticity (The Hoecake, c. 1946). It’s dominated by a cooking woman, bright red stocking cap on her bending head (hoecaking) with a snow white apron on a jet black dress, the red on her head being picked up by folk art throw rugs (red, green, grey) in front of the fireplace where delightful bobbles of red suggest fire, the foreground activity artfully deployed against stylized log cabin interior. Boy, that Horace sure knew how to be naïve! As tasty to bite into as the apple of his name.

Trenton talks of these as “minority arts,” but Pippin can no more be limited to the appellation “black artist” than Granma Moses could be diminished as a WASP scene painter.

There’s also a powerful ink on paper by Charles White (Fredrick Douglas, 1947), in which a gigantic figure of the abolitionist dominates a barbed wired enclosure that he is ripping apart, thereby liberating the legion of middle class black men marching forward off the front of the picture plane. A little sexist, perhaps; even ironic, given the one-person families bedeviling the contemporary black community. But powerful nonetheless.

There is also a delectable swatch of James Van Der Zee’s Harlem classic era photos (and a marvelous photo as well by Anthony Barboza, 1980, of the black photo chronicler—as well as a 1976 Barboza of Gordon Parks, whose own work is finely repped by “June Bug”).

I also highly commend the acquisition of Geza de Vegh’s superlative Art Deco “Figure of Woman” plaque, 1935-40: it’s Deco without the Hollywood glitz that tires so quickly; her hair is a soft brown, her skin beige, and green and orange foliage garnish her beauty. All hail to the toilet bowl works at Perth Amboy, where this was fired!

The Ethnology folks don’t have to cower either. I had never seen a “manioc strainer” before today. It’s in a case of Amazon artifacts, a blunt club to stun birds and monkeys, and spears to do in bigger beasts. Because of this context I wrongly inferred it was a quiver. Not so, city slicker. The long thin quiver lookalike made of palm bark strains the prussic acid out of manioc thereby making it edible cassava. Oh how smart were our forebears, if not very forebearing with their weapons.

Princely Princeton: Everybody knows that Princeton is a cornucopia of culture, but not enough people know that the Rare Books Gallery of the Firestone Library year after year unleashed superb small shows on its pampered collegiate public. In this instance, to show off for the attendees of an International Byzantine Congress, Princeton’s busy Byzantines have gathered (mainly from their own collections) a trove to make your mouth water.

Take #24, a weaver’s comb, from Egypt of the tenth to eleventh centuries: an imperial figure (a visiting Byzantinist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whom I pressed into the service of my ignorance could not be sure if it was Constantine or “just” a woman imperially beautiful) flanked by two helicoptering angels fills a tunic whose folks are brilliantly suggested by ten vertical grooves.

Oh, the simplicity of its grandeur. #46 definitely is Constantine, but in the form of a steelyard weight, to be used for measuring according to my companion of the room from Jerusalem—a new art form for me, thereby fulfilling my daily dream of never going to a show that doesn’t display at least one genre entirely new to me.

The Martyrion of Seleucia Pieria is a trove of a different tenor: #14 is a bird deftly incised with an economy that dazzles (the lines were filled in with colors, the better to celebrate its birdishness; #5 is in high relief, the more sophisticated form in vogue after the original site was savaged by an earthquake. Talk about rehabbing. Living and let love. #16 is one of those prestidigitations with a back mirror in this case revealing to those without Clark Kent eyesight a ravishing pair of rosettes and a feathered arrow form—called Fragment of a disc with St. Thekla, from Antioch fifth to sixth centuries.

But is was #198 which captured my heart—an architectural drawing from a survey (1901) by F.A. Norris of a place called Serdjilla, at the scale of 1 cm to 10 meters. It is the glory of this section of architecture that was the great art news for me. Not since I stumbled on the eighth century stone church of St. Lazaire in Larnaca, Cyprus ten years ago, have churches moved me as much.

They are no longer Roman, not yet Romanesque in the European sense, with bulbous domes that bespeak a consanguinity with mosques. Those are churches strong enough in character to make even the proudest pagan like myself kneel in awe. I’d be derelict if I didn’t advise you to savour #166, Coptic textiles from the fifth to seventh centuries. Motheaten, rotting away, but still simply splendid in their affirmation of a jeweled cross. Don’t despair if you can’t get to Princeton. There’s a fine catalog for $15, and a wall-deserving poster for $5.

Some dumb cluck beat me to the only parking space near Firestone, forcing me up Nassau Street so far that I serendipitated into the stately Bainbridge House (158 Nassau) that is very convincingly museumfying itself. Try “Patients and Practitioners: 200 Years of Medicine in Princeton,” a scary but edifying ramble through the old defeated diseases (except for rabies, or hydrophobia, for which Pasteur tried out a vaccine first in 1885), and to control a Princeton epidemic in 1886, there is a marvelous broadside which reads “Whereas many parts of his state numbers of Mad Dogs have made their appearance” one and all are authorized to kill any and all such canines, except ones with secure wire muzzles, or leashed by out-of-towners passing through.

Particularly touching is the sad tale of great writer Jonathan Edwards, newly elected President of the College, succumbing to his vaccination in 1758. He was trying to set a good example!

This essay originally appeared in Art Matters.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

We’re In The Monet: Giverny As Culture Cow

GIVERNY: The appearance of the Monet collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Jan. 19), supplemented by the inimitable local collection of the Cone Sisters, reminds me of the frustration of my first (and last) visit to Giverny.

For a start, to practice my marginal French, after buying the day’s Herald Trib at the news kiosk in the Vernon train station, I essayed to solicit directions to Giverny in the local language. Alas, the French worked all right, but not my metric system savvy: I misinterpreted six kilometers as six tenths of a kilometer, just a hop and a skip beyond the bridge over the Seine.

Alas, I had committed myself to a four-mile dull slog. Mid-hike, I tried to rationalize that this was after all the bucolic countryside Claude Monet had fled Paris to savor. No way. I later learned that this nondescript motorway had in fact replaced the local railway that made his days in the woods accessible.

Arriving to find the museum closed for lunch, I repaired to the Nympheas café kitty-korner for a bowl of soup to rejuvenate me after my unintended hike. There I made Mistake Number Two, asking the owner what the name of the restaurant signified. It’s the kind of questions arrogant Frenchmen love culture vulture Americans to ask.

