Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Real Thing

For 33 years, Haddon Sundblom painted advertisements for Coca -Cola that featured Santa Claus. If he didn't create the image of the red-suited, white-bearded, rotund Santa, he certainly fixed it forever in our imaginations.

Sundblom was a highly successful commercial artist and art teacher. In addition to Coke, he drew for Aunt Jemima, Quaker Oats, Cashmere Bouquet, and Playboy, to name a few. He was said to go on two day benders every time he completed a painting, and he was also said to complete them quickly.

Advertising art tends to fade with the snows of yesteryear. But now and then, an image endures, just as certain slogans enter the language and stay. Someone else will have to distinguish fine artists from commercial artists; I can't. Norman Rockwell and N. C. Wyeth were called illustrators in their day, with some condescension. I think we see them as more than that today.

I like Sundblom's Santas, and they're certainly expertly done. So let's add a dram of rum to our Cokes and lift a Christmas bowl to him and to his very fine art.

Coca-Cola Christmas ad from 1951 by Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


No doubt a watershed moment has been lost. The tax cuts and unemployment benefits compromise, struck by the President with Senate Republican leader McConnell, is at best a long odds gamble, and at worst a capitulation to plutocracy. Even with the nation's attention turned to the need for deficit reduction, Democrats found their voices simply weren't loud enough to denounce Republican advocacy of exceptionalism for the rich.

While the story is far from over, I already feel we're left in a state of equivocalness. True, the trickle down justification for the compromise is nonsense, but also true is the alacrity with which liberals will put the poor in jeopardy. Obama, a man who began his career as a grass roots organizer, is closer to the horrors of deprivation than are most of his critics, and he correctly saw that Republicans were willing to cut off benefits for people who would never vote for them anyway.

True, the President has failed to articulate his core beliefs and demonstrate willingness to fight for them, but also true is the fact that vulnerable Democrats pressed Congressional leadership to postpone voting on the Bush tax cuts until after the election because the polls told them it would hurt their chances of winning. Their timidity and procrastination put time on the side of the GOP.

Let's take a breath. Let's think about going for a stroll along a river where small sailboats glide over the rippled water. Let's not notice the absence of trees or lush greenery on our bank as we gaze at the heavy new iron bridge, built to replace the venerable old one that was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War. Let's admire its strength: it can support two locomotives crossing on it while they billow soot and steam into the cloudscape. Let's try not to judge this confluence of industry and recreation, of sunlight and smog, of fecundity and barrenness. Let's just look, impress it on our memories, and then pass on.

Claude Monet: Le pont de chemin der fer à Argenteuil, 1873. The painting sold for $41,480,000 in 2008. Do you find it beautiful? Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


To some, Hanukkah feels inauthentic, even meretricious. It's a lesser, non-Biblical holiday, that Jews largely ignored for many years. American Jewry, however, has embraced it with such enthusiasm, that it is now the most public of all Jewish observances in the United States.

Why? Certainly, its synchronicity with Christmas.

In Christian-majority America, Jewish children, like myself, used to be obliged to participate in Christmas caroling, tree trimming, and card making, along with yuletide pageants, concerts, and Christmas plays that were rehearsed in class and performed on the school stage. Teachers meant no offense; they simply didn't want the tiny minority of Jews--just three of us in my school--to feel excluded.

Hanukkah may have saved American Judaism. It gave Jewish children a festival for which parties, pastries, holiday lights, and gift giving were appropriate. Jews could partake of the holiday spirit without having to convert.

By tradition, the lights of Hanukkah are not to be put to any useful purpose, hence it is appropriate to place the menorah in the window, and maybe even string some blue holiday lights outside, as well.

Anything wrong with this? Not at all, unless one considers Hanukkah's origin as a courageous rebellion against Hellenization brutally imposed by Antiochus, king of the Syrian-Greeks. In ancient times, obliterating languages, religions, and cultures at the point of the sword was common.

So the holiday that marked Jews' defiance of forced assimilation is now the most visible evidence of their desire to be included in the American zeitgeist.

The Revolt of Mattathias by Gustave Dore (1832-1883). Mattathias, a Jewish priest, refused to perform a sacrifice to the Greek gods in Solomon's temple. When an apostate Jew complied with the Seleucid general who had compelled this act of Hellenization, Mattathias killed them both and overturned the idolatrous sculpture. With his son, Judah Maccabee, he thereby started the revolt that culminated in retaking the temple and rededicating it to the worship of the God of Israel. Hanukkah means rededication.