Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Peasant Girl With a Scarf

I can't get this girl off my mind; she looks familiar. I tell myself that at my age, everyone is starting to look familiar. Still, whenever I glimpse her, my memory rummages through a flurry of faces.

Who could she have been? A classmate from college? A waitress at an old hangout? A girl on a bus that I looked at, but didn't summon the courage to talk to?

She's a big boned lass with a thick neck and strong wrist. She's dressed for outdoor toil and the sun has left its imprint on her cheek. She works hard, but this is a moment of respite. The faraway glance in her eyes, the chin resting, and the parted lips, all betray her sweet girlish longing, and this evokes in me nostalgia for a time when romantic possibilities seemed infinite.

From beneath her head scarf, rich locks frame her face. She has two scarves! Which is the eponymous one? The red, certainly, because it's the scarf she doesn't really need. Courbet may have seen that dash of color adorning this working girl's neck and admired it, as I do, and perhaps even wondered whom she reminded him of.

Peasant Girl With a Scarf, oil on canvas, Gustave Courbet, c. 1849.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Blood Sport

There's a charm offensive to rehabilitate Michael Vick now that he's been released from prison. New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden has written pieces calling for his reinstatement in the NFL. He claims that Vick's imprisonment for dog fighting was a "heavy-handed misapplication of justice." And the ever alert Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, has joined the Vick team, recruiting him as a spokesman to help save innocent pooches from people like, well, Michael Vick. Pacelle is hedging his bet, however, saying he's a "participating skeptic."

It's also been rumored that the Buffalo Bills are interested in signing Vick so he can throw passes to their temperamental star receiver, Terrell Owens. I expect Mr. Rhoden would concur that the Bills are a New York team.

But it's all beside the point. For the last ninety years, it's been a tenet of American sports that gamblers and athletes must never mix. Vick was not just a dog-fighting bettor, he was the house, putting thirty to fifty thousand dollars at risk on each contest that he staged. Neither the fact that this was illegal gaming, nor the fact that dog fighting is a barbaric blood sport, should matter nearly so much to the NFL as the fact that he breached the firewall with impunity and on a large scale. Athletes have been permanently banned from their sports for gambling in the past; why on earth should an exception be made for Michael Vick?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Still Life--an Oxymoron

Ancient Egyptians painted still lifes inside the tombs of the pharaohs: sustenance for their journeys to death. Familiar subjects for European artists were bowls of fly spotted fruit and tables laden with carcasses of rabbits and fowl, set in rooms with somber walls. Until the Impressionists, still life paintings tended to be unappetizing; they caution against gluttony and remind us that the life of the flesh is fleeting.

Still life, taken literally, must mean death--life gone still. The foods presented repel us and scold us for being creatures that feed upon living things. Food is not a temptation but a memento mori.

Or am I wrong? Has buying meat in plastic wrap rather than on the hoof made me squeamish? Did people of another age look at the oysters on this platter and salivate?

I confess, I look away when I see a still life. Even the cornucopias make me think of dying.

Willem Claesz Heda Still Life with Gilt Goblet (Netherlands, 1635)
Click on the picture for a closer look.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"He was nice, and he was fun."

Last Saturday was the celebration of Dom DeLuise's life, and as I have a tangential connection, I attended. Although I didn't know him, I came away feeling touched by his spirit. Various people spoke, movingly or hilariously--in the case of his youngest son, it was punch lines delivered through sobs.
I jotted down a few things that were said and here they are:
• I asked Dom the Actor's Studio question--what do you hope they'll say to you when you arrive in heaven? He answered: "Great, you're just in time for lunch!"
• Mom always picks up pennies when she finds them on the sidewalk. She was having a great day in New York, finding seven, before I saw Dad surreptitiously reach into his pocket and drop number eight.
• (Carl Reiner) He never forgot to send me a birthday card, and always with a dollar in it.
• (Norman Lear, by letter) I walked into his living room and there was a flower pot with exactly one stem in it on the table, and Dom, all 250 pounds of him, called out:"I'm over here behind the plant!"
• (Mel Brooks) We had 55 days to shoot Blazing Saddles, but when we added Dom to the company for one scene, I went back to the studio and got two extra days. They didn't understand why, but I knew.
• I'd call my dad whenever I had something important in my life, some great problem or exciting news, and he'd listen and listen, and then he'd say: "I'm sorry, who is this calling?"
• He'd ask people he just met how they lost their virginity.
• He could prepare a dinner party for ten with an hour's notice, and cook for fifty...When my wedding preparations fell apart, he took over and planned the whole event in two days, saying as he always said: "It's fine. Whatever happens, happens. We'll deal with it."
• Everyone who came into contact with him left with great joy...and also a sandwich.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Sleep turns every one of us, even the most prosaic, into an absurdist. Imagine: Oliver Cromwell, Queen Victoria, Vladimir Lenin, Leona Helmsley, Lawrence Welk and Richard Nixon all had surrealistic fantasies once they lay their heads upon their pillows.

Sleep is hard to envision…dreams are easy, but sleep evanesces. It spins the color wheel and stops between crimson-black and purple. Shapes beckon silently with limbs made of night clouds. The mind slips its moorings and floats out on the ebbing tide. Sleep stretches the canvas for our dreams to paint pictures that are always in motion, like this one by Mark Rothko.

Green Over Blue oil on canvas, 1956. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jack Kemp

If compassionate conservatism had a face, it was Jack Kemp's. He was the man who convinced Ronald Reagan that cutting taxes would stimulate the economy. However, he was also the Housing Secretary who believed in carving out enterprise zones in the nation's ghettos and helping poor people buy their homes. And, he favored immigration reform. He'll be warmly remembered.

But Jack Kemp was only partially successful in defining conservatism for our times. I suggest the present woes of the GOP can be attributed to its failure to embrace the more costly and humanitarian half of what he was saying.

There is an underside to conservatism as it is practiced in America that smells a lot like Social Darwinism. Compassionate governance is anathema to those who oppose social activism with taxpayer dollars. Perhaps the salvation of the hardliners is that they protect taxpayers yet to be born, since the federal government, under both parties, has accustomed itself to the ease and convenience of big budget deficits.

Kemp, for all his can-do optimism, could never make the numbers come out right, and his dreams of social progress gained little currency in his own party.