“Why, monsieur, that is the French for water lilies,” he answered with relish over my ignorance of the Monet icon. Nor did it help that the bean soup my French tutor plopped in front of me was so mediocre it would have made Camden’s Campbells wince.

But I can deal with lousy soup more easily than I can a Monet museum minus Monets. Postcards, T-shirts, mugs—you name a genre of tourist “I was there” ephemera, and it was on sale in the great studio where once some of the most interesting Impressionist canvases were executed.

A walk through Monet’s house is a wall-to-wall encounter with everyday trivia from his daily life, none of it illuminating his artistic achievement. I had to find out elsewhere that Monet cherished Giverny precisely because it was isolated, a sequestration from Paris that he was only willing to share with his great friend and patron, the publisher / politician Georges Clemenceau.

Indeed, it was a source of bitterness that Monet’s presence there triggered a New Hope phenomenon, attracting other artists like flies—especially, perhaps, the Brooklyn couple, the F.W. MacMonnies! I’m happy to report that the ubiquitous philanthropist Walter Annenberg beat me there and kindly left an underground passage to the gardens that kept visitors from having to risk life and limb crossing that motorway I had walked along.

Alas, the gardens were awash with a visiting class of Ontario seniors, whose gifted grab-ass ploys sometimes obscured the more floral attractions. Actually, there was a genuineness to their mucking about that was authentic in a way the touristy genuflections were not.

Lots of souvenirs, but no Monet. Lots of money changing hands easily. Little art insight. Long, Disneyland lines. I pondered these paradoxes as I took a fast bus back to Vernon.

Just missing a train back to Paris, I decided to scout the town. At Vernon’s City Hall, there was a marvelous exhibition on how the French Revolution shook up the locals. It was just far enough away from Paris—about an hour’s drive today—to avoid the major turmoil, but close enough so that the bishop and the mayor both got dragged into the squabbles. Across the plaza was a splendid Gothic church. In both places, I was solitary in my pleasures.

But the real serendipity was the Musee de Vernon, opened since 1983 in an old mansion. Its painting collection is marginal, with Monet’s relatives and friends repped more than the master. And a lot of local history stuff. But the French have the very intelligent tradition of salting regional museums with first-class stuff that would otherwise languish unloved and unseen in Louvre attics.

Thus was I astounded by the quality of its animalier sculpture. It’s worth a trip from Paris just for its own sake. (Guarding the front door is a maquette for MacMonnies’ “Pioneer Woman” from Denver’s Kit Carson monument!)

Needless to say, in the two hours I whiled away in Vernon’s museum, I was by myself—if you don’t count the two guards. Now, by what idiotic calculus do droves of people fall all over themselves not seeing any Monet at Giverny at the same time that the Vernon museum is empty? Tourism corrupts art appreciation; high-powered tourism corrupts art appreciation completely.

You won’t find any Monets at Claude’s home—just Monet groupies.

All is not lost, however. The Readers Digest mogulette, Lila DeWitt Wallace, has endowed an artist-in-residence scheme at Giverny. And the "homages à Monet" left behind by the transient young artists were a joy to behold at Vernon.

Museum curators are so eager to fiddle their bottom lines (or even to just break even in inflationary times as their ambitions outstrip their resources) that they end up corrupting the art process. Simulcra dissimulate. Turnstile-clicking mania diminishes true access to the humanizing experience of great art.

Heh, don’t let my dyspeptic ruminations about the Giverny / Vernon audience anomalies discourage you from going to Baltimore to see the Boston Monets: I love Monet too much to rest content in Easy Monetless Monet.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 15, 1992

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Friday, 22 June 2012

Polak and Stroking Celebs

“I’ve never met a happy celebrity. Never,” Rex Reed confided to Chicago Tribune reporter Cheryl Lavin. “And it’s such hard work—to take these boring people and make them interesting.” Reed has obviously never read the celebrity interviews of Maralyn Lois Polak, since June 1974 the Boswell of the boffo for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine.

Polak could well be the Will Rogers of the genre. Reading 45 of her efforts in The Writer as Celebrity: Intimate Interviews (M. Evans and Company, $9.95), one could infer that she has never met a writer she didn’t find interesting.

But in spite of her long and repeated telephonic protests that she never slants an interview (“I just hold up a mirror and let them reflect”), I find one of her chief assets her contentiousness. The only hint of schlock in the whole enterprise is that “intimate” in the subtitle.

If Maralyn’s intimate in the way she interviews writers, then a yenta is diffident and withdrawn. Motivated by an insatiable curiosity and a poet’s palpable love for words (her book of poems, Facing the Music, appeared over a year ago), Polak mellows a pile-driving persistence with a tactical adaptability to the slings and arrows of outrageously erratic interviewees.

In searching for what she means by celebrity, she notes that her new dictionary defines it as “a famous or well-known person,” while her old one puts it differently—“the condition of being celebrated; fame, renown.” As Polak will understands, there’s a humongous and growing cleavage between those two conceptions of fame.

Her own definition falls somewhere between the two, possibly closer to the former than the latter: “not really someone we know from appearances on The Tonight Show, but someone who has distinguished himself through important work, whose name excites us.”

As a steady but unstrident feminist, Polak has understandably chosen 17 women as her subjects. She also chose an equal number of Jewish writers; down the road, cultural historians may well wonder if that balance fairly represents the tapestry of contemporary writing in the English language. No matter, the range is broad and very rarely shallow.

The mechanics of such a magazine feature are almost as interesting as the individual reviews. Back in the early ‘70s, she was poking out a precarious existence as assistant editor of the Temple University alumni magazine, then writing about programming for Channel 12’s magazine, then as an exhibits captioner for the Academy of Natural Sciences. She leavened this make-work with what one guesses was nearest the poetry where her heart is—English teaching at Community College, stints for the Poetry in the Schools project and book reviewing for Larry Swindell at the Inquirer.

Those reviews caught the Inky’s eye. They asked her if she wanted to intern for the profile slot; she parried that she would only be interested if it led to a regular assignment, worn out by the freelancer’s endemic fatigue of being chewed into 99 pieces.

Perhaps the spectre of being upstaged makes her sound like a CIA agent when you quiz her about upcoming subjects. She believes the pool of potential interviewees is becoming seriously depleted, and her guardedness extends even (perhaps especially) to her feature-writer peers on the Inquirer.

Like her mentor, Studs Terkel, she uses a tape recorder to get the words that give her interviews both their liveliness and authenticity. Her transcriber (Sharon Crippen of Cherry Hill) gets 22 single-spaced pages out of her tapes, which Maralyn has to boil down to 1,500 words.

Over the years (her first subject was Judge Lisa Richette), she has discovered that the best interview is the secure person, someone who doesn’t care what readers (or the interviewer) might think of him.

Who was her favorite interview? Mickey Mantle. (Norman Mailer, eat your rotten heart out!) Who has been her most frustrating “no thanks?” Frank Rizzo. On the question of which personages she would most like to land on her Sony today, she is both non-ideological and non-sexist: “Fidel Castro and Mother Teresa.”

It’s been a long way, baby, since an idolized electronics engineer of a father awakened an interest in science at age nine when they built a radio together. She also wrote her first poem during that same annis mirabilis, which shall remain dateless because Maralyn is edgy about revealing her age.

I found her interactions with writers I know (Charles Fuller, Buckminster Fuller, Art Buchwald, Allen Ginsberg, Studs Terkel and Paul Theroux) genuinely illuminating. And on those about whom I was underinformed (Germaine Greer, Rita Mae Brown, Judy Blume, Marilyn French), instructive and inciteful.

But it’ll be a slow day in the Inquirer newsroom when I believe she’s objective in her handling of Robert Bly, Eldridge Cleaver, E.L. Doctorow, Mary Hemingway or Jean Shepherd. I’d have been disappointed if she had been “objective.” Maralyn’s muse is complex enough to be its own excuse for being.

Mirror, hell. Funky microscope, with a fascinating built-in agenda of its own. In a dozen years, Rex Reed’s drivel to the contrary notwithstanding, Maralyn Lois Polak has made an honest whore of the least intellectual journalistic genre.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 28, 1987 

Thursday, 21 June 2012


My "new" Newsweek subscription arrived today. (I hadn't seen the old one since I moved to Europe decades ago.) For a retired professor of American Lit (whose Ph.D was without science!) "New Secrets of the Universe" was a revelation. I felt I was back in kindergarten for a crash course.

The old Newsweek was mainly tiny bits and pieces for readers in a rush. This new "multiverse" Newsweek dealt profoundly with a few significant events: the messy math of Wall Street, the belated battle of the Circassians, the ambiguities of Egypt's election, and almost as fascinating as the Multiverse introduction, "Omnivore", quick but solid takes on cultural news. I'm impressed.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

David Brooks‘ America: An Ex-Pat’s Rejection

 As a retired American Lit professor enjoying his retirement in Weimar, Germany, I begin everyday but Sunday reading “The International Herald-Tribune” in the great Anna Amalia research library, a five minute hike from my third floor flat in a 1782 villa at Seifengasse 10, down the street from Goethe’s last residence at No. 1. 

I inevitably begin by reading Paul Krugman, whose openness to evidence and clarity of exposition please this one time English professor. And I always guard my balance by then reading David Brook’s take on our value system. With less and less assent. Today’s essay (June 16-17, 2012), “Which model to buy?”, a tout of Yuval Levin’s “Our Age of Anxiety” in The Weekly Standard is an wholly unconvincing analysis of the threatening collapse of our economy. Let me describe my analysis, beginning with the false dawn of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”.

This B actor was once head of his Hollywood union. Joe McCarthy’s Commie busting turned him around. He became a slick TV flack for GE whose product was progress. His Santa Barbara estate was his reward for jettisoning the emerging middle class. And his first presidential action was to abolish the flight controller’s union. Soon after he was advising manufacturers to offshore their production, Mexico first and the China and other Asian countries. They learned as well to offshore their profits, so that the now famous 1% got richer and richer while the new middle class gradually disappeared.

I remember in the 1950’s as I worked summers in Detroit factories for tuition money for a doctorate (my GI Bill as a Navy aviation radar technician 2c had run out) that middle aged workers were buying summer cottages up North. My Hamtramck middle school teaching mother could afford Birchloft, on a bluff overlooking Lake Huron, south of Tawas: $800 for a 50 foot lot, $783 for a two story three bedroom cottage. Reagan’s maneuvers against unions killed all that, savaging the new middle class into the economic basement they had just abandoned.

Then came the smug “C-“Yalie Bush 43, the first amoral moron to be president. Amoral? Consider his CV and his impunity from punishment, as the USA became the incarceration capital of the world—with jails reserved for the black and the poor. “Equality and Justice for All?” DUI indictments ignored. 

After we invested a million to make him a pilot for the Champagne Squadron, so-called because it was an upper class dodge from Vietnam service, he went AWOL to help a friend run for office in Alabama. With impunity. He was a flop as a businessman, but not as a felon who committed insider trading in his last failure, with SEC tapping him softly on the wrist, as he left that business with loot enough to become a baseball millionaire, the stadium paid for by the City of Arlington. And yes the ranch outside Crawford, and two terms as Governor of Texas.

Then the Supreme Court began its sly, slow motion coup, s/electing him president in 2000, arrogantly goreing our electoral process with impunity. Bush’s “missions unaccomplished” in the Middle East as well as his tax breaks for the already rich accelerated the deficits the right wing attributes to Medicare and fat pensions. The five right wing Roman Catholic Justices who mystiphysically argued in “Citizens United” that rich corporations were “persons” completed the political corruption that had diminished the Congress since Reagan into a dysfunctional rubber stamp.

I am astonished that the canny Brooks has never once explained how the infantilization of our media and a playpen educational system have precluded amelioration. When the likes of Rush Limbaugh can describe his mishmash as “Excellence in Broadcasting” without being mocked off the air shows you how cynical our power class is about the truth—so long as the money keeps pouring in. They think only in fiscal quarters not in future maturity. 

When Brooks stops talking like a local Chamber of Commerce hack, I will begin to take his counsel seriously. As is, he is just a bit more literate Bush 43, a disgrace to democracy.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Cardinal Virtues in Canada

Wrapping up a four-hour on-site explication of his soon-to-open (July ’89) Canadian Museum of Civilisation, 54-year-old architect Douglas Cardinal flexes his long, thin hands and smiles awkwardly.

“It’s like being an actor,” he says. “You rehearse for weeks and weeks, and then it’s up to the audience. Either they like it or they don’t.”

He needn’t worry. Waiting for our one o’clock appointment, I whiled away the minutes in the Piccolo Grande, Ottawa’s top gelato shop. I asked the 20ish manager what he thought about the new CMC building across the river. “It’s really exciting looking,” he replied animatedly. “I can hardly wait to get into it.”

And an hour after my thrilling hard-hat odyssey with Cardinal, I asked the same question to my waiter in Daly’s at the Westin, where I was coming down from my architectural high with boar in lingonberry sauce, accompanied by the stunning night view of the Rideau Canal. “I love the way it breaks away from the boxy,” he replied. “All curves and changing shadows. I’ll bet it draws a lot of tourists here.”

Lots is right: The National Capitol Region authority is counting on a million visitors, between the brilliant glass cathedral of Moishe Safdie’s National Gallery of Art (1988) and the Cardinal work which faces it from Hull, Quebec—across the Ottawa River.

Cardinal drove me (and his 26-year-old son, Bret, and Cheryl Nicholas, his step-daughter and secretary) around the astonishing two structures before we donned hard hats and protective shoes to tour the insides.

He is especially pleased with how the two buildings frame Parliament Hill, on the bluff across the river. That’s the center of political power in Canada and a proper focus for the new center explaining Canadian history to the voting public.

God knows Cardinal has gotten to know the ins and outs of political power. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, impressed by Cardinal’s feistiness as an advocate of political power for the Amerinds (he’s one-eighth Blackfoot), told him in 1982 to start building the CMC even though construction drawings had to be executed one jump ahead of the almost 200 contractors involved in the highly complex structure.

Looking back at the megahassles that have sorely tried his patience, Cardinal says, “It’s been like composing and conducting a symphony simultaneously. When John Turner (briefly) and Brian Mulrooney (semi-permanently, it seems) acceded to the Prime Ministership, the CMC went through the meat grinder of the succession.

At one point in 1985, Cardinal was so disgusted by the double-taking that he threatened to have the project bulldozed back to the gently curving slopes that are such a sweet complement to the sinuosities of his computer-generated designs.

If it took 81,000 simultaneous equations to figure out the contours of the self-supporting thin-shell concrete roof of his first masterpiece—St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, Alberta (1968)—just imagine the coordinates involved in the curving insides and outsides of the CMC.

The copper roofs have eight layers to deal with the severities of Ottawa temperatures differentials, as well as a totally controlled inside atmosphere to protect the artifacts. And because the buildings rest over an earthquake fault, Cardinal has segregated the structures into 12 independent zones—minimizing any domino effect should a tremor happen.

But Cardinal is no mere technician. He is a humanist, fretting over the Anglophone / Francophone crisis, making the Hull side of the ensemble inviting to the local population—which is almost entirely Francophone, even though the sister city of Ottawa started out as an English-speaking outpost on the bottom edge of Quebec.

Nor is Cardinal a prima donna. He has worked mightily to develop a true comradeship between the Francophone Montreal architectural firm in charge of construction and his own people.

Cardinal told me one of the things he really liked about the University of Texas (from which he graduated with honors in 1963) was the can-do attitude that prevailed there. “Canadians are not nearly as adventurous as the Americans,” he said.

The man who pioneered the use of computers in North American architecture sweet-talked the Portland Cement Association into financing his St. Mary’s roof computations at the largest computer then in existence (1965), at the University of Chicago’s Fermi Lab. The code authorities in Red Deer were monumentally skeptical about such a roof not crashing down on the congregation.

He is also eager to serve. In the international competition he has just won to build a science center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Cardinal’s research told him that the moon was very important iconographically in Muslim thinking. So his planetarium is a concrete-shell moon thrust up into space by a diagonal cantilever strut (which also holds the escalator that takes views into the “moon”).

The gorgeous Tyndall stone (found only in Manitoba) which acts as visual counterpoint to the copper roofs at the CMC is an emblem of the formation of the Canadian land mass by glaciation and weathering.

He used a gray variant of that stone (whose mottled surfaces are actually fossils “you can read,” he notes) in the baptistery in St. Mary’s. In the CMC, it is from the beige section of the quarry.

If the exteriors symbolize the hard and difficult land that the Canadians have made to flower with their character and ingenuity, the interiors are constantly changing expressions of the emergence of Canada as the most minority- and Third-World-sensitive industrial power.

CMC director George F. MacDonald is especially open to Canada’s indigenous peoples—as an anthropologist who specialized in Haida art and other Northwest Indian cultures. This predilection makes him a priori simpatico with Cardinal, who spent so much time in Ottawa decked out in long hair and Indian gear agitating for Indian rights in the 1970s hat his architectural practice went bankrupt.

Thus it is no surprise that the sweepingly elliptical Great Hall (19,182 square feet, with a bank of windows 365 by 50 feet looking out on the magnificent bluffscape of Ottawa across the river) gives pride of place to six Northwest Indian tribes.

Their hand-carved traditional houses were already in place, sheathed in plastic, awaiting the finishing audio-visual touches, such as the largest photograph in the world—a read-screen scrim projection of a rain forest. The forecourts of these dwellings were designed for ritual performance, their curving upper walls for multimedia projections.

Bill Reid, the Haida Indian nation’s premier artist, has sculpted a traditional canoe for the west end of the Great Hall and a killer whale for the top of the escalator on the east end, drawing visitors irresistibly up and into a deeper comprehension of Canada’s pluralistic history.

The second level centers around a participatory children’s museum and the world’s largest Imax and Omnimax theaters. The kids from one to 91 who don’t succumb to this all enveloping cinema will fall easily to the decorated Pakistani bus left over from the Vancouver Expo—just one of the 3.5 million artifacts (estimated value: $6 billion) the CMC has found deteriorating on over 65 sites in the Ottawa region.

The third level is the History Hall: 10,000 years of Canadian experiences. There is a Norse landing site (ca. 1000 A.D.) and a Basque ship and whaling station (ca. 1560 A.D.) to symbolize early European contact.

Recent Canadian history (1940 to the present) centers on a cannery, a British Columbian logging scene, an exhibition of social change, a setting of the North and the Yukon and, finally, an exhibit on the boom-and-bust cycles of Canadian economic history.

With Cardinal’s state of the art temperature and humidity control system, no matter what the outside temperature fluctuation, the CMC keeps a steady course on 70 degrees F., 50% humidity.

In the Ottawa River region, the intellectual temperature is also steady as it goes. Fending off hip-shooting charges that the $250 million-plus facility is Disneyland North, director MacDonald contends his participatory tactics will increase access to museum experience from the current dismal 20% of the population to a more satisfying 80%.

Cardinal couldn’t agree more. The CMC is more than a user-friendly facility, it is user-fond: ramps and easy-open doors for the handicapped, large print and Braille signage, acoustical boosters for the hearing impaired.

And since all of us re more or less intellectually handicapped (by the standards MacDonald and Cardinal have chosen), the architecture inside is what Marshall McLuhan called “aggressively pedagogic.”

Too bad Marshall didn’t live long enough to live it up inside this global village of a museum. He would have loved the messages Cardinal’s medium is making accessible so much more effectively than the old storehouse, passivity-inducing kind of museum. And you will too. Starting in July.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 3, 1989

Monday, 18 June 2012

Talking with Your Fingers

John McWhorter is the Noam Chomsky of the 21st century. He's even a big improvement. NC pontificates. John lays his evidence before you. Not a pushy overgeneralizer.

My interdisciplinary American Studies Ph.D saved me the grief of having to accede to NC's obscure pronouncements! Noam bullies. John provides evidence. He  is a meliorist.

Chomsky is a secular theologian. Never so clear as when a lowly missionary on the Amazon observes details contradicting his high faluting generalities (and how his silly sickophants surround him!)

Chumps. I call them. Chomsky's monopoly on linguistic speculation reminds me too much of the Euro postmodernist mystiphysicians who have garbled humanities discourse for two generations. John is a sign the harrumphing is nearly over. He clarifies communication teaching.

The postmods huff and puff polysyllabically.

McWhorter's word is simplify. Stop showing off. Bless him.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Doing the Water Shuttle

Coming in a day early for my flight from Boston’s Logan to Lisbon, I put up on the Airport Hilton, where they had a fairly good “Get Up and Go” package for $129 including a gorge-till-you-drop New England breakfast. I took a smoke-free room on the twelfth floor—to get off on the dazzle of Logan’s water-encircled location. I was not disappointed.

The tone of the staff was almost aggressively helpful—no doubt a function of the depressed hotel market. It’s amazing, though, how such an attitude makes a body’s stay more pleasant. The Get Up and Go breakfast was marvelous, especially the thick, round, lean, spicy sausages. I had a brief generation gap crisis when the waiter, trying too hard to please, seemed miffed when I wouldn’t douse the hash browns with ketchup. The only other fly in the butter was that my SONY Walkman couldn’t pick up any NPR station loud enough to catch Morning Edition from their basement restaurant. I consoled my ears by playing my new Ellis / Wynton Marsalis tape.

I had flown in from Philly on the 11:14 Northwest Airlink, a sleek 19-passenger Fairchild jet-prop (using one of my senior citizen Ultrafare coupons) to have a late lunch with David Riesman and his wife in their Cambridge home. Because the plane was 45 minutes late, I couldn’t take the subway (75 cents) to Harvard Square and walk to the Riesmans, but grabbed a cab where I lucked out with a very articulate Haitian cabbie who gave me a fast briefing on the country’s new president Father Aristide. Although he had been in America for twenty years, he ached to return, probably after his thoroughly Americanized son (18) and daughter (13) had finished school.

When I took the subway back to the Airport stop (where the Hilton van picked me up), I noticed that the Aquarium was also on the Blue Line. I resolved to get up and go to it the next morning, using the Water Shuttle to get there. The Hilton van dropped me off at the dock, and me and three New York advertising executives in town for a meeting shared the 7 minute (for $7) ride to the Wharf. The Rotunda was architecturally stunning enough for me to go into the Bay Harbor Hotel to see if they had documentation about the area. Did they ever. 

There has been maritime action on this spot since the late seventeenth century. Early on there was a single cannon battery, soon to expand to 35 guns as the volatility that led to the American Revolution started perking. These wharves have seen it all: clipper ships, packets, steamboats, commuter boats, the water shuttle (which will be four years old in July). Locals deride its high cost (a dollar a minute they bleat in unbelief), but to a tourist there is no more beguiling way to approach the Boston skyline.

It was still too early to get into the Aquarium so I started to scout the savoury nineteenth century architecture on both sides of the elevated Fitzgerald (as in “Honey Fitz”, JFK’s maternal grandfather) Expressway. The tall Customs House is the most visible landmark, a turn-of-the-century high-rising Beaux Arts number. But the Funky Award must go to the 1891 Richardsonian-looking Grain Exchange lovingly updated a few years back by Yung / Brannam, with the firm having the excellent judgment to keep the trading pit fourth floor for its own digs. I circled its nutritiously rich rusticated granite interior before taking the elevator up to the fourth floor to schmooze with the architects.

Finally, it was 9:00 a.m. so I split for the Aquarium. What a spiraling gyre of underwater wonders for $7.50—plus two quarters to park my gear, the better to scrutinize the finny things. It’s hip. The pedagogy is brilliant but lightly laid on. You learn why fish are differently shaped—those flat flounders are not freaks: it allows them to hide on the bottom. And it’s much more than mere fish: the penguin colony really knocked me out. (They sport different colored wrist bands so they don’t get fed twice!)

And there are anacondas thick enough to make you flinch just looking at them, teensy tiny frogs, and crustaceans of a bewildering variety of elegant shapes and colors. Open since 1969, its beguiling style attracted 1.3 million fish lovers last year, and a docent proudly bragged that they’ve found an abandoned shipyard in Charleston where they’re going to expand. The Boston Aquarium is a worthy participant in the AquaBoom energizing city downtowns all across the country.

Then I cruised the waterfront, checking out hotel prices and restaurant views. Next time I’m going to eat at the Marriott Long Wharf: its view of the harbor is simply breathtaking. And on its ground floor foyer there is the best guide to walking around the Harbor District you’d ever need. Have a big breakfast there and then plot your moves up and around the downtown.

Back on the subway—two stops from Aquarium to Airport (with only Maverick in between)—why anyone would rent a car in Boston beats me, their public transpo is so good and so cheap. Even the distinctive décor of each station is exemplary public art.

The Hilton was a good bargain in other ways. It picked me up from the Airlink in minutes, took me twice to the Post Office as I filed last minute papers for my application for the Peace Corps. The desk clerks were equally helpful in Xeroxing gratis documents I had to keep copies of.

And thirty-year-old veteran van driver Al Silvestri spotted a free cart and swooped me over to cadge it when I was checking in for my flight to Lisbon. And he told me how I could take my cart over to the Pan American Clipper Club where I’m typing these suggestions for the traveler with a long layover at Logan, or a weekend traveler looking for a lot of stimulation at a low price without a great deal of traveling around. 

Al was even more illuminating on the history of the hotel—first locally-owned, then a Sonesta, and now a Hilton—he had it all in his total recall memory bank. When I commented on the splendidly sculptural twin pier control tower at Logan, he recounted how a CAB inspector grumpily told him it was no damn good as a control tower when there was the traditional Logan low ground fog. I asked Al why he didn’t retire next month when he turned seventy. But I already knew the answer. He accompanied me into the Post Office facility to schmooze with his old pal Frank. Silvestri is an institution at Logan.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The School Crisis

Published in The Clearing House, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Sep., 1958)
The School Crisis

The Revolution in Education by Mortimer Adler and Milton S. Mayer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 224 pages, $3.75.

A Fourth of a Nation by Paul Woodring. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1957. 255 pages, $4.50.

Schools without Scholars by John Keats. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958. 202 pages, $3.00.

The great debate over American education rages, and, unhappily, raging confuses rather than clarifies issues. Two calm and coolly reasoned books are heartening current exceptions; a third, although arrogant and sometimes irrelevant, has enough truth in it to warrant the attention of the self-critical teacher.

Adler, the famous philosopher, and Mayer, an author and lecturer, frankly admit that their book is “not trying to find the right answers; it is trying to find the right questions.” In short, what changes are needed to meet the unique educational situation of a democratic, scientific, and industrial society like America in the past century? They urge all who want to talk about education to distinguish between “principle, policy, and practice,” and to keep in mind important differences in principle between aristocrat and democrat, realist and idealist, and traditionalist and modernist. A book guaranteed to minimize partisan polemics.

Woodring, a former teachers college professor of education and now consultant to the Fund for the Advancement of Education, forever belies the canard (implicitly by Keats) that educators have to be fuzzy and dogmatic. His book quickly disposes of such false issues by showing how, just as some progressivists have been too doctrinaire, so have some liberal arts proponents been illiberal and irresponsible about the needs of teacher education. No “good old days” man either, Woodring presents a cogent plan for an ungraded primary school focused on skills, a triple-track high school, a nonprofessional college education, a sensible fifth-year internship at two-thirds pay in lieu of practice teaching.

Keats unquestionably hits sticky, deserving targets when he spoofs the worst excesses in vocationalism, life adjustment, and the inflated piffle of much education. And there is a great deal of common sense in his counsel, in this age of rampant curricular inflation and just as rapid empire building, to keep the schools concentrating on a few things (chiefly intellectual or humanistic) and to forego what other social agencies can do better. He is also convincing in insisting that a school isn’t public until its community determines curricular goals and keeps a committee eye trained on school compliance with those values. 

But Keats speaks too much of the very literate communities not at all representative of American education (the new suburbs of Maryland and Virginia or the wealthy suburbs of Connecticut) for his book to have too much relevance for urban school systems. Moreover, when he does discuss the typical community which falls for American sports and anti-intellectualism, he arrogantly dismisses its inhabitants to the limbo till then reserved for chuckleheaded (i.e., all) educationists. Thus Keats ends social analysis where any penetrating critic would begin it. 

More evidence of the essentially descriptive and superficial picture he gives is the virtual absence of analysis of how the mass media complicate the teacher’s role today. Nor does he seem to know that the humanities are a changing body of insight in his compulsive reiteration of the loss of Arthurian legend in the curriculum shuffle. Finally, the questionable logic of his polarities (Miss Alpha and Pragmatic Tech v. Miss Omega and Mental Prep) and his naïve assumption of genius in liberal arts professors and mental incompetence in educationalists seriously damage the fabric of his arguments. 

Still his descriptions of sentimentality and fuzziness in teacher colleges and their products deserve our attention. Keats would profit just as much be observing Woodring’s urbanity and wisdom, two qualities one would have guessed were the true hallmarks of a liberal education.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Gropius Betrayed: That Bloated Bauhaus Reputation

Regarding TLS and the Bauhaus:

Frank Whitford's take on the Barbican Bauhaus tout is perceptive, like his two books on the subject. But he aligns himself too snugly with the absurdly inflated reputation of the Bauhaus which was in fact a failed scheme during the Weimar Republic and its Nazi destruction.

As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit(1930-42), I was astonished in graduate school (Ph.D. in American Studies, 1957) to read in Nicholas Pevsner's classic study,"Pioneers of the Modern Movement:from William Morris to Walter Gropius" that Gropius had devised a school "to fuse art and technics to bring good design to the working classes".

As American Art and Architecture was one of my five prelims to teach American Literature, I was eager to assign my students a term paper on a great American Building, as I truly perceived that comprehending style physically in a well designed structure prepares the young to perceive style metaphysically in the more elusive literary genres. (It was perhaps the only fresh idea I brought to thirty years of teaching!)

My American Lit teacher at the University of Detroit, C.Carroll Hollis, supplemented his marginal pay by working at the Detroit Golf Club summers. Next to Cranbrook Academy (Detroit's own Bauhaus!) He urged us to follow the career of the German immigrant Albert Kahn who was the brains of that school which actually brought good design to the masses like the Bauhaus only promised.

His Finnish rector and teacher, Eliel Saarinen Senior and son Eero, Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, and American designers Charles and Rae Eames formed a small but effective faculty, unlike the bloated Bauhaus. And I earned tuition money for my doctorate by working in three of Kahn's factories during the summer. Later, when I freelanced for a decade in San Francisco, I learned about another Poor German immigrant, Timothy Pflueger. Like Kahn he couldn't even finish high school. But he soon became the greatest twentieth century architect in San Francisco. Nobody knows him either!

Kahn had a very low opinion of the Bauhaus whom he derided as the"Glasshouse Boys". Indeed, He insisted that Architecture was 90% Business, 10% Art. In 1941 he held a conference for architects who wanted to design defense factories. Mies, Gropius and the Saarinens were there. He lectured them on their mindless fancy factory buildings. All show and no function. Johnson was also there.

Phillip C. Johnson (1901-2005) spent a long career crippling truthful discourse on what he dubbed International Style. In 1926 he scanned Europe for "Great modern" building so he could have the architecture franchise at MOMA about to open in 1929. Indeed, he phoned Alfred Barr, Jr. in Berlin from Dessau, where he had just examined the new Bauhaus complex. He should have asked the students and professors who found its excessive glass made too cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. The newly invented Leica made neat black and white snaps of uninhabitable structures!

It was the first goof of the Modernoid, which I dub the Crystal Palace Syndrome--the unthoughtful use of glass, concrete and iron invented in that showplace of London World's Fair in 1851. Second only to the flat leaky roofs when Modernoiders abandoned the gable, the most important innovation since humans abandoned caves!  PCJ did his first Modernoid house, alas, for the deMenill family, that Houston couple who brought modern art to Houston. Alas, the roof so badly, their kids thought PCJ was a roofer he had to mop up so frequently. He was also cresting on Mies, insisting that this avant-garde pair use only Mies furniture, deployed a la PCJ. They told him to shove off, and allegedly never said another word to him.

Mies was soon to have his own client tussle, the Farnsworth House outside Chicago, where he built a weekend hideaway for his girlfriend. She sued him (and lost) for excess energy costs! Some decades later, several other tenants having failed at inhabiting the loser, it was declared a Visitor's Center dedicated to the architectural genius of Mies.

That's when I decided modern architectural reputations were an untieable knot. (Mies got even with the ever flip Johnson by sneering that PCJ's notorious GLASS House looked like" a hotdog stand at night".)

Someday soon (I hope) some dissertation drudge will sort through the damage this glib man inflicted on twentieth century architecture. I have yet to find a Bauhaus Uni professor who knows anything about Albert Kahn, the greatest factory designer in history, as well as the Beau Deco (a new category for an idiosyncratic wonder, the Fisher Building, where my Uncle Dan Fitzpatrick claimed its illuminated golden crown was the nest of the GillieHoo bird who would fly by several days a week and drop candy bars on the front room window sill). It took me several years to perceive that these flyanthropic drops always followed Dan's return from a driving assignment in downtown Detroit.

As I can't tell you how disappointed I became when I finally dug into the Bauhaus Riddles in 1999, when Weimar was the Cultural Capital of Europe. The first thing I noted, astonished, that he was a lousy architect! He wrote his mother plaintively that he couldn't draw! (He had a secret partner to do the heavy lifting.) There was no architecture course until 1927 when he dumped that assignment on Hannes Meier, the Swiss Communist whom the Dessau mayor would soon fire, leaving Mies in a last lurch.

And if I may be gross, Walter had no balls! His wife Alma Mahler chided him for not having the courage to attend the dedication of the Denkmal he had designed for the victims of the Kapp Putsch in the Weimar Cemetery. Like Mies whose first major work was a Berlin cemetery honoring the founders of the German Communist Party--Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, he had a PR problem. Why did he quit so suddenly in 1928. His star teachers ignored his plea for a $10,000 salary reduction when Dessau cut his budget. A local newspaper was baiting him for double dipping (his Dessau salary plus Torten suburb payments). And there was scuttlebutt a faculty member was romancing his second wife Ilsa. No matter. He must have known! Hannes was the end!

Which brings me to Mies and my best informant, the Chicago Bauhausler Bertrand Goldberg. Who?? everyone who should know asks me. He was in the last class and Mies's Azubi in Berlin. In 1970 at the Chicago Film Festival I spotted his ID. I had just been ogling his first masterpiece, Marina Towers. And I smart assed him by saying I was giving up teaching so I could sell enough dope to afford an apartment in the Towers. He laughed heartily and invited me to a dedication the next day of his innovative Women's Birthing Complex in the new Northwestern Hospital.

It was a wonder. He became my second Chicago mentor (Studs Terkel was the first!) When I passed through Chicago till his death (1997), we'd walk his dogs and he'd teach me architecture! What a serendipity! The Chicago Institute of Art has just shown a major exhibition on Bertrand's oeuvre. Amazon has the catalog. And the bloating Bauhustlers  have never given him a show, while they recycle the same old same old till you know it by heart.

His most dominant regret: that Gropius gave up his idealism to be a Fortune 500 functionary. Like Mies. He still believed in the meliorism of the first Gropius. The Bauhustlers in Weimar are preening about their projected 22 million Euro museum set for 2015. When I chided all 500 of them cheering on the museum builders that they had abandoned Gropius dream of good design for the working classes, they didn't say a word.

When I gave Hellmut Seemann, the major promoter my copy of TED savant Ricky Wurman's book on kids and architecture in the Philadelphia schools, he thanked me but had no word of discussion. I urged the crowd to take out another book I donated, Cameron Sinclair's "Design as if you Give a Damn!". His Architects for America has global ambitions to fulfill Gropius' dream.

Total Silence. They have betrayed Gropius.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

On Capitalism and Christianity, William Connolly

Regarding Sonia Hazard's review:

My vocabulary is often chided for it strangeness, but this take on William Connolly's defense of evangelical religion left me with two additions (Deleuze and imbrication) that are completely and unconvincingly irrelevant to the serious issues at hand: the compatibility of a humane capitalism and contemporary American evangelical religion.

The French philosopher strikes me as polysyllabically delusional with nary any effort to relate the implications of imbrication to the problem at stake. (And I majored in philosophy at a Jesuit university and one of my Ph.D. prelims was American philosophy and its European antecedents.)

Indeed I quit teaching after 30 years for the more melioristic innovations of alternative journalism.Serendipitously, because my defection from Academe in 1982 mainly saved me the insane corruption of the Delusionists that inflicted most fatally, according to this review, North American humanist professors.(WHEW! that was close.)

Those abandoned colleagues should have been leading undergraduates through the new perils of mass culture. Instead they scrambled for tenure by boring each other with"serious" philosophy, ashamed as they had become comparing their thin gruel with the solid and escalating truths of natural science.

Never has shame been so intellectually corruptive. Their shallowness reminded me of the first papal declaration of infallibility in the nineteenth century when the Church was terrified by the inroads of Modernism. First proclamation: that the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin, whatever that was.

Poor Saint Joseph, unwittingly doing his marital duties! Serious students of American politics realize that the "Christian" capitalism has recently derived from the Southern capitalists cynical reactions to Lyndon B.Johnson's legislation supporting black voters.

Jesus lovers turned into the likes of that nincompoop  Rush "Excellence in Broadcasting" Limbaugh and his Foxy likes. We have too many incompetent professors and too few Bill Moyers.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Paperback Books

Published in The Clearing House, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Oct., 1959)

The paperback has made it possible for everyone to become his own librarian. The public school is the place where we teachers will decide how much of the paperback’s enormous potential for self-development will be realized. We intend in this roundup of paperbacks, old and new, to tell you how much pleasure and value we have derived from some of these bargain books. Consider this an open forum on paperbacks, were you can exchange opinions on other titles as well as ideas on how to use them in the classroom.

Medieval People by Eileen Power. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954. 238 pages, 85 cents.
A fascinating social history of the daily lives of six medieval people—some ordinary, some extraordinary. The ordinary lives of a clothier, a housewife, a peasant, and a merchant are models of history reconstructed from such “uninteresting” documents as wills, monumental brasses, and household accounts. The extraordinary lives of Marco Polo and Mme Eglantyne (Chaucer’s Prioress) offer insights into political and literary history as well.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1959. 438 pages, 50 cents.
A novel about a young man’s search for tenable ideals in a world of such complications s a demagogue not wholly corrupt and an idealist whose values are ineffective. Jack Burden’s encounter with good and evil, his confusion about the meaning of the past, are the struggle of everyman thinking his way to a personal ethic. A classic novel about ethics in private and political life.

The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Linder. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1956. 207 pages, 35 cents.
Five true stories of psychoanalytic cases dramatize how Freudian method discovers through analysis the origin of such disturbances as compulsive eating, violent aggression, and epileptic-type seizures. The accounts demonstrate the difficulties—and dangers even—that the psychoanalyst encounters in his work. Written in a style to engage even those who may disparage the science, the collection shows how the psychiatrist is worthy of his hire.

Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan. New York: New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1959. 127 pages, 35 cents.
The original scripts of the two plays that later merged in one movie give the student an opportunity to study the art and dynamics of adaptation from one medium to another. Analysis of changes between script and screen (why does Rattigan’s left-wing writer become Hollywood’s ex-GI?), casting, and direction will teach much about both dramatic writing and movie production.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Poetic Injustice

Re: Controversial Poem about Israel: Günter Grass's Lyrical First Strike

Heh, hitting the old geezer who was a WaffenSS at 17 when everybody had to join the army is idiotic. Better that Israel stops ramming more and more Jews into the West Bank, making a two state solution impossible.

It's Israel who has the bomb, and has preempted both Syria and Iraq in the way it admonishes Iran.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

American Scenes

Thomas Hart Benton’s personal loyalty to Jackson Pollock was humanism at its best.

Inevitably, the hyper enthusiasm over JP’s drunken drippings will reveal itself as the over-compensatory praise of guilt-ridden ex-Communists.

The Any-ism (nothing is everything) is the last (hopefully) ism in that fatuous spasm known as Modernism.

The more of Benton I see the more I relish his eloquent sanity.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Family of Man

 PRINTED PERSPECTIVES: An Album for the Family of Man
 --first published in The Clearing House, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Oct., 1959)
(1)  “Photography in the Fine Arts,” Saturday Review, May 16, 1959. Also reprinted as catalogue for an exhibition held in the summer of 1959 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
(2)  The World is Young by Wayne Miller. New York: Ridge Press, 1958. 192 pages, $1.50.
(3)  “The Family of Man” created for the Museum of Modern Art by Edward Steichen, 1955. New York: Pocket Books, 1957. 50 cents.
(4)  Masters of Photography by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. New York: George Branziller, Inc., 1958. 192 pages, $12.50.
(5)  “’De Lawd’ of Modern Photography” by Gilbert Millstein, New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1959.
(6)  “My Life in Photography” by Edward Steichen, Saturday Review, March 28, 1959.

“Photography is still, in spite of the positive developments of recent years, the most neglected as well as the most vital of the arts. Museums across the country still don’t care a damn about photographs, and most national, state, and municipal governments which ought to be concerned for archival reasons, care even less.”

That is the slightly miffed opinion of Bruce Downes, editor of Popular Photography. And while you can argue that Mr. Downes is ex parte on this matter, still he’s basically right about snobbishness toward the newer arts. It’s good to report, however, some recent events that should give the muse of photography (the offspring of Clio and Terpsichore?) solid footing on Mount Olympus.

One thing is the monumental volume on sixteen masters (or collaborators) of the new art written by the curator of the George Eastman House in Rochester and his wife (4). Most of the more than 150 great photographs are full folio size. The first six portfolios are by nineteenth century artists (David Octavius Hill and Robert Anderson; Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes; Nadar; Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan; Julia Margaret Cameron; and Peter Henry Emerson).

The rest did the bulk of their work in the twentieth century and a few are still living (Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Eugene Atget, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Erich Salomon, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams). The remarkable thing about the volume is how clearly it reveals the wide range of expressiveness already opened by photographers who are artists. Individual styles, great variety of subject matter, incessant searching for new possibilities in the camera characterize their work.

The second major break-through for photography as a fine art is the exhibition by the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The issue of the Saturday Review devoted to this exhibition (1) deserves the attention of every English, social studies, and art teacher. In that show fifty-five photographers are showing eighty-five examples of their work. Some of the photographers have complained that there should be fewer men and more of a single individual’s pictures, just as in the retrospectives of major painters. But that is a legitimate gripe that time and growing popular interest will take care of.

The easiest way for teachers of traditional subjects to extend their horizons to include this new and important art is through Edward Steichen, long-time director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. At eighty—see the birthday articles (5) and (6)—he is recognized as photography’s chief spiritual patron. And his brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, wrote the prologue for Steichen’s most famous exhibit, “The Family of Man” (3). That prologue, in Sandburg’s familiar style, will suggest to teachers how to approach poetic statements in the photographic medium. 

Steichen’s protégé, Wayne Miller, has created an album about his own family of growing children in The World Is Young (2); its low cost ($1.50) represents a growing trend in which single subjects are exhaustively examined by a single photographer at a popular price. Photography is enormously useful to high-school teachers who use it imaginatively because it provides them with a powerful approach to the sometimes lazy and passive sensibilities of their “jaded” over-entertained students. The big picture magazines are of course full of pictures—good, bad and indifferent aesthetically—to illustrate the subject matter of the humanities curriculum. 

But we are asking for more than that; we are asking you to look at photography as more than a method of documenting contemporary reality. It is an art, deeply expressive, and capable of penetrating to important truths about the family of man. 

The books and articles listed here will break the ice for that kind of examination of photography qua art. And don’t forget that an effective way to increase respect for the artist is to try the medium’s complexity yourself: Ask your students to use the camera creatively in their own essays and reports.